Spice it up with Smartphone Inc.

Imagine a world before internet connectivity in your hands, without time sink game apps, and before GroupMe and Discord notifications blew up your phone. What if you could have foreseen that future? What if you had just enough capital and corporate know how to hire the best engineers to create a device that would take the world by storm over the next thirty years? Would you?

Of course you would, fellow board gamers, and that’s the promise of Smartphone Inc. Does your game group like light economic games like Stockpile? Does your game night need a light mix of engine building with area majority mechanics wrapped up in technobubble packaging? Well, spice it up with Smartphone Inc!

Smartphone Inc. is a 2018 release from Cosmodrome Games, designed by Ivan Lashin with art by Viktor Miller Gausa. It plays from one to five players in about sixty to ninety minutes, and is being published in the United States by Arcane Wonders. Cosmodrome Games provided us with a review copy of the original release, but note that there a revised edition that is coming out in a publishing deal with Arcane Wonders.

Take the route building of Ticket to Ride, and the area majority of El Grande, mash them together with a light dusting of cut throat game play with a technologically enhanced smile, and you’ll have a good idea of what you are getting into with this game.

PRESENTATION:

In the copy we were sent, the first thing that we noticed was the giant game board with impressive layers built in to hold the area majority, network and upgrade markers for each player in both the map of the world as well as the tech improvements on the bottom of the board. In addition, there are slots at the top that hold the round marker (although curiously not for the turn sequence). The current craze of recessed player boards has been a welcome upgrade to most games, but here, it is extended to important playing areas of the board, and it works well.

Each player is assigned one of five iPhone shaped boxes that hold all of your playing pieces. The pieces themselves in the version we played are all translucent plastic in the shape of cubes, office buildings and “steps” (like the ones that you see when searching for a signal on your phone). I am hearing rumors that some of these components may change in future releases to something a little bit more distinctive and sturdy. (Check the Kickstarter page for more info.)

The channels inside the player boxes were supposed to fit the different sized pieces. We didn’t. We found the box channels to be a bit unwieldy and we dumped that issue right away by just pulling the pieces out of the box as needed. (I hear that this also is being fixed in the new edition.)

Finally, there’s lots of cardboard — cardboard tokens representing the different actions you can add to your company and tokens representing the tech upgrades you can purchase during the game. Everything is nice and sturdy as can be, an otherwise good production.

The artwork on the box and on the player screens is functional and stylish. This game is more about the production value than the art, however. Everything from the rule book to the player boards screams early iPhone technology, and really puts you in the frame of mind of being rival tech giants. At first, I was a little put off by the color choices on the game board itself, but once you learn the rhythm of the game, the various colors really help to move the game along.

I was not happy with the translation and production of the first rulebook. Sure the rulebook is beautiful, and looks like a tech manual from the early 00s. But, some of the wording on the rules had players all over BGG and in the Gumbo confused about some of the rules. Rumor has it that this is being tightened up for the new edition.

GAMEPLAY:

Smartphone Inc. is one of those deceptively simple games. On the table, some of your friends’ eyes may glaze a bit at all of the spots on the board and the bright colors that demarcate each section, thinking the game may be more complex than it really is. Forget about what it looks like, this is not a complicated 18xx stock simulation game. All of these colors really do serve a purpose in helping to teach and move the game along. The game can nearly be taught just from the turn sequence at the top of the board, which is color coded for each section that you will use.

A quick overview: players are the CEOs of rival cell phone companies just before tech took over the planet. Grow your networks, upgrade your phones, and dominate your markets quicker and better than the other players, and the consumers will reward you with more dollars than any other player. Players have only five complete rounds to score the most points (i.e. dollars) to win.

Much of the game can be played simultaneously, including one of the first parts when players decide what actions to take this round. Players will first take two unique player boards behind a hidden screen, and configure them to take actions. Picture the face of an iPhone, with the neat rows and columns of apps. The game gives each player two of those, and each one contains “apps” or little icons representing the actions you can do on your turn. Players will place those app boards on top of each other in a such a way that every app that is not covered up by the other board will be the actions you can take on your round.

The first thing that will do is determine what price you are selling your phones this round. Do you geaux low to undercut the competition, be available in more markets, and sell tons of phones? Or is it time to jack up the price, knowing your phones are technologically better than everyone else’s phones and make more per phone? That’s your call, and right off the bat, one of the juicy decisions in the game.

Next, players will gather the goods — basically the cell phone units that they can sell that turn. Again, it is based on the number of those icons that you show, with some bonuses you can earn. After goods are distributed, players will buy more company upgrades (i.e. more app boards for your player boards) and begin developing their tech. Each game has six unique tech upgrades, things like “wifi” or “4G wireless”. Invest in the tech using the amount you are given by the apps you showed on your player board, and if you have enough, you not only get the tech but a nice little scoring bonus, too. Of course, the first person to take any tech makes it just a little bit cheaper for the rest of the players, so that is a consideration.

