Road/Kill Ultimate Car Combat (Kickstarter Preview)
Designer: Miles Holmes
Publisher: The Infinity Gate (Kickstarter)
Like a train through a pigeon, Road/Kill will hit you in the chest and drag your body a hundred bloody yards across the steel highways of 2175. Depth, tension, speed, and replayability are all present in spades and I believe this is the first car combat game to really nail the precarious balance between complexity and ease of play. Rarely does such a combination come together in such strong form and I cannot help but fever in anticipation of the upcoming Kickstarter re-launch.
The quick backstory for this game is that The Infinity Gate launched the Kickstarter campaign for Road/Kill Ultimate Car Combat on May 31st of this year. The campaign gained a healthy level of funding early on in its lifecycle but it wasn’t quite reaching its potential. Responding to feedback, Miles Holmes reached out to the board-game community by sending out press kits and prototypes in an effort to gain some exposure and feedback on the game. I was one of the lucky reviewers who received a prototype and the game has knocked the wind out of me. I wasn’t expecting my enthusiasm to snowball from mild interest to raving fan but after a couple of plays there was no denying there is something special here.
The first thing I noticed upon opening examining the components was the magnificent detail present on the highway tile artwork (called the Steelback in setting terms). It’s dark with heavy textures and excellent use of shadows. Upon flipping through the 1st draft of the rulebook this theme continued as several pieces of evocative, stark futuristic artwork laid a strong foundation for the interesting setting. This should come as no surprise as the team behind the project includes Sanford Kong, concept artist behind the 2008 Death Race movie, as well as artist Vincent Proce, of Magic the Gathering fame. The talent continues to spike from there with digital sculptor Dave Kidd aboard. Dave recently was involved in the creation of several Warmachine models as well as producing the Firestorm Armada miniatures for Spartan Games. If the quality of the miniatures are on par with the sample Mk II semi-truck miniature I have seen, this game will be visually astonishing.
The prototype MkII Resin Miniature.
So clearly The Infinity Gate has taken the project seriously from a production standpoint, but the game will live and die by its rules. The focus on depth and carnage in about an hour playing time is pitch-perfect and delivers with exceptional execution. There’s a host of clever mechanics and streamlining which has been heavily influenced by Warhammer 40k, Car Wars, and Canvas Eagles. All three of those games are typically long drawn out affairs, but Road/Kill is a quick all guns blazing dash through a steel gutter as you’re trying to put out a structural fire while keeping your cannon pointed at the poor bastard in your sites.
Miniatures on the Steelback.
The turn structure is pretty simple: you plan your movement, roll for initiative, everyone moves, and then everyone shoots. Each phase of the game boasts one or more clever mechanics that funnel into this unstoppable force to produce an experience which is memorable. The main innovation is the inclusion of simultaneous planning of actions for the round. During the Tactical Phase, you will utilize your Command Box to set your speed, pick your maneuver, select a target for the round, and decide on a Holdout (a special ability). The Command Box itself is similar to a compartmentalized pillbox where you place a single die in each of the four sections (Speed, Maneuver, Aim, Holdout). There is a tremendous amount of depth here as you have to pre-plan your strategy for the round, but have to take into consideration your opponent’s actions, the shifting landscape, and the unknown which occurs on a turn by turn basis. It’s a very cool mechanism that allows for quick execution where a single player can easily handle multiple vehicles. I found it much less fiddly than placing Maneuver cards or tracking actions on paper; the Command Box works, and it is slick.
One of the chaotic elements of the game which can foil your careful planning and have your vehicle careening hard off a wall or eating shrapnel through your fresh red paintjob is Initiative. Initiative is a simple D6 roll with a scaling bonus applied where smaller cars receive a greater modifier than larger cars. The twist is that the high roll may choose to go first or last. Timing is key, as moving earlier may help you avoid a narrow collision, while moving later in the round could let you alter the degree of your turn to line up a precise shot so that you can ram the fist of your heavy laser into the steel backside of your hapless enemy.
