Taking the 6th edition of post-apocalyptic vehicle combat game Car Wars for a test drive

For game nerds of the 80s, there are few games more beloved and legendary than Steve Jackson's Car Wars. I bought my pocket box edition at Hobby Crafters in Arlington, VA in 1983(?). It was for sale on a rack with other Steve Jackson and Metagamming baggied and pocket box games. A fan of the film Mad Max from a few years earlier, I instantly saw Car Wars as a way of recreating similar vehicular mayhem on the tabletop. (I think on that same day I also bought OGRE and Necromancer.)

I loved so many things about the original Car Wars. The fact that you could fit such a complex driving and combat simulation into a ziploc bag or pocket box. The fact that you had to finish making the game yourself by cutting out the many tokens, cars, and "turning keys." And I loved the over-the-top apocalyptic world of its near future, further fleshed out in countless supplements, zines, and magazine articles. In terms of what was on the table, there wasn't much to look at, just graph paper arenas and roads, paper cars and counters, and some d6 dice. But we were all used to the theater of the mind gaming of D&D, and the map and chits wargaming of Avalon Hill and SPI, so Car Wars fit right in. We finished the games in our heads.

Fast-forward through five editions of the game through the years, which streamlined the rules somewhat, upgraded the counters (but kept components close to the same), and we skid like an Legendary Ace into the 21st century Car Wars of the new, Kickstarted 6th edition. What once fit in a "pocket box" now comes in something closer to the size of a cake box (with a heavy cake inside).

In revamping any classic game with a rabidly devoted following, the question is always how much of the old to keep and how much to streamline to engage a modern audience with shorter attention spans. Steve Jackson Games has done a admirable job of threading that needle. Car Wars was always known as a very "crunchy" game, with lots of tables, vehicle record sheets, tiny counters, lots of simple math, and a noble attempt at simulating real car combat.

Sixth edition attempts to retain some of that complexity while keeping everything as visual and fast-moving as possible. E.g. instead of consulting tables to resolve fire and movement, all of the hits, tire damage, swerves, fires, defensive maneuvers, etc. are rendered as symbols on color-coded dice. Beautifully illustrated weapons and crew cards, and new color-coded turning keys, clearly show how many dice of which colors you need to roll for maneuvering, combat, and defense.

The heart of 6th edition Car Wars is the player's dashboard. This thick and colorful card display has sliding markers that track speed, armor, fires, tires, and power plant. Basically, the game comes down to moving, maneuvering, attacking, defending, and indicating all of this on your dashboard. It's a really clear and visual way of tracking everything that's happening to your car. No more consulting tables and poring over your car's record sheet.

The dashboard is surrounded by your crew and weapons cards. There are a lot of similarities between 6th edition Car Wars and Star Wars X-Wing. Like X-Wing, half of the fun is designing and building your car and outfitting its weapons and crew. Laid out for play, the cards clearly indicate what dice need to be rolled and what special abilities the cards offer. The core game comes with 234 cards and more are available through expansion sets.

Minis come unpainted.

The other big innovation of 6th edition is the inclusion of 1/64-scale miniatures. There are 12 cars in the 4-player core box (6 in the two-player starter set). There was some grumbling when 6th edition was announced over why SJ Games wasn't going to go the route of Gaslands and use Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars. But in deciding on 1/64-scale, these cool Car Wars vehicles can be used in Gaslands and Gaslands cars can be used in Car Wars. Players are snapping off the pins that hold the Car Wars vehicles to the translucent bases and using poster putty to attach their Gaslands vehicles for use in Car Wars. The miniatures are beautifully cast and look like a dream to paint. It's also cool to see cars you're familiar with from the earlier editions of the game, now in 3D.

Where the tiny paper/card counters and graph paper editions of Car Wars were known for their crunch, the far more streamlined and visual 6th edition distinguishes itself with lots of cardboard bloat. After Blake and I played our first game, I said: "Well, that was fun." Their response was: "Yeah… But it seems like it's a lot of complexity for something so simple." Good point. Looking at the table, there are dashboards, tokens, turnkeys, crew, weapon, and accessory cards, damage cards, and piles of multicolored symbol dice — all to move two (or 4) little cars around the table. But I think a lot of that is a beginner's perception. I think once we get the hang of the game, are playing with 4 cars, and graduate to a more fleshed out arena with real obstacles (using our existing Gaslands play mat and terrain), the game will feel more appropriate, balanced, and "real." And, as previously stated, like X-Wing, half of the fun will be in the car-building aspects of creating amazing car load-outs.

A few gripes I had with the game were the dashboard design and the obstacles. I love the look and concept of the dash, but the markers that move inside the tracks on it are too loose. Several times during play, I jostled my board and had to reset markers. And the cardboard obstacles are just rectangular cards that say what they are on them (mud, gravel road, clay, wall, etc.). We kept bumping these during play and they really don't convey any sense of what they represent. I wish they were on thicker card stock and die cut into a shape.

The pink elephant in the review is, of course, Gaslands. This award-winning, modern take on a car combat game is far more streamlined and has the extra advantage of using cheap, converted die cast toy cars for the miniatures. The Gaslands rulebook is under $17 on Amazon and Hot Wheels cars cost about a buck a piece. The Car Wars 2-player set is $80, the 4-player version, $150. Expansion sets of 6 minis, bases, and cards are $60. In online discussions, when the question arises: "Car Wars 6th edition or Gaslands?," the latter definitely seems to win out, while old timers, nostalgic for the original game, declare their undying love for Car Wars, with some saying they enjoy both for different reasons. For me, now heavily invested in Gaslands and in love with die cast car conversions, I will still probably play both, but I already know that my combat boot will always be more pedal to the metal for Gaslands.


For those Boing Boing readers who've played Car Wars 6e, I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you've also played Gaslands.

Thumbnail image: Inset of Car Wars cover art, Steve Jackson Games