Murray: It looks like red team is pulling in for a pit stop, yes their Pit Crew are ready for them!
James: This is a very professional crew, they’ve been playing together a long time.
Murray: Off come the old tires and a rapid refuelling of the car is underway, but oh! What’s this? It looks like two of the crew are throwing away components to try and find four nuts of the same colour for the front left tire! But here we go, they’re off at last!
James: Green is still stuck in the pits let’s see if they can make good on their lead.
Murray: Is it just me, or is their rear tire looking a bit wobbly?
James: Oh dear you might be right! Too much time spent on that perfect front tire.
Murray: It’ll cost them! But oh no! Panic in the pits! It seems Green in their hurry to catch up have overfilled the fuel tank and now they’re desperately mopping up! Let’s hope no one lit a cigarette.
James: I’m sure the only thing smoking down there is their managers temper!
Pit Crew examines the unsung heroes of motor racing: the team in the pits who refit the cars in a matter of seconds.
But before we go any further! Have you read my other articles? I mean, there’s quite a lot but what about some of my recent ones? Like Century Spice Road! Or a little pack of word games, Wibbell++? Or check out our new, regular Netrunner coverage. I know you’re here to read about Pit Crew, but you could check out my Flamme Rouge review, because that’s about racing too…!
What a thoroughly obnoxious and off putting paragraph, wouldn’t you agree? Yet that is almost exactly what publisher Stronghold Games have done with the art in Pit Crew. Traditionally, motor racing cars will have sponsors’ advertising all over them and that’s all well and good. So for this board game, using board game titles in place of this is kind of cute and funny… Until I realised they are literally just adverts for Stronghold’s other recent games and that… bothered me.
See, I don’t want to have them shoving their other products at me while I’m trying to enjoy their game. It’s incredibly distracting. This could have been done cleverly and respectfully to the people who have supported that company by buying their game. They could have made up board game related companies and products as jokes, hell, I wouldn’t have minded so much if they’d picked classic games from other companies, it wouldn’t have come across so… cheap?
And Pit Crew feels cheap. Little cards, shonky wooden bits. We have basic board game logo assets photoshopped on to the tops of the cars with all the care and attention of bird poo splatter. But then I suppose that is consistent with Stronghold Games’ generally lazy approach to art and graphic design. I mean for God’s sake, Pit Crew has 3 coloured cars and, of course! Two of them are red and green. They couldn’t even be bothered to spare half a second’s thought for the colour blind members of their audience and it’s just not good enough!
Thank goodness then that Pit Crew is a terrific game to play! Players divide into up to 3 crews of up to 3 players aiming to get their car back out on to the track as quickly as possible. That requires you to complete a check list of tasks with the speed and deftness of a greased up ninja. The wheels need replacing, the fuel needs topping up, and in later rounds the engine benefits from a quick re-tune. All of these things are achieved by playing the small numbered cards from your hand to the corresponding area of your car, and it’s all performed in real time: the perfect recipe for chaos.
Each element of the car demands competency, and rewards precision, just like the engineering of a proper racing car. The wheels each require you to play out four cards. The trick is that each card must be exactly one higher or one lower than the previous number on that wheel. Any incorrect card, or each missing card, awards a penalty point which moves both of your opponents forward a space on the teeny track.
The fuel is easy. Just chuck any old cards into the fuel (they all burn the same). BUT! They need to add up to the exact value of the number on the roof, demanding you, as a team, do mental arithmetic under extreme time pressure. Any point over or under costs you a penalty point. The engine is ignored in the first round, needs a single pair in the second, and two pairs in the third, upping the ante round by round. The fuel target rises too, demanding you be that much more careful.
Any cards you discard will also count against you. Why are you throwing cards away? Well! Let me explain. You see, your team, which might be up to three players, only has a collective hand of 6 cards split between you. You can play them freely, whenever and wherever you like, and draw new cards whenever you like, but not more than your hand limit. When you are looking for precise values, especially pairs, and you just don’t have them, you’ll need to discard cards to free up space so you can draw. Of course, the fuel acts as a kind of ‘free’ space to dump cards until you reach the target, but if you dump lots of low value cards in there, you have to do more addition on the fly to check your total! A genuinely brilliant self-balancing mechanic.
Pit Crew is brilliant because it presents you a fairly simple optimisation puzzle: get all the right cards down, in the right order, without wasting any. Then it ratchets up the pressure by making you try and solve it as quickly as possible! It becomes almost a game of dexterity as you try not to knock other cards out of position and throw on the wheel cards to show you’ve finished that feature, while not running into each other when redrawing from the deck. You need to coordinate but not spend too much time discussing with any team mates you have. It is, in a way, incredibly thematic.
But as I’ve come to expect from Geoff Englestein games, it has a thrumming v8 of pure silliness under the hood. Completing these tasks quickly let’s you grab and start rolling one of the wooden dice in a manic pursuit of 6s, each of which let you move your car forward one space, your team cheering you on every time. As soon as the slowest team finishes, you stop and painstakingly check all the cars for mistakes, but when your opponent starts rolling that die, you absolutely start to panic! Trying to figure out how much fuel you have in the car is hilariously difficult. You send your car out on to the race track with half its wheels ready to fall off. And the silliest thing is that can actually be a good thing.
This is a race game and the pace is set by the players. It’s not about beating some personal best, it’s about being faster, or more accurate, than your opponents. So you can throw out your cards as quickly as possible and get to rolling, but you can also take your time. Turning a pit stop into a leisurely, carefully coordinated activity. It’s not just about being accurate, you can earn turbo boosts (extra spaces of movement) if you have a section that is correct and all the cards are of the same colour. Getting these turbo boosts are incredibly valuable, but are also ludicrously difficult to achieve.
There is the rub of Pit Crew. If one team is taking their time and going for accuracy, it can be absolutely worth rushing your car out the door, even intentionally leaving mistakes, to get enough of a lead with the dice. Your team needs to have some idea of what they are aiming to do but adapt on the fly to the behaviour of your opponents and to how cards come out of your deck. It’s great!
If there is any flaw in Pit Crew it’s that a better team can steamroller an opponent in the first round, making the following two far too easy for those players. Pit Crew is best with well matched teams and I recommend giving new players a practice round before going into the race proper. Between rounds you also get little bonus action cards which can help you or hinder your opponents. Last place gets first pick, but they are all fairly good so it’s not much of a catch up mechanism.
I really like Pit Crew. It’s fast and it’s furious. It’s funny, but also intelligent and challenging. And how many games are there that work pretty much as well with 2 as they do with 9? I do prefer the game with 3 teams racing, and when you are on a team by yourself it loses that camaraderie and need for communication but it’s still a very fun challenge! I only wish they put a bit more effort into how it looks.
Rating: Turbo Charged