Saturday, 9 June 2018

Flamme Rouge

Plays: 5Px1 (expansion included)

The Game

Flamme Rouge (red flame) is a race game about professional bicycle racing. You have a team of 2 cyclists, a sprinter and a roller, with different abilities. Every round every cyclist gets one move, done by card play. The game ends once any cyclist crosses the finish line. Among those who manage to cross, whoever moves the furthest is the champion, and the player he belongs to is the winner of the game.

The sprinter and roller have different sculptures. They also have the letters R and S on their backs to help tell them apart. On your player board, the deck on the left belongs to the sprinter, and the deck on the right the roller. Both decks start with 15 cards, and the card distribution is listed on the reference card on the left. The sprinter has 9's, but the rest of the cards are 2's to 5's. The roller's cards are more even, ranging from 3's to 7's.

The rulebook comes with recommended layouts for race tracks, but you can build your own too. In our game we used one of the recommended setups. Some parts of the tracks have special rules. When going uphill, there is a cap to how fast your cyclist can move. If you play a high card, you may be wasting movement points. When going downhill, you enjoy a minimum speed. Even if you play a low card, you are guaranteed a specific number of moves. So it is best to play your lousy cards when going downhill. Some sections disallow slipstreaming. Slipstreaming is a mechanism which allows cyclists to make free moves. Every round after movement is resolved, if a group of cyclists is exactly two steps behind the group in front of them (i.e. there is exactly one empty space between the groups), the whole trailing group gets one free move and joins the leading group. They combine to become one group. If there is another group in front of this newly formed group and it is also exactly two steps away, then the whole newly formed group gets to slipstream. That means the previously trailing group receives two free moves. This is a big deal. Slipstreaming is always resolved from the last group forwards.

Every round you pick movement cards for both your cyclists. You do one then the other. You draw four cards to pick one from. Cards not picked are returned to the bottom of the draw deck face-up, so that you know when you need to reshuffle your deck. The card picked for the round is placed face-down next to your board. You need to wait for everyone to have chosen their cards before all movement cards for the round are revealed simultaneously. Movement resolution is done according to position on the race track, from leading cyclist in the rightmost position onwards. You simply move a number of steps as indicated on the card. If your destination row is full, then you move one step fewer and must settle for the next row. Movement cards used are removed from the game. If you use up your strong cards early, you will have only lousy cards later. Cyclists of the same class have the exact same deck and have no advantage over one another based on starting cards. You need to jostle for advantage throughout the game yourself by making use of slipstreaming, terrain, and positioning.

The red cards are exhaustion cards. All have value 2. At the end of every round, you examine every group on the race track. Cyclists in the first row of each group must take an exhaustion card and add it to the bottom of their draw decks face-up. This represents these cyclists who are facing the headwind getting tired. Those who hide behind them are protected from the headwind and do not suffer any penalty. Exhaustion cards are basically weak movement cards. Collecting them don't affect you immediately. They only come into play the next time you reshuffle your deck. You will more likely draw these poor cards, making your deck less efficient.

These are the roller's cards. They range from 3 to 7. You always draw four and pick one.

The Play

At the start of our race we had a bidding round which allowed two cyclists to start at forward positions. Cards which won the bid were discarded, so these two cyclists started with one card less.

Once the race started, the black player's sprinter sped ahead, leaving the green roller behind. The rest of the cyclists formed the peloton - the main group of cyclists all bunched up together. The big group did break up now and then, but due to slipstreaming the lagging fragments caught up and they all merged to become a single peloton again.

Red boxes are uphill stretches, blue boxes are downhill stretches. The number 5 for the red boxes refers to the max speed if your cyclist ever touches a red space on his turn. The 5 for the blue boxes means the minimum speed if your cyclist starts his turn in a blue space. Even if you play a small movement card, you get to move at least 5 spaces. In this photo the two green cyclists are exactly two spaces apart. Normally the one behind would be able to slipstream and thus move a step forward. He would be protected from the headwind because he wouldn't be in the first row of a group anymore, i.e. no need to take an exhaustion card. However the cyclist in front is in a red box, which disallows slipstreaming. So the one behind can't enjoy all these benefits.

The black sprinter has turned the sharp bend. The two green cyclists being side by side is not a good thing. It means both are in the front row of their group, and both need to take exhaustion cards. In that big group behind them, only the black roller in front needs to take an exhaustion card.

The leading black sprinter decides to throw caution to the wind and charges ahead, hoping to cross the finish line before the others can close the gap.

The peloton has now caught up with the two green cyclists.

Near the end of the game, the black sprinter shows signs of fatigue, and is overtaken by the white sprinter. The green cyclists who have been in 2nd and 3rd place are also being overtaken by others.

The eventual winner in our game was Ivan (white). In the early and mid game he stayed in the peloton, making use of slipstreaming and avoiding headwind, thus earning free moves and also avoiding exhaustion cards. Abraham did these well too, in particular making good use of slipstreaming. Since everyone has the same decks, you need to rely on those free moves from slipstreaming to gain an advantage over your opponents. These small bonuses do eventually add up if you grab these tactical opportunities well. Towards late game, Ivan made his breakaway move earlier than the others who had been conserving energy inside the peloton. So he managed to win the lead position. Some in the peloton fell behind, e.g. the blue roller in the photo above. Falling behind is bad because you become the front row cyclist of your one-person group, and you will take exhaustion cards turn after turn.

The Thoughts

Image from

Flamme Rouge has a modern-looking cover design. It's a 2016 game. However the gameplay and the components remind me of classic Eurogames from the 90's. Rules are simple, but there is some strategic depth. I own a bicycle race game from 1989 called Um Reifenbreite, which won the 1992 Spiel des Jahres. Um Reifenbreite uses dice for movement, so the luck factor is higher. Flamme Rouge has no dice and only uses cards. Still, there is luck in the card draw. Being able to draw 4 then pick 1 reduces this luck element. You have more control. There is an element of luck in the choices made by your opponents too. For example, even if you manage to position your two cyclists to be exactly two spaces apart, allowing the second to slipstream to catch up with the first, there may be some other player's cyclist moving in to fill that space between your two cyclists, spoiling your perfect plan. This is one of the exciting aspects of Flamme Rouge - watching what cards your opponents have selected. Sometimes you get happy surprises, and sometimes you get nasty ones.

The key to winning is accumulating those small advantages gained from slipstreaming. Card decks are the same so you can't squeeze all that much advantage from your card decks. The best strategy is to conserve your energy throughout the early and mid game, making good use of slipstreaming and avoiding exhaustion cards, and then towards late game, pick the right time to breakaway and shoot for the finish line. In the game I played, some of the others had played before, and one of them (black) tried a different approach - sprinting ahead from the beginning and hoping to reach the finish line before others caught up. That didn't work out. The exhaustion eventually caught up and the last stretch became a slow slog for him. This sounds worrying, because if there is only one valid strategy, how high is the replayability of the game? I think this best strategy does reflect what the sport is. I am not overly troubled. The competition is not so much about coming up with a wild strategy. It is about the tactical decisions you make round after round. It is about jostling for position, making the best of the cards you draw, and creating synergy between your two cyclists. The game is more about execution than grand strategy. However there is still one crucial strategic decision - when to breakaway and go for the kill. That's an interesting question of timing.

One element in the gameplay of Flamme Rouge which feels modern is the deck-building. Deck-building became popular with Dominion which was released in 2008. In Flamme Rouge, used movement cards are removed from the game, so your deck gets thinned. When you take exhaustion cards, you are making your deck less effective by adding poor movement cards.

No comments: