Saturday, 28 March 2015

Thunder Alley

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Thunder Alley from GMT Games is a team racing game based on NASCAR racing. Each player manages a team of cars, and the number of cars per team depends on how many are playing. The game comes with different race tracks, and the number of laps to complete differs by track. You score points based on the final positions of your cars. The leading car at the end of every round also scores 1pt. At game end the team with the highest total score wins.

A round consists of players taking turns to activate their cars, until every car has been activated exactly once. You draw a number of cards at the start of the round, and play them to activate your cars. In our 3P game, we drew 6 cards for 5 cars, i.e. all but one card would be used. There are four types of movement cards. The simplest is the Single movement cards, which allow the player to move only the activated car. Most other card types usually allow (in fact, force) other cars to move. If you play a Draft card to activate a car, that car may move sideways first (possibly pushing other cars away or backwards) and then moves forward, chaining along the whole train of cars in front of and behind it. If you play a Pursuit card, the effect is similar, except that you push the chain of cars before you but leave behind the chain of cars behind you. If you play a Lead card, you don't affect the cars before you, but you pull the chain of cars behind you.

In addition to the movement type, a movement card also specifies the distance you move, the damage your car will take, and special restrictions or bonuses. Damage to your car can be temporary (e.g. tyres, fuel) or permanent (e.g. engine, body). Temporary damage can be repaired during pit stops, but there is nothing you can do about permanent damage. Any car with 3 points of damage or more moves more slowly when activated, but is not affected when it is pulled along by other cars.

The movement cards. At the top left, the larger value is the normal movement value, while the smaller one applies when you reenter the race after a pit stop. At the top right, a damage type is specified.

At the end of every round, an event card is drawn. Usually something bad will happen to a car with a specific type of damage. The event card will have a green flag or a yellow flag. Green flag means all is well. In car racing, the yellow flag means caution (e.g. there has been an accident on the race track, or there is rain). When it is raised, all cars must slow down, and may not overtake one another. The result is all cars will catch up to the leading car, and then they resume racing only after the yellow flag signal is cancelled. In the game, the yellow flag is like a reset, allowing trailing cars to catch up. It is literally a catch-up mechanism.

The game ends at the end of the round in which at least one car passes the finish line, which means every car will have been activated the same number of times.

The Play

I did a 3P game with Heng and Ivan, and we each had 5 cars. This was a team game, so we kept trying to maximise the potentials of our cards by pushing or pulling along other cars on our teams. We wanted to avoid helping others, but it was not always easy or even possible. I think sometimes it is more important to try to position yourself to be helped by others than to try to avoid helping others. E.g. squeezing your car between two cars belonging to another player will force him to help you if he wants one of his cars to help the other one. We had 6 cards every round for our 5 cars, which meant sometimes we could be screwed by poor card draws. If we drew many Single movement cards, we would have fewer opportunities to get our cars to help our other cars.

At the start of every round when you draw your hand of cards, it can take a while to analyse the board situation and think through how you are going to make the most out of your cards. New players beware. Also the board situation can change drastically between your turns, even in a 3P game, so your perfect plan can become rubbish and you need to rethink your strategy. It is important to stay flexible. However sometimes others' moves can inadvertently help you too, and create opportunities for you. You will want to grab these.

If some of your cars are disqualified (due to being lapped or voluntarily retired), you can forfeit a turn. Sometimes this can help, because by the time your next turn comes, you may have a better use for one of your cards. Also sometimes you may want to see how your opponents play before you react. However this can also be risky. Everyone is trying to leave his opponents behind. Forgoing one turn can be dangerous because you may find yourself cut off from the leading pack and being unable to catch up.

The race was about to start so every car was lined up neatly before the starting line.

The race had just started (this was still the first round), but already two cars had been left behind, one of mine (green) and one of Ivan's (yellow). The rest of the cars were mostly still in one leading pack, except for one of Heng's cars (black) lagging slightly behind. It should be able to catch up to the leading pack soon.

The two draw decks are the movement cards (left) and the event cards (right).

Cars which are lapped are automatically disqualified at the end of the round. They still score points. They just claim the last available position and score the points for that position.

You will have at most six cars on your team, which is when playing 2P. This player board is for recording damage to your cars, and points scored.

We were in the 2nd lap now. All four of my remaining cars (green) were in the leading pack on the left, which was good. Heng (black) had three, Ivan (yellow) only one. Both Heng and Ivan had cars left behind. The outlook was quite positive for me. However in the middle of the race a yellow flag came up, which did a kind of reset for us. We all took the opportunity to do pit stops to repair damage. It was good timing since most of our cars were close to their 3rd damage. When there is a yellow flag, the penalty for a pit stop is much less.

After the yellow flag event, there was one crucial bend move in which my chain of cars was overtaken and then left behind. That was one major turning point in the game, after which I never managed to recover. I switched from dominating the leading pack to having no presence at all. Eventually I came last. Heng was the ultimate winner, with a comfortable margin ahead of Ivan and I.

Of 15 cars in the race, the positions my cars earned were 7, 8, 9, 11, 14. Not good!

The Thoughts

There is definitely some luck in Thunder Alley (the movement cards you draw, the event cards, and whether others' actions mess up your plan or create opportunities for you), but there is much in your control too. You need to evaluate the board situation and plan how to best use your hand of cards. The board situation is constantly changing, so often you need to adapt, and you need to try to stay flexible. There is constant jostling to try to leave opponents behind and to try to position your cars to maximise the chances of others helping you. You try to create opportunities. You try to prevent your opponents from making big moves.

It's a team game, so you want every car to do well, not just the leading car. The point differences between the car positions are small - only 1pt between each position, except for the 1st place, which is 4pts more than 2nd place. You cannot rely on just your leading car to win the competition for you. Others need to do well too. Yet 4pts is not insignificant either. Also there is the 1pt bonus every round for the leading car at the end of the round. That can be quite significant too. You need to balance between getting everyone to be team players, and allowing your superstar to show off.

I'm not a car-racing fan and I am not familiar with the sport. I find Thunder Alley quite fun. This is a game where you need to analyse and plan. You try to do your best with the cards you draw and the opportunities that present themselves. There are opportunities for clever play, and when you pull off a genius move, it is very satisfying. This is not the kind of game where you roll dice, push your luck, gamble, and have some mindless fun. It is a little thinky. There's still some good and bad luck that you can cheer or swear at. It can be quite rewarding when you manage to execute a killer move, like snatching the 1st position from your opponent just before a round ends.

1 comment:

Aik Yong said...

Yup, it was a game with lots of luck. But that's part of the excitement. Leave the Analysis Paralysis at the door. Enjoyable game. Might rate it higher than Formula De in terms of fun.