Our Smartphone Inc. Review
Game: Smartphone Inc.
Des: Ivan Lashin
Art: Viktor Miller Gausa
Pub: Cosmodrome Games
Have you ever learned a game expecting one thing and getting another? Some of my favorite games were ones I hated at first or declined to play for the longest time. But none so surprised me as Smartphone Inc.
This game tells the origin story of the spread of cell phone production companies spreading throughout the world. Of particular interest; the moment when those major regional companies started to have overlapping spheres of influence. Each of the 1-5 players takes on the role of one of these regional monopolies and gets initial control of that market and a special advancement that differentiates them from the other companies. The advancement is a domino-like tile with two square icons like apps. Players also get a pair of larger double-sided tiles. Players get the same tiles, but each pair is made of four unique sides of icons. [show picture of tiles]
These Decision tiles are the heart of the game. They are an ingenious way to process action point allocation. Each round all players simultaneously fiddle with their tiles until they get the mix of icons just right for what they want to accomplish that round. Each icon adds strength/progress to its matching action. Once all the players have made their Decision the rest of the phases are very quick as well, with only brief pauses before very acute piracy. The game only lasts five rounds, but like all good engine builders, you'd break the score track if you went another round.
What you do in those five rounds is all dependent on what sacrifices you're willing to make with those decision tiles. It is an engine builder, so you are able to get more actions; more small advancement tiles to play. But the icon to take that action is on the flip side of other powerful actions like developing technologies that not only give you economic advantages but because half of the market demands particular features no matter what the cost, your company would soon flounder if they ignored the demand. The other half of this games knockout combo is making turn order go in ascending phone cost. The tiles pretty much force you onto the line between producing a lot of cheap phones or a few expensive ones. But what really matters is if you can sell them! That is why the lower phones go first..all of them. Then the next lower company. So if your phones are too expensive, you may not sell that many at all. At first, this won't be much of a problem because players will be isolated from each other, but bit by bit they will put actions into encroaching on each other's territory. This is the last action, Logistics, that reveals the true nature of this deceptively mean euro.
The demand in this world is shown in each region by a track of red numbers and purple icons. The numbers increase from left to right and then the purple icons that match technologies continue from there. [show board closeup]
So first companies must sell to the red spaces that don't care what features the phone has as long as it isn't more than their limit price. Then they can sell to customers who want a certain feature at any cost (if they have researched that technology of course). The final corner of this foundation is the regional control and market share bonus. This is the area control mechanism that simulates the spread of the companies throughout the world and unveils this as a true wargame at heart. As you take logistics actions to spread HQs all over the world, you contribute to increasing the bonus for selling the most phones in that region (ties go to selling first, so again turn order really matters). If enough players are present in a region there can be a second-place bonus.
Since pretty much all of your points come from selling phones during the game it is supremely important to make sure you eek out every point which will fuel your expansionism because if you can get those majority boni with only a few sales in each region then it will make up for the low cost you had to set in order to secure the turn order priority to win the sales tiebreaker.
Ultimately the two reasons this game is not for me are one I can accept and one that makes me want to play it more ;p The easy answer is that it is just too in-your-face aggressive...or not. I can actually get into a lot of "take that" games where it is silly, short, universal. engine builders usually don't mesh with "take that" because I don't like having my engine destroyed (by someone else). This game you really don't have to get in someone's face. Even with lower player counts using the 'closed' regions give points and special one-time superpowers for building there, there is still room enough for everyone to sell all of their phones. But then it would just be an economic race, multiplayer solitaire. I guess some people like that sort of thing (hello). But that is not what a free market is about? NO! THIS. IS. CAPITALISM! In order to ensure your victory you are able, nay obliged, to ensure that your opponents sell as little of their phones as possible and muscle them out of their regions by increasing the market volume then flooding it with cheap phones to snag the monopoly bonus that you'd been nursing since round 1.
The more elusive reason is related to perceived dominant routes. I've only played twice and watched a handful of other games, but it seems from the design to favor bold concentrations of actions for decisive plays. This is due in large part to the short round count making it imperative that your actions show a return on investment ASAP. Thus if you invest progress in technologies or market share you don't want to leave those half finished so you can use the benefit that same round. The game really boils down to reading your opponent to try to stay one step ahead by setting prices low, or punting that and doubling down on technology and logistics. But then those last two get in each other's way too. Basically, not only do you need to worry about how much of each action are you doing to keep your production line profitable without the dreaded deadweight in the warehouse, but also maintaining the edge over your opponents in tech, markets, and price. It is a compelling puzzle, and one I know will be a big hit. But I think I can personally hold off on buying this one and just play friends' copies because I'm pretty sure I'd settle into a comfortable strategy after a few games. Especially since I will always be green which starts in the middle of the board, surrounded by "friends".