Full disclosure: A review copy of Downforce was provided by Restoration Games.
It’s rare for me to play games once they’ve been out for more than a year, but I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit, so please bear with me. Downforce is a bit older than that both technically and practically, with a history stretching back long past its 2017 release year. But that’s what Restoration does; they take games from the past and bring them up to the present. That’s part of why I liked Fireball Island so much, and part of why I’m excited for Downforce. To that end, let’s get into the review and see how Downforce compares to the rest of this week’s titles.
In Downforce, you enter the high-stakes world of car racing. You already probably have some idea of how that works just because of popular culture or maybe you race cars; I don’t know your life. Anyways, you’re trying to become the world’s best racing mogul by betting on car races, bidding on sponsorship stakes, and, of course, making sure your cars are the ones that cross the finish line first. But even with all your wealth you can’t control your opponents. Who will win the race? But more importantly, who will take home the most money?
First off, choose a side of the board to use, and place that side face-up:
Each track is different, so, make sure you know what you’re going to be playing on. Next, give each player a betting / score sheet:
There are many different Speed Cards; remove the 8 Speed Cards, shuffle them, and place them in a pile near the board:
Do the same for the Power Cards:
Now, shuffle the regular Speed Cards and deal them out equally to each player (at 2, this does mean that you’ll each have 21 cards):
Set the Driver Tiles nearby for now; you’ll need them later:
Place the cars onto the six starting spots on the board (marked with arrows):
You should be all ready to start!
A game of Downforce takes place over multiple turns until all cars have finished the race or run out of cards. To start, you’ll bid on cars in the Auction, then you’ll race against each other in the Race, and upon the race’s conclusion you’ll gain bonus money if you did any successful Betting. Once that’s all wrapped up, the player with the most money wins. Let’s go through each of those stages in turn so that you know how to hit the ground running (or driving).
At the start of the game, nobody owns or sponsors any cars. Instead, you bid on both the cars you control and the player powers that come with them. That’s always fun.
To start, flip the top card of the 8 Speed Stack and the top Power Card. Those are currently up for bid. Players bid by revealing a card from their hand with that car’s color on it. Wilds are considered to be a bid of 0 (unless you have no cards of that color), as well as cards without the car on them. The highest bid wins, and if there’s a tie on value the card with more cars on it wins. If nobody bids, place it on the bottom of the respective stacks. If nobody bids on those again, they’re removed from the game and nobody owns those cars. If you have no cards of a car’s color and no Wild Cards, you may bid with any card, using the lowest value on the card as though it were that car’s color.
When you win an Auction, take the 8 Speed Card, the Power Card, and the Driver Plaque and set them in front of you. All bid cards (including the winning bid) are returned to players’ hands. Make sure to record on your score sheet how much you bid for the car; that will come out of your end-of-game winnings.
Every player should end up with at least one car; if the number of cars left equals the number of players without cars, players with cars can no longer make bids. When only one car is left, if a player still doesn’t have a car they reveal the lowest-value card with that color in their hand and bid on that car.
After the Auction, players with more than one Power Card return all but one of the Power Cards to the deck. (At two players, you may want to remove Cunning from the game.) The Power you keep applies to all of your cars during the game. In a two-player game, shuffle all your cards but your 8 Speed cards and draw 7 from the stack; at all other player counts simply keep your cards (including your 8 Speed cards) in your hand.
Now, race! The player who controls the car on the 1 space takes the first turn. On your turn, play a Speed Card and resolve it. When all cars have finished the race or no more cards can be played, the race ends.
When playing a Speed Card, all cars on the card move. They move starting with the top car and going to the bottom (unless someone is feeling Tricky). All cars on the card are moved by the player who played the card (unless someone else is feeling Cunning). Once the card’s resolved, discard it. If a card has a white car on it, that white car is considered Wild. A Wild may be used as any car not on the card (unless a player is Unpredictable). If a card has two Wilds on it, that player must choose two different cars.
When you move cars, you move them to the next adjacent space either straight ahead or diagonally. Cars must move “forward”, in that the space that they move to must have a front end farther ahead on the track than the space that they moved out of. Cars may not move through other cars, but they may cut diagonally between cars that are diagonally adjacent. To that end, cars must be moved the full amount, if possible, but it may be strategically useful to move an opponent’s car so that it’s blocked and cannot move the full amount.
