There are many things that irritate sophisticated board game players, especially those who lead a game — explaining the rules, sometimes helping the less experienced, and so on. The biggest sin, however, is when players do not listen to the rules or do not follow the game, but instead stick into their smartphones and then have questions over and over again about what has already been explained. In these moments, I am sure, many people want to do terrible things with the offender, but I, as a more humane person, dream of just shooting them.
However, the game I’m going to talk about today, not only does not show intolerance for small screen lovers, but even encourages “staring at smartphones”. And it isn’t even one of the newly fashionable board games with phone applications. It’s just a game about smartphones, or rather, about their manufacturing and sales. The novel theme, however, is not the only thing worth mentioning about this game – this is yet another game by a Russian author, which is attempting to make its way to success on the western market.
I heard about the game “Smartphone Inc” from the general discussions at IgroCon(the biggest annual Russian board game convention) and at first I was not particularly impressed by its appearance, or its theme. When my friends went to Essen, I asked them to bring me a copy of First Contact from the Cosmodrome Games stand, as it seemed more interesting to me. When they were already there and it turned out there were spare funds left, I gave them the nod to buy “Smartphone Inc”. I thought one way or another, it cannot hurt, as a game by a Russian publisher rarely comes into my hands. If it is good – I will praise, if it is bad – I will just keep silent (do not drown your own). Despite the fact that various friends in the social networks praised the game very actively, I was skeptical about it all, and even after watching the streaming of the game on the BoardGame Community channel I shared my opinion to the author Ivan Lashin in the chat that the game seemed to me a bit dry(I had to apologize later). When the game was brought from Essen, I was not going to play it right away, but it just so happened that a few friends and I decided to gather together and try different games from Essen. I brought mine, and after the incredible success of First Contact, we decided to try the second Russian game. About the results a little later, first I will explain what the game is about.
In the game, each player is the head of one of five corporations involved in the production of smartphones. The goal of each player is to manufacture a product and sell it as profitably as possible, taking into account the specifics of the market. The market is represented by 12 world regions, five of which are starting positions for the players – their initial office is located there and they will try to spread their influence and seize world markets from there. Each region has connections with several other regions (from 2 to 4) and certain preferences for products that the population is ready to buy – either based on price categories or desired technologies. In addition to the office in their own region, each player receives a set of components: cubes – representing units of production, houses – company offices, ladders – tokens of technology development or influence in the regions, as well as a set of two smartphone pads and one mini-pad, unique to each corporation.
The game is played in 5 rounds, each of which has 8 phases. Each phase is a fiscal year. And each fiscal year that ends in profit results in victory points. At the end of the game, the one who generates the most profit is the winner.
The first phase is the main game and takes the most time. All other phases are just the implementations of plans drawn up in the first phase. This is called the planning phase. At the heart of this phase is a puzzle that you will need to solve from your Smartphone and Improvements pads. Smartphone pads are bilateral and each side is divided into 6 cells. Improvements, for their part, have two cells on one side, and their reverse side is inactive. Smartphone pad cells can be empty or contain a character, and improvement cells always have a character on them and can never be empty. The goal of the player is to build a plan for their move by overlaying one smartphone pad on another, overlapping from 1 to 4 cells of the pad. All cells that are visible as a result of this action will be considered active this turn, and all closed ones will produce units of production. Cell symbols correspond to the phase in which they will be used — price change, manufacturing, improvements purchase, technology development, and logistics. Mini-pads can also be superimposed on smartphones tablets, but they are limited by the fact that they cannot go beyond the borders of smartphone pads and the cells that they cover do not bring additional products. As already said, this is the main phase in the game and is in fact the longest, since it is very difficult to decide what you want to do and plan it out on the pads. Everything comes down to choosing to sacrifice some actions in favor of strengthening others, and this choice is not an easy one. During this period, different strategies are drawn up and it is even possible that the round determines player’s course of action for future rounds. In all five games I’ve played up to this point, during this stage my brain was literally boiling. And with each round it becomes more difficult, as the number of improvements increases, as well as the needs of the company for production or development. As ur brothers, the westerners say: “Choices! Choices! ”
The second phase is the pricing phase. At the beginning of each round, the price of the products of each company is set at 5 financial units. Due to the plan that the player has drawn up in the first phase, this price changes up or down between 2 and 8. The price is affected by the price change symbols that remain open as a result of the planning phase. On one hand, it is obviously good that your products would be more expensive and you would get more profit, but on the other hand, there is a tricky system of gambits in the game in almost any phase. In this case, the difficult choice stems from the fact that from the third phase onwards the order of the players will be determined by the price of their products. Players with the cheapest products will be the first to act. And further down I will mention why this is so important.
