Is love at first sight possible with board games? I say yes, and I can prove it. It’s happened to me twice before. I open up a box, and the components and look of the game immediately attract me. I open up the rules and I find them easy to understand and elegant. I get unreasonably excited to play just from reading the rules. Then, finally, when I play the game it’s just as good as I had hoped. The first time I fell in love with a game this way was with Dominant Species. The second time, just this past week, was with Downforce.
Downforce is a retooling of legendary designer Wolfgang Kramer’s Top Race from 1996. This is what Restoration Games does–they take older games and “update” them for a more modern boardgaming audience. Even with Kramer behind the original, I can’t imagine that this is anything more than a perfect version of that system. It’s wonderful.
The rules are super simple. You start by auctioning off each of the 6 F1 cars available. Auctioning takes only a couple of minutes. Everyone gets a hand of cards that they’ll use throughout the rest of the game. Each card shows between one and six car colors, with numbers from 1-6 next to them. You play a card to bid for the car color up on the block–whatever number corresponds to that car color is your bid. Each car you win gives you a small special power you can use in the race.
After all the cars have been distributed (at least 1 to each player) the race begins. This is even more simple. On your turn you play a card from hand and resolve all of the car movements from top to bottom. That’s it. But because the track (of which there are 2) narrows in many areas, blocking cars from progressing is absolutely an issue. You also probably need some help from other people’s cards to even be able to move your car all the way around the track.
The race segment quickly devolves into infuriating wars of attrition as once cars reach the first bottleneck. Nothing is worse than someone playing a 6-speed card for your car, only to find yourself firmly stuck behind a row of other cars. And this game is MADE for taunting, so you’re going to hear about it too. Pro strats include going into a tight turn and just parking there. Let everyone else waste their cards bumping up against your rear, or let them move you. It’s great.
Owning a car that sees itself perpetually in the rear sucks, but you’re not stuck in the mud, game-wise, because at three intervals during the race everyone secretly bets on which car will win. There are payouts for first, second, and third, and they can be just as lucrative as finishing well with your own car. This is a brilliant bit of design because it solves two problems. First, it keeps people in the game when their car isn’t doing well, because they can put all of their money on a “side car” that they help along as much as their own. Second, it makes the game work with every player count from 2-6. If you only own one car but someone else owns three, it doesn’t matter. You have just as much of a chance as they do.
Unfortunately it isn’t perfect. Losing the race still is a net negative on your income (because you had to pay to acquire it), and in my games there has almost always been one stinker that ends up being ignored because it’s doing so badly. It goes without saying that owning that car isn’t particularly enjoyable, even if you are shifting your focus to a betting choice.
The game similarly stumbles if one car manages to take a massive lead. Everyone will start to bet on the car, and since they are betting on it, they don’t particularly care if it stays ahead, so they won’t worry about trying to avoid moving it or catching up. That creates a somewhat dull game, but I’ve only seen it happen in earnest once. On a smaller scale, getting stuck without any good card to play, while part of the game, sometimes feels like it was completely out of your hands.
The good games are very good. Full of suspense, jeering, epic maneuvers, and surprise endings. It’s everything you want in a racing game, played out in half an hour. It’s light, and if you’re the competitive sort you’ll want to total scores from multiple plays, because people will be shafted without any fault of their own.
Elegance and Style
It’s just so fun. The art is sunny, clean, and bright, with wonderful blue and green tones that make it feel like a summer in Monaco. The cards are easy to read and understand, and the two tracks are adequately varied (one in particular is absolutely infuriating with its narrow lanes). I can’t wait until there’s an expansion with more tracks and cards. I want massive races! I want epic, multi-tier extravaganzas! Restoration Games, please take my money.
Above all, Downforce is a prime example of an elegant game. Every single rule adds to the player experience. Nothing is wasted, and nothing feels patched on to solve a problem. Every part of the game is there for a very specific reason.
That said, it’s a party game at heart. It’s for the end of the game night when you’re tired and giddy. It’s for family get-togethers and trash talking with your siblings. It’s for when you’ve had a bit too much to drink and just want to screw over your friends. Forget those nonsensical, gratuitous card games that seem so popular. This is the family-level, lighthearted, fun-time game for me. I was skeptical when I heard Rob Daviau announce the creation of Restoration Games. Why do old games need a new coat a paint when that time could be spent making even better games without the restrictions of old mechanisms? I was proven wrong. I don’t know how the other two games in their catalog are, but now I’m very interested to try them out. Count me as on board with this restoration project.
+Instant inherent intrigue in the race through the card mechanisms
+Betting and owning are both lucrative paths to victory
-Winners and losers can pull away from the crowd, creating frustration and/or boredom