The first time a car crosses each of the bright yellow lines on the track, betting occurs! This is usually where I recommend to players that they fold their score sheet. Put a checkmark under “Bet 1”, “Bet 2”, or “Bet 3” (depending on which line got crossed) corresponding to the car that you believe will win. You may bet on any combination of cars across your three bets, from the same car all three times to all different cars. At the end of the race, you may receive payouts for your bets if they’re correct.
End of Game
Once a car crosses the finish line, it’s placed on the first available winner’s space (1st Place if nobody has crossed yet). Once every car a player owns has finished the race, they discard the rest of their cards and they stop playing. Because of that, it’s possible that some cars will not finish the race. If this happens, they stall out and collect no money (and therefore, any bets placed on them will not pay out).
Once the race has concluded, check your scores. Your final winnings are a combination of:
- Money received from cars you own placing in the race.
- Money lost to bidding on cars during the auction.
- Money received from success on Bets 1, 2, and 3.
Add those three things together and the player with the most money in winnings also wins the game!
For a beginner’s game, don’t auction cars; instead, deal out Speed-8 cards to all players so that players have an equal number. If there are any leftover, those cars aren’t controlled by players. Additionally, don’t use Team Powers or betting rules. Players start with three cards and then draw a card from a common draw pile after their turn. The player whose car finishes the race first wins the game!
If you want, you can also play Long Distance Mode, in which the race doesn’t stop when you cross the finish line. Instead, play until all cards have been exhausted. The player whose car has made it the farthest wins!
You can also play World Tour, in which you race on all available maps and total your scores across them. This becomes logistically challenging as you add expansions, but I’m a written review, not a cop.
Player Count Differences
At lower player counts, I think this is a more cerebral racing game. Bottlenecks matter a lot, everyone has at least two cars, usually, and you’re trying to balance your various interests against the other players’. This usually results in you working with at least one other person because your bets align and now you’re roughly on the same team, like it or not. At higher player counts, there’s a lot that happens between your turns, so you may not actually be able to perfectly control the outcome. That’s a bit more concerning for me, but it might not be for you! It might just be a good party racing game, and that’s fine. But generally, as someone who prefers that sort of strategy (and likes controlling what happens outside of my own turn), I’m probably going to lean towards this in the 2 – 4 player space.
- Moving your own cars is good, but making other players move your cars for you is better. Why work if you don’t have to? If you place yourself in strategically inconvenient locations (create traffic with the cars you control, block the road, occupy a one-spot bottleneck), you can force other players to clear the way with your car. They’ll hate you for it, but hopefully you can make enough money that you won’t have to be bothered by your conscience. Just keep in mind that this works a lot better at lower player counts. At higher player counts, all one person has to do is move you out of the way and then it’s open season; nobody’s going to help you reclaim that spot if they have any say in it.
- Try to convince another player to back you up. If you get more than one player to bet on your car, you’re golden. They’ll do what it takes to protect their investment, especially if it’s between you and another player that isn’t them. This is the primary synergy required for Downforce: it’s not about winning the race; it’s about having the most money once the race completes. And honestly, that’s half the fun.
- Be careful with the auction. This is a place where a lot of first-time players get tripped up. They assume (somewhat fairly) that they should bid high on cars they want. The thing is, if they want a car because they have a lot of the Speed Cards for that car, it’s possible that nobody else does, so they might be overbidding. You may even want to try a strategy where you bid on nothing and just wait until you get only one car assigned to you. Try to do well with that one and bet well on other cars. Often, players will split their focus with multiple cars and none will finish first. If you only have one, that’s your primary responsibility. Make sure you execute. Either way, don’t go into the auction step without knowing what you want to get out of it.
- Waste high-value speed cards that would help your opponent. It’s fun to burn a 5 or a 6 to move an opponent’s car 0 spaces. Again, pure, unfiltered evil, but you’re not here to make friends; you’re here to race cars.
- Sometimes the best thing you can do on your turn is nothing. Burning a useless card is useful, but if you’ve got nothing to do, you can just junk up all the bottlenecks and force your opponent to move your cars for you (as I mentioned above). If you’re already in control of the bottlenecks (especially if you have multiple cars in them), you’ve really got no incentive to move at any point until someone else does it for you.
