Thunder Alley and The Role of the Critic
The Stock Car Championship Racing Card Game remains one of the most innovative racing game I’ve ever tried. I think of this as the McGartlin game, but until I went onto BGG I didn’t realize that was a contraction (Portmanteau?) of McLaughlin and Garton. In any case, that’s much easier to say. I think I wrote about it (fairly extensively, given its obscurity), but those words were several websites ago and do not appear to exist anymore.
But while TSCCRCG (that’s why I call it McGartlin) was innovative, it never caught on. It had innovative ideas, but many of them. It felt complex and unintuitive. In many ways, the Up Front of racing games. While I (now) flinch at the Hollywoo-esque reductive nature of “It’s X meets Y,” it remains a useful shorthand.
TSCCRCG has no map. The cards do a lot of things. The rules daunt (even me). I was never sure if I liked it. Actually, I was sure I didn’t; but I kept reading reviews about how people did a 6 player game quickly. Ours always ended up taking 3x as long. So I wondered if we were doing it right but got rid of my copy. I should play it again with a group that knows and loves it. I’d be the slow guy, but it would give the game a fair shake.
Which is a long way of saying that when people said Thunder Alley I heard McGartlin. You have a board, but each turn really represents a dozen(ish) laps. You move around the board, but a draft line could just move, move, move, move, so that half (or more) of the cars could get 6x as much movement as the other half an obviously ludicrous view if you consider this as a two lap race, but a clever abstraction of cars falling of the pack.
And the fairly simple rules left experienced gamers saying “Can I do this?” two hours into the game. I’ve looked at a Player Aid on the geek and I’m still struggling how to explain this to new players. I see a clever, interesting game; but it felt too long. Thunder Alley needs the “When it’s your turn you have 5 seconds to play a card and 20 to resolve it” meta-rule (instead of counting things out).
You have a reasonable abstraction of NASCAR, warts and all. When you pit could decide the game — you can press on and hope for a Yellow. A car in our game almost got eliminated (by being lapped in a two lap race), but then a Yellow bunched the cars up and the tail car literally move 90% of a lap in the restart. But that happens in NASCAR. The abstraction can break down in the end. A late caution meant our restart happened in a position where the cars are bunched up 1-2 plays from the finish line. One player ran a draft (perhaps not realizing the implication) which pushed half the cars in spitting distance of the finish line. Then next wave of cars are crossing, with the pusher left out because why would you drag his cars across the line?
So, my initial thought with Thunder Alley — Building a chess like racing game feels like a grail game. But once youv’e grabbed that Grail, you think “Is racing like chess?” Thunder Alley does have push your luck, but so do simpler games like Homas Tour. Thunder Alley feels like a positional chess match (If I bump this guy then run the line, I can connect up my cars and break his chain, and that’s worth wasting this entire card) combined with the luck of random events! I do enjoy the team aspect of it, it’s refreshing to have a game where second place scores 95% of the points as first (etc etc).
It may just be our first game was too crowded. With 6 (as we played) and three cars you have less control and more downtime. I could see groups playing this with two sets to get 10+ players, and If you loved the game it would be great, but I’d be backing away quickly. I’d like to try this with 4. A few less cars on the track, a higher percentage of the Fixed Fun.
Rating — Suggest (at least for a few more times) until I decide.