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Cracked LCD- Thunder Alley in Review

thunder alley 2

Thunder Alley is the new NASCAR-style stock car racing game from GMT and in the blink of an eye this 250 MPH masterpiece has become one of the best racing games that I’ve ever played. It’s a brilliant piece of design that nails down the most important elements drivers at Talledega or Daytona experience while also creating compelling spaces for tactical movement decisions and coordinated, team-focused gameplay. It is a design clearly descended from Wolfgang Kramer’s card-driven race designs, wherein cardplay often demands that players weigh the decision to move cars that are not their own in order to gain ground themselves.

This kind of gameplay based around mutual movement also creates an important sense of pace and forward velocity that sometimes feels like you’re right on the edge of losing control. It’s exhilarating, as far as board games can possibly be, to pull off that perfect play where you pull out of the pack with a couple of drafting teammates and put your cars into the lead with tires burning and transmissions screaming in denial. But then on the next turn someone else nudges you out of the way and you fall back. Indeed, rubbin’ is racing in Thunder Alley.

The genius of Jeff and Carla Horger’s design lies in smart decisions to effectively abstract the subject matter down to a couple of core elements that completely sell the stock car racing concept without bogging down in detail or the kinds of cold calculation that slows other racing games down. I tend to generally feel that racing games should be fast-paced and focused on track action, and this game manages that quite well although with more than five players (it plays up to seven) it can run a little long. But even with seven players, the turn-to-turn gameplay is so accessible and consistently exciting that the longer-than-expected playtime isn’t much of a liability.

Unlike almost any other racing game out there, this one actually scales down to two players without losing much. With more players, the game feels wilder and woolier because there are up to 21 cars on the track at a time. One of the most important concepts in Thunder Alley is that you’re not controlling a single competitor as is the case in just about every other racing game out there with the notable exception of Um Reifenbreite, a Spiel Des Jahres-winning team cycling game that may have been something of an influence on the Horgers’ design. You’re in charge of up to six cars on the track at a given time, and learning to coordinate their movement, manage your hand of cards, and time each car’s activation are core competencies.

Despite there being so many cars on the track and an ever-changing board state this is, rules-wise, a simple game where all you do on your turn is play a card, move a car or cars, and flip it over to show that it has been moved. Each card offers one of four different types of movement and a number of movement points, sometimes with a knock-on special effect that might cause you to drift or allow for a diagonal move, for example. Solo movement means that you move a single car with no drafters- ideal for charging forward at a crucial moment. Drafting moves an entire line of cars- you can be the next to last car in a line and a draft move will move everyone in the line with you. Pursuit movement is similar to drafting, but you leave anyone behind the moving car in the dust. Lead movement lets you pull cars out of a pack and they’ll follow your racing line. Lateral movement (lane-changing) is fairly free, and there are no kinds of rules to meter speed through corners. It’s just not about those kinds of things, so along with the enormous lap counts of NASCAR races elements such as those are wisely abstracted.

But it wouldn’t be a game with that NASCAR atmosphere if there weren’t a healthy dose of paint-trading so there are significant rules for displacing cars both laterally and in front of you. Displacement can knock a rival out of a pack or there are some cards that let you effectively push your way through a line. It costs extra movement points, but it’s a critical strategy considering that the tracks have four lanes at most and some narrow down to two in tight banks.

Endurance and wear is another critical element that the Horgers smartly preserve without overdoing it. Most movement cards cause the car to incur wear on the tires or suspension, reduce fuel or cause some kind of permanent damage that can’t be repaired. As cars take on three or more wear chits, they suffer a penalty to any movement points provided by a card- although they can still be pushed and pulled by other cars, which is again where teamwork among your cars is crucial. Six damage chits puts your car out of the race, but at the end of each round of play there is an option to pit- a simple procedure where you move the pitting car down to the apron and back five spaces, remove non-permanent damage chits and then play a reduced movement card in the next round to get back in the race. Each type of damage is functionally the same- until an event card tells you otherwise.

thunder alley

The event cards cover a lot of specific details simply and effectively. One is drawn at the end of each round, and their effects can be dramatic. Some events will cause the car with the most of a specific type of damage to convert a regular wear chit into a permanent one. Or they may take a car completely out of the race. Some events cause a yellow-flag restart, which can be a tremendous field-leveler if someone is running away with the race- or about to get lapped. Drawing two Rain event cards after at least one lap is completed ends the whole thing right there. And of course, there’s always a chance of a massive pile-up.

