Tag Archives: Racing

Thunder Alley – A Written Review

Thunder ally

 

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.

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

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User Review:
Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Thunder Alley Review

Thunder ally

Thunder Alley is a stock car racing game for 2-7 players with the feel and flexibility of a card-driven simulation. Drafting, teamwork, accidents, yellow flags, pit strategy, working to lead laps, and sprints to the finish are all included and bring the feel of racing to the game. Players control not one car, but a team of 3-6 cars. Thus, each race is not only a run for the checkered flag but an effort to maximize the score for every car on your team. Winning is important, but if only one car crosses the finish line, your team might end up outside the winner’s circle looking in.

The game includes four different types of movement, often with many cars moving with the play of a single card, and each type has its place and time:

  • Solo movement allows you to break away from the pack.
  • Draft and pursuit movement are best used for keeping your team of cars together.
  • Lead movement can create a pack of cars that moves toward the front.

Turns are fast, each play is important, and the track situation is fluid. The wrong movement in the wrong situation can be disastrous, with you possibly being left out of the draft and all alone. Experienced players will be able to identify the best type of movement for the current situation.

Cars suffer wear over the course of a race and need to take pit stops. Tire wear, suspension difficulties, fuel issues, and major engine and transmission problems are all modeled in the game. If you feel lucky, you might try to hold it together just a little bit longer in hopes that a yellow flag will come out and cause a mass rush into the pits. Waiting on a yellow that never comes can be maddening as the rest of the pack moves by your worn-out car. What’s more, an events deck can make your strategy pay off or punish you for your failure to take precautions. Accidents, yellow flags, worsening track situations, and deteriorating cars are all part of the game. Could all of your perfect strategy be derailed by those incoming rain clouds?

Included in the game are two different race tracks: a tri-oval super speedway for wide-open free-wheeling racing and a short track for a tight wheel-to-wheel bumper car duel. Each track uses the same deck of racing cards but the cards that work best on one may be useless in the other.

Most racing games call for a large number of players to play the game at its best. An unusual bonus for Thunder Alley is the very playable and exciting two-player version with six cars on a side.

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User Review:
Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Space Junk Review

Space Junk

In Space Junk, players take on the role of a contestant on a futuristic reality tv show in outer space. The world has used space as a garbage dump for too long and now it’s time to clean it up and entertain the masses! Orbit the earth seeking out and picking up space junk, both to build a ship with and to recycle! The game is simple, easy to learn and will reduce you to tears (of laughter) as you build the most ridiculous ship imaginable.

You will use your ship to speed around the earth, crash into and attack other players and collect valuable junk to become the most famous contestant! Space Junk plays 2-6 players and plays different every time with the huge variety of cards.

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Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Critical Preview – Space Junk

Space Junk

In Space Junk, players take on the role of a contestant on a futuristic reality tv show in outer space. The world has used space as a garbage dump for too long and now it’s time to clean it up and entertain the masses! Orbit the earth seeking out and picking up space junk, both to build a ship with and to recycle! The game is simple, easy to learn and will reduce you to tears (of laughter) as you build the most ridiculous ship imaginable.

You will use your ship to speed around the earth, crash into and attack other players and collect valuable junk to become the most famous contestant! Space Junk plays 2-6 players and plays different every time with the huge variety of cards.

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Rally Race USA Review

Road Rally

“Finishing races is important, but racing is more important.” – Dale Earnhardt

Do you feel the need for speed? If so, Road Rally USA has you covered! Simply pressing the accelerator is not enough, as you must be efficient, managing your fuel and coming in first at your optimal checkpoints to maximize your score. Thus, you need to race and maneuver to be in the proper position when scoring your checkpoints.

Try as you might, it’s impossible to maintain the lead throughout the race – and truth be told, while being first at the end of the race helps, placing first at your scoring locations is even more important. Every turn someone could trigger a scoring point. Where will you be as you and your opponents control which checkpoints will score and which get bypassed?

Each racer plays from identical draw decks, playing multiple cards of the same color to provide a boost of speed. Beware as you may reshuffle your deck only at gas stations along the way, and when your hand or draw pile are depleted, you are in for trouble. Race smart and bring home the gold!

~ Mayfair Games

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