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Gentleman (and Women) Start Your Engines! : A Review of ‘Thunder Alley’

ThunderAlleyBoxGame Name: Thunder Alley

Publisher: GMT Games

Designer: Jeff and Carla Horger

Year: 2014

Players: Two to seven

Ages: 10+

Playing Time: An hour and a half to two hours

Retail Price: $64.00

Category: Stock car racing game featuring hand management

Contents

  • 2 Mounted, Double-sided 22″x34″ Game Boards (Four racing tracks)
  • 7 Playing Mats (Team Cards)
  • 26 Event Cards
  • 84 Racing Cards
  • 2 countersheets – 178 counters (Including 42 double sided cars)
  • 16 Page Rules Booklet

I recall years ago, back when Gen Con was held in Milwaukee, I found myself involved in a tournament featuring a home brewed Formula One style racing game. Funny enough I didn’t have much interest in auto racing, or even games of that style even though I owned Avalon Hill’s Indy 500, but on that fateful day twenty some years ago I had a spare generic convention ticket and was looking to get into something – anything – to play that Saturday afternoon. In essence I stumbled into this game and after winning the race during that play session ended up making it into the finals later that evening. Through a bit of skill and, no doubt, plenty of luck I ended up winning the tournament and with that a four and a half foot tall trophy which I proceeded to drag around with me through the convention center; I swear people must have thought I’d won a Magic: The Gathering tournament (this was the Gen Con following M:TG’s breakout) by all the stares I, and the aforementioned trophy, got that night.

I bring up this prior event mainly because one thing that always stuck with me about that homebrewed game was the use of a hand of cards to not only facilitate the movement of your vehicle but all the other cars in the race also. I seem to recall some rather basic rules involving drafting and slingshotting around a track consisting of movement boxes but I can’t say the game was complex by any stretch. In the years after I played a few racing games which were very similar. Fast forward a couple decades or so when I notice a game on GMT’s P500 preorder system by the name of Thunder Alley. From what I gathered about Thunder Alley, it was to be a stock car racing game which would utilize cards to maneuver the racing field and that piqued my interest. I’ll get to my thoughts about the game in just a bit but first let’s see what you’ll find when you crack open the box.

Thunder Alley Race CardsOnce again we are treated to the usual GMT treatment with high quality components: loads of sturdy counters including forty two duel sided car counters, racing and event cards on good stock, team sheets, and four race tracks featured on a couple of mounted boards. Strangely enough one of the fictional tracks is supposed to be located in Spain and, as I pointed out earlier I don’t follow stock car racing, is there much stock car racing going on in Spain? Honestly I don’t think there is but if I’m wrong I’m sure some reader will point that out. Surely this inclusion must be aimed toward the European market but the Spanish board is still an interesting track none the less. I will mention the rules could have used another once over and more examples of play included but for the most part they’re okay.

The rules are some of the shorter ones you’ll encounter from GMT as they clock in at only sixteen pages. I believe it’s important to point out Thunder Alley is a departure from what one could consider GMT’s bread and butter (wargames) and though the rules have a higher page count than that the title’s target audience may expect they’re fairly concise if sometimes not crystal clear.

You might notice I’m using the generic term “stock car racing” and you’ll find no mention of the word NASCAR in Thunder Alley either since the game doesn’t carry the racing giant’s license. Those familiar with all things GMT may be surprised to find there isn’t the usual amount background info and details about the subject of stock car racing but one has to keep in mind there isn’t that NASCAR license so any sort of history of that sport association is “off the table” so to speak. Of course I can use the word so… NASCAR! NASCAR! NASCAR! Regardless, Jeff and Carla Horger’s design is clearly set in the world of NASCAR and that specific style of auto racing. The focus of each player in Thunder Alley is to have their racing team, as opposed to one car finishing first, total the best results in a race overall.

Thunder Alley St. Adriana TrackThe action in Thunder Alley is abstracted, as in most racing games, so you won’t find your cars traversing the track a couple hundred times before game’s end. Gamers will notice there are a lot more cars on a track in this game than most and might think this makes Thunder Alley a much longer title to play and more complex that it is in reality. Don’t be intimidated seeing over twenty cars sitting at the starting line. The fact is many of each player’s cars won’t stay in play all too long and, while it might strike some as strange removing cars from the track, I think it’s a well thought out part of the design; do racing fans actually pay much attention to the driver in 30th place during a race? I’d guess not as I’d think much of the focus is obviously on those cars and drivers capable of pulling off a win. Thunder Alley also employs a nice mechanic, which I’ll get to in a bit, which makes it pretty hard to have a player knocked out of the game even as cars from their team are eliminated.

To get onto the racing in Thunder Alley players will select a track, choose one of the seven equally matched racing teams and select their cars. Depending on how many players are taking part you could control anywhere from three to six vehicles in the game. You’ll shuffle up both the Race Deck and Event Deck of cards, receive a number of Race cards equal to the number of cars you control plus an additional card and get ready to fill out the field. Since there aren’t any dice used in Thunder Alley the bottom of each Race card contains a stripe of colored symbols, which are used to resolve any number of events requiring a random result, and this stripe will determine the order in which the teams will line up for the race start.

Each game turn breaks down as follows:

Fill Your Hand – Following the first turn, the players will refill their hands with Race cards. Regardless of a player’s cars being eliminated or not everyone will continue to draw the same number of cards. If the Race Deck runs out you simply reshuffle the discards to refresh the deck.

Perform Actions – This is the heart of Thunder Alley as the players take turns activating their cars and performing movement. Each of the Race cards contain quite a bit of information including some flavor text to give you a feel for the aim of the card, how many movement points the vehicle can use (cars expend a movement point, or more, to enter each track space), what sort of movement is represented by the card, possible special effects, as well as any wear the vehicle receives by playing the card. In turn, all players will go around the table activating a single vehicle, or passing for every car out of the race, until all vehicles have been accounted for.

Thunder Alley CountersMovement is a unique aspect of Thunder Alley because most cards which are played will not only move the activated vehicles but also others in the field. Four types of movement are represented: Solo, Draft, Pursuit, and Lead. A mechanic called Linking is also important as cars within the same lane and adjacent to each other are many times considered linked, or racing bumper to bumper, so when playing your Race card you might also move cars ahead or the activated vehicle, or behind, or maybe even everyone in the race.

Wear can also begin to pile up on you cars which will eventually handicap their performance or even knock it out of the race. Wear can be temporary or permanent. Temporary Wear can be removed to going to the pit while permanent Wear stays with the car throughout the race. While there isn’t really isn’t any sort of minutia aimed at crashes in Thunder Alley, although there are some Event cards which will add Wear markers to certain cars, the accumulation of Wear represents some of that “rubbing is racing” concept in NASCAR along with the usual breakdown of tires and expenditure of fuel requiring pit stops.

TGG SCORE - 9.6

9.6

It’s really saying something when I have no interest in NASCAR, or Indy racing for that matter, but still feel Thunder Alley is one of the most engaging games of the year.

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Jeff McAleer

Founder, editor-in-chief, and host of The Daily Dope and other TGG media. Jeff tackles any and all topics but his main gaming focus is war and strategy, RPGs, and miniatures. He's also a fan of independent and small press comics. Plus, Jeff is certainly never at a loss for an opinion...

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