When my wife told me that she wanted to buy Thunder Alley, I was wary at first. It looked heavier than most of the games she prefers, and while she watched some NASCAR when she was younger, I've never watched it at all. As it turns out, I was completely wrong to worry. Thunder Alley is easy to pick up, plays well regardless of the number of players, and is even fun for those who don't know anything about stock car racing.
Many racing games suffer from allowing players to get eliminated too early, either from crashing or by getting so far behind that catching up is impossible. Thunder Alley manages to avoid this issue entirely, as each player is not just in control of a single car, but instead controls a team of cars. Victory is ultimately determined not merely by whose car finishes first, but by the combined score of a player's team of cars. Elimination of a single car (usually due to getting lapped by the leader) does hurt, but it doesn't mean that the player is out of the race. In fact, players can even choose to retire cars early, which actually allows them a bit more flexibility as they focus on their remaining cars.
The team aspect of Thunder Alley is also what allows it to scale so well regardless of the number of players, as the number of cars each player controls is determined by the player count. For example, in a 2-player game, each player fields a team of six cars, while a 7-player game would have each player controlling just three cars. A race with just two players will certainly play a bit differently than a race with seven players, but both experiences manage to be engaging. The scaling number of cars also means that a game of Thunder Alley with a lot of players won't take much longer than a game with just a few. The fact that Thunder Alley scales so well may be its biggest selling point, as I struggle to think of another game that is as enjoyable with anywhere between two and seven players.
Movement in Thunder Alley is card-driven. Each player has a hand of Race Cards equal to the number of cars they started with, plus one. Whoever controls the currently leading car takes their turn first, choosing one of their cars and activating it with a Race Card. From there, play continues clockwise until each player has activated every car on their team once. You'll notice I said "activated every car" rather than "moves every car." The distinction is important as cars in Thunder Alley move as a pack more often than not. In fact, most cars will have been moved several times before they've even been activated on any given turn.
So how does all that extra movement happen? If you've at least a passing familiarity with stock car racing, you'll know that "drafting" is an important element of racing. Just as in actual stock car racing, positioning your cars to take advantage of moves made by others is key. This is all represented by the different types of movements allowed by the Race Cards. Movement in Thunder Alley is divided into four different types:
- Draft Movement: Once the active car starts moving forward, all cars directly ahead of it and behind it move as well. You can think of Draft Movement as pushing the line of cars in front of your car while also pulling the line of cars behind your car.
- Pursuit Movement: Once the active car starts moving forward, all cars directly ahead of it will move the as well. Similar to Draft Movement, but you will only be pushing the line of cars in front of your car.
- Lead Movement: All of the cars behind the active car when it starts its turn will follow its path. Lead Movement is similar to the pulling aspect of Draft Movement, but allows for a bit more maneuverability.
- Solo Movement: Only the active car moves.
As with any card game, luck of the draw can play a factor in Thunder Alley. Having a hand full of Solo Movement cards isn't nearly as useful as one with a mix of the other three movement types instead. It's because of this that a player who's retired one of his cars early has some additionally flexibility. Not only can he save his good cards for his remaining cars, but he can also spend a round passing by "activating" his retired car if he doesn't want to activate one of his remaining cars until later in the turn. In the end, luck will play a factor, but your success in Thunder Alley will rely on how you position your cars more than anything else.
Of course, stock car racing isn't just about driving fast. Managing wear and tear of the car and knowing when to make pit stops is important too. Here again Thunder Alley succeeds in simulating the sport. Some Race Cards won't cause any wear; some will cause temporary wear that can be fixed at a pit stop, while the Race Cards with the largest move values will cause permanent wear that will persist until the end of the race. If a car sustains enough wear, it will start having movement penalties, and if a car accumulates 6 points of wear, it wrecks and is removed from the race.
Wear doesn't just come into play for movement, but also for Events. At the end of each game turn a card is drawn from the Event deck and its effects applied immediately. While some events will affect a car at random, many events will determine their target based on wear (i.e. a "Flat Tire" event would target the car with the most amount of tire wear). Thunder Alley has enough different types of events to make planning for any specific event impossible, but if you have the option to diversify the types of wear a car is taking, I recommend you do so.
