Tag Archives: Steve Jackson Games

The Unfortunate Story of Car Wars 5th Ed.

For my birthday gaming blow out I made use of Car Wars 5th Edition.

Several people have commented that they didn’t know there had been a 5th Edition, which is understandable because it didn’t last very long. The game was released in 2002 to much anticipation, but it sold poorly and quickly vanished from the gaming scene. It’s an example of how you can do a good job revising a classic rules set and then kill the line with bad marketing.

The Good: The goal of 5th Edition was to streamline the Car Wars system so that it would be easier, play faster, and provide a more dynamic game. In these goals they were successful. Over the years Car Wars had built up significant rules bloat. New weapons and technology combined with tons of new rules had expanded the game from a simple system that fit in a small plastic box to a book the size of a full GURPS sourcebook. To its credit this allowed the serious autoduelist to handle a huge range of situations including semi-trucks, aircraft, boats, and even tanks. It also provided a dizzying array of construction options for customizing your vehicles. But at the same time it weighed the system down. It also changed the game from being easy to learn to intimidating for a new player.

5th Edition brought the game back to basics, presenting the players with a wide selection of pre-built cars that offered good variety while focusing on the core concept of racing cars and blowing each other up.

They also made significant changes to the movement system. In classic Car Wars a turn was divided into 10 phases, which later editions cut to five. Each phase players would check a matrix and it would tell you if you moved that phase based on your current speed. Movement was usually an inch per phase, though at high speeds two or three were possible.

5th Edition dropd the number of phases to three and cars move in every phase. The distance you move is increased to a flat 1″ per 10 miles per hour. This makes the calculations easy and cars move a lot farther each phase, making for a fast paced game. For me this is the single best change they made to the game, as it gives you a much better feel for roaring down the road than.

Another significant change is to the game’s scale. Classic Car Wars was designed using 1″ long counters for cars and 1/2″ counters for motorcycles. This allowed players to run large maps using a smaller game table, but it did limit the options for miniatures. 5th Edition was designed with 1/60th scale cars in mind, making it possible to use Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars without any rules conversions. This does put space limits on the playing field but you can get a lot of arena into a regular table space.

To sum up, 5th Edition succeeded in its goals to present a faster and more dynamic game that is more exciting and more accessible to new players.

The Bad: With a successful revamp of the rules done, how did they go wrong?

In a word, presentation.

In 2002 collectible games were still earning money hand-over-fist. Steve Jackson Games seems to have been trying to tap into that mindset with 5th Edition.

First off, you couldn’t buy a single book or boxed set. Instead you bought a series of game books. Each book came with a set of rules, a set of counters, and stats for two cars and a variant design for each (effectively four cars). Each book was inexpensive and gave enough material that you could play a one-on-one autoduel with a single book. The idea was that players would each buy a book, giving everyone a set of the rules and enough cars to play with. They published nine books, three for each size class of car.

However most fans wanted to own a complete set of cars and the majority of each book was identical. it was impossible to ignore that you were essentially buying the same thing over and over.

Second was the components. On the plus side, the artwork was good and kept with the classic Car Wars designs. They were also generous in the number of components they provided, giving you no lack of oil slicks, mines, spikes, rubble, and the like. However these counters were not punched and you had to cut them out yourself. This is especially annoying on the mines and spikes, which are circular counters.

You will notice that for my game I used quarters and pennies for spikes and mines.

Then there was the release schedule. The plan was to release only one division a month, going from the smallest cars to the largest. So for the big 5th Edition launch the only cars available were the Division 5 sub-compact cars. These cars, such as the iconic Killer Kart, are light vehicles usually with a single weapon.

In other words, boring.

Oh you can have fun with them for a bit, but the excitement of driving these eggshells with popguns burns out quickly. Car Wars is about vehicles bristling with weapons and armor, but to get that we had to wait another month.

Then we had to buy three more books. With three more sets of the same rules. And three more sets of counters to cut out. And then we had to wait another month to repeat the process for Division 15.

This crushed any momentum the game had built up.

