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Rebooting Car Wars

Steve Jackson Games’ Car Wars is a great classic that’s massively overdue for an overhaul. SJGames tried to overhaul it a few years ago with a new, streamlined rules set, but their approach wasn’t successful, for a bunch of reasons that I won’t go into here.

Why does it need an overhaul?

The first reason is accessibility. If you want to play it today, you have to buy it piecemeal on eBay, or back order the newer 5th edition from SJGames. It’s not available as a PDF, alas. Neither set of rules is really that accessible for gamers who weren’t raised on the game, though for different reasons.

Secondly, Car Wars was never really good at selling its best points. For a game that requires a lot of time and prep, it’s pretty easy to whiff on a session. Today’s gamers don’t have much patience with that.

So what would revive Car Wars?

The vehicle design rules as presented in the original are actually rather good, and stand on their own. 5th edition design rules were never published, which is a fatal flaw. We need robust, interesting design rules that are accessible, preferably available for free.

The maneuver rules in the original game are also very good. More abstract, streamlined rules would also be a great thing. Again, something available for free would be superior.

The game needs to tell the players how to get started having fun right away. There are a lot of small things that matter in making a decent Car Wars scenario. The community knows what they are, so we should mine it. 5th edition hinted at providing this, but didn’t achieve it.

Does anyone remember that Car Wars was an RPG? Car Wars as an RPG was a lot like old-school D&D. Everyone played it different, and it took some trial and error to make it work. We’re smarter than that now. Personally, I think the RPG rules for Car Wars were almost an impediment, and I’d like to re-write them entirely, but maybe that’s just me. I know that the way we played it, it was awesome fun.

I think there's room for multilpe Car Wars reboots. In fact, I know there are some projects out there already, like Joshua Newman's Burning Rubber, and Brent Newhall's autowar, and my own vehicle combat game, Alpha Destructicus.

So I'm tossing down a guantlet. I'm going to write my own Car Wars reboot. I'll post some design goals tomorrow. Maybe I won't finish it, but it's a worthy quest. I'm going to focus on the role-playing side, at least at first, and be relatively agnostic about the vehicle combat system, mostly because I think the existing system is really good, and I'd love to see SJGames revive it.

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The board/map that the cars are on needs an underlying grid that helps players align cars easier and keep positions accurate would be very desirable.

I was surprised how much I liked a non-grid map when I gave the latest Car Wars rules a try. In fact overall I was surprised how much I liked the new rules, given that I'd played the original rules since about the time they came out. Both systems have definite strong points.

What I would suggest in a reboot would be

1) the obvious one, a simple construction rule set.

2) create variety in weapons without the weapon power level creep of the original game. Maybe instead of a weapon list a mile long, you have modifications you can apply such as range or damage mods. That way you can tailor your weapons to you style of play.

3) Don't start players out with Killer Karts. One reason my friends and I liked the new Car Wars game was that we waited until we could play with Division 15 cars. The staggered release on the cars was a bad idea. Let new players jump into a car with a variety of weapons, because that's a chief draw in Car Wars. Division 5 cars don't give you that.

4) Printable .pdf maps. This could be either of the old style like the glorious Armadillo Autoduel Arena or Midville, or you could print out buildings (either 2d interior maps or 3d buildings you can assemble) for playing on a non-grid field.

Car Wars is also a game that screams to be played on a web browser. I actually used to run a PBEM game where I would update the map with Photoshop and post it to a website. If I could have streamlined the update process I'd probably still be running it.

The ancient site is still up on 50megs.com, though I'll warn you that it's now a hotbed of pop-ups and flashing banner ads. (not to mention my poor grasp of HTML)


Tom, I think we're on the exact same page. I expected to be disapointed by the 5th edition rules, but I found them very good. However, the idea of buying a new book to get 2 more cars was a turn off.

Grid or no grid... I'm torn. I prefer to play without a grid, but it doesn't hurt the game for me if you have one.

It is easy enough to manipulate the rules to allow for either a grid or no grid. If you decree that a standard grid square is .5" (or whatever) then you set all of the rules to multiples of 1 square and there you go.

I would love to see a PBWB version of this. You could probably even do something like Kingdom of Loathing for the non-Race actions.

I've played Compendium (old) rules and newer 5th edition rules. I like the 5th edition rules better, they are looser and faster. However, there are some quirks, like what happens when one car is tailgating another at the same speed, wins initiative and moves forward 5" into the back of the leading car? This doesn't make sense. That's when a referee is needed to state "move both cars forward at the same time".

But I LOVE the big new counters. And I love the lack of the grid. We had a 4x Division 5 duel and it was a blast. I think the new rules are the way to go, but sadly the little "duel books" didn't sell well. Good luck with your "reboot".

Thanks, Stuart,

I liked the 5th edition too. It seemed to be well thought out, which why the glaring gaps seemed all that much stranger.

I made some custom Ice and Car counters for CW5th here:


we'll launch an PBEM off road arena
If interesting, contact us


I'd love to see a Car Wars revival. To make it in the 21st century, though, would require 4 things:

1. It has to be online. This creates a player base of immense size, and ensures all fans reasonable opportunities for competition. This means a video game. I'd suggest a 1st-person shooter (ok, driver) with easy keyboard (keypad, mouse, joystick, what-have-you) controls.
2. RPG-I don't think this would need be as complicated as most MMORPGs are. A chatroom device where people could get together to exchange ideas in-character, form teams, gather info would be necessary, and a way for people to step outside and engage in pistol duels would be awesome. The concepts of character creation and advancement is the main point, though.
3. Design Rules-Most of us who loved Car Wars loved designing cars.
4. Events-Some sort of annual AADA tournament, where people who sign on can compete in various events, on various tracks, in various divisions, and attempt to qualify for further tournaments down the line.

These are my thoughts.

5E seems pretty much officially dead...

But Compendium 2E Rev (Green Cover) is up on e23, and has been for some time. (PDF went up October of 2009.)

Really, 5E (at 1:60) is TOO big on the scale. I can't set up a decent arena without a trip to my FLGS. Classic scale (1:180) is probably too small. 1:120 is more workable (cars being then 0.75x1.5") and I'm not the only one to think so.

A computerized version may or may not make a good move, but it woudn't be CW... not any more than Autoduel was (close, but not quite) or Darkwind (Closer but still not right).

Nice, 2mm thick die-cut bits, and refocusing on cars. Simplify the system, and include a design system. Maybe even official minis. Good, solid box.

5E felt physically cheap... that's no way to play. Worse, it felt like they were desperately grubbing for money with the collectible aspect.

I totally agree with you, Aramis. 5th missed the mark, and the brand has been kind of dead ever since then. I keep hoping something will pick it up. There's still a lot of love out there for it.

Blacktop (my Car Wars reboot) is on hold as a project, but far from dead. I don't have time to work on it, but it remains on the back burner.

i agree with Black Knight that CW5 the scale is a bit too big. You need a pretty big table (pool table?) to do a full arena at this scale. Somewhere in the middle might be good. However, I do really like the simplifaction of the 5E rules and enjoy playing it. Moreso that CW2.5 which I found overly tweaked out and complex.

Yeah, regarding scale, we played a matchbox-scale game last year at Go Play NW. It was pretty awesome, but you can see the amount of space we needed here:


That's just two lengths of highway. A full arena would be insane.

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