Sunday 24 June 2018

Tesla vs Edison

Plays: 6Px1. (2nd edition rules using Powering Up expansion)

The Game

The backdrop in Tesla vs Edison: War of the Currents is the years 1880 to 1896 in USA, when the first electricity networks were being built. It was an age of invention, with companies competing to bring electricity to the masses. There was competition between two approaches in delivering electricity - direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). In history, we know that eventually AC won, but in this game, it is not necessarily so. You are the CEO of a company competing with others to develop new technologies and to install electricity networks in the many cities in northeastern USA. Game end scoring is primarily based on your company share value, but there are a few other ways to score. The game is played over a fixed 6 rounds, and scoring is only done at game end.

The map portion of the game board shows northeastern USA. It is completely blank at the start of the game. No one has built any electricity network yet. In the middle you can see three tracks in yellow, grey and light blue. These are the technology tracks. You need to have achieved specific levels of technological competency before you can build electricity networks in specific cities. Cities have different levels of requirement. The bottom section with many black boxes is the share value track.

This thin and long piece is the player board. It represents your company. The first card above it is you - the company CEO. At the start of each of the three phases of the game, you recruit an employee. The guy next to the CEO is employee #1. The four face-down cards below are divisions you can choose to create during the game. They give you points and unique benefits. The divisions of every company give different benefits.

The game is played over three phases, and each phase has two rounds. So the total is 6 rounds. Every round players take turns activating employees to perform actions. The CEO is considered an employee too. Bosses have to work too yeah. In phase 1, you only have two employees so you get to do at most two actions per round. In phase 2, you get a third employee, so you'll have up to three actions per round. Eventually in phase 3 you can have 4 actions per round. You can choose to combine the abilities of two employees to perform one action. However by doing this both of them are exhausted for the current round, and you will be taking one action fewer.

The icons along the left edge of an employee card indicate his abilities. Lightning bolt is invention skills, gear is manufacturing skills, dollar sign is financial skills, megaphone is propaganda skills. If there is a number next to the icon, the employee has the corresponding skill, and the number indicates skill value. If there is no number, the employee has no such skill, and cannot perform actions which require this specific skill.

There are only 4 types of action you can do - develop technology, claim a project, create a new division at your company, and do propaganda. Let's look at them one by one.

The three tech tracks are AC (yellow), DC (light blue) and bulb (grey). In the beginning, everyone starts at Level 1 in all three techs. The bulb tech is a prerequisite for the other two. E.g. if you want to make use of your Level 3 AC tech, your bulb tech needs to be at Level 3 too. You need either AC or DC tech to claim a project at a city, i.e. to build the electricity network for that city. Every city specifies a minimum tech level, but doesn't care whether you go AC or DC. Going AC or DC only matters to the company claiming the project. There is a track indicating the current electricity trend. If the trend is AC, and you run an AC project, your stock value goes up extra steps. However if you run a DC project, your stock value still goes up, but fewer steps than normal. You can choose to advance both AC and DC techs, but it will cost you more actions and may not be worthwhile. Most companies have unique abilities that drive them towards either AC or DC.

The action of advancing a tech requires both invention and manufacturing skills. If you have enough, you can advance more than one step. If the employee advancing the tech has financial skills too, he may claim a patent. In future anyone using your patented tech must pay you a fee.

The second action is claiming a project, i.e. placing your cube in a city. Every city awards its electricity project to only one company. After claiming your first project, you will want to claim projects in cities near your existing projects, because doing so in further locations incurs additional costs. When you claim a project, you are basically paying money to increase your stock value and your dividends received at the end of every round.

Claiming a project requires no specific skill, but if the employee doing it has financial skills, he can run projects more cheaply.

The third action is creating a new division at your company, i.e. flipping over one of the cards below your player board. Each division requires a different employee skill, and each gives a different ability. In the photo above, I have created three new divisions. The first division is my lab. With the lab, every time my CEO advances a tech personally, he gets 2 extra invention skills and 2 extra manufacturing skills.

The fourth and last action is doing propaganda, and you need the propaganda skill for this. You exhaust one of the available propaganda cards and use its powers. All propaganda cards give you some money. They also allow you to either adjust fame (player order) or adjust the electricity trend. Your employee doing the propaganda also gets to use his own propaganda value to adjust either fame or trend. Usually you want to be earlier in turn order, and usually you want the current trend to match the electricity type your company focuses on.