There was one more major flaw with the 5th Edition release. One of the most popular aspects of Classic Car Wars is the ability to build, customize, and upgrade your car. Players would gleefully tinker with their designs to get the deadliest vehicle possible. Duels would be as much about design as driving skill and it was fun not knowing what surprises your opponents had installed since the last game.

5th Edition launched without a vehicle design system.

Promises were made that one was forthcoming but that it wouldn’t be released until all the other books had come out. For many autoduelists this meant that not only were you buying the same book repeatedly, you weren’t even getting a complete game. The last nail had been driven into the coffin.

The Ugly: Dissatisfaction among the fans cast a pall on the sales of 5th edition. In the end they published the nine core books, a compilation book of the Division 5 cars, and a single arena book.

And that was it.

The vehicle design system was never published. Rules for motorcycles never came out. Even updates on the website ceased in short order and nothing more was said. 5th Edition was done.

The Future: The failure of 5th Edition is a sad story, especially for long time Car Wars fans. However there are a few rays of hope for aspiring autoduelists.

The first is that all the 5th Edition books are available in .PDF format from Warehouse 23, Steve Jackson Games online web store. You can find them here and they’re reasonably priced. The individual books sell for $2.99, about half the cost of the original printed books, and the Division 5 compilation book costs $7.95. So for around $26 you can have them all in digital format. Desktop printers have come a long way since 2002, so printing all the cardstock counters you want is no longer a daunting task. Throw in a $5 pack of Matchbox cars and you’re ready to roll.

Also, an enterprising fan was able to reverse engineer the vehicle design system. The rules are posted in the Steve Jackson Games forum at this location. There are still no rules for motorcycles or large vehicles, such as vans and trucks. This is a shame, as these were popular in classic Car Wars, but it still gives you enough to play with.

Another ray of sunshine came from an unexpected source. Back in 2012 when the OGRE Designers Edition Kickstarter was breaking all kinds of records they set a stretch goal at the $700,000 mark. Hitting the goal would mean that Steve Jackson would launch a Kickstarter for Car Wars in 2013.

The stretch goal was hit but 2013 came and went without the Kickstarter happening. However there have been two related Car Wars announcements. The first was a re-release of the original Car Wars mini-game that came in a plastic baggy. The second was announcing the re-release of Classic Car Wars in the small plastic box. Mini-Car Wars released earlier this year and the second is listed as “In Production”. Both of these are supposed to be preludes to a new edition. There have also been periodic announcement about staff assigned to the project, indicating that Steve Jackson Games is still working on it.

So while the wheels are turning slowly, there is still hope that a 6th Edition of Car Wars may roll off the assembly line someday.

In the meantime, remember to Drive Offensively.



Posted by on September 4, 2014 in Gaming


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Real Life Car Wars – Not Involving Me!

“Eight years ago: “Crazy Joe” Harshman wins Fresno destruction derby by mounting a surplus .50-calibur machine gun in his Chevy.”

-Car Wars timeline, 1983 Edition

Thankfully, this time my post on real life Car Wars doesn’t involve me getting rear ended.

What it does involve is two Audis, an (autoduel) arena, a pseudo-Kenny Loggins soundtrack, and a whole lot of paint.

The grenades were a particularly nice touch.

“Seven years ago: Armadillo Autoduel Arena opens on former site of shopping mall in Austin, Texas.”

-Car Wars timeline, 1983 Edition

If this spawns a new extreme sport I will watch the heck out of it.

The “making of” video is also a good watch.

Well done Audi. Well done indeed.

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Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Cool Stuff


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Dose of Nostalgia – Board Games

I listen to a lot of podcasts.

One of my favorites is The Dice Tower, which is the most impressive board gaming podcast available. The Dice Tower is worthy of a full review and I’ll get on that soon, but for now suffice to say that it’s a podcast that you should be listening to.

I’d qualify that by saying, “if you like board games,” but let’s be real. You’re reading my blog. It’s a given.

In their most recent episode, #350 (yes, Tom Vasel has 350 weekly podcasts about board games under his belt. The man is a machine), they did a Top Ten list of board games that were important to them from their childhood, games that had a big impact on the gamers they became.

