Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Car Wars Next

“First, you turn the time circuits on. This readout tell you where you’re going, this one tells you where you are, this one tells you where you were.” — Dr. Emmet Brown

Before you go muck around with one of the greatest games of all time you really need to understand it before you change it. You need know what made it awesome before you start “fixing” things– even if you’re taking a different direction. So then:

  1. Classic CAR WARS was a role playing game. For people that started with the zip loc bag or the black plastic pocket box, road dueling was the default scenario. This is something that has really gotten lost over the years….
  2. Classic CAR WARS was the high water mark for the “design a thing” game. The sort of stuff that was done in the 80’s world championships was the crack cocaine of many teenage gaming groups. Division 30… no holds barred… tricked out loophole-loving death on wheels! The bluffing and counter-bluffing… the choosing of design strategies based on known tendencies of the other players… this was a big deal.
  3. It took a lot of freaking effort to sort out how to make the game work with all the new equipment that got added. Laser guidance link, ram plates,  funky tire options, gas engines, speed modifiers, and top speeds…. I waited for each issue of ADQ to get the latest on all of this… and especially loved the variant rules for movement and fire. The final transition to Compendium Second Edition was a big deal.
  4. Classic CAR WARS hit a sweet spot on the simulation vs. playability scale. Easier to learn and faster to play out than Star Fleet Battles. More nuanced than Battletech. Arena combat was inherently more fun and and manageable than military type campaigns. And people really wanted to do the “every player in a different vehicle fighting in a great big free for all” game even with systems that didn’t make a lot of sense for that– but CAR WARS was absolutely perfect fit and owned that niche right up until the release of the Unreal Tournament (or Halo) type of first person shooter game.

How much of the above does 5th edition CAR WARS capture…? Not a whole lot. Yeah… times have changed… and you can’t go home again…. But assuming you were going to work from 5th edition towards something accessible, fun, and playable in today’s scene… this is what I’d try to address:

  1. Dropping down to 3-phases had a lot of unintended side effects. Combined with the sequence of play decisions, it made for a game that has some unrealistic/capricious artifacts when it comes down to determining who gets to execute the t-bone or the point-blank shot.
  2. Any game balance issues similar to those in #1 were historically addressed by in CAR WARS by letting individual duelists compensate for the issues within the context of the design system. (“Tires are too weak in our games? Okay… I’ll get steel belting, armored wheel hubs, and wheelguards!”) This is not a possible with 5th edition due to the lack of a design system.
  3. The issues in #1 are actually exacerbated by the stock designs included with 5th edition. The cars are over-armored, have wimpy weapons in a lot of cases, and have weak tires. This results in one-on-one duels that are pretty much determined before the first shot is fired and creates a game play that hinges mostly on tire shots and rams. 5th edition CAR WARS actually isn’t a game about driving and shooting! Even worse… it isn’t actually all that much simpler that Classic CAR WARS because the design imbalances force you to focus on the most complex and hard to adjudicate aspects of the game.

As I think about the design constraints for a new edition of the game, I find myself looking more towards the old Jumpstart rules, GURPS Autoduel first edition, Aaron Allston’s tri-stat Autoventures rules, and Outrider for inspiration. (Honestly, before Outrider, I would have said that a simplified CAR WARS game couldn’t work. Way to go Dice Fest Games!) For me personally… I really want something that my eight year old son can get into. Prep time needs to be zero and playing times need to clock in at the 20 to 30 minute range. The turning key needs to stay– it just wouldn’t be CAR WARS without it– but I think phased movement, handling status, and the concept of a turn break all have to go. In the basic game… I really think tires, pedestrians, and hand weapons have to be eliminated as well.

Hmm… I’m getting some ideas….

6 responses to “Car Wars Next

  1. RogerBW May 2, 2012 at 7:20 am

    I think there’s scope for a new era of “design a thing” gaming, if online design and validation can be got working. If instead of having to write one’s own spreadsheet the player can simply move things around in a web form or phone application…

    My (1981) pocket-box Car Wars described both road and arena scenarios, and gave the impression that the same character would indulge in both – which doesn’t really fit with the big money pro sports image of the arena introduced later, but does fit quite well with the fairly loose sort of role-playing quite usual at the time where a party might be bashing a dungeon one week, captured and forced to fight as gladiators the next.

    I regard Car Wars as a “role-playing-ish wargame”, much like Chainmail, BattleTech or Man to Man – it’s written in the expectation that life is cheap, you won’t get too attached to a character, you may well be playing multiple characters at once, and you don’t necessarily need a referee/GM… but the unit of play is still the individual named warrior (and his personally-piloted fighting machine, sometimes) rather than anything bigger.

  2. earlburt May 5, 2012 at 8:37 am

    CW absolutely needs a tire repair system, even if only to say that it is possible along the lines of repairing other items. If there’s a design system, and a presumption of campaigns, tire repair is a must.

    The prohibition against tire repair is kind of weird, actually. And not at all in keeping with a salvage-oriented, living-off-scraps game world.

    I would actually like to formally propose that we adopt tire repair as a house rule, and to treat tires like any other item. Rapiring 1DP costs 10% of original value, 2DP 30%, 3DP 50%, etc.

  3. Johnny Mnemonic May 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    When I think about it, I think Car Wars should be a turn based, 2D computer game. Here’s the advantages:
    -a lot of the crunchy design math could be done for you. That was fun to do by hand, but frankly really raised the barrier to entry and made it take a lot longer to get started. If the math is revealed instead of a black box, it could feel a lot like it did before, just with a built in calculator.
    -The crunchy movement and combat would be kept track of. The biggest problem of the phases, speed, and handling tracks were remembering to adjust the counters, and remembering if you had already fired that turn.
    -The crunchy collision stuff could be done with real math and physics, instead of the fakey collision rules that had to simplified to be handled by humans in a reasonable amount of play time.
    -You wouldn’t need a huge freaking table.
    -The event wouldn’t be reset by one player sneezing.
    -In fact, you could do a turn based PBEM with folks you might not otherwise meet. Although 10/phases a turn would take a long time to play through. That solves a big problem of finding people that want to play this kind of game in your area.
    -Rule tweaks and new weapons etc could be downloaded and instantly integrated into the rule set.
    -No shipping costs, so international is less of an issue.

    A pretty radical departure, I know, but consider it. Disadvantages:

    -Outside of SJGames paper design experience. That’s the biggest issue.
    -Maps would be limited by common denominator screen size, or have a lot of scrolling. Probably both, but I don’t know that you could get a regular arena in a 20″ monitor with a sidebar for combatant info at a scale that allows the counters to be visible. Scrolling around kinda works for Triple A (, but it’s not great.
    -You loose the old school feel that would appeal the most to the folks that played and loved CW, and perhaps would only be interested in a new version as an alternative to computer gaming.

  4. Jason Rimmer May 21, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    OK I’m in the process of researching for a turn based Car Wars style game for PC and IPad. I’m trying to get as much info from fans who want to see a game like this and what features and mechanics you’d want to see.

    The setting will be the seventies (great range of cars then from the big american gas guzzlers of the fifties all guns and chrome to a Jensen Intercepter). It will be on a Hexed based map so it’s 2D top down. It will be turn based (maybe simultaneous turns, I’d like that bu it may not be possible).

    So please email me at j__rimmer(at) with any of your ideas and wish lists.

  5. Jason Rimmer May 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Just need to say obviously it can’t be Car Wars but it will be along those lines.

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