Thunder Alley is a stock car racing game from GMT. Usually, I am drawn to games for two reasons. First, the complexity of their strategy and tactics, and secondly, I am drawn to games that elicit a gut level excitement as they progress. I like knowing that each time I bring that game to the table, I can modify what I have done before slightly or drastically in an attempt to improve upon previous outcomes. Games like Agricola and Steam fit this sensibility quite well. As my game collection grows, I continue to specifically seek out different gaming experiences, trying to find these qualities in other game genres. This search led me to racing games, and, of course, to Formula D, which is THE name of the genre. Unfortunately, I hated it. I felt no sense of control. I felt like my choices never really mattered. To be frank, I had given up on the genre. Then, years later, I heard about Thunder Alley. Everything I read pointed to it as the antithesis of Formula D, so I took the plunge.
It has proven to be one of the best gaming decisions I have ever made. Within that one box, I have found more adrenaline-inducing excitement than ever before. Sure, Formula D can be exciting, but Thunder Alley is both exciting and deeply strategic. How did it accomplish this feat? Thunder Alley finds the perfect balance of driver control and unpredictability. The brilliance of the design is three-pronged: Teams, Cards, and Points. The first great thing about Thunder Alley is that each player controls a team of cars rather than an individual machine. This offers players more choices on a given turn, and a greater opportunity to be successful. It gives players multiple ways to affect a race throughout the game, and because the cars on the team can be activated in any order, it creates a seamless catch-up feature. The thing I hated most about Formula D was the dice. Thunder Alley eliminates this frustration by offering movement via a hand of cards instead. The way in which these cards work gives the game the stockcar-racing feel it strives for. The cards offer four types of movement: Solo, Draft, Pursuit, and Lead. Each of these affects the board differently because each forces cars other than the active car to move along the track in different ways. They also have consequences, as parts of each car will wear down based upon the movement cards that are chosen. Bolder moves do more damage to the car than slighter moves. This damage may be temporary or permanent and is tracked with chits on a player’s board. Temporary damage can be fixed in the pits, while permanent damage lasts the duration of the race.
The final brilliant stroke in this game’s design is the points system. Instead of watching one person win by having one car cross the finish line, each car a player controls will earn points based upon its position at the finish. This means that players act more like crew chiefs than drivers and are rewarded accordingly. Therefore, the victor is the player who plays his hand best throughout the race and gives proper attention to the whole team. I cannot recommend this game enough. It has literally redeemed an entire game genre in my eyes. It rides the likes of strategy and luck, puts players on the edge of control, and is right at home in a light-hearted gaming session without alienating the hardcore gamers.