Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

From Armadillo to the Rubberway: Killer Kart Action with the Compendium 2e

We took a six month hiatus from our Car wars 2029 Amateur Night campaign– family matters, long distances, high gas prices, and a general sense of exhaustion conspired against us for too long. But with prices at the pump dropping below $1.70, we received a much needed second wind.

Our last campaign session was months ago. We each played teams of 4 Killer Karts with the only modification being that we moved top and underbody armor to the sides. We’ve played strictly according to Compendium 2e rules with the exception of a custom speed/range to-hit chart (derived from GURPS), significantly more lenient hospitalization rules (derived somewhat from GURPS), and extremely stingy skill point award rules that we cooked up ourselves.

Back during that last session, we played in Armadillo again. The arena is basically a big donut– you’ve got the option of going clockwise or counter clockwise. You see your opponent(s) from far off and have plenty of time to pick up continuous fire bonuses. We did random gate assignments so that it is difficult to get all four cars of a team into formation, plus we encouraged mismatched imbalances in the two to three sectors of action at the start of the game.

I think one of my cars had started off surrounded by at least three opponents. He took several seconds of intense fire and simply would not die. My other three cars were able to get into formation, so we ended up with my wall of cars speeding at 60 mph against my opponents staggered string of vehicles. I would have equalized the imbalance caused by having one of my cars ganged early on in the game like that, but I failed to anticipate a potential ram. I could have gone to 70 and maintained my superiority in the sequence of play, but I dropped my speed. My opponent went up to 60– thereby going first and getting a full two inches of movement on the first phase of the turn: this was disastrous. My fairly-good car was smashed by a moderately damaged opposing car. My opponent successfully cemented his edge.

The endgame consisted of my last car circling the arena at 80 mph. One of my opponent’s pedestrians managed to get into a car that had had its driver taken out. I was severely damaged and facing 2-to-1 odds. I finally succumbed to combined fire to my rear arc– my slow moving opponents simply pivoted to maintain their train of fire. High speed/range penalties were not enough for me to score more than two or three passes.

Demoralized, I somehow managed to lose the stats for my characters from that round. Given that it takes four or five hours to work through everything to get that data, I have been somewhat put out by that. But that’s okay; the game from last night makes up for everything.

After playing a half-dozen games in Armadillo, my opponent suggested that we try out the Rubberway arena from L’Outrance. This is a bi-level arena with ramps leading up to the top of the central obstacles– with overpasses connecting the two together. The smaller tighter layout created a deadly arrangement for dueling teams of Killer Karts– you can run, but you can’t hide! It’s very difficult to shake a tail in this arena; also the central ramps and overpasses force you to maneuver as if you were in a maze– but you completely lack any cover that a maze’s walls could provide. This set up led to vehicles circling around at high speeds and making control rolls constantly.

We utilized our random die rolls in order to determine the starting positions– we really hate symmetrical set-ups because they tend to dissolve into boring die-rolling contests. But the dice ended up giving us a symmetrical setup! I set up (long ways) on the top pair of gates and the top-side gates on either end.

We all came in at 30 mph. My opponent immediately turned into me on the sides where we came in near each other. I reflexively turned away thinking that I could somehow get in formation on the upper level of the arena and combine fire against my opponent’s cars. What really happened was my two cars on the sides were tailed mercilessly. One was hit repeatedly before catching on fire. The other completely lost its left armor, took power plant damage, and suffered a -2 penalty to all skills because the driver got wounded. The driver of that first car to get killed got out and began shooting his smg– he actually scored a kill and ended up shooting his entire magazine before surrendering.

Our other cars rolled up onto the central platforms going head-to-head in sort of a joust. The ramps prevented them from getting continuous fire bonuses, so this was a very brief high-speed pass. My opponent continued down off the ramps on the opposite side while I circled back on top. This left two of his cars effectively out of the game for a second or two– somewhat making up for my tactical error of turning away at the start of the game. As the opposite pairs circled around again, fires were set and damage was done at close quarters. One of my drivers jerked the wheel to get back up on the ramp to the central platform, but he failed a control roll, turned sideways, and rolled into the far wall. We estimated (generously) the amount of damage that went to the driver– and ruled that he had to make two “health” tolls to survive. I rolled two elevens: borderline success. We agreed that he has a gimp cybernetic leg and now walks with a permanent limp.