At the start of the game, everyone holds four shares in his own company. You can never sell these shares. Throughout the game, there is a limited number of shares of each company that can be bought. The four shares you control is a lot. Your fate is pretty much tied to your company. You have every incentive to make it successful. You can't get rid of your shares like in other stockholding games.

At the end of every round, you have the opportunity to trade one share, and then to buy one share. Trading means selling one share and then immediately buying another. You earn (or pay) the price difference. Buying is often not easy to do, because money is tight. Often you can't afford to buy. At game end, the VP worth of company shares is based on the ranking of their values. The highest valued shares are worth 6VP each, the next highest 5VP each, and so on.

Buying and selling shares affect their values. When you buy a share, the value goes up $1 per phase. When you are in Phase 1, that's only $1, but in Phase 3, it's $3. When you sell a share, the value drops one stage. What this means is on the board, the share value marker moves sideways to the left. Refer to the photo above. If a share is at $34, it drops directly to $30. This horizontal drop is the same in Phase 2 and 3. This was something we did wrong in our game. We had thought it was one stage per phase. Needless to say, shares being sold was a nightmare for every CEO at the table. We inadvertently played an ironman version of the game. This was the only part of the game that made me uncomfortable. Your share value can get destroyed rather arbitrarily. If someone buys your share in Phase 1, then sells it in Phase 2 or 3, you will be hurt badly. It was afterwards that we realised our error.

In the very last round, i.e. the second round in Phase 3, share prices are no longer affected by buying or selling. This protects your shares from last-minute manipulation just before game end.

Victory points from shares take up a big portion of the final scores. You also gain VP for cash in hand - 6VP for the player with the most cash, 5VP for the second most, and so on. If you have created divisions at your company, you can earn up to 10VP. The Works division of each company grants a unique scoring method. That will give some VP too if you have created that division and fulfilled its scoring requirements. Scoring is all done at game end. Throughout most of the game, you are positioning yourself for that. Interim situations during the game do not matter. What's important is getting into a strong position at game end.

The main story line in Tesla vs Edison is advancing your techs so that you can claim projects in the various cities. You grow your share value. At the same time you also pursue the other ways of scoring, hoping to line everything up precisely at the end of the 6 rounds.

The paper money should be called card money. Each note is big, thick and solid.

These are the company shares you can buy. Not many are available. The company founder's four shares will always be a big portion of a company's shares.

The horizontal track with yellow and light blue is the trend in electricity tech. The marker is now at level 2 of the yellow side, which means AC is the current trend. If a company starts an AC project, its share value will increase 2 extra steps compared to the norm. Conversely if a company starts a DC project, its share value will increase 1 step fewer.

If you examine the tech track carefully, you will see that the purple, blue and green players are focusing on AC (yellow) while the red, black and white players are focusing on DC (light blue).

At the start of Phase 2 and 3, when bidding for new employees, these new employees each come with a free share. Such free shares are semi-randomly assigned. So you not only need to consider the employee skills, you also need to consider the share value.

The Play

We did a full 6 player game. This game should be played with a high player count, probably at least four. You need to have enough players on both the AC and the DC side to make things interesting.

The early game was relatively uneventful. We took our time to "chup" (book) our first cities, which would more or less define the regions we would be competing in and who we would be competing with. After those initial cities, it took a long time for us to get busy claiming other cities. Throughout the mid game we spent more time on advancing techs, manipulating share prices. It was by late game that we started busying ourselves with the spatial element of the game again.

Buying and selling shares was crucial, due to how they affect the share prices, and the big role shares play at game-end scoring. Money was always tight, and often we could not afford to buy shares. Sometimes when we did, we had not enough money left to claim projects in the next round. The money to be earned from the propaganda action did not look like much, but since money was so tight, every little bit felt precious.

There were a few things we constantly fought over. Turn order was important. It was usually beneficial to go first. Also the 1st player enjoyed a share price boost every round. The player holding the highest patent could also get a share price boost. These were tactical wins that kept us on our toes. Every company had unique abilities, and we tried to make use of them as much as possible. Dith played Edison, and one of his abilities was he could earn money by promoting DC. He pushed the marker on the electricity trend track towards the DC side frequently, and he made a lot of money. This also meant he was naturally inclined to develop DC himself.

Although the game is every company for itself, due to how some would tend to go for DC and others AC, there is some collaboration among those going for the same tech type. The relationship is not really a cooperative one though. It is more like hoping others will do your work for you (pushing the electricity trend towards your side).

