I’ve never cared much about motor sports. Formula One and off-road rallying leave me cold, and I’m positively baffled by the popularity of American Nascar racing, where tens of thousands of spectators pay good money to watch drivers endlessly looping around an oval track, displaying their world-beating prowess at going really fast and repeatedly turning left.
I say this not as a dig at petrolheads but to make it clear that I’m about as far from the target audience for Automobiles, a racing-themed game from US publisher AEG, as it’s possible to be. Designed by David Short, whose previous productions include skyscraper-building dice game Skyline and AEG’s own Planes, it drops players into the flame-retardant shoes of racing drivers competing to cross the finish line ahead of their rivals.
It’s hardly an original premise – games including Thunder Alley and Formula D have previously covered the same ground. But what sets Automobiles apart from the pack is its approach to the racing concept. Each player starts the game with a bag of coloured wooden cubes, and on your turn you’ll draw seven at random to decide the moves you can make on the track. White, grey and black cubes dictate your acceleration, and you’ll start with mostly white cubes in your bag, restricting you to the tamer end of your speedometer.
AS THE GAME UNFOLDS, YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF PROGRESSING TO FULL BOY-RACER MODE
That quickly changes, though. Any cubes you don’t use on your turn can be used to purchase new, better ones to add to your bag. This dramatically ramps up the pace of play, and while your timid first few turns might resemble your dad trying to find a parking space at Sainsbury’s on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll soon find yourself progressing to full boy-racer mode, tearing up the track and leaving your opponents in the dust.
This bag-building is an ongoing, iterative process, and it’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s played deck-building games like Dominion, Ascension or the ridiculously addictive Star Realms, all of which see players start out with a basic deck of cards, honing and improving it with each passing turn. Automobiles swaps out cards for cubes, but the principle remains the same, and while most of the cubes you pull from your bag simply move your car along the track, others – red, yellow, blue, purple and green – give you access to a host of special abilities, allowing you to prune unwanted cubes from your collection, mount dramatic come-from-behind charges or add powerful spent cubes back to your bag to redraw and use on your next turn.
These power-ups add a layer of complexity that elevates the game beyond just flooring the accelerator and hoping for the best. But what really distinguishes Automobiles from the deck-building crowd is the interplay between the cubes in your bag and your manoeuvres on the track. On every turn you’ll need to work out the best way to plot your course around the board, making the most efficient use of the cubes you’ve drawn and cutting off rivals when they attempt to seize the lead.
Each turn also sees your car taking wear, represented by brown cubes added to your bag. These can’t be used to advance along the track, they’re useless gumph serving only to slow you down, and you’ll develop an irrational hatred of them the first time you draw seven at once, at which point it’s a good idea to take a pit stop, skipping your turn in order to remove the obnoxious little buggers from your pool.
ULTIMATELY AUTOMOBILES IS ALL ABOUT CUNNING, OPPORTUNISM AND BRINKSMANSHIP
The higher your speed, the more wear you’ll take, so while big plays can rocket you into the lead, they come at a cost. This makes timing critical – play things too conservatively and you’ll be left behind, but get too aggressive, too early and you’ll pollute your supply of cubes, surging into first place only to see your opponents pass you by as you run out of gas at the worst possible moment.
The only way to avoid accumulating the Brown Cubes of Doom is by finishing your turn directly behind an opponent’s car, drafting in their slipstream to gain an aerodynamic boost. But deliberately placing yourself behind an opponent isn’t going to win you any races, and ultimately Automobiles is all about cunning, opportunism and brinksmanship. You’ll attempt to exploit the positions of players in front of you, block off the track for anyone trying to overtake and make a decisive surge at the last moment to finish with a split-second lead.
This is a tense, absorbing, dramatic game that makes even my car-hating heart beat faster. It’s also hugely replayable thanks to its interchangeable special power cards and a double-sided board that gives you the option of racing on one of two different tracks. It may be let down slightly by its drab, mostly grey board, but it’s hard to maintain an aesthetic grudge against any game that comes with tiny wooden cars, and if you can make it through three laps without making “brrum, nyaaooow, skreeeech!” noises then you probably don’t have a soul.
A more valid criticism is that the game feels slightly flat with a low player count. Weaving a path between your rivals is a huge part of its challenge, and you’ll want to play with at least four people around the table for the best results.
But these points do little to detract from a great game that packs a killer combination of tactical challenge and raw adrenaline. Fasten your seatbelts – this is a hell of a ride.