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Thunder Alley

A behind the scenes look at a new take on racing. Follow the progress of this brand new game right here.

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Turn by turn

Jeff Horger
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Ohio
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Today I will begin a turn by turn full-game recording of a game of Thunder Alley. Hopefully, using this medium you will be able to see just how all of the working parts that is Thunder Alley come together. Feel free to ask questions or post comments. This post will cover setting up the game. I am going to do a six-player game with each team controlling 3 cars. I will use yellow (cars 1-2-3), blue (cars 11-12-13), green (cars 31-32-33), red(21-22-23), pink (cars 40-41-43) and black (cars 60-61-63).

I have decided to use the short track for this example so maybe we'll see some lapped car action later in the race.

To set the starting grid the top card of the race deck is turned over and the only thing I need to look at is the team bar.



The team bar is read from left to right and teams not in play are skipped. that makes yellow the team with the pole position followed by pink, green, black, red and blue. Note that orange is simply skipped since it is not in the game. Once all teams have one car down, the order is reversed and a second car is played down. Then the last cars are placed in the order of the first set with yellow first and blue last.

The starting grid is as follows:
Yellow 1
Pink 40
Green 31
Black 60
Red 21
Blue 11
Blue 12
Red 22
Black 61
Green 32
Pink 41
Yellow 2
Yellow 3
Pink 43
Green 33
Black 63
Blue 13

All of the cars are double-sided and it is important that each car be placed with its darker (gray) background up.

I will be doing a move-by move photo replay of this race on the facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Thunder-Alley/128422033924619

As always you can pre-order this game from the GMT P500 page: http://www.gmtgames.com/p-359-thunder-alley.aspx
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Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:23 pm
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Origins 2012

Jeff Horger
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Origins is a big event for me. It takes place in my own back yard and a large group consisting of Carla, myself and a dozen or so of my closest friends make a week-long vacation of it. This was the first Origins that I knew going in that I would have to spend a sizable quantity of time "working". By working I mean that it was necessary to spend large portions of my time playing my own games that are on the P500 in the board room and hopefully attracting others to come and take a closer look.

Among all of the other games that got played we managed three full games of Thunder Alley with all of the games going over very well. Carla & I feel very satisfied with the reception we have received from new players as well as some of our out of town friends who only see the game once a year. This year their new thing to see was the expansion tracks, Watkins Glen and Pocono.

I so much wish that I was able to speed the P500 process along. I know if the game were to hit the market it would be well-received and a good seller. But patience is a virtue and when the day arrives I expect to have a lot of fun.

Thunder Alley is currently available for pre-order through the GMT P500 system for a substantial discounted price of $39.
http://www.gmtgames.com/p-359-thunder-alley.aspx

I also have a Facebook presence for the game where I intend to start putting up unique content only available there.
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Thunder-Alley/128422033924619
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Mon Jun 18, 2012 6:50 pm
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Who wants to sponsor cardboard cars?

Jeff Horger
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In my moments of deep thought I always amused myself that someday Thunder Alley would have "official" NASCAR tie-ins and players could have teams made up of Junior, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and others. Of course when I snapped out of it and the realities of the cost and sheer difficulty of putting those logos in a small hobby project returned to cloud my reality, I knew that something had to be done? but what?

The answer was simple enough. I don't know if it was me or someone else sitting around a table after a playtest some time back that first said, "hey if authentic NASCAR cars are unobtainable why not use something GMT already possesses the rights to, other GMT game titles."

It was a great idea. The cars would have the same look as real race cars but instead of being sponsored by Lowes or Pepsi, they would be sponsored by Manoeuvre and Pacific Typhoon. Its not the real thing but I believe they will look fantastic once a real artist has the chance to work some magic on them.

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Mon May 7, 2012 3:21 pm
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Crashes, Wrecks & Assorted Catastrophies

Jeff Horger
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I should make Carla write this entry. Of all the rules subsets in the game this may be the one that she influenced the most. Stock car racing and crashes, the words are synonymous. You simply can't have racing without dented metal. In the beginning, I was quite happy to have huge, devastating crashes that cleared cars off the track and filled up the garages. Stay out of trouble and trouble wouldn't be able to find you, meaning that there was a "safe" way to play and you could avoid the tussles if you managed to keep a conservative line.

