Gen Con is the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America. Each year it brings tens of thousands of people to Indianapolis, Indiana to play board games, war games, and RPGs day and night for four days.
It has boasted attendance of nearly 70,000 gamers in some years, but it doesn’t come close to being the highest-attended event in central Indiana.
Every Memorial Day weekend, over a quarter of a million people descend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500, one of the biggest events in auto racing. They come to watch 33 cars drive around and around in a circle for hours. These drivers mash gears, make pit stops, and jockey for position in a grueling race for, as I understand it…a bottle of milk?
There is a massive audience for auto racing worldwide—whether open wheel racing like the Indy 500, NASCAR, or off-road rally racing. But watching traffic sounds boring to me. Why watch auto racing when you could…play a board game about auto racing?
Whether you are an auto racing fanatic who also loves board games, or a die-hard board gamer with a need for speed, we have you covered this Memorial Day weekend with our list of the best auto racing board games.
Downforce was first published in 1980 as Niki Lauda’s Formel 1. The game went through many reprints and revisions over the next four decades until it was published in its current form by Restoration Games, which has resurrected many classic games with polished rules and improved art and design.
Downforce is a card-driven racing, bidding, and betting game for 1-6 players. Before players begin racing, they first play cards from their hands to bid on one of six colored cars at the starting line.
They also play cards to move cars. Each card has movement values for one to six colors. All cars matching a color on the card are moved that many spaces—unless they are blocked by other cars. If you play a card with a Green 4 and a Black 6, you will move the green car four spaces and the black car six spaces, even if you do not own that car.
Downforce is also a betting game. When the lead car passes one of three checkpoints, all players will secretly bid on which car they think will win the race.
When the race is over, players receive a payout based on their finishing position. They also receive a payout for their winning bets. It is possible to lose the race and still win the game if you place your bets correctly.
Each player also has a unique special power they can use to gain an edge over the field. One power will let you move cars in reverse order on your turn, while another will let you move your car an additional space if it is the first car shown on the card.
Downforce is a light strategy game that can be played in about 30 minutes. Since you can move your opponents’ cars as well as your own, you can do a lot to interfere with other players. Some people enjoy this “take that!” element, and some may find this game meaner than other games on this list.
Because of the wagering, Downforce isn’t a pure racing game. You will still want to win the race for the higher payout, but you may find yourself in a situation where you want another player to finish first because you bet big on them early in the race.
The game also has two expansions available! Downforce: Danger Circuit offers six new driver powers and two new tracks—one with crisscrossing paths to rev up the danger of collisions. Downforce: Wild Ride adds another two tracks as well as 3D ramps for daring water jumps and wild animals that create moving obstacles. These expansions add even more variety and replayability to this leader on our auto racing board games list!
Formula D, from Asmodee, is a dice-rolling, push-your-luck car racing board game for gear heads. Like most of the games on this list, players race small plastic cars around a racetrack on a board. Formula D brings something new to the table by adding a gear shift.
Cars start out in first gear, so players roll a four-sided die to move 1-2 spaces. At the end of a turn players may choose to shift up or down. Shifting all the way up to sixth gear allows you to roll a 30-sided die, potentially moving 21-30 spaces!
Driving that fast through turns will damage your car, though. You must end your turn at least once in a turn or you will lose “wear points.” Lose all your wear points and you will crash, ending your game prematurely in spectacular fashion.
Trading paint with another car or braking hard to avoid a collision can also potentially reduce your wear points.
In the basic mode of the game, each car has 18 generic wear points. There is an advanced mode that replaces this mechanic with damage to specific components of the car. Breaking too hard will damage brakes. Overshooting a turn will wear out your tires.
To win, you need to push your luck, hoping for rolls that are high but not too high. Much of the strategy in Formula D is knowing when to shift to optimize your speed while reducing damage. Games often end with multiple cars exploding as those in the back of the pack go for broke trying to catch up to the leaders.
