Planes, Trains & Automobiles – I can’t recall when I ever saw that movie, but we’re talking decades ago and even then I’m not a large fan of it. But that’s the gimmick that AEG are following with their games recently albeit in the wrong order. We first had Trains, which was basically Dominion with a board. I liked it fine, but I didn’t really get grabbed by the board and so I would play Dominion or even Thunderstone first in that similar lineup. Planes I have not played, but it’s not one I’m going out of my way to locate and I haven’t seen anyone own it. Automobiles caught my attention however because (a) I like cars so there’s an automatic theme connection and (b) it combined two genres that otherwise wouldn’t go together, being racing and deck building (or bag-building in this case). Racing around a track using bags and cubes, how on earth is this supposed to work, but that’s what we have here and how much more unique can you get?
I always like to try a game that tries something innovative or out of the box and combining genres/mechanics is a great way to do it. Hyperborea combined bag-building with a civilization game and it sits happily on my shelf because of it. Paperback used deck-building in a word game. Deck-building does seem to be the easiest way to start it seems. Doesn’t always have to be genres though, I mean look at X-Com and how it took the co-operative genre and combined it with modern technology to produce one of my favourite games to date and in my opinion the best use of an dedicated app in any game so far.
So racing and bag-building – how on earth do you combine those two mechanics and make it work? Let’s see if AEG have pulled off an unexpected spark of innovation with Automobiles. As is my style my initial paragraph will be a rules overview only so if you would like to read up on the rulebook in more detail, here is a link to the official source on AEG’s website.
Designer: David Short
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
Time: 60-90 Minutes
Re-Inventing The Wheel
The aim of Automobiles is to be the first to cross the finish line (duh!). However how you move and cope with your cars internal issues is dealt with by a bag-building mechanic using cubes for the different gears and parts. These cubes not only allow you to race your car around the track, but they also allow you to improve your handling, optimize your pit crew, and boost your speed, essentially everything you would expect from a racecar. The cubes are represented by action cards (gears, engines, pit crews, etc) that display the rules associated with that cube and there are several to choose from for each specific component of your vehicle allowing for variable setups. Each card will allow you to perform different actions with your cubes and car during the race and you can customize your game experience based on which cards you choose at the start of the game, but of course a starter set is there for beginners.
On each turn you’ll draw a set number of cubes and make the best use of them that you can. You’ll reduce the wear on your vehicle (driving fast and using key components gains you wear cubes), move around the track and perform other typical deck-building related shenanigan combos before drawing a new set and continuing on in this fashion. If things get too tough on your car you can opt for a pit-stop turn for repairs (though this rarely happens). When a car crosses the finish line, play continues until everyone has had an equal number of turns and whoever is the furthest past the line is the winner.
As with other deck building games, it comes down to how you build up your bag. Do you opt for increasing your gears so that you can zip around the outside lane at the cost of damaging your vehicle? Do you go for a balance of all parts? Will you be hyper-efficient in dealing with wear cubes (dead draws basically, much like in Trains with the waste cards)? Or do you just want to grab the biggest block of nitro you can find with a supercharged engine and go like the wind, not caring about whether your car is suitable for another race or not? The choice is yours.
Cubes As Big As The Mario Kart Power Ups
AEG can be a little hit and miss with components and rules, but in Automobiles they have really outdone themselves producing a nice little package. The board is decent, the bags are very good quality (though my copy was missing one, but AEG Customer Services will hopefully resolve that soon) and the cubes are colourful and very chunky, no piddly little pebbles to lose on the carpet here. A nitpick however is that the gear cubes range from white to grey (dark/light) and black. The differentiation in the grey’s is good enough, but occasionaly you might need to take a second glance to realise whether it’s light or dark depending on the quality of your colour vision.
The cubes are nicely contained in two plastic tubs with multiple compartments and even though the lid won’t stay open to save its life, I did find that you tip the tubs on their side and use the lid as a “tray” per say, it works surprisingly well with fumbled cubes collecting in the tray and ease of access. It’s a giant box for what you get and it’s all because of those tubs. Thankfully they work well enough to justify it, but have some space on your shelf prepared. Least if they do an expansion you’re catered for!
The cards themselves have striking artwork and aren’t difficult to read, but the player boards are a little bland in comparison with a faded picture of your car branded with several of AEG’s other games (which is a genius idea by the publisher given the theme of Automobiles) and 3 sections for cubes. The reference rules are a little hard to read when taking the art and sections into account, but you shouldn’t need to refer to them much as the rulebook is pretty concise at explaining the game play. Some minor queries may arise with regards to the treatment of wear cubes and the difference between the player board sections, but on the whole it’s a solid effort.
