Tournament Car Design
by Tim Ray

HTML conversion by Michael P. Owen, March 2000

Though most top duellists are understandably secretive about their strategies for victory, 2037 World Championshtp runner-up Tim Ray consented to provide ADQ with some of his experience in vehicle design.

Many issues of ADQ have come and gone since the last article on car design was published. Since that time, new technology and evolving rules have fostered many new approaches to vehicle design. This article will address car design for the tournament arena environment of 2038 and beyond. It does not consider car design for the open road; often, a winning arena car is an easy kill in road combat. Cycles and trikes will also not be covered, since those vehicles don't belong in the same arena as cars. Besides, when was the last time a World Championship was fought on motorcycles?

Car Wars is an interesting system partially because it is constantly changing -- new technology is always being introduced through ADQ and other supplements. Probably the most infhiential technology introduced recently are the rules for internal combustion engines and metal armor. Cars today can have accelerations, top speeds, attacks and defenses far in excess of anything seen before. The task at hand is how to design a car to win in the modern arena.

The Basics

The first step of successful design is to pick a basic approach. Will the vehicle bristle with guns or will it have the brutally frank lines of the ram car? Will it specialize in blowing out tires or setting opponents on fire? It depends on the budget of the arena -- above Division 20 or so, fireproof armor becomes too common for incendiary attacks to be effective. Lasers are less useful where LR armor abounds, but even Uncle Albert hasn't found a way to make tires laser-resistant. Once an approach is chosen, the next question is, "What body will it fit in?"

The majority of successful arena cars are built on the following body types: compact, sedan, luxury and pickup. The subcompact occasionally makes an appearance in Division 5, but the station wagon wastes too much space to cargo and the van simply cannot carry the armor weight needed to be combat-worthy. Mids can work well at lower divisions, and at upper divisions the camper has all the advantages of the van with fewer disadvantages, but in general the other body types rule the battlefield.

Chassis strength and suspension need little thought. Most arena cars will have an extra-heavy chassis, in order to carry as much armor as possible. However, some designs don't make full use of an extra-heavy chassis and only require a heavy. For example, a 5,200-lb. mid-sized with a super power plant has a 10 mph acceleration and only needs a heavy chassis. Pay close attention to the weight of the vehicle -- the cost difference between the two strengths may seem minimal, but it adds up. As for suspension, there is never a good reason not to take heavy suspension into an arena.

Tires are almost always the weak point of a vehicle. It is the considered opinion of this designer, who has had many a tire shot out from under him, that non-solid tires can only be found in two places: in Division 5 and on wrecked vehicles. In Division 5, PR tires are acceptable, but any other time, running on pneumatic tires will get you dead. Some single-purpose vehicles in the high divisions can use metal tires effectively, but these wonders of plastic technology are usually too expensive and weighty to be efficient. Solids have a variety of advantages. They're invulnerable to normal spikes, and a single shot from a two-die weapon (the most common weapon damage in the game) is unlikely to blow one off. PR radials may seem attractive, since their +l to HC allows wheelguards to be used on the front tires, but consider: You’re trading 4 DP for 10 DP that protects 66% of the time and won't shield you from dropped weapons. It just isn't worth it. On the other hand, a sneaky tactic, especially for a six-wheeled car, is to mount solids on the front and PRs on the back. The vehicle is slightly more vulnerable to dropped weapons, but you can put guards and hubs on those weak back tires. So now you've got a rolling box without power. Gentlemen, start your . . .

Engines and motors are the heart of the arena vehicle. Choosing the proper power source is crucial to designing a winning car. Gasoline engines and electric motors each have their good and bad points. Engines have good acceleration, lots of DP, and weigh much less than motors. On the other hand, their top speed is seldom great, they are a considerable fire hazard, and even one point of damage can destroy them on a bad roll. They also cost more than power plants. Power plants are fast, more durable, burn less and are cheaper. They weigh more and have worse acceleration. Both types take up about the same amount of space, although the bigger gas engines may take up a bit more room. Generally, if acceleration is the key to your design, as in a ram car, a gas engine is preferable. High speed gas engines, though, are really at their best in the higher divisions, since their price keeps them out of low-budget events,

Gas-burners are more difficult to design simply in terms of the game mechanics. There are 13 gas engines and several power-enhauc-ing options for each, so selecting the most efficient one for your particular application can be a problem. If you're serious about "cooking with gas," a copy of the Custom Engine Table on p. 28 of this issue is a virtual necessity. The Custom Engine Table shows the cost and power factors of each engine when set up with tubular headers, blueprinting or both. The table allows you to see at a glance which engine is right for the vehicle in question. Don't forget to include the cost and weight of a full gas tank -- don't laugh, it's a common mistake. With the small amounts of gas used
by arena duellists, there's not a lot of money or weight to be saved by using a racing rather than duelling tank. All in all, it's simpler to use an electric power plant, and without a lot of design experience with gas engines, the electric plant will probably be more efficient. But at last, engine roaring or humming, you cruise down to the gun shop to buy weapons.


