Winsome Games-2002 / Queen Games
Treefrog Games-2009/ Mayfair-2010/Lookout-2010
From Civilization to Outpost to Puerto Rico, board games featuring the gradual introduction of technology and receipt of its attendant benefits have not been unusual. But few have really delved into problems of production, sales and most importantly, obsolescence. When does an older technology outlive its usefulness and begin costing more than it is worth? Perhaps the problem is mainly logistical. The topic has turned up more in computer games, but board games try to keep the number crunching to a manageable level. But here are two games that have managed to keep matters sufficiently simple.
By the way it's not clear whether these two designs had any influence on one another. One is from Winsome and the other from Martin Wallace who formerly did several designs there so there could have been some cross-pollination. Although one was published much earlier than the other, sometimes games can take a great deal of time to appear so it's difficult to reach any conclusion.
|In Lokomotive Werks the topic is the train. The increasingly more advanced models are not named, though each has a different illustration and one of four classifications: general purpose, fast freight, heavy power and special purpose. These are displayed on the double-sized sheet that constitutes the board, each model in its own row.||
Featured in Automobile are
20th century models beginning with the 1893 Duryea
and continuing all the way up to, in the original version,
the Cadillac 452 of 1930, but in the later versions, to the 1935 Cord
810. These car models are pictured around the edge of the board in
chronological order and are also each labeled with one of three
The turn is quite structured, each activity having its own
phase, each player deciding whether and how to perform it.
Their order is quite logical, beginning with the decision to
initiate a line of trains new to that player, i.e. a new factory.
More than one player may produce the exact same type of train, but
no one can leapfrog train technologies more than one past the current
state of the art. The overall number of players who can produce each
type ranges from five (general purpose) down to one (the earliest
special purpose variety). Initiating a new line gives the ability
to produce one train of the type per turn.
In the next phase the production rates may be stepped up, the cost being half that paid to initiate the line. In addition, older productions can be stopped and converted over to newer versions with the amount already being paid being deducted from the cost. Eventually production of the earlier train lines, not being as profitable as the later ones, tends to cease. An extra motivation is that when three generations of a type are in production, demand for the earliest version goes away entirely (with some being added to the later generations if they have room). Even with two generations in production, demand slowly transfers to the newer model.
The turn is of a fairly free form. Each player gets their choice of
three actions, taken one at a time. There are also other
decisions to take,
but the main one is when to create a factory and start
producing new line of cars. This line must of course not be already
taken and as a rule is more advanced than any currently in
production. More advanced means that the startup
price is higher and also, depending on how just how advanced it is,
more research (represented by previously acquired research cubes)
is required. When starting a new factory the player also gets to
decide its size/capacity.
Other possible actions include taking two research cubes (a very abstracted view of the process), actually causing factories to produce cars (generally delayed as long as possible so as to have a better idea of how many total cars are going to be on offer), closing down a line which literally cuts losses by discarding "loss" cubes and finally, placing distributors. The latter create additional demand for your vehicles, but there is a limited total number of spaces for all players to share so you might or might not be able to utilize them. Of course if you can sell all of your cars via the usual way you won't need distributors at all – distributors are mostly used by the biggest producer.
Then come sales. This occurs in round-robin fashion beginning with the
start player, an important advantage. To the left of train type will have
been placed one or more rolled dice. A player sells just one type at a
time. If the number to sell is exactly equal to a die, the player is
paid (one-quarter the amount paid to start the line per train)
and the die moves to the right of the train picture. In a curious
rule, if on the other hand the player has fewer to sell than the largest die,
he sells and reduces this die by the number sold. If he has more than
the largest die, he sells up to the limit of that die and moves it to
the right. Clearly sales can be quite dependent not only on the numbers
rolled, but in what order players choose to execute them.
Following this come taxes which are unexpectedly based not strictly on amount earned, but on cash-in-hand. Of course there is often a relationship between the two amounts, but it indicates that one can reduce the 10% to be paid by investing heavily in the earlier phases of the turn. Unless saving for something expensive, this is usually the best thing to do during the first half of the game. At some point, however, one needs to stop investing heavily and instead accumulate because the game is won by reaching $300 cash. It's tricky to know when.
