“If you try to kill all birds with one stone, you end up with lots of half cooked things.” — Reiner Knizia
My friend Earlburt and I had never really been to a con, much less run games at one, so neither of us knew what to expect. As the con date had moved from the MLK weekend in January to Valentine’s weekend, our expectations were pretty low as far as turnout was concerned. Our plan was to simply play our schedule just the two of us if things happened to tank. That turned out not to be possible. Valentine’s Day went as expected: for all intents and purposes, no one besides the folks that registered to demo games showed up. Critical failure! This was so bad, we could not quietly return to our corners for isolated two-player games of CAR WARS. We felt we had no choice but to try to play games with the other demo people so that we all could salvage some semblance of a good time. This turned out to work rather well in the end as we were all serious “alpha-gamer” types with compatible tastes.
The first game of the con was Steve Jackson’s Super Munchkin. This was a little annoying because most of us were familiar only with the original game or else had never played any sort of Munchkin. The rules for powers and origins took us a while to get the hang of and were frustrating enough at first that we were about to drop the game and dig up the “real” Munchkin. We persevered, though, and ended the game with three people at level nine. The game felt like an impossible-to-read version of UNO, with people saving up the “whoop cards” in order to prevent the other players from “going out”.
While I didn’t particularly like the game, it did serve its purpose in breaking the ice. We had two CAR WARS guys, one SFB guy, and one train themed Euro-game guy…. What would be the best game for this mix of gamers? The SFB guy suggested Titan and the Euro-game guy got fairly enthusiastic and went to his car for the game. Being good sports, we went along with this.
Nine hours later, the game board was filled with my stacks of creatures. Exhausted, my two remaining opponents conceded to me after I declared that I had lost my capacity to care about the game anymore. I don’t think I’d lost a single battle… and my king-like “Titan” unit had enough experience points to be able to destroy entire stacks of units by itself.
Titan, in a nutshell, is a brilliantly devised game that combines a strategic level board game with tactical “battle board” engagements in a profoundly beautiful way. The topology of the main board is unique– and fairly hard to maneuver your stacks on. Some “squares” have three choices of movement, and others funnel you along specified trajectories around the board. This makes coordinating your stacks somewhat difficult. (The Euro-guy said this made the game really good for just three-players: a pretty rare thing in games!) Stacks are nearly anonymous, but experienced players tend to know what has been recruited and where– though uncovering the location of the “Titan” stack is a big part of the fun.
The game has a very unusual “tech tree” system that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Most “civilization” type games have a single tech tree for each player that determines what the players can buy or build. Titan has an elegant system for having each stack of counters define it’s place in one of several interconnected tech trees. Each counter stack can recruit specific monsters in specific terrain based on the composition of its stack. Powerful units require you to have multiple instances of less powerful units in order to recruit them. The stacking limit is seven, so your large stacks will often spawn smaller stacks that try to survive long enough to grow into larger stacks. A big part of the strategy of the game is knowing when and how to split up your large stacks.
The monsters that make up your counter stacks are each defined with two numbers. One is your strength number, which determines the number of hit points the unit has and also how many dice the unit rolls when attacking. The skill number (when compared to the target’s skill number) will tell you your target number for your attack rolls. The target will be anywhere from 2+ to 6+ depending on how the skill value of the units compare– with equal skill levels resulting in a target of 4+. The experience value of the unit is the product of its strength and skill numbers. This is the most comprehensive definition of a combat unit that I’ve ever seen done with a mere two numbers. Monsters also have different capabilities depending on their terrain.
The battle board is a small hex map that the attacking and defending units deploy on. Starting positions are determined by the direction that the attacking forces entered the “square”, so the battle maps are really a highly magnified view of the game board. Defenders can recruit a reinforcing unit on turn four if the still have living units relevant to that “square’s” terrain type. Attacking stacks can call in an “angel” unit after they kill a defender as long as they have a hex open for him to deploy into. There is an unbelievably large number of tactics you can deploy in these mini-battles and it was quite bewildering to see the expert Titan players argue about the best moves. We did get the hang of it by the end of the day, though I tended to flabbergast the old timers when I failed to see the “obvious”.
