SdJ Re-Reviews #9: Auf Achse

  • Designer:  Wolfgang Kramer
  • Publisher:  FX Schmid, Ravensburger, Schmidt Spiele
  • Players:  2 – 6
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  60 Minutes
  • Times Played:  >5

Auf Achse

Auf Achse: The back-to-back win that made Wolfgang Kramer a star…

Wolfgang Kramer had loved playing with trucks as a child, so in the early 1980s he started thinking about designing a game featuring them.  After looking at games available in the marketplace, he realized that there were few games featuring logistics (what we today call “pick-up and deliver”) that used anything other than trains.  At around this time, ASA Publishing asked Kramer to design a promotional game for a shipping company, and he agreed.  Kramer had a prototype in 1981 or 1982, and the first iteration of Auf Achse was released in 1982 as “Das Große Logistik-Spiel.”  He reworked the game in 1985-86, and Auf Achse was released in 1987 by FX Schmid.

In awarding Auf Achse the 1987 SdJ, the jury cited the game’s approachability, clearly written rules, and component quality.  Wolfgang Kramer’s 1987 SdJ win made him Germany’s first game design star.  He was the SdJ’s first back-to-back winner, and both of his winning games had sold extremely well.  Kramer told me he was surprised beyond measure to win twice in a row.  He also mentioned that, until the award, he hadn’t anticipated how well Auf Achse would be received by casual gamers.  

Auf Achse, which roughly translates to “On the Road,” is arguably the only SdJ winner to have never received an English language release.  I asked Wolfgang Kramer why that was the case, and he indicated that he had indeed developed a similar game called “Trucker” in the late 1980s for release in the United States.  After more than a year of consideration, Hasbro rejected it, although one of their employees, Mike Gray, had pushed for it.  Given that Auf Achse has gone on to sell more than 900,000 copies in only German-speaking countries, it seems like Hasbro might have missed out on a lucrative opportunity, to say the least.

Today, in a post-Catan world, it would be unheard of for a SdJ winner to not be released in other markets (absent intellectual property issues).  But in the early years of the SdJ, despite the award’s significance in Germany, it did not appear to carry much weight internationally.  Not only did Auf Achse not receive an English-language release, neither did 1992’s Um Reifenbreite.  (That point is debatable for Um Reifenbreite: that game re-implements Homas Tour, which was first released in a multilingual edition which included English instructions.)

Auf Achse has been in print continuously since its first edition.  Ravensburger picked up the game when FX Schmid had financial difficulties in the 1990s.  When Ravensburger balked at continuing to print the game around 2007, Schmidt Spiele picked it up.  The most recent Schmidt gave the game a facelift and modified a couple of rules, as described below.

Auf Achse is the first SdJ winner to see the release of a related card game.  Today it is not unusual to see a card game version of the Spiel winners and other popular games (for example: Keltis, Ticket to Ride, Alhambra, Elfenland, Catan, and Cafe International all have related card games), but back when Auf Achse: Das Kartenspiel was released in 1994-95, it was a new phenomenon.  (I haven’t played the Auf Achse card game, but reportedly it shares little with its namesake.)  Auf Achse also inspired 1992’s Auf Achse Junior.

Kramer left his day job in 1989 to become Germany’s first full-time game designer.  After Auf Achse, he received a series of SdJ nominations (Forum Romanum in 1988, Midnight Party in 1989, Tabaijana: Flucht von der Feuerinsel in 1990, and 6 nimmt! in 1994), but he wouldn’t win again until 1996’s El Grande.  He did have success with other awards though: he won the Kinderspiel des Jahres in 1991 for Piraten-Abenteuer and then the Deutscher Spiele Preis in 1994 for 6 nimmt!.

The Gameplay: Pickup and Deliver with Trucks

This review will focus on the Schmidt Spiele revised edition, as I think that is the version most likely to appeal to modern gamers, but I’ll point out the differences between the rule sets in the review below.  Since Auf Achse has not been published in English, I recommend use of the following files: this translation of the rules, and this helpful crib sheet.

