In Horseless Carriage, the board game has you in the role of an industrialist at the dawn of the automotive age. An age where people are fascinated by these cars, and where none of the design best practices are set in stone. How fast should they go? Are windshield wipers a pointless luxury? Are steering sticks to steering wheels? All of these questions are subject to the whims of customers, and it’ll be up to you to figure out how to best market your mighty automotive machines.
But boy, is Horseless Carriage difficult. My first read-through of Horseless Carriage’s rulebook filled me with dread. The game’s demands on the player would be as persnickety, as ramshackle as the cars being built during this time period. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the common reaction to this game is one of frustration.
That is no mean feat given publisher Splotter Spellen’s history and pedigree. I had, after all, thoroughly enjoyed Splotter’s previous outing, Food Chain Magnate. Where Food Chain Magnate’s mechanisms were straightforward, Horseless Carriage’s were obtuse. Where Food Chain Magnate’s tech tree helps to visualize a build plan, Horseless Carriage’s tech tree, with its multitude of components, can leave you flailing around aimlessly. Ultimately, Horseless Carriage took a seemingly straightforward premise of building and selling cars with certain features and made it needlessly convoluted.
How so? Let me walk you through Horseless Carriage’s factory building process. Or you can watch the video on YouTube below.
How cars get built in Horseless Carriage
You start out with a factory floor. First, you need to place a planning station and a research station, but they must be either connected to a pre-existing building or to the loading bay. OK fine.
Now, if you want to produce cars, you need a piece called a main line. Main lines are where cars complete construction. They come in 3 different flavors: a line for sedans, trucks, or sports cars. And they need to be adjacent to a dealership for speedy delivery. And vice versa! You can’t have a dealership by its lonesome without it being connected to a main line.
But if you want your cars to have certain features, then get ready for some crazy, brain-frying tetrising action. The heart of Horseless Carriage’s maniacal manufacturing machinations requires you to finagle fresh features onto your finished goods. And that task requires you to connect component stations to their designated cluster. Components you want to include that are designated as Step A must connect to Section A of your main line, whether directly or indirectly by snaking through another Step A component. Same goes for all the components marked for Step B, and Step C, and Step D. Failure to do so means a feature is non-functional. And if you need a feature to fit but find finding a free spot futile, well, that’s where the frustration ferments.
By the time you’re done, you’re left with a Frankensteinian factory floor where, unless you’ve developed a system to track it all, can already be maddening in determining which component enhances which of your vehicles in what way. But what makes it worse is the rule that governs the features when two different main lines are connected to a single dealership.
Speccing out your vehicles is a brain burn
You see, when two main lines are connected to a single dealership, the game expects you to do a spec evaluation of each main line and choose the minimum of each spec produced. Did that make any sense? Here’s an example:
Let’s say you have two sedans connected to this single dealership. One main line is capable of producing a vehicle with 3 units of safety and 2 units of speed. The other main line produces a car with 1 unit of safety and 4 units of speed. At this point, you’d expect each main line to be independent of the other and that you can satisfy both the consumer who wants a well-rounded machine and the other who wants a speedster. Well, guess what? Your dealership can only serve consumers who want 1 unit of safety and 2 units of speed since that’s the minimum value for each dimension.
Although I understand why it was done this way, this calculation is counterintuitive. You’d expect each main line to be independent, but that’s not how it works making the speccing step even more of an aggravation.
Horseless Carriage’s market board is clumsy
Speaking of market niches, that brings us to the market board, which requires delicate handling, as though you’re playing a game of pick-up-sticks. Any slip or disturbance could send existing vehicle demand flying into the wrong niches or place the projected demand into the wrong areas, yielding a crazy case of carmageddon.
If this experience looks like an affair replete with cursing and frustration, that’s because it is. If it looks too demanding and brain busting? Absolutely, you’re right. And if there’s a lot of information overload? Once again, spot on. If all this sounds overwhelming to you, don’t get Horseless Carriage. You’ll be in for a miserable 3 hours.
But for the right people, Horseless Carriage is a gem
And yet… and yet… in spite of all that, even on my first playthrough, I found Horseless Carriage tickling the puzzle-solving and optimization parts of my brain. That’s right. For those of you who’re still watching, in spite of the factory tetrising and obtuse speccing shenanigans, Horseless Carriage’s levers are fascinating fiddling and its gameplay highly rewarding. It’s a solid effort provided that you’re not expecting another Food Chain Magnate.
