Monday, October 3, 2016

Boardgame review — Grand Prix

This One Goes to Eleven


Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Player count: 2 to 11
Publisher: GMT Games





After the enthusiastic reception of their first racing game, Thunder Alley, designers Jeff and Carla Horger announced that the next title in the series would be Grand Prix. Whereas the original had tackled NASCAR, the encore would take on Formula One racing. And although the first title had taken years to attain publication, its successor would cross the finish line in record time.
Clearly, fans were hungry for more.

At first glance, the two games are so similar that one might reasonably believe that Grand Prix will feel like nothing more than a special scenario for Thunder Alley.
But that assumption would be wrong.

Grand Prix can accommodate up to 11 players (!) around the table, each controlling a team of two cars—which means that those cars add up to 22 rumbling machines on the track. And thanks to neutral cars, that number never goes down: for each missing human player, two neutral cars are thrown into the mix. In some cases, neutral cars can be activated by any player; in others (with 2 to 5 players), a subset of those neutral cars is assigned to each player.

On your turn, you can activate one of your two cars, or a neutral car assigned to you, or one of the neutral cars not assigned to anyone. This is accomplished through the play of a movement card, out of a hand that varies from 12 (in a two-player situation) to just three (when a full complement of 11 players are competing).

Those cards display movement points that range from 4 to 9, in four different varieties. With Solo movement, the activated car moves on its own along the track. With Leader movement, the activated car will take along for the ride all touching cars behind it. With Pursuit movement, the activated car will “push” all touching cards in front of it. And then there’s Line movement, where touching cars both in front and behind the activated car will move together.
Many cards sport a short paragraph of text, where special restrictions—or advantages!—are highlighted. Most cards also indicate what sort of wear the activated car incurs, from tire wear to transmission trouble, and everything in-between. Wear markers influence the condition of each player car (neutral cars ignore wear) and too many of them will slow down even the most tuned of engines. Unattended, they can even lead to the vehicle’s ultimate demise.

Once every car has been activated, the turn is over. An event card is drawn, its effects applied—ranging from a change in weather to a catastrophic crash—and each car is afforded the opportunity to pit, which allows for the removal of wear markers. (A specific subset of neutral cars is always forced to pit, depending on the event drawn.) Then a new turn begins, and so on, until three laps have been completed. Points are assigned to the cars that finish in the top 10 positions, and the team with the higher combined score is declared the winner. 

PRODUCTION

The game ships with four tracks printed on two double-sided, six-panel mounted boards.
Those are heavy, but a charm to race on. The box also holds two decks of cards (movement and events), administrative markers, wear markers, thick car tokens with rounded corners, and 11 team sheets use to track the condition of player cars.

I have to say that the tracks in Grand Prix look a bit better than their Thunder Alley counterparts. The colors a slightly more vibrant, and there is something naturally more exciting in the snaking subtleties of an F1 track, as opposed to the flat perspective of a NASCAR oval.

The car tokens—with their depiction of the recognizable F1 silhouette—are easy to handle except for one thing. Since a car is flipped over after it’s been activated, each token has a side with a light background, and another with a dark background. That way, it should be easy to figure out at a glance which cars have yet to move. But whereas Thunder Alley went for a white side and a black side (which makes playing options obvious), Grand Prix goes for an arguably more stylized light gray & dark gray option that unfortunately doesn’t introduce enough contrast between the two sides of a car token. Things gets worse with neutral cars, whose background adopts a hachured pattern to set them apart: this further blurs the distinction between the two sides.
You do get used to it, but there’s no excuse for the extra work to which players are subjected while planning their moves. Even under ideal lighting conditions, players often check with their opponents to make sure they’re not overlooking a car they could activate. (“So 22, 1, 14 and 99 have yet to move, right?”) 

RULES

While the rulebook in Grand Prix is a little longer than that in Thunder Alley, the game is just as simple to play. (I can typically get newcomers up and driving in 10 minutes.) And if you’re already familiar with Thunder Alley, a few adjustments are all that’s necessary to get you going with Grand Prix.

For instance, the four types of movement work the same way in both games. However, in Grand Prix, when a car that’s displaced laterally would end up going off the track, it moves one space forward instead of backward.