The goal of the game is to complete transportation contracts to earn money.  The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

Each player starts with 5,000 € and selects a color of truck.  Each player is dealt three contracts, and after looking at them they place their trucks on the board.  A player is permitted – and indeed should – start in the city on one of his contracts.  (In the previous edition, players couldn’t start in cities.)  A draw pile of contracts for procurement is placed face down next to the gameboard; the number of contracts in the draw pile (and thus the length of the game) varies with the number of players.  There are 12 contracts face down for 2 players, 16 for 3 players, 20 for 4 players, and 24 for 5-6 players.

Auf Achse Map

The start player is the person to have driven the longest route this month.  That player rolls both dice and then chooses one of the dice to represent how far he can move.  (In the old edition, only one dice was rolled.)  A player must move the full value of the pips on the chosen dice unless he (a) reaches a traffic jam or construction sign or (b) he reaches the starting or ending city on one of his contracts, in which case he may forfeit the remaining dice pips.  A player may move across the same space as another player, but he may not stop there unless it is a city space.  If a player rolls a 6, he may move any value from 1 to 6.

If the player lands on an event space (marked with the red and white triangles), he draws an event card and, if appropriate, carries out its action.  Most event cards are positive, though a few are negative.  (In the previous version of the game there was more of an even balance between positive and negative event cards.)  In the event that an event card cannot be paid for, the player must keep it until he can pay double the amount due.

Each contract shows a starting city and a destination city.  It also shows the number of goods that must be transported, the value of completing the contract, and the costs of procuring the contract.  To initiate a contract, a player must land in the city shown as the start city.  He then places the contract face up on the table and loads the goods if he has room (if not, then the contract doesn’t initiate).  The player’s turn ends once the goods are loaded.

Auf Achse Components

A player doesn’t need to go straight to the destination city on subsequent turns: he may make other trips along the way.  Once the requisite goods reach the destination city, they are unloaded and the player receives his payout.  The completed card is removed from the game.

To increase the carrying capacity of trucks, a player may purchase trailers on his turn.  Trailers increasing capacity by 4 or 6 goods cost 2,000 € or 3,000 €, respectively.  Trailers may be sold at any point for 500 €, and they are worthless at the end of the game, so they should be sold before then.  (In the previous edition of the game trailers could not be sold.)

Transportation contracts may be auctioned off when a player arrives in any city by exact count.  That player may put one of the four face up contracts up for auction; if he chooses not to, the oldest contract is discarded.  (In the previous edition, all contracts had to be purchased, which lengthened the game.)  Bidding starts with the player to his left, and it must be in the increments shown on the contract card.  (The column on the far right shows the profit for each bid.)  The player who started the bidding is at an advantage, as he may bid the same level as the previous bidder and still win, but otherwise players must beat the previous bid.  Once the bidding is done the winner spends the money to procure the contract, the other contracts are slid down, and a new contract is placed.  If no other player bids, the player who selected the contract gets it at no cost.  If a player buys a contract for a city he is already in, he may immediately load goods if there is capacity.

The game ends when there are no more contracts to be procured and one player has completed all of his contracts.  At that point money is counted and whoever has the most wins.

There are a few other rules changes between the Schmidt Spiele edition and the older editions.  The map is slightly different; a ferry was added.  There are two additional job cards, and the manual has been streamlined.  For a complete list of differences between the old and new rules, see this write-up by Kramer himself.

Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game.

I’m a sucker for pickup and deliver, and Wolfgang Kramer is one of my favorite game designers, so I was very excited to try Auf Achse.  It didn’t disappoint.

I had previously read that the game felt dated.  That might be the case with the older edition: I’ve only played it once, and it did have some quirks, particularly on the event cards.  But the Schmidt Spiele update has made the game feel like a new, back-to-the-basics entry into the pick-up and deliver genre.  The artwork is striking (disregard my poor photography: the game is very colorful), and the component quality is decent, particularly for the price.

Unlike most pick-up and deliver games, Auf Achse is very approachable.  The rules can be taught in less than three minutes, and new players seem to understand the game with ease.  Nonetheless, the game has strategic depth, and careful planning of routes is rewarded.

The auction mechanism enhances the strategic experience.  Players must bid carefully, and bidding in this game is quite the balancing act.  One one hand there is a temptation to drive up the price of the contracts, especially ones that are important to your opponent.  (“I can’t let him have that!  He’s already in the starting city!”)  On the other hand there’s the risk of paying for a contract that would be difficult to complete yourself.  I particularly liked the use of fixed intervals for bidding.  It speeds up the game, and it adds tension to the bidding process.  (I wish more games would use fixed interval bidding.)