You don't have many actions. You have at most 18 for the whole game. They feel precious. You spend them carefully. Money is scarce too. Everyone is trying to position himself for the end game. Sometimes you pull some nasty moves on your competitors' share prices. Sometimes you invest in their shares because you believe they will end up strong. There is group psychology in the share buying and selling. It's not always straightforward to compare two companies. You can compare the board positioning, patents, turn order and current techs, but sometimes a mere whim of the group can decide which share is invested in and which is abandoned. After all, everyone wants to go where everyone else is going. This sounds a little scary, but it is partly because we had played the share selling rule wrong. Share prices would be less volatile and less subject to sabotage with the correct rule. Also, the company founder always holding 4 shares means everyone is still mostly vested in his own company. The stockholding is not as freeform as other stockholding games.

The map only started filling up in late game. Expansion was slow in mid game.

This was my company at game end. Other than shares of my own company, I had bought and kept some Thomson shares. The unique ability of Thomson was its share price was not affected by selling. Since we played the wrong rule in share price reduction, this ability became very attractive. Thomson shares sold out quickly. I managed to create all four new divisions for my company - the cards below the board were all flipped to the active side.

These were the final share prices. Allen's Tesla (dark blue) shares had the highest price, followed by Jeff's Thomson shares. Kareem (red) and I (green) were very close. Too bad I could not boost my share price past his. Dith's Edison did worst (at the far left - $13), but it was partly because of our rule mistake. When we dumped his share, it crashed like a lead ball.

Dith had so much cash! It was like ghost money! (joss paper / hell money)

The Thoughts

Tesla vs Edison took a long time to play, but it's more a medium weight game than a heavyweight. You only have 4 action types, and they are not complicated. I like how each company has some unique abilities and how some will incentivise them to go for AC or DC. There is a constant tug of war between the AC and the DC factions. This is a development game. It feels good to progress your techs and to expand your network of cities. It feels good to create new divisions for your company and enhance your abilities.

The stockholding part of the game makes me a little nervous. Stockholding games have always been my weakness. Even if we had played with the correct rules, I would still have been anxious. However, compared to other stockholding games, Tesla vs Edison would be more "safe" for me, because it is less freefrom. Every player still has a big stake in his original company. Company ownership is much less volatile than full fledged stockholding games.

The VP value of shares is based on ranking and not absolute value. This may be a concern for some. Let's say the top four shares are all very close. The top share is worth 6VP, but the fourth will only be worth 3VP. That's half of the top share, when their actual share values may not be far apart. This can feel cruel. It is all about relative positions, and not about actual value. I am not too bothered, but I imagine this feels like a disjoint for some.

Tesla vs Edison is a decent Kickstarter game. It has an interesting premise, a fun dynamic and excellent production.

Saturday 16 June 2018

Spirit Island

Plays: 3Px1 (with expansion).

The Game

Spirit Island is a high complexity cooperative game. Most cooperative games I have played are mid-weight games. I rarely come across complex ones, so this is unusual for me. You are ancient spirits who have lived for centuries on an idyllic island, occupied by simple-minded and peaceful natives. All is well and beautiful, until a greedy colonist nation discovers your island, and decides it's theirs for the taking. They send explorers to colonise the island, building towns and cities, and eventually ravaging the land and creating blights. To save the island from eventual destruction, you rise to fight the invaders. You need to stem their progress, destroy their towns and cities, and tell them to go back to where they came from. Only by successfully doing these can you restore the island to its former peace.

There are four different terrain types on the island. Light blue is wetlands, brown is sands, green is jungles and grey is mountains. Along the edges there are dark blue areas. Those are ocean spaces, and lands next to them are considered coastal areas. Invading explorers come ashore at coastal areas. The white piece on the left is a city of the invaders. The mushroom-like pieces are a native villages. The grey disc is a blight marker.

With 3 players, the game is set up like this. The island on the right is made of three large pieces and has three coastal stretches. The board on the left serves multiple purposes, mostly related to tracking statuses. It tracks the fear level, the invader's plan, and the victory condition. The upper half of the board is part of the expansion. The markers there are all part of the expansion and are not available in the base game.

This is a section of the main board. The upper part states that the current winning condition is having no more invader colonists, towns or cities. The winning condition can change. If you increase the fear level high enough, the winning condition will be lowered. E.g. you may only need to get rid of cities, but not towns or colonists. The lower part contains a face-down blight card and a number of blight markers. A blight card is randomly drawn at the start of the game, and a set number of blight markers are placed here depending on the number of players. During gameplay, when invaders create blights on the island, blight markers are taken from this pool and placed on the island. Once the blight markers run out, you flip over the blight card and do what it says, then place another batch of blight markers on this board. If the second batch runs out too, you lose.

