In Car Wars, players assume control of one or more cars or other powered vehicle, from motorcycles to semi trucks. Optional rules include piloting helicopters, ultralights, balloons, boats, submarines and tanks. The vehicles are typically outfitted with weapons (such as missiles and machine guns), souped-up components (like heavy-duty fire-proof wheels, and nitro injectors), and defensive elements (armor plating and radar tracking systems). Within any number of settings, the players then direct their vehicles in combat.
The published games use cardstock counters to represent vehicles in a simulated battle upon printed battlemaps. While the game rules allow for any scale, most editions of the game were published to use a 1-inch = 15-feet scale (1:180 scale), although the Fifth Edition switched to 1-inch = 5-feet (1:60 scale). At this larger scale, players can use miniature toy vehicles such as Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars, S gauge model railroading scenery, or 28mm-30mm scale wargaming miniatures. Some play at yet other scales by using toys such as Micro Machines, or even 1/25th scale models in the game.
Car Wars had many scenarios available and the system allowed for players to make their own. Common scenarios included making it successfully through a harrowing gauntlet and competition in an arena to win a virtual cash prize with which to upgrade their cars. Many game sessions consist of players taking their cars through many successive arena-style scenarios, upgrading their cars between each round. At the height of the game's popularity, many gaming conventions and gaming clubs sponsored Car Wars tournaments where finalist players could win real world prizes.
Car Wars uses a number of standard six-sided dice to determine the outcomes of weapon fire, damage and vehicle control during the game. The game is played in turns, where each turn represents one second of real time. Each turn was initially divided into ten phases (first edition) then to five phases (revised edition) and finally, in the latest edition (Car Wars 5.0) three phases. All action in Car Wars is simultaneous. Players do not roll for initiative which is common in other combat games, instead, each phase, a vehicle moves a number of inches determined by the vehicle's speed and players may fire weapons on any phase as long as they have line-of-sight with a target of their choosing. As part of movement players may attempt turns and other maneuvers of increasing difficulty. The more maneuvers one attempts in a turn and the more difficult they are, the more likely it is that a player's car will skid or crash. After all phases of movement and combat are resolved, a new turn begins. Typically, a game is over after a few turns, which represents a battle being over in a few seconds of real time, but because every action in the game must be resolved a typical game takes a few hours to play.
While the core of the original Car Wars was a boardgame, the supplements allowed it to be extended into a larger game with light role-playing elements. Other expansions such as rule-additions, mini-scenarios and dual-statted products like Autoduel Champions (for use with Car Wars or Champions) published in game magazines expanded the game even further.
Car Wars was first published in a small ziplock-bag format in 1980, and cited Alan Dean Foster's short story, "Why Johnny Can't Speed", as a primary inspiration. The game won the Charles S. Roberts Award (Origins Award) for Best Science Fiction Boardgame of 1981 and was named to the Games magazine Games 100 list in 1985.
As the game became more popular, there were a series of increasingly more expensive and elaborate editions. Car Wars also served as the inspiration for the 1985 video game Autoduel, published by Origin Systems. Steve Jackson continues to express an interest in developing video games based on the Car Wars concept.
The game's popularity waned during the 1990s, and in response to slipping sales, Steve Jackson Games ceased support for Car Wars. The last official Cars Wars material for the original game appeared in Pyramid magazine (an article introducing High Torque Motors, by Robert Deis).
Autoduel America, the setting for Car Wars, was developed for role-playing games (RPGs) using Steve Jackson Games' GURPS system (called GURPS Autoduel). That GURPS worldbook has seen two editions. A series of expansions for both the GURPS version and boardgame, the AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guides, were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 2002, Steve Jackson Games released an entirely new version of Car Wars. Redesigned for a new audience, it was called version 5.0. The new game's unusual marketing, scattering the game across several redundant products, met with mixed responses and the game's popularity has continued to wane. The 2002 products are still in print.
In October 2009, Steve Jackson Games made the Car Wars Compendium: Second Edition (Fifth Printing) available as a PDF from the e23 online store.
Car Wars (both boardgame and RPG version) was translated into French by Croc.
Car Wars: The Card Game was released in 1991 (with a 2nd edition in 2001), designed by Creede and Sharleen Lambard and published by Steve Jackson Games. Reviewer Shannon Appelcline said (of the 2nd edition game) "It's based on a fun concept--blowing the heck out of each others cars'--the box design is appealing, and there's a matching Battle Cattle game that's compatible. ... when you actually begin reading the rules and playing the game the product starts to lose its luster." He described the game as having an "extremely high" random factor and concluded his review stating "I'm fairly certain there's a damned good game in this box somewhere, it's just not the one described in the rulebook."
The first four editions use a ground scale of 1-inch = 15-feet. Aeroduel introduced an air-to-air scale of ¼-inch = 15-feet. The Fifth Edition uses a revised scale of 3-inches = 15-feet.First edition
Car Wars 1981–1984 (4" × 7" ziplock-bag or Pocket Box)
Cars, pickups, vans, and motorcycles. Turns have ten phases.