The third is the Production phase, in which players take from their pool as many product cubes(these are all visible symbols of production) as produced according to the plan, as well as the cells of the smartphone pads hidden by other pads. Also, players receive one unit of production from each mini-pad of improvements that were not used in the development of the plan. These products will have to be traded by the player in the world markets.
In the fourth phase of Production Improvement, players, starting from the one whose price is the lowest, choose new improvements from the market. For this, however, an appropriate icon should be present in their plan. This is a unique icon in its own way – in your plan it will either be one or none. If the icon is present, you will take a full improvement, if not – then you will take a tile, which in the future will simply give you an additional unit of production. One way or the other, no one will be disappointed. And this phase is meaningless in the last round, since you will not have time to use the tablet that you purchased in it.
The fifth stage. Technological. In this phase, you count the technological development icons in your plan and you can distribute the development points between the six available technologies: GPS, Wi-Fi, Gamepad, lithium-ion batteries, NFC (whatever it is) and 4G. Each technology gives you a permanent or temporary effect when you open it, and allows you to meet the demands of consumers of smartphones with a particular technology. The first player who invests enough in technology not only gains its advantages, but also a patent for a technology that will bring some extra victory points at the end of the game. But the rest of the players will need to invest less per unit of technology.
The sixth part consists of fluent movements from regions in which you already have offices, to regions in which you do not have any. This mechanic works like technology – you accumulate development tokens in the neighboring region equal to the number of logistics icons in your plan. When the accumulated tokens reach a certain amount, you will replace them with an office token, and from now on you can sell your products in this region. In this stage, you are planning on how to compete with other players, since the number of goods that can be sold in a single region is limited.
In the seventh chapter of this commercial epic you reach the essence of the game – Sales. Starting with the player with the lowest prices, you distribute the production cubes, gained in the third phase to regions where you have offices. Each region has several slots for locating products and each cell has its product requirements – a maximum price or a specific technology. A player can only fill the slots whose requirements his products meet. Here the sequence of the turn can sometimes become crucial. Especially if the interests of several companies collide in one region. A company with advanced technologies and a low price may simply occupy all the slots, and not leave any chances for a company with higher prices to sell its products in this region. If you operate only in regions in which other companies are present, then it would be better for you to not raise the price too much, as it may turn out that you don’t have enough time to sell your products, as the other players will overpower the market before it’s your turn.
In the last phase, you get what you deserve. You multiply the number of cubes that you manage to place on the market by your product price. You also add a few extra points if your products dominate in certain regions.
In this way you go through 5 financial cycles, adding on points from the patents to the final result, and identify the winner.
Let us turn to my personal impressions. I have already mentioned that I had to apologize to the author of the game, and I am ready to do it again. The game really looks elementary, the design is also purely schematic, although very convenient and thematic. But… IT’S A TRAP! Do not believe any of the first thoughts that come to your mind when you first see this game. It will jump out from around the corner and devour your brain. Run fools! Just kidding. The game really turned out to be much more complex than I expected. With fairly simple mechanics, the game is very demanding in terms of strategic planning on many levels – how to expand your network, what price to set, how to assemble your pads. All this, and especially the puzzle with the pad, will make you seriously sweat (of course, if the other players are also seriously intent about winning). I literally felt my neurons burn while trying to collect 4 icons of technology, while trying not to abandon logistics and production. But what a moment of internal satisfaction, when the puzzle is finally assembled! A truly incredible feeling. This is a purely solo experience in the game, which in the last rounds becomes simply a vicious competition. No mercy – occupy all the places where opponents could put their cubes of production, so that their smartphones would rot in warehouses, muhahaha (what a nightmare, while writing this, I wanted to play so much that I thought about trying out the solo version).
So my position, I think, is clear. I like the game a lot, and so do many others who I’ve played with. You can accuse me of paid advertising (which, of course, is laughable), but I can’t help but admit that Cosmodrome are on fire – First Contact and now this. I will not say that this is a game for everyone – some may not be interested in the topic, others will encounter too much tension or conflict, and some will say that the game is too simple for their taste. The last of these (like me) I would advise not to jump to conclusions and give the game a try first.
A little bird also told me that Ivan Lashin has other projects in the works, so I can only hope that they will just as well make me proud of the Russian developers.
Designer Ivan Lashin
Artist Viktor Miller Gausa