Though my opponent had a significant edge in vehicles, we again saw how hard-to-be-hit SMG-armed pedestrians can turn the tide of battle. Our remaining pedestrians dueled it out while my opponent’s pair of vehicles sought to gang up on my last car. In the penultimate pass, I luckily set one of the cars on fire. In order to get away from the two deadly pedestrians, I floored it to get to the other side of the arena– which meant to taking a massive amount of fire to my rear. My opponent rolled poorly on several to-hit and damage rolls, and I finally crept into the opposite corner in hopes of ending the match with some degree of honor. An opposing pedestrian pulled an unconscious driver out of a “dead” vehicle, so he would once again be able to double-team me. I chose to stay and fight instead of asking to escape. I missed repeatedly, so my hopes of taking out one last enemy MG with a lucky shot were dashed.

So all four of my drivers survived, all of them scored a point in each of driver and gunner skills, many of them scored handgunner skill points, and three of them scored kills. One of them got to salvage a damaged but drivable Killer Kart. In short, though this was technically a loss for the team, it was a loss that was practically as good as a win. A good time was had by all.

This match reiterated several old lessons and further increased our appreciation for the various nuances of the Compendium 2e rules set. Here’s a list:

1) The 1-in-3 chance of setting cars on fire each turn the power plant takes damage from MG’s is a game changer. There’s less salvage to tally when vehicles lack fire-extinguishers, also drivers end up surviving a lot more because enemy cars stop shooting at vehicles that are on fire. Drivers can slow down to 30 mph and leap out of their cars with no risk for damage, so the fire rules end up putting more armed pedestrians into the equation than you’d otherwise see. Also, the fire rules really capture the spirit of tv action vehicle violence.

2) The smg-armed pedestrian is deadly to a damaged Killer Kart. The ped is hard to hit and the cars are more than likely gunning for the other cars on the map. If a pair of pedestrians can get into position, they can lay down a withering amount of firepower while the cars attend to “important” matters. The smg may even be too powerful for Killer Kart matches. A grenade may have a better chance of taking out a ped than smg fire…. Hmm….

3) Following a strict sequence of play based on speeds and reflex rolls really goes a long way toward eliminating pointless half-inch or 30 degree fudge-fiddling. When we weren’t as clear on this rule, we wasted a lot of time wondering how to deal with simultaneous actions.

4) The arena layout can have a huge impact on tactics and the overall tempo of battle. Combine this with the fact that Car Wars vehicle designs have an equal degree of nuance and variability and you can begin to see how a game like Car Wars can retain its replay value. You have at your fingertips the ability to radically transform the nature of a game session without having to master new rules or concepts.

5) The rule for subtracting three from the maneuver or hazard that causes you to lose control is genius. This penalizes drastic maneuvers on the crash table rolls and makes little dinky D1 hazards much more survivable. It’s also trivial to apply this rule in play. I think they nixed this in the 5th edition game, but this is really one of the rules that does wonders for the “reasonableness” of the game’s events.

6) Another rule that just simply works is the penalty for maneuvering just before firing. You’d think a penalty that lasts for just the end of a single phase would not matter, but it in fact does. The fact that it takes effect only for the end of the phase means there’s essentially no record keeping to manage. Simply put, a guy that does a D6 maneuver to get someone in arc and then immediately fires– that guy will suffer a monster penalty to hit. Guys that twist around drastically without taking time to even out just don’t get to hit much. The effects this adds to how people actually “drive” in the game is significant and does a lot for the general feel of realism.

7) At the other extreme, if you allow people to reset their handling tracks at the end of each turn (as in both the pocket box and the 5th edition rules), it does a lot to keep paper work to a minimum. However, people do really stupid stuff as a result: they’ll do D6’s every single turn and stay at maybe 40 or 50 mph. This leads to lots of otherwise pointless rams and impossible dog-fighting. Yes, it’s more work to track everyone’s handling status and only bringing them partially back up at the beginning of each turn, but the effects on movement decisions are incredibly realistic. Also, the bonuses for driver skill and reflex rolls are obvious and significant. The book-keeping is clearly worth it to us.

In conclusion, Car Wars Compendium 2e continues to impress us with its unsurpassed depth. The returns on player effort are incredible. Other games sacrifice playability for more detail… or worse, they sacrifice the gritty pseudo-realistic TV action violence in return for a clunky accessibility. Car Wars simply hits the sweet spot for detail, common sense, and realism. Yes, there are places where it breaks down, but playing by all of the rules goes a long way toward minimizing the silliness and the unfairness. Given the massive amounts of playing and play testing that Car Wars underwent in the eighties, most things that you could complain about in Car Wars were deftly addressed with simple tweaks to the rules. The rest of the issues can be handled by focusing on scenarios that take advantage of the assumed resolution of the game: ie, armed cars instead of infantry and tanks.