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Dishing it Out

The last article on car design had very precise charts of weapon efficiency based on cost, weight and space. In Car Wars, however, a weapon's true efficiency depends to a great extent on the arena in which it is used. There are simply too many qualitative variables involved to allow a single quantitative assessment of any weapon or tactic. This article will give you the basics -- if you simply must have numerical stats, see ADQ 2/3 or The Best of ADQ Volume 1 for the original design strategy article.

The basic concept of a vehicle (tire-shooter, ram car, or whatever) will narrow down your choices from the wide array available. The following section will help you make the final decisions. The tables list the most and least cost- and weight-efficient direct-fire and dropped weapons. If a weapon isn't listed, it simply means it's not particularly efficient or inefficient. "Good" and "Bad" refer only to efficiency in that particular
category -- the laser-guided VFRP is heavy and expensive considering its damage, but that doesn't alter the fact that it's one of the most powerful weapons in the game. These qualifiers are for general efficiency and take into account accuracy, ammo supply, damage caused, effectiveness against metal and other minor factors. The weapons that deserve special attention are discussed in the commentary section.

Direct Fire -- Cost

Good Bad
Flamethrower Gauss gun
Heavy Rocket Mine flinger
Rocket Launcher Micro missile launcher
Multi-fire rocket pod Anti-tank gun
Spike gun Variable-fire rocket pod
Point-defense grenade Guided missiles
Oil gun Autocannon
  All lasers


Direct Fire -- Weight

Good Bad
Flechette Gun All lasers
Heavy Rocket Mine flinger
Point-defense grenade Anti-tank gun
Rocket launcher Variable-fire rocket pod
Micro-missile launcher Autocannon
Gauss gun Flamethrowers
Multi-fire rocket pod  


Dropped -- Cost

Good Bad
Spikedropper Spear minedropper
Oil jet Flaming oil jets
Smokescreen Flame-cloud ejectors
Gas streamer Icedroppers
Drop-spike plate  
Junk dropper  


Dropped -- Weight

Good Bad
Oil jets All HD versions
Flaming oil jets Minedroppers
Smokescreens Junk droppers
Paint sprayers  


Laser-guided rockets have had more impact on the game than any other weapon. Even with the new rules requiring the laser to hit the target for the bonus to apply, these are still the most accurate weapons available. In addition, they're versatile, and it's possible to build an effective laser-guidance vehicle in any division -- even Division 5! The variety of ammo available for the RL (especially armor-piercing and incendiary) makes these weapons even more popular.

Machine guns and VMGs aren't listed in the tables because they're so balanced. They're fairly accurate and hard-hitting, have a flexible array of ammo loads and have a large ammo capacity. These advantages are nicely offset by weight, making these the most balanced weapons in the game.

Point defense grenades promise to make life even more difficult for the tires of the world. No space, no weight -- it's only money. Note that two on one side linked to one on the front will do an average of 7.5 points of damage to all tires in a 90-degree arc off the front corner, and is capable of destroying a solid tire in one shot. Ouch.

Incendiary weapons have a decided advantage over other weapons, in that burning is one of the most common causes of death in Car Wars. There isn't enough space here to discuss the various facets of flame weapons -- see "Fire and Loathing in Autoduelling" in this issue for a better treatment of the subject.

Damage-causing dropped weapons (especially flame cloud ejectors!) can be very effective some are capable of taking out a car in a single "shot." Many dropped weapons work much better in groups. For example, hiding mines under a smoke cloud is an old trick. Hiding explosive-tipped spikes under a flaming oil jet under a flame cloud is a new twist to that old trick, and it's very effective. Oil on ice is another nasty combination, especially if you throw in a junk dropper or some other hazard for the victim. Note that some arenas prohibit dropped weapons; check with the referee to make sure your combination is all right.


And Taking It

As with weaponry, the best type of armor for the event is influenced by the details of the competition. Budget (their budget, not just yours) in particular plays a big role. Lasers become cost-effective in Division 20 or above, so when duelling with that kind of budget, laser-reflective armor is something to consider. This gets into the realm of double-guessing -- if the budget is high enough to allow fireproof armor then a lot of people will get it, so fewer people will bother getting incendiary weapons, and so you can probably get away without fireproofing! The arena itself plays an important role, since in many arenas side shots will be rare, while in others you might even have to up-armor your roof. Usually, about 165 points total is sufficient for all but the most deadly arenas, adding about 20 points if you're carrying a turret.

If you have lots of weight but not much money left over, as is commonly the case for gas-burners, consider the option of metal armor. Metal armor is cheaper for the weight than plastic, and is fireproof to boot, and can be made laser-reflective for next to nothing. But metal must be distributed with care. This stuff is best applied in no less than 4-point increments; 15 points of plastic is better in almost every way than 3 points of metal. And no vehicle can carry enough metal armor to be immune to damage; an AP-HR does 13.5 points of damage on average, and how many vehicles can afford 68 points of plastic on one side? So, some damage will leak through. The simplest way to absorb leakage is with a layer of plastic behind the metal. Component armor is another good stopgap measure.

