Jonathan Degann – Review of Kanban: Automotive Revolution (Stronghold)

Design by Vital Lacerda

Published by Stronghold Games

2-4 Players  30 minutes per player (conservative)

Review by Jonathan Degann

Times played: 4

kanban box cover

Vital Lacerda’s latest game “Kanban: Automotive Revolution” puts players into a car factory where they’ll need to acquire plans and parts, get them onto the production line, and display their tested designs to impress the boss.  In this game, the boss actually has a name: “Sandra”, and players can choose to play with nice Sandra or mean Sandra, depending on whether they’d rather chase after rewards or avoid punishments.

Lacerda’s prior two games “Vinhos” and “CO2” were both gamers’ games with highly original themes.  “Vinhos” was not just about producing wine, it was about producing Portuguese wine. It was so embedded with theme that players not only had to deal with weather, aging, and the capricious tastes of vine reviewers, but players needed to decide which of Portugal’s nine wine regions their fare came from, and each one imparted different costs and benefits.  “Kanban: Automotive Revolution” is also complex and knotted with theme, while it still clearly maintains a Eurogame flavor.

FactoryIt is a worker placement game in which there are four functioning parts of the factory a player may visit to accomplish the basic goals of the game.  In the Design Department, a player can take designs for one of the five styles of cars.  In Logistics, he is taking any of six different components – from frame to brakes.  On the Assembly Line (see left diagram), he is pushing cars along a conveyor belt to production.  Finally, this pays off in the Testing and Innovation department, where he can use his accumulated designs to claim one or two of the newly produced cars, or else combine a design with a part to create an Upgraded Design.  In addition, there is the Administration office which is sort of a wild card.  A player who goes here can take the action of any of the other locations – but he’ll go last in order and will have fewer action points, here called “shifts”, to get things done.

The worker placement mechanism here is original and effective.  The five rooms described above each have room for only two workers.  One of the two spaces goes earlier; the other one gets more shifts.  They are executed each turn in a particular order: Testing, worker placementAssembly, Logistics, Design, and Administration.  The wrinkle is that each player has just one worker and they are not all removed at the beginning of each new turn, but rather each one is removed and replaced in order.  So with Design toward the end, if you got shut out of Design last time because both locations were taken, and instead went to Logistics, you’ll find that when it comes to your turn, you still can’t go to Design because those workers have not moved out yet.  The worker placement rules, so simple, cascade with interlocking consequences of the sort that make gamers salivate with eagerness to play again.

Although there are just four general places to go, they combine in ways that contain much interaction.  The designs come in five types (mini car, sports car, eg. distinguished by color) and any design might require a particular type of part to be upgraded.  When pushing cars down the assembly line, players must contribute a part, and as the game proceeds, often there may only be one or two permitted types of parts to be contributed for any given type of car.  Then as they get pushed off, two specified types will earn special rewards, further complicating a player’s choice and plans.  When he attempts to claim the car in the Testing and Innovation department, he’ll need the right type of design, and other players may jockey ahead to snatch it away – if they have the appropriate design.  All holdings in this game are open, so there’s no need to memorize what others have been acquiring.

training trackA Vital Lacerda game can be counted upon to have layers upon layers.  When visiting any of the five rooms, one may spend his shifts toward the normal actions or toward “learning”, which just involves moving a disk in that room up along a learning track.  As you reach the third level in any given room, you become “certified” in that specialty, which gives you a little more freedom there in the future.  Collecting certifications will also help your turn order in any of the following “meetings” where you’ll be competing to earn significant points.  They can also help you earn Sandra’s favor.  In addition to each player having a worker, there is a pink one to represent your boss, who moves to the next open room when it’s her turn.  She’ll block other players and perform some administrative actions (like clearing out tiles that have been languishing).  Then, if you’ve chosen to have Sandra in a “nice” mood, she may reward the players who are furthest up the learning track in that room with bonus points, and if she’s in a surly mood, she’ll penalize the players who are lagging.  This puts pressure on players to spend their shifts on things *other than* the primary action available in the room, but at a cost.  Each room has its own unique benefit for reaching the certification level, and this does start to create some mental clutter for players learning the game – or even playing it for the second or third time.

The game is not just a point salad – it is a virtual salvage yard of victory point opportunities.  You get points for pushing cars, for taking cars, for upgrading cars, and for meeting the right criteria when Sandra visits a room – and these aren’t even the primary sources of points.  The most critical opportunities for mid-game scoring occur during one of the (typically) three meetings that Sandra will hold.  Players then have an opportunity to show off in front of Sandra by meeting various criteria that appear on the four cards in the meeting room, and on one of their “pet projects”.  Depending on the cards showing, points production goal with chairmight be awarded for producing red cars – or lots of different styles of cars, or for having the “logistics” certification – or as many certifications as possible…  Furthermore, your ability to show off depends on how many “seats” you’ve amassed for the meeting.  Each one allows you to score on a single card, so you’ll need to simultaneously collect as many seats as practical, while also making sure that you’re working to fulfill the conditions that Sandra is watching out for.  Then at game end… there is another knot of scoring opportunities based on the combinations of cars and matching upgraded designs you’ve collected.  In my experience, this is what throws most new players off as there is nothing intuitive about what you’re trying to achieve.  The designer has an explanation of what it means in relation to the theme – but it is just not a goal which naturally follows from the game mechanics.

