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Wot I Think: Motorsport Manager

A winning formula?

The sponsors won't pay out if at least one of my two drivers doesn't finish in the top six. There are six laps to go and Mustafa El Sadat, my best hope, is in fourth place, and far enough behind the three leaders that it doesn't seem sensible to adopt an aggressive strategy. If he can maintain his current pace, he should be able to finish fourth and while I'd prefer a podium finish, a season of work has taught me that Motorsport Manager [official site] does not reward over-ambition. This is a game in which to choose your fights carefully and to celebrate every small victory rather than pushing for the big win against the odds.

That's the key phrase - 'win against the odds' - because it's precisely what I often strive for when playing games that have elements of tactics and strategy to them. How can I use the limited tools at my disposal to beat the odds? Motorsport Manager discourages that kind of approach – instead, it's about figuring out precisely what your tools are capable of and ensuring they fulfill, rather than exceeding, their potential.

Sure, your drivers will punch above their weight from time to time, but most of the work is done before a race begins. Whether you're fine-tuning the balance of a car during practice laps, building new parts to improve a crucial component, or hiring staff to work with drivers and their vehicles, the ultimate goal is to put the best possible person in the best possible car on the day of a race. Achieving that goal will take you down a long, hard road.

If, like me, you only have a passing knowledge of the way a real life motorsport team functions, you'll be thankful for the in-depth tutorial. It leads you through the first couple of races with a great deal of assistance, and teaches the basics of scouting new drivers, handling the egos of the ones you already have on your books, and upgrading both your cars and your headquarters. Essential though it may be for newcomers, the tutorial fluffs its first lines, forcing you to play through an entire race before introducing the planning and preparation that make up most of the game. Denying the player the ability even to balance their car on that first outing dooms them to a somewhat tedious opening ten minutes or so, that has ended in disappointment every time I've tried it.

That's a minor gripe, though worth noting because it creates one final barrier to entry. As you switch out tires to deal with a scripted downpour mid-way through that first race and handle a final pitstop in the final third, when the tutorial has left you to figure things out for yourself, you're probably going to see your drivers slipping to the back of the pack. The limited control you're given on an actual race day makes dealing with a poor finish seem impossible, but as soon as you head to the main menu when the race is run, you're introduced to everything you need to improve things next time around.

Jumping straight into a race does make your options seem very limited though. The tracks and surroundings are presented handsomely, and there are plenty of ways to keep track of the action, either simply by watching or by looking at data feeds. Your input is limited to changing race tactics for the two drivers on your team, adjusting both their fuel burn rate and how hard they push their tires, and calling for pit stops.

When you do the latter, a pit planning screen pops up and the race pauses in the background. Here you can change tires based on the weather (current and forecast), as well as the condition of current tires and overall race strategy. You can also refuel and repair components that have become degraded, and then when you've seen how long all of your orders will take to implement, you can decide whether to rush the pit stop or take it slow and safe. Failures add time and rushing through the pits is one of several risk/reward systems in the game, the most notable being the use of components that bend the rules and might see punishments doled out if the authorities detect them post-race.

Because I grew up reading 2000AD, I fear the law, so my cars are always built strictly within the rules. One of Motorsport Manager's best features is the changing nature of those rules though, and the way that you can influence them to make as uneven a playing field as possible. There are loads of different regulations for each of the three racing divisions and at the end of a season, you can exert influence to try and have them changed to suit your style, your drivers, and your designs, Whether that means locking down parts so they can't be custom-built, or changing rules around refueling or qualification.

Just as when designing new parts for your cars, with one eye on the demands of upcoming tracks, mucking about with the rules is all about giving your particular set of tools the greatest possible chance of victory. And that's the heart of Motorsport Manager; it's a game about understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and deciding whether to bolster the strengths and hide the weaknesses, or to create something more balanced.

None of the individual elements are very complicated and though it has its roots in a mobile game, the entire interface and just about everything else have been rebuilt for PC. It shows, with every screen beautifully and coherently constructed so that you can always see the numbers that you need to when working your way through tasks between races. It's easy to keep track of possibilities, planning within budget and making decisions as and when needed rather than becoming overwhelmed.

I was terrible to begin with, even though I started as manager of a team that had low expectations in the lowest tier so as to make the learning curve slightly less tricky to navigate than Paddock Hill Bend. My mistakes usually came on race day, indecisiveness causing me to make pit stops too late or too early as I reacted to the behaviour of the other teams and tried to copy it rather than forming a strategy of my own.

Three seasons in, I'm still terrible. When I notice every other car slipping into the pits and realise I probably should have done the same, I panic. Even though races don't demand constant attention, with speed controls and the ability to pause at any time, the fact that there are usually only three or four major decisions spread across the entire event magnifies the importance of every click. When a driver starts swearing over the radio and expressing concern that you're not looking out for him/her – that's a rotten feeling.

Motorsport Manager is all about numbers, and they're displayed explicitly, but there's plenty of character in the personalities of your crew. Most drivers are easy to handle but sometimes egos get in the way of a good race strategy and it's even possible to cause upsets when allocating newly designed parts. Favouritism doesn't go down well.

I'm unlikely to be hooked on Motorsport Manager for the rest of the year, as will be the case with Football Manager, but that's mostly because I don't particularly care for real life racing. It's far from impenetrable if you don't understand the sport itself though and the pit stops are a more immediately responsive tactical instruction than anything in Football Manager, which gives a good sense of direct control. Success is hard-won, a process of long hours developing headquarters and parts, as well as finding the right staff, but failure can be the result of a momentary loss of control or courage.

It's a tough game, in which I often feel like I'm grinding my way toward the top rather than discovering brilliant new tactics or innovative strategies. That makes me feel a little distant from my team, and makes this a game to play while burning through podcasts in the background rather than to focus all of my attention on, but I'm enjoying the challenge. I feel like I earn my victories and the disasters are usually my fault as well. It's hard to escape the sense that I'm always reacting, whether to the weather or the placement of a particular track on the calendar, rather than creating a team with an identity of my own choosing. Maybe that's because I'm a terrible Motorsport Manager, but I think it might just be part of the job.

Motorsport Manager is out Thursday for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available direct and via Steam.

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