Finally, players will grow out their networks, trying to establish markets in countries around the globe, and sell the units they produced at those markets according to the price and the features they want. Gather up those dollars, and refigure the starting position based on the relative money positions, and it is time to start another round.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Smartphone Inc. was the talk of Dice Tower Con 2019. It had a reputation among the people I talked to at the con for quick pace of play, once you have the rules down pat, that made the game very breezy to teach and play. That was the impression I got from talking to con goers there. Unfortunately, I could never find an open seat at the table as it was pretty full every time I got out of my booth duties.

We received a review copy through Punchboard Media, and I’m happy to say that my early impression from afar held up on close examination. I’ve played every play count from two to five (sorry, never got a chance to try the solo version.) Sure, the first couple of plays we got a major rule wrong — we assumed based on an incorrect review of the rules that players always had to meet the minimum price of a country before hitting the tech upgrades to sell your phones — but we got that straightened out with a dive into the BGG forums and, surprisingly, a quick watch of Tom Vasel’s review and overview.

With that straightened out, we dove into a five player game play right away. This game hums at that play count, and for my money, is so much better than playing with lesser play counts. Here’s why. If you are playing less than five, in the current edition, players must use cardboard strips to close out certain markets for sale. You can still establish a network office there, but only for end game scoring, not for selling your wares. The designer has noted that it was a design idea to tighten up the board for two and three player counts.

But our groups were not a fan. The tension of finding new markets and competing for those sales is just too delicious to be given up to shrink the board. Instead, it is my understanding that the designer is going with a double sided board (as seen in the Kickstarter page), where the back half will feature a smaller, tighter board for smaller play counts. Kudos to Cosmodrome Games for listening to feedback from players!

That quibble out of the way, let’s talk turkey about the game play. This game hits on all the things I love about a good thematic euro experience. You have to constantly keep an eye on what other players are doing — where are they growing their networks? What price did they set last round, and what do I think they will set this round? Who is racing to get the 4G upgrade? Turn order can really be key in hitting the markets, but to move earlier, you have to lower your price. Can you really afford to drop one more dollar per unit? All of these questions matter, and come into play every time you move on to the next phase of the turn.

But maybe my favorite part of the game was the spatial puzzle of taking your two iPad playing boards, staring at the apps on the front and back, and trying desperately to put them together to maximize all of the actions you wanted to take on your turn. Add in the fact that each round you get additional apps (if you pay for that upgrade), and that hiding some of the apps from view lets you sell more cell phones that round, all while doing this behind the player screen and wondering what prices other players will end up selling their phones. Holy cell service, Batman! That’s a lot of crunchilly juice producing decisions, with a good helping of Zatarain’s seasoning on top!

Some games just hit on all cylinders, and Smartphone Inc. is one of those titles. Had I played it in 2018, I’m sure it would have made my list of top games of that year. Yep, I like it that much. I am very glad that Southern Board Game Fest backed a Kickstarter deluxe copy for our library, because I plan to show this off when SoBo 2020 arrives.

On the surface, it looks like one of those dry, spreadsheet euros (I mean, it even comes with a multiplication table that goes up to 19 X 19 if I remember right) but instead is an elegantly designed game that features some good light economic and bidding mechanics, meshed with some friendly competitive area majority, plus a good old spatial puzzle. If any of those mechanics make your eyes light up, or you like the thought of some light engine building as you upgrade your company’s tech, you should check this one out.

One last thing. One of the things we always worry about in terms of euro games is whether the game is replayable. I am happy to report that there is plenty of replayability built in between the varied player starts which dictate a different strategy of network building and upgrading. Plus, the designer included multiple tiles to assign to the tech upgrades at the bottom of the board. Sure, it does not change the six upgrades themselves, but it drastically changes the bonus that you get for paying for that upgrade. Since there are six upgrades, and the bonus tiles are two sided, and I’m terrible at math, I will just say that the COMBINATIONS ARE ENDLESS*.

(* the combinations are not endless, but you get my drift.)

SUMMARY:

PROS:

  • Cool theme (if you like smartphone tech)
  • Engaging, quick game play
  • Light engine building
  • Light player interaction in the price setting and network building
  • Great production value

CONS:

  • Rulebook needs work (hopefully working that out in the Arcane Wonders edition)
  • Player boxes are awesome in form, not so good in function
  • Player pieces are hard to distinguish (not from other players, from the individual types of pieces)
  • Spatial puzzle can induce some AP in certain players

Smartphone Inc. is a breezy, competitive, light economic / bidding / route building game with a touch of engine building and area majority. If all of that sounds interesting to you, look for the Arcane Wonders edition (if you are in the States) or the new Cosmodrome edition next year. Or, swing by Southern Board Game Fest, and we will play Smartphone Inc. together!

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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