Fender Bender: Car Wars Classic (Steve Jackson Games)

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Show any gamer of a certain age a small, black, rectangular plastic box with a snapping lid and he or she will think: Steve Jackson Games. Inside would be a moderately complex strategy game with thick cardstock pieces you had to cut out yourself and that would blow away with the slightest breeze. But it didn’t matter. You were about to play Ogre, or Car Wars, or Battlesuit. My fourteen-year-old self could hardly contain his enthusiasm.

So, from the moment I saw SJG’s Car Wars Classic on the shelves of my very fine local game store, Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC, I had to have it. Not a strict re-print of the original from the ziplock and pocket box days but rather the fourth edition of the game, packaged to re-create the allure of the original, down to the same box cover art, Car Wars Classic ticks off all the boxes. Nostalgia? Check. Impulse price point at $20 retail? Check. Five pages of rules on how to play the game as a pedestrian, including details on pushing a dead body out from behind the driver’s seat of a wrecked car? Um, check?

Look out for the mines

It struck me, as I took the game out for a spin at Labyrinth with all-around good gamer guy Mike Vogt, that I might not have understood just what Car Wars had become in the intervening decades since my initial purchase in the ’80s. In fact, upon encountering the infamous turn rate key, I realized that I never actually played Car Wars as a youth. I dutifully cut out all the car and cycle counters, set up the road sections, and then put it away, absent any actual counter pushing. I still find those cardstock counters in bags of random gaming detritus to this day.

Mike and I played about thirty seconds worth of Car Wars Classic, equating to thirty turns and roughly two hours of real time. Being of a mathematical bent, Mike rather enjoyed the game, with the calculation of turns and momentum and degrees of skidding; I found it all very tedious. Getting the cars into engagement range took forever, then a flurry of inconsequential combat that barely dented each car’s armor, then more turning and skidding and calculating to try to make another pass. The rulebook didn’t help, being laid out in a chatty style, very much akin to a role playing game rulebook rather than a wargame rulebook, sixty-four pages of excessive detail and no clear flowchart of how to shoot the damn machine-guns. Don’t get me wrong—I take an odd delight in rulebooks with more chrome than a ’57 Chevy at a doo-wop concert—but the Car Wars Classic rules just left me cold.

A daily driver

I had far more fun designing the cars than actually driving them, a situation I also find in games like Galaxy Trucker, where setting up the conditions for the chaos that follows is more fun than playing out the chaos itself. Several learned Car Wars hands suggested that our initial situation—a one-on-one duel—doesn’t showcase the strengths of the Car Wars system, and I can see where multiple opponents, or a more directed scenario, like a convoy escort, could enhance the experience. But on the whole, I’m going to leave Car Wars Classic on the curb. If I need a vehicle combat fix, I’ll turn to outer space and either Star Fleet Battles or Federation Commander, both of which have much more interesting details and a more streamlined play style. (And yes, I realize that SFB is a poster child for massive, unwieldy rules.)

On the positive side, at least now I know that I don’t need to jump onto the promised Kickstarter for a new edition of Car Wars. But if one of my gaming compatriots picks it up, well, I’d probably get behind the wheel again for another spin.

3 thoughts on “Fender Bender: Car Wars Classic (Steve Jackson Games)

  1. Matthew, Therese, and Jude

    Excellent write up as always! It was indeed often more fun designing and outfitting a vehicle than the game itself! I still have a ton of Car Wars stuff. I may have to dust it off and make sure I’m in a draft free room. 🙂

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