The Future of ‘Car Wars’ is Now!


When the original Car Wars game of futuristic automotive combat was released in 1980 it struck a chord with gaming audiences and quickly became a best-seller. The game had been inspired by the Alan Dean Foster short story “Why Johnny Can’t Speed” and fit right into a popular culture battle car movement that included movies like Death Race 2000 and Mad Max. 

There were two remarkable features of the Car Wars game. It presented a detailed post-apocalyptic science fiction setting where oil based fuels were scarce, where the roads were danger zones where you could be killed by roving gangs or amateur “autoduelists,” and where the watching sport of professional “autodueling” had become the national past-time. The timeline that described how this future came to be was simultaneously semi-plausible and filled with satire of late-70s and early-80s American culture. Even more than the setting though, the “car design” rules were the real show stopping innovation. It’s one thing to be able to choose from a variety of different automobiles and have them battle against one another, a very fun thing, but it is an entirely different thing to make all of the individual choices regarding how to spend you money to build the best automotive killing machine. Car Wars as a wargame was a solid entry, but it included with it a secondary game Car WarsThe Design Game. Like Champions and The Fantasy Trip, fans of Car Wars love the game as much for the opportunity to build as they do the game play. The customization opportunities in the game are a selling point that are even featured, though in a much more limited way, in the Mini Car Wars rules, but you can get a taste of the real options available in the 1990 reprint of the basic rules (free at Steve Jackson Games) or by buying the affordably priced Car Wars Classic.


As happens in the game industry, fad tend to fade. Car Wars went from a best selling game in the 80s to a solid seller in the 90s, to a market failure with the 5th edition. There are many reasons why the 5th edition failed, but it is likely that the d20 boom and the lack of customization in the 5th edition of Car Wars were key reasons for the failure of that edition. Car Wars could have suffered the fate of many great games from the 80s and 90s and faded away from the marketplace to become an eBay only product, but recent events have revived the brand. That revival started when Steve Jackson Games launched a Kickstarter for Ogre, another of their early wargames. That Kickstarter project raised close to $1 million by offering a $100 “Designer Edition” of a game that originally sold for $2.95 and in doing so demonstrated that older IP brands still had cache with gamers. One of the stretch goals associated with the Ogre Kickstarter was a promise that Steve Jackson Games would work on a 6th edition of the Car Wars game. Since that time, Steve Jackson games has created a boxed set reprinting the older Car Wars game called Car Wars Classic. While this is a reprint, it has upgraded game components and still comes in at an affordable price. In addition to the reprint, Steve Jackson games tested the waters with a Kickstarter for an expansion to the Car Wars game called Car Wars Arenas which raised around $100,000 with 1,600 people backing that project. Given that committed Car Wars fans knew that Steve Jackson Games was working on a 6th edition, the Kickstarter demonstrated that there was indeed existing demand for Car Wars related products.


Until recently, there was no hard and fast timeline for when the new 6th edition of Car Wars would be released and knowledge of the contents of that release have largely been limited to participants on the Steve Jackson Games forums/message boards. That changed today when Steve Jackson Games announced the timeline and features of their upcoming Car Wars product offerings.

First in the lineup of new Car Wars offerings is a fiction anthology edited by James Lowder. In addition to containing 12 short stories, each highlighting a “faction” in the Car Wars universe, the book will come with a dozen playable game cards for the upcoming edition of the game. Lowder has a lot of experience in editing anthologies related to game properties and worked with Steve Jackson Games on The Munchkin Book*. That book, like the forthcoming Car Wars anthology, included rules that could be used in game play. The Kickstarter for the anthology is scheduled for this November. This anthology will give gamers a glimpse of the updated apocalyptic science fiction timeline that explains the rise of “aggressive driving” and “autodueling.”

Steve Jackson Games plans to launch the Kickstarter for the 6th edition game in January of 2017. Given the nature of business expense timelines (NEVER hold a Kickstarter in December unless you are immediately spending the money or already have), it’s the perfect time to launch. The new edition of the game will be made up of three different starter game sets, which may include HO scale cars from the 60 HO scale plastic miniatures that are being designed for this new edition. How many miniatures come in the boxed sets and how many will be reserved for “expansions” has not been revealed. What is known is that there will be three different basic sets, miniature packs, and other accessories available for purchase in the first wave.

The new edition will also feature car construction rules, and it sounds like they will be complex enough to satisfy fans of the “construction game,” but it also sounds like there will be two other modes of car design aimed at newer gamers and those who want to pick up and play. There will be a number of predesigned cars that will allow gamers to play immediately and there will be cards that can be used to further customize the pre-designed vehicles. These cards will be similar to those included in the fiction anthology which means that those who purchase the anthology will get an advance look at the new rules. The intent here is to satisfy the hard core gamer, while also allowing for play to begin withing moments of opening the box. It’s a tough challenge, but if they pull it off it might just give Steve Jackson Games another best seller.

Either way, it’s good to see the return of a great game in a new edition.


*Full disclosure requires me to state that I have an essay in The Munchkin Book.

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