A river of roaring cars runs through the white-knuckle racing of Thunder Alley

, | Game reviews

I can’t say I don’t like NASCAR racing because, frankly, I don’t care enough about it one way or the other. I mean, rednecks, cars turning left, the South, har har, and all that. But I honestly have no idea what the deal is. I wouldn’t know Dale Earnhardt from Mario Andretti. I couldn’t care less about NASCAR. So why am I playing a NASCAR boardgame?

After the jump, days of Thunder Alley.

Thunder Alley, which never actually mentions NASCAR because that would require paying licensing fees to the Sports Corporation, is a prime example of how it doesn’t matter what a game is about so long as it’s a good game. And, really, this isn’t about the stock car scene so much as it’s about managing a team of cars as they jostle, push, cut off, bang into, and zoom past the other players’ cars. It’s a series of wildly changing positioning puzzles, some of which you’ve engineered, and some of which have been perpetrated against you, that you have to solve by playing from your hand of cards. You will alternately seize opportunities, waste moves, execute cunning maneuvers, and just shrug and see what happens if you play this card to move these cars. It’s as fluid and chaotic as racing, but mercifully absent any NASCAR baggage to alienate a guy like me. Why is the paint scheme on NASCAR cars like so much gameshow confetti? Why don’t any of those drivers paint their cars black to look like Max’s last of the V8 Interceptors? That’s what I’d do. I’d also tie a kerchief around my dog’s neck and have her ride in the passenger seat while I raced.

So I don’t follow racing, stock car or otherwise, and I don’t pretend to understand it. But playing Thunder Alley, I get a vague sense for why someone might find it exciting. The developers, husband and wife team Jeff and Carla Horger, obviously intend to model NASCAR racing, but they’ve come up with a gameplay-first approach that, like many gameplay-first approaches, could be easily appropriated by a number of subjects. This could be a chariot racing game, or a car chase game, or a Road Warrior action sequence, or greyhounds chasing a plastic rabbit. But it’s not. It’s a genericized version of an American pastime with huge gorgeous boards, colorful cars, intricately detailed artwork, lively cards, and a reference to at least one line from Days of Thunder, which is probably something actual NASCAR drivers say, even if they’re not quoting Days of Thunder. “Racin’ is rubbin’!” That’s one of the cards in the game. You have to say the line like you know it sounds slightly dirty. Just don’t hit the word “rubbin'” too hard or you’ll make it creepy.

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Unlike Formula D, a boardgame about driving a single car through twists and turns and shifting gears, Thunder Alley abstracts the moment-to-moment specifics of racing and gives you a team of three to six cars (it’s based on the number of players at the table and the idea is to guarantee a certain car density). When it’s your turn, you play a card with a number on it and you move one of your cars a number of spaces equal to the number on the card. That’s your speed. Then the card usually inflicts a damage token on your car. As these tokens stack up, your car slows down and becomes more prone to random events. “When to pit?” is a constant, fundamental, and highly interactive part of the game. “He’s in front of me! Is he pitting? Then I’m going to pit!”

Because this is a race, it’s largely about getting where you’re going before the other guys. The risk/reward calculation of accumulating damage to use faster cards is tremendously effective. This is a race, not a sprint. It’s great to see someone blow an engine because he gambled and took a damaged engine token for a few extra points of movement. Someone other than you, of course.

After each player has moved each car once, a random event is visited on the race. Here’s where engines are blown, transmissions fail, wrecks happen, or rain rolls in and cancels the whole shebang early. Here’s where yellow flags restart the race with all those poor suckers who fell behind conveniently stacked up with the rest of the pack for a restart. Here’s where perhaps even nothing of consequence happens.

Then everyone draws a new hand and it starts over again. It’s a mostly short game once you’re playing with people who can get into the rhythm of the card play. This will take a couple of sessions. Until that happens, Thunder Alley can run awfully long for what is actually a snappy and superlatively paced game.

But what sets Thunder Alley apart, what makes me want to try every game that Jeff and Carla Horger make, is that very few cards let cars move without also moving whole rows of other cars. Each track is a simple grid, with varying amounts of room for cars to bob and weave and interact. But mostly, when you move a car six spaces, you’re moving every car behind and in front six spaces as well. You take chunks of the pack with you. The particulars of each card vary, but you only have as many cards as cars + 1, so you have to make really tough choices which necessarily involve guesswork about what the track will look like in the future. Do you use this powerful card that lets you break away now, or do you save it in the hopes that someone will push your car forward a bit farther? Do you wait until the other player has activated the car in front of you? Do you catch up with your guy in last place in the hopes that he’ll draft along behind the other cars? I don’t care one whit about NASCAR. But I care about these delightfully intriguing positional puzzles and how they might affect the other players.

