PK Interview: Simon Morden
Underground Reading: Iron Men and Silver Stars, edited by Donald Hamilton

Formula One

Formula OneAnother charity shop find, Waddington's Formula One Car Racing Game (1962) seemed awfully intimidating at first. A fairly lengthy (8 page) rulebook, a lot of bits and pieces and, most of all, we don't know a thing about racing. Car goes zoom. First one past the ribbon wins the need for speed. Never trust Cary Elwes.

Fortunately, our friends John and Bhavna know their Schumachers from their Earnhardts, so we made an evening of it.

The board is one enormous track, neatly divided into tiny boxes of roughly-equal size. Each race consists of laps around the track (like, John assures us, the stuff on TV). The tricky part to conceptualise is that the boxes on the board don't stand for distance, they stand for speed. Each box is a 20 mph segment. So if you're travelling 60 mph, you move 3 boxes. 120 mph, 6 boxes. (Despite the instructions' best assurance, this isn't actually measuring speed, but velocity. I think. Someone that knows something about physics should come by and tell me how this game works.)

There are some nasty curves on the board that can only be taken at certain veloci-speeds. The broader curves let you zip through them at 120 mph, but sharper ones are more demanding. If you want to take the inside lane of "Abbey Curve", for example, you need to brake to a pathetically sedate 40 mph. That's not to say you can't zoom around at breakneck speeds, but for every 20 mph increment that you break the safety speed, there's a chance of doing damage to your car. Or just spinning off the road entirely.

Dash-boardEach player is armed with a Dash-board and a fistful of Tactics cards. The Dash-board (according to the rules, the hyphen is necessary) lets you keep track of your speed, as well as wear and tear on your brakes and "tyres" (again, no American spellings in this rule-book). The tactics cards, distributed face down at the start of the game, let you do nifty little tricks like "take a corner at any speed" or "leap forward another 4 squares".

If your car gets worn down, you can zip into your pit for repairs. Even in our three lap race, this became necessary for two of the four drivers. The punishments for breaking the safety speeds can be quite harsh. (A word of caution - if you miss your pit, like John did at one point, you're stuck doing another lap on three wheels. Plus, the other players will laugh at you.)

Pit cardFrom our brief play, there seem to be a couple tricks. The first is resource management. The Tactics cards are incredibly useful, but also irreplaceable. There's also an element of calculated risk. The board is very carefully created so that maintaining maximum speed isn't just tricky, it is a near impossible. Even if you hit one corner at some ridiculous speed (and accelerating), you'll, more often than not, have to slam on the brakes before the next corner. It is a very tight track, and the trick isn't to blast back and forth between 160 and 0, but to find a way of maintaining a hasty pace while not flying into the stands at every turn. Finally, as Anne discovered to her chagrin, there is a certain amount of math involved. By calculating when to accelerate and decelerate, you can pick your ideal lanes and speeds for each move. Theoretically, you can have your whole race planned out from the start.

Of course, there is some (but not too much) luck involved. The cards aren't all created equal. Leaping forward a few free squares is nice, but being able to take a corner at any speed is a huge boon, as it essentially allows you to maintain maximum speed for half the board. Similarly, the punishments for exceeding the safety speed at a turn are variable. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes you're disproportionately thrown off the road (I'm still sulky about that one). (Twice!)

ZoomAnd, naturally, there is also a competitive element. The widest parts of the board have six lanes, but most have four and a rare few have two. Drafting (as I learned from Days of Thunder) is nice, but when the car in front of you slams on the brakes, you're screwed. Sadly (fortunately?), Formula One doesn't allow for the event of a crash, but you can still take a fair amount of damage to your car. More importantly, in the narrow places, you lose position. And in a game where all things are largely equal, that's a nasty trick. In our four person game, we were mostly able to race on our own but still had a few incidents (mostly involving me trying to run Anne off the road). A six player game could turn into bumper cars.

TypographyThe real reason we picked up the game is that it is a masterpiece of 1960's kitsch. From the adorable spinners on the dashboard to the wee little plastic cars, the game is a delight to hold. The typography and graphics are also wonderful (as shown on in the photos). Even the cards are made out of that musty, soft, thick paper that only existed for the decade.

Imagine our delight when the game turned out to be really fun as well. As opposed to many of our charity shop finds (we're looking at you, Buffy), Formula One is a blast. It wasn't just a kooky way to spend an evening, but the game is a genuinely well-balanced mixture of tactics and luck, strategy and competition. The rules took a little while to click, but by the second lap, we were taking our turns in seconds, making the game pacey both on and off the track. According to other review sites, Formula One is long out of print, which seems a shame - we couldn't recommend it highly enough (no racing knowledge required).