|Cost: $17.95 From: Mayfair Games: 1-800-432-4376 Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: family strategy Complexity: 3 Skill level: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 4.2, Summer 1996|
|Cost: $39 From: ASS (Top Race) Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: family strategy Complexity: 3 Skill level: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 4.2, Summer 1996|
Daytona 500, reviewed in TGR 9, is a first-rate racing game with wide appeal. So of course, it's now out of print. So is Nikki Lauda's Formel Eins, the German game upon which Daytona 500 was based. Fortunately, however, the system lives on. Mayfair's Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix and ASS's Top Race, both released within the past few months, bring the system back into circulation.
The core of both games is Wolfgang Kramer's clever card system. Players are dealt a hand of cards, each of which depicts some cars with numbers representing how many spaces that card entitles each car to move. The distribution of these cards will influence which cars players bid on at the start of each race, as naturally you want to own the cars which you can move the farthest. Each player must own at least one car and no more than two. Owning multiple cars can be a mixed blessing. It can split your attention, making it less likely for either of your cars to finish first. On the other hand, twice as many cars have the possibility of earning you money, and if you can get a second car cheaply it's usually a good idea. Beware of paying too much for any car— the more you pay, the better the car must do in order to turn a profit.
The race is run through the play of cards. Every car shown on a card is moved forward the number of spaces indicated, in the order in which they are listed. This is crucial, since cars can find themselves blocked by other cars and unable to move. Decreasing purses are awarded to cars as they cross the finish line, but it's entirely possible that some cars won't finish at all. The player with the most cash after three races wins the game.
So much for the basics. Now for the nuances. Grand Prix comes with a double-sided game board offering a different track on each side (it's two, two, two games in one!). The first thing Daytona players will notice about both tracks is that they're much, much nastier. There are many places where the track narrows to one lane wide or juts out sideways, increasing the likelihood of cars getting blocked and losing their movement potential.
Top Race only offers one track, but that track seems more carefully planned than either of the Grand Prix tracks. The single-lane bottlenecks are well placed and the track narrows and widens in sensible places. The Grand Prix tracks look chaotic and haphazard by contrast, and the irregularities don't wind up affecting play as much as you'd expect them to.
Neither of these games include drafting, which plays a much lesser role in formula racing than in stock car racing. At first I thought I'd miss it, but the games work very well without. Of course, you can always decide to play with drafting anyway (in which case, any car directly behind a moving car moves one space forward).
Both games have cards with wild values on them, which can be assigned to any car not already on that card. Grand Prix also includes a wild 10 which can optionally be added to the deck— only recommended if you prefer a more random game, as it pretty much guarantees the victory to the driver who plays it.
Carried over from Formel Eins are three "switch" cards, each featuring two cars. Each game treats these cards differently. In Grand Prix, the effect of a switch card is to reverse the positions of the indicated cars on all cards played until the end of the player's next turn. For example, when a red/blue switch is in effect, whenever a red car appears on a card it is treated as a blue car, and all blues are treated as red. Unfortunately, playing a switch takes your entire turn, so by the time it comes back around to you the game situation which prompted the switch is likely to have changed to a point where the switch is less useful. You may prefer to allow another card to be played along with a switch, allowing the switcher to take immediate advantage of it.
Top Race uses completely different rules for these cards, allowing them to be played as "breakdowns" or "catchups." Suppose the red/blue switch is played and red is farther along the track than blue. If played as a breakdown, the red car is pulled to the side of the road. It doesn't move again until the blue car passes it. If played as a catchup, the blue car pulls alongside the red car (or moves as far forward as it can until it is blocked).
As you might imagine, these changes have a dramatic effect on gameplay. Catchups are rare, since the odds of the right switch card getting dealt to the right owner are relatively small. But anyone can benefit from slowing down a leader, hence the popularity of the breakdowns. And with betting thrown into the mix, there's an added incentive to muck about with other cars.
Three points on the Top Race track are marked, and when the first car passes each point players may "bet" on a car. The better the car finishes, the higher the payoff— but a poor finish can make you pay. The dynamics of the game alter dramatically, as helping an opponent's car finish second or third can earn more for a player than getting his own car over the line in fourth or fifth.
Lastly, the two games differ on whether or not players continue to play cards once all the cars they own cross the finish line (Grand Prix: yes, Top Race: no). We prefer stopping once you cross the line, especially in Top Race where betting gives players an incentive to help or hinder other cars.
Of the two, Grand Prix is the easier game to obtain. If you want to try the betting system, just mark lines 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of the way through the track. Bets pay off according to the car's finish and at which mark the bet was made, as indicated by the table at left.
Both games are first-rate entertainments, worthy of your time and money. If I could only own one, though, I'd choose Top Race. True, it only has one track and Grand Prix has two. But its track is slicker and, I think, provides better gameplay. The betting element adds much more to the game than I expected. Which isn't to say Grand Prix is bad! Everyone in our group enjoyed Grand Prix thoroughly. But we had a rollicking time with Top Race and immediately wanted to play it again.