Thoughts From The Gameroom

The ramblings of a Euro-gamer from South Dakota

Gentlemen, start your engines. A review of Thunder Alley

Posted by sodaklady on March 1, 2013

We like race games, all kinds of races and all kinds of game mechanics from the quick and fun GMT Formula Motor Racing to slow and analytical Bolide; from dog sledding in Snow Tails to escaping pirates in Cartagena. Thunder Alley caught my attention when it was announced for GMT’s P500 list and I proceeded to follow the designer’s blog and subscribed to the game page.

This game has had quite a life already and it hasn’t even been printed. From the P500 where it lagged, to Kickstarter where it perished, and back to GMT with a guarantee to be printed this summer thanks to a contribution from a fan, it has several laps under its belt before the race even started.

The files section on Board Game Geek contains a Print and Play version for 2 players, which is the basis for my review. It contains the simple oval track, the Race Cards, Event Cards, and lots of chits representing your cars, damage markers, lap points, and place trophy points.

The two main things that separate this race game from others are that you control a team of three to six cars, depending on the number of players (2-7); and when you activate a car, it often affects many cars, including your opponents’.  This doesn’t sound like a big innovation and in truth, I couldn’t grasp how it would feel to race with these rules– what made it fun or special. That’s why I finally put together the PnP version to try it out myself.

This is the Dover short oval track.

This is the Dover oval short track.

The board shows a simple oval with an inside track that is used only as the pits. Pitting occurs at the end of each game round no matter where you are on the track. This is a simple way to handle pitting and works very well although not totally thematic for those who are anal about such things.

The player mat for each player's team also has a handy reference for damage results and End of Turn Sequence.

The player mat for each player’s team also has a handy reference for damage results and End of Turn Sequence.

Each player has a player mat to keep track of the damage for each of their cars. The damage can be either permanent or temporary, the latter being the only kind that can be fixed during a pit stop. The cars are two-sided, gray and white backgrounds so you can keep track of which cars have been activated on a turn.

Thunder Alley cards

The Race cards contain various pieces of information. At the top is the title of the card shown in a particular color which denotes the type of damage taken when that card is played. In the top left corner are two numbers, the larger is the number of Action Points used on a turn, the smaller is used only when leaving the pits. In the center is an icon to show the type of movement you’ll be using on the car you activate this turn. More on this later. Some cards have text which applies when you play this card, and at the bottom is the Team Bar which is used to choose starting positions at the start of the game and to settle any ties. Simple and very useable cards but I’d personally like to see the movement arrows reflected at the top left so it can be seen when the hand of cards are fanned.

Each round begins with dealing cards to players, one more than the number of cars they control. Then players take turns, starting with the owner of the pole position car, playing a card to activate one of their cars and continuing around until all the cars have been activated. Then you perform the end of the round sequence which is:  determine the Leader, perform Pit Stops, determine first player (the lead car), and remove any lapped cars (ouch! Keep up!)

The movement mechanic is the heart of the game, of course, and is like no other game I own or have played. It is quite simple and very effective.

Solo movement is just as it states, you activate one car and move it using the Action Points on the card. It takes one point to move to an adjacent empty space, straight ahead or laterally (sideways); two points to move sideways when that space is occupied; and three points to move forward if you must push a car that is in front of you. If you push a car laterally, it moves into the next lane unless it is already in the inmost or outmost lane, in which case it is pushed backwards one space. Doesn’t that sound like racing?

Draft movement involves a line of cars linked forward and backward to the activated car. The whole string of cars move the allotted movement points, including any cars that are picked up in front of the line as it moves. You can move laterally only at the start of movement, spending movement points as you do in solo movement; once you start forward, you must keep going forward in a straight line until all movement points are used.

Pursuit movement is rather like pushing the line of cars you have linked to in front of you. Like Draft movement, you can only move laterally at the beginning of your move. Not being a race fan in real life, this felt like the least thematic part of the game. Come on, if the car in front of me makes a break for it, I’m going to stick to his tail if I can, right? Maybe that’s it, the cars behind are just not able to keep up.

Lead movement is the final type and is just as it sounds, leading the string of cars that begin the movement linked behind the activated car. Unlike Draft and Pursuit, you can zig and zag through the pack however you wish provided you have the action points, and the cars behind you will follow your actions exactly. This really feels like finding the whole in the pack and making a break for it.

Damage (or wear) on a vehicle slows it down, the more damage, the less movement points you can use. If you activate a car that already has 6 damage markers, it is eliminated.

At the end of the race, points are awarded for the Position each car finished, one point for being the lap leader at any time, and an extra point for leading the most laps. After adding the points for each car on your team, the player with the most points wins and does a victory lap around the table, finishing with a couple of donuts if they still have tires.

We were captivated by the game in almost no time at all. It’s simple to grasp, offers a challenge but isn’t brain-burning, gives you the thrill of a real race without all the noise and fumes, and most importantly…it’s fun. There’s the feeling of racing that I can’t explain effectively, something that doesn’t come through by simply reading the rules and understanding the concept. It can only be understood by doing–by seeing the movement of cars and changing of positions that you caused with a simple turn of a card.

If you can’t print your own version or see a demo somewhere, then take just trust me on this: if you love racing or racing games, you should try this game. I’m pretty sure you’re going to love it.

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One Response to “Gentlemen, start your engines. A review of Thunder Alley”

  1. Another great game review! Your photos are terrific, too.

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