Apocalypse Road Review
If the movies Death Race 2000 and Ben Hur got together and made a baby, and that baby was a game, that game would be Apocalypse Road. It’s a demolition derby between teams of racers driving Mad Max-esque cars, covered in armour, spikes and guns. If that description on its own isn’t enough to get you going, let’s see what’s fuelling the V8 thrumming beneath the game’s bonnet.
This isn’t GMT Games’ first foray into the world of car racing. The series that uses the same engine (so to speak) also incorporates Grand Prix, and the better-known Thunder Alley. Anything from two to ten(!) players control a team of cars each, with each car having its own speed and defence rating. The wheels of the cars are turned somewhat by the wheels of fate, with each player having a hand of cards to play racing actions from.
It’s about the journey, not the destination
I suppose the first thing I ought to tell you about this game of cars racing around a track, is that it’s not a race. When I first realised this, I had a bit of a moment. A game about cars racing around a track, and it’s not a race?? You can go streaking ahead, lapping all and sundry, and still lose at Apocalypse Road. There’s no point in covering your car in all manner of dangerous objects if you’re not going to use them, so you can smash each other up!
To win in Apocalypse Road, you need to exhaust your supply of VP chits on the main board. Everyone starts with the same number of chits, and you can claim one for every lap completed, and each time you destroy a car. Maybe I was overdoing it with the whole “It’s not a race thing”, after all you do get rewarded for crossing the start/finish line. In truth though, you’ll end up racking up as many – if not more – VPs from your wanton auto carnage.
There’s a real shortage of honest-to-goodness racing board games, which is why it’s important I explain this all now. If you’re looking for something to replace Downforce, Rallyman, or Flamme Rouge, this isn’t it. It shares the DNA, sure, but it’s very different to shifting gears and slipstreaming to go the fastest. Apocalypse Road is no-holds-barred, unapologetic chaos. You’ll get shot at, rammed, shunted out of the way, and there’s very little you can do about it. Unless, of course, you get your team strategy right.
Oops Upside Your Head
I’m not sure if this piece of drunken pub/wedding reception culture made it across the Atlantic. Over here in good old Blighty, if enough drunken people get together and Oops Upside Your Head by The Gap Band comes on, they all sit in a line on the floor, swaying and rocking (you can see it here, if you really want to…). For whatever reason, watching chains of cars move in union really evoked memories of inebriated floor dancers. Go figure.
The way chains of cars push and pull one another around the track in Apocalypse Road is at the core of the game. Every turn involves someone playing a movement card, and deciding how best to use it. Linking is the word used everywhere in the rulebook, and it describes strings of cars that touch front-to-back, moving as a group. Sometimes it’s obligatory, sometimes it’s a choice (depending on the card played), but in either situation it’s essentially trying to create ordered chaos – like herding cats.
Even though it seems like a simple system at first, you’ll soon realise there are fathoms of depth to the cardplay. Instead of just trying to streak ahead with your fastest car, or push along blocks of your own cars, you start to discover nuanced tactics. You can box rival cars in, then bring a car up from behind with forward facing weapons to wallop the caged rat. On the flip side, if you see one of your damaged cars starting to get penned-in, using optional linking to pull them out of trouble is a great feeling.
At the top of the review I mentioned that Apocalypse Road plays from two to ten players. When you consider that each player has at least four cars on the track at any moment, that can add up to a lot of cars. Although the number of cars you control is set by the number of players in the game, it can still vary from 10 up to 40 cars in the derby. That’s a huge range, and as you might expect, the type of game you end up playing can vary wildly.
Two player games are tepid, and the tracks feel too big, and too empty. In contrast, nine or ten is absolutely bonkers. Granted, I’ve only had the chance to play at the higher player counts using the Vassal mod for Apocalypse Road (which is excellent). I can’t imagine trying to get ten players around a table, each with their own team board, and the big track board in the middle. Four to seven players however, when you’ve got 20-28 cars all beating the crap out of each other, that’s the sweet spot.
Once you get that perfect balance between chaos and tactics, Apocalypse Road is awesome. It’s a game packed full of bite-sized battles and narrative. That’s right, I said narrative. It’s not a story told by the game, however, it’s the sum of the smaller stories that unfurl during the game. It’s like watching a Mad Max film as clusters of cars come together, and cars from other teams lurk behind like vultures, waiting to pick off the weakened survivors. You’ll remember the big moments from the game, and you’ll talk about them as then dust settles afterwards.
I love how diverse GMT Games’ portfolio is. Some people would see their little red logo on a box and discount it as ‘another war game‘, but in doing that you’d be depriving yourself of a real gem in Apocalypse Road. It’s not a game of grand strategy, but in the same breath it’s not a luck-ridden, mangled metal mess. It’s meant to be proper, old-fashioned fun, and it’s exactly what it is.
Despite being advertised as a game that plays from two players, I wouldn’t choose to play with anything fewer than four. It just feels too diluted with a small player count, like when you try to make a glass of squash but there’s only a trickle in the bottom of your bottle of Ribena. You might try to fool yourself into thinking it’ll taste good, but you know you’re not getting the full flavour.
Once you get the hang of the cards, it’s a really simple game to play. It’s kept alive and varied by the various event cards that get drawn, and also by the four tracks included on two double-sided boards. If that’s not enough for you, you can even use the tracks from Grand Prix and Thunder Alley if you own them, and vice-versa. There are no cool little car minis, so it doesn’t look like a game of Gaslands on the table, but it doesn’t matter one bit. If you’ve got a group of friends who dig the theme, get it. A post-apocalyptic, pretzels & Pabst, petrol-powered, powder keg of a game. Frankenstein would approve.
Review copy kindly provided by GMT Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Apocalypse Road (2020)
Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Publisher: GMT Games
Art: Nicole Balsley, Kurt Miller
Playing time: 60-90 mins