I was fooled by AEG’s Trains-Plains-and-Automobiles (“Destination Fun”) branding, which is actually three different games with three different mechanics. Except Automobiles is a bagbuilding game, so it actually is in the same category of gameplay as Trains, and even offers the same mix of relatively simple ***building play with a physical board.
In Automobiles,you’re racing cars around a track. Each turn, you pull some cubes from the bag, and use those to your benefit. White, gray, and black cubes move you around the track in specific lanes — but they also give you worthless brown wear cubes. Special blue, green, purple, red, and yellow vary their effects from game to game and tend to give you improved movement on the track, improved purchasing power, or the ability to junk those annoying wear cubes.
Each turn you’ll use some of your cubes to buy new cubes and some for their special powers. The ultimate object is to get around the track faster than your opponents.
The Benefits of Bagbuilding
Bagbuilding is a distinct subset of the deckbuilding genre where a player’s deck of card is replaced with a bag of cubes. I previously wrote about one of the most notable entrants in the genre, Orléans (2014), but it was a pretty unusual member of the category, using its cubes (discs) as fuel for formulaic actions. Automobiles is many ways more typical: its cubes are a much more direct parallel to standard cards, with each one providing a specific action. It also shows more of the typical advantages of the genre:
It’s Easy to Quickly See & Assess Your Draw. When you dump your cubes out onto your player board, you can immediately see what you have and how they can be used. There’s a quick, visceral ability to assess your draw that isn’t the case when you’re picking cards. In fact, most of the advantages of bag building derive from this simple assessment ability.
It’s Easy for Opponents to Assess Your Draw. Since your cubes are open, other players can also see what you have, and might be able to figure out what you can do. In Automobiles, this means that they can block lanes that you might want to use, but in other bagbuilding games this could drive all sorts of interactivity.
It’s Easy to Assess Your Discard Pile. Flip City (2014) is one of the few deckbuilding games I know of that triggers some actions based on the contents of the players’ discard piles. As I wrote at the time, it’s a great innovation, but difficult to execute: in Flip City I always had to annoyingly sort my discards. But you change over to a bag builder, and suddenly you’re just counting the number of cubes of a certain color in your discard. Easy!
Bagbuilders also have a big challenge:
You Can’t Print Rules on the Cubes! In other words, you can’t include much detail on the cubes (or discs) that you’re drawing out of the bag. Orléans solved that by keeping its discs exactly that simple, and putting the complexity in the actions that they powered. Automobiles instead uses the same mechanism found in dice builders like Quarriors! (2011): it uses cards to detail what the little cubes actually do. It’s not elegant, but it works — and it would work better if each player had their own set of cards.
So that’s the basis that Automobiles is (bag)building from. How does it do?
Another Board. Like Trains before it, Automobiles is a deckbuilding game with a board — and an important board. You’re trying to get a racecar around the track, and the game’s largely in getting the right allocation of cubes to do so efficiently. It’s a great integration that shows how deckbuilding play can drive larger gaming engines.
Variable Cubes. But the gray cubes, which move your cars in certain lanes, are only half of the game; the colored cubes provide more variety, and they’re variable. Each game you draw a card for each of the colored cubes, and it tells you what that color of cubes does. This randomness is also controlled, because there’s a different deck of cards for each cube color. Subject to the weaknesses of using cards for this type of power description, this is a great way to increase the variability of the game.
More Waste. There’s another way that Automobiles is like Trains: they both focus heavily on introduced bad stuff into your deck (bag): waste in Trains and wear in Automobiles. Much as in Automobiles, it’s a great addition. Deck filtering remains the most neglected aspect of standard deckbuilding play; by making the introduction of bad cubes part of the gameplay, this forces Automobiles to make removing it a standard part of play as well.
Great Player Mats. Deckbuilding games have developed a somewhat confusing (but somewhat necessary) play style, where cards are put into a play area and only discarded at the end of each turn. This is where I see players make the most mistakes when playing deckbuilders, as casual players will toss their played cards straight into their discards, making them available later in the round after a reshuffle, when they shouldn’t be. It’s a totally natural mistake to make, and the fact that I see it so often suggests not that there’s a problem with new players, but that there’s a problem with the play style. Automobiles is the only game that I’ve ever seen address this issue. It does so by giving each player a mat with sections for “Active”, “Used”, and “Discard” cubes. Not only does this help players mark off which cubes they’ve used, but it also ensures that their used cubes aren’d discarded until the end of the turn. It’s a brilliant usability fix that addresses a problem that most deckbuilders ignore.
A Simple Game. Fundamentally, Automobiles is a pretty simple game, though perhaps not as simple as Trains. There are a fairly small number of possible actions, including moving your car, buying new cubes, and repairing wear, and the cards tend to focus on these same possibilities in different manners. Ultimately, there’s not any path to victory except jetting around the track. Still, the game feels spritely and fast, when is what you need in a simplistic game.
Troublesome Power Cards. There can be a wide power variety among the various power cards, and some of them totally overwhelm the game. Good or bad? Is it interesting because it introduces additional analysis into the game or bad because it makes it even more one note? That’s your call.
Bad Cube Colors. After calling out the great player mats in the game, it’s worth also noting one serious component problem: the various shades of gray and black cubes meld together, making it easy to confusing one for the other.
Between Trains and Automobiles, AEG is producing simple and simplistic bag building games. Automobiles is certainly the better of the two, because it really highlights the possible advantages of the bagbuilding subgenre, and because it plays at a speed appropriate for its simplicity.