Playing games is often about escapism and fantasy, and if there’s one fantasy we’ve probably all shared, it’s pressing a big red button on the car dashboard and letting loose with a hail of machine gun fire at the car in front of us as it cut us off in traffic! So it’s not surprising that car racing and combat games have for a long time been a popular genre in boardgaming.
The film Mad Max (1979) and its two sequels Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior in the US) in 1981 and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, obviously had a big influence on this kind of game. In fact you could say they started the craze. The director George Miller has a sequel slated for 2012 called Fury Road, so we may see a new flood of car combat games, especially those set in a post-apocalyptic melieu.
Of course the grand-daddy of them all is the venerable Car Wars, first published in 1980 by Steve Jackson Games in a zip-log bag and later in a small plastic box—and still later in any number of editions each more elaborate than the last, along with a plethora of expansions. Car Wars pretty much set the standard for the car combat games to follow, with weapons such as missiles and machine guns, car upgrades and armour plating, and of course the ubiquitous post-apocalyptic setting where everyone is out to get their hands on a dwindling supply of petrol, and road warriors take part in frequently fatal demolition derbies. Hold on—that sounds a bit like right now!
A few years later, 1983 saw the release of one of my all-time favourite games by Games Workshop: Battlecars. This game (and its sequel Battlebikes) has provided many hours of hilarious car-fightin’ fun for myself and my friends over the years. Each player has one or more car and bike templates which they can fit out with offensive weapons—missiles, flamethrowers, shells, machine guns—and defensive weapons—spikes, mines, oil, smoke. Spaces on the template represent the car’s armour plating. On a small board with cardboard counters the cars drive full-blast at one another, manoeuvring around buildings and trees to get a clear shot, dropping mines in front of opponents, and frequently the whole thing descends into an all-in collision-fest that is hilariously violent! I like this game so much that I went to a lot of trouble creating a Matchbox-scale version, using buildings from the Games Workshop Adeptus Titanicus game, model trees and custom-made speedometers for the cars. You can see the result in the accompanying photo.
Games Workshop didn’t stop there with the car combat theme, but in 1988 released Dark Future in a big box with plastic model cars, motorbikes and large racing track sections. The emphasis was a bit more on racing, and the more complex rules (along with a set of campaign rules that verged on roleplaying) took some of the ‘bash-’em-up’ fun out of the game, but it’s still an interesting take on the genre. You play either a Sanctioned Op (a future bounty hunter), or a Renegade, as you battle out on the highways of the—you guessed it, post-apocalyptic—future. Of course there was an expansion, White Line Fever, along with a series of novels set in the game’s melieu published by GW and their book publishing company, Black Flame.
GW’s last foray into the car combat world was the strange Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda/Dark Future hybrid Gorkamorka, really a skirmish combat game with vehicles, with rival ork gangs battling it out on the surface of a desert planet.
Mad Max was such a cultural phenomenon that it directly inspired a more mainstream game called Thunder Road, published by toy giant Hasbro in 1986. Each team of three cars and a helicopter battles it out on a stretch of—really, there’s no other way to say it, post-apocalyptic—highway; the game came with two sections, and you repositioned the back piece to the front when the cars had moved off it, making a rolling section of endless highway. Great little plastic pieces and very simple rules make this a great bash-‘em-up car combat game that sits nicely on that nebulous border between toy and game. If you’re buying this on Ebay, be careful; the US and UK versions were made in different scales!
The new millennium didn’t see an end to gamer obsessions with car combat. Fantasy Flight Games entered the auto fray with 2003’s Wreckage, a small Silver Line game that came with cardboard pieces but is really best played with Matchbox cars. Another game from that year in the same small box format that I can’t help but mention here is Arena Maximus. Sure, it’s chariots drawn by fantasy creatures instead of cars, and spells instead of machine guns, but it’s car combat in an arena by another name! A small, short, fun game that’s worth checking out.< If you’re looking for a brand-new take on violent car racing you can’t go past Asmodee’s Rush n’ Crush, released just last year. This fantastic game thankfully doesn’t force me to type ‘post-apocalyptic’ again; this time we’re in the sci-fi setting of Rackham Entertainment’s AT-43 tabletop miniatures game. The variety in this game is great, with ten reversible track sections that can make up a huge range of arenas, chock full of tricky turns and obstacles. An ingenious gear system, easily recorded on a player board, really gives this game an impression of speed and danger that the other car combat games lack, and when you mix in the classic range of weaponry you have one of the best-ever takes on the genre. It even comes with a quick and dirty rules set called ‘Arcade’ and a more complex version called ‘Overdrive’. Highly recommended.
The newest game to be announced in this prolific genre is Z-Man’s Road Kill Rally, due for release this year. I don’t know much about it yet, but Zev of Z-Man says “think Car Wars meets Death Race 2000”, and that just can’t be a bad thing! Points are scored by killing pedestrians, destroying competing drivers and racing across the finish line first. It reminds me of the old computer game Carmageddon, which I used to spend many hilarious hours playing, and we’re already seeing a little bit of similar controversy with the satirical theme of cars start mowing down grandmothers and kids. Remember, it’s just a game folks!
Hopefully none of the fans of car combat games ever get into their car and start purposely crashing into annoying cars or pedestrians, firing off missiles at drivers who cut in front or dropping loads of spikes to take out tailgaters. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about it once in a while …
For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher sites or BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for many of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).
by Universal Head
Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing for clients across the globe for more than twenty years, and playing games for much longer than that. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent an entire year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for a computer game. In between he’s designed just about every form of visual communication: corporate identities, websites, packaging, brochures, even postage stamps. He also created the game websites www.tekumel.com and www.battleloremaster.com. His blog site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.