Pitting is different—and simpler—in Grand Prix. Each wear marker sports a number (from 1 to 10) that indicates how many spaces a pitting car has to move back in order to get rid of said marker. Done.

A special marker makes an appearance in Grand Prix: the close call marker. Each time a car displaces another car laterally, it gains such a marker. A close call marker is not a wear marker and so doesn’t really affect cars… until an event comes up that punishes the car with the most close call markers. Basically, the car that takes the most risks might end up paying for it. By comparison, lateral displacements were the meat and potatoes of Thunder Alley and incurred no penalty at all.

One major change here is the weather, although one might argue that it’s presented in a rather abstracted manner. A race normally begins with dry weather, which can change to rain (and eventually back to dry) through some event cards. Accordingly, different tire types may be employed: soft, hard or rain tires. In accordance with standard F1 rules, each player car is obligated to pit at least once to change tire types; apart from that, players are free to install tires on their two cars as they see fit. But rain and hard tires don’t do anything: only soft tires allow a movement bonus after the play of a card (and then the tire marker is flipped to its used side, and needs to be replaced in order to be used again). Hard tires only exist to force players to use different tires (essentially without a bonus) for part of the race, as per the rule highlighted above. A change in weather urges player cars towards the pit in order to get new tires. Should you refuse, all you get are one or two close call markers (or the occasional tire wear marker), and that's it. Scot-free.
It works well and is easy to explain, but I will admit to missing the tire subtleties present in other racing games.

Another new feature is the concept of the safety zone, which is deployed when a minor incident occurs. The safety zone is a corridor 11 spaces long—five in front of the affected car, five behind—where cars must move in a single lane and cannot pass each other. The safety zone is lifted at the end of the turn.

The rules do a great job of teaching the game and acting as reference material when the action gets underway. Some imprecisions and minor omissions will annoy sticklers such as myself (Are neutral cars affected by a change in weather? Can you simply refresh soft tires or are you forced to switch to a new tire type?) but they are few and far between, and common sense will usually take care of things. 

FUN FACTOR

Grand Prix is a metric ton of fun. If you’re any kind of boardgame racing enthusiast, this one is definitely worth a pit stop.

Safety zones, tires and weather, as well as some of the event cards and the way cars are affected by lateral displacement are all elements that do feel like F1 racing, albeit in a superficial way. Wargamers often refer to some games as being “war-themed games” rather than actual wargames, and I’m tempted to use the same construction here: Grand Prix is an F1-themed racing game, but not really an F1 simulation.

That’s not a bad thing in itself: I think Grand Prix is an astoundingly fun racing game, and one that I’m looking forward to playing again and again. It rewards strategy a little more than its NASCAR brother, and bad stuff seems to happen to those who actually went looking for it (expect perhaps for the Serious Crash event, which will wipe out anyone who just happened to be driving next to the car with the most close call markers).

I also think the game works better as a two-player contest than its predecessor. In Thunder Alley, a two-player game involves only 12 cars (six per player), and really feels like a tug-of-war. My cars against yours.
In Grand Prix, no matter the number of players, you always have 22 cars crowding the track. And the neutral cars—especially those that either player can activate, which is the majority of them in a two-player scenario—can really mess things up. In a good way. They also introduce additional opportunities and risks when it comes to timing: do you make use of that neutral car now, or do keep it in reserve for a super play a couple of moves down the line… if your opponent hasn’t decided to use it for himself?

PARTING SHOTS

If you’re not expecting a Formula One simulation and accept the abstractions and simplifications inherent to the system—not a hard thing to do, believe me—Grand Prix offers a racing challenge to rival the best of them. As a Thunder Alley fan (40 sessions as of this writing), I would go so far as to say that Grand Prix sits one position ahead of its big brother on my “to play” list.

And it bears repeating: Grand Prix has a feel all its own, and is not at all just a Thunder Alley clone.

Now, if four tracks aren’t enough asphalt to satisfy your high-octane ambitions, you already have access to more: the four Thunder Alley expansion tracks, released last year, have alternate F1 trajectories already baked into each NASCAR oval. In fact, the tracks of both games (12 in total, counting the expansion pack) are compatible with either system.

Still not enough? The Horgers have stated that the next title in the series would be a Mad Max-style of gladiatorial racing, with armored cars and shrapnel galore.

In the meantime, get driving!



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