This is a review of Downforce designed by Wolfgang Kramer, Rob Daviau, & Justin D. Jacobson. It plays 2 – 6 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 20 – 30 minutes.
Despite its theme, Downforce is a game of financial gains. The race itself occupies just one of the game’s three phases, and players find themselves betting, bidding, and wagering on how well they can manipulate the outcome of the race.
To begin, the six cars are auctioned off. A car rolls out, each player selects a card (in secret), and reveals their bid using the appropriate number on the card they played. In that same auction, there are also power cards that will alter a rule for the owning player. If they win, they pay the amount promised and that car becomes “theirs” in a fairly loose sense, so just bear with me here. After all the cars have been auctioned in this way (ensuring that every player has bought one), the cars are wheeled to the starting line and the race is ready to begin!
In turn, each player will play a card from their hand that can have anywhere from one to all six cars listed on it. Any cars a player won in the auction round, will also provide that player with a powerful eight movement card for their car only. Moving from the top of the card down, that player will move all cars listed on the card however many spaces indicated by the card. This is important because a player can choose to play a card that totally screws some cars by creating strategic bottlenecks or blockages on the track – it’s all about control.
So obviously there’s a strong element of hand management going on here. As a player, you want to assess what you have in your hand and how effectively you can manipulate the state of the board. Along the track are three solid, yellow lines that indicate when the betting occurs, one of two ways to make your investment back (or not, as the unfortunate case may be). When the first car passes the first yellow line, all players secretly mark which car they think will win the race. The earlier your predict the winning car, the higher your payout. The process is the same for the two remaining yellow betting lines.
As cars cross the finish line, they are placed in their appropriate winner circles and some unfortunate stragglers may just stall out on the track (sorry Green). Players then tally the payouts of their car – $12M if your car finished first, $9M for second, and so on – add in the payouts from their pre-finish predictions, subtract what they paid at auction, and voila! You have your total, the winner is the one who ended with the most cash.
Overall, Downforce makes a ton of sense. It’s an incredibly focused little game of bids and the levels of player control add tension to the race. There is basically no fat in this game – the scope of this game is pitch perfect.
One of the most interesting points about the bids and bets is that players don’t actually start with any money, nor do they exchange coins or tokens of any sort. It’s assumed that all players have the same opportunities as one another so it’s really a game of who got the best return on their investment.
I’m a big-time sucker for sports themes, despite not actually watching any sort of professional sport, like, ever… So the racing theme here was a big win for me. And, despite the race being one of three phases of the game, it occupies the bulk of your play time. The movement, the blocking, the choke points of the map, it all makes for a delightful race experience.
Thematically though, you feel less like a driver and more like a fat-cat Formula-1 mogul, buying and selling cars, placing astronomical bets, etc. And really, this makes the game work so well! If you only cared about your own car, it could get dull fairly quickly, but cheaping out on the auction and manipulating the actual race, you can bid your way to the win. These divergent strategies make for a lot of fun variety.
The art in Downforce is slick and retro – I really love it! Restoration Games has done a great job of giving a facelift to the art of the original game (which was also nice) but really focusing on more of an aesthetic, akin to something like the Ridge Racer video game series.
One potential improvement could be to put a little something else on the cards. The race cards are mostly blank, but honestly, there doesn’t need to be much on them at all, so that’s a pretty minor gripe. They could even have made these cards smaller, just to reduce the dead space.
Downforce, appropriately, moves swiftly. The auction takes just a couple of minutes and then you’re off to the races. There is a good dose of strategic planning when you play a race card, and players can’t really prepare for their turn too far in advance, but the decisions aren’t terribly complex.
One choke point this game can potentially encounter is the rare case that a player has a hand of useless cards. They could be boxed in on a turn and feel helpless. This is offset by the bid-to-win mechanic, but I would definitely anticipate that complaint with Downforce.
The race phase feels just as long as it should and doesn’t drag out.
The components are great quality here, the visuals are slick, and Downforce is crazy fun! Paying $40 at GenCon is probably the most expensive this game will ever be, but it was absolutely worth it. The board is double-sided, providing two (pretty varied) race tracks. Potential map expansions could be released, but honestly, the physical shape of the track isn’t of too much consequence.
I think explaining the wager mechanic will likely be the most challenging part of introducing new players to Downforce, mostly because the game is so largely about manipulation and control of the board state. For players expecting this to be a Candyland-type play and move game, you’ll just have to take extra care explaining that it’s actually a game about making that phat racing ca$h.
Realistically, you could have this game taught in less than ten minutes. I would just demonstrate how each phase works, gather everything up, and start over. That’s likely the easiest way to show this game.
Between the high fun factor and the ease of learning Downforce, I would expect this game to hit my table a lot!
This game is pretty clearly a “filler” style game. With the right group, you could play this all night (variant rules mention playing twice and tallying your final score, but you could go more if you wanted), but you will likely break this bad boy out to fill the space between heavier games, and that’s just fine.
I give Downforce bonus points here for being the sort of game that I will show to new people a lot. It looks cool, it feels great, and new players will be really impressed with it.
There will be an inevitable comparison to other racing games, such as Flamme Rouge and Formula D. For my tastes, Downforce is beating out Flamme Rouge (which is unfortunate, because I bought both of these games in the same week) simply because I LOVE the bidding and wager mechanics. For those who want the race to be the prevalent part of the game, Formula D will likely beat out Flamme Rouge, also. Formula D and Downforce are different enough, but again, because Downforce focuses so much more on how much money you make.
I loved Downforce! It’s absolutely up my alley, between being a racing game, a bidding game, being super accessible, and looking and feeling really great to play. Very happy with this one and absolutely looking forward to forthcoming Restoration Games releases!