Four tracks are generously included and each offers a different experience. Each is completed in two or three laps (which, again, abstract far more than that) and there are points at the end assigned to each finishing position as well as bonus points for the cars that hold the most lap leader chits, indicating rounds in which the car was in the lead. That’s a smart incentive to gun for the lead each round. When the checkered flag is waved, you can win first place and still have your team lose the race if your other cars didn’t finish well or if your overall performance was subpar.

Win or lose, I love playing this game. Some will undoubtedly bemoan that the situation changes each time a player moves in such a way that advance planning of cardplay is pretty much impossible, especially with many players. But I like the seat-of-the-pants approach and I think it reflects really well the kinds of second-to-second decisions race drivers have to make. This is a wholly tactical game, but with that said the strategic angle is definitely there. Deciding whether or not to pit a leading car with two wear tokens or let it go to the next round can be agonizing. Playing a high-value movement card that’s going to put a second tire wear chit on a car could give you an advantage or it could destroy you if the wrong event card comes up. You’ve got to make long-term decisions about what cars you’re going to push to the limit and which you’re going let slip. And there are always opportunities for your cars to piggyback movement and wind up in better positions for the next round.

If there’s one area where Thunder Alley disappoints, it’s in one that has nothing to do with the top-notch gameplay, production or overall value of this product. It may not even be anything that GMT can do anything about. But given GMT’s track record of really great historical notes and background material, I’m a little disappointed that the game doesn’t do much to explain the history of stock car racing, NASCAR, facts about real-world tracks or anything like that. But in order to accomplish that, I’m sure a NASCAR license would be necessary and I’m I’m guessing that would likely be very expensive and out of reach for an fundamentally small publisher of hobby games to approach. So the tracks have ersatz names and the teams are all full of made-up drivers in cars with phony liveries. This is a shame, because this is the definitive NASCAR/stock car racing game and it deserves the prestige- and attention- that would come with the license.


Commands & Colours: Napoleonics Review

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - the latest iteration of this famous series from GMT games

You may recall that at the start of last weeks’ Commands & Colors: Ancients review I stated that there were a number of games based on the system, and that wargame publisher GMT had sent me a big box of stuff related to it? Well, next in the spotlight is the recent Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game, which transplants the action to the fields of early 19th century Europe and the famed conflict between England and France. This is a particularly interesting one to talk about because rumour has it that designer Richard Borg originally designed the Commands & Colors system from Napoleonic warfare. If that’s true then it’s taken a surprisingly long time for the actual game on the subject to appear.

If you missed that review last week but are reading this one, here’s a brief recap of the basic rules system that underpins all the Commands & Colors systems. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. This model still makes pretty good sense in the pre-radio era of Napoleonic warfare. Each unit is made up of a variable number of blocks which are removed as the unit accumulates damage in the dice-based combat system until all the blocks are gone and the unit is destroyed.

A lot of the rules framework seems to have been borrowed from GMTs earlier and extremely popular implementation of the system for Ancient warfare. There are still a lot of unit types most of which have small, annoying but critically important deviations from the basic rules structure such as the number of dice they roll or the number of blocks in a unit. This has lead to some curious artefacts, such as the fact that Leader blocks carry with them a substantial amount of extra rules weight in spite of the fact that, although useful, they’re nowhere near as critical as they are in Ancients. But if you’re familiar with that particular game, you shouldn’t need to expend a whole lot of effort to pick up the rules for this one.

