Published by McGartlin Motorsport Design.
Designed by Michael Garton & John McLaughlin.
Reviewed by Mike Siggins.
See also the Designer's Notes by Michael Garton.
Cast your mind back to 1994. Most of the gaming world was content with motor racing systems that had moving cars and too many passing manoeuvres. The cognoscenti were playing Formule De and Daytona, the unenlightened were condemned to Speed Circuit, and a (very) small elite were revelling in Grand Prix Manager. And then it all went pear shaped. The zeitgeist dictated that cars no longer had to actually move to depict that high speed sport; instead they stayed immobile in line astern and occasionally switched places. Personally, I have no idea where the change of policy came from and I was never happy with this aesthetic development from hell, but I could see its merits as far as game speed and realism went. Accordingly, Mike Clifford and I were putting the finishing touches to our fastplay Le Mans game, and feeling quite proud, when all of a sudden a whole slew of games, with remarkably similar systems, appeared on the market and Charles Vasey chipped in with his design piece in Sumo 16. We all seemed to have the same idea at once, or perhaps there was something funny in the water. The net result was AH's Roadkill, Gibson's Formula Motor Racing, Stockers and finally, the best of the lot, Stock Car Championship Racing. This is an excellent little product, full of clever design techniques, simulating many of the key elements of car racing while still working well as a game. It is also card based, but most definitely not collectible. Hurrah!
I'm sure SCCRCG would have had a snappier title if it weren't for the burdensome licensing fees laid down by the NASCAR operation in the States. For yes, this is another game about the roundy-roundy oval racing beloved of our American cousins and depicted so well in MB's long out of print Daytona 500 and The Cruiser's Days of Thunder. Appalling film, but the racing sequences were excellent. The game allows you to run a complete 200 lap race with 2 to 4 cars in around 20-30 minutes, a little longer with more players (up to eight can participate with the expansion pack) and using the advanced rules. Logically you could add even more cars but it would eventually suffer from diminishing returns and I would say that between 5 and 8 is the optimum. The game therefore offers plenty of scope for both championship play and as an end of evening filler. The basic game provides sufficient components to play the game out of the box, which essentially means four driver packs representing just the favourites in any given race and a track pack. The quality is top notch. Of course, if you were smart enough to follow my advice and pick up the five car Matchbox NASCAR set a while back, you could play the whole thing with scale Chevy Luminas. As it is, with no NASCAR endorsement, SCCR has to make do with anonymous cars and drivers, and not one track name. A shame, because while it will likely sell well anyway, it might have been huge with all the top drivers and car liveries on offer.
The game is pitched at a careful balance of game and simulation. I would say having played it twice in the basic form, it errs slightly on the side of simulation (and the advanced rules will increase this sentiment) but it also works superbly as a game. In no way is this a sterile replay exercise - it has plenty of decision making which we will return to later. The game structure is straight out of the Terry Goodchild school of highlight sports gaming. Each turn a card is turned over which shows either an event, and corresponding yellow or green flag, or a lap count. This ranges from 3 to 30 laps, adding uncertainty to how long the game will last, and incrementing the lap count each time until you reach the agreed total. When the total is reached or exceeded, the race is over. In this way it is possible to have a really fast race, with few opportunities for passing, through having lots of high lap count cards, or a slower, changeable race with lots of lower ones. This is a clever way of handling long repetitious races with only little bursts of activity, and proven to work through Lambourne's various games. Events are the usual array of blown engines, overheating, crashes and so on, with the added interest of yellow flags - which as you'll know close up the gaps as all the cars slow down or pit.
With the lap count on the table, it is the players' task to match the lap count with their driver cards. And this is where it gets interesting. Each player has seven cards and may replace up to three per turn. These figures are adjustable up or down when certain cards are in play - eg good setup, body damage or engine trouble. Each driver card effectively has a triple use - it carries a lap number (between 3 and 15), a randomiser to decide who moves first or overtakes (between 010 and 990), and an action effect (pass inside, pass outside, pass two cars, block, pull away etc). During a turn, you can play as many cards as you like to match the lap count (say 6,6, and a 12 to match a 24 lap count card) but if you use three or more you can't lay any active cards - you are deemed to have spent too much time just keeping up with the race. You can however lay reactive cards at any time as long as you have them in your hand -these include draft (slipstream), block, challenge and so on. If you play less than three cards to make the lap count (eg you match/exceed a 12 lap count with a 15 driver card), you are allowed to use the remaining one or two cards to perform actions. Usually, this will see you trying to get past the car or cars in front, to pull away or to drive defensively.