Sunday Drivers/Crash City 1982 (Pocket Box)
Added pedestrians, a small bus, and rules for buildings
Truck Stop 1983 (Pocket Box)
Added full-size buses and semi-trailer trucks
Autoduel Champions 1983 (8½" × 11" book)
Added helicopters, grasshoppers (flying cars), and superheroes (the last not canon for Car Wars)
Introduced an alternative hex-based movement system–using 3-inch cars and 1-inch hexes–intended for use with role-playing games. This system was not used again in Car Wars, although the scale is the same as Car Wars: Fifth Edition.
Car Wars Reference Screen 1983 (3-panel 8½" × 11")
Added "Advanced Collision System"
The AADA Vehicle Guide 1983 (5½" × 8½" book)
Added trikes (three-wheeled motorcycles) and off-road rules
Car Wars Deluxe Edition 1985 (9" × 12" box)
Combined and refined the various first edition rules, adding 10-wheeler trucks
Note: Starting in 1990 the Deluxe Edition boxes contained the Car Wars Compendium: Second Edition rulebook rather than the original Deluxe Edition rulebook.
Dueltrack 1986 (9" × 12" box)
Added gasoline engines, metal armor, race-cars, and Chassis & Crossbow (rules for the primitive early history of Car Wars)
The AADA Vehicle Guide: Volume 2 1987 (5½" × 8½" book)
Added sedans, and campers (SUVs)
Boat Wars 1988 (Pocket Box), 1990 (9" × 12" box)
Added boats, amphibious cars, and hovercraft
Car Wars Compendium 1989 (8½" × 11" book)
Turns reduced to five phases. Control Table revised.
Compiled all the second edition rules (except race-cars) in one place
Refined car movement, based more on the Turning Key than on a map grid
Car Wars Compendium: Second Edition 1990,1996 (8½" × 11" book)
Control Table revised again.
Revised rules — including race-cars — with many updates and refinements.
Car Wars Tanks 1990 (9" × 12" box)
Added wheeled military vehicles, tanks, and really big guns
Aeroduel 1990 (9" × 12" box)
Added fixed-wing planes and airships with both civilian and military grade weapons
Uncle Albert's Catalog From Hell 1992 (8½" × 11" book)
Includes all previously published construction rules, weapons, and equipment, but the only play rules are minor updates to the CWC2E rules.
Car Wars 5.0 2002 (9 comic book sized pamphlets, all containing the same rules with different variations of car designs - any one of which is all that is required to play)
Back to just cars (all pre-designed), with simplified play rules. Turns reduced to three phases.
Scale change, with 1-inch = 5-feet instead of 15-feet
No official construction rules published as of 2011, although a reverse-engineered unofficial version exists
A re-release of the Fourth edition has been released, and includes the auto creation rules and simplified rules for Role Playing. A kickstarter has also been started to create a sixth edition, similar to the popular OGRE kickstarter.
Car Wars is set 50 years after the publication dates of the various books. In this alternative future, natural resources are severely depleted and the United States government nationalized oil production. This eventually led to a second American civil war, ending with the secession of the "Free Oil States", Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Following famine in various parts of the world, there are limited nuclear exchanges between the USSR and the US, but anti-missile systems limit the resulting damage. After these wars, there are years of worldwide economic crisis, and related global unrest, during which "death sports" become a popular form of entertainment. It is this post-apocalyptic setting which has drawn comparisons between Car Wars and the Mad Max movies.
As things began to recover, the organized sport of "autodueling" was born as a form of armed demolition derbies. The American Autoduel Association (AADA) was formed, to sponsor sporting events and up-and-coming autoduelists. In this future, technology has allowed for new vehicle designs, miniaturized weapon systems, and replacements for internal combustion engines. Furthermore, human cloning (together with techniques for storing memories), has made death only a minor setback for autoduelists who can afford the procedure. Car Wars is a game designed for simulating these autoduels between competing players.
The American Autoduel Association (AADA) was a worldwide group of players. It was started by Steve Jackson Games who supported the club with a quarterly magazine called Autoduel Quarterly. This contained campaign ideas, vehicles, "mock" advertisements, and new weapons and accessories, as well as questions and answers. Subscribers would receive a bonus in the form of an extra cutout or cartoon on the protective mailing cover. Local clubs could also pay a yearly membership fee to be considered "official."
The AADA served as a structured clearinghouse for common rules and guidelines to be followed during 'official' events. World Championships were held each year at the Origins Game Fair.
The AADA is no longer an official club as recognized by Steve Jackson Games. There are still several local clubs that claim to be AADA affiliated, and there are even web sites where interested parties can enjoy PBEM games. One site has a Car Wars podcast.
The official Car Wars site notes plans to relaunch the AADA and start a new periodical called Autoduel Times. No date is given for this project.
In addition to the spin-off video game, Epic Comics published Car Warriors, a 1991 four-issue comic book mini-series set in the Car Wars world.
There were also a series of six gamebooks based in the Car Wars universe, where a player could make choices for the protagonist to affect the outcome of the story. The Car Wars Adventure Gamebooks were titled: Battle Road, Fuel's Gold, Dueltrack, Badlands Run, Green Circle Blues and Mean Streets.
A trilogy of novels was published by Tor Books: The Square Deal by David Drake in 1992, Double Jeopardy: Car Warriors 2 by Aaron Alston in 1994, and Back From Hell by Mick Farren in 1999.
In 1995 VictorMaxx technologies announced plans for a series of gaming centers based on Car Wars, with a prototype site to debut in Chicago in 1996.