Posted by: markfender | June 9, 2015

Car Combat

I know what’s running through your geek heart right now.

mad-maxYou just got back from seeing Mad Max: Fury Road. You thought it was awesome. You’re already tweeted your thoughts. Now, you’re itching for some slam-bang car combat game to recreate the adventures of Max. As you think back on car combat games from the past, your wandering eye alights upon Car Wars. “Hey, this game was pretty fun back in the ’80s,” you think to yourself. “We should brush off the ol’ Car Wars rules.”

This is a mistake.

In this small little hobby of ours, there was only one post-apocalyptic car combat game with any sort of cachet. That game was Car Wars. It made Steve Jackson Games. But, it was also a different time and things have changed since then. Car Wars doesn’t do a good job of recreating the frenetic chase sequences and over-the-top mayhem of a movie. Instead, it’s a boring, mind-numbing exploration of segmented movement.

Segmented movement is when a game divides the movement phase up into several segments. You might set your car’s speed to 6, but you won’t move your car forward six inches (or whatever unit of measurement a speed of 6 translates into). Instead, you’ll move it one inch six different times throughout the turn. I can sort of see the idea behind segmented movement – you can’t necessarily control a big metal object moving at 60 mph and segmented movement sort of duplicates that wrestling match between a driver and their death-dealing missile of stainless steel – except that Car Wars also has all those hazard and control rolls, which replicate that same feeling. If your game uses segmented movement, your game should have shorter turns (I’m probably projecting here. The probable real reason Steve Jackson used segmented movement in Car Wars was because A) that’s how you model realistic physics and B) that’s how Star Fleet Battles did it. And, believe me, if you’re looking at how Star Fleet Battles did it, you’ve already failed).

Car Wars comes from an era of gaming where it was more important to replicate physics on the tabletop than have a fast, coherent game experience. That has shifted. Games that attempt to duplicate the high-flying nature of movies now exist, sometimes even in miniature game format. Hell, even physics-simulations-as-games have advanced to at least make more of a game out of the experience (Even Star Fleet Battles tried to modernize their game design). The realistic nature and clunky rules of Car Wars are the wrong approach to duplicating the ochre skies of Mad Max.

And yet, Car Wars is the only game in town. Steve Jackson Games even had a stretch goal on their OGRE Kickstarter to work on re-releasing Car Wars (Which is a really weird stretch goal to me – “Hey, if you give me another $15,000, I’ll think about maybe making another game.” – but whatever). They then tested the waters by doing a collection of Car Wars maps as a Kickstarter (a Kickstarter that won’t be compatible with a new version of Car Wars – I honestly don’t understand this approach and can’t believe it funded). So, yeah, it’s coming. And I’m sure that, now that there’s a popular car combat movie in theaters, it won’t have any trouble funding. But I think that’s the wrong approach.

Don’t bring back an old game. Don’t bring back an old game with some shiny new bits and bobs to modernize the design. Instead, a proper car combat game for a new age should be designed from the ground up. We need a new car combat game – one that doesn’t use segmented movement.

Listen, I get it. Car Wars was entertaining for its time. Like most of you, I have more car designs in my Car Wars notebook than I have actually played. But, even in the ’80s, when I was 12 and had time/immaturity on my side to play Car Wars, it wasn’t all that fun. Hell, we switched to using GURPS for our autodueling needs (Yes, GURPS was somehow easier and funner than Car Wars. The mind boggles.) It’s a tired design that can’t stand up to modern gaming standards.

And why exactly do all car combat games take place in a post-apocalypse? Couldn’t we expand the genre somewhat? Maybe it’s a high-tech anime future? Or maybe it’s a sporting event for a modern, more callous age? But, for whatever reason, car combat has to also involve the breakdown of all authority before it has enough verisimilitude (I note that no one seems to need to justify playing a game where everyone carries around 30 extra pounds of high-tech weaponry. That game type exists in every genre possible.)

Listen, I know Mad Max has you all excited about shooting at cars again. That’s awesome. But let’s invent some new awesomeness to replicate that. Could we have a car combat game that maybe takes some ideas from games published this century?



  1. After watching Mad Mad at the theater last night, I wanted to go home and pull out all of my ork speed freaks vehicles to see what survived the ebay exodus only to realize that…well, not much remains (and I’m sure as hell not buying a bunch more to replace them!). :-/

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