Thunder Alley (2014) review
Thunder Alley, as the illustration of the box tells you, is a racing game. NASCAR race more precisely. The game exists only in English from GMT and is available as an import in some French shops. But nothing really discouraging, the French version of the rule book can be downloaded from the publisher's website, and a little help in the language of Molière is available on the Tric Trac website. This should not put off the driver in you, as Thunder Alley is a game that racing fans should not miss.
Taking the box in hand, the first good impression comes from the weight of it. There are two game boards, double-sided, folded in eight parts. Trays really big, and graphics very eye catching. So for, I guess, licensing concerns, the circuits do not carry the names of those of NASCAR. But this detail is quickly forgotten, we will fight well on the legendary rings of the American championship of car races.
As for the rest of the material, it's less glorious. Cars are represented by cardboard chips. Both sides are used because they show that a car has already been activated this turn. Other tokens materialize the damage and wear of vehicles, as well as the rewards earned by the runners at the end of the game.
At the bottom of the box, we only have cards left, the engine of the game. But we will come back to it a little later.
One of the peculiarities of Thunder Alley is that it's not just a racing game. The game does not stop as soon as a competitor crosses the finish line. No, each player is the manager of a NASCAR team. Their goal is not going to be to win the race (although it is still more glorious), but to rank as best as possible all the cars in their team. At the beginning of the game, depending on the number of players, each manager will play a number of cars. These are placed on the starting grid, the hostesses then leave the track, and then it’s on with the race!
A game is a succession of rounds during which each player will activate each of their cars once. For that, they will play a card and apply the different information indicated on it. The operation is simple, the largest number at the top left of the card indicates the number of movement spaces allowed. The second digit is to be used only at the exit the track.
The move is special since it tries to simulate as much as possible a NASCAR race. That is to say a group race of vehicles. Movements usually do not involve the movement of one, but of a line of vehicles. For this, cards are composed of 4 types of movement:
During the turn of the game, each player will have a card hand equal to the number of cars in their team, plus one. You will therefore optimize as much as possible all your movements, using the various movements to promote the advance of your vehicles while avoiding over-benefitting your opponents. This system forces to always have to adapt according to the position of all the other vehicles, to juggle between the cards at its disposal, the placement of the vehicles and the order of activation.
The majority of these cards have a wear icon on the top right. The car receives this token and will accumulate them as the race progresses knowing that the more chips collected, the more that vehicle will have technical problems. The first consequence is the reduction of the speed of the vehicle. To get rid of these bulky tokens, only one choice is necessary: the pit stop.
There are possible types of pit stop.
The normal stop, at the end of the lap, where the cars will stop on the side, go back five squares, then start again in the next turn with the smallest value indicated on the movement cards.
But there is also the pit stop following a stoppage of the race. At the end of each turn, an event card is drawn, and some trigger a yellow or red flag. A pit stop is then possible for all vehicles, the car squad is then reformed behind the Pace Car, the cars having made a stop placing in the order behind all those who did not stop.
And here too the choice is paramount: is it better to go up the rankings by keeping a car close to breaking, or change the tires, refuel, and start again at the back of the race.
The management of damage, wear, adapt to the vicissitudes of the race, try not to be outdistanced, these are all elements of the game to take in hand to win the victory.
Thunder Alley may seem random, grumbling on drawing cards that are not fair to everyone. Yet a balance is made by tokens of wear or damage. The most powerful cards give permanent damage to the vehicle, which even a pit stop does not fix. And of course the less powerful cards bring no penalty.
The players compete until the finish of the event. In the order of finish, the participants win a token indicating the number of victory points won. It may happen that a car is destroyed during the race, or that it is so far behind that it is removed from the game. Their Manager then gains the victory point token with the lowest value. The game continues until the arrival of all vehicles. Each Manager then counts all the trophies won by their team, then the big winner is proclaimed, raises the trophy and showering the other players with champagne.
So why is Thunder Alley, for me one of the best racing games in the world. Because it perfectly simulates a car race. The tension of the race is present. This famous card system that activates a whole group of vehicles makes it possible to create real racing situations. Escapes are created, and the mutual assistance to join the head of the race depends enormously on the cars composing it. If, on the other hand, cars go off without the help of other cars, they will have a hard time joining the pack. The order of activation of the vehicles is essential in this game where the cars are always on the brink of rupture, between the wear of the vehicle, and the will to push it a little further. A pleasant tension!
[small inset: the photos were taken with a customized version of the game. The cars were printed with the downloadable files on Thingiverse at a scale of 90%.
The rules, in French, are available on BGG or the website of GMT.
Finally, a game help very well done, with the translation of all cards containing text, is available on the card TricTrac.]
Technical note 7/10
The game boards are sumptuous, the rest of the material is more than light. Player boards are hyper thin, tokens microscopic sizes. 3D printing of vehicles is almost essential for better visualization of vehicles.
My score BGG 9/10
Excellent - very much enjoy playing.
A must-have racing game: a little fun, a zest of slipstreaming, a cloud of stress and a good laugh on the final sprint. Do not have a racing game in your collection? Thunder Alley will not disappoint you!
Combined rating of 8/10
And now, it's up to you to play ...
Thunder Alley is a true playful wonder. Disturbing during your first game, it offers more than just a racing game.
The game perfectly combines luck, risk-taking, hand management, tactics, team management and ingenuity.
Mechanically very faithful to the theme and the operation of NASCAR, Thunder Alley offers a very interesting gameplay and very fun to play.
The winner is not the one who arrives first, it will be necessary to manage your team the best you can to hope to prevail. Every turn there's a management decision to be made in a game where a situation can happen at any time.
Far from being random, the game is a perfect combination of incredible playful and jubilant feelings. Playing it in season or championship mode is even more enjoyable.
The game material is very good. The trays are superb. A small regression for the individual trays which are a tad too thin and have a few errors of the first version. But nothing very disturbing once you’re in the game. Apart from that, you’ll find the usual cardboard pawns and cards well done. Note that the cars (solid cardboard) front and back make the game perfectly legible for all players. A nice GMT production, as they know how to do it.
Thunder Alley is a game that I can only advise to you. Playable from 2 to 7 players, it's a real pleasure every time. Beware of accidents or surprises that can occur, as in the real NASCAR. Nobody is immune... even your champion.
The game has two extensions: Thunder Alley: Expansion Tracks that adds new circuits and Thunder Alley: Crew Chief Expansion that adds even more strategies. Also note that the game is compatible with Grand Prix circuits from the same publisher.