This leads to one of Thunder Alley’s greatest accomplishments as a game design: what happens when it’s not your turn is arguably as important as what happens when it is your turn. One of the deadliest and often necessary sins in boardgame design is the usual round-robin structure: you take a turn and then wait until your next turn. Maybe someone attacks you in the interim. Maybe someone takes a resource you want. Probably not, though. You’re basically hanging fire until you get to go again, at which point the important things can happen. Most of your time at the table is spent waiting until it’s your turn again.

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But because Thunder Alley is about moving cars in groups, about weaving among traffic and sometimes affecting the flow of that traffic, about pushing, pulling, and scooting other people’s cars into new positions, it matters a lot what happens when it’s not your turn. In fact, I would venture that Thunder Alley more closely approximates whitewater rafting than NASCAR racing. You’re just doing the best you can to ride the waves, then find your place in the rushes and eddies, to navigate patterns and obstacles. And like whitewater rafting, it’s going to feel a bit chaotic and out of control until you learn to better read the river. Or, in this case, the interplay of cards and cars. Thunder Alley will at first feel like an exercise in letting go and being at the mercy of an inscrutable flow.

But there’s definitely strategy here. For instance, the percentage of cards of each type of movement is one of the first things you’ll check when you’re ready to really dip your oars in the water and try to manage this river of traffic. Pursuit cards, which let you break away from the cars behind you, are the rarest in the deck, and they always inflict damage. That means it’s usually always safe to try to ride the bumper of a damaged car on the verge of losing speed. Stragglers tend to have it safe so long as they can grab someone’s tail. Because is that other player really going to run that car ragged to try to leave me behind? Similarly, solo movement in which a car doesn’t drag along other cards, is really difficult to parlay into a better position unless there are gratuitous gaps in the cars up ahead. And, of course, keeping your own cars in a tight formation is a great way to create an interlocking support network of movement. This is when Thunder Alley can be really gratifying. Who knew teamwork could be such a decisive factor in racing?

There are two big hearty boards included in Thunder Alley. If you know GMT games, you know you’re getting a big hearty board. Each side has a track, for a total of four tracks that at first look like variations on ovals. “Harumph,” you might mutter, comparing the four varieties of ovals. “NASCAR.” But just as the flow of a river varies dramatically with a slight bend or the introduction of an obstacle, these tracks play differently enough by varying the width of the course, the sharpness of a given turn, or even introducing an insidious little S-curve that channels all the cars into a single lane. How you will hate that S-curve. Unless you’re the one to reach it first and bottle up the other cars. In which case, how you will love that S-curve. Thunder Alley has plenty of variation among races. The event deck is a big part of this. Some races will have yellow flags interrupting the action constantly, helping the folks in last place keep up and repair their cars. Some races will flash by without a pause. Sometimes the leader will blow a tire and spin out into last place. It happens. You can’t control a race any more than you can control a river.

What eventually burbles up from the froth and splash is a game about pushing cars to the limit to nose your way to the front of the pack as best you can, but with a definite team-based sensibility. Your score is the sum total of the points for each car’s finishing position. You’re not going to win by getting one of your cars into first place. Instead, you’re going to win by shepherding them as a group so the greatest number of cars can work their way to the front of the pack. And because of the constantly shifting nature of the pack and therefore the car positions, there’s a thrilling “not over until it’s over” pacing for most players. There’s even a mild catch-up mechanic in that players who lose a car get more leeway for when to take their turn and which card to use.

“Like the blue turtle shell in Mario Kart,” one of my friends noted. Not quite. Actually, kind of. But it just goes to show that Thunder Alley isn’t a game about NASCAR racing. It’s a game about racing. A great game about racing.

  • Thunder Alley

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Stock car racing game with the feel and flexibility of a card-driven simulation. Players control not one car, but a team of 3-6 cars. Turns are fast, each play is important and the track situation is fluid. Plus, you could use the folded up boards to bean an intruder on the noggin.
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