By Jorge Figueiredo - December 5th, 2014


When I was a kid, my dad had a Tyco slot racing set. It was a beautiful setup, with supercars that traversed a long track with a spiral section supported by glow-in-the-dark struts. When I became older, he let me play with the set on my own – but pulling out the box from the cupboard was always a calculated decision based on the amount of playtime that I had (it took a while to assemble). Later on, Santa gave me my own Tyco set, complete with cars that could swivel on their front track pin and go in the opposite direction. I enjoyed that set a lot – but it eventually lost its allure when the set stopped working.

Fast forward to 2014. When I first looked at the Anki DRIVE Starter Kit, I was reminded of my youthful days of slot-racing – but Anki DRIVE ups the ante with a few notable differences – the most prominent being that you control the cars with an iOS or Android device. Even Smallest Thumbs really got into the set that Anki sent us to review!

The Anki DRIVE Starter Pack comes conveniently packaged in a long, narrow box. Opening up the cardboard container reveals two charging pods (each of which contain a different car), the track (which is a thick vinyl mat, rolled up around a cardboard tube), a 3-port (microUSB) charging adapter that plugs into the wall (only takes up a single socket), a sticky wheel-cleaning pad, and a small instruction booklet. Admittedly, the Starter Pack’s dimensions (8″ x 5″ x 45″) make it challenging to store on the same shelf that you would store your slot-racing sets on. However, thanks to the compartments built into the inside of the box, you can store the whole thing horizontally (on its long side), or vertically (on the short side) without displacing anything within.

Box contents.

Unlike its jigsaw-like plastic predecessors, Anki Drive is not even a snap to set up – it’s pretty much a two step process: take it out of the box, and roll it out along the floor. Now, unlike a traditional slot-racing track, you’ll need enough space to roll it out fully, since the base is a rectangle1. However, the floor doesn’t have to be perfectly flat (although putting a “bump” in the track makes for a little bit more of a challenge). The track, which has been printed on the vinyl, is very well-defined, and it is important to keep it clean, as the cars derive their actions from the instruction sets contained within the print. Smallest Thumbs ended up crawling across the track once to pick up her car and left a dusty knee print on the track, which seemed to affect the cars when they drove over it2. Luckily, cleaning the track is a simple matter of wiping it clean, damp sponge and then drying it with a microfiber cloth.

I remember when I first saw the promotional video – my mind went into a state of disbelief. I mean, humans produce a lot of cool stuff, but a “slotless” slot-racing set with “working” weapons looked like it was too good to be true. Even when I opened up the box and set it up, I still half-expected it not to really do what it was supposed to do. Then, when I fired up the Anki DRIVE app and Patrick Stewart’s voice started guiding me through the tutorial, I thought to myself: Who the hell cares if we really landed on the moon or not? This is the best thing ever!3

The tutorial lasts for about five minutes or so, and Patrick (he’s my best friend now) takes you through the whole process: from charging the cars to driving and shooting. The two cars that come with the Starter Pack, Boson (Grey) and Kourai (Yellow), take between 8-10 minutes to fully charge, providing players with up to 20-22 minutes of racing time. This is plenty of time to participate in several Races (obviously, a fixed number of trips around the track) or Battles (where you duel with other cars for the most points). Once charged, the cars are placed onto the track – and they will know exactly where they are and begin to roll at a fair clip. Each car contains a down-facing sensor (located on the underside of the car) and a microprocessor to interpret what that sensor is “seeing”. As the cars move along the track, players will be able to use an iOS or Android device to “steer” by tilting their smartphones from one side to the other, all thanks to the Anki DRIVE app, which controls steering, speed, and weapons. Velocity of your vehicle is regulated by a slider on the left side of the screen on your smartphone; weapons and special abilities are utilized with other buttons on the touch-screen as well.

Cars are detailed. They are also tough.

