’80s Gaming Flashback — Car Wars

I recently wrote about the Star Trek Role Playing Game and my absolute enjoyment of it thirty years ago. On my Top 10 List of games most often played, D&D was ranked #1 and ST:RPG was ranked #2. That #2 position, however, might actually be debatable.

True story: During a school field trip to the historical section of downtown Pensacola (I’d “been there, done that” my entire life), a few friends of mine and I ditched the teachers/chaperones and other students and made our way to Koby’s Hallmark Hobby Shop a few blocks away. This was really one of only two stores in Pensacola that catered to the gaming community (the other one was the other Koby’s in Cordova Mall (or was it University Mall? Anyone remember?) — the toy store in the mall did had a few occasional D&D modules, but that was about it – very lame, although it is where I purchased my Tomb of Horrors module so maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh.

Anyway, we weren’t about to miss an opportunity to check out whatever new stuff might be lining the shelves at the back of the store, and I had about $20 or so burning a hole in my pocket and was determined to find something new and interesting. And I did.

My eyes caught it immediately on this tiny rotating shelf — it was the simple graphics, the title, and the box. So small. This little black plastic box with the words Car Wars on it. I picked it up, read the back of the box, and knew I’d found something great. I don’t recall the exact price, but I think it was $5.95. (I now know that Steve Jackson Games originally sold it for $5.50 so Mr. Koby was making his profit plus $0.45 — well worth it I would later decide.) I know it was less than $6.00 because I didn’t end up with just the Car Wars box. Tucked in a few other slots on that spinning shelf were a number of similar plastic boxes. One was Truck Stop and the other was Sunday Drivers, both  expansions to the basic Car Wars game. You can see all three boxes in the image below — the original Car Wars is looking a little rough around the edges, but the other two look almost as good as the day I purchased them.

(Note: I had a fascination with laminating paper at the time after watching my beloved AD&D Player’s Manual cover get worn, scratched up, and faded over just a few months — I developed a habit of cutting a fitted piece of clear sticky laminate paper over just about everything I wished to keep clean and scratch-free, including these three boxes. The splotchiness of the white Car Wars sticker on front and back is due to the adhesive used by SJG on the backside of the labels and is much more noticeable than on the other two boxes.)

Car Wars 1 2 and 3

Here’s a photo of the back of both boxes. Read the game descriptions and look at all that crazy imagery on the fronts and backs of the boxes and tell me those wouldn’t appeal to an 8th grader who’d only recently seen Mad Max and The Road Warrior. (Mad Max BeyondThunderdome wouldn’t come out for a few more years.)

Car Wars 1 2 and 3 Back of Boxes

He triggered the rear guns once more. A direct hit! The blue car skidded as the driver lost control — then flipped and caught fire. That would teach HIM not to tailgate…

Cars Wars (and the supplements/expansions for many years after) was an amazingly simple game. Tucked in the Car Wars box was a simple 24-page rulebook and some reference materials that you can see in the image below.

Car Wars Original Rulebook

Also tucked in that box were a few sheets containing game counters — little chits with a bird’s-eye-view of cars and motorcycles and pedestrians running for cover. For the vehicles, one side of the chit showed the pristine version of the car and on the other side was the battle-damaged version. Other counters were a mix of debris, oil slicks, smoke, and wrecks. You can see a mix of these items below, although some of them may have come from expansions — all my counters were mixed together in small baggies over the years to separate the different types (vehicles, debris, pedestrians, etc.)

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Car Wars Counters

Returning to the original Car Wars box, also inside were a series of gridded road sections that would be strung together to simulate the road battles like the one at the end of The Road Warrior. With the original game, it was all about car duels on straight aways and slightly angled roads… nothing too crazy at first. The vehicles counters were 1″ in length and matched up to the 1/4″ gridded road sections.

Road Sections

The Truck Stop expansion would add a bit more flavor to the original game by providing tractor-trailer combos. Going up against my friends car-to-car was quite fun, but there’s something truly unique and memorable when three of my gaming buddies are taking on another pal who is driving an 18-wheeler with three machine gun turrets on top, more armor (points) on a single side of the trailer than all three of our cars combined, and enough speed to plow through any of us who get in front of him.

