Car Wars – A Trip Down The Memory Fast Lane, Part 1

frontier wars 728x90 KS

The first of a series, Michael looks back at the wasted years of burning rubber through the blacktop battlefields of yesterday ~

Michael Eckenfels, 09 September 2016


 Back in 1983 or so, when I was transitioning from middle school to high school, hobby stores were a refuge of mine. Mostly I, as well as some of my friends, were into role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I still remember the modules at this store costing six dollars, which at the time was of course a princely sum for a 13-14 year old. (My first job in 1986 paid minimum wage, which I think was $3.25 an hour.) I’d be lucky to get five dollars from my cash-strapped parents, and having to save that money was a chore of epic proportions, because this was, of course, the heyday of the arcades.

Arcade games like Dig-Dug, Tron, Jungle Hunt, Zaxxon, Joust, and Burger Time hypnotized many a kid into pouring quarters into them, and I was one of the zombies. Saving money was never my strong suit, but when I found something I wanted in the hobby store, I’d save up religiously for it. Car Wars was one of those games.

This mega-article is comprised of the following sections (ed note – each us roughly its own article)




The box is a little worse for wear, but not bad for being more than three decades old.

The box is a little worse for wear, but not bad for being more than three decades old.

Originally released in 1980, the copy I have was published in 1983. This led to an 80s fascination with vehicular combat, which was of course greatly fanned by the likes of Mad Max and Death Race 2000. This led to me investing more and more of my meager funds into a pile of Car Wars products (among many other games, but let’s focus on the topic at hand…I know, this is a strange concept for those of us that dwell in the forums around here).


Alas, the sad thing is, I have so many more classic games where this came from.

Alas, the sad thing is, I have so many more classic games where this came from.

This, as well as most of my Car Wars collection, is all first edition stuff, with a few second edition items as well. I know there are several other editions that exist, but I’ll speak to the first and second editions where appropriate.


The thing that grabbed me, first off, was the size of the case; it measured lengthwise from my fingertip to my wrist, and was maybe ¾ of an inch thick. It promised a ton of goodness on the inside, but the size of the box notwithstanding, it was what was on the back of it that really caught my attention: DRIVE OFFENSIVELY. The cherubic-looking driver whom gleefully clutched a grenade in one hand and a steering wheel in another, looking like he was about to lob it out of the window at a fabulously pink van with a roof cannon just to his left, looked like a guy that was having fun.


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…

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…

It wasn’t just vehicular manslaughter and mass carnage that appealed to me (well, those were biggies, but hear me out); it was also post-apocalyptica, which was anything that existed in a world after nuclear war, oil running out, or some other Huge EventTM that would cause mankind to fracture into isolated, warring states. The 80s was kind of an odd time to grow up, because the ever-present threat of nuclear war hung over all of our heads. I think we worried more about the dozens of Soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions that were so close to West Germany. It felt that any great destruction of mankind would start by inching over the edge, slowly but surely, and a Russian invasion of the West would be the spark that blew up nuclear arsenals across the board. Movies like Testament and The Day After, and books like War Day, were sobering and honestly frightening reminders of what would happen to civilization should such events occur.


And while it worried even my teenaged mind, it no less fascinated me. Car Wars was the embodiment of, “yeah, well, humankind kind of blew itself up and broke into pieces, but there’s enough infrastructure so people can still have fun running each other over, armoring up motorcycles, and firing lasers from their sports cars.” I knew this would be a fun game.

The rest of the back of the box was even more of a draw:

CAR WARS is a game of the freeways of the future – where the right of way goes to the biggest guns. Players choose their vehicles – complete with weapons, armor, power plants, suspension, and even body style. Then they take them out on the road – to come home “aces,” or to crash and burn. A highly realistic grid system controls movement. If a player’s character survives, his abilities improve, and he can accumulate money to buy bigger and better cars. Advanced rules let players design their own cars (and trucks and cycles).

Playing time 30 minutes and up. Any number can play.

Which is true: “any number can play.” Any number you’re willing to put up with, anyway.

I greedily absorbed the history portrayed in the rules themselves…I friggin’ loved historical timelines. Though the game didn’t state specifically the year this all takes place in, one can only imagine the far future…like 2005 or so. (Hey, this was 1983, give me a break.)

