The Tour de France – hold the spandex, the bike crashes, and the doping.1
Flamme Rouge was one of the hot games of 2016-17 and continues to be a mainstay. At SHUX this last October, it was a show star with too many people trying to play whenever it was available.
So what separates it from every other game out there? I mean, I think that there’s more likely to be elves than bike racers at the average gaming convention. In this review, I’ll look at why this game creates bonkers fans2 and whether it lives up to the hype.
But first, the gameplay explanation for those who want it.
The race course is made of modular tiles that represent flat spaces, uphill sections, and downhill sections. Each player is given two miniature riders – a sprinteur (sprinter) and a rouleur (a grinder) – to move around the course. Each rider has its own separate deck of cards that represent movement points. The sprinter has some higher movement point cards, such as 9’s, but trades off with more low cards. The rouleur just has a good collection of decent but not great cards.
Each turn, all players simultaneously draw three cards for their two riders. For example, Bob first picks up 3 cards for the sprinteur and chooses a card. Bob then draws three cards for the rouleur.Bob could have easily reversed and picked the card for the rouleur first. It doesn’t matter. The unchosen cards go at the bottom of the draw pile right-side-up to be shuffled when Bob runs out of cards to draw. All players then flip the cards over and move the riders starting from the front to the back. After movement, those used movement cards are tossed in the box – never used again in the race.
Once that is done, it gets interesting. After moving, players check for two conditions. Starting from the back, you check to see if a rider is exactly 1 space behind another rider. If so, the rider moves up that one space by “slipstreaming” on the other rider – unless either rider is on an uphill section. And you continue checking all the way to the front rider. So a player can conceivably play a very low card and get a lot of free movement. Guessing when to take that risk is a big element of the game.
The other check is for exhaustion. If a rider has an empty square in front of him or her, the rider gets an exhaustion card placed at the bottom of the deck along with the unused cards. These exhaustion cards give 2 movement points – the lowest total. This simulates the effort it takes to be the front runner and break the wind for the other riders.
Now that we’re done with the explanation, let’s talk about the game!
Flamme Rouge is light. REALLY light. A person whose greatest gaming experience has been Pitch Car can understand Flamme Rouge in minutes and play well. The rules book is well laid and and gives clear explanations with visuals. The most complex part of the rules is remembering to bury the cards you don’t select underneath your draw pile. And yet….
This game can become a brain-burner due to the perfect information. You know what cards are available to each rider. You know what’s been played. And you can see how many exhaustion cards a rider is gaining.3 It leads to the critical decision in the game – when do you break away from the pack and go for it? Go too early and you’ll spend your game gathering exhaustion cards and limp across the line while others are playing their high movement cards and passing you by. Go too late and you’ll get caught in a jam and never catch the leader. Understanding the probability of what people are still drawing and what they’ve tossed away already gives you what you need to know. Even then, your probability-based strategy will be tossed aside like a Lance Armstrong trophy after drug testing. The game is a game and probability does not equal reality. Perfect information does not change – you’ll get the wrong cards and need to make imperfect decisions. You’ll need to break away early or lag behind.
If it’s not coming out clearly – I like this mechanic. The designer, Asger Sams Granerud, kept the game tight without a lot of superfluous actions. Perfect for a racing game. There’s a good tension that develops between guessing what others are doing and balancing your own hand.
The components are a strange lot. The cards and the modular board is wonderful. The riders miniatures are a mixed bag. I have the original Lautapelit edition and the two riders (Sprinteur and Rouleur) are almost indistinguishable. It is very easy to accidentally move the wrong rider. Stronghold Games published it in the US and made the decision to stamp a big S and R on the back of each rider. This solved one problem but created another. To stamp the miniatures required removing the riders from the bikes and then being re-attached after the printing. At the SHUX Flamme Rouge tourney, most people’s riders had fallen back off and had to be precariously balanced on the bikes. It did not detract from the game play but was aesthetically displeasing.
Granerud, the developer, has been very active in the Boardgamegeek.com forum for the game and has continued to expand its rules. He’s added Touring rules to allow chaining together multiple races. It adds a new dynamic to the decision-making process. In each game, you get to discard half of your exhaustion cards (rounded down). That means the player who took a lot of exhaustion cards to win this stage will be in a world of hurt on the next stage, simulating the wear and tear of multiple races. He’s also posted rules for solo play and other variants.
On a negative note, the base game does not scale down to 2 players very well. The decisions feel a little less forced and the tension is not there. However, the publisher has just released Flamme Rouge: Peleton with rules to not only address the 2 player issue with an AI player but also adds new road types and the ability to take the number of players from 4 to 12. It should be a worthy addition.
With only that as a small negative, I can’t help but give this a Mad Meeple Worthy Award and place it in the M^2 Hall of Fame.