And the Sunday Drivers expansion would bring allow us to lose the straight streets in lieu of a full-on mini-town, complete with houses, a park, tons of intersections, and if memory serves a police station with cruisers loaded and ready to take on any marauders who might want to add some excitement to the streets of quiet little Midville.

Expansions would start to roll out in bags, not the familiar black boxes. Expansion 1 came with a bunch of extra counters and more diverse road sections. I still have some uncut counters that you can see below, although I’m not sure if these came with Expansion 1 or another.

Expansion 1

Expansion 3 came with a huge foldout map (two parts, actually) that made up East Midville, providing even more areas ripe for destruction.

Expansion 3

Expansion 4 was the Armadillo Autoduel Arena — an enclosed arena that would make the old Demolition Derby’s look like a pillow fight. Below you’ll see both 21″ x 32″ maps combined to create the playing area. I have fond memories of using this map quite a bit because anytime a player’s car was totaled but the driver survived, that player would inevitably try to make a run for the center buildings. Key word – “try.”

Expansion 4

Here’s a scan of the front and back of the larger Expansion 7: Off Road Dueling, along with some of the larger counter sheets that for some reason I never cut up. (A few of my gaming friends owned their own copies of the game and various expansions, so we were never at risk of having a counter shortage.) Tucked inside this larger expansion were two folded full-color maps with trees, grass, and dirt tracks that offered up some new rules for Car Wars and a nice change of scenery. Each map was 21″ x 32″ and they combined together to create one really large (and fun) area to run and gun.

Expansion 7 Off Road Dueling

Off Road Maps

Note: If you’re looking at all these games and expansions and thinking it’s a lot of gaming material, you’d be right… but remember that almost every item here was less than $6.00 at the time. I could make $10 mowing a lawn in my neighborhood… back then, anything from Steve Jackson Games was an amazing deal, and Koby’s somehow always had the latest releases. 

So far, I haven’t really written about the actual gameplay. Much like a similar game of the time, Star Fleet Battles, players kept track of their vehicle by drawing a series of boxes in or on an outline of a car (or semi or motorcycle with or without sidecar) to represent how much damage a tire could take, for example, or a turret before it would be rendered useless. Damage done to a car’s armor by another driver’s machine guns or to a tire from a set of road spikes was simply X’d out on the sheet of paper. Here’s a photo of a blank Vehicle Record Sheet so you can see what I mean.

Vehicle Sheet

The weight of a car would affect its acceleration, for example, and it’s handling. Everything was turned based, with all cars moving forward a certain distance based upon their current speed. Slamming on breaks or turning hard to the right would all take their toll on the handling track, and too much crazy driving could cause damage to tires or even cause your car to fishtail or roll. To keep things fair, a dollar amount was often specified before a match, and each of us would try to find the right balance of armor, engine, and weaponry from the very short and simple list of vehicle parts and weapons provided in the basic game.

Here’s a Tractor-Trailer sheet so you can see just how many additional locations there were for armor, weapons, and all those tires. (Note: In addition to a standard 18-wheeler, you could also outfit a bus or RV which was pretty cool.)

Tractor Trailer sheet

I got pretty good with my dad’s MacPaint program, so I would frequently redraw my favorite vehicles using software instead of pencil lead. Geek! Yeah, no doubt. Below you’ll find a photo of an 18-wheeler I designed. “PP” is power plant (engine) and you can see that there were gunners all over in addition to so many weapons.

Tractor Trailer

Here’s a snapshot of just a few pages from the original rulebook that show how a basic car was put together. The rules were a bit more advanced for larger vehicles, but it all started with picking a basic body size, a suspension type, and an engine… whatever money was left over would go to weapons.

(Note: A frequent mistake we all learned early on was spending all the money on weapons and skimping on the motor and tires and suspension and body type that were all ultimately key to how much weight your car could carry and how maneuverable it could be. Ultimately you we d learn through many failures that all those weapons were useless when all four tires were blown or you had almost no acceleration to get away from a solid beating.)

