Under the Hood of Downforce

The phantom exterior like fish eggs interior like suicide wrist-red. I could exercise you, this could be your phys-ed. Cheat on your man homie AAGH I tried to drive through the narrow space that can only fit one car man! Can’t make it. Can’t make it. Car’s stuck! Outta my way son! CAR STUCK! CAR STUCK! …PLEASE!! I BEG YOU!!!


A few years ago, I received a deep discount at a game store as a door prize for attending a Magic prerelease. I looked all around the store for the game I wanted to buy, and settled on two options: Western Legends and the Restoration Games edition of Downforce (also known as Top Race and by many other names.)

I went with Downforce because it was cheaper, but this off-the-cuff decision introduced into my life a cornerstone of my gaming experience from then on. Every group I’ve introduced Downforce to, ranging from professional game designers to my parents, has loved it so much they’ve shown significant interest in playing it again. When I bring it to a game night, it almost always ends up hitting the table at some pont. (I’m starting to worry about running out of scoring sheets.)

So what made Downforce so appealing to such a wide range of people, and why does it have so much sticking power? Let’s look at some answers.

Offensive Driving

I’ve wondered for a long time what the line is between “interaction” and “being mean”. Being able to interfere with your opponents is great and adds to the social atmosphere of tabletop games; “being mean to” or “picking on” your opponents leads to hurt feelings and the game being wrapped up in an atmosphere where it feels like someone could get stabbed at any moment. My theory is that there are a few factors that make being mean more acceptable, and Downforce meets enough of them that it toes the line very effectively. (I may do a full writeup on this topic sometime in the future.)

Before we get into details, I’ll clarify the main mechanic that allows players to screw each other over in Downforce. Car movement is decided by playing a card from your hand; each card has a list of colors and a number of spaces that color of car must move. This may sound like you don’t have much control over car movement, but the twist is that cars can’t move past occupied spaces. Thus, you can do things like zoom into a narrow lane first and then park it so opponents have to move you, or throw away high-value cards for colors you don’t own when that car’s stuck in traffic.

The first reason this works is that these strategies are frequently the genuine best thing you can do. If I go out of my way to drag down another player, and that doesn’t do anything to advance my own position (in a game with more than 2 players), it feels a lot more petty and personal than if my dragging down another player benefitted me. In Downforce, you won’t stop another car from moving unless either that card also moved your own cars or you’re completely out of options, which lightens the sting a lot more.

The second reason is that, while mean, these actions don’t remove your opponents’ progress or access to abilities – it just places more obstacles in front of them. Games are about solving problems in the first place, so having more problems is much less of an issue than having less of the ability to solve them. If you could rip a card out of an opponent’s hand, it would be problematic, but you were never going to use a card that was good for them in the first place unless you were betting on them in the first place.

The third, and possibly most important, reason is that blocking your opponents’ cars is just funny. There’s a lot of comedy value in a high-stakes race for millions of dollars devolving into a traffic jam with the person in front crossing the arms and waiting passive-aggressively for someone else to push them out of the 1-width lane. The “Aloha Sands” bonus track in the excellent expansion Wild Ride has a bottleneck right at the start of the game in order to reach Clownforce at maximum speed.

Muddled Winners

Racing games as a genre frequently suffer from the issue of the winner and losers being too clear. If one player has a far enough lead, the rest of the game essentially becomes irrelevant as only the person in first place really matters. People might feel they have no chance of winning and/or be guaranteed to win as early as halfway through the game and mentally check out. Other games like Flamme Rouge make movement inconsistent and often penalize people for shooting ahead, but if someone gains a large enough lead these catch-up mechanisms don’t do enough.

Downforce neatly solves this problem by making the win condition not 100% reliant on who finishes first. There’s two other very important factors as well: Whoever bid the least during the auction segment at the beginning of the game, and whoever was able to bet on the winners.

The betting in particular is critically important because it actively penalizes someone who’s able to skyrocket into the lead early in the game. Betting on the right car early in the game pays much more, so being able to dramatically move forward from the back of the pack – or moving an opponent’s car forward from the back when you’re not going to win anyway – is a much more insidious strategy than simply “doing well”.

The auction segment, on the other hand, adds a lot of comedy value through the schadenfreude of watching your opponent lose despite placing 1st and 2nd because they spent 12 million dollars on their stupid cars. Come to think of it, hubris is a big component of what makes Downforce fun in general.

My point is that Downforce is a success among casual groups especially because no matter how far ahead someone is in the race itself, the winner can be surprising. It also means that if you aren’t the best at perfectly sequencing your cards to gain maximum value from them, you can still win if you didn’t overspend during the auction or have an eye for who you think is going to win in the end, rewarding different types of thinking. There’s also enough variance in the game that skill isn’t the sole determinant of who wins.

Goldilocks Powers

I do a lot of thinking about asymmetric player powers, because while they make a game less balanced and strategic, they also make it more impactful and fun, and it’s interesting to strike that balance when designing a game. One of the most important parts about designing these powers is deciding how hard you want them to break the rules. In some games, asymmetric powers are nothing more than slightly different starting positions, while in others, like Root, each player is essentially playing by their own set of rules.

Downforce‘s powers are somewhere in the middle. They aren’t strong enough that you would change your entire bidding or racing strategy depending on what you get, but they provide you with enough of an advantage that you’ll pay attention to which one you want and feel like your power is accomplishing something for you

More importantly, these powers are unique and have character. Activating a power feels good, but each one feels good in a different way. The power that lets you always move your own cars might not be useful, but reaching in to move your cars on your opponents’ turns is deeply satisfying and you occasionally get yourself out of a jam. On the other side of the spectrum, being able to move extra spaces every so often is a consistent and slight advantage that enfranchised board gamers love. You usually don’t go out of your way for a power, but if you end up with multiple cars (something inevitable in a game with less than 6 players), you’ll usually choose the one you like the most, meaning that players will often play Downforce using a power that they personally find satisfying.

Conclusion: The Checkered Flag

Downforce appeals to a lot of groups because it’s capable of being whatever those groups want it to be. It’s interactive but not too mean; strategic but not cruelly logical; unique but not confusing for newcomers. Added to the game’s generous player count and short (usually around 30 to 45 minute) playtime, this makes Downforce an adaptable game that hits the table constantly and is a near-essential part of any hobbyist’s collection.

Yo, I’m betting on this guy to win.