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Anki Overdrive is a $150 'toy' that wants to replace slot cars and Mario Kart

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It feels a bit like a magic trick.

The toy car on the plastic track is talking to me, explaining the mechanics of the game. I hit the button on my phone to fire my tractor beam, and the other car slows down until it's in range of my main weapon, and I fire, causing the second car to stop completely. I blaze past it and win the race.

The "game" I'm playing is a mix of classic slot cars and Mario Kart, and the starter kit costs a rather steep $150 and requires the use of two iOS or Android devices to pilot the cars. But what you get is a rather amazing mixture of classic play and video games.

What is going on?

Anki Overdrive is a sequel to the Anki Drive platform that came out in 2014 for $200. It was a neat idea: Marry smart devices with slot car racing and layer on video game-style mechanics for something that felt brand new.

There were a few shortcomings with the product, however. Not the least of which was that price, but the original track also came printed on a single sheet of vinyl.

Overdrive is an updated version of the platform, and the $150 starter kit now comes with a modular track made up of four straight pieces and four turns. That allows you to create eight different track configurations, and changing the track layout is as easy as pulling the pieces apart and clicking them back together in a different order. The pieces lock together via strong magnets, which makes track creation and destruction a fun, and refreshingly simple, task.

anki starter set

The cars have to do a quick test lap of the track to figure out its configuration before each race, and after that they always stay on the track, although you can change "lanes" by tilting your phone left or right. The technology is part of the fun, and it's fascinating to watch in action: The cars go around the turns and you can watch their sensors build a virtual image of the track on your phone.

"There are unique markings on each track piece that identify the type of the piece and allow the cars to determine their locations," Mark Palatucci, the co-founder and chief product officer of Anki, explained. "The human eye cannot see these markings because we use a special printing process, but each car has an infrared camera that allow it to decode this information. Most of the software on the cars is dedicated to decoding these positions and controlling the basic driving behaviors of the car."

You can build eight versions of the track in the starter set, but you can also buy add-on packs that allow you to do more; almost like physical DLC. Two extra straight pieces will cost you $20, while the "Launch" kit that allows you to add a jump is $30. There are other accessories and interesting pieces you can add to your track to increase the amount you can customize the play area. The size of the track is limited only by software, in fact.

"In the currently shipped software the limit is 64 pieces," Palatucci said, "which is an enormous track, and allows for thousands and thousands of possible track configurations. It's also possible to release a software update that would remove this limit."

The technology is impressive, but it's the smaller details that stand out. By connecting the pieces with magnets there are no fiddly mechanical bits to wear out or get stuck together. The track pieces are bendable, which means they can be placed on nearly any surface and even deal with slight inclines or bumps.

The box the starter pack comes in also holds every aspect of the hardware, and you can set up the track in a minute or two once you know what you're doing. Perhaps more importantly, teardown is just a simple, and everything is packed away nicely to keep away from younger kids or pets.

These may seem like small details, but the classic slot car sets I grew up with were often tricky to put together, and could take hours to set up and take down. The Anki Overdrive set allows you to put together a flexible track that can be stored again in under five minutes. Putting everything together, and experimenting with track designs, is in fact part of the play experience. What used to be a chore with similar toys in the past has become part of the enjoyment of this set.

And this is all before you add the cars.

The racing

The starter set comes with two cars, and extras will run you $50 each. Each car is actually a character, and can be leveled up for new abilities and weapons. The secret is in the software, which is part of what makes the set feel so magical in practice.

There is a full single-player campaign in the app, and the "cars" often talk to you through your smart device and the flashing lights on the car itself. It's a fun illusion, making it easy to imagine little people inside, frantically trying to evade your fire.

The front of your car lights up when you hit the button to "attack" other cars, and there are rear lights on the cars as well to register hits. Cars may slow down or stop completely depending on which attack hits, and doing different things gets you experience points and items that can be added to your car.

There is a full single-player campaign in the app

"The interaction happens through the app, where the game and AI software coordinate the actions of the cars," Palatucci told Polygon when I asked how this works. "The cars do not communicate directly with each other."

This robust video game-like system allows different game modes on top of the standard races. You can battle with your weapons, and there is also a King of the Kill mode where you have to try to keep the #1 position the longest. The cars know where they are on the track at all times, so you don't have to worry about driving off; your job is to control the throttle while going back and forth across the lanes while attacking the other cars.

The cars even know where to line up before the race begins. It's an odd combination of being in control of the hardware and having the cars be truly "smart." Each one has stats, for the love of Gygax.

anki 3

This mixture of real-world play with video game style elements is all the rage right now, and based on my time playing with the Starter Kit and some of the add-on packages I'm impressed with how well it all mixes together. Racing around the track while trying to line up the perfect shot is fun in a way that's different from video games, and there is much more to do here than you see in racing sets that are strictly analog.

The fit and finish on the cars and the track are also top-notch, and the ease of construction and ability to get creative is a major selling point. I've had my time with the hardware and I'm impressed, but tomorrow you'll see what happens when I'm unleash the harshest critics on the hardware and game.

My children.