Death Roads: Tournament – Card drive

Race cars, play cards, drive hard

Death Roads: Tournament takes vehicular combat from the tabletop to your desktop.

Digital versions of board games are nothing new, with the likes of Tsuro, Catan, and Root having computer, console, and phone releases in recent years. Of course, that’s a very limited list as pretty much every major tabletop game is getting the video game treatment these days. Death Roads: All Stars could do pretty much the same thing by simply translating the game to a computer, but instead The Knights of Unity have created something that’s similar to the tabletop game but with its own spin.

The board game features players competing in a post apocalyptic death race by playing cards to move around a roadway and attack their opponents in order to be the last one standing. Whilst it isn’t a  game I’ve played myself, I have followed it with interest, and many of the elements there have been translated across. At the same time, this is not just a direct port of the tabletop game. Rather than you taking on other players or AI opponents, Death Roads: Tournament has you racing across America, taking out competitors in a roguelike deck-builder in the Slay the Spire mould. It’s nice to see a board game adapted like this, playing to the strengths of video games without losing what makes the game what it is.

Death Roads Tournament
It took me a little getting used to, but the symbols on the cards do give you a quick idea of what they do. You do need to slow down and think before playing them though.

Once you’ve selected your character and their car, each of which has their own starting cards, you pick a starting point on the world map and move from one node to another, fighting enemies, completing events, and visiting shops. If you’ve played Slay the Spire or Fights in Tight Spaces, you’ll immediately recognise the set up. Interestingly, other competitors in the race across America are also present on the map, and should you run into them you’ll need to face them in one-on-one car combat.

Battles take place across several lanes of a road, although there’s no actual end to them during combat. By playing cards you can move yourself around the road and attack foes in specific spaces, or simply ram into them. Whilst weapon based attacks are important, positioning is absolutely key to success. You can’t hit a target if it’s not in range, and if the lane your in is going to be closed at the end of the next turn, you’d best get yourself out of there. This alone is simple enough, but there are other mechanics at play.

Some cards allow you to shift gears up or down, whilst others are more effective depending on what gear you’re in. If you know your deck, you may be able to plan to be in a certain gear ready for a card you want to use. It’s a nice system that gives each card multiple possibilities, meaning your deck of cards doesn’t get clogged up with slight variations. 

Death Roads Tournament
The characters certainly are… varied. They’re all based on ones from the board game as I understand it.

Then there’s the handling system. Playing cards costs handling, with different cars having different handling limits. You can play as many cards as you can get during your turn, so long as you have the handling to use them. As you might expect, if you run out of handling your turn ends, but you also suffer a skid. When this happens, you draw cards equal to your current gear from your driver’s skid deck. These can send you in different directions, have you ram into other cars or walls, and change your current gear. It leads to quite an interesting risk/reward system. Personally, I liked positioning myself between a couple of enemies and deliberately causing a skid in the hopes I’d be able to ram a few more health points off each opponent. Some attacks even damage your opponents handling, meaning you can force them into a skid too, potentially wiping them out more quickly.

I really liked these systems. They felt interesting and opened up all sorts of possibilities depending on the cards you have access to. You can change your cards as you play, not by adding cards to your deck, but by changing the attachments to your car. Your initial engine might let you move forwards and backwards a space or two, but if you choose a new one after a successful battle, your new one may give you cards that let you change gear, then move two spaces forward before ramming or sideswiping an opponent. This was another element I liked due to it negating that issue that many deck builders have when you get an overstuffed deck that you need to thin down.

All the information you need is there when you want it.

So the mechanics are all really positive, but how they work in an actual game needs a little work. Death Roads: Tournament is hard. Enemies can hit you really hard if you’re unlucky, and chances to heal are few and far between, and even then they cost a huge amount of the game’s currency to get yourself back to full capacity. It’s seriously punishing, especially when you take on one of the characters, which you’ll need to if you want to unlock them to play as. After one of these encounters you tend to be pretty beaten up, meaning your next standard battle will probably be your last. The devs are aware of this though, and being as the game is in Early Access right now, they’re looking at tuning the difficulty and gameplay over the coming months.

There are a few other areas that I fully expect they’re going to look at. The events you come across are fairly bland, so hopefully there will be more, and more interesting versions of these as they move forward. I like how games like Monster Train used events to introduce recurring characters or factions, so using them as an opportunity to flesh out the world is an option. I spotted some bugs with them to, such as dying during events meaning you receive no XP towards new cars unlike when you die in battle. Then there are some odd text and grammar mistakes in some of them, and especially during the intro. It’s nothing dreadful, but certainly something to look into.

Speaking of looking, Death Roads: Tournament is rather good in that department. The comic book visuals are excellent, and have something of a grindhouse look to them during the battle scenes. I’d like there to be a greater variety of environments to race through rather than slight variations on “sandy road”, but the player vehicles and characters are all distinct and interesting to look at. The sound effects are suitably chunky too, but the music could use greater variety. The generic road rock music becomes tiresome quickly, and I’d much rather listen to anything else by the time I was on my third run.

Interestingly, you can complete many stages by escaping rather than killing enemies. You can only do this so many times in a run though.

For an Early Access adaptation of a board game that plays quite differently, Death Roads: Tournament is coming along very well. There are plenty of places to make improvements, but the foundations are solid and there’s a lot to like already. By the time this is fully released, expected to be spring next year as it stands, I think this will stand up quite well against the titans of the deck building roguelike genre.

Death Roads: Tournament is in Early Access on Steam now.

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