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Subject: A Pretty Good Setup rss

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Jerry Price
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Start Your Engines

I came across this game as I was surfing the web for some other gaming products. Interestingly, it wasn't a WizKids advertisement, just a game sales site that decided to put the package in their store window. Being an average NASCAR fan and a connoisseur of fine games, I just had to check this game out.

I immediately set out to see if it had more than the old and bored "roll the dice" and "move the car" mechanic. Kudos for WizKids for posting their rules online. Those are instrumental in helping the buy decision. I was pleasantly surprised to find the game has a good marriage between simplicity of play and a touch of strategic depth. In short, a game that should appeal to a wide audience.

Although the primary movement mechanic is the roll of the dice, players have a plethora of tactical and strategic options to drive the game toward a favorable conclusion. We will delve into those tactics and strategies as we discuss the game play. However, there is enough unique about the roll and move that we need to touch on that basic mechanic first.

Basic Mechanics of Movement

Movement is determined by the roll of the dice. Here the choices are relatively simple. You can "check up" (subtract 2 from the roll), Cruise (take whatever you roll), or "Stand on it" (add 2 to the roll). Check-up is used when there is traffic ahead and you don't have an open lane. Cruise is the standard play. Stand on it is used if you want a little extra speed (at a cost, as we will see in a moment). The movement is regulated by squares on the track. Each move point allows your car to move one square forward on the track. Well, they're actually rectangles (and curves for the turns), but I'll stick with “square” since it flows better.

One important feature of movement is the ability to draft. If you are behind the moving car (or any car that drafts the moving car), you have the option to either follow the car on its entire move (while giving up your next move), or gain an extra square (and still get your move). Basically, by drafting another car you can take advantage of an opponent's good roll by following and gaining the same benefit as the player who rolled, or you can get a jump on the pass if they roll poorly. Drafting, over the course of a race, provides a significant advantage to those who look for ways to exploit it. This, in aggregate, helps players extend their average movement beyond what is normally expected from simply rolling the dice. Given rolls tend to even out over the course of a long race, drafting is the first major concept that extends the game beyond relying on the luck of the roll.

That's basically it for movement. Pretty simple, with the added twist of drafting. The next major concept revolves around the capabilities of each driver/car combo, which is discussed next.

Driver/Car Capability

The core of the game involves the characteristics of driver/car combos. Each driver/car combo has three deceptively simply numbers. One for the "Driver" skill, one for the car's "Body", and one for the car's "Engine". In a grand sense, you can think of these numbers as a combination of driver skill and car setup. There is more than one driver/car combo for some drivers, distinguished by differing characteristics or special ability (discussed later).

Also, from a design standpoint, the numbers represent more than their namesake. For example, in many instances when using the "Body" number, the use reflects driver skill as much as it does the car's actual body characteristics. So, while we discuss the terms, keep in mind they are modeling (at an abstract level) more than their terms might otherwise suggest.

In the current collection of vehicles, the values for "Driver", "Body", and "Engine" run from 3 to 7. The lower the number the better. Throughout the game you have to make "checks" named after each of the three values. There are Driver checks, Body checks, and Engine checks. A check consists of rolling two dice. To pass a check, you just roll the check number or greater. That's why lower is better. If your check value is 3, the only way to miss the check is to roll snake eyes.

You take Driver checks in situations where driver skill is important, which in Race Day happens when a car is susceptible to going out of control. This happens when a car is bumped by another car, or when a car gets up "in the marbles" (a specific characteristics on some tracks). Pass the check and the car is in good shape. Fail the check, and you can wind up in a spin.

Body checks occur when you get into traffic and might bump into other cars, or make contact with the wall. In general, this reflects driver skills, which is why I noted that even though it's a "Body" check, the check is more driver skill than car body effects. If you fail the body check, the car takes some damage and the driver must make a Driver check. You see how the simple numbers combine to build a more complex probability? The probabilities of each check combine into conditional probabilities to take a car from a clean turn in traffic (passed body check), all the way to an uncontrollable spin (failed body check and failed driver check). Once in a spin, the conditional probabilities compound which can sometimes lead to catastrophic loss as the car spins out of control.

Engine checks occur when you push the engine hard. You can "stand on it" (where you get to add +2 to the dice roll). This makes you go faster, but you must make an engine check. Fail a couple of those, and your vehicle is reduced to a puttering along at "check up" speed (-2 to the dice roll) until the engine is repaired (a three turn pit stop!).

It's all in the Tires

The Driver/Car capability mentioned previously already provides some interesting conditional probability. Things get a bit more complicated when tire wear is considered. As the race progresses, vehicles begin to take tire "damage". Although we call it "damage", think of it mostly as simple wear and tear. Each wear point causes all of the Driver/Car ratings to go up one notch. A driver rating of "4" becomes a "5" with one tear wear point. It jumps to "6" with two wear points, and so on. This is a simple number to track, but it has a profound affect on decision drivers need to make in the game.

