Updated: Apr 3
It’s been a number of weeks since I first tested out Alley Cat Games' Autobahn in a long but absorbing four-player game, and refreshing my understanding of the rules reminded me of just how fiddly and complex the experience was. However, I'm a fan of mid- to heavy-weight Euro gaming so this aspect of the game was part of its appeal. Autobahn calls for a number of interesting strategic and sequencing decisions which, happily, never end up tipping over into analysis paralysis.
The theme of Fabio Lopiano and Nestore Mangone's game is the post-War construction and management of the German motorway network from the 1940s to the present day. There’s been a fair amount of noise in the forums bemoaning the game’s foibles. It's been criticised by some as overlong and somewhat dry and cerebral rather than enjoyable. Others have complained of easily forgettable rules regarding bonus actions etc. We all have to make our own judgement calls on these questions but, for me, Autobahn still offers a lot of promise.
Turns involve a choice of actions utilising the coloured cards in your hand. In addition to your basic action, you can, as a bonus action, move a truck if it is on the autobahn that matches the colour of the card you played. I like the puzzle of sequencing your moves to avail yourself of the truck movement. You need to project two or three turns in advance so that you use each coloured card effectively before drawing them back into your hand. There’s a nice tension here between diversifying action choice and doubling down on a particular move at certain crunch points in the game.
There are a number of opportunities to avail yourself of bonus actions by delivering the correct goods to a specific destination via the individualised delivery boards or by moving up either the development track or the administration board. It wasn’t always clear to players, however, which were permanent bonus actions and which were one-off. There are also Ticket to Ride style route cards that need fulfilling. With these you can accumulate significant benefits at the end of each of the game's three eras. You can earn money, bonus actions moves or promotions, depending on the status of the connections (upgraded links/service stations built, etc). In reality, you'll probably only score these at end of era 2 and 3, but they can be very powerful.
The scoring may perhaps be counterintuitive to some. The only way to score in the end is by promoting people from the lobby to the 1st/2nd/3rd floor of each department. In order to unlock each floor, you have to play an unlock action on the corresponding section of your player board. The promotion action is accessed mainly via a bonus action (albeit through a number of different avenues: delivery board, development track, delivering a pharmaceutical, completing a route card) so being able to take these actions has to be planned out meticulously in order to promote your meeples up the hierarchy. The only way to get sufficient workers into the lobby is to build a decent number of roads. How best then to sequence and combo these actions, some of which are only acquired via bonus? It’s a tricky balancing act, described as brain-burning by fans and detractors alike.
On a first play, we found it impossible to be aware of other players’ strategies and motivations until it was too late. With four players there’s sometimes a sense of people playing in bubbles. However, as each player’s moves can also benefit others, there’s definitely a sense of being connected to the other narratives around you. There is inevitably a bit of down time at the upper end of the 1-4 player count but we haven't been overly conscious of this because players have been so focused on planning their strategy to optimise the sequence of their actions.
If you're a casual gamer, Autobahn may not be the best choice: it's a game you have to commit to in order to fully appreciate and get the most out of it. And if you're like me, you'll probably need to get in a few plays before you fully master the mechanics. When I played a dominant service station strategy, I maxed out at 50 or so points but that left me 10 points shy of first place. I concluded that diversification was important, and so, rightly, is road building!
(Review by Navaneethan Kunaratnam)