If Car Wars were to be counted as a roleplaying game, it would be a pretty crappy one. The main focus was the cars, not the drivers. The car would have all the precisely tracked stats, covering allocation of available space and weight to maximize firepower and combat effectiveness. The human was pretty much a component stuck into the car to make it go.
Although, this symbiotic relationship between human and vehicle could bear further analysis.
The Duel Nature [sic] of some Tactical/RPG Amalgams
Sure, Car Wars wasn't really a roleplaying game. It was a tactical game which had to make some minimal considerations for the humans that drove the things around.
Except when they weren't fighting. You know, when you got the car up on the lift and you're surveying the damage, and the player thinks, "Maybe I have room for another vulcan machine-gun here..." Then something happens. It could be viewed as a small-scale tactical reallocation of resources. Or it could just be some guy deciding what needs to be done to his car in preparation for future fights. Or what fights to get into next.
I mean, the Car Wars universe was pretty detailed. It wasn't impossible for non-tactical considerations to come into play, like which city to go to next based on, for example, the musical tastes of the driver. I don't know about you, Billy, but that sounds a lot like roleplaying in my book!
But yeah, the Car Wars system didn't really accommodate the driver significantly. There were skills for running and climbing, and maybe a little mechanic, and that's kind of about it.
Unless you went with a book like GURPS Autoduel which sought to shift the focus from the car to the driver. And this was the sensible thing to do; leave the vehicle combat to the system optimized for vehicle combat, and leave the roleplaying to the system optimized for people.
Or for an even stranger comparison, consider the mixing in of Autoduel Champions, which was a sort of joint Steve Jackson Games / HERO Games supplement which included rules for a certain amount of character building, plus the incorporation of superpowers. Most definitely not canon, but it had the potential for goofy fun nonetheless.
Do you really think I would have started down this path if I had only the one example?
Case in point: Battletech. Rather than cars, you have these gigantic exosuit-robot constructs bristling with missiles, lasers, and heat sinks, the latter especially in the feet so "go jump in the lake" would actually be sound advice. The pilots? People, but in game terms they were components. And no matter how big they were, they only took three hits.
It too started as a purely tactical game, but as they developed the settings and the spheres, they realized that this would be a fun world to go adventuring in. They ended up having to create a roleplaying system so the pilots could get out every so often and get in on some of the action themselves. Originally it was called Mechwarrior, but since coming out through Catalyst Games, it has been redubbed the Classic Battletech RPG.
If at the mention of giant robots your mind jumped to R. Talsorian's Mekton, like mine did, that's a valid choice too. That system also had strict tactical rules, hexmap and all, for the robot combats while allowing combats to be more freeform when it's people doing the fighting. In this regard it exceeds Battletech because it does both within the same binding.
Space: The final insult.
Here's another that might not have occurred to most of you. It's a while back, so I expect few to remember it. The Star Trek RPG license originally got its start in FASA's hot little hands, and they created a system which handled everything from the interpersonal level to the ship combat level. What's more, every player at a command station got a command station, and handled allocation of power, resources, tracking damage, etc.
To a point, Shatterzone did this too, but seeing as those ships weren't Federation, resources were a lot more limited and critical.
Traveller gets a weak mention in this category. There weren't specific bridge stations as such, but people could make skill rolls to pilot, target with weapons, and generally control the ship. And while it didn't necessarily call for a hex-map for full-on tactical simulation, it did have a freeform vector movement system, almost out of necessity. Space is not only dark but very good at conserving inertia.
It was kind of the tactical situation that was the inverse of a tactical situation, if that makes sense: it's not controlling a lot of different units, it's a lot of people each controlling small parts of one enormous unit that could tool around the universe, sometimes at multiple speeds of light.
The one that got away?
Here I must confess not keeping up with everything; resources at the time simply wouldn't allow it. But there was another game from near the end of FASA's productive lifespan called Crimson Skies. It was primarily a dogfighting system with character generation; the pilot was in that case a prominent vehicle accessory, one that explicitly got better skills as the game progressed.
