Mobile Markets – or perhaps it should be titled Cellphone Competition if you want to use terminology more attuned to a US market while keeping the alliteration – is a game about running your own mobile phone company. Excited? Not yet? Understood.
Ever wanted to pretend to be the CEO, COO, CFO and every other senior manager in a phone company? No? Well OK. Ever wanted to work out the cost, pricing, production and features for a mobile phone? Still unsure? OK. How about playing a game that’s like Power Grid (Rio Grande) but without the auctions?
Mobile Markets is a 1-4 player economic simulation game designed by Ivan Lashin and with art by Viktor Miller Gausa. Give the Arcane Wonders/Cosmodrome team some kudos for not making yet another 'Trading in the Mediterranean' boardgame, and yes this is the same team that brought you that other game about mobile phones Smartphone Inc. (Cosmodrome). Perhaps they really like mobile phones!
I do hope I spelt the artist’s name correctly, but to be honest I am not sure because the front of the box has it spelt with two Ls and the back of the box with just one, and this is a nice segue into my first issue with the game. There are a few typos in the rules as well as on the box. This includes an almost unforgivable example on page 19 in the rulebook that is actually incorrect! Someone really should be proofreading rulebooks before games make it out into the wild. This is an annoying, avoidable issue.
The components are solid, the boards are a decent quality, as are the card stock: nothing spectacular here but certainly good enough. The game has an almost minimalist aesthetic, which feels both modern and antiseptic at the same time: again good but not eye-catching. The graphic design, is clear and the important rules are provided on the modular boards which take you through the phases of the game: this is in essence a card game with a player tableau and boards in the centre to track which phase the game is in, the player order and the scoring.
The team at Cosmodrome and Arcane Wonders clearly went to the same art repository that many large multinational companies use for their internal training programmes. Imagine a slide pack with lots of pictures of people involved in an industrial production process, or looking thoughtfully at their phone, or standing around a desk looking thoughtfully at a screen. However, the customer artwork is my personal favourite, as it looks as if the artist has just taken a snapshot from any one of many awful mobile phone commercials showing people who simply cannot be deriving as much enjoyment from their mobile phone as the commercial seems to suggest. There simply has to be some other reason for their apparent over-exuberance at what is essentially plastic, electronics and glass.
The gameplay also has the feel that it could have been plucked from one of those economic simulations that get played by the top brass at a multinational company. However, unlike the insipid art, this is actually not bad if you are a fan of economic simulation games.
The game is played over five rounds each made up of eight phases. In the first, preparation phase, an event card is drawn that will have some impact on the current game round and will increase the number of one or more types of overly enthusiastic customer to be drawn from the three decks of equally overly enthusiastic customers cards. There are low-range price green customers who want a cheap phone but if you meet their specific feature requirements then they are willing to pay whatever you are charging. There are the mid-range price blue customers who don’t care what features the phone has, they simply want to pay the same price or less than the number shown on their customer card. Finally, there are the top-range price pink customers who are willing to pay a higher price but you must also meet their feature requirements. The customers are drawn and placed in columns below the modular boards from the lowest price to the highest price. In the first phase you also reveal Technology and Marketing cards that will be available to purchase this round and feature cards that can be purchased to meet the demands of those ever-smiling but in some cases incredibly picky customers.
In the planning phase, everyone simultaneously gets to play a weird Tetris mini-game, except in this game you want the shapes to collide. Each player is given two L-shaped tiles, each with five icons on either side of the tile. The tiles must overlap and based on how many icons you covered and the icons that remain visible, this will set your price, production, marketing budget and technology budget. It is an interesting and unique puzzle that has you working out how you can get the precise combo you need.
The next phase is Pricing. All the players reveal their tiles and based on the Pricing icons from the arrangement of their tiles, the price of their product is set. The fourth phase is Technology, where players get to spend the Technology icons shown on their Tetris tiles. Tech points can be spent to improve the quality (stars) of your phone or to give your phone a specific feature: 5G, 8K, a camera, a folding screen or that neat Near Field Communication thing your phone can do to pay for stuff as if it was a credit card. Each player can have up to three feature cards on their player board and all feature cards have one or two features, some also have one or more stars, which increase the quality, and some cards have a dollar symbol which increases the cost of your phone. There are also Technology upgrade cards that can be purchased which can allow the player to add a further feature card or increase their production or quality amongst a plethora of other options.
The fifth phase is Marketing, where players spend their Marketing points on the available Marketing cards in the offer. These can allow players to ignore the quality requirements on customer cards or provide scoring bonuses if they sell to particular types of customers. Players can also choose to spend Marketing points to gain private customers at a cost of one customer per point spent. This is a nice touch that allows players to mitigate to some degree the upcoming scrum for market share which is the meat of the game. In the sixth phase all players calculate their production, which is a combination of the symbols on the Event cards drawn, the symbols on the Tetris tiles and the number of icons covered on the lower of the two Tetris tiles.
In the seventh phase, the rubber starts to hit the road, so to speak. In turn order from lowest to highest price, players decide on the features that they will offer on their phone this round by taking their feature cards and placing them on their player board and then calculating their net profit per unit to be sold by subtracting their price from the cost of the features. The player then sells their products, first attempting to fulfil any private customer cards on their board and then going from left to right (lowest price to highest price), bottom to top through the customers in the market. You take any customer cards for whom you fulfil the requirements, until you have sold all your production this round or you have run out of customers whose requirements you can fulfil.
In the eighth and final phase, profits are calculated and this represents each player’s score for the round. There are market share bonuses for the most customer cards, and then the number of customer cards is multiplied by the profit per phone to give the player’s total profit and this is their score for the round. Certain marketing cards and technology cards will also provide scoring bonuses.
Play continues over five rounds and the highest score is the winner. There is no real catch-up mechanism but there is not really a runaway leader issue here: if you get the pricing and features right in a round you can definitely come from behind.
In summary, this is a super-solid economic simulation that plays to its strengths, holds your hand through each round and ignores all the complicated 'finance stuff', which is great. I can see a tendency for analysis paralysis in the Sales phase as players wait until the current player finishes to decide how to maximise their profit, by 'mathing-out' each option in a Power Grid-esque, hand me the calculator moment, or more likely significantly longer than a moment! Sure, there’s some obfuscation in terms of the private customers, which means that you do not have perfect information to make your decision, but it still behoves the player to do the maths, which would be more difficult if more of the information was hidden.
There is also a solo mode, which sees you play a two-player game against an AI opponent where the top card of the AI deck is revealed after you’ve finished your simplified game of Tetris and this determines which feature and Tech cards to remove from the offer. It also sets the AI’s production and price. The solo game gets the balance right. Dealing with the AI player is quick and you get to spend your time pouring over your options and doing all those maths calculations. Mobile Markets very much feels like a puzzle for the solo player to solve, and if that’s the sort of solo game you love then Mobile Markets will almost certainly float your boat and there will be nobody else at the table incessantly tapping their finger because of your AP.
Will I be playing Mobile Markets again? It will have to be with the right crowd who can do maths quickly in their heads. The game definitely has some interesting puzzle elements to it, but for now I am off to conquer the galaxy, or delve a dungeon... Hell, I might even try trading in the Mediterranean...
(Review by Jason Keeping)