Titan is one of the great games of the eighties. Almost everything about it is bold, cunning, and unusually interesting. The designers achieve their aims (and, yes, the aims of many a geek gamer) with almost no regard for the insane playing time. But it is a thing of beauty, however, and every serious gamer should play it at least once. The new edition is very well done when compared to the original, so this should be a game that’s possible to track down. (I just saw several at Boardwalk and Parkplace in Greenville, SC, so this isn’t just a cult game…!)
The next morning, there were still no folks arriving that weren’t signed up to demo games. Nevertheless, a pretty good game of Federation Commander got fired up over in the corner. The Euro-game guy returned early as well and headed to our corner. He’d said the day before that he’d played CAR WARS in the eighties, but didn’t know that anyone still played it. (He had every issue of ADQ and was very disappointed when subscribers were switched over to Pyramid at the end….) Within five minutes we had three stock Singers blazing away at each other in the Muskogee Octagon.
We really didn’t have to explain much to get the guy up and running– just the bits about handling status and control rolls, really. Earburt and I were essentially human computers executing the game and the Euro-guy accepted all of our rulings. If something wasn’t clearly articulated before a key decision was made, we often let things slide in favor of the “new guy”. We had random starting positions and the Euro-gamer managed to completely blow away Earlburt within 2 seconds of game time. (They had entered side by side and Earlburt made the mistake of turning away from him instead of decelerating.) My car and Euro-gamer’s car ended up circling the arena in opposite directions for a couple of “jousting” passes. On the second pass, I slowed to 5 mph for the pivot and finished him off. The pivot maneuver was a game-breaking surprise and I felt bad for not going over it before the game.
The Euro-gamer didn’t miss a beat, though, and asked to play a second game after that– though he noted that he might have to walk away when his friend showed up at noon. We played a Division 15 game in the Octagon. He took a solid-tire version of the Iron Horse, while Earlburt and I took MG-armed versions of the Joseph Special. We all circled the arena clockwise at the beginning and maneuvered a bit before I took off toward the Horse for a confrontation. Earlburt cut across the arena to get into the action.
I’d exchanged heavy fire with the Horse, and cut past him to try to take cover. Earlburt pursued me to try to finish me off. I cut over the trail of mines to try to get away, skidded across an extra mine counter, and miraculously didn’t set off the mines! Unfortunately, Earlburt got off one last lucky shot that was exactly enough to take my driver down to 0 DP. He stopped to avoid the mines, turned, and began accelerating for the final confrontation. The Iron Horse came back his way at a slightly higher speed and rammed Earlburt into the mines. The tire damage was enough to take out two of his skid-damaged tires, so the Horse simply parked next to him and demanded surrender. Yet another beautiful moment of CAR WARS cinematic action!
There was no question in our minds that we should try to reciprocate. We headed for the “train games” table immediately following the game. We played a 6 player game of Union Pacific with the two Euro-guys, two SFB guys, and (of course) us two CAR WARS referees.
Union Pacific is a building game with a heavy bidding component. Yes, you can build up a train empire… but someone else may get the shares to take it over from you. You can’t just specialize in one or two lines, but you have to play a pretty diversified set of shares that cuts you in on dividends while putting a maximum amount of pressure on your opponents. This was really a unique opportunity: we got to learn this game from two of its National Champions! Earlburt nearly won the game, but I cut him out of the victory by taking just a couple of points from him by playing a share at an inopportune moment….
Union Pacific is a great game. The bidding factor makes for a big contrast with Cataan and Carcassonne. Playing time is less than a couple of hours… and the randomness of the timing of the 4 dividend payouts of the game make for some fun suspense. Just as with Titan, serious gamers should give this game a try at least once. My only gripes about the game are that the various train track types are hard to distinguish… plus the game (I think) is permanently out of print because of the fussy designer that doesn’t care about it…. Oh well.
While we were playing the train game, a table of Munchkin players came in for a gigantic game with all of the expansion sets. They even had miniatures and props. (Nothing like geek chicks wearing viking helmets….) At this point, there was about one paying con participant for every demo person. Things were beginning to get crazy! Relatively, anyway.