The player order is used as a catch-up mechanism, the player having the least cash getting the advantage mentioned above. Actually, going last also has an advantage for the player who has saved sufficient cash: it permits initiating the most advanced train line. Of course this costs a lot so on the next turn this player is likely to be first. It also permits this player to react to others' production and adjust to maximize profits, though in some cases there is not that much that can be done, especially as downgrading production facilities is not permitted. For this reason and because it's probably more thematically realistic, it might be better if production changes were done in secret. In any case, it often happens that there is a circle of players taking turns at the first and last positions, though not always.
After determining the player order, dice are moved to reflect changes in demand as already mentioned. In addition, when there are three generations of a type, new production of the earliest of these can no longer be initiated.
Using distributors to sell cars is the first thing that happens after
all actions have been taken. Players take turns each moving one of
their distributors to an empty space, the number available varying
by game turn and price classification. Then each player gets to
draft from a set of special actions: closing a factory, using research
to get extra sales, designating a car to sell at discount or passing.
Passing early can be the most valuable thing to do because the
earlier you do it, the earlier you act in the next turn.
Then finally comes the big car sale. Prices are pre-determined at $200, $150 and $100 with discount being about two-thirds the usual. The maximum number of cars that all players can sell has already been pre-determined by drawing of some markers ranging from "2" to "5". Each player contributes two markers to the total so in a three player game they know a third of the information in advance, but with five only 20%. These markers get put into various price classifications differently each turn, but the general outcome is that the biggest market is for the low-priced and the smallest for the high-priced. The way sales happen is that so long as demand lasts, one of each model is sold, starting with the most advanced and continuing to the least advanced. Models with bonus sales or discount price sell an extra unit on each go round.
It's bad enough that each unsold car doesn't make its owner any money, but in addition it gets him a loss cube. Then, even more loss cubes are handed out beginning with the second most advanced model which receives 1, the third most receiving 2, and so on. The last interesting event of a turn is the conversion of loss points to actually losses ($10 per cube multiplied by the turn number) and even worse, one still retains the cubes.
If it sounds like a pretty grim picture, it can be. There are also loans to help deal with all this for after all what's a Martin Wallace game without the ability to take loans early and often (though here only twice)? But life is leavened by the intervention of auto experts. Each turn, in player order and now the virtue of going first should be apparent, each player drafts one of these for exclusive use. Henry Ford permits building a parts factory which significantly reduces car construction costs. Charles Kettering gives three research cubes. Alfred Sloan discards half of one's loss cubes. Walter Chrysler is kind of a mix between the two, giving two research cubes and discarding loss cubes equal to the turn number. Charles Howard sells two of your cars at the best price before any other cars are sold. William Durant gives an immediate factory build.
The ending, coming as it does upon someone reaching $300,
the winner having the most cash on hand,
feels rather artificial. To what real life event would this
correspond? Perhaps an opportunity to end in a more interesting
way was missed (see below).
There is a fair amount of randomness in that if too often the dice don't come up for the train types on which one has concentrated, it can be rather difficult to pull out a win, a factor which tends to worsen as the number of players grows. The overall playing time, two hours or more, feels on the long side for the amount of randomness and the possibility that even with the catch-up mechanism, one or more players might be well out of contention through not much fault of their own.
The game length is not based on the number of car models that get developed or
the extent of sales, but is fixed at four turns, perhaps representing four
distinct production eras or maybe just being the amount of time after which it
begins to feel too repetitive. Having to track game turns is an
outmoded technique, but as it only needs to
be done three times at least it's not overly onerous.
The winner is of course the player having the most cash on hand after
paying off any outstanding loans, with a final interest payment of 20%.
Playing time is two hours or a little more, which does feel about right.
Overall presentation is one of the challenges that buyers of Winsome
Games products must learn to tolerate and this is no exception. The
game comes in a thin, clear plastic box and the board is a glossy
two-sheet production in four colors. Although there is nothing wrong
with the twenty dice included, the very thin and drab cards chits,
even though they work, are no pleasure to handle. The board doesn't
feature any artwork other than the monochrome line drawings of the various
train types. Everywhere the emphasis is on the functional and
there it all works out pretty well, with the important costs and
spaces for dice being printed right on the board, but as for the rest
many players seem to be upgrading some of the components on their own.
