Wars With Cars and the Tiny People Who Fight Them

Car Wars counters

This isn’t fun. This is an OCD sufferer’s nightmare.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a couple of my gaming associates, and the topic of Car Wars came up.  A joking suggestion was even made that we play the game.  Sure, I agreed.  I still own the game and its expansions.

No one followed up on the suggestion, and it slid down the memory hole, never to be contemplated again.  As much as the idea stimulates the nostalgia centers of my aging gamer brain, this is a good thing.  Why?  Because, you see, kiddies, there’s a reason no one plays Car Wars anymore.  It’s an organizational pain in the ass.

The Bad Old Days

“Oh Ancient One,” I hear you asking, “what’s Car Wars?”  It was a quirky tabletop strategy game put out by Steve Jackson Games back in the ’80s during the RPG boom.  The base game and a few expansions came in little plastic cases—which I still have, mind you—along with paper road sections printed with 1/4″ grid lines and hundreds upon hundreds of game bits printed on light card stock that one spent hours cutting out, sorting, setting up, and inevitably losing in the carpet.  The idea was that you could carry the whole game in your pocket and stage little symphonies of road rage at a moment’s notice.  In the end, however, it usually resulted in two hours of setup, followed by an hour to simulate sixteen seconds of combat and the inevitable cleanup.

Car Wars gameplay 1

A badly jackknifed semi, two turreted police interceptors and one badly outclassed pedestrian.

Car Wars battle 2

The blue van is dropping mines to make sure the driver of the yellow bug has a very bad day.

Not that the game didn’t have its charms.  Imagine the car chase scenes from The Road Warrior played out in slow motion, with high-tech car-mounted weaponry wreaking havoc on opposing vehicles, buildings and passers by.  The game’s setting is a post-apocalyptic future where the world economy has collapsed and highways are a hell of marauding bad guys in slapdash death machines waiting to pump you full of lead and salvage your wheels.

Admittedly, it was often fun to play.  Death, however, was frequent.  The combat was unforgiving and the physics relatively realistic: you were often as likely to die by colliding with the flaming wreck of the vehicle you just blew to smithereens with your recoilless rifle as you were to fall to enemy fire.  Scenarios included battles in autodueling arenas and deathtracks where winners won cash awards they could use to upgrade their vehicles and losers went home in body bags.

Pedestrian counter

One Car Wars person, actual size.

But the game’s upsides were constantly being overshadowed by the fiddliness of the components.  I’ll be damned if those masses of tiny counters (and there were thousands of them) weren’t near frickin’ impossible to pick up with stubby simian digits.  Plus, they had no mass, so you were always one strong exhale away from forfeiting the game and wandering off to play Nintendo.  The smallest bits were pedestrians, who measured a diminutive 1/4 x 1/2 inch, meaning that if you got out of your broken car to run for cover, you ended up nudging a flake of cardboard the size of a Tic Tac around the board.

Car counters, front and back

Before you can play Car Wars, you get to the play the Memory Game.

In addition to the size issue, SJG failed when it came to utilizing both sides of the card stock.  Vehicles had both normal and wrecked versions, but rather than being on the reverse sides of the same counter (because that would make sense), they came on two separate counters you had to pair up before playing.  It’s almost as though Mr. Jackson looked at the design and said, “we want these saps to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.  Is there some way we can needlessly double the number of microscopic pieces from an absurd number to a hopelessly unmanageable one?”

It’s Broke, Fix it

While we never ended up playing the damned game, I did take the opportunity to pull the rules and seventeen million counters out of the game vault, give them a good look over them and conclude … there’s got to be a better way.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous, I mused, if one could play this game with actual cars rather than absurdly small bits of cardboard?

If only, I thought to myself, I knew someone who’s been collecting Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and other 1:64 scale vehicles for decades, as well as scale accessories like road signs, telephone poles, and human figures.  

If only, I continued, I could alter the scale of the game upward slightly and play it using physical vehicles.  Gosh, that would be swell.  (In my head, I sounded like Jerry Mathers for some reason.)

Here’s crazy part: I do know a guy with an enormous car collection!  And he lives in this very house!

Naturally, this called for a proof-of-concept demonstration:

Sounds easy, right?

I’m not the first to think of this.  Many Car Wars players have done the conversion to 1:64 scale in order to incorporate die cast cars into their setup, and one can read about their experiences on BoardGameGeek.com and elsewhere.  I’ve actually been contemplating it for a while now; it’s one of the reason I have such an extensive collection of tiny cars, trucks, people, helicopters, and planes.

And turning Hot Wheels into a workable game has its challenges.  First off, increasing the scale from 1″ = 15′ to 1″ = 10′ means the game play area has to be big.  There also needs to be a way to endlessly extend the play area by tacking road segments on at the end; the bigger the road, the more problematic that becomes.

To play a proper game, you also need to provide all the non-vehicular bits, such as smoke, oil slicks, mines, fire, debris, craters, and the like.  Some of these can be hand made, others can be bought through suppliers such as Litko.  Access to a 3D printer could easily supply them all.  And while having these bits would be enough for simulating open highway combat, fighting in populated areas would require scale buildings and a bigger play area.

Since I never go small, I’ve also thought about ways to improve the game’s realism and ease of play.  Namely, incorporating vectors of travel and traction, weight transfer, drag, and a special dial to keep track of each vehicle’s movement.  It’s all just a string of ideas for now … ideas I will develop in my copious free time.

To conclude: I like my toys, am willing to try Car Wars again, and have delusions of grandeur.

Anywho … let’s close out with one more fun slideshow: this time, something more along the lines of Car Wars’ bleak future setting.

Mad Max 7: Tiny Highway to Hell

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