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Sunday, 20 September 2020

Tour de Tabletop

A minor side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has delayed this review, because it has also delayed the reason for this review. The 2020 Tour de France was due to have started on June 27th and finish three weeks later on July 19th, but its starting date was delayed until 29th August and it is due to finish today, 20th September. Consequently, this review—of a cycling-themed game—is equally as late. Published by Lautapelit.fi, Flamme Rouge is a cycling racing game designed for two to four players, aged eight and above, which can be played in between thirty and forty-five minutes. The mechanics involve racing on a modular board, the hand management of dual decks, and simultaneous action selection, supporting play that is both simple and tactical, and ultimately, providing a game that really feels like a stage of one the Grand Tours—the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España. Plus, there is nothing to stop a playing group to play 
Flamme Rouge more than once to simulate a Grand Tour!

In 
Flamme Rouge, each player controls a team of two riders. One is the Rouleur, a good all-rounder, capable of maintaining a good pace throughout a race, the other is the Sprinteur, capable of bursts of great speed—typically as they are racing for the finishing line. Throughout the game, each player will control the speed of both his Rouleur and his Sprinteur, each of whom has a sperate movement deck. In general, he will keep his cyclists in the pack—or peloton—to conserve energy and speed, protecting the Sprinteur until close to the end when he can launch a sprint attack or he might launch a breakaway from the peloton and get to the finishing line before anyone else. However, this will exhaust a cyclist and probably enable the peleton to catch up. All cyclists though can take advantage of the slipstream effect to catch up and keep up with the cyclists in front of them. Since every team is trying to do this, the cyclists will be jockeying for position throughout the game.

Open up the box and you will find twenty-one double-sided Track Tiles consisting of Start and Finish sections, plus various straight and corner sections. All of the Track Tiles have two lanes and on the reverse are marked with Ascent and Descent sections which indicate mountain sections. There are eight custom plastic Cyclists—one Rouleur and one Sprinteur per player, marked with an ‘R’ and an ‘S’ respectively, and four Player Boards, one per player. Each board has spaces for the two decks of cards a player will draw from throughout the game. The game’s almost two hundred cards are divided into ten decks. Four of these are Energy decks for both the Rouleur and the Sprinteur, whilst the other two are Exhaustion decks, again one for Rouleurs and one for Sprinteurs. Each player has two Energy decks, one for his Rouleur and one for his Sprinteur. The two Exhaustion decks are drawn from by all of the players. Both Rouleur and Sprinteur Energy decks consist of numbered cards—each indicating the number of spaces a Rouleur or Sprinteur can move, the Rouleur’s between three and seven, and the Sprinteur’s between two and five, plus several nines. The value of the Exhaustion cards are all equal to two. Lastly, there are four Reference cards and six Stage cards. Each of the latter gives a layout for the Track Tiles to model a Stage from one of the Grand Tours. Lastly, the large, four-page rulebook explains how to set up and play Flame Rouge.

All of these components are of an excellent quality. Both the cards and Track Tiles have a linen finish and the Track Tiles are of thick cardboard. The rulebook is short and easy to read, and includes samples of play where necessary. Lastly, the plastic cyclists are not quite as nice as the other components, but both the Rouleur and the Sprinteur have different poses and the back of their jerseys are marked with an ‘R’ or an ‘S’ respectively for easy identification. The look of the game, of French cycling the 1930s, is really attractive and gives the game a classic feel.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives a Rouleur and Sprinteur, Rouleur deck and Sprinteur deck, and player board, all in the same colour. The Track Tiles are laid out according to one of the Stage cards or a Stage of the players’ own design, and both Exhaustion decks are put beside the Stage layout. Then each player places his Rouleur and Sprinteur at the start of the Stage layout, the order determined by age and the last time the players each rode a bicycle.

Each round of 
Flamme Rouge consists of three phases—the Energy, Movement, and End phases. In the Energy phase, each player draws four cards from either his Sprinteur or Rouleur Energy deck, selects one to play, and returns the other three to the bottom of the appropriate deck. Then he does it to the other deck so that he one card from both of the Sprinteur and Rouleur Energy decks ready to play in the Movement phase. This can be done in any order, but once a card has been selected, a player cannot go back and change it.