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and this list struck a chord, so I decided to put my own list together. This list is not in order of importance or quality, it’s just ten games that influenced my future as a gamer. Also note that I am not including role playing games in the list.

Without further ado:

1. Checkers – Checkers is one of the earliest board games I learned and was taught to me by my grandmother. Almost every visit to her house included a game of Checkers and it was something I looked forward to. It was the first abstract strategy game I learned, but more importantly it came to represent the bond that gaming can create between friends and family, and bonds like that don’t get much stronger than between a little kid and his grandmother. We played other games too, but Checkers was our favorite and I can still picture her study, her chair, and hear the sound of her clock while we played.

Good memories.

2. Chess – My grandmother taught me Checkers. Chess was the game my father taught me. Dad gave me my first set and taught me the rules. He gave me an instruction book that I greatly enjoyed, one which I have passed on to my own son. Playing Chess with my father was something I looked forward to. Beating him was an elusive goal that, when finally achieved, was a great victory.

Chess was also the first game that I spent a lot of time playing with my friends. For a while in high school we had an informal club that played every day. We were never good enough to play competitively and didn’t take it that seriously, we just enjoyed the game. For a while I collected Chess sets and I still own quite a few.

I still enjoy Chess, though I’ve gotten rather rusty. I especially enjoy historical variants of the game, my two favorites being Byzantine and Papal Chess. The first is played on a round board, setting the armies up back to back. The second includes a stationary piece in the center of the board to represent the pope and includes an alternate victory condition. Instead of checkmate, if you have a piece close enough to control the pope, without interference from an enemy piece, you win. The political commentary is not subtle and it was not appreciated by the Papacy. Apparently until the early 20th Century there was a canon law on the books that said you could be excommunicated for playing Papal Chess.

How many board games can say that?

3. Trivial Pursuit – Trivial Pursuit was the first game I remember that caused a pop culture stir. When it came out it was THE big thing and everyone had to have a copy. It’s the first game where my parents and I went over to my best friends’ house specifically so that we could all play the game together.

The rules are nothing special and there were plenty of times we dispensed with the “game”, grabbed the box, and started asking each other questions. But what Trivial Pursuit showed me was that adults could get together for gaming days too, that it wasn’t something limited to kids and that it wasn’t something I had to outgrow.

4. Stay Alive – Stay Alive is a game that I have almost never played, but I was deeply fascinated with it as a kid. For those unfamiliar, you have a grid with marbles on it and slides that control strips of plastic running down and across the grid. The strips have holes in them at different points and on your turn you pull or push one of the levers to shift the strip. If holes in the top and bottom strips line up a marble drops through the trap door. The goal is to drop all your opponents marbles first.

It’s a game of eliminating your foes by dropping them through trap doors! How cool is that!

To this day I love the concept of this game. Is it any wonder I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons? Just imagine if you could combine Stay Alive with lead miniatures and the modular wall system from that horrible Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth game! That would be fantastic!

There is an edition of Stay Alive currently in print, but it’s lame. The classic game was on a 7×7 grid and each slider had several settings. The new version is a 5×5 grid and the sliders look limited to two or three positions. They’re asking $50 for what amounts to a travel version of the classic. I think not.

5. Scotland Yard – This was the game that introduced me to hidden movement, resource management, and asymmetrical warfare, though it would be a while before I knew those terms. All I knew was that it was different from any game I’d played before.

The game is set in London. One player is “Mr. X”, a master criminal on the run. The other players take on the roles of detectives hot on the trail. Players move through the city using cabs, subways, and buses. Mr. X’s location is revealed at different points in the game and the detectives are forced to guess or deduce which way he is going.

It took me a few tries to warm up to this game because the uneven sides seemed unfair, but once I got used to the concept I came to embrace it. The noir crime / secret agent theme of the game didn’t hurt either. It’s a genre that I love but which we don’t see very often. (Honorable mention goes to Stop Thief on this point).

