Horseless Carriage ★★★ | Review

Splotter, the duo behind Food Chain Magnate, may not have the largest output, but their work is always worth trying. Their latest, Horseless Carriage, brings a twist to their economic games by using space, rather than money, as a currency. As we expand our factory to keep up with the demands of the very first car owners, we’ll struggle, innovate and, perhaps, miss out on the interaction and satire that defined their previous release.

PUZZLE FACTORY

While the goal of Horseless Carriage is to sell cars and their prices are followed by dollar signs, the main worry isn’t money, but space. Everything we need, from research departments to factory mainlines, takes space in our personal board. The actual pieces are free. We can even take as many as we need, even. But space is limited. Once we place anything on our board, there’s no way to get it back.

This Tetris-like puzzle is common in Eurogames. Its implementation here is an interesting one. In order to build a car we must link all the necessary pieces together and then also to a dealership so cars can be sold right into the market. Fortunately, we don’t need to clump them together. As if connected by a conveyor belt, one can follow the other, creating a production chain and saving valuable space.

However, not all pieces can be put together this way. There are four types and each one must be connected to a different end of the mainline. If we wish to clump more A-type widgets to our convertible but the only available space is listed as C, we are out of luck. In typical Splotter fashion, this is harder to explain than it is to understand, though figuring out all the combinations takes a while.

The other interesting bit is that each piece can feed several mainlines. Hence, if we plan well enough, all of our car models can share the majority of their pieces. This is our only hope to fit everything together and a key part of the puzzle. All this twisting and fitting takes quite a bit of brainpower. Yet, one limitation makes me uneasy. While enjoyable, its pieces never change. Their rectangular shape, worryingly enough, ensures the same solutions work every time.

THE TAIL WAGGING THE DOG

However, factory-building isn’t enough. While saving space is important, it’s unlikely we’ll gain enough of it to make a difference. Instead, what matters is research. By building research departments, we gain access to new pieces. And the more pieces we have, the easier it is to build. As far as Horseless Carriage is concerned, the tail wags the dog. Research is neither the most interesting, nor time-consuming element, yet it’s how the game is won.

Like everything else, research departments are placed on the board. For each one, we can increase our access to a category of pieces, from speed to reliability and design. New pieces don’t have any abilities, though. A new coat of paint has the same effect as a brighter dashboard. All they bring is flexibility. With enough research, our pieces will contribute to more than one category and we’ll be able to double up without wasting space.

Horseless Carriage might be Splotter’s least interactive design. I would compare it with Castles of Burgundy, which is only one step ahead of multiplayer solitaire. However, research drives the market, which allows some competition. Each turn, players add a demand card to it. Then, players cast a net and swoop in demand. Piling up marketing departments in our board gives us a larger catchment area.

We can also invest in three different car types, to differentiate ourselves a little. Turn order is crucial. Going in at the right time is a noticeable advantage. We can add more departments to change it in our favour, though its biggest appeal is that, whoever goes first, can plagiarize the technologies researched by everyone else.

It’s a shame that these small elements have such an outsized weight on the game. They do not form a compelling enough game by themselves, their role is completely secondary. No matter how important, the core of Horseless Carriage remains firmly on the factory. By having them drive so much of the strategy, gameplay becomes divorced from our actions on the board.

ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING

Horseless Carriage isn’t poor by any sense of the word. It’s entertaining, compelling and has some strategy to it. But compared to Roads & Boats or Food Chain Magnate, it’s not as engaging. A puzzle on the board will never be as clever as a human opponent. Whenever I brought it to the table, I got the feeling I would have preferred to play something else instead. As I finish my review, it sits in my trade pile, enjoyed but unloved.

I especially miss the satire. The inclusion of Bertha Benz over her husband, for turning a prototype into a product, is a compelling choice. And the fact that a horn increases a car’s speed is funny. But these two details are all there is. Horseless Carriage is dry and abstract. It has little to say on its subject and doesn’t compensate through its own mechanical strengths.

Where Horseless Carriage outsizes its predecessors is in the amount of cardboard. Plate after plate of components pile up in a Chicago Express-sized box. So many of them, in fact, that the lid doesn’t quite close and its combined weight crushed one of the corners. Splotter has never been shy about them yet, this time, I’ll readily accept that Horseless Carriage is best online. The search for an arrow that’s grey instead of black or purple instead of blue is an experience I’d rather miss on. Digital play gives us the time to optimize, too, instead of making our opponents wish we were done.

When I first reviewed Food Chain Magnate, I felt I had to discuss its price. While 75€ at release was high, I felt the quality of the design compensated the hole in my pocket. But Horseless Carriage costs 25€ more and isn’t quite as good. While I’m glad to have tried it and I specifically sought to review it, I won’t lie to you: I regret buying it. It’s in that uncomfortable spot of being well-made, yet outclassed. In the end, not all games can be winners. Not even when Splotter Spellen is behind them.

HORSELESS CARRIAGE (2023)
DESIGN Jeroen Doume
Joris Wiersinga
ARTJan Lipiński
PUBLISHERSplotter SpellenLENGTH120 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS3-5 (Best with 4-5)SCORE★★★

One comment

  1. On the game being nearer to multi-player solitaire than interactive I’d disagree. A player who drives research on any given track forces other players to allow room in their factories for the return of that track. Players must also consider keeping pace, or ensure the ability to take starting player to be able to build the requisite technology stations. Building the factory is a puzzle driven by what others might do and a desire to thwart them.

    I agree that the number of tiles can slow down setting up, playing, and pack up. I’d strongly recommend anyone interested in the game to buy an organiser at the same time (even if the organiser costs as much as the game itself).

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