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Thunder Alley» Forums » Reviews

Subject: And the cardstock smelt of motor oil rss

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Brad Metz
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Garner
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I hadn’t thought about those years until playing Thunder Alley.

As I breeched double digits and into my teens, my cousin was a little too old to be a real friend, but young enough that adults figured we’d play together well. Naturally, he alternated between resentful cruelty and disdainful mentorship (as I would to his younger brother a few short years later). I loved and feared my cousin, who now is probably my closest male family member. I remember the smells of his basement bedroom: oil and ozone from maintaining the increasingly complex RC cars that I was able to watch and build ramps for, but never ever drive. For a few years that seemed an eternity at the time, Nate dragged the entire family in his wake as he became satellite to a stock car team. As I recall, he never drove, but worked on pit. My part in this was inconsequential: I attended the parties with adults and older kids; cheap beer and cigarette smoke; the first bump of snuff off a greasy thumbnail. I trudged around the racetrack with dirty, happy, or possibly drunk, people while the dust in the air mixed with the smell of gasoline and tire rubber, the sun blazed too hotly and the bathrooms always downright grim. I remember trying to escape the loud, broken sounds of dented cars with matte spraypaint and grills you could see daylight behind. I hadn’t thought about those years until playing Thunder Alley. I wonder if I miss them as a generalization of escaped youth, or because the joy of this game has entwined happy adult memories with those of the past.


To be highly reductive, Thunder Alley can be described as Sorry! for gamers. You play a card and that will move your piece a certain number of pieces forward. This mechanical familiarity shouldn’t turn the prospective player away, since the overall simplicity of the game feeds into the nostalgia above and frankly, allows the theme to shine through seamlessly. Of course, the diamond’s in the details and there are a number of mechanical complexities (this is GMT, after all) that add to this experience, but importantly, the added complexity only enhances the narrative and thematic trappings of the play, rather than to boil everything down to a manageable calculation. Cards all vary on the theme of moving a car forward a number of spaces on the track. Most of the card types will push or pull cars ahead or behind the car that’s moving resulting in a draft line of cars likely from various teams that are helping each other move around the track. Cards can also damage cars, leading eventually to having to pit or even retire from the race. Fortunately, the more cooperative cards tend to be a little less damaging than cards for driving alone.

It’s a highlight reel.

The base game’s four tracks each vary slightly in lane count, lap length, and turns. Lap length is more or less meaningless in a game where 3 laps on the board correlates to something like 150 in a real race: this game compresses the time scale of a normal race into a reasonable 60-90 min so you’re seeing a lot more action. It’s a highlight reel. Lanes add spaces for players to move out of their draft line, potentially breaking it, joining another, or going alone. Turns allow lines to shift, break, and swap cars. Thus, the game becomes one of shifting alliances with the other players. Player fortunes lockstep for a time while they are together, each hoping to be the one to betray the others and leave them in the dirt, or at least jump ahead. Of course, players might be tempted to go it alone, and end up getting left behind as their erstwhile pack rockets around them.

Alliances are therefore complex and sometimes contradictory

The first player across the finish line doesn’t win the game, but rather the team that amasses the most points will win. So cars on a given team are looking to do well individually, but a well-timed sacrifice might get the team ahead or pooch the other players and crab-bucket their team to victory. Alliances are therefore complex and sometimes contradictory, your friend in one pack may be your enemy in another. The trash talk reaches a crescendo matched only by the rowdiest of family reunions. New players unfamiliar with the significance of the draft may become frustrated as they fall prey to their individuality and then bemoan the chaos of the card draws. New players can also slow the game down, because as draft lines fragment, all cars move more slowly around the track. However, anyone familiar with team racing like this will immediately grasp most of the mechanics and do just fine.

And thus I was enemy #1 for the rest of the game

I’ve now played Thunder alley 13 times and this review is several months in the making, as this is the culmination of a 10x10 from 2015. I’ve had bad games of it, almost exclusively due to my poor planning or teaching and through it all, the maudlin emotions above resonated with me. I can’t promise that you’ll feel the same way, but I credit the gameplay as much as my odd history with the sport for evoking a fond remembrance of pubescent years. I played with a couple of NASCAR fans and they’re opinion of the game's faithfulness to the appeal of the sport was equally high, for what that’s worth. The integration was so good that one player was angry at one of my cars for doing something that a driver (of the same number) did in real life. And thus I was enemy #1 for the rest of the game. I think you’ll find that people that can’t handle the ebb and flow, the move from first to worst in a single turn will be less than pleased with the game. In a race where you can intentionally leave multiple cars to get lapped if they allow it is going to cause hurt feelings in those that are susceptible. But if you can stand to get a little heated over a slab of cardboard, you might find the scent of burnt rubber in your nostrils.
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Mark Crane
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Quote:
I think you’ll find that people that can’t handle the ebb and flow, the move from first to worst in a single turn will be less than pleased with the game. In a race where you can intentionally leave multiple cars to get lapped if they allow it is going to cause hurt feelings in those that are susceptible. But if you can stand to get a little heated over a slab of cardboard, you might find the scent of burnt rubber in your nostrils.


From the user comments:

Quote:
you would think such a game would be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants wild ride; however, the game seems to trick players into thinking they have control and thus they spend a great deal of time reassessing and analyzing their board positions and card options each turn. This is quite surprising for a game with such little control and depth.



It's interesting to see the divergent views on this game. People that need long-term, strategic control seem to dislike it, but I would wager that the better player tends to win.
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Brad Metz
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Definitively. In my view, there's a lot of pacing and risk management in the game, as well as the building of partnerships. It's not a puzzle to be solved in the same way many euros are, and that's going to throw people off.
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