Motor racing and board games should be odd bedfellows. The excitement of fast paced bumper-to-bumper action whipping past in a blur of smoke and glinting metal shouldn’t entirely come off whilst staring at static cardboard chits, plastic and cards.
However, over the years many have tried to emulate the experience on tabletop with Formula D perhaps being the most well-known and successful. Formula D focused on the fast play of gambling on the results of dice of various sizes to propel your cars around beautiful, real world tracks. Simple but effective rules govern a straightforward race to the finish with great production values. The luck of the die leads to some hilarious mistakes of overshooting into corners after maths miscalculations and balancing damage to the cars.
Whilst considered the king of the genre, it is not without it’s critics. In 2014, Thunder Alley bravely revved its engine and burst out the pit lane with speed and gusto. Whilst focusing on the all-American fever of stock car racing, it swerves off in a different direction to Formula D. Other than a similarity of the top down track design, under the hood it is a completely different beast.
Thunder Alley - The Game
First up, if you are not a fan of NASCAR – fear not. If you don’t know your Mario Andretti from a short stocky plumber with a moustache, or maybe you were schooled on the Three-Seven Speedway in Daytona USA, it doesn’t matter. All the teams and drivers are entirely fictional but the chassis of the game is built around the knowledge of what ‘Drafting’ is, or the notion of lots of cars racing very close together at high speeds.
Some basic awareness of this concept will bring the game to life. When cars draft they save engine power by using the windbreak from the car in front. This leads to long tails of very close cars trying to take advantage of these free rides and waiting until the right moment to slingshot past. The thrill of these packs and jostling for position is the crux of the sport and Thunder Alley takes this key element and really puts the foot down.
Thunder Alley comes with four race tracks, mostly oval in design, which shifts in scale to allow for more spaces and increasing the race distance. The artwork is realistic, but not flashy or cartoonish. A brave move in this age of plastic minis is to completely eschew the desire for cute little cars and the game comes with full teams of top down full-colour chits. Personally, I really appreciate this approach and it instantly gives the game a unique look on the table.
The car numbers are easy to read and referenced back to a team card in front of each player that tracks damage and bonuses. You control multiple race cars, up to six depending on the number of players (2-7) in the race. This leads to between 12-21 cars on the track at the same time, which instantly recreates the look of a crowded field. Some other racing board games suffer from an under-cooked amount of cars unless you are playing with lots of people. Thunder Alley looks the part and feels like a race even at lower player counts.
Playing Thunder Alley
In Thunder Alley you win by getting your cars passed the chequered flag after a series of laps in the best positions with points accumulated for your final position. You might not win the race, but if your whole team finishes in the top positions you may have accrued more overall points. This lets you focus on manoeuvring all your cars for the best advantage, rather than trying to push for the victory alone. Feeling like a team manager instead of just the driver is a major difference.
This game has no dice. In its place, you hold a hand of cards, which break down into four types:
- Solo Movement – Move one of your cars.
- Lead Movement – Move one of your cars and every adjacent car behind you follows.
- Draft Movement – Move one of your cars and every adjacent car in front and behind also follows.
- Pursuit Movement – Move one of your cars and push the adjacent cars in front.
Each type has a speed number, pit speed number and possibly additional special rules and damage taken. You can never move diagonally unless the card states it, but you can move sideways leading to bumper bashing and trading paint as you force your way into chains of cars. The interplay between choosing from a selection of options to best suit your team cars gives a tactical edge.
Choosing to push a row of cars around the track might benefit your rivals, but it also may move your inactive cars into better positions later in the turn to break out from. Your rival may only be able to play a draft card and then pull your cars further. This really gives the board a sense of motion and fluidity where a single turn can see a radical change of position and options. Some gamers might not appreciate that they have to accept their team can be manipulated out of turn as it can mess with their tactics, but it makes for a dynamic game that demands your full attention.
After moving your car, you flip the chit over to show a different background colour, which shows the car has been activated for that turn. Play passes to the next player and once all the cars have been flipped you begin the end turn sequence and reset for the next turn. During this phase, cars can pit from anywhere on the board, removing damage tokens taken from playing certain cards, before rejoining the pack on the next turn. This aspect can also be surprising to new players as the inside lane of the track (The Apron) becomes a pit lane.
