Every once and a while I will roll the dice and try my luck with a board game at our Sunday family dinners. Most of the time my siblings and in-laws will humor me by playing a quick game, but rarely do they ever seem to truly enjoy themselves as much as I would hope. Regardless I continue to try and find a game that everyone will love and appreciate as an enjoyable way to pass the time together. I was this close to giving up when my sister asked one Sunday not to long ago, “Why can’t we could just play Monopoly?” I’m happy to say though that the most recent game I introduced to them actually had everyone requesting a second round right after finishing. Downforce, the high stakes racing game with a sprinkle of betting had my entire family ready to start their engines, and I’m willing to wager it’ll be the same with yours.
Downforce was recently published by Restoration Games, a company that takes pride in hunting down the licenses for old, classic games and making them available again not only with a new paint job nut also a much more robust engine under the hood. Downforce was one of their first games and is actually based off the 1996 game called Top Race. The original as well as the new version are both credited to designer Wolfgang Kramer. Together with his design partner Michael Kiesling, Kramer has put out more than a dozen classic games that feature simple rulesets while maintaining a high level of strategy and player interaction. Downforce is truly a masterpiece in design, remaining true to what we’d expect from Mr. Kramer.
The game itself is 50% a racing game, and 50% a betting game. Doing well at both is extremely difficult, so as long as you do well with either you may just have a chance at walking away the winner. The game starts with a bidding phase in which players will decide which color cars they will be responsible for as well as what special ability their racers will have. This is done with players reveling cards from their cards simultaneously for combinations of car colors and abilities. The highest value bid will win the auction but the amount will be deducted from the players earnings at the end of the race. Each player will end up with at least one car, sometimes more depending on player count.
Once the initial auction is over with the real action can begin. Starting with the player who won the color car on the starting spot players will take turns playing cards from their hand until each car has earned it’s place at the finish line. The cards in a players hand will feature any number of colored cars with values from 1-6, or possibly just 8 for the color cars you own. When playing a card, that player will get to move each colored car listed there starting with the highest value and continuing down to the lowest. It’s important to note that players will actually be moving/controlling other players’ color cars. Movement is fairly simple, each movement must move forward either to the square in front or one to the diagonal.
Players will want to carefully position not only their cars but those of others’ to create block of certain sections of the raceway. You see, a car can only move its full movement value if there is actually that much open track in front of it, and since the tracks are only 1-3 spaces wide there will often be times where cars will waste movement points as they catch up to other cars making their way through a bottleneck. Also the curves on the track will feature less spaces on the inside of the turn and more spaces around the outside. A good portion of the strategy within the game is trying to waste the movement values of your opponents cars while capitalizing on the positioning of your own.
While this sounds good and fun, wouldn’t the game get old pretty quick? Yes, yes it would. You see, there are times during the race when players will have an opportunity to bet on who they believe will end up crossing the finish line first. You are free to bet on your own car currently in 4th, earring you a good chunk of money when you earn 1st place and no one else bet on them. Or maybe you play it safe, betting on the car in the lead, knowing that while you may not place better than 3rd, at least you’ll walk away with something for betting correctly. Then again, maybe everyone will try to stop the car in first place from actually winning, so betting on the second place car will be a better choice. With each progressive bid, the reward will be less and less for being correct. It’s good to also know that the car you bet on will also pay out for coming in 2nd or 3rd, just not as much.
Hopefully you can now see the interesting choices that are presented you as you play. There is definitely an interesting arc of tension as priorities change throughout the game. At first you are solely trying to do the best with your cars as possible, careful to not burn through all your high value cards early. As the race progresses though and you start bidding on other cars, you may have to actually help an opponent while still trying to place as well as you can with your car. And while having multiple cars in the race does give you a higher chance of finishing well, you will still be required to pay out of your earnings for the money spent during the initial auction. All of this comes together to create a lovely game, full of interesting decisions and tense gameplay, while remaining simple enough for even non-gamers to enjoy.
The game comes with a double sided board featuring two different tracks. There are also 6 different driver abilities, each changing your strategy ever so slightly depending on which you end up with. Luckily there are two expansions, for when you need more Downforce. The first is called Danger Circuit and features an additional double sided board with maps that have even more choke points and crazy curves. The expansion also comes with 6 more rider abilities to mix up the game up even more. The most recent expansion, Wild Ride, features another double sided board. One side has cardboard jumps players can use if moving fast enough, while the other side has safari animals that will occasionally cross the road creating moving bottlenecks.
I honestly cannot recommend the game enough. Not only is the gameplay elegant and engaging but the components are top notch with lovely plastic cars, linen finish cards, and super sturdy 6 fold game board. If this game isn’t in your collection then you’re missing out, because it needs to be.