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Designer Diary: Flamme Rouge, or How Magic: The Gathering and Dominion Inspired a Racing Game

Asger Harding Granerud
Denmark
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Early Flamme Rouge prototype
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Board Game: Flamme Rouge
I've always been drawn to racing games, and my favorites include Snow Tails, Ave Caesar & Tales & Games: The Hare & the Tortoise. The simplicity of the goal is something everyone intuitively understands: Get. There. First.

Yet this simplicity also hides a tough design challenge. You have to balance accessibility and game length (since races are rarely slow cumbersome affairs) with a catch-up mechanism: too strong catch-up and early stages of the race don't matter; too weak and the game can be a foregone conclusion sooner than you want. Decisions clearly need to matter throughout the race, and as a designer you still want a good race to end in the tension provided by a close sprint. A single minor misstep shouldn't put you out of the race completely. Moreover in a pure racing game, you can't distract players by adding engine building or side quests. You have to keep players entertained simply by the tactics of the race at hand, while making it engaging enough to keep people coming back.

This is the story of the making of such a racing game. I have been told by people with real credentials that I succeeded in meeting this challenge, and Flamme Rouge has earned a sweet spot with hardened gamers from Australia, over the U.S., and across Europe. Hopefully I've even created a game that could become one of THE classics of the genre, but only time will tell if you agree. Suffice to say, I'm immensely proud of Flamme Rouge, and I hope you will enjoy it. I still do every time, even though I'm more than three hundred games in!

•••

"Flamme Rouge" (red flame) is the name of the red triangle flag that marks the last kilometer of all grand tour stages. It was first introduced in the Tour de France in 1906 and has been a staple ever since. It helps riders know exactly when they should be 100% ready for the sprint.

Note: I am not a hardcore cycling fan, and it is by no means required to enjoy Flamme Rouge. It is first and foremost a great game, though I will challenge anyone to find a better theme to match the mechanisms!

Why Dominion & Magic: The Gathering?

It started on a cold weekday in December 2012. My apartment had been invaded by a horde of carpenters and plumbers, and thus I found myself exiled to my childhood home for some weeks.

There was no one else at home that particular evening, thus I found myself sitting in the dark on a bench just outside the front door, having a smoke. As happens so often in those situations my mind drifted to board games, and on that occasion it drifted to Dominion. What made Dominion such a success? Why had everyone gone crazy over the innovation of deck-building, when years ago I and thousands other people had clearly been doing it in Magic: The Gathering?


From gallery of AsgerSG

Outside the front door of my childhood home in Copenhagen


I don't want to detract from the success of Dominion or MTG (nor CAN I!), yet the thought stuck in my head: Dominion isolated a single aspect of MTG, and subsequently expanded it to become a fully fledged game in its own right. That formula should be possible to apply to other games: isolating one aspect and creating a game around it. My mind still circling on Dominion, which single element could be expanded into a game on its own? The element I personally enjoyed the most was the feeling of optimization involved in deck-thinning, specifically buying the Chapel card to facilitate it even when it wasn't the best strategy. Seeing as your deck in Dominion "recycles", having few cards means you get to see each card more often. Thus, if you remove cards from your deck and ensure only the best cards remain, it eventually creates a lean, mean, VP-buying machine. Why were there no games (that I was aware of...) designed to focus solely on this deck-thinning concept!?

The idea for Flamme Rouge had popped into existence just then. Still in the same sitting, I pondered on what would thematically fit a deck-thinning game. What would fit a game in which you started with a deck of cards and gradually depleted it, while striving to have the leanest-meanest machine at the end? The analogy that came to mind was spending energy, which once spent would leave the deck and thus thin it — yet a player would also need to preserve key doses of that energy for the finish.

Energy consumption and preservation. Energy consumption and preservation. Energy consumption and preservation. Cycling! Racing! Cycle Races!!!


Board Game: Flamme Rouge
Board Game: Flamme Rouge
Board Game: Flamme Rouge

Various stages of early prototypes


Once that connection had formed in my mind, it felt as if everything fell into place in short order. Cards would have numbers that represent how far you move. Each rider in your team would have a distribution of different numbers, and that rider's entire deck (15 cards eventually) would be the total energy reserves for the whole race. In cycling, you don't want to be leading the race throughout as the wind resistance exhausts you in short order. Two simple rules were introduced to simulate this: slipstreaming and exhaustion. Exhaustion adds cards with a low average to any rider ending a turn leading a group, effectively diluting their energy reserves by filling up their deck (a milder form of the Curses from Dominion). Slipstreaming provides bonus moves to well-positioned riders hanging back in larger groups. This created interaction en route to the finish line. You want to hang back, but not too far back, and want to lead, but not all the way up front.

Cycling being a team sport, I decided to include two riders per player, with different characteristics defined by their distribution of energy cards. The Sprinter has a low average but a high top speed, which was reversed for the Rouleur, a tempo rider with a higher average but lower top speed. The other advantage of two riders is that you could now use one to screen the other.