While Horseless Carriage carries on in the grand Splotter tradition of being highly strategic and highly interactive games, its levers are much subtler and the rewards are a bit more muted. The mechanisms enabling you to get ahead or hamstring your opponents is still very satisfying when you pull off a devious play. But unlike in Food Chain Magnate, where doing so will allow you to corner the entire market, in Horseless Carriage, it results in a slight edge, making this game one of finer, tighter margins.
Where things are subtle lies in the player’s ability to manipulate future events in Horseless Carriage.
Horseless Carriage offers tantalizing interactive possibilities
Let me explain again with an example. When you start the game, and in each round thereafter, you get to research technologies that can be turned into vehicular features. Things like a new engine, so you’re not left with a Flintstonian feet fleet, or a car horn to tell people at intersections to stop looking at their smartphones and move. While pushing yourself up the track is obvious because getting a technology allows you to use it, you can also push someone else’s technology progress marker. Odd and counterintuitive. Why would you do that?
There is meaning behind that madness. The preference for future features is influenced by how far along the tech track pieces are. Nudging those tracks allows you to control what features customers are keen on and what players will be competing over. So if you see a weakness in your opponents’ plans, say, they’re not jiggy with the safety bits, maybe you make safety gear the next desirable feature set, and shut out the players who are unable to incorporate those safety features into the cars they’re manufacturing, preventing them from making a sale.
On top of that, you may want to nudge an opponent’s tech track up if you can snag the tech-focused position on the turn order track. Like many a Splotter game, the turn order system is an important lever to pull. Choosing your position is a choice between technological theft or marketing maneuverings. So if you are in a position to copy an opponent’s technology, you might want to push an opponent high up because them having a tech lead leads to you also effectively having those techs, saving you from having to research it yourself if you’re already far far behind on that track.
These are but two examples in which the decisions players make are subtle, but what happens as a result of those decisions can be very impactful.
A solid factory can be very satisfying, selling cars, less so
Moving on, I’ve already talked a lot about how fussy the factory floor formation process is. And I want to stress that it is pretty fussy for all the reasons I mentioned previously. What with all the connections needing to spider their way to the correct spots. But it’s also fascinating. Fascinating because it gives you all the rope you need to screw yourself, but when you get it right, the results feel triumphant in the way you might feel finishing a marathon or the Tour de France.
All of those efforts will pay off once you reach the selling phase of the round and collect revenue. Of the phases in Horseless Carriage, this part feels the least satisfying because the margins are so tight. You can find yourself in a situation where your technological capabilities are top notch and allows you to sell to the highest tier of customers for an extra $2 or $3 advantage per vehicle sold. That’s not a whole lot.
On the one hand, Food Chain Magnate players might be disappointed that the difference is so small and that you’ll never be able to wipe someone out entirely. But on the other hand, it means you’ll unlikely be in a situation where you can do nothing on your turn. As I’ve stated previously, Horseless Carriage is a game of fine margins, but a benefit of that is that the blows it deals are softer too.
The levers Horseless Carriage provides to push player interaction
Finally, an anecdote that encapsulates my play experience. In one game, I was in the lead and two players ruthlessly conspired against me. One started by moving the inactive tech tracks to position it as the next one consumers would be eager for, knowing that my factory configuration would not be able to produce cars with that feature. While I held out hope that I’d be able to piggyback on someone else’s technologies, the other player shut me out by grabbing the top spot on the engineering track. Instead of selling cars for the premium I was targeting, I was forced to sell to the cheaper niches, depriving me of the revenue and ultimately, the win. And contrary to feeling frustrated, I marveled at the tools the game provided that allowed people to kneecap me to perfection.
Horseless Carriage is highly engaging with a big decision space to explore
I’ll be honest: I went into Horseless Carriage prepared to not like it, but that did not turn out to be the case. With each game I played, I’d have a better understanding. At the same time, the game fanned my desire to try new strategies. Like pondering what would happen if I decided to go all in on sports cars. Or what if I don’t sell any cars until turn 3 in favor of building a research and planning infrastructure? There are a lot of routes to explore and I want to see certain strategies pan out.
In the end, Horseless Carriage will never displace Food Chain Magnate on my Splotter pantheon, but it’s an amazing experience through and through. While it’s not for everybody, it suits my tastes spectacularly well.