As in other Commands & Colors games from GMT, there are a lot of blocks to sticker
So what’s changed? There are two key differences that distinguish Commands & Colors: Napoleonics from its peers in the system. The first is a set of rules specifically designed to mimic Napoleonic tactics, specifically the ability to cavalry to run away from infantry attacks, for infantry to form square against cavalry charges and for artillery to combined their attack dice with infantry or cavalry assaults in a combined arms attack. The other is that in this game, and this game alone, the number of dice a unit rolls in combat is related to how many blocks there are still in the unit. This is a very curious change because the fact that units fought at full strength regardless of damage until destroyed was a major source of criticism for all the early Commands & Colors games. The given reason was that large-scale military units often do function reasonably effectively until attrition in morale or numbers makes them suddenly collapse is not entirely unreasonable, but I could see no good reason why the same logic should not apply to Napoleonic warfare. Why was this chosen to be different?

My initial, cynical, assumption was that this had been done simply to differentiate a new product from its predecessors in what’s becoming a fairly bloated product range. I am pleased to say that actually playing the game proved me to be wholly wrong. The combination of attritional damage and the Napoleonics-ear specific rules together is what gives the game its authentic, realistic age of rifles flavour. Infantry advancing across open ground will likely be severely depleted before they can return fire, and the job of you as the commander is to utilise other unit types, terrain and lucky command cards to ameliorate this effect as much as possible. Without the dice-per-block rule, it’d be trivially easy to advance and then assault at full strength. The new rules do not only give the system a properly Napoleonic feel, but make the required strategies and tactics for success subtle and well differentiated from other Commands & Colors games. Gamers well versed in previous iterations of the series should still find plenty of challenge here.
Commands & Colors: Napoleonics features some new rules, such as the ability of infantry to form square against cavalry attacks
I am, however, left wondering why exactly they’d want to bother looking. Whilst certainly a good and interesting game, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics suffers from a very unfortunate problem of simply not being quite up to scratch when compared with other Commands & Colors games, even from a variety of different angles. It isn’t quite as deep and satisfyingly realistic as the Ancients game, but it has the same issues with the substantial weight of rules feeling a little too much for the chaotic system that underpins it to bear properly. It isn’t as quick playing, lightweight and exciting and Memoir ‘44 but it has the same considerable set-up time because (unlike Ancients) terrain plays a vital role, and all the scenarios have plenty of hexes to add to the board. It’s neither one thing nor the other, and I can’t see all that many circumstances where I would pick this over one of those two games.

This is unfortunate. There’s a quality game in this package, one that I enjoyed, and one that designer and developers clearly worked hard on to give it the necessary Napoleonic flavour, and for the most part succeeded: it’s just that in the process they also created a game that fell into the valley between two peaks. I’m certain now of something I have only suspected before, which is that the world now has enough Commands & Colors games and their associated expansions. It’ll be interesting to see if other gamers hit the same burnout with the upcoming Samurai battles iteration. In the meantime, if you’re a particular aficionado of the system, or of Napoleonic warfare, this is well worth your time and money to check out. For the everyone else, the existing games in the lineup should prove sufficient.

Commands & Colours: Ancients Review

Commands and Colors: Ancients allows you to re-fight the punic wars between Rome and Carthage

If you google Commands and Colors, you’ll get a startling array of results all of which are connected to a simple game system for modelling warfare that’s become so wildly popular with board gamers that it’s spawned a mass of iterations across historical and even fantastical settings. However, ask most experienced gamers what the best of these titles is and they’ll tell you it’s Commands & Colors: Ancients from GMT games, which deals for the most part with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. That publisher recently sent me a big box of various Commands & Colors material for review and, given that an iOS implementation is due from Playdek some time this year, Ancients seemed a good place to start.

All the Commands & Colors games operate on the same basic mechanical principles. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. One of the reasons that Ancients is so feted amongst all the games that use this system is because the era is so peculiarly well suited to this model. In more recent warfare, order relays have been improved by things such as flag signalling and more recently radio, increasing exponentially the ability of a commander to command effectively. Back in the ancient days though, there was nothing but runners to communicate orders down the line and things could and did become exceptionally confused.

