Review: Pit Crew

Salted Sharon, Peppered Peter, a coyote on coke
Paul 49 comment(s)

Paul: Sometimes you gotta go fast.

And in a world where that speed comes from pounding alloy pistons, feels like warm, rubber-scarred asphalt, stinks of fetid fumes and fury, the Pit Crew are the kingmakers. They, and thus you, decide the monarchs of motorsport, with deft hands of restoration and renewal.

Collectively you wrench home a new wheel, working as well together as the finely-tuned machine you maintain. Nobody is screaming for petrol, nobody has broken the engine, nobody has just dropped a card. It’s fine. It’s okay. You’re the pit crew.

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It starts like this: You have a car. It’s a fast car and it loops a tarmac track alongside its rivals, but it’s a sensitive, particular beast. You also have a shared hand of six cards. You and perhaps one or two teammates must repeatedly fix parts of this car by laying down your cards beside them in sequence and in real time, at the same time as your rivals, to keep that car on the track. Creating a sequence of cards is as easy as counting.

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It’s actually easier, because your sequence doesn’t have to be linear. You can lay a four and then a five and then a four and then a five and a six and a five and yes, you see what I mean. Wonderful. This is nice and simple, because it requires even less order than a poker straight. Different parts of the car require a different amount of cards, such as four per tire, or cards that must total a certain amount to fill the fuel tank.

It’s all so simple that you never, ever mess up, even though you’re racing those other pit crews in real time. Sharing cards between yourselves, you never have to shout frantically for an eight to slap down next to a tire so that you can play the seven you’ve been holding. You never accidentally use a card in the fuel tank that someone else needed for the engine.

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There’s no panic. You aren’t going slower than any of the other teams. You don’t need to rashly discard your hand to clumsily draw six more cards and still find there are none of the twos or fours you desperately need to get the final wheel changed and put this car back onto the track. That would be a rookie move and you’re so seasoned a professional they call you “Salted Sharon” or “Peppered Peter.” Good job, Peppered Peter, you just broke the engine again. It seems to be your speciality.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the frothing joy of Pit Crew comes from that incredible simplicity, that very element that encourages you to play it as fast as a caffeinated cheetah and yet has you acting as rabid as a coyote on coke. It is a small game, in a small box, with the most straightforward of rules, so easy to learn and ideal for inflicting upon new players.

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As well as those simple rules for card placement, which are inevitably going to be ruined by your rushing, by the luck of the draw and by constantly trying to negotiate which cards you have and need, Pit Crew has some very basic rules for how your cars move. Between slapstick rounds, you intimately inspect each other’s vehicles to make sure cards have been placed correctly, then inch cars forward according to each appropriately-fitted tyre or topped up tank.

Did someone screw up? If so (who am I kidding of course they did oh god was it me), everyone else’s car lurches forward instead, leaving them to eat dust and drink despair. You’re also penalised for discarding cards, something that makes them curiously, supernaturally sticky in your hands. I’M SURE I CAN PUT THIS THREE SOMEWHERE. It’s not all bad news: bonus movement can be earned by particularly judicious card placement, where you manage to make one set of cards all the same colour, as well as the right sequence of numbers.

But let me tell you, that is a heroic act.

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On a team of three people, you’re sharing two cards each, desperately trying to negotiate what best fits where. You glance over and you see another car already has a full tank, meaning that team somehow already accomplished a remarkable feat of barnstorming blackjack. Is that sweat or motor oil running down your cheek? Even as a team of two or a solo player, the pressure is no less, because the cards aren’t any more inclined to suit your needs, nor are your rivals suddenly any slower (and while playing without teams is less fun, it’s still a chaotic challenge).

The pressure never lets off. Not least because of a very, very special, extra rule that I haven’t told you about yet. As well as the absurdity of trying to find and lay the right cards, of trying to share all the right cards with your teammates, of being constantly incapable of just laying the right damn cards at speed even though a child could, Pit Crew tops all this with The Dice Rule.

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The Dice Rule says that, if you’re done fixing your car and other players are still going, you can roll a six-sided die over and over, as fast as possible, sliding your car forward another space every time you get a six.

Now, sat here in the cold light of day, you and I both know that is not going to advance you all that much. In the heat of the moment, it’s the slimmest of advantages, a gesture so frantic and futile that you feel stupid every time you try, but when you’re not doing it, hands still full with cards that are as useful as dripping manure, it feels like the most unfair thing in the universe.

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Do you see why I think Pit Crew is terrific? It’s little more than playing cards as fast and as accurately as you can, but it gives you the perfectly-sized framework for this chaos. It drizzles in a little more disorder between rounds by giving you a small selection of special power cards, as well as giving you a slightly different car template to work on, and then it lets you get right back to thrashing in your own incapability. It knows you are your own worst enemy.

It’s never going to appeal to you if you don’t want to play a real-time game, if you don’t want the frenzy of floundering teamwork, if you need something deep and careful and complex. Nor is Pit Crew the best looking game. It has a muted and even papery kind of feel to it. I worry about how long these little cards and boards will hold out under repeated play.

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Still, simple as it might be, I have very little to say against it. Pit Crew is gloriously goofy and I thoroughly recommend it. It isn’t quite like anything else out there, though I’d absolutely also recommend you check out designer Geoff Engelstein’s other real-time fuss-fests Space Cadets and Dice Duel. Most of all, I recommend that you remember one very, very important thing:

Sometimes you gotta go fast.