Vehicle Design

While my buddies and I were absolutely loving Car Wars, eventually the rules from all the boxes and expansions were starting to get away from us.  At one point I discovered that SJG had released a six-sectioned Reference Screen that had all the various charts and updates to the rules in one place… plus an Index to quickly find even the smallest of rules or details from the rulebooks and various expansions. It was helpful, but I wasn’t quite sure of the screen idea since there wasn’t a referee who hid behind the screen rolling secret dice to determine outcomes of the drivers. Here are two photos — one of the screen cover and another of a few of the sections.

Reference Screen

Screen Excerpt

After a few years of playing the basic Car Wars game and expansions, we upgraded to the Deluxe Version of the game that came in a larger box with a much thicker rulebook, additional oversized maps, and more counters. It was a nice consolidation of the rules (plus clarifications) found scattered over the early boxes and expansions.

Car Wars Deluxe Edition

If you read my earlier writeup on my Star Trek: Role Playing Game collection, you’ll know that I had a habit of cutting up rulebooks, punching holes in pages, and putting everything into a binder. Well, I did the same thing with the Deluxe Edition rulebook — it made it much easier to find what I needed and the extra space in the back of the binder would come in handy a bit later after another major Car Wars expansion was released… more on that in a moment.

Car Wars Deluxe Rulebook

Not only did the Deluxe Edition provide consolidated rules for cars, motorcycles, and 18-wheelers, but it expanded the rules here and there with some interesting upgrades. For example, below you’ll see a 2-page spread from the Deluxe Edition rulebook that covers helicopters. Yep… choppers.

Car Wars Helicopters

By this point in time, Steve Jackson Games was putting out a lot of Car Wars gaming material. I’m guessing that fans were numerous, because at some point I distinctly remember picking up the very first issue of Autoduel Quarterly, a magazine from SJG that provided new rules, scenarios, weapons, car advertisements, and so much more. D&D players had DragonCar Wars players had AQ.

Note: The back cover of Volume 1, Issue 1 had a cutout for a special counter for the Convoy scenario. Not sure what SJG was thinking here, but I find it hard to imagine anyone wanting to cut up the cover of AQ 1. <shudder>

AQ 1

AQ 1 Back Cover

This Car Wars fanboy didn’t waste any time subscribing. Pretty soon, the quarterly issues began to arrive. One nice touch was that each issue was shipped with a protective white cover around it. These covers typically had an entertaining cartoon on the front while on the inside was either an order form, a game nomination form for the yearly Origin game gathering, and other odds and ends.

AQ 2 and 4

Note: My collection is missing Volume 1, Issue 3… no idea what happened to it. I stayed a subscriber up until Volume 5 before I believe I had moved on to other interests.

Below you can see an example of one of the protective covers and a couple examples of what could be found inside. I have about ten of these, so I’m obviously missing a few… but they were a nice touch from SJG and much appreciated.

Protective Cover

Protective Cover 1

Protective Cover 2

If you thought helicopters was an interesting new idea for Car Wars, check out the covers of these two issues of Autoduel Quarterly.

AQ New Vehicles

Boats. Airships. Snowmobiles? Okay… sure. My group honestly never went this direction with our games, although the articles were really fun to read and ponder like the one below that tried to bring a bit of RPGing to Car Wars.

Car Wars Characters

 

Note: I forgot to mention earlier that the story behind car wars was that oil is gone… cars run on super-dense batteries called powerplants, not engines. Sorry about that. Electric vehicles, okay? Apparently we’re due for a breakthrough in battery technology sometime around 2033!

Tucked inside one issue of AQ was this little advertisement.

Dueltrack ad

Wait… gasoline? Are they kidding? Is this the April Fool’s issue? They’re serious!? This. Is. AWESOME!

So, of course… I bought it. And we played it. Front and back of box below…

Dueltrack

And tucked behind the Deluxe Edition rulebook in my red binder was the Dueltrack rulebook, cut up, punched and ready to go.

Dueltrack Rulebook

Not only were there rules for standard combat between electric and gasoline-powered vehicles, but the rulebook also contained a section on racing as well as a number of famous (and fictional) tracks with instructions on how to recreate them with the various straight and curved road sections.

