At first glance, I gave Downforce a pass. After all, of Restoration Games’ opening catalog of refurbished games from times past, my interest was more piqued by Stop Thief! and Indulgence, in part because I’ve never been partial to racing games.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Downforce is not only the best of the three, it’s also hardly a racing game at all. Instead, it’s a game about being the biggest jerk on the track and coming away filthy rich.
Firstly, of course there’s some racing in Downforce, though it’s very much unlike any racing game I’ve ever endured. Rather than focusing purely on speed, the danger of taking corners too briskly, and the sponsorship patches sewn onto your drivers’ jumpsuits, it’s all about bottlenecking. Put simply, your driver should burn gas until you’re in a tight corridor, then slam on the brakes and wait around until everybody else’s really good maneuvers have been used up, at which point you can start puttering along again. It’s the sort of racing everybody else seems to be doing whenever I go out for lunch.
It helps that all those potential maneuvers are so deftly handled. Each turn, somebody slaps down a card showing multiple moves, then carries them out from top to bottom. Maybe they’ll move the blue car seven spaces, winding around obstacles and coming to a stop, then move the next car four spaces and the last one two spaces. It’s simple and efficient. Better yet, the fact that cars can only move as far as possible before they bumper-kiss the car in front of them transforms the entire game into a sort of puzzle to maximize your moves while depriving your opponent of theirs. Timing a card so that your cars spring forward while everybody else’s sputter in place is a thing of glory.
And yes, I said “cars.” Because Downforce truly isn’t about racing. It’s about gambling.
This is where Downforce roars to life. Each game opens with an auction to lay claim to all those cars, also handled by playing cards from your hand. But cars are more than just pretty colors, and come paired with a driver who bends the way they operate during the race. So there’s the driver who can ignore a rival’s move when she plays a card with enough colors, the one who can resolve their maneuver card in reverse order, and the dude who goes faster as long as he isn’t handling any turns.
These abilities are the same from game to game, and while it would have been nice to see more than six, it’s hardly a deal-breaker, and even means it’s possible to hold out and place a high bid for your favorite ability or spot on the starting line. What happens is that every player bids, the winner marks how much they paid for that car on their sheet, and then, once everybody’s claimed one car, it’s possible to bid on another. Just be careful not to bid too much — more on that later.
Then the race starts, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this switches off the smarts in favor of a game where the friction between rubber and asphalt are the prime determiners of success. Rather, the real test is the one going on in the back of your head, a game of calculations and odds and possibilities. The first time three different points on the track are reached, everybody makes a wager on which car they think will ultimately win, with greater returns if you make a solid guess earlier than later. Sure, there’s a payout for having a car cross the finish line, so it certainly helps to hire a winner. But it’s more important to back the right cars, even if they belong to someone else. If you place your wagers right, your own car can be driving in reverse for all you’ll care. It’s not like there isn’t a bank that way too.
The point is, Downforce is a game of sums and careful prediction, and it pays to play smart every step of the way. Paid too much for your car? That’s too bad. Your driver didn’t place in the race? Too bad. Didn’t bet on the right cars? Bad. It’s possible to flub one area, maybe two, but you’re more likely to win by pulling in a modest amount in all three criteria. Buy low, win high, count those maneuver cards, and hog those bottlenecks.
The result is an absolute gem, one that values careful thinking and jerky maneuvers over raw speed. Put one way, there’s a reason my group has begun to chime “Doucheforce” like a comedy ringtone whenever a card is resolved. Nearly every minute centers around a fresh misfortune, whether it’s a lead car stalled two spaces away from the finish line or the most clogged-up final turn since that week you ate nothing but dairy. Downforce can be mean.
But it’s also fast at thirty minutes long, and possible to win even when your car doesn’t, and both of those details prune the sting from a losing position. It’s the sort of game where failure is more likely to prompt a laugh than a grumble, especially since it isn’t over until the last card is played and the last wager revealed. This is the good stuff.