Does it qualify here? Officially no, but the characterization of pilot and wingman lent themselves to roleplaying well, better so than Car Wars did at least. If a few other bits of system had been tacked on, it would have realized its dual nature, and people would be exploring what factions there were and why dogfights were so common in 1937.
I Also Have Counter-Examples
While there are other games that eagerly and rather faithfully replicate the anime genre like Big Eyes, Small Mouth and Random Anime, their systems are adapted just for the human component, and handle the giant robots as really really big humans that can knock down buildings. Thanks for playing, guys, but no points this round.
Here's another one that missed the mark, not despite but because the personal and vehicle systems were the same: HERO System. They even had a book for 5th Edition called The Ultimate Vehicle which underscored within the vehicle construction system the flexibility within it, which is the same as the flexibility in the character construction system. Combat between vehicles can therefore be run identically to people in very thick suits.
The ideal which I'm trying to talk up in this rant: Same setting, same genre, same storyline, but different systems out of necessity to deal with radically different aspects of play.
And no, it's not a weakness
Some might point to the near-perfect integration between character systems, vehicle systems, and, if they exist, building and other structural systems. Why, when they are going to perform vastly different operations within the game?
For Those Of You Who Don't Like Sport, There's Sport
There aren't many examples of this sort of dual-system game, and on the one hand, I can see why: To play it well requires expertise with and an appetite for both styles. High tactical games require a rather different skill set from the traditional RPG, and if someone doesn't like or isn't good with either game, they're probably not going to like the blending of the two.
And yet, I can make a case for them: They represent the understanding that one system, however well-intentioned, might not fit all situations, and seeks to address more situations by adapting other systems to fit.
And while several of what I cited above came in separate books and/or boxes—GURPS was not sold with Car Wars, nor Battletech with Battletech RPG—they're still presenting two different facets of a single setting, and therefore it's helpful to think of them together even if they don't have anything else in common.
Scaling the Experience
Do we need more of these? I say it wouldn't hurt. It might even be nice.
And for what it's worth, I can't help but think that Battletech and Car Wars had the right idea: create a game that focuses on one aspect of play, and if there's enough ground to explore, create and package the RPG elements separately. Anyone who wants only the game they know how to play can pick up the one game, and anyone who wants the full experience can get both.
And note that said RPG doesn't have to be built using exactly the same materials as the tactical game it seeks to supplement, though that helps to diminish the size of the seam between them. If the pilot or driver has to use a particular skill to get a result in the tactical game, then a similar skill roll in the RPG would be ideal. If the two systems can't be meshed exactly, the tactical game might benefit from optional rules for skill resolution. I mean, if you can't plug them together, use an adapter, right?
Not Everyone Should Try This At Home
Not every tactical game will work as a dual-nature game, unfortunately. One of the biggest requirements is that the tactical game allow freeform setup. Terrain, allies, and enemies may all change with the situation, and therefore must be changeable. A lot of board games, especially anything with defined start and finish points, obviously lack the flexibility.
The second issue is a matter of setting rather than rules: For an RPG to function, it requires at least the grounds for interpersonal conflict. A setting worth exploring will, almost by axiom, have details worth fighting over. While some gamers are content to explore, without an aspect of challenge it would get boring fast.
...But I Wish More Would
To the designers of tactical games out there, call this an official request.
Perhaps you have a design for a large-scale game of, say, mechanized infantry or mounted combat. If you've put enough thought into your world that it might be interesting to explore without requiring the mechs or vehicles, then consider putting that option in. And if you don't feel like creating your own roleplaying experience, there are more than a few systems out there, from companies staffed with professionals. Or maybe someone who plays your game a lot has knowledge of The Other Side.
And if you're a designer of RPGs, consider the advantages of using systems better adapted to other forms of combat. Don't think that you have to use exactly the same rules for all forms of interaction.