"Hogwash!" I was told. Carla wanted to play aggressively and not have to worry about sudden wall syndrome. It was fun to get in there and mix it up. I was informed that if I wanted crashes they better not just randomly eliminate her from the game! She was 100% right. Carla is a Euro Gamer and family gamer, I am an old school Avalon Hill gamer from back in the day with a love of Euros as well. She was not about to have her whole game tossed away on the flip of a card and I didn't blame her. In our compromise to realism vs play-ability we came up with Body Damage tokens that were the same as the permanent wear tokens.

Yes, you can be involved in crashes, but only peripherally. The narrative of the game stresses that the cars controlled by the players are not alone on the track. The remainder of the field is out there as well. Your cars are simply the most likely cars to be around at the end. All of the racing action is occurring during the game but the devastating affects are being directed at the other "invisible" cars on this day. The big wrecks happen, but not to you. You may receive some collateral damage from the 8-car pileup but not enough to keep you off the track.

Once we had that conceit, that the players of the game should have every chance to finish the race, the design of the random event deck became much easier. Randomness was encouraged since even the worst of the wreck cards would not remove a player without any rhyme or reason. I got to keep some strategy in the game through the play of the blown engine and blown transmission cards where you can have a car blow up. But only one car and only if you played an 8-speed car earlier.

Wrecks are exciting in Thunder Alley but they are not the end of your race. With the calling out of the yellow, they could just be the restart you were looking for.
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Fri Apr 20, 2012 3:51 pm
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Wear & Tear

Jeff Horger
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When I first began the process of Thunder Alley, my default mindset was that if it was in stock car racing it needed to be in the game. I knew enough to understand that that would be impractical but I felt that the effort should be made and that the game would dictate where to cut. So we started out with a pit lane, pit stalls and every type of wear and tear imaginable. There were events to cover every eventuality. Fuel was managed by the gallon. It was simply immense. Not epic or grand, just big and clunky.

One day I was sitting around with all of the charts and tables and cards and the mental mists parted and I saw the light regarding wear. At the level of the race (2-4 laps depending on the track) each turn is like a snapshot of the race. Each turn is not modeling a couple of seconds of race time but maybe 10-20 laps and the changes in the pack over the course of that time. So each little wiggle and wobble is not necessary to be depicted. Fuel does not need to be tracked with a calculator.

The game requires only a handful of different wear types and those are only differentiated so that the Event Cards will be able to pick out which cars are doing the worst with regards to each type of wear. Yes every car is using fuel, taking nicks and dings and wearing out those precious tires. But the cars in trouble are those that have had major engine issues, a short top-off of fuel or where the suspension just won’t stabilize. These problems are represented by the wear markers that are accumulated throughout the game. Sometimes you run smooth and nothing really bad happens. You are still using fuel and tires but not at a rapid rate.

So that’s a long-about way to say that I had an idea that would simplify the game without affecting the importance of wear on cars. No matter what the problem, all problems eventually lead either two places; the pits or the garage. If the wear or damage you have incurred is minor or if you have an urgent need for fuel you need to head for the pits. If you have a major failure, it’s off to the garage for some milk and cookies.

Problems with the car slow you down. Conserving fuel=slow down, unable to hold a line=slow down, worn tires=slow down. If they made you faster racers would never pit. But they don’t, they tend to slow you down. So if you have one or two wear issues, it’s OK, you can correct those issues the next time you pit. But when the ledger becomes full of problems, your speed will drop off and then only a trip to the pits can make you right. It was always my goal to put pit strategy in your hands. In Thunder Alley, when to pit is up to you.
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Mon Apr 2, 2012 3:24 pm
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Where are the other 27 cars?

Jeff Horger
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I am going to step out on a limb and say that to me, Thunder Alley does feel like a track full of cars buzzing around a racetrack. But even those of us who are mathematically challenged can see that 16 cars is not the same as the 43 that start NASCAR events. What happened to the rest of the field?



As some early play testers can confirm, they were in there at one time and thank goodness they were taken out. Moving around all 43 of the cars each turn was a tiresome experience. Imagine having to deal with more non-player cars than ones the players controlled. There were charts, tables and extra dice rolls. The handful of 43-car play tests were epic in length and complexity. Not at all what I wanted and less of what Carla wanted.