Let's take an example of a car with a driver/body number of 4/4. Starting out, adjacent cars will bump on a roll of 2 or 3. That is only an 8% chance of getting bumped. Given a car is bumped, the driver spin check is also 8%. Cumulatively, the likelihood of getting bumped and going into spin is less than 1% on fresh tires. In this instance, it's pretty safe to head into that turn three or four wide and still feel safe. After the tires get worn a notch, the probabilities go to 17% and 3%. A second notch takes them to 28% and 8%. Now, it starts to get risky to keep in tight traffic on worn tires. At three notches, you are really pushing it, as the numbers go to 42% and 18%. Four notches is almost a suicidal 58% and 34%. Given cars will bump and jostle several times per lap, a driver running on bad tires is an accident waiting to happen. In fact, from a modeling standpoint, I guess you could say the bump and spin due to heavily worn tires represent a tire going flat or blowing out more so than the bump and spin check that causes the result. There is a temptation to push the tires a bit too far. Use sound pit strategy to keep those tires fresh.

The tire wear process also leads to those instances where the final lap is coming up and you are faced with pitting for fresh tires, or making the run with worn tires; how many real races have you seen like this? RaceDay makes it a decision drivers often face on the final few laps of the race. Pit for fresh tires and lose track position, or stick with worn tires and go for the win. Staying on the track will give you the shot to win, but puts you in jeopardy of losing it all in a spin/crash. A lot of the decision is tactical. For example, if you have clean air ahead (little or no traffic), then that minimizes the probability of making a check that can put you in a spin.

By the way, if you just finished reading the last few paragraph thinking this is a statistical number crunching game, let me alleviate those concerns. You don't need to number crunch to have fun. You can just go with what looks right, which most people do. The point I would like to make is if you are into probabilities, there is enough information to run those numbers, if you so desire. But number crunching is by no means required to play the game and run competitively.

Special Abilities

If the Driver/Car capability and tire wear isn't enough to keep you thinking, there is one more twist. Each car also has a special ability. These abilities vary from being a "great" benefit to actually being a handicap. Each ability or handicap occurs under certain circumstances. So in addition to juggling a car's basic capability, you have to be cognizant of the special circumstances that can help or hurt your car. Or, on an even deeper tactical level, figure out what can help you while hurting your opponent.

For example, one of the best abilities is found on Tony Stewart's car. It allows you to go two extra spaces each turn. The catch is you can only get this benefit if no one is in front or behind Tony's car. In clean air, Tony flies down the track. Get into some traffic, and things slow down. If you drive Tony's car, you want to keep clean. If you are driving against Tony, moving into a draft position will prevent Tony from using his ability while simultaneously giving you a draft benefit (discussed previously).

All is not Equal

The cars are by no means equal. That leads to another fundamental of NASCAR. Drivers must understand their car and work to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. Everyone can't have the best setup for the race. Each car is not only different at face value, but its pluses and minuses change depending on the size of the field, and again (as previously discussed) as tires wear down. A player must understand all this and adjust his or her race strategy and race tactics accordingly.

For example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets to add +3 to the move if (and it's a big if) he is leading. This makes Dale a decent pick for a small racing field, but has diminishing value on big tracks with lots of competition. On the other hand, if you are a patient driver and play your roll right, then saving for some "stand on it" moves in the last few laps to grab the lead can put Dale in good stead to win the race.

Another example is Greg Biffle. He's got some of the best stats in the game, running on all fours (no pun intended), he is excellent all around. His ability allows him to make two rolls when he moves at "stand on it" speed, and pick the best one. With fresh tires, he runs an 8% risk of taking an engine hit when running at this speed. As tires wear out, the probability goes to 17%, 28%, 42%, 58% . Greg has a car that runs really great on fresh tires, but if Greg pushes it too much for too long the engine will go. Race strategy? Only use the ability when the tires are good. Be on the lead lap at the end game, with a healthy engine and good tires, and Greg will be in a position to win.

Casey Mears is a ho hum car. It runs on all fives (only an average setup), but it does have one of the best congested track abilities in the game. When running at Check up speeds (needed with traffic ahead), Casey can roll two times and gets to pick the result. When you are Checking Up it usually means you are getting ready to plow into someone in front. Some tracks (e.g., Pocono) have nasty turns that require checking. Casey, an otherwise mediocre car, can be a survivor in such situations. By the way, this also illustrates that different drivers have abilities that favor certain tracks.

Emulating the NASCAR Philosophy?

NASCAR teaches more than just driving around a track. There are some fundamental concepts we can extrapolate to life iteself. Patience. Competition. Patience. Teamwork. Patience. Courtesy.