6. Risk – Ahh, my first game of global conquest. These days Risk seems to be looked down on by a lot of gamers, usually after they send 20 troops against two defenders and get their butts kicked because they can’t make a good roll to save their lives. Yes that element of randomness can be frustrating, however the heroic stand is not without its historical precedents, it does lead to memorable games, and lucky dice rolls will not substitute for a sound strategy.

Australia is a death trap! 

Risk is a fine transitional game between abstracts like Chess and simulationist war games. Many better games now fill the same niche, my favorite being Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa, but I’m still happy to dive into a game of Risk and watch the dice roll and I credit the game for preparing me to devour those other games when they hit the scene.

Which brings us to…

7. Conquest of the Empire – In the mid-80’s Milton Bradly launched the Gamemaster Series. Their first release was Axis & Allies, which we played the heck out of. However Axis & Allies suffers from one fatal flaw; with competent players the game always resolves itself the way that World War II actually did.

The second game in the series was Conquest of the Empire. This was like Risk in the Roman Empire but with cities, and roads, and catapults, and ships! The basic mechanics of combat were similar to Risk, but the variation of unit types and infrastructure made it a much deeper game. On top of this a rudimentary economy was put in place, causing players to make strategic decisions based on triggering inflation in the Empire.

Shogun (later published as Samurai Swords & currently as Ikusa) was the last in the Gamemaster line and was my favorite. In many ways it was a refinement of Conquest of the Empire, which did have some flaws, but Conquest was the game that raised the bar for what I wanted in that style of game.

8. Uno / Euker – I’m lumping these together. While mechanically they are different they fill the same role among my friends. Both are simple, fast, and fun social games. I discovered both when I was very young and they were games I could play with friends my age and with adults. We could take the game anywhere we went, find a corner, and deal the cards.

And we did.

All through grade school, all through high school, and all through college, Uno and Euker were not far away. They were especially popular during my high school years, when I was part of choir, drama club & stage crew, and several other groups. My junior and senior years it was a lunchtime ritual.

We were also ruthless. We used house rules in Uno that let you stack Draw cards or turn them back with Reverse and Skip cards. We accepted using signals in Euker, as long as you didn’t get caught. It became a point of pride to see who could develop the most subtle signals.

Have deck, will travel.

9. Car Wars – It was 1981 and I was part of a Dungeons & Dragons group that met at a Friendly Local Game Store. I didn’t stay in the group very long, but it was long enough for me to see this small plastic box from Steve Jackson Games sitting on the shelf.

Car Wars. This game blew my young mind. You mean I get to roar down the highway, or scream around an arena, in a car bristling with weapons? It was James Bond! It was Mad Max! It was Hot Wheels! It was…

It was awesome!

And we devoured it. The Armadillo Autoduel Arena was our favorite, but we also had the complete city of Midville for our homicidal pleasure. And when we were not playing on the table, we were playing Autoduel on the Apple II (a horrible game, BUT WE LOVED IT!).

My love of Car Wars is still there. Years later when I’d graduated from university I hosted an online Play-by-Post game. I’d receive moves from the players via email, roll the results myself, use Photoshop to update the arena map, and post it up on a website. It was a lot of work, but we loved it.

With the success of the O.G.R.E. Kickstarter, Steve Jackson Games is looking at revisiting Car Wars and I cannot wait to see the results.

Drive Offensively!

10. Illuminati – Another masterpiece from Steve Jackson Games, Illuminati came out in 1982 and has been wrecking friendships ever since.

In Illuminati each player controls a secret organization bent on covert domination of the world. Each group takes control of other organizations, who in turn take over more organizations, until you have assembled a web of power with your secret society at the center. In the meantime the other players are using their own groups to try and crush you, or aid you, but always for a price.

Most games are confrontational by their nature. Illuminati doesn’t just take this to the next level, it transcends to a higher plain of backstabbing treachery. I won’t say that Illuminati can make Diplomacy look like Candyland.

But I will infer it.

So there we go, my list of ten games that profoundly influenced me as a gamer. How about you? What games did you play that you are still playing now? Or that stick out as having an impact on the geek you’ve grown up to be? I’d love to hear about them.



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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Gaming, Podcasts


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