We settled on imaginary NPC's (non-player cars). These are the teams that are not going to end in the top 20 for this race. They will be involved in the wrecks that bring out our yellow flags. They will cause major accidents that the player's cars will become involved in as secondary victims. The rest of the pack is out there, its just not their day.

Sometimes, short cuts have to be taken to keep games playable. I can always tell when a game is getting too deep by when the play testers "check out". Every time we came to the "NPC" phase the game would have to break while someone had to adjust the NPC position and determine a number of variables. I am sure that if I had kept a focus on them I could have streamlined the system some. But clearly no one really had much interest in it. It was possible to use the NPC's strategically but casual/first-time players didn't catch on easily and even when the game was over they couldn't see how to use the NPC's to their advantage. In a normal GMT-style game this is a learning curve that is acceptable, even expected. But in Thunder Alley it was a barrier that I thought would keep some more casual players off the track.

So when you play, envision the track full of cars and when the yellow flag comes out, blame the rookie running 32nd at the time. Its his fault.
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Tue Mar 13, 2012 5:07 pm
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Into the Pits

Jeff Horger
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In racing games a big issue for me is the way that the pit stops are dealt with. Many games make it mandatory to pit. Others make it optional but not particularly helpful. Still others do away with it entirely. Carla & I wanted pit stops to be useful but not mandatory. It took quite a lot of effort to finally get the current system down to where we were happy with it.

The final result sprung from two needs. With a race of 2-4 laps it was very detrimental to have pit lane stay at a fixed point on the track. It was also important to force the cars to slowly wear down and give the players a decision on pitting. Is it alright to stay out and continue with a degraded car or is it bad enough that I need to pit?

The first solution was easy enough and came very quickly. We created an "apron" lane all around the track. Cars could pit at any time by dropping down to the apron lane at the end of the turn, go back 5 spaces and on the next turn exit the pits at a reduced speed. So anywhere on the track there is a pit stop to be had.

The second solution was the wear tokens on the cars. Why pit unless the need arises? As the race progresses cars receive wear tokens for tire wear, fuel consumption, suspension issues and minor body damage. These problems can all be taken care of when a car pits. Collect too many of these tokens and your car begins to slow down. Collect six of them and your car is so beat up you are forced to withdraw from the race. So not only can you pit at any time, but it will be a necessity during the race.

One final word regarding yellow flags. Thunder Alley has them and therefore "pitting under caution" is possible. You may lose some spots to cars that stay out on the track but you do remain in the pack for the restart. But just like in real racing, the yellows are unpredictable, so counting on one for pit purposes can be dangerous.
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Wed Feb 22, 2012 4:22 pm
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My special relationship with my gamer wife

Jeff Horger
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The first thing that i have to say on this topic is that I feel both extremely fortunate and proud that I have a gamer wife. Even more to this topic, Thunder Alley in specific and game design in general, it has been a pleasure to design games with her. She was not a part of Manoeuvre, or Fury for that matter. But when I started designing some non-warfare based games she was eager to throw in her ideas and suggestions. In my opinion we have a very complimentary outlook on gaming.

I truly love games that have a little bit of everything and that make you think on multiple levels and along multiple paths to victory. Advanced Civilization, Age of Renaissance, Abstract Games, Agricola, Twilight Struggle, and well the list goes on; are my type of games. The more you can do and explore inside a game system, the more I like it. Time is not a concern to me at all. If the game is good I won't spend just 4-6 hours playing it but I will play days worth of World in Flames or The Next War. I think this also is my attraction to the free-form exploration that is role-playing games. In my opinion the best games have room to explore and out-maneuver your opponents.

Carla, on the other hand, has a completely different outlook on gaming. She prefers the streamlined play of Euro-games. 45-90 minutes is the perfect length of play and she is not a huge fan of long involved games. She can be convinced to play a longer Euro if I really want to play it. But the mere mention of History of the World sends her off to visit her mother for the day.

So when we sit down to hash out a game we clearly have two different ideas in mind as to what makes a good game. Luckily for us 24 years of marriage and an ability lo listen to each other has produced some excellent partnerships and some fairly smooth games with deep elements of play. Thunder Alley was our first collaboration and her dislike of many of my more involved rules kept me paring down systems until I found a game she and I both liked. Without her, the game would have been a massive overbearing flop (which it was until she got involved). She is responsible for the smoothness of the movement mechanic. She is responsible for the speed of the game, something that I never would have pushed myself to find. She was the prime 2-player play tester and most of the rough edges were worked out with me and her playing alone on many a Tuesday evening.