Patience is perhaps the most used word in the NASCAR vernacular. RaceDay helps mirror that concept in the game. There is a tendency for humans to get frustrated when things aren't going our way. The frustration is compounded when coupled to our drive to win. Compounded frustration can lead to actions that, while perhaps giving short term gains, can lead to long term loss. In RaceDay, you don't have to be in front to stay in contention. In the longer races, you might not even need to be on the lead lap. A player will often have a choice between catching up a few spaces on the leader, or ending a turn in a more safe position a few squares back. The statistics for those who push it will add up to eventual destruction. Those who run the safe line, albeit not necessarily the most efficient line, will more likely survive to the end. Face it, there are lots of cars in competition. There can be only one winner. The odds of winning are significantly against you, even on a good run. Driving with patience will, in most cases, be the best way to maximize your run. As in real NASCAR, a lot of the race is simply surviving to the end, hoping to position yourself for a shot at the win.

Competition is where this game is at. You are competing against other players for the big win. It's fast and fun, compacting an otherwise grueling three hour race into a shortened thirty minute or one hour affair. But it packs a lot of punch during the play time. In corollary to the Patience creed, there does come a time to drive into the competition. Sometimes you do have to “roll the dice” and choose between a good shot at the win, and a possible did not finish (DNF). The choice....and the glory.....is yours!

Competitive Teamwork is an often overlooked factor in the game. Even though you are competing against the other drivers, opportunities present themselves where one or more drivers can collectively gain on the field. Drafting is a perfect example. Some players will shake a drafting player every chance they get; no free ride. However, if players work together (even though they are in competition), a draft team can (together) gain advantage over loners. It's better for two competitors to mutually help one another to stay on top, than to go the loner route and find oneself stuck in the middle of the pack.

Last, but not least, RaceDay teaches courtesy. Instances occur where you can control events in a manner that can have potentially catastrophic consequences for other drivers. It could involve positioning your car in a manner that will cause other cars to crash, or even positioning a spinning car in a manner to block the flow of traffic. If you are nice in such situations, most other drivers will remember and return the "nice" favor when the tables are turned. If you are cut throat, then your “friends” will have no mercy when the shoe is on the other foot. Even worse, you can create a blood feud with another driver; two players focused on taking each other out will likely not be in contention come the end of the race. The courtesy factor is more of a strategic decision, as it is part of a complete race philosophy. Even more so if you race with the same players on more than one occasion. As in the real world of NASCAR, drivers remember. Suffice to say, "nice" drivers tend to survive longer (as they avoid screwing each other over), which drives home the point that those who survive until the end have a chance to win.

A little bit loose?

With all the praise I have for RaceDay, there are some areas where the game needs some tweaking. The rules, although relatively sound, produce a few instances where things can go awry in ways that are not fun. This is especially so for young players, or the beer and pretzel crowd. Well, I guess it would also be upsetting to the grognard except for the fact we are often accustomed to such failings in games. We can trudge through it. The younger player, or neophyte gamer, when faced with such adversity, might just give up the game. For example, due to race order and track congestion, it is possible (through a couple of unlucky rolls) to have a gut wrenching turn one wipe out. That's right, as in "out of the game", “off to the garage” I'm out of the race for the day, crash. Although such occurrences can happen in NASCAR, that is not a good thing to hand out when trying to build interest in a game. Some official rules options to mitigate these circumstances are needed.

Some cars have effects that are ambiguous. Although this problem is not as severe as the turn one blow up, if WizKids intends this game to “get wheels” and gain a following, they need to get busy and provide better support and guidance so that players can play the game with a common understanding of the effects.

Final Lap

In conclusion, I highly recommend this game. Quick and fun to play, it drives deeper than it looks, providing the NASCAR feel and philosophy in a simple and easy to play package.

 
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Ken Taylor
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Excellent review! Just wanted to say also that you take damage if you can't move due to cars blocking you. One point of damage for every space you can't move. Makes you carefully consider if you want "check up," "cruise" or "stand on it" or not.
 
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Mike Brown
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Nice review. Looking to play my first game next Friday...looks like will have 4-5 people, can't wait to give it a go.
 
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Adam Conus
United States
Renton
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I agree, it's a pretty good game. A pair of booster showed up in my mailbox today. My brother-in-law and I excitedly put our cars together and played. We liked it. It feels very much like a simplified Formula De, though I only played the intro game, not the full game. The full game appears to have some more complex rules for crashing and spinning out.

What's really cool is those boosters showing up in my mailbox, totally out of the blue. I must have signed up for something on thier website at some point. Regardless, it's a good move because I'm already spreading the word about the game, which I truly liked. I may even buy some myself!

-Adam
 
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Stephen De Chellis
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New Milford
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I got the same package with two boosters! No letter or nothing inside...

I wonder why?
 
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Ken Taylor
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It's a promotion of Wizkids for Raceday. I got them by registering with the GamingReport website.
 
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