Earlburt and I were now a little burnt out from trying to accommodate the other gamers. We came to the con for CAR WARS games, after all. We retired to our corner and began to set up a game of “Rush Hour”. This is a pretty complicated CAR WARS scenario from ADQ 2/3 depicting a duel between two cars in heavy traffic. Each NPC vehicle has a disposition ranging from “rattled” to “irate” and we had no idea how things were going to play out.
After playing out a few seconds of game time, we noticed a game of Cataan starting up and I insisted that Earlburt give it a try. I normally only get to play with just two players, so it was a treat to be able to do the six-player version for the first time. Our brains were starting to get fried anyway, so we went with it.
The six player version of Settlers of Cataan adds a mini-building phase between each player’s turn. This is so the thief-thing doesn’t wipe your hand of cards out so often while you wait for your turn. You can’t trade on that mini-turn, though– so the fact that my production didn’t cover anything that could actually build stuff meant I was often sitting on a large number of cards. The folks that could build roads between turns really had a huge advantage. With six players crowding the board, it quickly became critical that each player claim enough territory so that they could have even a chance of winning. The victory point cards, the most soldiers’ bonus, and longest road bonus were critical to finalizing a win– much more so than in the 2 player games that I was used to.
This game was played by three demo people and three non-demo people– two of which were female. (Party!!) Seriously, though… the fact that female gamers will actually play Cataan is a big plus for it. It gets a little dull competing with hard-core geeks all the time and it was nice to just relax a little and play a genuinely friendly game. The jokes were pretty good. We had an informal competition to come up with songs that referenced the actions of the varying moves. I sang “Everybody Must Get Stoned” when several people harvested their Ore cards. The lady across from me sang “We Built This City from Rock and WHEAT” after coverting a settlement. All an all, it was a very pleasant game.
Afterwards, the girl-gamer next to me busted out the Monty Python themed Flux game. This is a simple card game that allows the rules to be changed and extended as it is played. I happened to win both games. We had many a laugh quoting Monty Python and being silly. It wasn’t until the end that we realized that we should hold back the “change winning condition” card until you could finally take the game– that card just gets changed to often for anyone to win any other way….
It was a good day of gaming. We came back the next morning and there were only two demo tables left. We finished out our big “Rush Hour” scenario. We played in two Kane Firehawks. Kane provided our characters with the cars in order to make real action footage for their promotional materials. Starting the game, I was in the rear. I was sure Earlburt was going to lose. I had 20 shots in my front MG and he had only 10 for his rear FT. He would take pot shots to his rear armor from Annoyed vehicles and would run into the Irate cars before I would. There was no way I could lose!
We populated the freeway with cars that could be expected to be around in 2029. (Earlburt has put a lot of effort into his percentil-dice based encounter charts….) We had counters of the “actual” vehicles… and extra copies of them on our super-sized movement chart. (Thanks for spending all that time with Photoshop, Earl!) This was awesome. It has never been so easy to run so big of a game. I would call out “Hotshot– 2, Chameleon– 1, Rockwell– 1” and Earburt would move the cars. The main trick was to watch him move the vehicle before calling the next one in order to save confusion. It was a thing of beauty, though.
We careened through the traffic at 90 mph. A Pisces hit my right side with a heavy rocket. We played that the smoke screen blocked line of sight long enough to break the continuous fire bonuses unless the vehicles could still “see” each other after the cloud was laid down. We missed each other for the first five shots or so because of this. Finally Earburt hit me a couple of times and rolled a 6 for damage. We were playing the new 5th edition fire rules, so he then had to roll 12 or less on 3d6. He set me on fire– but I was going 80, so I had a good chance of putting out the fire.
