Like any product, a game can live or die based on its name. It’s the first impression, along with the box art, and it goes a long way towards the decision as to whether to play the game or not. It can be something literal like The Settlers of Catan, or more abstract like Agricola. But what it should definitely be is something that captures the spirit of the game. You don’t make an auction game and call it Robot Hammer, unless it actually features auctioneer robots and now I’ve probably gone and given someone an idea.
Which brings me around to Automobiles. Now I know logically that this game has this title because the publisher, AEG, has previously released games called Planes and Trains and has a sense of humor. And that’s fine. But a name like Automobiles conjures up German engineers in laboratories designing coupes and sedans. Wind tunnels and test tracks. And there’s probably a pretty compelling game to made from that idea (and in fact, it appears Martin Wallace actually came pretty close to it). Automobiles is actually a racing game though. Which the cover art makes pretty apparent. But if someone were to say, “Hey, do you want to play Automobiles?” I don’t think racing cars around a track is the first thing that would come to mind. I know that wasn’t my first impression when it was mentioned to me. But hearing the game play explained, it sounded cool, so I gave it a try, and it turns out it’s a pretty neat little game.
The genre Automobiles best fits into is the bag-building game. This is a game where you are drawing random things from a bag — cubes, dice, meeples, whatever — and over the course of the game adding things to your bag so you can do more and better things. Usually, you don’t put anything back into the bag until it’s empty, and there are often pieces that have no game effect except to clutter up your bag and keep you from simply drawing every single useful piece every time. And most games will have actions available that let you mess around with the bag’s contents, be it removing the useless pieces, or putting used pieces back in. In a lot of ways, it’s like a deck-builder, except the randomization comes not from shuffling a deck, but from not being able to see into your bag.
What’s neat about the way Automobiles implements this is that your cubes can do different things. Normally, they can be the gear your car is in (the cubes match the colors of spaces on the track, and placing cubes moves you through the corresponding spaces) or bits of equipment on your car that let you take different actions. But they also have a dollar value, and if you don’t use them for their intended purpose, you can use them to buy more cubes in order to stack your bag with good stuff. Because there’s bad stuff aplenty. Based on the color of the space your car ends your turn in, you collect Wear cubes. And some of the actions you can take accumulate these as well. Wear cubes do absolutely nothing but get in the way. You have ways to get rid of them, including skipping your entire turn to take a pit stop action, but there’s really no way to avoid getting them. And drawing them at the wrong time can be absolutely devastating.
And that’s basically the game. You go around a predetermined number of laps, using your gear cubes to move and your action cubes to augment that movement. You can be blocked by other players (you have to always move forward, and if the space in front of you is occupied, well, you’re stuck), and you can draft behind them as well (meaning you take no Wear from your movement at the end of your turn). What’s great about this game is that no one is ever really out of it. There’s one action you can take that lets you move a number of spaces equal to your current place in the race. It’s a great catch-up mechanic, and in fact, the player who was in last place for most of our game ended up catching up and winning. So the runaway winner isn’t really an issue with this game. Also, the equipment you can choose is randomized each game, so you’re not always selecting from the same actions each time you play. It’s exciting, it plays very quickly, and it manages to convey the sense of speed and competition without getting bogged down in mechanics like some other racing games do.
So it’s kind of a shame that the name does Automobiles a bit of a disservice. Yes, it’s amusing to see Planes, Trains and Automobiles staring back at you from the store shelves. But something a little less dry would probably do this game a world of good. And maybe some robot auctioneers too.