For game nerds of the 80’s, there are few games more popular and iconic than Steve Jackson’s car wars. I bought my pocket box edition in 1983(?) from Hobby Crafters in Arlington, VA. It was for sale on a shelf along with other baggied and pocket box games from Steve Jackson and Metagaming. A fan of the film crazy max from a few years ago, I saw right away car wars to recreate a similar vehicle chaos on the tabletop. (I think I bought that same day too OGRE and necromancer.)
I loved so many things about the original car wars. The fact that you could pack such a complex driving and combat sim into a ziploc bag or pocket box. The fact that you had to complete the game yourself by cutting out the many tokens, cars and “turn the key”. And I loved the over-the-top apocalyptic near-future world fleshed out in countless supplements, zines, and magazine articles. In terms of what was on the table, there wasn’t much to see, just chart paper arenas and roads, paper cars and counters, and some d6 dice. But we were all used to the theater of mind games D&Dand Avalon Hill and SPI card and chits wargaming, see above car wars fit. We also finished the games in our heads.
Fast-forward through five editions of the game over the years, which streamlined the rules a bit, improved the counters (but kept the components pretty much the same), and we’ve slid into the 21st century like a ace car wars the new Kickstarted 6th Edition. What used to fit in a “pocket box” is now a little closer to the size of a cake box (with a heavy cake inside).
When revamping a classic game with a fanatically devoted following, there’s always the question of how much to retain and how much to streamline to appeal to a modern audience with shorter attention spans. Steve Jackson Games did an admirable job threading this needle. car wars has always been known as a very “crunchy” game with lots of spreadsheets, vehicle data sheets, tiny counters, lots of basic math and a classy attempt at simulating real car combat.
The sixth edition tries to keep some of that complexity while keeping everything as visual and fast-paced as possible. For example, instead of consulting tables to solve fire and movement, all hits, punctures, dodges, fires, parries, etc. are rendered as symbols on color-coded dice. Beautifully illustrated weapon and crew cards, as well as new color-coded rotating keys, clearly show how many dice of which color you need to roll to manoeuvre, fight and defend.
The heart of the 6th edition car wars is the player’s dashboard. This bold and colorful map display features sliding markers that track speed, armor, fire, tires, and power plant. Basically, the game boils down to moving, manoeuvring, attacking, defending and displaying all of this on your dashboard. It’s a really clear and visual way to keep track of everything that’s happening to your car. No more consultation tables and pondering over the data sheet of your car.
The dashboard is surrounded by your crew and weapon cards. There are many similarities between the 6th edition car wars and Star Wars X Wing. As X Wing, half the fun is designing and building your car and outfitting its guns and crew. The cards laid out for play clearly show which dice must be rolled and which special abilities the cards offer. The core game contains 234 cards and more are available through expansion sets.
The other big innovation of the 6th edition is the inclusion of 1:64 scale miniatures. There are 12 cars in the basic box (6 in the two-player starter set). When the 6th edition was announced, there was some grumbling about why SJ Games didn’t go down the road Gaslands and use Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars. But when opting for the 1/64 scale, these are cool car wars vehicles can be used Gaslands and Gaslands Cars can be used car wars. Players break off the pins they are holding car wars Vehicles onto the translucent bases and use poster putty to attach them Gaslands 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 previous editions of the game now in 3D.
Where the tiny paper/card counters and graph paper editions of car wars were known for their crunch, the far slimmer and more visual 6th edition features plenty of cardboard bloat. After Blake and I played our first game, I said, “Well, that was fun.” Her response was, “Yes… But it seems like a lot of complexity for something so simple.” Good point. Looking around the table, there are dashboards, tokens, turnkeys, crew, weapon and accessory cards, damage cards, stacks of multicolored symbol dice – anything 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 it we’ll play with 4 cars and get to a more elaborate arena with real obstacles (using our existing Gaslands playmat and terrain), the game feels more appropriate, balanced and “real”. And, as already mentioned, how X Winghalf the fun will be in the car building aspects to create amazing car loads.
A few issues I had with the game were the dashboard design and the obstacles. I love the look and concept of the dashboard but the markings moving within the tracks on it are too loose. I bumped into my board several times during the game and had to reset everything. And the cardboard obstacles are just rectangular cards saying what they’re on (mud, dirt road, clay, brick wall, etc.). We kept bumping into these throughout the game, and they really don’t give a sense of what they are. I wish they were on thicker card stock and die cut into a shape.
The pink elephant in the rating is natural Gaslands. This award-winning, modern take on a car fighting game is much more streamlined and has the added benefit of using cheap diecast converted toy cars for the miniatures. That Gaslands The rule book is under $17 on Amazon, and Hot Wheels cars are about $1 each. That car wars The 2-player set is $80 and the 4-player set is $150. Expansion sets containing 6 minis, bases and cards are $60. In online discussions, when the question comes up: “car wars 6th edition or Gaslands?”, the latter definitely seems to be catching on, while vintage cars are nostalgic for the original car wars, declare their undying love for the game, with some saying they enjoy both for different reasons. Invested heavily for me now Gaslands and The Cast Car Conversions, I’ll probably play both, but I already know my combat boot will keep pumping Gaslands.
For those Boing Boing readers who have played Car Wars 6e, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve also played Gaslands.
Thumbnail: Inset showing Car Wars cover art, Steve Jackson Games