Fifteen years ago: The Food Riots. “Fortress” towns develop. National government fails to keep order throughout much of the U.S.

Sounds believable. I mean, food. Not oil, not some natural disaster, or nuclear war. Just ‘food riots.’ And since it’s in capital letters, that must mean a nationwide calamity. What happened to the farms? Wheat? Corn? Livestock? Your imagination can run rampant just trying to figure it out.

Thirteen years ago: Gangs rule most of the U.S. outside of fortress towns. Country real estate becomes worthless; algae farms make up lost food production.

In two short years, gangs took over the United States. I guess if towns isolated themselves from each other, this might happen. But it might also put more of a premium on territory that’s not a ‘fortress town,’ too. Century 21 et al must have just kind of given up when well-armed and –organized gangs just suddenly rolled into Bumf*ck and said they were taking over. If the farms dried up, I imagine too there weren’t many people around to argue.

Also, if algae became a main staple of my diet, I think I’d be pissed enough to join a gang myself and raise hell across the country.

Eleven years ago: Many large cities totally abandoned. National government regains authority but enforcement decentralized. Economy weak but stable, with food rationed and unemployment at 37%.

So, basically, an Obama administration. Heh-heh.

Nine years ago: Supreme Court decision decriminalizes manslaughter in arena games. “Death sports” become popular. Television becomes nations’ number-two industry, just after food production.

Nine years ago: Supreme Court decision decriminalizes manslaughter in arena games. “Death sports” become popular. Television becomes nations’ number-two industry, just after food production.

I can totally see that. People are fascinated with destruction, even when they profess a hatred of violence. Just get stuck in a miles-long traffic jam because idiots are staring at a wreck on the other side of the damn freeway and you’ll see the penchant for “ooo, look, blood” that most people harbor in their hearts.

Eight years ago: “Crazy Joe” Harshman wins Fresno destruction derby by mounting a surplus .50-caliber machine gun to his Chevy.

Finally, Fresno gets some credibility. But can you imagine the destruction derby where that one guy decides to mount a powerful military-surplus machine gun to his car, while everyone else comes to the party with crappy, beat-up stock cars?

  1. “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
  4. Twenty-nine other drivers: WTF WTF WTF WTF
  5. Bedlam and TV ratings ensue
  6. Fresno becomes a thing for the first time in its history

Seven years ago: Armadillo Autoduel Arena opens on former site of shopping mall in Austin, Texas.

Oh, Texas. I love you, but sometimes…well, this makes all the sense in the world, actually.

Six years ago: Autoduelling becomes most popular TV sport, edging out combat football and private wars.

Of course it does. I mean, NASCAR is some utterly boring dreck. The only time it becomes interesting is when there’s a spectacular wreck. (You know I’m right.) Add some cannons and armor plating, though, and I’d watch the heck out of that.

But “combat football?” I guess the NFL players eventually gave up caring about concussions.

Five years ago: Utah autoduellists form vigilante group to counter Badlands cycle gangs.

Why bad guys always have to be in “cycle gangs” is interesting. I would think my life expectancy as a bandit would increase significantly and proportionally to the size of the vehicle I was driving, especially when others are driving around with sphincter-puckering cannons and other devices of mayhem.

Four years ago: Police admit inability to deal with duelist-armed vehicles in highway use; informal highway duels increase in number.

That’s usually how it works. Give a cop a pistol, a criminal brings a submachinegun. It would be interesting to see how the law jibes with making manslaughter legal yet apparently still taking umbrage to outright murder…at least, outside of the Autoduel arenas.

Three years ago: Many localities legalize vehicular weaponry of a “defensive nature” – very loosely defined. Duelling outside city limits now legal in 14 states and tolerated in most others.

That’s the ticket – when the law’s unable to deal with a rising problem, sometimes you just gotta say what the f*ck and let it ride.

Two years ago: A variety of weaponry becomes available as “standard option” on all U.S. makes of cars and several imports.

Car Dealer: Hi there, welcome to MurderAutoRama. I see you’re looking at our Toyota Camry.

