By Patrick Korner
February 25, 2011
Designer: Jean-Christophe Bouvier
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Rules Languages: French, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish
Times Played: 6
Copy Played: Bought at Essen
Racing games are a tough nut for any designer to crack. Real-life racing is often fast and frantic, with important (and potentially life-risking) decisions being made in a fraction of a second. Sadly, racing games have a tendency to bog down while players calculate their optimal moves. “Let’s see, if I stay in fourth I’ll move X spaces, which sets me up for the next hairpin like so, but if I downshift now I’ll end up over here instead, which lets me drop down another gear through the turn, or maybe …” and so on. As a result, much of the feeling of speed and danger is lost – now it’s just a series of min-maxing exercises spread over a board that happens to feature little painted grandstands here and there. Ooh, fun. Here, hold my glasses while I stab this nice pointy stick into my retinas.
Adding to my frustration with most racing games out there is the fact that I am actually quite a fan of the racing genre – well, at least the good ones, hence my disappointment at all the bad ones. When they’re well put together, they’re a lot of fun – especially the potential for trash talk when your opponents don’t quite manage to pull off the maneuver they were going for, or the exhilaration of taking a huge risk and being handsomely rewarded for it. Over the past couple years, several solid entries into the racing game pantheon have been seen – Powerboats, Snow Tails – joining the likes of Ave Caesar, Breaking Away and other classics from years past.
And now, you can add another title to the list: Rallyman.
Rallyman (2009), designed by Jean-Christophe Bouvier, is a very different beast. Instead of the typical “race against your opponents to cross the finish line first” style, Rallyman attempts to emulate the world of rally racing, where your biggest enemy is the clock. In case you’re not familiar with the sport: In rally racing, racers essentially race against the course first and each other second, since the individual racers leave the starting line in a staggered start that keeps them mostly apart from each other (it’s not unusual for a racer to never actually see another opponent on the course). The time it takes to complete each stage of the race is cumulative, which means that finishing third in a stage might not be the end of the world – you’ll just have to find a way to make up time later. Rally racing is also unique in the racing world by not being held on race courses; many rally tracks are a combination of dirt, gravel and paved roads that just happen to have been cordoned off for the race. Next week, they might be back to being public roads again. Remember: you are generally not permitted to pretend you’re a rally driver while out on a nice sunny Sunday. Your local law enforcement will likely not understand.
Rallyman is Bouvier’s first and only design to date. A mechanical engineer by training but amateur rally enthusiast, Bouvier has been tinkering under Rallyman’s hood since 2001. Lots of testing, lots of tweaking – the game is clearly a labour of love, with much time and energy poured into its development. The first two editions, released in 2009 and available only in French, sold out fairly quickly – the first edition of 1,000 copies sold in 3 months, the second edition (again 1,000 copies) sold nearly as quickly. In 2010, a larger, multi-lingual 3rd edition was released (3,000 copies), of which some 1,200 copies are already gone – in case you’re scoring at home, that’s a lot of Rallyman, with 3,200 copies sold in roughly a year’s time! Obviously, Bouvier is not alone in his love for the game.
So what does 8 years of effort look like? Let’s take a closer look.
The first thing that struck me about Rallyman is the quality of the components. Inside the third edition box you’ll find four double-sided map boards (each side has a dry course on one side and a snow course on the other), four little plastic rally cars, a mess of cards (to track your speed and other purposes), some little plastic discs (to mark damage and track debris), a set of seven custom plastic dice, and a whole pile of plastic ‘time attack’ markers (to keep track of the seconds you might be able to make up on the course – more on those later). There is ample room for everything in the box without feeling cramped, but since the map boards fit their insert nice and snugly there is little chance of things shifting about. Oh, yeah – you’ll also find the rulebook, a weighty multi-language tome with rules in French, English, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. How do you say “loss of control” in Italian again? Overall the components are quite excellent. The cards are nice and sturdy, the boards colourful and easy to understand.
Setting up the game is simple: Set up a course you like, arrange the gear and hazard cards (one pile for each gear, one pile of hazard cards), give each player a ‘dashboard’ card and a spare tire card and you’re good to go. The course boards are all compatible with each other (they all feature tracks that exit the boards at consistent points) so you can combine them any way you want to make something like 8,000 different courses. Want a short stage? Use only a couple boards. Want a marathon stage? Use them all. Want to pretend you’re a NASCAR driver? Try and build a stage that features only left-hand turns. In any case, once you’ve set up your course, pick one end of it to be the start and set your little plastic racers (referred to as MRCs in the game rules – Micro Rally Cars, don’t you know) up there.
For extra challenge, you can build a stage with both kinds of road conditions – dry on one side, snowy on the other. If you do so, you’ll have an interesting choice when it comes to tires – do you go with snow tires or regular ‘slicks’? Depending on which way you go, you’ll find your options limited for one of the two conditions (either have a harder time maintaining control in the snow or not be able to move as quickly in the dry).
One very cool aspect of course setup that needs to be mentioned: Bouvier has nurtured a healthy online community of Rallyman enthusiasts via his website (www.rallyman.fr). One of the biggest draws: A series of nicely laid-out ‘race books’ featuring pre-set course setups that you can download and try your luck with. To add to the fun, there are ongoing competitions to see which drivers can score the best times, with the set of 12 monthly challenges combining together to form the quest for the ‘World Rallyman Cup’ – clearly a trophy second only to the Stanley Cup in terms of importance and overall awesomeness.
On your turn, you get to choose how many dice you want to roll in order to move ahead that many spaces on the board. That’s the biggest difference between Rallyman and other racing games – in Rallyman, each die you roll lets you move one space forward, regardless of the gear the die represents. Say you’re just starting the game. The first die you roll has to be the 1st Gear die, since you’re starting from a standstill. The die has six sides – five with a “1” on them (success) and one with a Caution symbol on it. One caution symbol is fine – it’s still a successful move – but you need to avoid accumulating too many of them on a single turn.
