Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Car Wars in 1984: Hell on Wheels

I’ve never understood why the Car Wars line didn’t do more with the whole “Chassis & Crossbow” theme. You’d think it would have been a big deal, but beyond a few issues of ADQ (1/3, 4/4, and 7/2) and an odd forgotten section of Dueltrack. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the game was optimized for sort of the James Bond car vs. car level of resolution. It’s lack of granularity made ill-fitted for playing out low tech “Road Warrior” type scenarios… and attempts at adapting the game to have more nuance and detail seemed to always result in an unplayable mess.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that someone had gone out of their way to tackle the gritty “Mad Max” style of game with a serious Car Wars supplement way back in 1984– and that it was done by the great Aaron Allston of all people! (Aaron wrote or helped to write Sunday Drivers, Autoduel Champions, and GURPS Autoduel and was also one of the most influential Champions gamemasters of his day.)

The main thing about this supplement is that really… it just shouldn’t exist. In the first place, it is made for Car Wars, Battlecars, and Highway 2000 and the permissions for using those game systems just wasn’t there. Its a wonder that Associated Clearing Services wasn’t sued out of existence. Another thing that is unusual is the aggressive use of the Lamborghini Countach. Other than that little yellow Beetle from the original set, I don’t think Car Wars ever used real-life makes and models. I don’t know how they got away with it, but they managed to hang around long enough to get a half dozen supplements like this one onto the market.

Anyway, I took a few hours and sat down with this game and tried it out only using just the rules and supplements that were available at the time of its release. Here’s my take on how good a supplement this is:

The Adventure — First off… the structure of this game is exactly the way I run Car Wars as a role playing scenario. I think up a situation… then I present it to the player(s) and let them ask question and plan. As they try to resolve things, there may be some brief encounters that result in some quick combat, but otherwise… the game is leading up to a big showdown. That “boss” combat is really the point, but there’s more than one way to approach it and the players can get to it with varying amounts of preparation, support, and information. One funny thing here is the big prize for winning is $100,000– the exact same amount used in Convoy and a couple of other role playing autoduel adventures. (What’s up with that?) At any rate, this one is worth adapting to a single player and referee game session. Rating: [10]

The Illustrations — This thing is lavishly illustrated by Jean and David Martin. There is some seriously great work here… and at one point it even verges on rated “R” material just as the previous Turbofire supplement did. (Somebody call Tipper Gore!) Rating: [10]

The Writing — The tone of the paragraphs is free-wheeling and fun and it seems like you have a gamemaster right there with you. Most solitaire adventures of this sort are spartan and read almost like a computer program. It’s obvious that even at this point that Allston could hold down a career as a freelance fiction writer… which, he eventually did. Rating: [10]

The Combats — The vehicles are not too bad for the time period. Allston uses every shred of equipment he could pull from Car Wars, Turbofire, and Autoduel Champions to make the various vehicle designs. However… solitaire Car Wars combat just doesn’t work that well. It’s freaking dull, really. If you play Car Wars duels– even just with stock Stingers– then everything comes down to maneuver. The crazy push-your-luck stuff of the game is really hard to fake when playing solitaire… but if you have an actual opponent somehow even a stray quarter inch of movement suddenly becomes insanely important. Without the maneuver element being “real”, it turns into a dull grind not unlike a High Guard combat. Also… many of the combats here seem to be either too hard or too easy– and the pedestrian duel is even just a straight die rolling contest with no real tactics involved. This is really anti-climatic. Even worse… most of these combats are literally set up on infinite, featureless plains! Rating: [3]

The Role Playing System — You get three attributes in this game: driver, gunner, and perception and you have to roll under them at various points. This works well enough for what it is, but the way this is rigged does not mesh well with Car Wars. (There’s only one way to translate a new/legal Car Wars character.) And like I mentioned above, there’s no decent embellishment of the hand-to-hand combat system that is almost completely lacking in Car Wars. Rating: [3]

The Quick Combat System — This is the first iteration of Aaron Allston’s abstract vehicle combat system. On the plus side, it is designed to integrate with the role playing stats used here… but it is just dreadfully dull. There are six different positions: head on, tailing, passing, etc. There is a paragraph system to link them up. It seems like a neat idea, but cars just go past each other over and over again and it is hard to suspend disbelief. He did try to improve it in later supplements, but this really just stinks. Rating: [2]

The Counters — Oh, yeah! Old school Car Wars counters! What’s not to like? Well… a complete lack of matching wrecks to go with them. Nice try, though. Rating: [5]

The Last Word

I admit, I had some pretty good fun with this one. I’ve always wanted a decent scenario that was more along the lines of a wild “Road Warrior” adventure. This thing is uber-cool, unusual, and hard to find. (And woah… those prices on ebay are pretty shocking now.) BUT… the attempt to cater to three different car combat systems means that the combat scenarios are noticeably watered down. And Combat is kind of the point of these games, after all. I see that the later solitaire scenarios in this series have a slightly different format; I’ll be curious to see if Aaron Allston eventually overcame the shortcomings I noticed here.

Combined Rating: [6.1]

Note: “Hell on Wheels” was donated to the Space Gaming Historical Archives by Michael Owen.

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