That's my perp! Futsie, all right - crazy as a coot! He's got to be stopped!
Car manufacturing games seem to be growing in popularity, dropping off the production line quicker than the trusty old Model T itself. From the cartoon visuals it is apparent that Automania takes a lighter approach than the likes of Kanban, Kraftwagen and Automobile but is there still enough going on under the bonnet to keep more than Sunday drivers happy?
Each player has a factory board showing the assembly lines of three types of cars. Small city cars are cheap but only pass through two manufacturing stages, family cars pass through three and sports cars are the most expensive and pass through four stages. You can purchase improvements to your production line which may for instance increase the safety of any cars that pass through. Since the production lines have crossover points care needs to be taken when positioning improvements as there is the opportunity to improve the performance of not just one but two different car types.
You will be trying to sell you cars to both the European and American markets and each turn these markets will have changing demands. These demands gradually shift down turn by turn making it possible to predict which features will be popular during the following turns. So if on one turn Europe is most interested in environmentally friendly cars then all cars that pass through green improvement tiles on the assembly line will have extra stars added to their rating. However on following turns the demands shift down a space and the one that was most popular will be reset. Hence, you are constantly having to consider updating you production line to hook into the latest demands of the markets.
Each round players take turns placing workers in the first row or column of a grid that is randomly seeded with tiles. This allows the player to pay to put the model of car represented into production and also take a tile from the row or column that their worker is placed in. If you wish to place a worker on a space already occupied by another player then you have to pay an extra worker for each different player who has workers already placed there, also these players get their workers back. This can often be a tricky decision as tying up too many of your versatile workers can severely limit the flexibility of you actions as well as giving your opponents a boost to their workforce. You can also place a worker in the corner square which allows you to build a car of any type but doing this prevents you from claiming a tile reward. Instead of building a car the final row and column allows you to pick up one of the available contracts. These reward bonus points if you meet certain requirements such as building a twelve star rated family car with enhanced storage capacity.
Balancing the need to produce a particular type of car against grabbing a specific tile and doing it before the space gets occupied is of one of the key features of the game. The tiles themselves offer a range of possibilities some, as already mentioned, allow you improve your production line, others let you add extras to your car such as spoilers and furry dice. Some will give you a cash or points bonus whilst others will allow you to hire members of staff.
As you might expect hiring staff costs money but they do offer a range of benefits. Some improve your cash earning abilities, others improve the specification of your car, allow you to employ extra workers or sell more cars.
Which brings us neatly to actually getting you cars to the market. When you produce a car you first decide whether to ship to the European or American Market, which again throws up many interesting decisions. Obviously, you want to try and ship to a market whose demands match the tiles that you have added to you assembly line. If cash is a little short then you may be best shipping to the American Market which tends to reward more money, alternatively the European market awards more victory points. Cargo space is limited and only one car can occupy each space, the space a car takes is determined by its star rating and may immediately award victory points. If a space is already taken then you will usually be forced to take a lower one. However, even at this late stage you can deploy extra workers to improve a cars rating and grab a more favourable cargo hold space.
When a player has done all he wants he can pass grabbing extra money for every undeployed worker and then he gets to choose a starting position for the next round. Here lies another interesting decision, if you chose first position then you will get first dibs next round, but starting later gives extra bonuses such as an extra tile or contract or the ability to sell more cars in the following phase.
Cars bound for the American Market are unloaded first. The player with the car in the best cargo hold position gets to place his car in one of the available selling spaces receiving a combination of cash and victory points. When all players have made as many sales as they can then things we move on to the European market which is resolved in the same way. Only the player who picked the fourth position on the turn order track will be able to sell as many cars as they wish, other players will be limited to selling two of three, plus any extra for employing an appropriate member of staff. This is the final big decision of the round, if cars are not sold they will stay on the cargo ship until the next round so in some cases it may be best to wait and sell later to a more favourable market but since your sales are usually restricted you run the risk of building up a backlog of unsold cars
I realise that the one thing duller than working on an assembly line is having to illustrate one so using a bright and cheerful cartoon style to liven things up sounds like a good idea. However, the cartoony visuals used here are rather generic and vanilla it may have been more fun to take things down a wackier Heath Robinson path. At the very least the car tokens which are rendered in a realistic style look jarringly out of place and should have been given a bit of a makeover.
Thematically everything makes sense and the clear iconography makes learning the game a breeze. There is a neat catch up mechanism as the player in last place gets to influence the market demands for the following rounds. There is also a nice level of competitiveness with players jockeying for position on the grid, cargo ships and market place and the various ways that workers can be used helps keep the brain ticking over. I do think that a bit more could have been done to tighten things up when playing with two. The only suggested change concerns limiting the market places but this still leaves the grid selection mechanism feeling a bit too open if you feel the same then you may wish to try my variation which I posted in the forums.
Automania may lack some of the complexity of other games in the field and the visual style may lead to it being overlooked by some but look beyond the paintwork and you will find a streamlined little runner that is well worth taking for a spin.
Here is a list of all my reviews, some with puns that I really should be ashamed of.