And it is in the overtaking, or challenge, department that SCCR pulls away from all those other games that permit overtaking as a matter of course. In fact, only in the Domark Williams game have we seen any attempt depict this integral element of motor racing. Okay, so most of the games are just that, games, but anyone who claims to be playing a realistic motor racing system and who has also watched the real thing, will see the contradictions pretty quickly. The designers of SCCR have spotted this and have made overtaking the centre of the game. You may well be sitting comfortably in the lead with a gap between you and second, but if that chaser closes and then tries to pass, he is in control. He decides whether to go inside, or outside, or just draft you until the final corner before he makes his move. And there is little you can do until he goes for it, at which time you block him, cut him up, use other traffic or just try and burn him off. This comes out perfectly in the game. Indeed, being in the lead can be an anti-climax as apart from pulling away when you can, you have nothing to do until someone makes a move from behind. When they make a move, you'll need the right card to counter, or alternatively it comes down to raw speed which is when you need the high random numbers on your cards. Let's see how this works.
Mike and Bruce are contesting the lead, 237 laps into a 250 lap race. The lap count is 15 so the race will be over after this final sequence. Both players lay a 15 lap card to match the count, with Mike having 450 and Bruce 970 as random numbers, so Bruce goes first. Bruce has three action cards to play, having played Learn the Track earlier (play an extra card) and he opens, confidently, with a Pass Outside attempt. Mike counters with a Challenge card. Both drivers now either play a card, or draw a card from their draw deck. Mike has low random cards in hand so draws a 670, Bruce plays 750, but because Bruce is on the outside, and thus on the limit, he deducts 100 and just fails to pass. He then plays Inside Advantage. This would add 200 to any random draw, and can't be Blocked. Mike has a Block, but can't use it, and has no other reactive cards. So Bruce is past, and heading for the line. To add insult to injury, he plays Pull Away in the hope of putting clear air between him and Mike. No good. Mike plays Draft and stays with him. Mike only has two cards to play in his turn, and tries Pass Outside first. Bruce plays Block and the attempt instantly fails. On his last chance, Mike plays Pass Two, which could get him past two cars, but one will be enough. Bruce responds with a Challenge. Mike still has crap in his hand, so draws a 750 to which Pass Two adds 100; total 850. Looks okay, thinks Mike, grinning. Bruce looks long and hard at his hand, and he too goes for a draw. 890! and Bruce wins by a headlight. Good stuff!
While the driver card packs (standard and expansion) are identical, even down to the random numbers, they are large enough to appear different for each race and usually dissimilar from those of your rivals. Indeed, there is an element of Up Front here as you never seem to have the right card for the task in hand. And if you have there is a constant pressure to use it for something else - sod's law says it will either have a good lap count rating, or a big random number. Decisions, decisions. In fact, if there is a flaw in the game system it is that players can take a while on deciding which cards to play. Okay, within 24 laps you have plenty of time to plan the form of your attack (but not the place, sadly) but I think the old 10 second timer should come into play to keep the pace up.
The track deck meanwhile is also nicely varied. Some races, with the same nominal length, feel long and full of lead changes, others short and fast, which is exactly as it should be. It would be unlikely that you'd get through an entire pack in a race (well, impossible I'd have thought) so you are only going to see a subset of the track cards in each outing. This is good, but I would also like to experiment with taking a few cards out of the drivers' packs and the track pack for each race. I have no idea what the designer would think of this suggestion, but I'd like to try it. If it meant you had to re-shuffle, no problem, but you could also add that little bit more uncertainty - what about a race with no yellows? Could happen. Even without this, by tweaking the deck composition it will be possible to simulate fast tracks, dangerous tracks and even tracks with chicanes or bridges. I am reliably informed by the designer that this one has been tweaked to simulate a fast 1.5 mile circuit with little slow traffic and severe crashes, when they happen. By changing the numbers and events, the whole range of NASCAR short track and tri-ovals should be possible. So thankfully McGartlin are not resting on their laurels and are already bringing out expansions for the game in the shape of new driver decks, tracks and road circuits, each with their own characteristics, and they are also working on Formula 1 and IndyCar products. The latter two could be superb but again, with licensing not really feasible, they are likely to take the generic route again. So we may not see different packs for Monaco and Silverstone, and almost certainly won't see cards for Schumacher, Hill and Mansell. Major result there then.
Now as good as the basic game is, reading the advanced rules make me itch to play the game again. There is a whole range of interesting rules, ranging from pit stops through statistically rated drivers, to designing your own car. And none of them are going to add much time to the basic system. The best advanced rule is that the draw pile is limited to just twenty cards which adds the element of fuel consumption. When you are getting low on cards you have to pit and replenish the draw pile allowing you to continue. Of course everyone else will be doing this at different times which will add a whole new feel to the game - 'he's leading by twelve seconds, but he hasn't pitted and that will take at least sixteen......' And the thought of the Formula One system working like this, with the added complication of tyre changes, gives me just a little buzz of pleasure in these dark winter days.
