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Cracked LCD- Thunder Alley in Review

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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.

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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.

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Cracked LCD- A Conversation with Brett Murrell, Duel of Ages II Designer (Part 1)

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I made it abundantly clear, I hope, that I absolutely love Duel of Ages II in my recent review. I think DOAII is a brilliant game that manages to get at some very elemental concepts of play that reach all the way back to schoolyard games like cops and robbers while also creating a vast, “anything can happen” framework for players to create narrative. The designer, Brett Murrell, has been working on Duel of Ages for over a decade at this point, first releasing the game and a series of expansions back in 2003. The new edition arrives at a very different time in the boardgaming hobby, and at a time when I think it may just be the game that we need to cut through the crap and get back to old fashioned fun.

Mr. Murrell was kind enough to offer his thoughts up about DOAII and design in an interview, so over the course of the next two Cracked LCDs I’ll be presenting the results of this conversation that we held over email . I think Mr. Murrell has some interesting things to say and I hope you’ll enjoy his insights.

When Duel of Ages first released back in 2003, it was an odd time for an old school design with lots of stat-check dice rolling and hex-and-counter presentation. When I played the original game back then- which was around the time that I was first playing things like Game of Thrones, Age of Mythology, War of the Ring, and Heroscape-it didn’t register with me or my friends at all, although a certain cult developed around the game elsewhere. It also felt anomalous at a time when Puerto Rico was still held in many circles as the pinnacle of game design. Why is Duel of Ages back for a new edition in 2013, and an even better question is why do you think it’s still relevant given how much has changed in design paradigms and concepts?

Ah, “old school.” That’s a dangerous phrase for designers. I blame the blind avoidance of “old school” as the cause for Cherry Cola, Miley Cyrus, five thousand barely discernible worker placement clones, and East Asian landfills full of games stocked with plastic minis but missing the actual game.

Design – of anything – has one rule: use the best mechanisms for the targeted purpose. End of rule. There are no “best if used by” stamps on design mechanisms.

I totally agree, and to be clear I’m not using “old school” as a pejorative even though I think that the time, there was a pretty widespread agreement among hobbyists that the whole post- German games milieu was sort of the “new gaming” whereas the older Avalon Hill style titles, Games Workshop adventure games and so forth were old fashioned. It’s kind of ironic, I think, that those “old school” games in many ways have retained their relevancy long past Puerto Rico’s apparent expiration date.

Games like Puerto Rico are great designs for their target purpose – entertaining mathematically-minded adults whose primary goal in game play is victory. And that is the problem – not with Puerto Rico, but with the “many circles” who think of/promote these kinds of games or any game as THE pinnacle of game design. Tabletop gaming is a big universe. Calling one tabletop game as THE pinnacle is like declaring one of Michael Jackson’s hats as THE pinnacle of clothing design head to toe. Might be the greatest hat ever, but as a shoe it would suck wind. One design definitely does not fit the universe.

That’s a really great way of phrasing the appeal of the post-Puerto Rico Eurogame mentality. I had a somewhat hilarious conversation with a French guy and Arkham Horror designer Richard Launius sometime around 2004 or 2005 where we were talking about Puerto Rico and similar titles. Launius commented that he didn’t like stupid themes like counting bicycles or filling ketchup bottles. The French guy said (paraphrasing) “where is zee game in these? There is only mechanics.” And I think that at the time, back when DOA first appeared, it was almost like that was what a lot of people wanted out of hobby games, that sort of ultimate sense of balance and precision, clockwork mechanics at the expense of meaningful theme. And DOA felt like it was at cross purposes with that zeitgeist. Even today, the wildness and sheer humanity of this game seems in opposition to the almost fascistic over-valuation placed on balance, mechanics and process.

Zeitgeist! You’re pushing the right buttons. What a cancerous term as abused by zeitgeisters, and thank you for recognizing the opposition to it in Duel of Ages II. That opposition is built into the very theme of the game – an array of universally acknowledged Great Humans and others that demonstrate the traits that make humans what they are as individuals, for better or worse.

Duel of Ages II is focused on two different target purposes:

— Entertaining imaginative tweens and older whose primary goal is the experience

— Entertaining tactically-minded tweens and older whose primary goal is the tactical challenge

The success – and relevance — of Duel of Ages II lies in its ability to meld these two very different purposes.