There’s no betting in Formula D; the first car across the finish line takes the checkered flag. If you’re not first, you’re last!
Formula D can be played with up to 10 players but be warned that playing with that many people will be chaotic. Turn order is not determined by your seating at the table; the car at the front of the pack starts the next round. I’ve played with nine people and much of the game consisted of someone yelling, “Whose turn is it? Who has the green car? Hey! Who’s green?”
There is a lot of luck in Formula D. The strategy lies in mitigating that luck. This can lead to chaos and unpredictable results. If that is your kind of game, this may be the auto racing board game for you.
There are currently six expansions for Formula D offering up to 12 new tracks. If you like long campaigns, you could play an entire season of races, keeping track of season standings and never repeating a course.
The track set-up in Rallyman: GT is unique. Instead of a board, the track is built from hexagonal road tiles. You can combine these yourself to create custom tracks of the length and complexity you want. Or you can use the suggested track layouts from the rule book.
On your turn you select from a pool of black gear dice numbered from 1-6, white coast dice, and red brake dice. Assign the dice to your path, gearing up or down to adjust your speed. Then roll the dice to see if you roll any hazard symbols. Going faster will increase the odds that you roll a hazard.
If you roll too many hazards, you will spin out and you may have to pull damage tokens from a bag. Some tokens will bring out the yellow caution flag and some will reduce the number of gear or brake dice you can use. This damage will remain until you make a pit stop for repairs.
The first car across the finish line wins. If you enjoy the Rallyman series, keep an eye out for Rallyman: DIRT. This new edition of Rallyman will be released next year and will include the base game plus the Dirt expansion.
The rules are very simple and won’t offer much of a challenge for adults, but it’s a good introduction to racing games for little ones. I gave this to my niece as a Christmas gift when she was about six and we had a lot of fun rolling the chunky dice and racing our cars at the dinner table.
The racetrack is divided into colored sections. On her turn, a player rolls six dice with colored dots on each face. She then plots her movement using as many of those dice as she can. A blue die allows her to move her car onto a blue space. Then she could use the yellow die result or the green die face to move onto a yellow or green space.
The game teaches children to plan ahead and make decisions that will move their car as far as possible on each turn. The first across the finish line wins.
Monza remains popular enough that HABA released a 20th Anniversary edition in 2020. This edition comes in a tin box and has a few upgrades from the original. If you have young race fans in your life, this is the best car racing board game for children.
Next, Thunder Alley, from GMT Games, is a card-driven stock car racing board game that has several unique mechanisms. Each player races a team of cars, not just one. And cars will draft off the cars in front of them, just like in real racing. When playing a card to move the lead car, you will pull the trailing cars along with you.
Much of the strategy here is negotiating your position in the pack so that you can benefit from other players’ movement. Cars that don’t stick with the pack will lose the benefits of drafting and will probably be lapped.
Your final score is determined by the finishing order of all your cars. You can win even if you don’t get the checkered flag if you finish well as a team.
Teams of players play cards simultaneously to change tires and refuel race cars and get them back on the track as fast as possible. Cars do move on the oval track, but unlike other racing games, the focus is squarely on pit road. If you want to round out your auto racing board game collection with a game that features a different aspect of the sport, make a stop for Pit Crew.
I couldn’t cross the finish line without giving a shout-out to the third game in AEG‘s Destination Fun series. Automobiles is a car racing game that followed Trains and Planes, but I won’t say more because it has been out of print for years and it is difficult to find—unless you know a board game retailer that sells used games, like Noble Knight Games, which, at the time of this publication, has a couple copies in stock!
The Finish Line
Although all the games on this list share the same theme, their mechanics are very different. Some use cards, some dice. Formula D and Rallyman: GT offer the purest racing experience, while Downforce introduces an interesting new element by wagering on the outcome of the race.
If you can’t make it to Indianapolis this Memorial Day weekend, bring the roaring engines and smoking tires inside and host your own epic race event with one or several of our picks for the best auto racing board games!
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