All Commands & Colours games also add more complex card effects into the deck and Ancients makes full use of these to maximise its model of ancient warfare for minimal overhead. A lot of cards allow you to give orders to units depending on their adjacency either to other units, or to leader units so you’re encouraged to fall in with ancient battle doctrine and try and keep your units in a line, with leaders at vital points of control. Again, usefully for the board game player, it also gives you a lot of tactical and strategic headaches to deal with in terms of trying to keep a cohesive front in the face of a system that naturally tries to split things between three areas of the board, the sorts of headaches that real-life ancient commanders would have had to deal with in trying to keep the flanks of their forces coordinated with the center. The simple and easy manner in which the mechanics put you in the right frame of mind for warfare of the era without you even realising it is just a joy to behold, especially when compared with the wealth of historical simulation games that hit the players with a ton more rules to considerably less effect.

Your forces in Commands & Colors: Ancients will often start in linear formation, but they usually don't stay that way for long!
Sadly, while you do get an awful lot of strategic and simulation value from a relatively meagre 18 pages of rules, the game still suffers a bit from detail overload. There are a lot of different unit types in Ancients – 14 to be precise – all of which require very slightly different rules and have very slightly different stats. That’s a lot to take on board. The need for good leader positioning and line cohesion give you a lot to chew over in terms of decision making. And yet the essence of the Commands & Colours system is very much controlled chaos: combat is dice based and maneuver is card based and no matter how much effort to put into learning those rules and planning those moves, your entire game can still be completely screwed over by one unlucky turn. Ancients plays in about an hour, and set-up time, which is typically significant in its peers, is relatively quick thanks to minimal battlefield terrain, so this is largely forgivable. But I still find myself hanging back from a completely wholehearted recommendation on this game because of these issues: it’s simply that the Commands & Colours system feels like it’s better suited to lighter rules and faster, more immediately exciting play than Ancients can deliver, whatever it gives you in terms of simulation value and depth in return.

Which isn’t to say that the game isn’t exciting, more that it’s a slow burning thing that gradually builds towards a crescendo. You’ll start off struggling to keep your line in place whilst moving toward the enemy, and additionally co-ordinating missile attacks from light troops and flanking maneuvers from your more mobile cavalry and chariots. You’ll curse the dice, and you’ll curse the cards more. Then, at some point, one player decides he’s got the momentum and the cards to pull off the big charge, the light infantry will melt away, and a big part of the lines will clash for a grand melee and suddenly the tension is at fever pitch because in Commands & Colors: Ancients, enemy units you don’t kill or rout get to strike back at full strength and that means that in the space of minutes, it’s possible to go from being in the ascendancy to being ignominiously torn apart by the very enemy you’d thought to conquer. Thrilling? Absolutely. Frustrating? Sometimes, and doubly so when you’ve put in the effort to learn the rules and work through the strategies. That’s pretty much the highs and the lows of the entire game experience in one neat package.

There are a lot of blocks in Commands & Colors: Ancients - there are over twice as many stickers to apply to them
I don’t normally pass much comment on components nowadays: if a game is good it’s worth playing even if it looks awful, but there are two things you need to know about what’s in the Commands & Colours: Ancients box. Firstly, wargame publishers are not known for quality components and while GMT are know as a frequent exception to this rule, they’ve outdone themselves here. The board is mounted, the cards thick and well finished and the artwork both functional and striking. Secondly, units in the game consist of wooden blocks to which you apply stickers denoting the unit type. There are several hundred blocks. There are double the amount of stickers. Getting this game ready for play therefore requires a very considerable amount of time and effort. You can do a lot of it while you’re half-watching the TV or, better yet, just having a good chat but if the idea of carefully applying many hundreds of stickers to small bits of wood has you running for cover, avoid this game like the plague.

Even though I have minor reservations about the game play in Commands & Colors: Ancients and can’t therefore join the unadulterated love-in that it enjoys in some gaming circles, I have no dispute with the popular opinion that as a single, stand alone game, it’s the best of the entire Commands & Colors series. When you add in expansions things become more complicated but it’s still right up at the top as a contender. The effortless manner in which it draws players unwittingly into its simulation elements and the uneasy yet strangely addictive balance between luck and strategy that it achieves make sure of that. If you’ve never played a Commands & Colors game but have room in your life for a short military simulation for two, you owe it to yourself to try one, and the one you should try first is very probably this one. Hopefully, Playdek will work their magic and that opportunity will also come within reach of anyone who might otherwise balk at paying the asking price for a physical copy, or stickering all those blocks.