Automania is the second release from Livingstone Games and tackles the subject of car exporting and importing. Like Boomtown before it, it is designed by Ian Livingstone himself, is a limited edition of 1,000 copies and is produced to the highest standards, befitting the German games it hopes to emulate. The limited edition and luxury production give rise to a price of between £24 and £28, so again we must weigh up a lightish, family game against a chunky price tag.
The game allows two to five players to take the role of a major car exporting country. Their aim is to sell cars into six markets, depicted on the board as areas into which car counters are placed. These markets vary from Switzerland that has a small, expensive appetite (just two cars per turn at $12,000 each), to the the USA which will absorb a substantial twenty cars at a $10,000 unit price. Beyond the market pricing, no account is taken of car quality or indeed any differentiating factors so to that extent the game is abstract - players are concerned purely with sales volume, be they Trabants or Aston Martins.
The first problem, which seems to be fairly widespread, is that either the wrong number of cars have been supplied in certain colours or the board and rule book have switched two country colours. The end result is that setting up, and removing certain cards from play, takes some thought to unwind the errors. I will be in touch with Ian to see if it is possible to get the extra cars needed to solve this and will report back next issue.
But to the heart of the game. Each turn consists of an open placing round (where you 'seed' a country with a couple of export cars, often to confuse other exporters into believing you will export there), a simultaneous round of deciding true export volumes and advertising budgets for each market and an end of turn count up. If you have done all this well, by the end of the turn you will have sold a number of cars in one or more markets and will have turned a profit. Convert that profit into victory points that move you around the points track a la Adel and the first one round the track wins, which will probably take you about six turns or an hour or so.
On the other hand, if you've played it badly by exporting to the wrong countries or not advertising correctly or missing sales completely, you don't move very far at all. The key here is the advertising budget that must be calculated with precision because the player with the highest ad budget sells its cars first, the second highest budget then sells theirs and so on, but if a country's appetite is filled at any time, that's it - there are no more sales and you could be left with advertising expenditure but no revenue.
An example: In a typical turn, Mexico imports 10 cars for $5,000 each. Arthur places six cars and sets an advertising budget of $10,000. Bill places ten cars and advertises at $2,000. The result is that Arthur sells all his cars for a profit of $20,000 (6x$5,000- $10,000). Bill only sells four but makes a profit of $18,000 (4x$5,000-$2,000), though he has wasted six cars that may have been sold elsewhere to his opportunity cost.
As you might imagine, the above planning has to be done secretly which means using log pads and pencils. As I've mentioned before, I am no fan of bookeeping in general (though I concede some games must use it), but the level of accounting required is particularly out of place in Automania, a game that has all the signs of a lightweight system. I really dislike this onerous element; I'm sure others will be more tolerant. Paradoxically, the planning phase and the estimation of advertising revenue against likely income is the strength and appeal of the system and constitutes a distinctly 'heavy' aspect of an otherwise light game. This goes hand in hand with a need to sit and think clearly and add up a few big figures.
So far, despite the basic accounts knowledge, all that would be a straightforward exercise in strategic marketing, but it isn't that simple. Each turn, every player can play a market influence card that adjust the chances of selling in the six countries - some are beneficial, so you might try and sell cars there, others are negative so you play these on other players and hold back all or some of your exports. In the event of two conflicting events, there is a precedence system that seems to work though, like some card wordings, it can be a little confusing at times. Sadly, the card system is also where the game has its major problems.
The factor that has prevented our playing Automania through on three occasions is the heavyhanded nature of some of the cards. While the majority of the market influence cards are subtle, such as 'Guaranteed sale of two extra cars in Mexico', there are a number of cards that unbalance the game, often taking away any thought of skillful play. Aside from the ridiculous 'Leader moves back two spaces' over which we shall draw a veil, there are cards such as 'USA bans all car imports' or 'All players' cars exported to the USA will be sold' which swing the game one way or the other with no real reason - worse, out of necessity the player knows this information in advance. The effect of all this on the players has been quite marked - on all three occasions we simply gave up, shaking heads, throwing in the notepads and reaching for something else.
I suspect the reason is disenchantment through having lost control of the game. With event cards influencing the markets, we are clearly in the realm of Speculate and Borsenspiel but those near- classic games have systems that utilise cards to move markets, but not control them. Conversely, Automania has swung out of kilter to a point where the cards usually become the overriding factor. The problem is compounded by having only two cards at your disposal - very seldom is there any real choice to be made, you simply go with the most powerful card in your hand and tailor your sales strategy accordingly, thereby having your decisions made for you. If you have two weak cards and you are unlucky enough to have to mix it with the powerful ones coming in from other players, a turn or more can be lost, possibly without chance of recovery.
In defence of the system, if you play the game enough you will become familiar with the cards and events that are likely to be coming along. But, if you don't draw the juicy ones, you are almost powerless to counteract their influence because of their wide ranging powers. The trouble is, the game is so unbalanced as a result that extended play is the least likely outcome. On chatting to the designer at the Bloomfield Auction, Ian implied that there were no 'heavy' cards originally and that they had only been put in at the request of the playtesters. I question the wisdom of this, but he suggested leaving out the 'fun' powerful cards as desired. That is fine, and I am sure the game will work better as a result, but to repeat my comments on Blackbeard, the game should work as sold and not require the buyer to start adapting it. I am hoping, as agreed, that Ian writes in to suggest some changes for us and this should be in the letter column or elsewhere.
Production values match the precedent set by Boomtown. The game comes in a Ravensburger style box with some impressive artwork, game pieces are coloured wood and the board is of commensurate quality though I believe its artwork has expanded to fit the area available, with slightly disappointing results. Whatever, I have no complaints with the image, and would find it surprising if anyone did, but this is the sizzle, not the steak. As for market sector, Automania fits into the older family or game group niche. As it stands, despite my comments, I guess it will find some fans. The basic system of selecting and pricing for markets is quite intriguing. It is hard to get right once and harder to be consistent through the likely five or six turns, but that cannot make up for the rest of the game which all but kills it.
In all honesty, I cannot recommend Automania. The game as sold is flawed, the bookeeping is tiresome, the price is on the high side and the skill level is almost illusory given the powerful and inappropriate cards. If the rogue cards and logging of prices were lost, I believe there could be a subtle and interesting game in there with a little tuning - the idea is sound, the execution a little wayward. Consequently, I can't see it appealing to many game groups because of the low skill factor and I think families will find it a bit heavy, especially the need to fill out the financial forms. Collectors will know if they want it or not and many will play it, but I wonder if they will play it again.
This leaves me in a position where I seem to be lukewarm or negative on both Livingstone Games so far released, but that is the unfortunate truth. Neither game is bad, but they certainly aren't good either. My considered assessment is that Automania was a good initial idea, well produced as one would expect, but possibly let down by uncritical or misguided playtesting and some inexplicable design decisions on the part of Ian Livingstone. Automania may be signed, numbered and eventually irreplaceable but short of corrective surgery, this one is a big disappoinment.
On to the review of The Designer Responds... or back to a Digression by the Editor.
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