Car Wars

From 1d4chan
The game in action.

You know what's a great thing about burning cars? Once they explode, they can't explode AGAIN.

Think Mad Max Fury Road, combined with GTA London and Steel Panthers. Post-apocalyptic car combat with a crazy-detailed ruleset, both in terms of gameplay and car construction. This game was made by Steve Jackson Games in the 80's, and is made of win and twisted metal. And fire. Because nothing beats fire. Except, you know, fireproof armor.

There were several spinoffs of the game, including a very early computer RPG, several GURPS splatbooks and a card game. A new edition of the game, done at 2x scale and using miniatures instead of counters, is (supposedly) being worked on.


Car Wars used to be one of the more popular games in the 1980s and early 90s. It gradually fell out of fashion and lost all but the basic publisher support, until only a handful of nostalgic spergs remained and people moved on to other games.

At its core it is a strategy game made with a very detailed, simulationist approach. Players are encouraged to design their own vehicles or modify existing ones, using a very robust and adaptable system. It is played with counters representing cars, trucks and other vehicles. The gaming surface is either an arena (with defined edges and obstacles, similar to a wargame), or a continuous, rolling road.

The Good Stuff[edit]

Twenty Bucks. That is all you will ever have to spend if you want to play this game. Used copies can be found online even cheaper. Fifty bucks gets you everything you will ever need. Car Wars was a thing long before games were monetized, or monetization was even considered to be a word to begin with. Proprietary dice, counters or gaming aids of any kind are not needed to play the game. Upgrades and features are not locked away behind paywalls (looking at you, X-Wing Miniatures).

The game's complexity and technical nature ensures a high replayability. It is possible to simulate different settings, from arena matches and leagues to wasteland skirmishes, car chases and even a full-blown rpg. It is also possible to build vehicles of various sizes and combat and noncombat roles. Want to stage a chase between a salvager bus full of loot and a gang of outlaw truckers? Go ahead. River pirates? War rigs? Helicopters that transform into cars? It's all possible, and it all works within the same system.

The Not-so-good Stuff[edit]

Did I mention the game was complex as hell? New players who pick up Car Wars will have to struggle with both the construction aspect of the game and with using their probably mediocre invention effectively in the field. Since mistakes made in one part of the game will translate to the other one in karmic fashion, it doesn't make for the best new player experience.

It is also a considerable effort to find players for this game. The steep learning curve and almost complete lack of marketing or publisher support mean games of Car Wars are few and far between. It is possible to play a very basic online version of the game, which is good enough until something better comes along or a miracle happens.

Vehicle Design Guidelines[edit]

Instead of classic list building like 40k or X-Wing, vehicles in Car Wars are designed for a specific task, role, budget and type of terrain. For arenas, you can afford to spread armor and firepower on all sides of the vehicle. Pure broadside vehicles can be viable in the arena depending on the terrain. For the open road, most of the armor and firepower is going to be concentrated on the front and back of the vehicle.

Solid tires are almost a must on the road, in the arena you can get away with cheaper tires, esp in lower divisions.

Ram plates, rollcages and safety seats should only be used on specialized ramming vehicles.

You will almost always want component armor for your crew, engine and main weapon, as well as wheelhubs and/or wheelguards.

Crewmen need body armor and fire extinguishers but don't really need anything else.

Machineguns, vulcan machineguns and recoilless rifles are good all-round weapons. A lot of other weapons like rockets, cannons or flame require you to build specialized vehicles and make tradeoffs to take advantage of them.

Most mistakes made during design will only become apparent during play. Try to modify and improve the design after each game until you end up with something different than what you started with.

Using Different Scales[edit]

The standard game is played at 1:160 scale, which translates to 1.0x0.5 inch counters representing cars. To play at a different scale using real models, simply double all distances for H0 scale cars, or triple them for matchbox-sized cars. Attaching each car to an appropriately sized base is also recommended.

Making Your Own Stuff[edit]

New or recolored vehicle counters can be produced with minimal photoshop skills. At larger scales, a lot of people make their own custom cars and terrain. It's easier than you might think and also one of the appeals of playing at 2x or 3x scale. Designing a custom full color playmat or a set of road sections is somewhat more time consuming. It requires putting the map together from textures and/or aerial images and preparing it for print. More often than not it can be worth the effort.


There is a lot of stuff that's potentially useful to an autoduelist and considered junk by most people. Any assortment of bits from scale models and 40k sprues can readily become a source of armor plates, gun barrels and gadgets. As a rule of thumb, 40k bits are good for hotwheels and matchbox cars (3x scale), while 1/72 bits are good for HO-sized cars (2x scale).

Upgrade Kits[edit]

Ramshackle Games has crews and bikers sized for hotwheels and matchbox cars.

Attempts to Revive the Game[edit]

In 2002 SJG launched a simplified and streamlined version of the game, 5th edition. Back to just cars, without other types of vehicles or rules for construction and design. (Likely both to some degree would have been added in later, now-unreleased, products.) It was met with as much (or as little) success as you would imagine. It does have one inherent advantage, though. The rules are usable with matchbox and hotwheels cars right out of the box. The car design rules were reverse-engineered and are available on the SJG Car Wars forums.

In 2016 SJG started work on an even more streamlined and accessible version of the game, 6th edition. In fact, they just kept the brand and designed a completely new game. Proprietary dice are to be used for attack, defense and maneuver. A kind of hinged ruler seems to be used for maneuvering, which appears handier than the old style "turn key", although this item was only shown in early playtest pictures and may not make it into the game's final release version. The new version of the game will have actual model cars instead of counters. Sixty different cars will be released and sold in a got to catch them all manner. Car design will be done by taking a basic vehicle and assigning upgrade cards to it, similar to X-Wing. I have no doubt that most players will simply decide to kill the meat and save the metal, eg. keep playing the old, proven version of the game but use the new full color maps and model cars to do so.

Online resources[edit]

Board Games
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Ameritrash: Arkham Horror - Axis & Allies - Battleship - Betrayal at House on the Hill - Car Wars
Clue/Cluedo - Cosmic Encounter - Descent: Journeys in the Dark - Dungeon!
Firefly: The Game - HeroQuest - Monopoly - Mousetrap - Snakes and Ladders - Risk
Talisman - Trivial Pursuit
Eurogames: Agricola - Carcassonne - The Duke - Settlers of Catan - Small World - Stratego - Ticket to Ride
Pure Evil: Diplomacy - Dune (aka Rex: Final Days of an Empire) - Monopoly - The Duke
Others: Icehouse - Shadow Hunters - Twilight Imperium