Review: Thunder Alley
August 26, 2017 /
Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Artists: Rodger B. MacGowan, Kurt Miller
Publisher: GMT Games
Category: Racing, Sports
Price: $49.91 Amazon
Thunder Alley is a racing simulator from Jeff and Carla Horger. Jeff and Carla have worked on other titles from GMT, including Thunder Alley’s “sequel,” Grand Prix, and Manoeuvre. 20th Century Limited is another from the couple, though Jeff’s primary design focus is on racing games—specifically a racing themed expansion for Can’t Stop, Fast & Furious: Full Throttle, and the upcoming Apocalypse Road.
GMT Games is a wargaming publisher, founded in 1990. Because GMT has published around 400 games according to Board Game Geek, GMT utilizes a unique pre-ordering system, called P500. Customers put in orders for the GMT title of their choice, and once the game has between 500-750 requests, the game is sent into production for reprint or publication. GMT has published a slew of popular wargames, including the Command & Colors series, Combat Commander, Labryinth, and many more. In terms of other board games, GMT also publishes Dominant Species, Thunder Alley, the COIN-series of games, Twilight Struggle, and Battle Line.
They say, “If you grow up in Indiana… Well, then you should probably be a racing fan.”
I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but when I was in high school, my youth group took a trip to a local nursing home to deliver food and hang out with some of the elderly folks. Taking a break on our way back to the van, we stopped to see a TV broadcasting a Nascar race. Of course, I loved to fit in, so I tried to talk shop with another person watching next to me. I’m assuming, through conversation, he figured out I didn’t know much about racing, so he asked me if I’d seen the crash earlier that day. I knew races were excruciatingly long, so I guess he figured I’d been watching at home earlier, so desiring to have common ground, I said, “Oh yeah, that was crazy.”
The room was silent for a moment, you know how elderly homes are. A pause, and he said, “You know there wasn’t a crash earlier today?” I was bright-faced and rosy red being caught in my lie.
I haven’t spent hardly any time since then watching racing. I tried a Gran Turismo on PS2, some Need For Speed titles, and abstracted racing like Lazer Ryderz, or Rocket League, but the idea of cars on a track was never appealing to me.
Enter Thunder Alley.
Let’s be quite honest up front: Thunder Alley is the most fun, boring game I’ve ever played.
Mechanically, Thunder Alley is tight. Players take turns activating one car on their team, then playing a card to move that car, and perhaps many more. At the end of each round, an event takes place, which sometimes restarts the race, and other times capitalizes on foolish players who haven’t taken time to pit, resulting in chaos for worn out vehicles. Played over a number of laps across four different tracks, players receive points based on how their individual cars placed in the race. Each player tallies points from laps led, and ultimately the final placing, and the player with the most points is the winner.
Thematically, I can’t imagine a more polarizing sporting event bringing people to the table to play a board game. Contrary to popular belief, stock car racing isn’t necessarily for hillbillies. It’s a sport which rewards talented pit teams, end-goal focused drivers, and brilliant machinery. That said, watching Nascar on Sunday is a task of drudgery for most of us. My grandma might have loved watching Jeff Gordon race, but I can’t fathom which recesses of my brain need activated to enjoy it.
Fortunately, Thunder Alley doesn’t need diehard racing enthusiasts around the table to be enjoyed. To combat the formidable length of real-life stock car races, games are distilled into 2-4 laps instead of three to four hundred. In fact, not only can cars be eliminated by wear or being lapped—if two red event flags are drawn, the game ends early because of rain. Thunder Alley takes the fury and finesse of stock car races, and simulates the entirety in a boiled down package, keeping the best, and removing the chaff.
Though it looks it from the box art, it’s not even officially licensed by Nascar. Players take team sheets depicting their cars, driver names, numbers, etc. Lining up cardboard cars based on a team color card draw, players prepare a hand of cards and begin. The game is essentially cardboard. The owner of the game will punch out a giant sheet or two of dusty chits. These are both temporary and permanent wear markers, many colored cars, lots of lap tokens, and more.