This section of the main board is the fear tracker. The grey markers are fear markers. The stack at the top right is the supply, or the pool. The stack in the centre is the fear the spirits have generated. Whenever the supply is exhausted, you get to draw a fear card, which is beneficial to you. The fear markers are then reset, and you start accumulating again. After every few fear cards drawn, the fear level increases, and the winning condition lowers. If the fear level hits the max, you win instantly.

This section is the invaders' plan. Every round they explore, they build, and they ravage. They do so according to the terrain types shown at the three vertical spaces, including the draw deck space. When it is time to explore, the top card of the deck is flipped over. Invaders do ravaging first. Based on this photo, they will ravage all wetland (light blue) spaces where they have presence (be it colonists, towns or cities). They kill the natives, and they cause blights whenever they deal at least two points of damage. They will do building in all mountain (grey) spaces where they have presence, adding a new town or a new city. When they do exploring, they add a colonist in the targeted terrain spaces as long as there is a town, city, or ocean within reach. Once all these are done, the cards are shifted one space left. The wetland card will be moved to the horizontal discard pile. The mountain card will be moved from the build position to the ravage position, and so on. This means whatever terrain type they have done building this round, they will ravage next round. Whatever terrain type they have done exploring this round, they will build on next round. The terrain being explored next round is unknown. It will normally be a different terrain, but not always.

This is a player board. There are many spirits from which you can choose to play. The player board shows the abilities of the specific spirit. The top row are the various growth actions you get to pick from at the start of a round. Some spirits get to pick only one. This particular spirit gets to pick two. Growth actions include gaining energy, which is needed to play action cards. You can also move a disc from the player board to the island, which expands your area of influence. When a disc is moved, a new space with a number or icon is revealed, and this improves your abilities. In the first row of discs, only the leftmost space is revealed and it shows the number 2. This means you gain 2 energy every round. In the second row of discs, a card icon with a 2 is revealed, and this means you get to play up to 2 action cards per round.

Another type of growth action is gaining an action card. You start the game with some action cards. Most things you do in the game rely on playing action cards. When you take a growth action to draw an action card to add to your repertoire, there are two decks to pick from, a weaker (but cheaper to play) deck and a stronger (but more expensive) deck. You draw four cards to pick one, so hopefully you will find at least one that jives well with your spirit abilities.

The last type of growth action which is important is taking played action cards back into your hand. When you play an action card, it remains on the table and is temporarily unavailable. You need to claim it back before you can use it again.

The bottom section are your innate powers. When you play action cards, they give you some natural elements for the current round. Collect the right combinations of such elements, and you will enable your innate powers. They are basically more things you get to do in the current round.

These are action cards. The number at the top left is the energy cost to play a card. The column along the left edge shows elements you gain for the current round if you play the card. The bottom right section shows the detailed abilities of the card. The red bird icon and the blue tortoise icon mean fast actions and slow actions respectively. Every round you get to execute the fast actions before the invaders perform their actions, but the slow actions are executed afterwards. Let's look at the card on the left. It lets you relocate two native villages. If there are wilderness markers in the targeted area, you get to deal two damage per marker. Alternatively, you may add a wilderness marker. Adding a marker means the next time you use this card, you can deal more damage. The card on the right lets you clean up blights, i.e. move a blight marker from the island back to the main board.

This is an event card. Such cards are drawn at the start of every round. They contain a mix of good and bad things that will happen on the island. Events inject uncertainty and surprise to the game. This particular event is both an opportunity and a threat. If you pay an energy cost, you prevent a disaster and also get to expand your influence. However if you decide not to or if you can't afford to, disaster strikes. Blight markers will be added, and both invader and native settlements become weaker - easier to destroy.

The two white boys in front are the explorers. Behind them on the left are the towns, and on the right the cities. We called these the "orang puteh" (Malay for "white men"), which they literally are.

These lovely mushrooms are the native villages. This photo looks like it's from a cooking game.

To conclude winning and losing conditions, you win by killing off enough invaders, or by striking fear into their hearts so that they decide to leave. There are three ways to lose. You lose if the island becomes irreversibly polluted by blights. You lose if the invader deck runs out. This is a countdown mechanism. You also lose if any spirit completely loses presence on the island, i.e. having no disc left on the island. Not many things force you to lose discs, but in the beginning you do start with only one disc on the island. You need to be careful not to lose that only disc and have the game end unexpectedly early.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Abraham. Abraham and I were new to the game. Ivan had played before. The moment the game started, we were under tremendous pressure. The invaders had already landed, and the march of progress waited for no man (or spirit). Every round they explored, they built, and very early in the game they started ravaging. They usually did these on three different terrain types, and it felt like 75% of the island was constantly under threat. There were only four terrain types, and three types out of four being targeted meant 75%. The invaders never let up. We were weak and needed time to build our strength. The game was downright unforgiving. Also, in the early game, our spheres of influence were small. There were many places we could not even reach, let alone having enough resources to take action.