Armor is, of course, what ram plates are made of. The ram plate is the single most powerful weapon in the game -- a ram plate at 80 mph will intlict an average of 77 points of damage (eliminating any vehicle lighter than two tons) while taking only 20 in return. The plate has disadvantages, however. It's heavy, taking points of armor away from other locations, and it's prone to being shot off before the collision. The problem of the evaporating ram plate is easily solved by making the outer layer of metal and the inner layer of plastic; unfortunately, metal is less efficient in rams than plastic is. Ram plates are also a psychological weapon, since an opponent sans ram plate is very likely to veer off from a head-on collision with a ram car.

Armor placement varies from player to player, but usually the sides and front are about equal, while the back is about 5 to 10 points lighter. The top and bottom receive at most 10 to 15 points each -- you can't skimp on top armor in a world with flame clouds! The four sides are the only ones with metal, unless you plan to run over a lot of dropped weapons. After the armor is bolted on, try this simple test: See how well the side armor of your car can sustain two average hits from your own main weaponry. The second shot should almost breach plastic, or should put a
few points of damage past metal armor. If your armor is still in good shape, get less armor and more weapons; if your car would die from its own guns, get less attack and more defense. Of course, this doesn't apply to ram cars. Another handy index is the maximum collision speed your car can sustain from each side without taking internals; this is useful later on, when you're tom between a D6 bend to dodge that ram plate or taking the collision. Once you've got a satisfactory amount of armor, see how much money, weight and space you have left for accessories.

Other Neat Toys

The proper accessories can turn a ho-hum stocker into a personalized arena fighting machine. Indeed, there are a few accessories a duellist should not even consider lacking without a very good reason: spoilers and airdams, wheelguards and hubs, and computers. Many designers include the spoiler and airdam into their body cost and weight and include the guards and hubs into that of the tires, so that they're certain not to forget them later. Spoilers and airdams are especially useful for ram cars, since these vehicles will have to maneuver at high speed when setting up a ram attack. Wheelguards and wheel hubs are obviously necessary to shield your vulnerable tires; they're not perfect, but any port in a storm . . . Adding a computer is a good way to round out a vehicle; the SWC is an especially good choice. The added accuracy always
comes in handy, and if $500 can be saved anywhere else on the vehicle, a SWC is the gadget of choice for the discriminating duellist. Other accessories are less beneficial than these three items, but still have arena uses.

The turret is probably the most common piece of equipment on arena vehicles (after spoilers, wheelguards and computers, of course), and is probably the biggest waste of weight and money as well. A turret isn't very useful unless the turreted weapon is the only one on the vehicle, in which case you probably don't have enough offense anyway. The main problem with turrets is that you are forced to armor more locations (five instead of four) with less armor. A partial exception is the zero-space turret, which is relatively light. On the road, a turret comes in handy, but in arena combat you can usually just turn to face your opponent.

Extra magazines are also popular, and they too have little use in an arena. Few arenas will last longer than about 15 seconds, so you certainly
don't need a magazine for a 20-shot weapon. A half-loaded magazine for a 10-shot weapon is useful, as is a magazine for a 5-shot weapon like a Spear MD or a VFRP. But the extra magazine truly comes into its own when combined with a magazine switch -- the choice of ammo can make a big difference.

Fire extinguishers are least effective precisely where they’re needed most: gas-powered cars. The vehicular FEs are big and heavy, but the portable FE doesn't work as well and requires a firing action to use.

Gunners and passengers are seldom worth the space and weight; if you have so many weapons that a gunner would be useful, then you probably have too many. On the other hand, passengers clutching rifles loaded with AV ammo have become popular lately. If you're getting a gunner anyway, though, you'll probably want extra driver controls -- they're fairly cheap but can be a real lifesaver.

Other accessories can be effective if used creatively. The weapons timer, for example, cries out for effective use; one of the simplest uses is to shut off a dropped weapon so that the whole magazine doesn't get emptied. For gas-burners, nitrous oxide is probably one of the most dramatic accessories available, and it's essential for short races. And there's a wide array of pedestrian equipment that often gets overlooked by duellists. The bottom line with accessories is creativity. Can a sunroof be bottom mounted so that things may be dropped through? [Yes -- SB.] You can't know whether a tactic will work until you try.

These ideas concerning car design are, of necessity, subjective, but they are backed up by several years of tournament experience. The main point to keep in mind when building a car is that there are no perfect designs, only effective ones. The people who win tournaments consistently are those who design consistently effective cars. This article is intended to show how to design an effective vehicle around a coherent design concept. It should be treated as a springboard to ideas that will carry you to the winner's circle.


ADQ Vol. 6, No. 1 Index

Car Wars*Steve Jackson Games*ADQ Index