The Event Card drawn will also determine how pit stops will work for that turn. Event Cards with Green Flags allow for normal pit stops; Cars that wish to pit will move into the "Apron" (the inside lane with a yellow border), move back five spaces, and finally remove all temporary wear. On the next turn they will move out of the pit with Solo movement using a Race Card's smaller movement number (and ignores the normal wear on the card).
Event Cards with Yellow Flags will trigger a "Yellow Flag Restart." These are events that are severe enough to bring the race to a temporary halt. Cars will line up in a similar fashion as to the start of a race but maintain their current position in the pack (i.e a currently 10th place will move forward quite a bit, but will still be in 10th place). Once this is done, any cars that choose to pit are taken out of the lineup, cars that didn't pit move forward to close the gaps in the lineup, and finally the cars that chose to pit are placed in the back of the lineup in the order they came out (with all their temporary wear removed of course).
Although they aren't quite as common as Green Flags, from a gameplay standpoint I feel that Yellow Flags occur a bit too frequently in Thunder Alley. Players can almost always wait until a Yellow Flag to make pit stops before accruing enough wear to trigger movement penalties. Many times what should be an engaging decision, "Do I pit now under the Green Flag, or hope for a Yellow Flag next turn?" doesn't actually come up. Instead players are usually presented with the less interesting "Do I pit now under this Yellow Flag to repair what little damage I have, or should I wait until the next one?"
Yellow Flags also serve as a randomly occurring "rubber banding" mechanic since they bring even the furthest trailing cars up to the rest of the pack. Cars that get lapped during the turn are removed after Green Flag events, but Yellow flags save them from this fate so often that I've only seen a lapped car actually get pulled from the track a handful of times. If you're far behind or in desperate need of a pit stop, Yellow Flags are a godsend. If you've just spent several turns skilfully maneuvering your team to the front, having a random event suddenly erase most of your hard work can be disheartening.
Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons of Yellow Flag Restarts (especially since I'm rarely in the lead anyway ...), but some players will find them frustrating. Unfortunately, I'm simply not familiar enough with the intricacies of the stock car racing to know how true to life the frequency of Yellow Flag Restarts are in Thunder Alley, but when it comes to simulation games, I feel it's best to err on the side of realism, even at the expense of gameplay.
Thunder Alley is also surprisingly easy to learn. The rules are written "reference style," rather than the easier (and more popular) "order of play" format, which makes Thunder Alley seem more complex than it is if you aren't accustomed to that rules format. I am familiar with that rules format, but even after having read through the rules I wasn't certain I knew how to play. By the end of the first turn though, not only did I know how to play, but I knew 95% of the rules off the top of my head and exactly where to find the other 5% should they come up. I've found I can teach new players in under 10 minutes, and the answers to their most likely questions are printed on the boards themselves.
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A note on "chrome": The production value of Thunder Alley is solid overall. Thick chits (of which there are many), heavy-duty double-sided game boards, and cards that don't feel like they need to be placed in sleeves immediately. With four different tracks (and even more if there's enough support), and a plethora of different events, Thunder Alley won't get old quickly.
The first printing of Thunder Alley did have a few errors though. Most notably the movement reference chart on each track was incorrect (they included 4 slips of paper with the correction). Two other minor errors slipped through as well – a Race card was missing the appropriate arrow to denote what cars would link, and the first player marker was identical on both sides (one side should have been darker). All in all nothing game breaking, but a tad annoying nonetheless.
The bottom line:
Thunder Alley is absolutely a "must have" for racing fans. It not only captures the feel of stock car racing, but also avoids a few of the pitfalls of other racing games. Thunder Alley even manages to appeal to those who don't follow the sport and/or wouldn't normally play racing games. Its broad appeal combined with how well it scales and how easy it is to learn means Thunder Alley could find a place in nearly any gamer's collection.
Get this game if:
You are a fan of stock car racing.
You enjoy racing games.
You like games that play well regardless of player count.
You're willing to play a good game even if the theme doesn't appeal to you.
Avoid this game if:
You absolutely hate racing games or stock car racing.
You only like games that take under an hour to play.
The copy of Thunder Alley used for this review was purchased by my wife.