He emptied the rest of his FT ammo into me while the fire he’d started simply would not go out– I needed a one or a two on a d6 at the end of each turn and just couldn’t get it. In desperation, I tried to maneuver through the traffic so that I could do a D3 to help put out the flames, but I failed the control roll. I went into a spinout, but recovered enough to turn it into a T-stop. I failed the control roll for the T-stop (thereby saving the last treads on my tires) and skidded– going crossways in front of the traffic. I struggled to straighten out and skidded into the median. I bailed out into the grass as my car careened into the other lanes. Earlburt swung across the fast lane while taking shots from an Irate driver, completed a 180, and made for the exit we’d just passed a couple of road sections earlier. The Irate driver let him go because he just wanted to see the dangerous road duel come to an end.
We packed up our stuff, but took a second to spend an hour on a demo of Federation Commander. The game eliminated a lot of the fiddly annoying rules of SFB and made several surprising changes, but still seemed to retain the crunchy goodness of the original. We were exhausted, but enjoyed firing off a few overloaded disrupters on a Klingon D7 anyway….
And that was our gigantic high-intensity maximum geek experience of the year. It will be some time before we can top this. It was crazy to drive so far and get a hotel for something like this, but it was almost worth it in order to get to hang out with “championship” level board gamers. The whole date-change to Valentines Day practically killed the thing… and Monday being a work day didn’t help it, either, I guess. One guy said that there was more people at the local game club meeting than at the con. (!!) You’d wonder why folks at the club wouldn’t come out and support the con, but… if you have players for your favorite game already, why would you pay even a measly five bucks to get into a con…?
The experience gave me several insights into the strengths of CAR WARS and how it fits into the overall gaming scene:
* CAR WARS is technically a board game, though it is clearly deep into the “Ameritrash” wing. This is problematic given how gamer tastes have evolved since the eighties, though many serious gamers are still relatively unrepentant.
* Euro-games require people to understand the core rules and strategies– but CAR WARS is a simulation that maps more-or-less to reality. This means you can get casual gamers into a “real” game much more quickly than most other con games. CAR WARS also has a lot less in it that you have to explain when compared to something more fiddly like Federation Commander.
* The most important quality of CAR WARS in a convention setting is its capacity to yield a good gaming experience to 4 to 6 players in less than an hour. A good referee can also run entire games without referencing the rulebook as long as he has appropriate play aids. Most CAR WARS players tend not to develop campaigns and or scenarios to take advantage of these key qualities.
* The CAR WARS setting details add a lot to the game and really help to set it apart from the other convention type games. People just love to come up with snappy remarks about the nationalization of the oil reserves, the secession of the Free Oil States, the egregiously shameless sponsorships of pro autoduelists, and the efficiency of the SDI Star Wars program. The fold-out map of Autoduel America is a particularly good conversation starter.
* CAR WARS is a jack-of-all-trades game. It is a set of miniatures rules, but probably way too silly for most serious miniatures folks. It is a light role playing game, but it is not fleshed out enough to hold the attention of serious role-players. It is a board game, but the rules are complex enough that the average person is not likely to master it well enough to run “serious” events. For a goofy game marketed to casual teenage gamers of the eighties, it was a hit…. But when it is presented to modern gamers alongside the best games of today and yesterday, it doesn’t quite gain the necessary traction to pull in a steady audience. In my opinion, the game provides a wonderful combination of war gaming, role-playing, and board gaming– but it has trouble because most gamers have a decided interest in only one of those three things at any given time. Best-of-breed systems have continued to be developed in the years since the demise of CARS WARS and this leaves the game at quite a disadvantage in spite of the many hours spent refining it in previous decades….
Comparing ourselves to the other tables, we felt pretty good about the quality experience we could offer people. In my not-so-humble-opinion, our custom game aids, mastery of the rules, and incorporation of various setting nuances provide a solid value in terms what can generally be expected in a convention environment.
While I probably have more realistic expectations for what can be done in the “real world” with impromptu CAR WARS mini-campaigns, I’m still not ready to give up on the possibility of a large marathon convention type binge of autodueling action. If we can somehow coordinate with at least two other dedicated fans and also find a well-run convention with a level of participation that suits what we’re trying to do, I think we could really do something cool.
Please contact me if you’re interested in making this happen. Maybe next year sometime, though. I’m completely burnt out on gaming right now!