You hear it in the distance: the buzz of spinning bike wheels, like a swarm of bees. The pace car rounds the corner; the clatter of shifting gears echoes down the street. Then, a hundred bicycles roll into view as a seething pack.
And then, a breakaway! A small group of cyclists pulls ahead of the others. Relying on pure human strength and endurance, they struggle to increase the distance from the main pack, drafting off of each other to reduce wind resistance. Can they hold their lead, or will they exhaust themselves in the attempt?
Well, you may not be a trained, experienced cyclist, but you’ll get a chance to test your strategy and endurance as you race to the finish line in a game of Flamme Rouge.
Le Tour De Fun?
There’s a fundamental question that every race-themed board game has to ask and answer, and that is this: what makes the track any more than a simple scoreboard? Or, in other words, what makes the race a race?
After all, a race is typically a test of human skill, strength, and endurance – a direct competition of performance. Any board game could be considered a “race” in the most technical sense; a race to get the most points in a set amount of rounds, or to reach a certain threshold of points, or even simply to be the first to accomplish a specific task. So how do you capture that racing feel with cardboard and plastic?
Sometimes the simpler answer is the better one, and with just a few simple mechanisms, Flamme Rouge succeeds in capturing not only the spirit of a race, but the strategy and endurance specific to bicycle racing.
This game earns its yellow shirt with two standout features; a balanced interaction between players, and that your choices matter from the very beginning of the game.
Simplicity is paramount here. There’s no complex movement mechanism; you draw four cards, choose one, and the number on the card is how many spaces your rider moves forward. That alone isn’t particularly innovative, but we’re only just beginning.
A few important things to note: each rider has his own deck of cards, and each player actually controls a 2-rider team; a sprinter and a roleur. Every sprinter has an identical deck, and every roleur has an identical deck, with some slight differences between them.
Also: every card you play is removed from the deck, permanently.
In cycling, there is this concept called drafting (not the 7 Wonders kind) or, in this game’s terminology, slipstreaming. The idea is that a lightweight bicycle is susceptible to wind resistance; therefore, in a race of endurance, there’s a lot of value in riding behind other cyclists and let them take the brunt of the wind for you. This allows a rider to maintain a higher speed while using less of their energy, and this is where strategy comes in.
See, for most of the race you don’t want to be in front of the pack; if you are, you have to add Exhaustion cards to your deck. Exhaustion cards have a movement value of 2, and remember – every card you play is removed from your deck. If you’re removing 4’s and 5’s and 6’s and 9’s and adding a lot of 2’s, you’re really increasing the odds that in the last few rounds when you need to punch up the throttle, you’re only going to draw those 2’s from your deck. The only way to avoid those exhaustions is to end each round directly behind another player.
To really capture the value of slipstreaming, you gain a bonus movement if your rider ends his movement with exactly one open space between him and the next rider forward. In fact, if you end your movement in very last place, you might get to move two or three spaces forward – if you slipstream into a pack, which then slipstreams into the next pack and so on (packs of bikes slipstream together).
This all amounts to significant interactivity between players. It goes way beyond simple blocking, or taking a limited resource before someone else can. It also strays away from the “take-that” style of interaction where your interference can completely destroy someone else’s strategy. Instead, your positioning relative to the other players influences the end result of the game in subtle but important ways.
You want to maximize the free movement you get, and minimize what you give to others. You want to turn your 2’s into 5’s, and avoid taking exhaustion at the same time. The only way you can do that is by guessing where the other players will end up and take advantage of that.
Wait. Did I say “the only way”? Scratch that. You have two riders, each with their own movement. Just like in real life bike racing, a team of riders can work together to help one of them win the race. You can always try and position your two riders so that one gets slipstreaming from the other. You can try to divide potential exhaustion between your two riders, or have one rider take the heat the entire race so that the other is ready to sprint the last turn or two for the win.
This is especially important in the 2 player game. With fewer riders on the track, you’re less likely to end up in the middle of a pack, so you have to make sure your team is working together. Four player tends to be more chaotic in some sense, but either way is entertaining and interesting in its own right.
Anyway, you don’t want to be up front in the early parts of the race, for reasons described above. But you do want to be up front at the very end, so at some point you’re going to have to push up to the front of the pack. It’s not as easy as it sounds, either – if you’re three or four spaces behind, even a 9 isn’t going to defeat the average speed. That’s what forces you to think ahead, and try and plan out a strategy.
To further mix things up, inclines and declines complicate the issue. Inclines max out your movement at 5 and cancel slipstreaming. Declines bump your speed up to 5 at minimum, although you can play a higher card to go farther if you wish. The customizable map puts these sections at different times in the race, and these force you to re-think your strategy. You don’t want to waste high cards in the red areas, and you don’t want to get stuck in them for too many turns. In order to avoid the trouble, though, once again you have to think ahead so you can come in at the right speed. That, of course, will mess with your overall long-term strategy, adding replay value.
The components in the game are brightly colored with a classic art style that evokes sort of a 1920’s vibe. The tracks are colorful and easy to read. The miniatures look cool, but rouleurs and sprinteurs and difficult to distinguish. I also wish the card backs had different artwork than the fronts – its easily to confuse what’s what and get things mixed up when you’re setting up or putting away the game. At least the track assembles easily, and the player boards help keep things organized.
Overall, I’d say Flamme Rouge is an entertaining game with a solid design. It does lack a certain… spark, you might say. It’s inoffensive, easy to teach, and fun to play, but I don’t think that too many people will be looking to return to it again and again.
But that’s okay. Not every game has to be the flashy new thing. Some games should be comfortably straightforward, easy to get new people into. It’s a clever adaptation of a fairly unique theme, with a healthy level of interaction that’s never spiteful, all in a package that takes about 30 or 40 minutes to play.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Lautepelit.fi for providing a review copy of Flamme Rouge.