Three Things I Like About: Car Wars

Car Wars - Deluxe Edition contents

Back to the Three Things series, done in conjunction with my recently released book, Games’ Most Wanted.

Car Wars, developed and produced by Steve Jackson Games, was a favorite of my high school gaming group. (Yes, all four of us.) We picked up the Deluxe Edition one day during a comic book run; epic city demolition derbys became a common weekend pick-up gaming alternative.

In Car Wars, you took control of a car or other powered vehicle, from motorcycles to semis to tanks and even aircraft. Custom designs allowed you to tweak armor, chassis, weapons, and other equipment so you could survive your opponents’ attacks and dish it right back to them.

Counters, Maps, and Movement

Back in those halcyon days of gaming, cardstock counters were a common sight, rather than precisely detailed metal miniatures. City maps and roads used a grid system; when combined with the Third Edition’s “turning key,” precise maneuvers could be accomplished. Successfully executing a Smuggler’s Turn at 30 mph and then gutting your pursuer with your hidden heavy caliber cannon was hard to pull off but very satisfying.

Later editions adjusted the scale from the 1″=15′ (1:180) to 1″=5′ (1:60), so you could use Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars along with S-gauge scenery.

What my group really liked were ‘chase’ scenarios using the game’s generic highway tiles. Endless ribbons of asphalt allowed a Mad Max style ‘run to the death’ game that was a common staple for us on Saturday afternoons.

Gameplay was relatively simple and ended up being one of my gateways into more hardcore wargaming. Car Wars used a combination of measurements for movement and range, line of sight for weapons fire, and simple dice rolls for resolution. I think getting a grasp on these three basics of tabletop wargaming helped prep me for my college and post-college gaming days. A balance had to be struck using the right number of maneuvers; the harder they were and the more you did, the more difficult the movement and possible success in the result. Failure led to epic crashes…which in all honesty, was half of the fun.

Car Wars: Rouge Arena

Cars, Cars, Cars

The addition of customized rules allowed you to build whatever vehicle suited your style. (My favorites were reverse-trike escorts for a heavily armored semi-truck and trailer combination.) The basic rules built from the standard car chassis and eventual expansions spread the game out to cover virtually every type of vehicle built by man.

You could buy a cardstock version of the counters that were in black and white, giving you the ability to create custom paint jobs for your vehicles.

A typical game was the simple arena-style demolition derby, using a defined area that included buildings, debris, or even an oval track. Tournaments — though I never actually participated in one — were more ladder-style games. These allowed players to upgrade their cars between each round using accumulated in-game cash winnings. The games I saw played at Origins used a detailed scale model set and custom-built car models.

Mad Max

The setting is what initially appealed to my group. Influenced by the Road Warrior movie in the Mad Max series, Car Wars described a post-apocalyptic America suffering from resource shortages and a second Civil War. A new sport called autodueling – armed demolition derbies – arose. Human cloning made driver death irrelevant.

The role-playing aspect of the game had potential but my group never got involved beyond having a few favored drivers and their rides. Our RPG tastes were sated elsewhere, though on occasion I do remember writing short blurbs that summarized some of our arena games, just for fun and amusement.

So there it is. Car Wars, a game predominately from my adolescent years, still holds the nostalgic factor in my game closet. I have a battered copy of the Deluxe Edition I bought two decades ago and it remains in a place of honor on my gaming shelf.

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3 thoughts on “Three Things I Like About: Car Wars

  1. Car Wars and BattleTech were games my group played just about equally back when I first was learning what gaming was all about. I had an unhealthy fascination with ram plates… I still have all of my Car Wars stuff and I hope that if SJG ever does really bring it back they make the old stuff compatible

  2. See also Zelazny’s “Auto-da-Fe” in Dangerous Visions.

    Car Wars is a game I’ve always wanted to try but never managed to find a copy for sale or an active group. It sounds right up my alley too.

    • A fair bit of Car Wars is available in PDF form at e23. And yes, now that OGRE is getting close to shipping, Phil Reed is definitely thinking about how the revival of Car Wars is going to happen…

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