I’ve always been a periphery kind of Car Wars guy. I like the game, have the old Deluxe Box Set, and spent many hours pouring through Uncle Al’s catalogs. But I was never really a hardcore player and it was a game that dropped off my radar over the years. So when I saw the card game advertised, I was surprised to find out it was a third edition of a game that had previously been released in 1991 and 2001. My experience is only with the current version of the game, so I’m not sure how it stacks up or doesn’t with previous iterations…
Even if I didn’t know that Car Wars was a Steve Jackson Games property, I could probably have guessed it from the production values of the game. Steve Jackson stuff has a quality to it that really is unique. This is neither a good or bad thing, just an observation. The game doesn’t have the ultra-slick components of a Fantasy Flight game but everything is well-made, attractive, a little bit retro in style, and inviting in a kitschy sort of way. On a more personal note Creede and Sharleen Lambard wrote my favorite adventure of all time making this an easier purchase for me seeing their names on the box.
Basically, all the things I think of when I think of SJG and Car Wars were front and center when I opened the box, so that’s a good thing. Regarding the “ultra-slick” components bit… I was also happy to see that the game consisted of cards and cars. No crazy bits for the sake of crazy bits. Simple straightforward rules. We were ready to go in five minutes. Perfect.
Players get a car and a hand of cards. There is some drawing and then you attack. Then play proceeds to the left. You fight until only one car is left in the arena and then you play another round until one person wins by accumulating enough victory points.
It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. It’s a game about shooting other cars with flamethrowers and autocannons. It has a good ratio of attack to defense with the randomness of drawing cards making for the possibility that some rounds are very offense heavy, some are defense heavy, and some are balanced out. This is definitely a plus.
If you don’t attack on your turn or play some kind of special card, you must discard at least one card which I think is a great mechanic because it forces the deck to keep churning and represents that “missed opportunity” for taking a shot or defending yourself and helps thematically with making the game feel like cars moving around the arena instead of just four people playing cards.
The game can get tense. Once your armor is breached, every turn is a moment of holding your breath to see if you’ll skate through another round or if it’s time to bail out. This is a byproduct of that relentless hand churn and even more relentless attacking that happens each turn. And the more players you have (the game takes up to 6) the more brutal it can get.
Overall, I love the flow of the game and how fast and loose it plays. The special cards have some slightly complicated interactions but nothing that disrupts play or overly confuses people. Looking back, I can see one place where I think we were playing something wrong but it’s an easy fix.
The Not So Awesome
A simple, straightforward card game about cars killing cars is hard to find fault with. But there is one thing that detracts from the experience a little. Because the game is played over multiple rounds, with players attempting to be the first to accumulate 60 Victory Points, there can be significant down time for players who are eliminated early in a duel. In our four player games, we often had at least one car eliminated quickly and usually, the last two cars would play cat and mouse for a long time before one could finish the other off. This left two players – at one point – with about 15 minutes of downtime while the remaining two cars attempted to end the round. This isn’t always the case but it can happen. It happened often enough for our group that it was noticeable.
A little lag is not a bad thing when players can sit at the table, watch the rest of the duel play out and enjoy the back-and-forth of the remaining cars but when it drags on for too long, players can lose interest and focus.
I really enjoy this game. Fast playing, hits good Car Wars notes, is exactly as complicated as it needs to be and no more, and it has a strong thematic feel during play. I can’t really ask for much more. During play we laughed, we groaned, we got excited, and we got crushed. Overall, I recommend giving this a try and just really letting yourself get into a car-killing mood. Just don’t let your opponents kill you too fast.
Thanks for reading.