Presentation here is of above average quality, especially in the later
versions where the board is more artistic; the original edition is
more on the functional attractive, but nevertheless attractive with
some colors that remind of the sheen of car metal on a sunny day.
Every car to be sold is represented by an uncommonly fancy wooden piece
which however has the downside of being somewhat clumsy to stack and
handle. Factories are represented by blocks of wood. There are no cards at
all, the experts being chosen by placing markers on their spots on
In Lokomotive Werks
the matter of distinction is in class. More than one player can
construct the same class of train even though obviously they
are different models. But in Automobile, it's not clear
that each new car type is clearly an improvement over what has gone
before. It seems possible that taste issues are also involved.
Lokomotive Werks is probably more realistic but with
no names for its classes is truly bland while Automobile
not only provides pictures, but names names and is thus more fun.
After all, wouldn't you like to be the one who builds the Model T?
There's a real contrast in modelling the idea of customer demand, Lokomotive Werks uses dice which have a wide variability in result, the highest result being six times greater than the lowest. This is the downside; the upside is the thematically questionable idea that you know what they are in advance and might be able to make adjustments in reaction.. In Automobile, possible values range only from 2 to 5 (a more friendly maximum factor of 2.5), but each player only knows part of the total. In reality, this amount is generally not useful. Even if holding a 5 in a three-player game, the other two players might each be holding a or they might also have a 5. It's not easy to make plans when the possible value can range from 9-15, or if one were holding a 2, from 6 to 12. It's possible both games might have been improved by simply using averaging dice rolled not in advance, but at the point that sales begin.
Both games also end in unsatisfactory ways. How much better it would have been if instead the ending reflected the sorts of consolidation that are typical in rapidly advancing technologies. There could be events that represent non-players and which regularly incur costs large enough to force players to sell shares of their firms. Under such a scheme the first to fall below 51% would give the game to the player having the most cash and value at the time. But perhaps this would incur a level of randomness, time and detail beyond what most players want.
In terms of the audience, both games feature very strong logistical/evaluative elements, but include important elements of intuition and planning as well. What are the other players planning? By starting a new line are you grabbing a unique advantage or enabling them to immediately initiate an even better one? In both games too building the most primitive model is a disadvantage as other players can choose to hit this vulnerability by pushing the state of technology more quickly. Being on top of what's going on to avoid this situation is an important ability.
Automobile is also the more modern game, not just in its later publication date, but because of its unstructured turns and because in effect it even permits some turn actions to be taken completely outside the designated turn structure. The treatment of losses by giving tokens which must either be handled or paid for is also quite a novel development, one which simultaneously fuzzes up profit/loss calculations and is more elegant than constantly spending and receiving money.
In terms of numbers of players, Automobile really seems to hit its sweet spot at four. At five it can become very long with too much downtime and also the feeling of being stuck in a rut of never being able to choose to go early in a turn if everyone else wants to. And generally with that number of players everyone else inevitably does want to. With three players, since not all factors are scaled back, sales feel too unconstrained and there are often not many unsold cars. This reviewer has only tried Lokomotive Werks with three or four and both worked equally well. Due to the highly structured nature of the turns and the ability to do some planning simultaneously, the expectation is that five would feel okay also.
Both of these games succeed in what they try to do and are worth seeking out for multiple replays. Lokomotive Werks is a real spreadsheet game in that by analyzing expected values in sales and shifting production you can go deep into weeds of details. The same goes for analyzing other player positions, not just in terms of what they're selling, but also their cash and likely trajectories toward the goal. In Automobile the decisions tend to be of slightly larger granularity. It is necessary to decide how many cars to produce and whether to discount them, but timing the opening and closing of factories, as well as the moment of production itself, is the bigger deal.
MMMH7 (Strategy: Medium; Theme: Medium; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation:
High; Personal Rating: 7)
MMMH7 (Strategy: Medium; Theme: Medium; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation:
High; Personal Rating: 7)
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