Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Back in the Saddle - Flamme Rouge

The basic fact which underpins all cycle racing is that it is easier to cycle behind somebody than in front of them. You can try this yourself if you don't believe me but once you get within a certain distance of the guy in front then you can coast along in his slipstream while he does all the hard work. This fact also underpins Flamme Rouge. In this game you ride the coattails of your opponents, using their effort and sacrifice, their blood and their tears, in order to get one of your guys across the line first.

The board itself is modular. You get a load of road parts and you can design your own routes, or follow one of the six map cards that come with the game. These are based on different real-life races (or types of race), such as one of the spring classics or a mountain stage in the Tour de France. 

Each player controls a team of two cyclists, a "rouleur" and a "sprinteur", and each rider has their own deck of 15 cards, consisting of 3 sets of 5 different speeds. The Rouleur has a narrower range and is more dependable. The Sprinteur can go quicker in bursts but is generally slower. Each turn you pick the top four cards from a rider's deck and choose one to play, and then do the same for their team mate. All players then reveal their cards and you move the riders in turn, leaders first. Once everybody has moved the riders at the back can coast up to the guy in front if they are within a square of them. Anybody who has a gap bigger than that in front of them gets a special red exhaustion card to add to their deck. If you stay at the front for the whole race then your options quickly become limited, as your deck fills with red cards and your legs go to jelly.

In addition some squares are hills, with corresponding descents. These affect the cards you play in certain ways - you can't go above five uphill (no frozen blood bags here) or less than five downhill, and slipstreaming doesn't work when you're struggling up a mountain - which means more of those dreaded exhaustion cards.  Eventually one of the riders crosses the line first and the winner can unzip their top, lift their arms and shout in victory. 

And that's it. This is a very simple game. It's easy to learn, easy to teach and easy to play.  Turns are done pretty quickly and a whole race can be over in 30 - 45 minutes.  However, like all good games, this apparent simplicity masks a whole lot of stuff going on underneath the surface. 
The cards in each deck are enough to finish the race. So there's a temptation to charge off as quick as you can and leave your rivals behind.  Of course you'll get exhaustion cards but hopefully, if you're lucky, you might pull off an unlikely victory. And you do control another rider so, if you're careful and clever, then you can shield the other guy for at least part of the way.  If you watch real cycle racing you'll know that this rarely works but every now and again it does, so maybe it's worth a try. 

Of course the better tactic is to sit in the pack at the start. You avoid exhaustion that way, keep your best cards and can unleash a devastating burst of speed at the end to breast the line in triumph. But if you go too slowly you drop out of the pack and have to work hard to get back; gaining exhaustion and using your cards up in the same way as you would have if you had charged off, just without any of the advantages. This game is a balancing act, you're making constant choices between risk and safety - whilst trying to guess what your opponents will do next. 

Mountains and descents shake it up even further. Is it worth playing your best cards to get in a better position for a climb? There's no point having a hand full of 9s if the maximum you can go is 5.  It might be worth sprinting to the bottom and starting the long ascent in front, everybody is going to pick up exhaustion cards anyway.  Similarly do you need to play a big card to catch up a rival on a descent? Or can you get rid of one of your exhaustion cards and give yourself a better chance in the sprint at the end? 

I should probably confess that I once spent an hour (or two) during an especially refreshed Saturday afternoon teaching my totally rapt wife about the intricacies of team tactics in the Tour de France, so this is a game which especially appeals to me.  However, I would recommend it to anyone.  It is beautiful in its simplicity. There's no random element apart from which cards you draw, and you're responsible for what is left in your hand.  I've played games with my 69 year old Dad and my 7 year old son and both of them have ended up shouting in victory or vowing revenge. 
The presentation and components are also generally really good. The only, really minor, problem is that the riders are sometimes difficult to tell apart. A bit. You could paint them or even just go over the letter on their back. To be honest it's not a big deal, I just feel like I should say something to give a bit of balance.  Other than that this game has a really nice 1930s aesthetic, with grimacing riders in woollen cycling jerseys desperately trying to overtake the guy in front. 

This game feels tight and extremely well designed. The different track formats add replayability and force you to make tactical choices, and it's simple but complex in the way that all the best games are. This game can be played by anybody and will be enjoyed by anybody. I heartily recommend it.