Abstracting the notion of a locational pit-stop follows onto the idea that a single lap of the game is meant to simulate many. It sounds odd, but in practice keeps the weaving and pace of the pack intact. Pitting becomes a major tactical consideration due to it pushing you further back, potentially dropping you out of the leading group. Removing damage is important as every token on your car past two begins to slow your maximum speed down. Once you begin activation with six tokens on a car, it is out of the game.
The balance between keeping cars out and risking damage for place in the pack is a constant threat. You burn through your cards in a turn, picking up replacements at the end of the turn but there is a choice to keep your last card for the next phase if you want to save that all-important Solo Movement for a breakout moment.
As Thunder Alley progresses, different groups of team cars tend to bunch together, all chasing the leaders and using drafting allows them to stay in the race in different packs. Negotiating as you jostle for position allows for deals between losing teams to form and assist each other, but the events card deck can undo all of this careful planning. Once per turn this will upset some aspect of the race, such as crash or minor incident from which the victim is decided either by position, amount of particular damage tokens or random. This can lead to yellow flags and race restarts that bunch the pack back together and causes riotous shouting and cheering in equal measures.
Those who do not favour random actions will not appreciate this addition however it does add some cinematic flavour. Cars that get lapped receive a token to indicate that they have until the end of the round to get back in front of the leader or risk early retirement. The leader car also receive a token at the end of the turn to show they were leading the whole pack which equates to bonus points at the end of the game.
Components - Pros and Cons
Anyone who has played a GMT game before will have an expectation of a certain quality for components. The tracks are mounted on thick sturdy board. The cards have minimal art and could have been more thematic but they clearly state the purpose and are easy to read. The cars are of a great quality and a welcome change to plastic, whilst also forming a gameplay mechanic with alternate coloured backgrounds indicating activation.
The damage tokens are however a disappointment. Small and with very little detail they could have been increased in size for ease of handling on the table. Also, the team player board cards are quite sparse and could have been more attractive. These are minor quibbles when the action on the board is so engaging. I am sure that some home brewing is entirely possible to create your own player boards with team names and drivers for more personal engagement and ownership.
The Thunder Alley rule book is well written with great visual examples of how to play. Whilst not a daunting read you will want to refer to it a lot during your first few games on particular card play situations.
As with other racing games, stringing together a series of races into a championship will add a different layer and longevity. There are additional rule variants to add greater tactics in the pit stops, which I would heavily recommend. In addition to the base game you can also buy a track pack to increase the number of races available to eight.
There is also the ‘Crew Chief’ expansion that radically ups the amount tactical decisions pre-race as well as during by adding new cards specific for each player. They also allow for star drivers in your team and more rule variations. This expansion also comes with a set of cards to replace the finishing place chits from the main game that proved fiddly akin to the damage tokens. The designers receive bonus points here for acknowledging their mistake in the base game and correcting it.
Final Thoughts on Thunder Alley
Whilst card play for movement isn’t an original idea for a racing game, the ‘drafting’ mechanic itself really sets this game apart from others. The split between increased choice of how far to move and when, coupled with balancing the damage and pit stop strategy keeps the game involved. Event cards will be hit and miss for some gamers, although it does inject drama and fear into what is possibly going to happen next.
Long term strategy planning can be tough, especially at higher player counts, due to the changing board state. Learning to best use your options of cards, in the best order to fling your team's cars around the track and knowing when to force yourself into a pack or breakaway is paramount. It can lead to a long game. Even at different player counts, due to the fluctuating numbers of cars in a race, expect a maximum of 180 minutes for a race. This will decrease with repeat plays but analysis paralysis can take hold in new players.
Although sparse and minimalistic in places, the track and cars look great on the table and for a fan of the sport or motorsport in general it will easily draw interest. If you prefer open top racers then take a look at the spiritual sequel released in 2016 by the same designers, Grand Prix. This takes many gameplay mechanics from Thunder Alley and mixes in new additions such as non-player cars to fill up the field when not playing with 11 players…The tracks from both games are also interchangeable giving more championship options.
A racing game is predominantly going to be played by fans of the genre. As such this is a great example of wheel-to-wheel racing with a clear focus on emulating a major aspect of the subject itself. In my experience it even holds the attention of tactical gamers who also enjoy some beer and pretzel action, but do not care for the sport. Minor design choices aside, it has a solid system under the hood and should be racing for years to come.