I think the game works as well as a game of this type can. It provides excitement, the races are always close, and there is a commendable feel of NASCAR racing. It captures the elusive feel of overtaking, challenges and race micro-mechanics better than any other game I've seen and, linked to this design feat, it knows what it is about - a function of having real race drivers on the team I guess. It also does it all quickly. What is doesn't convey well, especially compared to the otherwise weak DTM reviewed in Sumo 25, is a sense of speed. This is partly because the display is static (like a model railway that doesn't move) and partly because there is no track to help the visualisation. This minimalism is even extended to literally having gaps between the cars when they pull ahead or drop behind - you don't even get a piece of road to fill it in. Even the lamentable Stockers provided these.
Now I know why this has been done (because the designer feels the opposte is true) and that is fine. But while I'm as good as the next man at visualising what is happening in race games, I find I need to see Becketts corner or the Monaco tunnel to help me out. Little plastic or metal models help as well. But when five pieces of cardboard, identical but for their colour, are 'hurtling' along my dining room table in a long straight line, it doesn't work. I'm sorry, but there was nothing much registering on the Sig-O-Scope. I can imagine the overtaking manoeuvres, I can even see the acceleration away, but I want big banked curves and the wall and bright coloured thugs of motor cars seen through a low level camera. And a track. Even if it doesn't mean anything and has a virtual finish line. But the fact remains that those cars don't go anywhere. They pull away, they slipstream and they overtake like in no other system, but they ain't moving. And yes, it bothers me, on a purely subjective basis. You may not be so deeply moved. Solution? Step one, provide some blank road cards to fill out the gaps. Step two, make (or get Paul Jefferies to make) a huge oval track and put the cars on it. Step three, they move the number of spaces dictated on the lap count card and then we can see where all this excitement and overtaking is happening.
The one rule that raised a few eyebrows was the propensity for going out of the race. In two five player games, we lost three cars. Not a problem as far as a simulation goes, but to retain a gaming interest (rather than exploding on lap 24 of a 300 lapper and reading the Sunday Papers) I would commend the house rule that allows continued racing with a reduced hand. The other small concern I have is that it does share the same weakness that basketball detractors always pick on - you might as well only play the last lap. While there is a pole position mechanism and it is considerably more difficult to pass than in most games, the field remains fluid which is certainly realistic over 200 laps with equalizing yellow flags and several action phases to work your way up. Given a field of four or five cars, it is often possible to come from last to first in the last two action phases - you simply need to have saved the right cards and enjoy a bit of luck. Indeed, in the first game we played this is exactly what happened. All the previous jockeying for positions and pulling away was eventually irrelevant, and it all came down to the last turn. As a balancing item, the second race saw a clear leader hold his own and win easily, so I am not saying it happens all the time, it just can (and does in real life). The main reason I mention this is that if McGartlin do go on to produce a Formula 1 variant, then this would need to be monitored - as we know, pole position and a reliable car on some tracks can be tantamount to 10 points in your bag. This will clearly take a lot of balancing, to retain any overtaking and suspense interest whatsoever, but as this is a NASCAR based game, we will let it ride for now.
SCCR is a very clever game. It manages to combine a degree of realism that shows that the designers have done their homework, yet also retains a high degree of playability. It offers excellent atmosphere and the excitement of an extended tussle at the front, or at the back, of the pack has to be experienced. It is a little disappointing not to have absolute as well as relative movement, but that is largely my failing and most of you won't care. It represents good value, for fans of NASCAR it is a must buy, and for anyone else interested in motor racing, or even just race games, you won't go far wrong. I will close with an uncommon form of endorsement. When all the many new games are trooped out at a game session, it is very rare that any of them are played twice. SCCR not only achieved this singular honour, but improved the second time out. It would have been played more had we had the time and players. Highly recommended, and it is good to see the bozos who say a game can't be both simulation and game put firmly to flight once again.
[Ken - After seeing an early rush of Mike's review, Michael Garton pointed out that crashes should not be so frequent. My own experiences with the game confirm this observation. I assume this means that the Sumo crew are flat out, foot to the floorboard racers. Your milage may vary.]
Stock Car Championship Racing Card Game is available from:
McGartlin Motorsport Design
4648 Leeward Drive
Chesapeake, VA 23321
McGartlin can be reached via email on AWGE19A@prodigy.com. They will supply games by surface mail to UK/Europe for $30 plus $12 postage and direct within the US ($4 p&p). There is no official British importer at present but that may change.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell