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Car Wars to Return in 2013! Some Thoughts…

As reported during my interview with Andrew Hackard and Phil Reed of Steve Jackson Games, SJG is going to produce Car Wars next year. This was certainly a great thing to hear as I can say the title was one of the games Elliott, our friends, and I played quite a bit in high school. No word specifically if this will be another Kickstarter project, what will be included in the game, or if we will see a major reworking of the game’s mechanics.

I understand not all that long ago SJG made an attempt to reintroduce the classic to new gamers with rather lackluster (to say the least) sales numbers. The reasons behind this are many but, in my opinion, four issues really stood out that led to an overall failure to the relaunch:

1. Prebuilt Vehicles – One of the biggest appeals of Car Wars was the ability to custom create just about any sort of vehicle your imagination could concoct. As long as you had your chassis, power plant, and amount of money to be spent you knew what you could put together as a load out. When Car Wars was reimagined ten years ago and released as division sets with a handful of predesigned vehicles much of the fun of prepping for a game went right out the window. Granted the SJG website has some rules for designing your own cars but it just isn’t the same.

2. Major Clunk in the Trunk – When Car Wars hit the scene in a little zip lock bag back in my freshman year of high school (1981) there was nothing like it on the gaming market. Overall this was an era when friends got together to play a single game for hours and although you could never say CW was the quickest game around it still moved at a good enough clip to keep everyone entertained. As new supplements came out that began to add more and more types of vehicles like semis, boats, aircraft, and so forth more and more rules were added to the game which lead to making the title nearly unplayable. The 2002 streamlined much of the game play and put the focus back on auto combat but much of the clunkiness remained.

3. Minimal Backstory – Car Wars is about a fairly dystopian future with a good deal of the films Death Race 2000, Mad Max, and even Soylent Green jumbled into the mix. The old Autoduel Quarterlies used to come out and, amazingly enough, we actually read the stories! A lot of the fun was playing in this big bad world where Theme didn’t really come to the forefront in the fifth edition and CW suffered greatly for it.

4. Lack of Support – This may surprise some folks as SJG actually released nine different sets for the fifth edition. Even with that many in the series the impression a lot of gamers (including myself) got was SJG didn’t have their heart in tackling Car Wars and, although I’m sure everyone behind that edition was trying, the system was on the backburner and never a product that would receive first tier treatment.

Now that I’ve mentioned why I feel the previous incarnation of Car Wars left folks wanting I’ll share four quick thoughts on how Steve Jackson Games can really make the new Car Wars shine.

A. Overhaul the Mechanics – Obviously much easier said than done but from the start Car Wars never seemed to scale correctly. The setting is one of televised arena duels and highway mayhem but if you were to seriously calculate the amount of game time these battles took up, you’d be looking at around ten to twelve seconds and the vehicles would have traveled maybe a couple of hundred yards. “Thanks for coming to the arena. I hope you feel you got your money’s worth from the three and a half minutes of action we packed onto tonight’s card…”

The combat and damage resolution work and we never saw any issues with those but the movement and time scale have to be revamped. There are a few racing or vehicle combat games on the market which provide an impression of actual racing or at least of your car traversing more than a couple of football fields during a game. Sadly enough these games t’ain’t Car Wars folks but if the new edition wants to take the checkered flag major changes in the movement mechanics must be addressed. I can’t be the only gamer who never saw a player in Car Wars finish more than a lap during a racing scenario.

B. Keep it Simple – By this I don’t mean the game has to be dummied down to the point where it barely resembles the classic we know and love. On one hand I’m talking about making the system accessible enough where gamers who have never played won’t be overwhelmed while at the same time shooting for the ability of six or eight players to realistically finish a good solid game in under three hours. 2013 isn’t 1983 and people don’t have the same time to invest in playing a single title with friends as we did in the past. This isn’t to say I want to see a filler game here but I still remember the days of eight hour CW events where, with only nine or ten players, we still didn’t have a clear winner when it was time to call it a day.

C. Stay Focused – I don’t expect everything and the kitchen sink to be included in the new edition of CW nor do I want to see it. I’d like to see a less is more philosophy taken where we possibly only have autos and motorcycles with other less common vehicles tackled later. Give us loads of chassis and weapons and goodies of destruction to let us go to town but don’t let the playablity suffer due to an overemphasis on wowing us with accessories or shiny components. Personally, if we can get some interesting arena tiles and highway pieces I’ll be happy at that.

D. Theme it Up – As I mentioned previously Car Wars was heavy on theme and I’d love to see that return. We all have that moment when someone cuts us off in traffic when the thought of opening up with twin mounted machine guns flash through our minds; hell, I used to have a friend who would jokingly say, “Give me missile lock,” whenever some other driver pulled some reckless move. This is probably hardwired in our DNA somehow and Car Wars let us play off our little fantasies of blowing cars off the road. along with this was a very strong RPG flavor to the game as well as there were a variety of supplements which came out that were almost along the lines of campaigns where your group was trying to deliver some critically needed supply somewhere or protecting a town from a biker gang. Who knows, maybe you were the biker gang? Of course these are the sorts of things we should hope to see once Car Wars returns but the ground work for these kinds of adventures needs to be there from the start.

Obviously, no one outside the halls of Steve Jackson Games knows what they have up their sleeves for the 2013 Car Wars release and I’m just sharing my thoughts. I’m not even sure what the company has planned for Ogre once the Designer’s Edition comes out as that could simply be a one and done – although I doubt it following the huge numbers the Kickstarter brought in – and I honestly have no idea what changes were made to the mechanics of the game since I haven’t played the upcoming release. Yet for all the excitement and, let’s be honest, revenue Ogre has generated for SJG Car Wars done right (or at least moving the system in the right direction) will make those Ogre numbers look like a drop in the bucket.