Buyer: Yeah, I really like the reviews.

Car Dealer: Best safety rating in its class, thanks to the dual .50 caliber machine guns, rear oil slick dispenser, two-inch armor plating all around, combat tires, door holster for a personal weapon of any size, side-mounted rockets with armor-piercing warheads…and leather-wrapped shifter, six-disk CD player, and rear seat DVD players. Act now and we’ll throw in the DVD collection of our ‘Combat Mood Video,’ which is called “Caillou.”

Buyer: Caillou?

Car Dealer: Yeah, after a couple of episodes, you’ll be so pissed you’ll ready to blow anything up.

One year ago: Statistics show “smash-and-grab” cycle and car gangs much reduced. Country real estate begins to rise in value. Law-enforcement officials credit vehicular weaponry of private citizens, but point out that “The gangs that are left are now better-armed than we are…” Autoduelling now legal in 39 states.

Sounds like we’re just legitimizing history to build up to…

Today: CAR WARS…


Car Wars grew into a worldwide phenomenon, supported wholeheartedly by Steve Jackson Games, which continued to publish extra materials (as mentioned), but also creating an infrastructure to support players and their campaigns. The American Autoduel Association (AADA), which is referred to in many campaign manuals of later editions, was an actual thing made up of players all over the planet, and was supported by SJG’s quarterly publication, appropriately named Autoduel Quarterly. SJG’s page mentions they want to relaunch it, but when this was stated is anyone’s guess (mine is 10+ years ago, though it’s important to note the page still exists).

While researching this article, I did find a mention of Car Wars 6th Edition. I found a post online from late summer 2015 of playtests continuing on the game, and it refers to a couple of posts on BoardGameGeek as well, though there is no mention of it otherwise. One wonders what has happened in the last many months…hopefully they stick with it.

In any case, on with my nostalgic look back.



The small box itself was indeed loaded with a lot of product, including a small but readable 24-page rulebook. My own copy has seen better days…though I’ve not opened this box in probably 25 years or more. It’s weathered its banishment to the attic very, very well, all things considered.


Opening the box for the first time in many, many years.

Opening the box for the first time in many, many years.


There was also a large sheet of paper that you had to take scissors to, in order to separate several items, including four road sections, Maneuver and Control tables, a stock car shopping list (basically a quick start setup), and a Movement Chart.


A mess of stuff is/was included. Most of this was so over-used by me and my friends back in the day that I’m hesitant to show close up pics of the individual parts.

A mess of stuff is/was included. Most of this was so over-used by me and my friends back in the day that I’m hesitant to show close up pics of the individual parts.


A counter sheet held 103 counters. This included 16 cars and trucks, six cycles, 22 record counters (which are barely the size of my fingertip), four gray smoke clouds, four purple paint clouds, six black oil slicks, four square obstacle counters, 12 small debris counters, six pedestrian counters, six tire-spike counters, four dropped-mine counters, two wrecked cycles, three wrecked cars, and four sets of “speed” and “handling” counters for the vehicle record sheets. Everything you need to recreate a world of highway violence that you once were only able to dream of.


The counters have held up well.

The counters have held up well.


The counters were, quite frankly, cheap. They’re thin, difficult to manipulate, and stick like Gorilla Glue to even a dry, clean finger. Yet, they looked awesome. The cars, pedestrians, mines, spikes…all of it looked imaginably deadly and potentially full of all kinds of fun. The pedestrians confused me, though…I mean, some of them depicted a person holding a firing pistol. What good is that against tons of steel-encased, machinegunning, 60-MPH-moving death?

Not everything you needed for play came in the box, though. For one, you needed paper and pencils…which is understandable, given the size of the box. But, you also need a ruler and a couple of six-sided dice. Inevitably, you probably had a ruler, and the dice were probably ‘borrowed’ from a board game that sat dusty in the closet, never to return.


The game itself was somewhat fiddly, but ‘fiddly’ is pretty much in the wheelhouse of any game that you play like this. There are a few scenarios to get you started in the book, but from that point, it’s all open to interpretation. Whatever you can dream up can pretty much be done in this game, with enough graph paper to build your own lots, arenas, highways, what have you. Car Wars also had tons of expansions, and I own several of them (such as Truck Stop, Crash City, some of the Uncle Albert catalogs, and other things). This entire line of games did well for Steve Jackson Games back in the day, and on into the 90s and beyond, too. There’s even RPG books, including an entire GURPS manual, which I own but cannot find at the moment, unfortunately.