While Racing can be a lot of fun, it is admittedly the lesser of the two modes (in my opinion). Battling is definitely where it’s at. When you first begin to play Anki DRIVE, each car is equipped some basic virtual abilities: a machine gun, shields, and a tractor beam. All three of these abilities rely on the energy level of the car (in fact, the initial shields are tied directly to your energy meter – so if your energy is at zero, you are vulnerable). Thus, it becomes a matter of delicately balancing how you use these different tools. Do you slow down your opponent using the tractor beam to get them within range and then nail them with the machine gun? Well, you had better be careful not to use too much of either power – or you’ll be vulnerable yourself (and your opponent can drop their speed so they end up behind you and they can blast you since your shields will be minimal thanks to your depleted energy level).

The developers of Anki DRIVE have put together a really great system. The fact that the cars zip along the track without flying off is amazing, even while increasing speed and steering into (and out of) the tighter of the two corners. Using weapons and abilities is also satisfying, as these virtual powers have real-world consequences. For one thing, activating any of them results in lights emanating from the cars and sound effects reverberating out of your phone; secondly, you have to utilize these powers as if they were physically real. For example, if you wish to shoot a car in front of you with your on-board machine-gun, you’ll need to make sure you line up the shot. Once your car has been disabled, it will stop and you’ll have to wait for a few seconds to start up again (or it might even spin out). This sort of design increases the realism and the fun! And the fun doesn’t stop there: as you win races and battles, you gain experience and in-game cash, which lets you improve various aspects of your car (speed, handling) as well as purchase new abilities (which are unique to each vehicle). Eventually, you can have battles between cars with completely different abilities, which makes for an interesting time – especially when you have 4 cars on the track at once (the current maximum).

Racing along the track, trying to jockey for the best position to pummel…

Above and beyond racing other humans, you can also rely on the AI built into the system, which means that you don’t have to always rely on other people to play. Anki is actually a Japanese word that means “learn by heart” – and believe me, the system actually learns. As you play with Anki, the virtual drivers get better and better, and they will eventually give you a run for your money. I really enjoy that aspect of the game, because the last thing I would want is a boring battle or race. Anki DRIVE is also always constantly being developed to give users the best experience possible. Currently, there are a few features that have been introduced for iOS users: a Team feature (where you can create teams and battle with assistance), and Balancing (which sets the level of all cars to the “weakest” one). I have not tried either feature yet – but I am seriously wondering if the AI levels that the virtual drivers are at would them more desirable to have as teammates when compared to other people.

Another point in the “value add” column for Anki DRIVE is that it is kid-friendly. Thanks to the intuitive controls and the fact that the cars stay on the track, young kids can play and have fun. Smallest Thumbs (7 years old) and I have a lot of fun playing the game. During our games, I didn’t use Balancing; however, I would give her the higher-level vehicle to play with, which would even things out a little bit. She has mentioned more than a few times how easy it is to drive, and how much fun it is to hear my car become disabled by her incessant machine gun blasts. If you’re looking for a more exciting alternative to board games, this is definitely a fun prospect.

Currently there are seven cars.

Outside of the fact that the battery life gives the cars 20 minutes of longevity (and that you need a relatively large, flat space upon which to play), there aren’t a lot of bad things that one can say about Anki DRIVE. In fact, I don’t even think those are problems at all. The battery life issue? Moot – as it only take 8 minutes to fully charge the cars (and taking breaks is a good thing)4. Large flat spaces are easy to come by in almost any dwelling. Anki DRIVE is easy to set up, easy to learn, and fun to play. Keeping the set clean has been made easy thanks to durable construction, and development is always occurring. Currently, outside of the starter kit, there are 5 additional cars and two alternate tracks that you can purchase to add to your collection to change things up. If you love small-scale racing and battling it out on the track, Anki DRIVE should be top of mind this holiday season.

1 – My brothers and I used to set up our racing car tracks in smaller spaces than recommended, because you can do things like build a circular track around a leg of a table, for example.
2 – The vinyl actually shows fingerprints (which will never go away) – but these do not affect the performance. It was the layer of caked-on dust that made the cars act the way that they did – which is a glaring reminder that I should clean my house more often.
3 – My apologies to fellow Canadian Chris Hadfield. I know that we really landed on the moon, and that you flew around the Earth a pile of times and did awesome things…but…this!
4 – Though, if you’re really desperate, you can spend the money on a few more cars ($50 each) so that you can charge some while playing with others.

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