I really like that you are specifically targeting younger gamers and not just middle-aged hobbyists- I think that’s something that has been far too often neglected in gaming and there again, this was something you really saw back ten years ago. It was when we really had all of the “scowling European authority figure” games, with lots of esoteric subject matter that would have no appeal to a modern “tween”. DOA strikes me as a game that would have substantial appeal to a kid raised on video games, literature, and history. But yes, I do think you’re hitting the older game player mindset as well with the depth of tactics and possibilities.

There are a lot of younger gamers that play computer games with sophisticated and complex rules and strategies and a wealth of information that must be tracked by the player – League of Legends, Guild Wars 2, Total War, Civ V. Not everyone is playing Angry Birds. These gamers have little trouble picking up a game like Duel of Ages II, especially if someone teaches them – like, say, a parent. I and my playtesters never have trouble finding new players because we just bring it out with the family kids or the youth groups. Duel of Ages II gets a super-high fan rate in that demographic.

Regardless, I think games targeted at tweens and younger audience – imaginative games – naturally flow into older audiences as well when done right. It’s the same for the Worldspanner books like the Spire Mystery Series. Make something that will challenge the imagination and wits of the young, and you’ll also get the many older players and readers that managed to hold on to that from their youth

When you first released DOA it was divided between a core set and a number of expansions (was it seven?), the new edition is a Core Set and a comparatively expensive Master Set. Thinking it over, I really like how you’ve released the products- you give more than enough of a taste in the Core, and then offer everything else in a single package for those that want to do the deep dive.

The original Duel of Ages sold a very high percentage of expansions, and buyers usually bought all of the expansions at once. Since multiple boxes costs a lot more money, we cut significant cost by combining the many expansions into just one. The version 2 Basic Set is a combination of Sets 1 and 2 from the first version. This is a much better mix, making the Basic Set a fully-powered game with a very long life span even without the Master Set.

It really is quite a package, there’s a tremendous value in just that basic set. When I first got the copy you sent me, I thought about just opening the base game and seeing how much play I would get out of it before cracking into the Master. But I just couldn’t resist. It’s the kind of game you naturally want more of. What was taken out of the game and what did you add?

Very few components were removed from the game compared to the first version. A lot was added – 32 characters, 48 henchmen, 70 treasures, 80 new Guardians and 104 Encounters. But even with the additions, the game came in $45 less than the original full series, mainly due to the two boxes rather than eight.

The most significant reduction was the streamlining of the rules – 6,000 words, or a third of the rules set. Version 2 allowed me to kill some sacred cows and prune heavily without harming the feel of the game.

I definitely think this rule set reads a lot better than the first edition. Something I think that really defines modern rules writing is a more editorial, direct style- which isn’t always easy to achieve. You want to write everything in there, cover every eventuality, but sometimes the better rules are those that give the player enough to be able to make good judgments.

Rules are extremely difficult to get right. You get very a limited window out of first-time playtesters and proofers, and you have to deal with global issues like second language readers. That is why an electronic living version is important. In DoA’s case, we also have a Compendium electronic version that formats the rules in a reference format rather than a progressive tutorial format. Both are important.

Your comments on not trying to cover every case are dead on. It is better to have a clarifications document than to bloat the rules with issues that most players will never see. Even the Catan rules set has seen the wisdom in that, giving a very short rulebook paired with a lengthy explanations document.

Are you seeing most of your sales of the new edition through direct sales or retail distribution?

It is nearly impossible for a truly small press, non-Kickstarter game like DoA II to pick up major distributors. Duel of Ages did have a history, however, and we picked up more distributors than we expected, especially internationally. We have been very surprised by the international response. Stores really don’t do small press very well, so we expect direct sales to be our bread and butter in the long run. It’s a mail-order world.

There it is, Kickstarter. Sign o’ the times and all that. Everybody is Kickstartering something, which as my readers probably know by now is a trend that I think is quite negative. I really appreciate that you have enough faith to back your product without up-front money, but did you consider Kickstarter at all to release the new edition?

I love Kickstarter. Kickstarter is competitive private-enterprise, and that’s where innovation comes from. That being said, Kickstarter does not fit my personality. I don’t like borrowing other people’s stuff, and with all of the challenges of production, I didn’t want a big hype campaign ending in a failed production run. I couldn’t think of a worse nightmare. Since I didn’t need funding to make DoA II happen, I chose not to use Kickstarter.

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To be continued next week, but in the meantime, Mr. Murrell has agreed to make himself available for any follow-up questions, conversations, criticisms, or comments either here at Nohighscores.com or in the front page talkback for my weekly Barnestorming post at FortressAT.com. I get a sense that he has a lot more to say, so don’t be shy!