One thing good in Spirit Island is you can plan and execute your actions simultaneously. The game is quite complex, and not needing to take turns means saving much time. You just need to make sure you do all your growth actions and decide on your card plays before doing the invader actions. You should discuss and work out synergies among yourselves, e.g. who to cover which hotspots, whether you need to collaborate to contain a particular threat, and what help you need from one another. You need to understand one another's abilities, so that you can better plan how to help and how to ask for help. Often you are unable to fight all fires and need to decide where to concede.

This was roughly mid game. I was yellow, Abraham was red and Ivan purple. I was a tree spirit, and moved slowly, and even at this point only had presence in two places. Abraham and Ivan each had four by now. There weren't many blight (grey) markers yet - only three on the island. There were already plenty of invaders though - explorers, towns and cities.

The cardboard markers are from the expansion. The spiral marker with a yellow background is a disease marker. It delays the invaders' build action. When the invaders are about to build, you remove a disease token to cancel the build action at that specific location. The paw marker with a red background is a beast marker. By placing them you are making wild beasts roam an area. Some events and actions make these wild beasts attack invaders, so you want to spread these beast markers where you hope to fight the invaders.

When the invaders ravage, they attack the natives. Let's take the #8 wetland space in the foreground as an example. When the invaders ravage, the town deals 2 points of damage, and the explorer deals 1 point of damage. Every two points of damage kills a native village, so one of the villages will be destroyed, and the other damaged. The surviving native village counter attacks, dealing 2 points of damage, thus killing the town. When the ravaging happens, this wetland will become blighted, because the invaders will deal at least 2 points of damage.

The yellow marker on the right is a generic reminder marker.

As our game progressed, our strength grew. Spirit Island reminds me of Antiquity, despite being a very different game. In both games you start in a depressing situation, with everything going to hell and you being able to do little. Bad news come relentlessly, and you are only taking small steps to stem the tide. It feels hopeless. You need to persevere for a long time before you can build up enough strength to fight the invaders effectively. 80% of the game is trying to get off the slippery slope. By the time you manage to reach the tipping point, you know things will only get better from there. You will only get stronger, and you will eventually overpower the invaders. The invaders keep a steady pace. They advance doggedly, but they don't get much stronger during the game. If you reach the tipping point, the rest of the game is probably just cleaning up. Sometimes it can still be a race against time to clean up before the invader deck runs out, and before the blight markers are exhausted. Spirit Island is an uphill battle most of the way, and there's also a clock ticking away as you struggle to save your island.

This was the end game. There were only explorers remaining on the island. No more towns or cities. Our fear level was at level 2, so we only needed to eliminate towns and cities to win. We did have many blight markers on the island by this time. We had exhausted the first batch of blight markers, so the island went into the blighted state. If we exhausted the second batch as well, we would lose. Thankfully the blight card we drew was a helpful one. Ivan said in his past games he always drew bad ones. He had thought they were all bad.

These were my action cards. The one on the left was drawn from the draw deck. The one on the right was one of my starting cards. The Sea Monsters card was expensive to play - 5 energy, but it was very powerful. I used it to destroy many towns and cities in coastal areas.

The Thoughts

I enjoy the challenge and the bitter struggle in Spirit Island, and the final elation when you manage to turn things around. Compared to other cooperative games I have played, it is quite complex. Now complex and difficult are two different things. There are cooperative games which are simple, but are difficult to beat. The difficulty in Spirit Island is adjustable. We played at Level 2 (of 10). I am not sure how big the difference is between the difficulty levels. If it is big, then Level 10 would be a nightmare to play. Despite all the suffering and hopelessness I experienced in our game, I think our Level 2 game was not too difficult. We never actually got close to defeat, despite the many bad things that happened to us.

Due to the complexity, I would not suggest this to players new to the hobby. There is a lot to think about and digest - your spirit abilities, your card abilities, other spirits' abilities, and how the spirits should work together. I think this will be overwhelming to casual players and non-gamers.

The game comes with many spirits, and there is plenty of variety in the fear cards, the blight cards, the action cards and the event cards. I expect there is much replayability.

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.