- It’s not the best strategy, but absolute conviction can often do wonders for you. Just bet on your own single car and make sure that car wins. The money you get will be overwhelming. Bid low on other cars to secure good player powers and ride that train all the way to the finish line. It could work, if, as mentioned, you can convince other players to believe in you, too.
- Don’t take Strategic if you have no cards with 6 cars on them. That’s just an explicitly bad choice.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This seems to be one of the few games where dogpiling can actually be useful. It works out for me, surprisingly, since a number of players assume that since I’ve played more games that I know something they don’t, so they tend to bet on me. Once they’ve bet on me, they’re basically Team Eric for the rest of the game, which is really nice. Sure, I just need to bet on me too, but they’re basically driving my car for me! It’s very weird, but it’s nice. I mean this more to highlight the amusing synergies of competitors who don’t want each other to win but have a mutual incentive.
- The art is really awesome. The cover is so good, but the board art is very pleasant as well. The graphic design on the cards also looks super slick; really, I’m an end-to-end fan of the game. Whole thing looks really great.
- I like that it already comes with two tracks! It’s nice when games do that, like Dino Dunk. I’m excited about checking out some of the other tracks to see what they add.
- Having to move everyone’s cars seems pretty interesting, from a strategy standpoint. I like this a lot, especially because you can just gum up the works MASSIVELY for another player by consistently sticking their car in traffic. It’s the Chaotic Evil play, but if you want to win a race sometimes you have to break a few spirits.
- The player powers all feel very good. I personally have a tier list of the powers I prefer, but I’m not sharing it with y’all just in case I ever play a game of Downforce against you. Can’t give you that big of an advantage over me! I have a streak to maintain.
- Given that it has a bunch of moving parts, it’s surprisingly easy to learn. Definitely a great family / casual game, even with the auction components. It’s not too much mental energy, especially because even the tough decision (moving cars) doesn’t have too many varied options to it. That’s some slick design, in my opinion.
- I appreciate that there’s a diverse cast of racers. There’s even a Mysterious Racer (the black car), which excites me. I assume they have a checkered and complicated past and I must know more about them.
- It’s a bit odd that you do kind of need to remove Cunning in a two-player game. It would have been nice to have some sort of substitute / equivalent power for two players only so that it doesn’t mess with the bidding (which it kind of does, being honest).
- I’m normally vehemently opposed to player elimination, but here it only happens for a bit, tops. Still far from my favorite mechanic, but it really only happens if you’ve done really well (or well enough that there are still players other than you who haven’t finished). Hence, it only gets a very light Meh.
- At lower player counts, it seems particularly useful to clog up the single-space blocks, which can make the game feel a bit uninteresting at times. At higher player counts, if you’re not the bet leader for a number of players, someone’s liable to open that bottleneck and just have every other player leave you in the dust. It’s unwise to let players catch up to you like that. But it does make things a bit annoying at lower player counts since you can basically deadlock the entire game for other people.
- The lack of distinguishing features on the cars is going to make the game a bit tough for players with color vision deficiencies. That’s fairly disappointing; it would have been nice to include stickers or something to make it easier for those players.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Downforce is a blast, personally! I think it may even be one of my favorite racing games? (It gets slightly edged out by The Quest for El Dorado, which I now even while writing this want to play.) I think that the multi-car movement is interesting enough that it flips the idea of racing on its head; you rarely have enough speed to get yourself across the finish line, and even if you do, you need to worry about what those big plays are going to do for your opponents, since their cars are also going to be moving. The best part is, before you even get there you have to consider the auction and who is buying what car. Do you bid up the car you have the most for? Or do you hope that you can waste enough Speed over the game to make it so that your opponent isn’t benefited by you helping them out? It’s a rapid game with some tough decisions, but the game itself isn’t too challenge, and I appreciate that. Add in the betting system and now you’re also likely creating weird synergies between players in the front and back of the pack. Do I help you because it makes me money? Or do I help myself? You’ll need to figure that out if you want a shot at the big prize. Either way, I’m excited about Downforce, I’ve had a blast with it, and I can’t wait to hopefully try the other maps! If you’re a fan of racing games, auction games, or betting games, I’d recommend taking Downforce for a test drive!