Thunder Alley ships with four separate race tracks printed on massive, triple-double fold boards. Some tracks are long with more spaces for cars, while others include multiple curves for fine-tuned driving and opportunities to get in front of the pack. There isn’t much in the way of locations to place extra chits, though each track includes a spot for event and racing decks. Each track is distinct however, which makes each game interesting in its own regard.
Gameplay is the clutch of Thunder Alley. Players choose a card from their hand, each of which falls into one of four movement types: solo, draft, lead, and pursuit.
Solo cards allow a single car to move along the track by itself, sometimes incurring permanent wear if allowing for extra movement than normal cards. Draft movement simulates the constant flow of stock cars by utilizing a unique mechanism called linking. Linking works differently based on which movement type is enabled, but in drafting, grabs all cars forward and backwardly adjacent, and moves all cars ahead the number of spaces dictated on the card. Pursuit movements push cars linked ahead, and lead movements pull cars linked behind.
Linking is a crux of Thunder Alley. It not only speeds the game up, but also simulates hours of stock car racing by simply playing a card. Because Thunder Alley lasts only for a few laps, constant drafting movement chugs giant chains of cars along toward the finish line. Still, games of Thunder Alley can run into 2-3 hour territory, but players get lost in the shuffle of playing cards and moving big links forward. Moving links of cars can be a bit tedious at times, but it’s exciting to see where cars end up after they started a move in last place.
Initially learning movement is challenging. There are certain rules to follow for linking depending on the movement type chosen. Some cards provide additional abilities, and learning track terms like apron, or sectors take a little time to grasp. Players can pass other cars through displacement, but these take specific movement points away depending on the positioning of the move. A legend is printed onto each track to ease understanding of each move, so this helps, but it’s still a lot for new players. GMT rulebooks are also famously librarian and specific. It’s an incredibly thorough rulebook, but looks more like a giant wall of text than an explanation on how to have fun.
For such a challenging theme to engage with, Thunder Alley does a phenomenal job of taking off when players have grokked it. By snarky gameplay, lone cars can be left in the dust by the packs. Unless players can get their cars into a drafting line, there’s a good chance they can get lapped and removed. What’s more, the higher your player count, the more randomness you introduce to the game. It’s already difficult enough to predict how draft lanes will move, so when it takes four turns around a table before you can play again, it’s quite possible your entire strategy will end up botched.
My game style is to simply roll with the punches and play completely tactically. Long-term strategy will be hard to stick with, so aiming for tactical play brings the most fun. Thunder Alley excels at high-speed moments, and hilarity ensues around the table when a player’s car gets left at the starting line.
Yellow flags restart racers on nearly equal playing field, and can happen quite frequently from the event deck. I recognize these are mainstays of Nascar, but it breaks up the pacing of Thunder Alley and makes for anti-climactic moments. I’d consider a game where you simply enable the penalties given by yellow flag event card, but ignore the flag itself. These events can also be particularly brutal, where a player with the most temporary wear markers might have to eliminate their car from the game, giving him last place. It seems sort of random, so it’s hard for me to see an upside to this mechanism.
Another thing that’s difficult to counter is determining which cars have moved each round. One side of cars have a lighter background than the other, so rounds alternate whether you are moving light or dark background cars to keep track. It’s ultimately confusing and I’d appreciate a token which flips each round to remind players who has moved. I’ve opted for flipping dark background cars each round to the light side, that way a dark background car is universally known as a car that’s already moved.
Overall, Thunder Alley offers a, what I would assume to be, fairly accurate stock car racing experience on the tabletop. I highly recommend blasting a PS2-era Nascar gaming soundtrack, like Nascar ’08 for example. It’s not an uninteresting experience, but it’s not at all for everyone. Of the five people I’ve played Thunder Alley with, I’m the sole person who enjoyed it. For racing enthusiasts, this might be a game of choice, and for others, Thunder Alley is at best the most typical beer & pretzels game you can imagine. I can’t fault it for the theme, but I definitely love seeing a genre like stock car racing implemented into a board game.
A review copy of Thunder Alley was provided by GMT Games for a review.
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