Board Game: Flamme Rouge

Early sketches of the miniature cyclists


The whole process had taken 30-45 minutes, and I vividly remember having a feeling that this should work! My gut feeling was that strong. In theory, whether there would be interesting choices should be a matter of adjusting the total energy per rider in relation to the total distance needed to cover. If the distance is too short, then the best strategy would simply be to play your highest card each time. If the distance was too far, then you would almost never have an incentive to play the high cards, but simply hold back. If the distance was just right, then small gains and losses each turn would accumulate to help find a winner at the end.

I decided to try to make Flamme Rouge a game that as many people as possible could enjoy. To make it "family friendly", I removed all unnecessary complexity by picking the most streamlined variants of slipstreaming/exhaustion/tiebreakers/etc. I also added simultaneous play to create a faster game flow and reduce the room for analysis paralysis as the game moves from calculation to second-guessing, risk-taking and a little bit of bluffing — much like real cycling!

At the first live tests, I tried a few different slipstreaming variants and a couple of different deck configurations. Some ideas worked, some did not, but I had a strong notion about where to go. Already from the second prototype the game was 95% of what it is today. My then girlfriend (now wife!) isn't a gamer, but was the first victim of the second prototype and I knew I was on to something when she asked to play it three times straight. (This has never happened since...) Hundreds of playtesters subsequently reinforced that impression and revealed the same semi-addictive nature of the game. Strangers asked to buy it, and fans even made huge and elaborate versions for themselves!


Board Game: Flamme Rouge

Board Game: Flamme Rouge

A fan-made mega version (I'm on the left)


The many playtests also proved that Flamme Rouge had lots of room for expanding the game play. Each time a new group tried it, they returned with ideas. Different track and rider types were the most common ideas. From the start I wanted to include mountains to ensure players could pick different stage profiles to ensure replayability. I'm very proud of how smoothly they integrate in the core game and how intuitively they alter gameplay in accordance with real life cycling. The rules for mountains can be summed up to "a capped move of 5 and no slipstreaming". That is it. Though simple, such climbs really change the dynamic of the game and shift the advantage from the Sprinter to the Rouleur. More exhaustion cards are handed out, less slipstreaming occurs, and breakaways are more likely to get away. In turn, this means there are many points of tension throughout a race, even sprints to be the first to reach a climb. In conjunction, going downhill simply makes your card count as a minimum of 5. They are slightly harder to activate because you have to start your turn on them, and you can still expend energy to make a break on a downhill section when everyone else is relaxing.

I don't know how many thousands of possible stages can be made, but there are 21 double-sided tiles that can be strung together in numerous combinations. We have included six pre-designed stages in the game that we have tweaked and tested again and again. Several of them have been made by guest designers that enjoyed the game enough to assist by developing these. (Of course they've been bribed with beers and promises of a copy of the game.) Thanks to Anders Frost Bertelsen, Max Møller, Hans Lerche, and Daniel Skjold Pedersen. A particular big thank you goes out to Daniel since he also came up with the name.


Board Game: Flamme Rouge

Prebuilt stages: not all in the box as one is a promo


Production

I think that the publisher Lautapelit.fi went above and beyond the call of duty on this game. They've previously done well known games such as Eclipse and Nations, and I'm thrilled that they've taken me on board with what is essentially a much lighter Euro. Not only with the artist they've hired, but the amount and quality of components they've put in the box is excellent value for money. I just got my hands on the first production copy the 30th of September 2016 (days ago!) and have laid it all out on my dining table for you to see.


Board Game: Flamme Rouge

There is just SOOOO much stuff in this box!


Final Thoughts

In most racing games, there is a natural push towards being in the lead. After all, that is how you eventually win. However, the combination of mechanisms in Flamme Rouge means that you actually don't want to be in the lead until "the right time". This creates an interesting situation in which positioning in relation to the other riders (your own and others) becomes paramount, and results in tension from start to finish. Naturally the positioning is most important at the end, but if you neglect it early on the incremental gains and losses that are handed out each round, your actions may favor your opponents instead of yourself.

As a result, the race naturally takes on distinctly different phases based on distance to the goal line, geography of stage and potential breakaways, much like real cycling races. (I feel I've said that phrase a lot.) First there is a build-up phase, then positioning, and finally a head-on sprint. An emergent narrative arc, if I may call it that. Executing your strategy, coordinating your riders, and second-guessing your opponent becomes integral to succeeding. Breakaways sometimes win, but more on mountain stages than flat sprints where the pack very often catches rogue riders, when they eventually have exhausted themselves.

I am extremely excited to show the world Flamme Rouge! It holds tension throughout the game, escalates towards the end, and has simple and accessible mechanisms that fit the theme incredibly well. I'm not personally a big cycling tour fan, nor have the playtesters been, but it doesn't detract from the experience since it is first and foremost a solid and engaging game.

Kind regards, and check my BGG design blog for more details on this game and others!

Asger Harding Granerud


Board Game: Flamme Rouge

Sniffing the first production copy ever. Absolutely thrilled!
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