At the end of the day, even if SJG simply releases something that is along the same lines as the Deluxe edition from years back I’m still going to buy it. I really will but mainly for the nostalgia factor more than anything else. Because, truth be told, if you stripped away all the theme and tinsel from Car Wars and left only the mechanics? It really isn’t a great game. Seriously it isn’t as it moves at a snail’s pace, scales poorly, clunks along mechanically, and simply doesn’t play smoothly. Yet looking back through the rose colored glasses of memories to the afternoons in some pal’s basement, blowing the hell out of each other, we had a blast. I can only hope SJG takes an approach to the new edition which will lead a whole new generation of gamers to create those same kinds of memories.

As I’ve said a few times on the show, if Steve Jackson Games does Car Wars right? It’ll be like printing money!

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Jeff McAleer

Founder/Editor-in-chief of The Gaming Gang website and host of The Gaming Gang Dispatch and other TGG media, Jeff tackles any and all sorts of games but has a special fondness for strategy, conflict sims, and roleplaying games. Plus, he's certainly never at a loss for an opinion...

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  1. Great article! Of all the SJ intellectual properties, this is the one I will lay my money down for without a second thought….*if* they hit on all the marks you’ve laid out.

    You missed one though….I’m guessing you didn’t mention it because it is so obvious….but it’s got to use miniatures instead of paper counters to even have a chance with the modern gaming audience.

    Not only that, but I hope they find a clever way to leverage matchbox scale cars, similar to Dark Future.

    1. Actually Dave I don’t believe Car Wars needs minis to be able to succeed with the modern gaming audience. While adding miniatures to the game would obviously improve the visual appeal, asking SJG to do something they never had success with in the past – producing miniatures – is probably asking a bit much. If people recall the Car Wars miniatures that were available were lackluster to say the least, although for the life of me I can’t remember who produced them. Avoiding the miniature issue is more than likely the reasoning behind the 3D modeling decision for the Ogre Designer’s Edition as you won’t be seeing miniatures with that release. Also I have the impression going the miniatures route could turn more people away from Car Wars than including them would bring onboard as board gamers still outnumber miniature gamers (especially in the U.S.) and the thought of having to paint minis could be a turn off for some folks. Plus you’re looking at a substantial increase in the production cost which obviously would be passed on to the consumer. In the end having miniatures could turn into a zero sum factor overall, neither adding or subtracting to the number of buyers.

      I wish I knew more about the overall game plan SJG has for Car Wars as the public at large still has no idea if we’re going to see the title reinvented or simply reprinted. I’d certainly welcome Steve Jackson to join Elliott and I through Skype to discuss CW (and all things SJG really) in more depth and try to get a better feel for what the long term outlook could be. I think most people who follow the hobby understand Mr. Jackson is certainly one of the most creative minds in the industry but he tends to go through phases where he’s overly focused on one thing and one thing alone. Happily I can say we’ve started to see SJG realize many of their older IPs have legs which has led to what I believe is a change in direction outside of only developing and supporting their core revenue generators which are currently lighter gaming fare. Really this is just a gut feeling but some discussions with people within the company (or affiliated with the Men in Black program) have colored that feeling to some extent.

      If Car Wars is simply and one and done so be it and I’ll be thankful SJG revisited the title. If, on the other hand, this is something the company plans on supporting and producing new content for on a regular basis – with a dedicated development team – in place we could see something really special. Hopefully, this is the mindset at SJG and, with that being the case, they would certainly look around to partner with a solid U.S. based miniatures company which would be able to produce quality plastic or resin vehicles to augment someone buying the base game or any supplemental releases; a particular Texas miniature company jumps straight to mind. I don’t think we’d see models on the scale of Hot Wheels but something along the lines of the old Micro Machines would work well in my opinion. Plus, they wouldn’t end up having to be priced in the $10-$15 range for a single car…

      We have a whole lot of “ifs” there though.

      All in all I think as long as the new Car Wars has solid components such as thick cardboard counters and road pieces or such, with the average midsize vehicle clocking in say around the inch and a quarter by half inch range, there won’t be any problems in selling a ton of copies and seeing massive support if SJG goes the Kickstarter route. As for the miniatures? I’m sure Steve Jackson Games has fielded plenty of inquiries since it doesn’t take a genius to see the $900K+ support Ogre garnered or the hundreds of thousands of dollars quite a few solely miniature based projects have brought in on Kickstarter.

      Don’t worry though, Elliott and I have got our fingers squarely on the pulse of the Car Wars developments and whenever we hear something we’ll be sure to pass it along to our audience along with our honest appraisals of where the project is heading!

      1. Minis (miniatures, not the car!) aren’t essential, but they sure would help sell it to a wider audience. They also represent a healthy revenue stream in the modern market so it makes sense to use them. Plastics are cheap to produce and can be wonderfully detailed these days… I’m all for them in a new version of the game.

        1. I’m not too sure what’s cooking with the Car Wars reboot since it took SJG a loooong time to finally begin rolling Ogre out. I’d guess the ramp up for Car Wars would be more than likely twice the size of Ogre due to demand.

  2. I have, for the life of me, never understood why there is no Car wars MMOG out there. Think of it: a massive, enormous map of America (or wherever), much bigger than GTA, with highways and bandits and misions and PVP. It would be fantastic. I cant be the only person who has thought of this…

    1. I agree… Remember the old Interstate ’76 PC game? It was a great interpretation of Car Wars and showed the potential in a CW game like you describe, even back then.

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