In the Movement phase, the players reveal their cards and begin moving their cyclists, starting with the one at the front and working backwards in order. Each cyclist is moved forward a number of spaces as indicated on the respective Energy cards. A cyclist can be moved past another cyclist, but cannot land on a space occupied by one. Instead, the cyclist moves in behind the other. This will typically forces a player to be conservative in the choice of Energy cards he plays in order to prevent his wasting them in attempts to get his cyclists to pass those ahead of him, and whilst the players with cyclists at the front have a wider choice in the cards they play, they not do want necessarily to separate their cyclists from the ones behind them lest they begin to gain Exhaustion cards.

The End phase, all played Energy cards—for both Sprinteur and Rouleur—are discarded, and Slipstreaming and Exhaustion occur. If a cyclist ends his movement with exactly one empty space between him and the cyclist in front of him, then the cyclist can move exactly one space forward and close the gap. If there is more than one space between cyclists, then they are considered to be separate groups. It is also perfectly possible and legal to slipstream multiple groups, the slightly strung out cyclists taking advantage of the slipstream effect to come back together form a larger pack.

However, if there is still a gap of more than one space between any cyclists after those able to take advantage of the Slipstream effect, then those cyclists earn an Exhaustion card each. This is added to their respective Energy decks and when drawn and played, only enable a cyclist to move two spaces. What this means is that it pays for a cyclist to be conservative in his use of Energy. In the peleton, he can maintain the same speed as his fellow cyclists and gain advantage of the Slipstream effect if a rival cyclist decides to speed up. There is nothing to stop a cyclist making a break from the peleton, and just like in an actual Grand Tour, racing off into the distance, his player using the high value Energy cards in a cyclist’s deck to gain an advantage over his fellow cyclists. Just like a Grand Tower though, this will tire the cyclist out fairly quickly, modelled by the breakaway cyclist picking up more and more Exhaustion cards over the course of several turns. These will come to clog up a cyclist’s Energy deck, even as his player uses the higher value Energy cards up and discards them, ultimately slowing a cyclist down.

In the base set-up, a game will typically see the cyclists jockeying for position right down to the finishing line when Sprinteurs make a break for it in an attempt to win the stage. In the advanced game—which really only adds one or two rules, mountains can be added to Stages. Mountain sections on the tiles are marked into two colours—orange for ascent and blue for descent. When a cyclist is in an ascent section, and therefore travelling fairly slowly, the maximum value of any Energy card played is always five. If a higher value card is played, the number of spaces of movement it grants is reduced to five. Conversely, on the descent sections, when the cyclist is travelling really quickly, the minimal value of any Energy card played is five. What this means is that lower value Energy cards can be played and the cyclist gets the benefit of the increased value and because the card is also discarded from the game, it means that the player is not forced to use it later when it will not help his cyclists. This includes Exhaustion cards, and this is one way in which to remove them from a cyclist’s Energy deck.

Effectively, 
Flamme Rouge is a finely balanced energy management game, with players needing to keep their cyclists up with those of the other players and either not let their rivals get to far ahead—or at least keep up with them when they are! A player can also keep track of what Energy cards his rivals have played, but it is still possible to be outfoxed by a rival especially when mountains come into play and break up the cyclists into smaller groups. The mountains are all but a necessity as without them, Flamme Rouge is well, a bit flat, and just as the mountains break up the terrain, they provide an opportunity for the players to break up the bigger groups and form breakaways.

Flamme Rouge looks good and is both easy to learn, play, and teach. Above all, Flamme Rouge plays and feels like a stage of a Grand Tour, and there is a great ebb and flow to it—just like the real thing. For gamers who are also fans of cycling, Flamme Rouge is a game they are going to appreciate, whilst being accessible by gamers who are not cycling fans and cycling fans who are not gamers.

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