Saturday, May 21, 2016

Boardgame review — Thunder Alley

"Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!"

(Originally published on July 16, 2014)

Designers: Jeff & Carla Horger
Player count: 2 to 7
Publisher: GMT Games

"The winner ain't the one with the fastest car; it's the one who refuses to lose."
-       Dale Earnhardt

 For a long time, it seemed that Fate wouldn’t let this game see the light of day—yet the gang at GMT refused to back down. And now, after years of tribulations, they have finally been able to get Thunder Alley to the printers, and into the hands of salivating tabletop racers.
Was it worth the agony? Every second of it.

The brainchild of Jeff Horger (of Manoeuvre fame) and wife Carla, Thunder Alley is a concentrate of stock car racing in cardboard form. The game can accommodate up to seven players, but it also plays very well with just two, thanks to the unusual design decision of having each player control a stable of cars, as opposed to just one bucket of bolts. This guarantees that, no matter the number of players around the table, you’ll always have between 12 and 21 cars cluttering the track. And as any boardgame racing fan will tell you, the more clutter the better.

The game is played with a deck of movement cards. Each player gets dealt one card more than he has cars in the race, and each individual player turn is resolved with the play of one such card. Pick a car of yours that hasn’t moved yet, and off we go!

Cards show a certain number of movement points (from 4 to 8) and come in four different flavors. There’s Solo movement, where the activated car moves alone along the track. Then there’s Lead movement, where the activated car and all touching cars behind it move together. There’s also Pursuit movement, where the activated car and all touching cars in front of it move as one. And finally there’s Draft movement, where all touching cars both in front and behind the activated car move in unison. Each space typically costs one movement point to move into, although there are special cases (such as mashing an opposing car against the outside wall—good, wholesome fun for the low, low cost of only two movement points!). Many of the cards also sport a paragraph of text that will confer a special ability or impose a restriction to the activated car. Not enough? Alright: most cards inflict a specific type of damage to the activated car. Suspension, engine, body, tires… Some of that damage is permanent while the rest can be fixed with a pit stop. Too much damage, and your car loses speed. Way too much, and it’s headed for the scrap pile.

The trick here is to try to improve your position within the pack, but above all, STAY WITH THE PACK. At all costs. The reasoning being that a solitary car will move once per turn, while a pack of six cars stands a good chance of moving six times per turn. The lines of cars will break apart and reform (in a strange and mesmerizing mechanical ballet), but the longer you stay with the pack, the better you’ll perform.

Once everyone has activated each of their cars, the turn is over. An event card is flipped and its effect applied. Those range from simple things like car damage, to more dire circumstances such as rain, which ends the race right there and then if both rain event cards have been revealed. In addition to special text, each event card features either a green or a yellow flag, and those regulate pit stops. A pit stop is always possible between turns, in exchange for a slightly worse position on the track. But whereas green-flag turns are rarely a good time to pit—because then you have to catch up to everyone else—yellow-flag turns end with the whole pack reuniting behind the current leader. This gives stragglers a chance to catch up, while affording cunning drivers one more opportunity to improve their positions within the pack.

At the end of a set number of laps (between two and four), the game ends and each car earns however much points its position is worth. The team worth the most points is declared winner.

PRODUCTION

Thunder Alley presents itself as a massive package. The game comes in one of GMT’s “double deep” boxes, and it needs to: the two double-sided, six-panel mounted boards would tear anything else apart. The box also yields two decks of cards (movement and events), a whole lot of damage tokens, a handful of administrative tokens, and thick car markers with rounded corners.

All in all, it’s not a lot of equipment, but you’ll still be more comfortable if you toss the insert once everything is punched and bagged. Space-wise, those two mounted boards are real monsters.

The overall look of the game is rather subdued. The cars look spiffy enough, but each track is, well, a race track. There’s not a lot graphic designers can do to punch up that sort of black, asphalty playing environment—unless you go overboard like the original Formula Dé did, and I don’t think it would have been an appropriate tone here.
Still, it doesn’t make for an immediately attractive game when it’s laid out on the table; this may be Thunder Alley’s only flaw.

RULES

The whole rulebook clocks in at 16 pages. But that includes season rules, optional rules, an index, a glossary, a complete list of cards, and more. All told, newcomers are faced with only nine pages of rules before they can burn some rubber.

Draft movement and Pursuit movement come with their lot of intricacies as far as lateral displacement is concerned, and new players always need some time to wrap their heads around that concept. But once they’re over this one and only speed bump, the rest of the pieces fall into place instantly. After one lap, they’re already old hands who laugh at onlookers scratching their heads each time a player moves a whole bunch of cars along the track.

FUN FACTOR

As a big boardgame racing fan, I’ve seen it all (or so I like to think…). And despite my setting the bar rather high, Thunder Alley clears it without a problem. At first I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the game: the unusual mechanisms allowed for some strange situations that required special handling, and it all seemed too fiddly. But after my first race, I was hooked.

It’s a difficult game to juxtapose with another for comparison. It’s played with cards, so dice-based systems like Formula D or Powerboats are immediately out of the equation. I would say Thunder Alley falls somewhere between Wolfgang Kramer’s Auto Racing Series (with games like Daytona 500 and Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix), where each card is liable to move a bunch of cars that don’t belong to you, and Rob Bontenbal’s Um Reifenbreite, where moving entire lines of vehicles (bicycles, in this particular case) is an integral part of the game. But frankly, it feels and plays like nothing else out there, which is both an entry barrier and one of its most alluring qualities.

Of course, some randomness is involved: sometimes you get just the cards you need, or your opponents unwittingly give you the exact opening you were hoping for… Or not. Situations where a player gets completely screwed by the system are few and far between—you can usually play any card to improve your position within the pack, at the very least—but some players will have a harder time than others. And no matter what cards you play, events can also disrupt the best laid plans. Hell, just a yellow flag will spell disaster and salvation all at once, depending on whom you’re asking.
It’s the nature of the beast. And this is one beast I really like.

The box comes with four different tracks, but even with just one, replayability wouldn’t have been a problem. As of this writing, I have played the game nine times, and no two races felt alike. I have both triumphed and gotten publicly shamed, and I always come back asking for more. The game scales really well, from the six-cars-a-player chess match between two opponents, to the three-cars-a-player seven-headed monster. Randomness increases with the head count, both because each player holds fewer cards and because computing possible moves becomes a Rain Man-ish exercise. However, that slight negative is tempered by more opportunities for organic alliances that have two or three opponents work together to catch up with the pack, only to backstab each other once the finish line is within sight.

PARTING SHOTS

I guess I have to dig up some negatives here, right? Thunder Alley shows up with its share of minor misprints. One of them has the unfortunate distinction of being printed on all four racing tracks, but once you’ve played a race, you’ll never look at those movement tables anyway. Nothing here’s a deal breaker. The rulebook could have been clearer on some points (what happens to pit stops under a red flag?), but otherwise does a great job of teaching the unusual mechanisms that grumble under the hood, with plenty of illustrated examples to clear up potentially brain-melting situations.

Frankly, if you’re a boardgame racing fan, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. My coworkers and I were supposed to start another Formula D season this fall, but Thunder Alley rolled in and stole that parking space.
Tough luck.


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