Updated: Mar 31
The smell of engine oil fills the air as the drivers line up on the starting grid. As the lights turn from red to green the cars dart forth, the crowd roars, the engines whine, expelling jets of blue flame, tortured tires screech in the corners and smell of burning rubber drifts on the breeze.
Downforce is a racing game that brings all the excitement of a race day to the table, as players auction off the cars and special powers, race their cars in a tactical battle for first place and place bets on who they think will come out on top.
1 double-sided game board
6 race car pawns
42 regular speed cards
6 speed-8 speed cards
6 power cards
6 driver plaques
1 pad of score sheets
Downforce is a reimplementation of Top Race by Restoration Games, although in the UK it is distributed by IELLO. The components overall are nice if a little plain. Everything has a stripped back, uncomplicated look but without the usual flair I have come to expect in a IELLO production.
In my copy I have replaced the basic cars with some delightful Mario Kart ones which help jazz up the game overall.
While the game ships with two tracks in the box the difference between them is minimal and certainly doesn’t provide as different an experience as the expansion tracks that have since been released. With that in mind your replayability mileage may vary, however the good news is that if you do want the additional tracks, all content released to date will fit back into the main box.
A Quick Overview
A game of Downforce is played in two distinct phases, the Auction Phase and the Race Phase.
The game begins with the deck of speed cards being divided up between the players. These cards will be used to bid in the auction but also to move the cars around the track in the race phase.
When the auction phase begins players reveal a colour of car and a power card and then each player secretly bids on that combination, playing a card from their hand which matches the colour of the car being auctioned. The number on the played card that matches the colour of the car is their bid, the car and power goes to the highest bidder, the amount they bid will be subtracted from their score at the end of the game. Winning a bid also unlocks for that player an 8 speed card in that cars colour.
The bid cards then return to players hands, before the next auction begins. Because of this you'll know roughly how much movement for each car you will be able to use in the race phase, and thus how much you will be able to influence the race for each car.
By the end of the auction phase all six cars and power combinations will have been auctioned off and each player will have at least one car and one power. At this point, players with multiple power cards must choose which power to keep, this power applies to all their cars in the race.
Next the race begins, the player with the car in Pole Position begins by playing any race card from their hand. They move all the cars shown on their card forward the number of spaces shown, going from top to bottom of the card. A wild result can move any car not already appearing on that card.
When moving cars they must always move forward, if they can, into an empty space, however the player who played the race card may choose which space they move into if multiple spaces are available. In this way you can use clever card play to burn off excess movement for cars you don’t want to win, forcing them onto longer routes or to get stuck behind other racers.
When any car passes a betting line all players secretly place a bet on who they think will win the race. Players will place 3 bets over the course of the game, with the payouts decreasing in value as the game goes on.
Players continue playing cards in a clockwise order until all the cars are home or until all players with cars still in the race can no longer move any cars on the board. At this point players add up the points for the positions their cars finished in, any point they gained from winning bets and minus any points they spent during the auction phase. The player with the most points is the winner of the game.
While the two phase of the game in Downforce are Auctions and Racing, it has to be understood that Downforce is actually primarily a betting game. With speed cards being distributed at random players can not always control the Race part of the game, but they can control the betting and use their card play to ensure that the car they want to win does so. This is also reflected in the scoring, with the betting being worth 18 points, as opposed to finishing first which is only worth 12.
Of course, you can’t only rely on betting to score you points and in games with a runaway leader the players will often all place the same bets meaning that finishing order becomes far more important. Games can also be won or lost by over bidding in the initial auction phase, as a high bid can often be difficult to offset, even by finishing first.
Downforce has become such a widespread success in the hobby because it manages to achieve something that most other racing games don't, it's fast and it’s simple. Play a card, move the cars shown, it couldn’t really be simpler. However the addition of player powers and the ability to creatively shut out other players by blocking their path and burning off high value cards when they can’t move their cars makes this one a really interesting tactical puzzle.
In higher player count games the speed cards are divided between more players, reducing the number of cards you have in hand and subsequently giving you less control over the race phase. This lack of control shifts the focus more on to the betting phase, while in a lower player count game you have more control to ensure that your cars lead the pack and place well, getting you more points for the race phase.
The Speed 8 card you gain for winning an auction is a great addition to the game, ensuring you always have a way to give your cars that additional boost when needed. The player powers, while fun and exciting don’t always feel balanced with some being always on and others being incredibly situational. However players can balance this to some degree by ensuring that players with a better power end up having to pay more for them in the auction phase.
I have had fun at all player counts, however I can definitely see the argument for the game being more tactical and less random with 3. However the pace of play means that the game handles its maximum of 6 with minimal downtime and keeps all players engaged in the action at all times.
What did others say?
Dave - "A very fun game which is generally well balanced. Couple of the driver skills seem a bit strong (determined) or a bit weak. but the bidding system helps mitigate this. The betting system is also an interesting mechanic. Biggest problem is that Nintendo have missed a trick by not producing an official Mario Kart version of the game."
The balancing act between the three different scoring opportunities, coupled with the fast, tactical play and the potential for expansion tracks, makes Downforce one of my go to games with large play groups and new gamers looking for simple, uncomplicated fun.
Downforce might not be for you if you dislike randomness or auctions. Downforce is also an extremely light game, so if you want more of a racing simulation I can recommend Thunder Alley instead.