Simulating a game where you must make precise moves in a vehicle seems difficult, but Car Wars managed to pull it off well.

Players choose their scenario and/or set-up, choose stock vehicles or build their own from scratch, and set them up in the environment they’ll play in. Before moving and shooting things, though, each driver gets a ‘Reflexes’ roll. The result on a six-sided die is their Reflexes rating for the duration of the battle. If more than an hour passes between battles in the game world, a new Reflexes roll is made. If you have a driver that is going through a campaign, that sounds a little weird, but you can add 10% of a particular Skill rating to the Reflexes roll, if you want. Continuing characters start with a rating of zero (0) in each of three categories of Driver, Gunner, and Cyclist. These skills can be improved by participating in combat (and one assumes, surviving) and for getting kills, which is defined as when an enemy vehicle can no longer move or fire.

Simulating a game where you must make precise moves in a vehicle seems difficult, but Car Wars managed to pull it off well. Vehicle performance is pretty much dependent on a lot of factors, such as suspension, engine size, and weight. Much of it is common sense – the heavier your vehicle, the less maneuverable it is. You choose a number of maneuvers (unless you want to go in a straight line, of course), such as a Swerve, Steep Drift, Hard Swerve, and the like. All of the allowed maneuvers are listed on a sheet in the game box. The player can do as many maneuvers as they’d like, but each one has a Difficulty Class (DC) and reduces the vehicle’s overall handling. A table is used to cross-reference speed with the new Handling after a maneuver is performed; this table will say if you’re safe or if you have to roll a die. Failed rolls means bad things.

Game time is measured by turns, and one turn equals one second. Each turn is further subdivided into ten 1/10 second phases, in which movement and combat can occur. A chart is provided that cross-references speed with each phase, so you can see at a glance when your vehicle moves (and attempts maneuvers, too, if applicable).

Players can fire at any time during the turn, but can only fire one weapon each turn…so deciding when to fire is important, because a better set-up might happen later in a turn. If a weapon is linked, the player can fire all linked weapons at once. So, even if you’re driving the Deathmobile, loaded with firepower pointing in all four directions, you can only fire one weapon or one set of linked weapons each turn.

Vehicles have armor, too (if they don’t, they ain’t gonna last long in this game), on each of their six sides (front, back, right, left, top, and bottom). More armor costs more and, of course, weighs more, but means more survivability from both enemy weapons and your own bad driving (by crashing into things…on purpose or not).

Hitting and damage is pretty easy to figure out. You see where the weapon hits, determine damage, then apply it to the armor (if any) and then components in the vehicle, from one side to the other. It’s possible to destroy front armor, for example, then a powerplant, the driver and any passengers, and have damage go all the way through to the back armor – though that’s with much more powerful weapons and not something that happens an awful lot in this basic version of the game.

That’s Car Wars (First Edition) in a nutshell. If there’s an interest in further Car Wars articles, I have a whole pile of expansions I can draw material from. Be sure to submit a comment below or better yet, come into the GrogHeads Forums and write us a note!

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3 Responses to Car Wars – A Trip Down The Memory Fast Lane, Part 1

  1. Heruca says:

    Did you know you can now play Car Wars on your computer, without the fidgety cardboard counters? Check out this free downloadable content pack for the BGE software:

    You’ll need your old CW rulebook and game charts, though.

  2. Erich Swafford says:

    The author must be exactly my age (50). I remember playing Car Wars in 83 or 84 (with the truck stop expansion thing) one night during a sleepover with 5 friends until the sun came up. It was so awesome.

    I never played it again. Had to make the tennis team, go to college, got busy with life, 30 years slid by. You know this story.

    I think if I had known that would the one, the only, the last time I’d ever get to play…I dunno. Lots of things turned out that way. Sniff.

  3. Harry Miktarian says:

    Being from Fresno…Car Wars was always something special for me 🙂

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