Designer: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Publisher: GMT Games (2014)
Thunder Alley came out of nowhere, caught me with a sideswipe, and then ran over my limp carcass. It has left an impression on me that I can’t quite shake. It’s infected my brain like a disease as I find myself driving to work in my souped up Chevy Malibu, weaving between packs of cars and playing out the draft movement in my head as I burn rubber and get my vroom vroom on.
When GMT releases a game we’re accustomed to it being thematically centered around warfare and mechanically meaty enough to require a moderate effort to learn. Thunder Alley’s actual rules comprise less than 9 pages, including multiple examples and pictures. The engine is quite simple and belies the depth that is pumping through this design and fueling the well-oiled machine. With a couple of little twists, the Horger’s have taken conventional racing game wisdom and turned it on its head.
The first oddity you’ll notice is that the game is focused around managing a team of cars, as opposed to simply controlling a single vehicle. This has a large effect on the game as it provides for an interesting conundrum in managing your movements and resources while attempting to progress your entire team’s position on the track. Your final score is determined by a combined team score (gaining first with a single car won’t guarantee anything), so you have to be shrewd and decisive as you attempt to push your racing team past your opponent’s.
The second unique element is the movement system which provides a degree of interaction and exhilaration not seen in its competitors. This isn’t your typical racing game where you’re counting and recounting spaces trying to maximize movement distance with other player’s cars merely serving as pylon’s to block your route. No, through Thunder Alley’s excellent linking system you pull other cars, including your opposition, along with you as cars draft alongside each other and push forward as a pack. This not only works extremely well from a mechanical perspective, it’s also perfectly evocative of NASCAR closed wheel racing.
The game moves at a good pace as well, scaling nearly perfectly for 2-7 players. On your turn, you play a card from your hand and activate one of your team’s cars. The number of cars you possess in the race is dependent upon the number of players – the less players the more each team fields so that the track remains congested and the pack large. Each player takes turns playing a card until everyone has activated all of their cars and then we begin another turn going until the first place car has crossed the finish line on the final lap.
The Race Cards that each player utilizes list a type of movement you must perform as well as occasionally a special effect or limitation. Movement comes in four varieties:
-Solo: This movement type is your standard fare; a single car moves X number of spaces by itself
-Draft: Any cars immediately in front of or behind your vehicle move with it, so the entire line moves as one entity
-Pursuit: Your car pushes forward along with any cars in front of it
-Lead: Your car pulls any vehicles behind it as it moves ahead
What these different movement options do is create interesting choices and opportunities as you’re presented with decisions each turn and have to manage you resources carefully. Your hand of Race Cards in combination with wear (damage) your cars possess are the main resources you must juggle. The cards making up your hand are akin to a rack of weapons and each turn you’re carefully choosing which to grasp and beat the hell out of your knuckle dragging opponent with. The jousting for position that occurs as you break away from a group pulling a line of cars behind you as you separate two of your opponent’s cars from the pack is thrilling in a way that Formula De never will be. As you weave and break apart lines of cars you create havoc and opportunity as Thunder Alley rewards clever play above all else. This battle that ensues is ridiculously entertaining and achieves a level of power and satisfaction that is above any other genre title I’ve experienced.
The strategy and tactical decisions birthed from the movement system are not altogether easy to grasp for new players. Once they realize the potency of forming their cars up in the main pack and the associated benefits of their entire team moving from a single draft movement, you will see an enormous light bulb explode above their head. The system affords a large amount of wiggle room in terms of clever play as participants begin to understand that they can work together and help each other out. This affords for a potentially large degree of negotiation as you form up your two cars in the rear with another players and all utilize draft movement to gain ground on those ahead. Thunder Alley provides direct positive reinforcement to these clever pacts as you immediately gain ground and reap your rewards. When all of these elements start clicking and everyone really “gets” the tools at their disposal the game truly shines.
The wear and Pit Stop mechanism complicates the Euro-like resource management at the core of the game. Both are handled in a streamlined, easily understood way, but they add a touch of depth and frame some fascinating decisions around a push your luck element. The vast majority of the Race Cards you play will come at the cost wear to your vehicle; playing that Dirty Air card to push ahead will add a fuel wear token to your vehicle, or choosing to high tail might gain a point of tire damage. These tokens consist of either the more common temporary damage or the occasional permanent damage. Once you’ve accumulated three or more points of wear (regardless of type) your movement begins to slow. If you total 6 wear, your car will be removed from the game. You may Pit at the end of any turn, which will remove all of your temporary wear. What’s particularly interesting is due to the way the draft movement system works, you will want to pit when nearby cars stop so that you can hope to exit the apron and link up with them to be pulled along. It is sometimes a difficult choice and if things don’t work out and your car is left behind, it can be quite detrimental.
It’s clear from the get-go that the Horger’s are not focused on simulating NASCAR racing at a low-level detail-oriented approach. Rather, they’ve chose to emulate the feel of a closed-wheel rumble and produce a strong narrative that will leave a lasting impression as moments of your free-wheeling race linger in your brain like memories trying to eat their way out of a prison. The outcomes and story produced are exactly in line with the types of drama surrounding the NASCAR circuit but the entire experience of 500 laps is compressed down to 2 or 3 in an hour and a half time-span.
One important element of capturing the thematic feel is the Event Deck which is drawn from at the end of each turn. The deck is quite random but I feel it does a masterful job of simulating the chaos and unpredictability of such an event. You will see cards that call for a flat tire to occur on the car with the most tire damage, or will cause two cars adjacent to each other to collide. The game assumes your drivers are competent and skilled, approaching these infractions of chaos and uncertainty through this event deck. The infamous yellow flag is also peppered throughout the deck which causes all of the cars to reset and line up in formation behind wherever the lead car is on the track. Yellow flags are a huge part of NASCAR and I actually enjoy the frenetic nature of these cards, however, drawing a yellow flag near the end of the race will ruffle some people’s feathers. In approaching this game you either will need to tune the event deck to your liking, or you will need to take up the healthy attitude of this being an experience game and your chief motivation should be to cling to the pavement and keep your eyes wide as debris hits you in stride.
Thunder Alley is a phenomenal release out of left field from a company known for games like Twilight Struggle and the COIN series. It’s excellently produced as it contains two mounted boards containing four tracks, and a mound of beautiful chits. In an age when companies want to sell you “systems” and endless lines of expansions, Thunder Alley is a breath of fresh air as you get a complete and high mileage experience for a great price. It is pure fun, which is the unmistakable essence of what a racing game should be. Ricky Bobby said “If you’re not first you’re last.” Thunder Alley is certainly not last.