Designers: Rob Daviau, Justin D. Jacobson, Wolfgang Kramer
Artists: Tavis Coburn, Michael Crampton
Publisher: Restoration Games
Price: $39.95 Amazon
Downforce is a racing, bidding, and auctioning game from Restoration Games. Downforce is actually a reimplementation of a long line of remastered titles from Wolfgang Kramer, including Top Race, Niki Lauda’s Formel 1, Tempo, and more. Kramer is a famed tabletop designer whose games include El Grande, Tikal, Colosseum, Torres, Coal Baron, Porta Nigra, and many more.
Daviau is also of tabletop designer ilk, who began a career designing games with Hasbro and Avalon Hill. Daviau’s design credits include: Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy and many other editions of Risk, Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit, Seafall, and more.
More recently, Daviau is behind the scenes with Restoration Games. Restoration Games is a Florida-based publisher which takes games from the 60s-90s and restores them with modern game design art direction and streamlined mechanisms. While some games are already excellent on their own, Restoration works toward modernizing titles for a broad audience and bringing back old, difficult-to-find games. The current lineup from Restoration includes Downforce, Indulgence, Stop Thief!, and the upcoming Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar.
In my few years in the hobby, I’ve tried to learn game criticism. My background lies in film criticism, so coming into the tabletop world was quite the jump. Film, like all forms of art, relies heavily on artistic elements from previous filmmaking efforts. Comparing modern filmmaking techniques with older films is necessary to accurately analyze and critique recent films.
I’ve been a firm believer that films don’t replace other films, and I generally have felt the same about video and board games. Sure, I might ultimately select Sushi Go Party! over 7 Wonders 9 out of 10 times for new gamers, but I don’t think Sushi Go Party! is the superior game, just far better a choice for introducing new players to card drafting. Of course, the sushis are so cute and great if I’m playing with a certain group of people, but friends familiar with Sid Meier’s Civilization or other civ-building games might prefer 7 Wonders.
For the longest time, Camel Up was an essential gateway game in my collection, and while I believe it still has its merits, Downforce will take the “7 Wonders” spot 9 out of 10 times. After all, I’m sure friends won’t have a preference, as I can’t imagine they would have an inclination toward Formula 1 racing or a hidden, deep-rooted fascination for camels.
In Downforce, players vye for being the richest gamer at the table. Players are dealt a hand of cards and then begin an extremely simplified auction to determine who will own each of the six colors of racecars, each paired with a special, situational racing power. While players can indeed purchase more than one car if player count allows, the purchase price for each car is deducted from their end game total.
After bidding, players take their cars and powers and in turn order, play a racing card and move all cars denoted on the card. Movement around the track should be executed seamlessly, as forward momentum is always prioritized, and movement never approaches the complexity of other titles like Thunder Alley or Grand Prix. Cars will eventually pass three betting lines, at which point players mark which camel—excuse me—car they anticipate will win the race. Each payout rewards less cash depending on how far along the race is.
Finally, the game ends when either all cards are played, or all six cars have crossed the finish line, which is actually not as likely as you think. Cars that place reward their owners varying amounts of cash, players receive earnings based on how well they bet on the final winner, and ultimately players subtract what they paid for their cars. The final reflected total is the final score, and the player with the most cash left is the winner.
Though playing Downforce makes clear Camel Up’s design inspirations, it provides so much more delineation and investment than its Egyptian-themed cousin, or rather, nephew.
While deciding which cars and powers to bid on, players must first assess the value of their racing cards. Of course, racing powers can be valued to some extent, but in retrospect of a few plays, powers become tremendously situational and extemporaneous. They can turn the tide in favor of one player, but don’t make it obvious until the clutch moment. As far as card value goes, it likely wouldn’t make sense to bid on the blue car if your hand holds only a single card with the blue car printed on it. Some players might also decide they’d rather stick with whatever car is leftover at the end of the auction phase, solely because they don’t want to deduct any earnings from their final total.
Hands of cards are totally random, being dealt from a short deck of racing cards. By no means does this make auctioning an exercise in tedium, however. Instead, auctioning is highly nuanced. Learning to evaluate the strength of a hand of cards is critical. Perhaps it might be in one’s benefit to hold a number of cards with another player’s car depicted, solely to more efficiently control the outcome of at least one opponent’s car, using it as a pawn to slow movement on the track.
While the dice of Camel Up are decidedly random, card play here is lesser so. The excitement of a camel in last place jumping onto the backs of other camels to carry it into first still exists in Downforce to some extent. Players can use powers to move cards in reverse order, ignore one car movement, move their own car on other’s turns, and more. Each player is fitted with a powerful 8-move card, which can be used to speed boost past a heavy group of racers, only to blockade them on the corner, leaving no room to pass. In just a few turns, a last place car can not only jump into first place, but force other players to play cards at a loss if their car has no forward space to move to.
Learning the balance of how and when to force activation of opponent’s cars is the meat of subtle decision-making in Downforce. It’s not only what separates good players from bad, but it’s what makes each game of Downforce tense and exciting. It’s what propels enough energy into a round around the table to tip players off to thinking green might just be a better contender than black, though black might still have high wilds in their hand.
As one might suspect, racing games typically place importance on an individual player’s ability to perform well and place high. Downforce applies this mechanism by players receiving earnings for great performance, but the opportunity to bid on your own and others’ cars sets Downforce apart from the pack. It’s almost no longer solely a racing game, but now a game of chance and gambling.
Downforce doesn’t lose energy. Each time around the track builds hype and excitement for each player’s next turn. Players sometimes have to butt in and interrupt each other’s turns to activate player powers. The temptation to count spaces to the next corner weighs heavy, and praying for an opponent not to move your car into an immovable space is always on your mind.
In terms of presentation, the game has an eccentric 70s flair, but feels modern. Cars aren’t tokens, but plastic models. Players receive chunky, oversized tiles to denote who owns which cars. A thick stack of bidding sheets is included in the game for players to write on. Tracks are easily scanned for movement, and the game includes a front and back track on the main board.
I have a few concerns about replayability, but I think the constantly differing hand of cards, along with aforementioned nuance in auctioning, betting, and car movement on the track is enough to keep players interested. After about a dozen plays of Camel Up, I was beginning to lose interest. It was one of the few games in my collection I’d played enough to warrant an expansion, but the game shone for its purpose: new or non-hobby gamers. An expansion complicates my intentions for the game. Downforce was so successful on a first play with co-workers that the racing enthusiast of the group immediately purchased the game on Amazon. If that’s not a selling point, I’m not sure what is.
Downforce includes a beginner’s variant for totally newborn board gamers. I actually influenced these rules a bit to include betting for the sake of those at the table, and the game accommodated my addition well. The rulebook felt just a tad scrambled, and I was a little fuzzy on movement, but after a single game, I’ve only needed to consult it once. I think I expected more complexity in certain areas because of my experience with Thunder Alley. I assure you, Downforce is anything but over-complicated.
For those looking for an accessible, easy-to-learn, tremendously exciting game, Downforce is the answer. It’s staying in my collection because it’s the real deal. This isn’t some fad game centered around Restoration Games executing the brilliant strategy of reimagining old games—Downforce is really that good.
A review copy of Downforce was provided by Restoration Games
The Bottom Line
Downforce is excellent. One play makes uninterested players immediately look beyond the racing theme and plunges each person into a world of high-energy card play and high-stakes betting. Downforce is accessible, learns quickly, and looks great on the table.