Road/Kill takes the more complicated stance on Movement by going gridless. This is a difficult task to master without bogging down in too much detail, and it’s another place it shines. Maneuver is accomplished via a transparent sheet that includes all of the necessary diagrams for turning, veering, drifting, and power-sliding. The sheet itself works fine, but the main point to take away is that the implementation of the sheet with this detailed turning by different degrees is combined with a collision, stunt, and handling system that is streamlined and polished. This forms a smooth procedure which has a greater degree of flexibility than many of its brethren and results in much quicker play. You don’t have to roll on 3 different charts when you fail a stunt or lurch your car forward 1 inch while turning only 15 degrees. Road/Kill is fast and enjoyable while maintaining a high degree of depth and decision making. While ogling the beautiful miniatures and the nifty Command Boxes, the subtle elegance of the movement system may be glossed over, but make no mistake, this is one of the key underlining highlights of the game and it comes through with spectacular results.
The Shooting system is probably the most straightforward element of the system, as you make simple rolls to hit and then breach your target based on their armor versus your weapon’s Strength. The magic here is that there is a tremendous amount of weapon variety while each implement of destruction maintains a very unique feel. If you throw together a heavy vehicle that is kitted out with dual linked shotguns on the front and a top-mounted Laser, it will feel very different than a car boasting a grenade launcher on the front and flame throwers on the sides. Everything you would expect is available such as mine layers, oil, rockets, machine guns, napalm, and much more.
Building on the expansive weapons system is the way damage is handled – when you take a bite out of a sorry bastard he will feel it. Damage first passes through the facing hit, typically damaging a weapon, and then pushes into core systems (Driver, Engine, Computer, and Core). Each element of your vehicle degrades as it becomes damaged, typically conferring penalties and placing nasty effects in your way. Compounding on this fact is that the game is appropriately lethal to fit the time frame of 30-60 minutes per Scenario. This philosophy produces an aggressive damage system that bellows tension with each chuck of the dice. You will have a hard time remaining planted in your seat as your opponent is rolling to breach your underside with the cluster of mines he dropped into your path. You’ll often find yourself clinging to life, flying down the Steelback with whole chunks of your car lying scattered as debris on the war-torn field. This results in desperate maneuvers and thrilling gambits – elements a car combat game thrives on.
While blowing the hell out of each other is undoubtedly fun, it’s even more enjoyable when you take into consideration the 6 varied Scenarios expected to be in the final release of the game. Missions feature goals such as driving in close proximity to obstacles and tagging them so that your hauler can come pick them up later, or a group of cars slugging it out in a fixed arena, and an absolutely crazy scenario centered around the monstrous semi-truck miniature where you fly down the highway like a pack of wolves trying to take down a mammoth. While different builds can be optimized for specific scenarios, another key element of the game is the fact that you build and customize your car prior to knowing what specific scenario you will be playing. This has you carefully weighing choices considering the possible duties your car must perform and allows you to experiment and play with new designs regularly.
The car construction system itself is stellar. The game comes with a foldout that walks you through the steps of choosing all of the pieces of your vehicle. At each step you will have several options which will determine important elements such as where you can mount your weapons, how much damage systems can take, what type of armor you possess, and what top speed you are capable. Like the included weapons, there are a ton of options and a huge array of small details you can manipulate and customize. This sounds daunting but it is one of the simplest construction systems I’ve seen and is refined to the point where an experienced player can complete a car in less than 5 minutes. After explaining the rules to a new player, he built a car that was completely his own in less than 10 minutes.
Road/Kill Ultimate Car Combat – box mock-up.
The bottom line is that this is a fantastic game that achieves the lofty goal of delivering on depth with a streamlined rule-set. Everyone I have introduced the game to have become hooked and begging for more. With discussions concerning future expansions and hopefully rapidly hit stretch goals for campaign play, faction rules, and custom drivers, this game has legs and will be tearing it up for years to come. The most glowing thing I can say about it is that I am a huge Car Wars fan and was itching for the future release of 6th edition. Since playing this game I have lost all interest in my former love and plan on going all in on Road/Kill. I hope to see you on the highway; I will be the guy giving you a friendly wave before I sharply veer into a T-bone and give you a taste of my ramplate.