Car Wars is a great game. Its presence on various “top 100” lists is not for mere nostalgia alone. Technically and mechanically, it is a thing of beauty.


9 responses to “From Armadillo to the Rubberway: Killer Kart Action with the Compendium 2e

  1. Michael Miller December 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    Re: #5 (always -3 on the crash table): they removed it from CW5 because they also redid the entire crash system. They’re completely different.

  2. jeffro December 8, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Car Wars resists the beer-&-preztification process mightily. Even with many simplifications, it’s still too fiddly for “mere mortals.”

    While the elimination of the movement chart was handy in 5e, the lack of resolution and “sense” decreases the replay value over-much.

    For “serious” play, the Compendium 2e is just fantastic…. At any rate, the fun for me is in the cinematic detail….

  3. kjamma4 December 8, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Re: #5 For the CW 6.0 rules (ha ha), they should just subtract three from every result on the crash table and then just have you add the D of the maneuver/hazard you did to the roll. This eliminates one calculation from the roll but achieves the same outcome.

  4. jeffro December 8, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Ah yes; exactly.

    The -3 mod is obviously a house-rule patch that got glommed onto the game to fix a glaring issue that became apparent to anyone engaging in binge dueling.

    As a tweak, it is pure genius, though…

    The results (however they are arrived at) are just about perfect. Combined with subtracting driver skill, you get a thing of beauty….

    I just love the way these games play out….

  5. Earlburt December 8, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Yup, I feel like we’ve genuinely perfected the arena duel process in these seven matches. Or nearly so, anyway. It’s telling that during our post-game debriefings we no longer speak of huge epiphanies, but rather appreciation of nuances. It still seems the case to me that there’s no quick way to get in and out of a good CW arena duel, and that any game is pretty much going to be 3+ hours. That’s ok though. Three or four hours is worth what we get– a great blend that includes a good dose of realism, fairness and playability without sacrificing any of them much at all.

    We’ve had two duels at Southtown Arena (Fort Wayne, IN), one at the Amex Proving Grounds (Ann Arbor, MI), three at Armadillo Autoduel Arena (Austin, TX) and the last one at Rubberway (Akron, OH).

    Rubberway is great for dweeby Killer Kart matches for all the reasons laid out above. Armadillo was great because it is asymmetrical. Southtown and Amex were just too symmetrical for our two-player setup.

    One lesson learned here for me is that in a two-player game asymmetries have to be introduced somehow– by vehicle positioning, by an assymetrical arena, or perhaps by using different vehicles– or else the games devolve into stale dice-rolling contests where the various dogfights in the arena all resemble each other.

    I think that highly symmetrical arenas (which is most of them) work fine with more than two players, because the players themselves then introduce differences of tactics with chaotic ripple effects for the match. But one on one, we’re much more limited in which Arenas work well.

  6. Michael Miller December 9, 2008 at 7:59 am

    kjamma4: Yup, that’s what they wanted to avoid: changing the crash tables that many players had memorized, had on their reference screens and books, and so on. When putting together SPARK’s reference sheets I left it too. Everyone’s so used to using it when rattling off the crash table modifiers that dropping it would screw us up for years.

  7. kjamma4 December 9, 2008 at 9:00 am

    Well, if you are going to do a complete overhaul of the system, that would be a good time to revise the table. Although old timers like you ;) might have the tables memorized, the ease of the rule would make it much simpler for new players.

    I’d gladly trade memorization of an old table for a completely overhauled and cleaned up ruleset.

  8. Michael Miller December 9, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I don’t have the table memorized, but a couple others in SPARK (like Brian) probably do. However, we’re all used to the modifiers chant:

    (Holding up fingers as I go, starting with my left hand.) “A D3 sent you, 2 for speed is 5. 3 because you’re you, driver skill of 2 makes it even up on Crash Table 1.”

    And how can I be an old timer? I didn’t start playing until 2000. :)

  9. kjamma4 December 10, 2008 at 10:22 am

    [And how can I be an old timer? I didn’t start playing until 2000.]

    It’s not the age, it’s the mileage. ;)

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