Wolfgang Kramer’s classic high-stakes racing board game is back in the form of Downforce, by Restoration Games. Known previously by many names such as Top Race or Cleveland Grand Prix, this is a card driven racing game where every single corner counts. Being around for around 40 years in one form or another the rules have been honed. However, tweaks have been made with player powers being included to spice the racing up.
Perfect for players of all ages and experience levels Downforce is easy to just sit down and play. The game is split into three stages: Bidding, Racing & Scoring. The first stage of the game, Bidding, is when players will spend points, which are deducted at the end of the game, to purchase cars and powers. Before any bidding is done the 6 cars are randomly assigned to spaces on the starting grid. The 6 power cards and 6 speed cards, one of each car colour, are shuffled and one of each is flipped. Players then bid with a single card from their hand. Whomever bids the highest wins the car and power combination.
In the first game, everyone will be throwing down 6’s left, right and centre to get the front-running cars. As soon as the scoring for the first game concludes people start to take the bidding more seriously trying to pay less each time. Everyone must have a minimum of 1 car so if it comes down to it and for example two players are carless with only two cars remaining, only those players can bid. Only having one car in the race doesn’t count you out of contention either. Though you will most probably have less ideal moves in the racing segment.
The race is what Downforce is all about and unsurprisingly is the main stage of the game. Starting with whomever purchased the car on the pole position point players will take it in turns to play the cards in their hand. Cards will have an order of cars with the number of spaces they will move. As an example, a card may have 5 Blue, 4 Yellow and 2 Wild. Whomever played this card would start by moving the blue card by 5 spaces, followed by the yellow cars 4 spaces, even if neither of these were his/her cars. Therefore, these cards result in players actively moving opponents cars too. When doing this the mover can decide to move the car either straight forward or diagonally forward.
As these are the only legal moves this opens up the possibility of players being stuck, unable to move forward or diagonally, behind other cars. Blocking will feature in every game but if you play your cards right you can attempt to avoid at least some of it, or cause it behind you. This is especially likely on corners where the track thins to only one or two spaces across. The last action of the example card is 2 Wild. This means you must move any car, of colour that does not appear on the card, by 2 spaces. This gameplay results in action happening even when it isn’t your turn. Therefore, players will see themselves speed around the track and blocked off even when it isn’t their turn, keeping players engaged.
To change up the otherwise identical cars are the power cards that come with the cars during the bidding stage. Players discard down to one of these if they have brought more than one car-power combination and these effectively give each player a special ability. These can range from being able to occasionally move extra spaces to moving your own car on other players’ turns. The later, named “Cunning”, has been a hotly contested power. It effectively stops you getting blocked off easily by other. Without weeks more of playing I wouldn’t want to go as far as saying it is overpowered. All powers seem to have their moments of awesomeness and usefulness.
There are three markers on each track that when first crossed instigate the betting. Fear not, Downforce keeps things family friendly, as it is mostly an opportunity to vote on which car you think will win. At the conclusion of the game, these bets can earn you points depending on how far round the track players where when the bet was made and what position the car you bet on finished in. For example, if you bet on the Red car to win at the first betting line and it did you’d earn $9 million, whilst betting on the same car on the second betting line would only get you $6 million. Betting can mean even the winner of the race does not win overall if players choose correctly at each betting line.
Although, there are positions for 1st to 6th there is no guarantee that all six cars will finish the race. This isn’t that much of an issue for the 6th car as it would score a whopping $0 anyway. Conversely, 5th can score $2 million, which is enough to swing a victory. Towards the end of the game it starts to be more a question of “Can I finish?”, rather than “what position will I finish in?”. Finishing first or even at all does not guarantee winning or losing. This is since points are awarded for race positioning and correct bets, before points are detracted equal to the amount spend on cars at the offset of the game. After this is all calculated the player with the most points is crowded the winner.
The game is made to be visually appealing and fun in nature via the top-quality components. The cars are all different bright colours of same shape, being extremely reminiscent of Formula 1 cars. Hopefully, this won’t cause any accessibility issues for colour-blind gamers out there, I’m unable to advise on that front. The game board which is two sided features lovely, family friendly, illustrations that are almost straight out of everyone’s mind when talking about racetracks.
These two tracks are great at changing up the gameplay, with an easier, less confrontational, side and one which forces more blocking and tactical decisions. This isn’t to say it isn’t possible to purposefully block the track on the “friendly” side but the reverse side has tighter and narrower segments of track. Starting out it is best to get at least one game under your belt on the less confrontational side it’ll just make things flow a little easier and allow more people to finish their first race.
One component disappointing, letting down the otherwise extremely high production value, and that is the paper scoring sheets. To give Restoration Games some props there are a lot of the scoring sheets included in the box. Nevertheless, if Downforce gets to the table regularly, especially with the full player count of 6, these will be burned through. This just sends me back in time to when I ended up photocopying Cluedo answer sheets after nearly running out.
Each game of Downforce seems to end at the right time, amplifing the want to play a second/third/fourth (and so on) game. Just as your hand of cards is getting low and choice is running out the game is over and it is time to start scoring. However, for those wanting to add some extra challenge some extension rules are included in the rulebook. The most logical is the “World Tour” rule of playing two games, one on each side of the board, and adding the scores together. This is great fun and makes me hopeful of a race track map pack at some point.
Downforce is a family friendly racing game that will undoubtedly get eventful. Whether playing nicely or going for maximum confrontation, by blocking at every opportunity, there is plenty of player interaction and things going on to keep players of all ages engaged. The bidding for cars gives the game a slightly slow start but as soon as the race gets going, if you pardon the pun, things speed up. Everyone that has played has enjoyed the game and despite its lightness it will often be chosen from my gaming shelf.
[Editor’s Note: Downforce was provided to us by Esdevium Games for review purposes. The game has an RRP of £39.99. For loads of board games check out 365 Games. Downforce is available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]