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Designer Diary: Flamme Rouge: Peloton, or From One to Twelve Racers

Asger Harding Granerud
Denmark
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Early Flamme Rouge prototype
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If you have at all followed Flamme Rouge's life here on BGG, it should come as no surprise that an expansion would be coming. From before the base game released in late 2016, I had released extra print-and-play expansions in the files section. Since then, fans from around the world have helped develop these things and provided lots of input that has inspired me — not least the awesome Benoît Gourdin from France, who contacted me out of the blue and asked whether he could turn the Grand Tour campaign mode into a completely free companion app (Android and IoS). This is just one example where a fan vastly improved upon what I was doing, and personally I haven't looked back. However, the community has also worked on solo play, lots of stages, velodrome rules, mountain and sprint jerseys for the tours, and much, much more.

Therefore, the hardest choice was to decide what to include and what to cut (for now!) in the Flamme Rouge: Peloton expansion — and I am certain that whatever I chose, there would be some who wished I had prioritized otherwise. Nonetheless, I decided early that I really wanted to expand the player count of the base game. I hated the idea of Flamme Rouge staying on the shelf simply because five people had turned up for game night. If you like the game, I want to give you as many opportunities as possible to bring it to the table, so we added two new teams: white and pink.

From One to Twelve in...One Box

We didn't stop there, though. We also added official solo rules with two different types of AI directly developed by ideas from fans here on BGG. It is fantastic to see how the solo community here has embraced the game! These AI teams can be added to other player counts, too. Add a peloton team to a two-player game, or add two different AI teams to your four-player group and experience the full twelve riders on the road.

The official variant included in the expansion also allows you to play with up to twelve players, all playing free for all! This twelve-player game still plays in 30 minutes because each player has to consider only one rider. Since you can't coordinate your two riders, this variant emphasizes that you have to second guess what everyone else is doing. Of course twelve players also means that on average you will win only 1/12 of the games played, so as in real-life cycling, you have to learn to lose MUCH more than you win and still love it just for the chase! WARNING: You might need a very large table or have all players stand for the entire game.

Design Challenges

When I first designed Flamme Rouge, I actually had it as a 2-5 player game — so why was it released as a 2-4 player game? The explanation is quite simple. During the first year, I introduced the game to a lot of people. If there were 2-3 of them, I almost always joined (because I enjoy playing it myself, and still do!). If there were four players, I started skipping and staying out simply to watch. To me, the game got a little worse at five players for a primary and a secondary reason. First, breakaways were harder to pull off, and they provide a lot of the game's tension. Second, congestion meant that riders could end up losing several movement points out of the blue.

These are what I see as the key design challenges in expanding the player count here: congestion and randomization.

CONGESTION: In Flamme Rouge, the road is only two lanes wide. This means that any third rider trying to access a square is blocked and loses movement. Each point of movement is important, so this is a big deal, particularly because losing movement can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can escalate. You start at the back, try to leapfrog ahead, get blocked, and find yourself in the same position. The issue increases just at the foot of ascends as that terrain feature further blocks your move. With four players and eight riders (two per player), this effect is already present, but at this player count it is a feature, not a bug — something occasional that catches unaware riders out.

However, with twelve riders on the track at the same point, this effect greatly increases, and the risk of chained blocks where you can't even fit on the next free space but end up losing 2-3 squares at once explodes.

Solution? The first solution to this problem is pretty straightforward. Widen the road with a third lane, and the risk of blocking declines dramatically. We tested and found that having these at the start of the stage where riders are most bunched, then at a few key other points of the stage, was again enough to make this congestion a feature and not a bug — well, once we included the solution to the randomization issue explained below.


When you are used to seeing at most eight riders on the track, twelve looks intimidating


RANDOMIZATION: I'll explain the main crux of this problem by first exaggerating it. If you roll a single die, there is a 1/6 chance any result will show up. If you roll one thousand dice, the average will be very close to 3.5. Why is this important in Flamme Rouge? Because the game needs random outliers or else breakaways will never happen. Regardless of how wide we make the road, if we gather one hundred riders in a pack, then breaking away will be almost impossible because somebody in that sample will play (or be forced to play) a card that catches you immediately.

The game lives off the tension created by chases, with the chased trying to stay ahead, burning high cards to do so and knowing they now can't compete in a sprint, and with the chasers trying to spend just enough energy to catch them, but save enough to beat the rest in the sprint. Tipping that balance one way or the other can quickly remove some of the key tension.

Solution? The idea I came up with is to reduce the number of dice I roll, or rather reduce the number of riders in the pack. That idea goes counter to the stated goal of the expansion, which is to increase the riders in the pack, but what if we split the pack from the start of the race by taking 1-2 of the riders that would otherwise add to the congestion problem and moving them ahead of the pack. We do this from the start when the congestion problem is largest, and thus minimize it. In a 5-6 player game, up to two riders can go into a breakaway, but the rules also transfer to lower player counts where you send only one rider ahead.

Of course this idea needs balancing to ensure the breakaway has a shot at winning, but not too big a shot. Initially I tried to brute force this balancing, which never quite worked 100%. Then the game's graphic designer Jere Kasanen suggested the perfect solution: Bid for it! This means that the "correct" bid can change based on the stage layout (as some are more suitable for breakaways than others), your starting position, or any starting exhaustion (from handicap or Grand Tours). If you've ever seen the start of a cycle race — and I don't mean when the broadcasting normally starts two hours into a race — there can be quite hectic "bidding" to get away. This solution was less clunky than my first attempts, and it also benefits from mimicking the existing round structure, now just translated into a two-stage bid/auction.