There is some randomness in the game, particularly from the event cards and the dice rolls (although picking from two dice mitigates that).  But in my experience, luck generally doesn’t have a heavy influence on the outcome: rather, victory in this game comes down to how well you bid and how well you plan your routes.

Gameplay is fast.  I think the only time I’ve had the game go 60 minutes was with four or five players.  Unlike other pick-up and deliver games, Auf Achse one doesn’t seem to cause analysis paralysis. There is downtime between turns if there isn’t an auction, which can be used for planning.

That downtown between turns brings me to my biggest complaint about Auf Achse: outside of the auction, player interactivity is very low.  Though the game generally scales well, I think it is best with three players.  Three provides a good balance of making the auction interesting and also limiting downtime.

Is this game for everybody?  As is always the case, no.  It is a lighter game, and some gamers may not appreciate the game’s random elements.  But I think Auf Achse has broad appeal, and it has been successful when I’ve pulled it out.  I think it is an excellent gateway to the pick-up and deliver genre, and I think it is one of the finer SdJ winners of the 1980s.

I’ve rated Auf Achse as a “like” below.  That rating applies to both versions of the game, although with the Schmidt Spiele edition I’m very close to saying I love it.

Would it win the SdJ today?  Possibly.  There aren’t many entries in the pick-up and deliver genre that are this approachable.  This game is family-friendly, strategic, original, and well-produced, all characteristics that the SdJ appreciates.  I’m not saying Auf Achse would be a shoo-in for a nomination, but I think it would have a respectable chance.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: I have the original version but we use the version 2 rules, which improves the game. It’s a light pick up and deliver game where the delivery contracts are auctioned or discarded at the behest of the other players as they move around the locations. Getting lucky (ie contracts appearing in the draft that tie in with your route which aren’t discarded before you can auction them, when no one else wants them) appears to be the main result determinant, but it’s still an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour. Mechanics wise, the genre has moved on (for example, Valdora does a lot of clever things), but strong theming earns brownie points, and often saves the day for these type of old-school games.

Greg Schloesser.  I am a self-admitted Wolfgang Kramer groupie, so it pains me to say that Auf Achse didn’t hold up well over time.  I vividly remember my first playing of the game back in the late 90s.  I was enthralled and immediately purchased a copy.  I enjoyed the first few playings, but my enthusiasm gradually waned.  It also never seemed to go over well with those with whom I played.  After sitting on my shelf un-played for years, I revisited the game several times a few years back and found it average at best.  There have been so many better “pick-up and deliver” games that have been released in the intervening years.  My copy has long since been sold.

Mark Jackson: My response is almost identical to Greg’s… though I would like to try the new edition.

I will say that I would rather play Auf Achse than another zombie game.

Joe Huber (>18 plays): Auf Achse was one of the first German games I traded for, back in 1995.  But unlike the other games that I received then (Kuhhandel and Quo Vadis), Auf Achse has held up for me.  This continues to be a game I really enjoy playing – and one of the handful of games my wife is willing to play, as well.  I’ll also note – all of my plays are of the original 1980s edition.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Joe H.
  • I like it. Chris W., Jonathan F.
  • Neutral. Patrick B., Erik A., Greg Schloesser, Mark Jackson
  • Not for me…
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3 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #9: Auf Achse

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    Once again, a great article on the background of the game!
    I’m a fan of logistics games, too, as I used to play crayon rail games with a group of friends. Those can take an hour per player, however, and have practically no interaction.
    I picked up the original of this game for a couple Euros at a flea market awhile ago, but have yet to play it.

    Greg and Mark: what would be your “gateway” logistics game of choice? Patrick mentions Valdora.

    • Hey, Jeff! Without surveying my collection and the various databases, Cinque Terre comes to mind. I have found this easy to explain and folks tend to enjoy it.

      • jeffinberlin says:

        Thanks, Greg. That one’s not available over here yet, unfortunately, so I’m not sure when I’ll get to check it out. Someday, I hope to design the type of gateway logistic game I’ve always dreamt of.

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