Daytona 500

Niki Lauda's Formel Eins by ASS is one of the most sought after games on the German collector circuit. It also happens to be one of the better family race games to have come out of that country. Since the recent upsurge in German game popularity, it is also much sought after here in the UK. Sadly, as you might imagine, not many of these £40-50 games are ever unearthed so DIY kits and the later, inferior, Nuremburgring version are accordingly in evidence. Good job then that ever enthusiastic Mike Gray at Milton Bradley decided to do a cover version for the nineties. The outcome is Daytona 500.

Daytona's subject matter is the American roundy-roundy stock car racing of NASCAR circuit and Winston Cup fame. Unlike the British concept of stock cars, these are big and beefy converted saloons with a sizeable lump under the bonnet. If you've seen the excellent racing action in the otherwise crappy Days of Thunder, you'll know exactly what I mean. Daytona comes boxed with a large coloured board showing the 'tri-oval' track at Daytona, six plastic cars, a pack of movement cards and a concise rules booklet. The production standards are a little flimsy and cheap in feel, but are perfectly adequate for extended use. This also fits with the pricing of the game which comes right in at budget level (see below).

I will deal with the system differences later, but for those unfamiliar with the original system, the format of the game is roughly as follows. The game is in two parts, bidding and racing. Initially, each player is dealt a hand of movement cards which broadly shows how he might influence the upcoming race. A typical movement card might move just the blue car 5 spaces, another might move all six cars varying distances and others offer a 'white' move which can apply to a car of your choice. Assessing his hand in a Bridge-like fashion, he decides which cars he would like to try to 'own' for that race in the hope of getting them as highly placed as possible and earning prize money.

The bidding round then starts by turning over a team card - this shows which car is on pole and also that it will be bid for first. Players then bid for the car using open outcry (which should be kept brief) with constant reference to how much they might win compared to what they are paying. Obviously, sitting on a hand bulging with red and white cards will make the purchase of the red car a distinctly strong option, but even that doesn't guarantee the winning prize money and there are limits to what you should bid. Each car is auctioned off in sequence with the later cars often going more cheaply as second string cars. That completed, the race gets underway.

The cars move by each player laying a movement card in turn, with the pole player starting. The card shows the strict sequence and size of each move and its instructions are carried out. That is it in theory, but in practice the game offers a few more challenges. Firstly, the track contains two big bends which have an inside racing line, a red passing lane and a big brick wall around the edge. The sound tactic is to get into the racing line first as to overtake you must move out into the 'red' lane which is half as fast and you cannot stay out in it - the overtaking car must return to the inside. If that isn't possible, the car can't get past. For this reason, a car in sixth or needing to overtake will be greatly slowed up in the race as a whole.

The second problem is conservation and timing of cards. Very rarely will you be dealt sufficient cards to get round the track from your hand alone. You must therefore play a waiting game to get other players to move your car when they play one of the multiple move cards. You also need to time when to make the decisive move. If you have enough cards to get home on 'pure' moves (ie those that move just your car), that is clearly the time to break for it. However, what normally happens is that two or three cars are in that position late in the race and it makes for a frantic sprint to the line. Alternatively, in a slow, close race, a player coming off the last bend in first or second with his big cards to play is a very smug creature. Conversely, it is no good holding your big cards till too late and finding that race goes away from you.

The race lasts just one lap and the order of finish determines what prize money is earned. A win gets $300,000, second $200,000 and so on, so it can be seen that paying just $10,000 for a 'no-hope' car and getting a surprise second nets $190,000 profit, while paying $110,000 for a dead cert will only get you the same net gain. Three races are normal in a full game (the cars change owners each time) and the player with the most prize money at the end is the winner. Now there's an original concept. A three race session of Daytona takes about 60-80 minutes depending on the mental speed of the players more than anything else. Sometimes you need to deliberate at length on which card is best at a given point in the race, and if you are like me you will probably still get it horribly wrong. We found that Daytona plays well with three or four but is unbalanced with two players as each can normally control their cars a bit too well.

Essentially, the major changes from Formal Eins to Daytona are that there are no points on the track to completely block up the race - you can nearly always pass even if it does cost you more to move. This is where the clever passing lane rule comes into play. There is a drafting (slipstream) rule that gives a car one extra space if he is tailgating. The cards are generally similar but there is no white 10, the coloured 10s have become 9s and, importantly, are given to the buyer of the relevant car. Most of these rules could be ignored if you wanted to be a purist and play the old game on a copied track, but we found the changes to be beneficial.

In play, Daytona offers a narrow but interesting range of decisions. The races seem to vary in both pace and closeness - sometimes a car will play his 9 early and shoot off in front, perhaps pulling along another car or two, while another smaller race develops at the back. On other occasions, all six cars match each other move for move and the lead can change many times. However the race goes, it does normally tend toward a close finish as a car going off the front will usually run out of cards from his own hand and must wait for the other players' cards to get him over the line. Knowing when to play a card, especially holding or playing the 9, is a constant puzzle. Throughout the race, if you are controlling two cars, you need to balance the card played on each one - sometimes you have a shot at getting them both home, other times you will have to sacrifice one to get the win.

Daytona's availability is not all you might hope for. The game can be bought readily in the States from Toys R Us and so on, but it seems not all game shops are carrying it and, at the time of writing, there are no importers in the UK. The latest Strategy Plus carries an advert from Gamescape in San Francisco which offers Daytona for $19, plus shipping and any duties. They take plastic so that is easy enough and will probably cost you about £20 all in. The price in discount stores is around $15 if you are lucky enough to know someone who will send you one over. Otherwise, we wait to see if the nice Mr Green or Mr Bloomfield get some copies in. This is far from ideal I know, but at least it is easier to get hold of than the original!

This statement may be sacrilege to a few, but having played Daytona extensively I actually now prefer it to the original. It is sufficiently different in play and offers, I feel, more scope for strategy and good card play. The race results seem to be more 'realistic', closer and more exciting and you also get rid of that silly blocking on the single lane corners that shifted Formel Eins from being a motor racing game to something of an abstract race system. By the way, for the replay gamers out there, this one isn't a simulation by any stretch but elements of this combined with Valgames' Good Ol' Boys and some Matchbox Days of Thunder cars could well be interesting.

Daytona 500 is a double treat for the gamer - not only is it effectively a timely reissue of Formel Eins giving you most of the components needed to recreate the original, it is also a very good game in its own right. As can be seen, it isn't overly challenging but offers an excellent balanced game for winding up a session or as a short one-hour fill-in. In complexity, it is at the family and light game group end of things. For these reasons, I should think NASCAR must be more than happy with the deal and those fans of Wolfgang Kramer games will definitely want to add it to their collection. I understand Daytona is selling well in the States, perhaps on the back of the NASCAR and Days of Thunder connection, but I would like to think it will also sell on its undoubted merits as a game.

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