Dueltrack Samples

Dueltrack was an apparent hit with Car Wars fans, and it even got its own spot on the cover of an AQ issue and interview with the game’s designer. But wait… what’s that other item in the image below?

AQ and Uncle Al

That would be Uncle Albert. Readers of AQ were quite familiar with Uncle Albert’s paid advertisements scattered throughout the magazines that offered up deals on the latest weapons and accessories. Steve Jackson Games released the first Uncle Albert catalog (many more would follow, although I only have the first two) and it was an amazing collection of upgraded weapons, turrets, targeting devices, armor updates, and more.

Uncle Albert Catalog

 

The Uncle Albert catalogs and Autoduel Quarterly magazine weren’t the only supplements released by SJG, however. Over the years, a number of fun and useful supplements were released. SJG created the AADA, the American Autoduel Association, a real organization for Car Wars fans to join. It was inevitable that the AADA would release a car buyer’s guide, right?

AADA guide

The black cover with silver foil logo and lettering was full of strange looking vehicles of all makes and models including my favorite… Pickup Trucks. Details were provided that included armor, acceleration data, price, and much more.

AADA trucks

Another supplement was the Combat Showcase of 2037’s New Car Exposition. Let’s be honest… you can never have too many cars to choose from when you’re playing Car Wars, okay?

Car Wars Showcase

 

The Showcase book differed from the AADA book in that the vehicles inside also provided the Vehicle Data Sheets that allowed you to get right to combat.

Showcase Samples

What else? Too much, actually. I remember seeing AADA Driving Guides for different parts of the world and a lot more Uncle Albert catalogs, but I’m sure I’m missing a few dozen (hundred?) supplements or expansions. (If you know of any, please share in the comments section! Include a link to a photo if you can, please!)

Finishing up, just a few random things to share. First, tucked inside my Car Wars black box was this original little orange slip of paper. These were often found inside SJG boxes, and I love having this photocopied slip of paper that was obviously typed on a typewriter. Don’t ask me why… it came in the box and thus is part of the collection and I love it.

Assembled By

Note: Anyone at SJG know who JAR was? If so, please tell him or her that my original Car Wars box is doing great.

Owners of SJG game boxes would also frequently find these folded up brochures tucked in with the rulebooks and other materials. Interestingly enough, this one advertised Crash City (look close!) — somewhere the name of the game was changed to Sunday Drivers and I’d love to know why if anyone knows. Were there any boxes ever made and sold with the Crash City title?

Brochure Front

Brochure Back

Hey, look! OGRE!

Note: If you’re not aware, OGRE started out as even a more simple game than Car Wars… it came in a baggie and sold for $2.95. OGRE was a HUGE hit from SJG and in 2012 SJG offered up a Kickstarter project to raise funds for the OGRE Designer’s Edition. It raised over $900,000 and I was a backer. The box weighs over 28lbs and is an OGRE fan’s dream. And guess what… Steve Jackson has announced that Car Wars is to get a similar treatment. Rest assured, I’m doing my best to stay informed and will let all GeekDad readers know when it finally becomes a reality on Kickstarter. I have no details about rules, components, etc… but it’s Car Wars and I cannot imagine SJG cutting any corners in producing something as good or better than the OGRE Designer’s Edition. 

What else? Oh, yeah… how about a 20 page catalog from 1983 of the most popular Steve Jackson Games titles? Anyone remember Killer? I scanned it in as a PDF and you can grab a copy here and proceed with your flashbacks. Before the Internet, this is how many gamers got their information and placed orders (using the included order form). This little catalog is something I keep on my Nostalgia Shelf along with a good chunk of my Car Wars stuff. (Such as SJG’s Illuminati — check out my other black boxes!)

Thank you, Steve Jackson and Steve Jackson Games! A large portion of my gaming history was spent playing your games. So many good memories. So much fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Floyd Kelly is a full-time writer. His latest three books are Digital Engineering with Minecraft, Tinkercad for Beginners and The Ultimate iPad. Learn more by visiting his website http://jamesfloydkelly.com