Downforce started its journey as Tempo, a (to quote the history presented by Restoration Games) ‘themeless race game on a straight track’. From this humble beginning, Wolfgang Kramer’s first published game went on to be nominated for a Spiel des Jahres in its incarnation as Top Race.
But Top Race didn’t win the Spiel in 1996, and soon thereafter vanished into obscurity. Restoration Games has made it their mission to bring back lost classics of board game history (and were hugely successful with Indulgence) – how well have they done with Downforce? Let’s hit the gas and find out!
Downforce is, at heart, a racing game. But unlike so many, which try to recreate the adrenal thrill of being behind the wheel of a speeding car (something which may simply be impossible to translate to cardboard – I have certainly never encountered a game which managed it), it instead capitalizes on strategic (but still snappy) gameplay through its three unique mechanical phases.
In the first phase, the players will use their randomly-dealt cards to auction for ownership of the cars in the upcoming race. The bidding process is simple: each player starts the game with a hand of cards, and each card shows between one and six cars.
For each racer, players will pick one of their cards and simultaneously reveal. The player whose card shows the highest number for that color car wins the car, and notes how much they ‘paid’ for it as an end-game penalty to their score.
In addition to ownership of their cars, players get a ‘Speed 8′ card in their car’s color, giving them a huge one-time boost to their cars’ position, should they use it.
The other thing that players are auctioning for are Power cards. One gets randomly tied to each car during the auction, and at the end, each player can only keep a single power. The rest get discarded from the game.
Andrew: Powers are one of my favorite things about Downforce. Each one gives you a strategic advantage, letting you break the rules in some unique way. It’s a small thing, but it adds a huge amount to the gameplay.
Once all the cars have been auctioned off, the race proper will begin. During this part of the game, players will take turns using Speed cards (the same cards they used in the auction) to move cars along the track.
Each speed card depicts at least one racer, but can show several. No matter who plays the card or which cars that player may own, each car moves the number of spaces shown on the card, resolved from top to bottom.
Jess: Here’s where things get really interesting, because it’s the active player who moves the cars. That means that, while the order that the cars move is set (top to bottom), the active player can be strategic about how they move these cars. It’s possible (and important!) to occasionally jam opposing cars up behind each other, to better control the flow of the race!
…or should you?
Because while it is absolutely true that you get a windfall of cash based on your cars’ ranking at the end of the race, the third part of Downforce, beside the auction and the race, has the potential to change everything.
The first time any car crosses one of the broad yellow lines that mark the track, all players will make a secret round of betting. The bet is simple – each player will secretly note which car they think will end in first place. Getting this bet right will earn a player a huge bump in cash at the end of the race.
Andrew: Players will get to bet three times during the race, though each subsequent bet is worth less money (since later bets are less speculative). You can bet on the same car or different cars. And you absolutely can bet on cars you don’t own!
Jess: What that all means is that you might not even really be rooting to have your own cars win the race at all! Let’s say my opponent owns the red car, but in my hand are a ton of cars that move red really fast. By betting on red winning and making sure it happens, I can net myself a ton of money!
Andrew: Right! But if someone else catches on to what you’re doing, well, they’ll just bet on red too. So the strategy might be to hang back, make it look like other cars are going to take it, and then try to surge forward after the second or third round of betting. And, of course, the player who owns red is going to get paid for their car coming in first, so you need to be really careful with that sort of high-risk, high-reward strategy. It’s awesome!
Downforce is a brisk, tight game. Turns take moments and there really is a lot of excitement to be found in jockeying for position across the track. The strategy isn’t complex but it is layered – you need to spend your cards cleverly, move the cars tactically, and place bets with as much foresight as you can manage.
Adding to this are the powers, each of which lets players take on a unique approach to how they race. It’s a brilliant bit of design that we found to be tremendously engaging.
Andrew: Honestly, my only real issue with Downforce is that it could use a little more. More powers, maybe more racetracks? But that’s really it – what we have here is an excellent game that can be played by just about anybody.
Jess: Agreed! Though it’s easy to get annoyed when the cars enter a choke and the one you want to move ends up trapped behind the pack, but hey, that’s part of the strategy. For the most part, Downforce is quick and easy to play, and I really had a great time with it.
Andrew: I’m a sucker for multi-use cards, and while the Speed cards only get used two ways in Downforce, I love that each card can move several cars, leading to some real considerations in when and how we play them. And of course there’s the betting aspect, which isn’t just about always betting on the car out in the lead.
Let it be said, Downforce is not a particularly friendly game. But while our group tends to find little joy in take-that gameplay, the interactions in Downforce are tight and limited, and the game tends to be so quick that grievances over having one of your cars jammed behind the others can simply be resolved in the next race.
Overall, Downforce is a stellar game. The Restoration Games reprint of this lost classic is fantastic, bringing some truly excellent gameplay to a new generation to appreciate. We absolutely recommend Downforce, and encourage you to check it (and Restoration’s other titles) out!
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(Gameosity received a review copy of this game. We were not otherwise compensated.)