So when you get this game, thank Carla when it is over in 60 minutes or if you sit down to play with your wife. Because of her, these things work like they should. She earned her credit as a designer of the game and our partnership is continuing on to other games that will be completed within the year. If you end up liking the game, it is probably her that you have to thank as much or more than me.
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Tue Jan 24, 2012 4:23 pm
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Points vs Winning

Jeff Horger
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When I made the move to a team race from an individual race in Thunder Alley it became apparent that I would need some type of scoring system to adjudicate the winner of each game. I had already instituted the NASCAR official scoring system into the game as a method of running multiple games and deciding who would win in a season. It became a natural and very easy switch to convert that season-defining NASCAR scoring system into a game-by-game system. I just felt, and early play tests confirmed my opinion, that just winning the race with one of your cars would not be challenging enough nor rewarding enough.

If you are not familiar with the current NASCAR scoring system, it is really pretty simple and it does reward winning nicely. But if you push one car over the line at the expense of your others, winning the game will not accompany winning the race. 43 Points are awarded to the car coming in first in the race with that car getting an additional 3 bonus points, so essentially it is 46 points for winning the race. Each of the following positions gets one point less than the one before it. So 2nd gets 42, 3rd gets 41 etc... If you lead any number of laps you get 1 bonus point. And if you lead the most laps you get 1 additional bonus point. Simple.

In Thunder Alley this translates into fairly tight scoring where you can win or lose the game by failing to plan for your positions in the 5-10 range. Just crossing the finish line in the lead is not enough. You need to make a decent showing with all of your cars, or at least the majority of them.
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Thu Jan 12, 2012 5:08 pm
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Individuals vs Teams

Jeff Horger
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All of the racing games that I have played up until Thunder Alley have had the format of one car for one player trying to get that car to cross the finish line first. The only real exception to that had been Avalon Hill's USAC Auto Racing back in the day. But even that game, which let you pilot multiple cars, had no mechanic for teamwork that I can recall. Now don't shoot me if I haven't stumbled upon a game that you know of with the team mechanic, its just that I never saw them and I have been hobby gaming since the 70's with Avalon Hill. I'm sure there are some out there but they were apparently outside my sphere of influence. Race games always seem to me like it's just you in your car trying to outrun the other guys. Obviously then I started with that same conceit when I started Thunder Alley, one player got one car. And like all the other games of that genre, if you had a quorum of 6-10 players it was a OK, game but with a fewer number of players it was very weak indeed. Not to say it was good at all since I was still designing it but with 3 or 4 cars on the track it downright sucked.

The next stage of the development saw me add in a trick I learned from my years of role-playing, NPC's (Non-player cars in this case). I populated the board with 10 or so extra cars, I honestly don't remember how many there were), and tried out the game like that. It worked better and the cars made the track seem fuller and slightly more like racing. However, many problems still lingered on. The NPC's moved funny, then unpredictably, then too predictably. Trying to cover every need for the reaction of the NPC's began to clutter the game and when Carla began to feel overloaded, I knew I was heading down a dark path.

At Origins, maybe three years ago, the last time GMT had a presence there, I met with Andy Lewis to show him the improvements I had made in the game. He was encouraging but still the game lacked a spark and I knew it. Here I must give Andy credit, he has a keen sense of what a game needs and a 20 minute meeting with him can ignite great fires of inspiration. He mentioned that another designer was also working on a racing-themed game about stock car racing but that they were using a team concept. Light bulb moment! If the players controlled teams of cars there would be no need for NPC's and no need to come up with the myriad of ways they reacted. The path to completion had once again been stumbled upon.

Now players race with 3 to 6 cars on their team and a fun game can be played with just two players. The game is no longer winner-take-all where you either win or loose, players must consider the fate of their entire team when racing. Sure winning is great and high fives all around, but winning at the cost of all your other cars will mean that another player can very easily walk off with the game victory where you only got the race victory. Battles for every position down the stretch keep the game interesting for all players right to the checkered flag.

Next Up: Points vs Winning
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Mon Dec 12, 2011 3:18 pm
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