“Why would you want to play a game about biking?” My friend asks. “You could go outside and bike instead.” He’s not wrong. Often times board games are about fantastical things: Exploring an ancient ruin, building a spaceship, being a swashbuckling pirate. Things we don’t do after work on Tuesday. But other times, they are just life or more mundane matters. The Office was a hit tv show for years, and plenty of people work in offices enough to know what it’s like. But in a way, that can be the brilliance of a game about the mundane. People don’t play a game about biking to feel the wind in their hair, but rather to abstract some part of the experience into a multiplayer puzzle.
There are several recent games that accomplish this conversion with aplomb. Clearly works of love for their respective subject matter, their designers took a hobby distilled it down to the essence of that activity. I would like to talk about several of these over the next few weeks to see how they boil down regular hobbies into fascinating board games.
Granted, the first game I want to talk about, Flamme Rouge, is not just about biking on the Hudson Mohawk trail. It is about the type of competitive biking seen in the Tour De France, competitive high level cycling where every second counts and the level of training is intense. But which part of the sport does the game capture? For Flamme Rouge the designer, Asger Harding Granerud, focused on what happens in a peloton, a group of cyclers and how they affect each other’s exertion. In the game each player has two cyclists which they play movement cards for to race around a player constructed track. Each turn a player draws four movement cards for one rider, chooses one, and then does the same for the other rider, with all players revealing their selected movement simultaneously and moving ahead starting with the first place rider and progressing backwards through the pack. Pretty simple right? It seems so straight forward that there would be nothing here, just a matter of playing cards and seeing who gets to the end first.
However, there is so much more, and with just a few wrinkles mirroring what happens in a real race, the game changes from a barebones exercise to an eloquent simulation. You see, in Flamme Rouge it doesn’t pay to be in the front of the pack. Here you are facing the most wind resistance, and to show this in the game players must take exhaustion cards whenever there is no rider on the space in front of them. Exhaustion cards are terrible. They are worth just two movement each, and if you stay at the front of the pack for long your hand could be full of them in no time. Instead it is much better to be just behind the leader of the group. In fact, if you are one space behind another ride, you get to draft forward one space for free. The whole group does this in sequence causing all riders to bunch back up together and coast on the effort of those poor souls who emerged at the front this round. And so instead of a game about playing your cards and trying to stay ahead like other racing game, instead there is a sort of battle to outsmart the other players. To stay near the lead, but to let the other players do the heavy lifting.
There are yet more simulation wrinkles here that are just the cherry on top. You see there are of course hills to contend with here. Uphill sections limit players movement and drafting, letting the others catch up to the lead, and making high movement cards useless. But after a long struggle there is over course the inevitable downhill. Downhills give players free movement, a great place to toss those crumby exhaustion cards you’ve been building up for so long. Hills create a narrative to the game as how players navigate them will have huge consequences as how players navigate them will affect the final standings. And finally to round out the lovely simulation aspects of this game there is of course the difference between rides. Each players has a Sprinter, and a roller. The Sprinter specializes in high numbered movement cards. Those few 9s in your deck may be the key to getting across the finish line first, but they are hampered by some very mediocre low cards that may come up at exactly the wrong time. The roller is much more consistent, with more middle of the road cards. While you can’t predict how the other players will race, you can use your two racers in combination so that at the very least they are not both eating the wind at the front of the pack.
And with that the simulation is complete… at least for the base game. The community and the designer are far from done. Players themselves have recreated the multi-stage journeys of the Tour De France, and the designer has introduced new track pieces and pieces for two more players in the first expansion Flamme Rouge Peloton, and is introducing weather simulation in an upcoming second expansion Flamme Rouge: Meteo. While there is clearly love in the design of this game, I would be remiss not to mention the art and components. The game goes for a historic look with yesteryear rides, and each player color features a slightly different mustachioed pair of old timers riders. In addition the game includes plenty of different track pieces to create near endless combinations and the riders themselves are adorable plastic bikers. Clearly this is a work of love translated into cardboard. So why would I want to play a game about biking when I have a lovely bike on my back porch? Well, for one thing, I am not likely to make the Tour De France any time soon, and for another, Flamme Rouge captures the aerodynamics of biking without quite the exertion. That being said, I think when the weather is nicer I may ride to my game night instead of drive. Why not have the best of both worlds?