Whenever I do get into the breakaway, the lead always seems so fragile, and the peloton so large


Regardless of whether or not you envision Flamme Rouge as only the last kilometer or as the last one hundred, the narrative holds, and all we've done is to speed forward a few turns from a normal race in which a breakaway succeeded.

However, the best part of these breakaways to me is that they also create tension from the beginning. Yes, they help solve a mechanical problem of occasional congestion at larger player counts, but they always add drama at any player count by injecting asymmetry from the first round. I've seen breakaways hold all the way because the peloton didn't agree to chase or split up into multiple minor packs themselves. I have also seen breakaways fail to cooperate or attempt to get greedy with low cards initially, then be caught within the first round or two.

Unfamiliar Roads

The Peloton expansion also includes two new tile types, aside from the breakaway tile, namely the cobblestones prominently featured on the cover of the box and the supply zones that are also three lanes wide to accommodate the congestion issue. I enjoy how I have been able to change gameplay just by manipulating the tiles and using the already introduced rules in slightly new ways.

SUPPLY ZONES: Supply zones in the Peloton expansion introduce a new rule, or rather an old rule as it has a minimum speed of 4. They work almost exactly like the descends, but the reduction in speed is much more important than you would think at first glance.

From a micro-level perspective, these zones are an abstraction, but only in timed delay. The effect of supply/feed zones in a real race is that you get a small burst of energy if exhausted. In Flamme Rouge, the effect is immediate, whereas in real cycling the effect is in the following kilometers. Despite the delay, these rules achieve just that, and everything in Flamme Rouge is already compressed timewise.

Second, feed zones open the possibility for unsportsmanlike attacks, while everyone is predictably taking supplies. These rules also achieve just that. The peloton is going slow and predictably enough that an attack can be easy to get through — unless of course someone else reads your move.

Finally, these rules slightly favor the sprinters over the rouleurs. This is not super important in the base game, but in Grand Tours or in the three square extended 5-6 player stages, it is a good counter balance. (Yes, the 5-6 player game is longer than you're used to.)

I can understand how it can look like "just" a slower descent, but it was one of many solutions considered, and it was picked because it achieves the macro level feel of real life supply zones in the smoothest way. I hope you will agree once you try it.

Crashes, Why Are There No Crashes?

The last tiles we have in Peloton are the cobblestone tiles. Again, these use existing rules — no slipstream, but any max speed allowed — and otherwise "just" manipulate the number of lanes. So far we've done a lot to minimize the issue of blocking by widening the road, but cobblestones are their own beast.

The cobblestone sections range from 6-11 squares of length and are mostly just a single lane wide, with a few exceptions of two lanes. This dramatically increases the chances of getting blocked, and though there are no added rules for crashes, the macro level effect is almost the same. I've seen sprinters shoot off a nine (their best card) and end up moving only 3-4 squares, effectively removing them from contention.

As a result, much like in real-life cycle races, everyone is quite eager to zoom ahead and be the first to enter the cobblestones as that effectively eliminates the risk of "crashing" too hard. This also means that once entering cobblestones, players seem to get a little more timid for fear of riders ahead of them slowing down, which opens up the possibility for riders in the lead to break away (taking advantage of the lack of slipstream). Cobblestones can make or break your chances, and sometimes it breaks simply because you get unlucky. For me, they are usually some of the most uncomfortable sectors of a stage to navigate, sweaty palms and all.


A shot from testing, illustrating how cobblestones can split the peloton into fragments


New Stages

We have included six new double-sided stages as well, with each side slightly different as one is adapted for 2-4 player games and the other for 5-6 player games. Of course you can always build your own stages; my only concern is if you attempt to overdo it. The more I play, the more I'm growing fond of the simpler stages with just 1-2 sectors of hindering terrain features.

The Finish Line

As you have probably guessed by now, I can keep talking about Flamme Rouge indefinitely. I still love playing it to this day and have played 67 games so far in 2017 — and that accounts only for physical games; the awesome Play By Forum organized by Almarr here on BGG isn't included, nor are stages 14 to 21 in our six-player 21-stage Grand Tour that I finished on the Saturday just before SPIEL '17.

The new expansion has only added to my and my friends' enjoyment, with the breakaways creating tension from the start and the new terrain types providing new challenges. I love playing the game at twelve riders because the pack becomes so massive that it really starts feeling like a peloton. I tend to root for the breakaway, but nonetheless there is something satisfying about seeing a ten-rider peloton charge after them on the final finish, with most of their riders having no exhaustion and plenty of energy. It just feels right, too...

As always, I think Ossi the illustrator has done an outstanding job catching a tense moment on the cover of the box, and it tells a story that is easy to find in the game.

If you're attending SPIEL '17, you can find me signing copies of the base game and expansion in the Lautapelit.fi booth on Thursday (13:00-14:00) and again on Sunday (10:00-11:00). Do come say hi!

Asger Harding Granerud

P.S.: Of course I'm lobbying the publisher to commit to a 2018 expansion, too, as we've already tested new tiles, new card distributions for the riders (including special abilities), Grand Tour rules, weather, and much more! If you are as enthusiastic about the Peloton expansion as I am, then it should be easy getting them on our side...

In this shot, the crashes are just looming in the air...
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