For ’80s game geeks, few games are more beloved and legendary than Steve Jackson’s car wars† I bought my pocket box edition at Hobby Crafters in Arlington, VA in 1983(?). It was for sale on a rack with other Steve Jackson and Metagamming baggied and pocket box games. Fan of the movie Mad Max from a few years earlier, I immediately saw car wars as a way to recreate similar vehicle chaos on the tabletop. (I think I bought that same day too OGRE and Ghost Charmer†
I loved so many things about the original car wars† The fact that you could fit such a complex driving and combat simulation into a ziplock bag or pocket box. The fact that you had to make the game yourself by cutting out the many tokens, cars and “keys”. And I loved the over-the-top apocalyptic world of his near future, fleshed out in countless supplements, zines, and magazine articles. In terms of what was on the table, there wasn’t much to look at, just graph paper arenas and roads, paper cars and counters, and some d6 dice. But we were all used to the mind-gaming theater of D&Dand the map and chips wargaming from Avalon Hill and SPI, so car wars fit right in. We finished the games in our heads.
Fast-forward through five editions of the game over the years, streamlining the rules somewhat, upgrading the counters (but keeping the components close to the same), and we slipped into the 21st century like legendary ace. car wars of the new, Kickstarted 6th edition. What once fit in a “pocket box” now comes in something closer to the size of a cake box (with a heavy cake inside).
When revamping a classic game with a rabid devoted following, the question is always how much of the old to keep and how much to streamline to attract a modern audience with shorter attention spans. Steve Jackson Games did an admirable job threading that needle. car wars was always known as a very “crunchy” game, with lots of tables, vehicle records, small counters, lots of simple math and a noble attempt to simulate real car battles.
The sixth edition tries to keep some of that complexity and keep everything as visual and fast as possible. For example, instead of consulting tables to solve fire and movement, all hits, tire damage, evasive maneuvers, fires, defensive maneuvers, etc. are displayed as symbols on color-coded dice. Beautifully illustrated weapons and crew cards, and new color-coded spin keys clearly show how many dice of which colors to roll for maneuvering, fighting and defending.
The heart of the 6th edition car wars is the player’s dashboard. This thick and colorful map display has sliding markers that track speed, armor, fires, tires and power station. Basically, the game comes down to moving, maneuvering, attacking, defending and indicating all this on your dashboard. It’s a very clear and visual way to track everything that happens to your car. No more consultation tables and worrying about the registration sheet of your car.
The dashboard is surrounded by your crew and weapon maps. There are many similarities between the 6th edition car wars and Star Wars X Wing† Like X-wing, half the fun is designing and building your car and equipping the weapons and crew. The cards are ready to play and clearly indicate which dice to roll and what special abilities the cards offer. The base game comes with 234 cards and more are available through expansion packs.
The other major innovation of the 6th edition is the inclusion of 1/64 scale miniatures. There are 12 cars in the 4 player core box (6 in the 2 player starter set). There was some grumbling when the 6th edition was announced as to why SJ Games wouldn’t go the route of gas countries and use Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars. But when deciding on scale 1/64 these are cool car wars vehicles can be used in gas countries and gas countries cars can be used in car wars† Players break off the pins holding the car wars vehicles to the translucent bases and using poster putty to fix theirs gas countries vehicles for use in car wars† The miniatures are beautifully cast and look like a dream to paint. It’s also cool to see cars you know from the previous editions of the game, now in 3D.
Where the small paper/card counters and graph paper editions of car wars were known for their crunch, the much more streamlined and visual 6th edition stands out with plenty of cardboard bloat. After Blake and I played our first game, I said, “Well, that was fun.” Their answer was, “Yeah… But it seems like it’s very complicated for something so simple.” Good point. Looking at the table, there are dashboards, tokens, ready-made cards, crew, weapon and accessory cards, damage cards and piles of multicolored symbol dice – all to move two (or 4) small cars around the table. But I think a lot of that is a beginner’s perception. I think once we get the hang of the game, we’ll start playing with 4 cars and move on to a more elaborate arena with real obstacles (using our existing gas countries playmat and terrain), the game will feel more appropriate, balanced and “real”. And, as mentioned before, like X-winghalf the fun will be in the car building aspects of making awesome car loads.
A few negatives I had with the game were the dashboard design and the obstacles. I love the look and concept of the dash, but the markings moving in the tracks on it are too loose. Several times during the game I jostled my board and had to reset markers. And the cardboard obstacles are just rectangular cards that say what they are on them (mud, gravel road, clay, wall, etc). We kept bumping into them while playing and they really don’t give a clue of what they represent. I wish they were on thicker cardstock and die cut into a shape.
The pink elephant in the review is natural gas countries† This award-winning modern take on a car battle game is much more streamlined and has the added benefit of using cheap, converted die-cast toy cars for the miniatures. The gas countries rulebook is under $17 on Amazon and Hot Wheels cars cost about a dollar each. The car wars 2 player set is $80, 4 player version $150. Expansion sets of 6 minis, bases and cards are $60. In online discussions, when the question arises: “car wars 6th edition or gas countries?,” the latter seems certain to win, as vintage cars, nostalgic for the original game, declare their undying love for car wars, with some saying they enjoy both for different reasons. For me now heavily invested in gas countries and in love with die-cast auto conversions, I’ll probably still play both, but I already know my combat boot will always be more pedal on the metal for gas countries†
For those Boing Boing readers who’ve played Car Wars 6e, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve played Gaslands as well.
Thumbnail image: Inset of Car Wars cover art, Steve Jackson Games