The designer and publisher have taken a chance with the style of the rule book.  Rather than writing a dry instruction manual, the rules are written from the perspective of Sandra, who is explaining what you need to do on the job.  It’s creative and it’s colorful and it’s fatally confusing.

“For theKanban Sandra very first Department Selection Phase, in which we enter the factory, I will go to my desk in administration… after that, the order in which we choose our workstations is left-to-right…”  Some rules are presented in a more straightforward manner, while there are also sidebars in Sandra’s voice advising you on what is important.  The bottom line is that I found my eyes glazing over each of the first three times I tried reading the manual (admittedly, without possessing the game) and only learned it once taught.  Many other players have expressed difficulty with the manual, and the designer graciously created a detailed “how to play” list on boardgamegeek available at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/174869/kanban-how-play-list

Indeed, both the designer Vital Lacerda and developer Paul Incao show themselves to be exceptionally committed to making the game a success and supporting the enjoyment of players.  They have, for example, invited players to contact them directly through boardgamegeek with questions that come up while playing the game and seem committed to a real-time turnaround when possible.  The game is not extraordinarily complex, and in play it moves along nicely.   Few moves seem to take too long and most have straightforward implications.  The game is not puzzly nor prone to Analysis Paralysis.  If you find that a player is engaging in AP, I recommend a house rule that Sandra fire the offender on the spot.  Even the “nice” Sandra has her limits.  Be sure to keep a cardboard box nearby so he can pack his desk.  However, the rules have sufficient small points that, four games in, I’m still discovering rules I’ve played incorrectly.  Fortunately, these are small points, and in no case have I felt that the game was ruined due to incorrect play.  If you like, think of your first play as “the basic game” and then all the rules you learn along the way as “free expansions.”

Naomi Robinson and the designer Vital Lacerda have created the graphics which are generally vivid, filled with flavor, and do their best to illustrate function.  Generally, they succeed very well.  Cards which illustrate goals rarely need an explanation.  Once the game gets moving, each section of the board does a good job of speaking for itself.  But again – what a hurdle to first leap.  The game board is so busy that when it was first laid out in front of me and a friend who also enjoys heavy games, we both burst in to laughter, realizing that this game was going to be crazy complicated.  Yet, I think it is busy because there is a lot going on, not because it is poorly laid out.

Kanban boardI and my fellow players have always had fun playing Kanban: Automotive Revolution.  As stated above, it moves briskly typically with moderate length turns which offer a very broad spectrum of competing objectives.  There is lots of player interaction.  You’ll be jockeying for position with Sandra in the meetings; you’ll be choosing your worker placement both with an eye to gaining position, blocking others, and to setting yourself up so that others won’t foil your future plans.  While the game is littered with different ways to score points, this does at least mean that every action has multiple ways to move you toward both short and long term objectives.  The learning curve to get started may be challenging, but so are the opportunities to tease out new tactics with each successive play.  If you like meaty games, expect to be picking your teeth for a long time.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (1 play): Somewhere along the way, it became popular to design worker placement games – even when, as here, that mechanism doesn’t really (or really doesn’t) fit the game.  For those who aren’t too bothered by the disconnect – if you don’t mind suspending disbelief that you can’t find blueprints for a car, because two folks are in the blueprint office (even if they got there _last_ _round_), this might well be a game for you.  Once we got through the rules – by having an experienced player explain the game, as the rules are not particularly coherent – there were lots of interesting ways to manipulate the system, and (somewhat to my surprise) the game fit together reasonably well.  But for me, that wasn’t really enough.  The player who best manipulated the system won, but I never felt like I was making cars, or driving the development of cars – or doing anything more than trying to make the system work for me.  Because it did all work together reasonably well, I would play the game again, at least with experienced players – but I haven’t sought out a second play so far.

Ben McJunkin (1.5 plays): I learned KanBan at a convention.  Initially, I was taught by someone who had read the rulebook, but who had never played the game.  The game’s setup and rules explanation in that environment took well over an hour alone.  We played a few rounds that seemed to drag on, with additional rules questions cropping up along the way, and before long it was after midnight and no one had the stamina to finish the game.  A day or two later, I had another opportunity to play with a table that had all played the game before.  I saw the system being operated as it was intended to be and I thought it was a very solid design.  In my eyes, there’s not enough dynamic player interaction (as Joe notes, it is very much a game of engaging with a constructed system first and foremost).  And even with experienced tables, the game ran longer than I would have liked.  But I was happy with the experience and would not object to playing it again if others were so inclined.

I Love It:

I Like It: Jonathan D. (Like it a lot); Ben McJ.

Neutral: Joe H.
Not for me:

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2 Responses to Jonathan Degann – Review of Kanban: Automotive Revolution (Stronghold)

  1. Every time I see a picture of that board I think about spreadsheets.

  2. I also reacted with laughter during the rules explanation. I enjoyed many of the mechanisms, but I didn’t feel like they carried the theme very well. I was left thinking, “Well, I survived that, but I don’t think I will play it again.” After a few weeks though, I think I might be ready to give it another try.

    Nice review, Jonathan!

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