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Cardboard Critique: Downforce

Tabletop •

You may not of heard of Restoration Games–they’re relatively new–but I don’t think that will last for long. For one, you’re reading this, and I’m about to talk about them as if they’re my first middle school crush. Secondly, they’re taking older games from the 80s and 90s and updating them for modern gamers which is a really cool thing to be doing. What games, I hear you ask? Well, let’s take a look at their racing/gambling hybrid, Downforce.

Unbeknownst to many, Wolfgang Kramer–yes, the Wolfgang Kramer of El Grande, Tikal, and The Princes of Florence fame–spent a good chunk of the 90’s designing auto racing games. Seriously. Games like Daytona 500 and Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix all used similar mechanisms, but had enough tweaks and eurogame touches to make them more than your standard racing game which, at the time, usually consisted of rolling a lot of dice.

One of these racing games was 1996s Top Race which used the basic mechanisms of Kramer’s earlier race games but added gambling. It also simplified much, removing more complicated movement rules, such as drafting, and slimming the auction phase. This is the game that Restoration decided to update with a 2017 aesthetic and the result is a Downforce, a quick and exhilarating racer perfect for filling 30 minutes between games or playing over several rounds as the main entrée.

Some driver powers are better than others, but all of them come in handy in certain situations.

The basic mechanism of all Kramer’s games are speed cards. The entire deck is dealt out between the players, each card having the colors of one or more cards and a number indicating how many spaces that car can move when played. Most cards have multiple cars listed, with each car’s movement played in order from top to bottom. On your turn, you play a card and move the cars, that’s it. I know it sounds even more dull than reading this review, but it’s not!

Each game begins with an auction where you can bid on which car you want to own. Everyone needs to control at least one of the six cars, and you can own more if playing with less than six players. There’s no money to handle in Downforce, instead the auction is handled via your cards and simply kept track of on a handy Yahtzee-style scoresheet. Apart from the car you’re bidding on, you are also getting a driver. This is indicated by a special power card which will let you subtly break the rules, giving your car a small advantage in one aspect of the race.

Paper money? Not quite.

After the auction, it’s race time. Downforce is a one-lap-only contest, making each game go incredibly quick. Everyone plays a card, moves cars in order, and, at race’s end, earns money based on where their car(s) finishes. $12K for 1st place down to $0 for 6th. It’s also very likely that a car or two won’t finish the race, earning them a big goose egg in the winnings column as well. That’s also where fun comes from.

You will never have enough cards in your hand to get one car, much less two or three, across the finish line on your own. You’ll need to rely on the help of your opponents playing cards that just happen to have your car’s colors on them. Unfortunately, both tracks included in Downforce are loaded with bottlenecks, forcing cars into single lanes. If your car is blocked behind another car and your color is played, your car goes nowhere and those precious points you need to finish are lost. Thus, a huge part of this game involves not just pushing your cars forward, but playing cards that ensure your rivals don’t go anywhere. Playing a 6 movement card for your opponent only to laugh as his car sits idle behind yours in a tight corner is a delicious moment in gaming. Also, once your cars cross the finish line, your remaining cards are discarded making it even likelier that cars behind you won’t have enough movement to putt-putt their way home.

Downforce adds gambling to the mix so, even if your racer is slower than My Mother the Car, you can rack up cash betting on the enemy. At three points around the track play will halt while everyone selects the car they think will come in 1st. If you’ve put your money on a car that comes in the top three spots, you can head to the window and collect your earnings. Again, however, there’s no money in Downforce, so all of this is simply recorded in secret on your scoresheet.

Owning two cars would seem like a lot of fun, but it can often bite you in the butt.

A race in Downforce can be finished in 30 minutes or so, especially once everyone wraps their head around the fact that they’re not playing Terra Mystica. Downforce has a beer and pretzels feel, but offers enough interesting choices and tactics via those hairpin turns to satisfy even grouchy old grognards. It’s easy enough to play with the whole family, and it plays great from three players all the way up to six. It’s listed as being playable with two, but I haven’t tried it with that configuration.

Restoration Games came to my attention with their Kickstarter for the 1980s electronic classic Stop Thief, which I’m sure I’ll cover in a Cardboard Critique down the road. Their production values are stellar, and they’re willing to change whatever–even the rules–to accommodate a modern audience. Downforce hews pretty close to the original Top Race, but Stop Thief varies quite a bit by using an app and getting rid of the roll-and-move that plagued the original.

This review is about Downforce, however, and I hope your getting the vibe that it’s another keeper. Even if you’re not a huge racing fan, the interaction and quick play make this an easy one to pull off the shelf. If you need another push, Restoration has an app available that will (soon, I hope) include a digital version of the scoresheeet, so you won’t even need to hand out litter and pencils at the beginning of each game. I know Restoration’s next big title is Fireball Island, but here’s hoping that they manage to cut through the legal mess surrounding Dark Tower and bring that back to my game table. We can dream, can’t we?

The following is a “How to Play” video from the polite Canadian himself, Rodney Smith, of Watch it Played. Guessing he wouldn’t mind if I post it here…

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Notable Replies

  1. Racing themes are on the up I think. Flamme Rouge, Pit Crew, Grand Prix, etc.

    Now that game design has largely shunted roll and move aside, we’re seeing a lot more interesting racing games. I wish Rallyman was more interactive, but that’s the nature of the sport.

  2. And, maybe the best of the bunch, Thunder Alley. I have Flamme Rouge as well, so there might be a Cardboard Critique of that one coming in the near future. Need to get it to the table a few more times before that happens, though.

  3. I thought Thunder Alley was older than 2014, actually. I had it down in my mind as classic GMT “Oh that’s popular now, is it? We printed a game on that, oh, many years ago…” fodder.

    Flamme Rouge is definitely worth the attention. I’m looking forward to the expansion.

  4. I bought Downforce due to my longtime enjoyment of Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, and old Mayfair title that I’ve played for many years. Downforce improves upon it, though I’m not sure I’m into all the betting just yet. May take a while for that aspect to grab me as much as it does others.

  5. You’re right, the racing and blocking is where the real fun lies. The betting is a nice addition, though. My kids love gambling!

  6. Neep65 says:

    This sounds and looks great. Sorta like Camel Up without the camels?

  7. I found Camel Up to be merely okay. Actually sold my copy. I enjoy Downforce quite a bit more.

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