Automobile Tycoon is exactly what the title promises. You start a little car company, research, design, build and sell four wheeled creations for the next century. I have fond memories of the ancient Detroit and don’t understand why we’ve gotten to manage animal theme parks more often than we’ve plumbed the tycoon goodness of the auto industry. Regardless, Automobile Tycoon (and a number of similar titles on our list of car design games) is trying to remedy the situation.
You choose one of four starting eras, 1905 being the earliest. You’re given $1,000,000 and the designs for your first engine, chassis and car. From there you direct research, design new models, produce and sell. GearCity, which I quite like despite its every attempt to make players bounce off, explores the same territory in much more detail.
Automobile Tycoon is breezier and faster to play. It’s also considerably easier to get into than GearCity despite an inefficient interface. There are few actions to perform but you still have to flit between screens to see sales, inventory and set production. It’s enough of an issue to keep you from expanding as fast as you can and focus on a handful of models so you don’t have to deal with the UI as much.
Cars are by far the most complex machines most of us will own. Even a “casual” car tycoon game deals with a product far more varied than the typical crops or pizza that other games peddle. Automobile Tycoon does an excellent job of giving you control of the final product, within the capabilities of the era and what you research. I like to start with the fastest sports car I can produce and a fancy sedan. Within a few clicks my scientists were busy researching the perfect chassis and engines.
I should note that there’s nothing visual to design. I actually remember spending a lot of time in Detroit sculpting my cars but never bother to in the modern iterations. So the complete absence of a body designer doesn’t bother me but if that’s one of the things you enjoy you’ll have to look elsewhere.
From there you control an overly streamlined sales model and try to make a profit. Production is essentially one mega factory and sales offices are a simple number that gives a bonus per continent. I would have liked a meatier economic front end to interact with what seems like a detailed underlying engine.
All the games in this car niche are strong in the design aspect but weak on the competitive side of the business. You play in a bubble, trying produce quality cars but not really worrying about competing brands. This is despite the fact that Automobile Tycoon models a fairly sophisticated level of consumer preference and decision making.
The issues I think are twofold. First, the economic model is a games model. It seeks gradual progression and balance to all player choices. But the auto industry is not like that. Many models produce low or negative margins while a few produce high ones, often for subjective reasons. And technological advances do not always make tiny incremental differences, they can provide massive sales boosts until competitors catch up. The Mustang revived Ford and the Minivan saved Chrysler. The industry is full of stories of engineering or marketing heroics and these games fail to provide that drama.
The second issue is that it gives so little data and sales are so abstract that even if the underlying engine allows for competition I’m not sure how effective economic war would be. Sales offices are a single number abstracted for entire continents. It’s not like I can set up shop across the street and specifically undercut my foes.
There’s no stock market or any means to directly beat a competitor. With the easy margins I’m not sure you can drive them properly into the ground. Railroad Tycoon 2, the king of the genre, was brilliant because it channeled your engineering skill into funds you use to crush your competition in the markets.
Not Enough to Do
Automobile Tycoon suffers from the same pacing problem the rest of the games in the genre do, more so because it’s so light. As much as designing cars is fun it gets repetitive if that’s all you’re doing for a hundred years. I fell into a groove where I’d design a new car then do nothing but slightly adjust my production lines to match my sales for the four turns. Then I’d add the new the car to the line and design the next new model. Every few years I’d have enough money saved up to build a new assembly line or perform some upgrades and that was mostly it.
GearCity did a good job of giving me reasons to produce something other than competent, easy to sell cars. You could enter your cars and engines in race circuits, each with specifications and resulting prestige if you did well. There was an entire layer of contract fulfillment which kept me busy and added flavor to the month to month business. Having oracle like knowledge of two great wars coming I prepared by designing sturdy, reliable light trucks and cars and made a fortune when government contracts requiring exactly those things came up. It was fun inventing the Jeep.
In Automobile Tycoon, WWI causes a 50% reduction in demand which gradually disappears when the war ends. It’s bland and I hope they beef up the historical effects considerably. It’s a natural source of much needed variety and challenge. Fuel taxes, environmental requirements, steel shortages, oil embargoes – those are all events that forced carmakers to radically redesign popular models to stay in business.
I want my RNG
I’m guessing that Ford did not set out to make an exploding Pinto. None of these car games give you that dubious pleasure. Cars conform to exact specifications in the exact timeframe you budget for. Maybe randomness would be frustrating but it would also pop you out of your meditative design-build-sell loop.
Research is another part that could use uncertainty. You don’t discover things, you pick from a list of things that were discovered in our historical world and then research them. Rigid research can cause a disconnect in any game, whether it’s finally researching castles in Civ, 500 years after they become obsolete, or getting around to researching bumpers decades after they were invented. It can seem silly and there’s no sense of stumbling onto a game changing advantage.
Should you buy it?
I think Automobile Tycoon is fun but it needs to do more to maintain it. Considering how complicated cars are the streamlining might serve it well if it’s limited to mechanics and not flavor or objectives.
The hard part is finding a balance between flexibility and too much complexity in the car designer. As much as I like GearCity I’m not sure it presents a reasonable learning curve. Automobile Tycoon let’s you make the cars you want easily and intuitively. But right now designing cars is mostly it, with very surfacy sales, production and research. I’m the target audience and I got listless after 30 years.
I was playing very inefficiently too, producing a new engine and chassis for almost every model and still making more money than I could comfortably spend. It’s not detailed enough to please as a gearhead simulation and it doesn’t reward you for being awesome. It should be cooler to have the fastest production car or safest volvo-mobile.
Right now it’s slightly too casual for car or business enthusiasts but the product you’re selling might be too complex if you don’t like cars or if you’re looking for a simple tycoon game of the lemonade stand variety. But the hardest part – letting you make varied cars without a nightmare of sliders and strange ratios – is good.
It’s early access and they have time to add flavor and events to jostle you out of your comfort-zone. I had my fill after four hours but I’ll come back for another look when it’s released in a few months.