Listen To That Baby Roar!
Automobiles plays out surprisingly smoothly given the mixing of two mechanics here. Just like the house rule in Carcassonne you have to draw your cubes at the end of your turn giving you plenty of time to plan your next move adapting for whether you can take advantage of another players slipstream. Yeah they even included a mechanic that allows you to move without gaining wear providing you end your move directly behind another player, a cool addition which I know exists in other racing games (though not all), but it’s good to see theme being utilised here and have it not just be another cube pusher.
Anyone familiar to deck building will pick up Automobiles in minutes, others may take a little while longer so I wouldn’t recommend this as a introduction game by any means to either bag building or racing games. But it’s a good next step once they are familiar with the deck building concept. But that’s not to say the racing aspect is merely pasted on. Because of the design of the track and the way the gear cubes work, you can take advantage of slipstreams, dart in between other cars for the lead, hug the outside lane or even block other cars from passing, essentially all the things you like to see in real life races. Ignoring these concepts won’t do you any favours at winning the race.
Cubes have a dual purpose of being used for abilities or for purchasing other cubes and so there are plenty of options available with engaging decisions that will have a long-term impact. Automobiles recommends a starter set of cards to be used and these work fine, but you’re quickly going to want to mix things up and I wouldn’t say the starter set are any easier to understand rules wise, but they make Automobiles a little more balanced in terms of what you can do. Resorting to Frankenstein methods of selection is all well and good, but I quite like the themed sets in the rulebook, particularly the one I like to call the “Old Banger” set where wear cubes are flowing in like crazy – reminds me of watching RallyCross or an episode of Top Gear.
5 Car Pile Up!
Normally I would say that less players is better with any “Euro-like” game, but in Automobiles it isn’t quite as simple as that. You run the risk of it dragging on a bit with a full player count, but you gain the benefit of having plenty of cars on the track blocking each other and really engaging in a fun race. If you lower the player count, then Automobiles progresses quicker, but there’s not as much interaction and 2 players is just a no-go unless you want to try something quirky like controlling two cars with separate bags, that’s an interesting thought.
But here in Automobiles you can tailor the game length by how many laps you do. So if you think you’ve got a slow bunch of 5 players, knock a lap off the game length. It can go from one to seven, though I highly suggest against going anywhere about 4 and that’s only if you got some very speedy players anyway. 3 is enough really. So far the classic player count of 4 has been the most enjoyable as a good balance of interaction and speed, but choose your players carefully and I do recommend attempting 5 players at some point.
Verdict on Automobiles
Well I’m very impressed with Automobiles. Two mechanics that shouldn’t go together manage to gel so nicely in a game that has enough depth to engage, but not by over-complicating the rules. The action cards take the most explanation as is to be expected, but the turn sequence is pretty straight forward. Races vary from solid victories to close photo-finishes as would be expected depending on how players manage their bags, which as with the other components are very nice indeed.
That’s not to say Automobiles doesn’t have a certain level of fiddlyness though when you start creating combos and pushing cubes about, but after a while in your first game you get used to it and everything smooths out and begins to flow. You might just have to breach that initial short learning curve. Analysis Paralysis should mitigate itself for the most part because you have a whole round to consider your next turn, but you’ve got plenty of options to consider. In terms of replayability, you’ve got plenty of options available and I would strongly advise getting off the starter set quickly as the other pre-constructed sets or mixing it up are the way to go.
This is a great example of thinking outside of the box with game design. Automobiles must have been quite the gamble, but it’s paid off. I much prefer it to Trains, it doesn’t quite beat Hyperborea, but I’d probably sooner play this than Orleans. And it’s ripe for further expansion with different tracks and action cards to boot. Thumbs up AEG for thinking outside the box and having it pay off!
YOU WILL LIKE AUTOMOBILES IF:
- You want something different and innovative – no other game I know of is like this, it’s unique.
- You enjoy the bag building mechanic, which dominates over the racing aspect.
- You want replayability – there’s plenty of action cards and a double sided board to use.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE AUTOMOBILES IF:
- You play too many laps. It can go up to 7, but you’d have to be crazy. Cap it at 3 or 4.
- You play with too few players. 2 is forbidden, 3 is ok, but you want 4 or 5 to get the most out of Automobiles.
- You include the AP player – it can drag the game a bit having to wait for one person to take forever to use his cubes.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.