After moving forward your one space, you can decide if you want to keep moving. Now you have a choice: you can either roll one of your two white dice (acceleration or “gas” dice) or upshift into 2nd gear by rolling the 2nd Gear die. Again you’ll move one space forward. And so on, moving through the gears, potentially all the way up to 5th, until you either decide to stop your turn or are forced to because you rolled a third Caution symbol. Very important: You can only roll each die once on your turn, so there’s a finite limit to how far along the track you can move!
If you ended your turn on your terms, then you take a gear card that matches whatever gear you’re currently in. Depending on the gear, this represents the amount of time you took in traversing that portion of the course: If you ended in 2nd gear, for example, you’ll see that your card has 0:40 on the bottom of it – i.e. your turn took 40 seconds. Finish a turn in 5th, though, and you’ll have only taken 10 seconds.
When you start your next turn, you start in whatever gear you ended the previous one on – so if you ended in 4th gear, you have three options: upshift to 5th gear (rolling the 5th gear die), stay in 4th (by either rolling a white die or the 4th gear die) or downshifting to 3rd (rolling the 3rd gear die). Which you choose depends a lot on how the course plays out in front of you – especially because you can only use each die once. If you shift down from 4th to 3rd to 2nd, you’ll be stuck in no better than 2nd for that entire turn since you can’t shift back up again. This makes proper assessment of corners and such important, since you don’t want to bleed off too much speed while taking them!
Oh, yeah. What if you ended your turn with too many Caution symbols? Well, then you lost control. Silly you! Now you get to see just how bad things might be. Take the gear card you normally would have taken (i.e. a card that matches whatever gear you lost control in) and flip it over. Now you’ll see that your time has ballooned up to 1:00 (time to think about how to make up all that ground you just lost, hotshot) and that your MRC has done one of three things: spun out on the course, crashed left or crashed right. Spinning out is the least problematic – you just have to start in 1st again your next turn. Crashing is, as you might expect, a little worse. Depending on what you crash into (nice soft grass or hard, unyielding rock, for example), your MRC will take damage. Damage in Rallyman is modelled by covering up some of the black die spaces on your dashboard – so in future turns you won’t be able to use as many black dice.
So why not just burn up to 5th gear and take the course at maximum speed? Well, because several course features will force you to slow down, like curves and bumps. First off: curves.
Curves feature two (or sometimes three) ways of attacking them. If you want to cut around the inside edge, you’ll have to shift down to a specific gear (or slower); the maximum allowable gear is printed on the corner itself on the board. Nice and safe and good for moving through the curve quickly since you’ll usually only need to move a single space to get around it, but not so good in that you’re going slow. And slow is not usually a winning strategy in Rallyman! If you want to go fast, then you can drift around the outside edge of the curve instead. You can go faster (good) but you’ll spend more die rolls doing it since most drifts keep you in the curve for three dice worth of movement. Thus the fundamental paradox of Rallyman, the thing that needs to be understood in order to excel: Being ahead on the course doesn’t always mean you’re ahead time-wise! You can pass your opponents and scream to the finish only to find that your seemingly more cautious opponents actually went ‘faster’. A little weird, but just keep telling yourself that it’s a race against the clock, not the other drivers, and it makes more sense.
There’s another way to handle curves in Rallyman: short cuts. Most of the time, short cuts don’t actually save you any spaces, but they do let you take the corner a little faster. So go ahead, cut through that dirt! What’s the worst that could happen? Well, that depends. There’s a deck of shortcut cards included with the game, and each time you take one you have to flop the topmost card. Most of the time these are “Ok Go!” cards (i.e. no problems), but sometimes you’ll throw some dirt up onto the corner (which has the effect to forcing the maximum gears allowed through that curve down by one). And sometimes you’ll take tire damage, which is hugely annoying. Tire damage means you have to cover up one of the white die spaces on your dashboard, reducing your white dice allotment each turn to only one. You can use your spare tire to fix this damage, but to do so is doubly painful: not only do you need to end your turn in 1st gear (i.e. you need to stop and change the tire), you also need to spend a minute of time putting the spare on.
The other track feature worth watching for are bumps: what self-respecting rally driver doesn’t want to get a little air time? If you take a bump at a speed slower than its recommended one (again, printed on the board for easy reference) then nothing happens; you may as well be driving Miss Daisy. If you take it at the proper speed, though, you launch forward an extra space. Take it one gear higher than recommended and you launch forward TWO spaces (I can hear the Duke boys now) – but at a potential cost. Roll a caution while taking the bump and you suffer immediate loss of control. As you might guess, that is not good. Oh, and don’t even think of taking it at two gears higher – that’s automatic loss of control, which is considered oh so very not good. I’m pretty sure the designer sends you trash-talking emails if you do that.
There’s one more thing to watch out for out there on the course: your fellow drivers. Sadly, Rallyman is not set in a Mad Max type universe where you can blast your fellow drivers out of the way. So while you can pass with impunity on straightaways, you get stuck behind them in curves. The only exception? You can take a shortcut even if another player is currently in the road part of the corner and vice versa. Yes, you can throw dirt onto a corner that is currently occupied. No, rally cars don’t usually finish the race looking as squeaky clean as they did when they started.
If the above were all that Rallyman offered, it would be a pretty good game. Reasonably fun but fairly predictable, okay to pull off the shelf once in a while. What, for me at least, really sets it apart from the rest is the ability to carry out a ‘time attack’. No, this does not involve you beating on your wristwatch with a bat.
If you so choose, you can gamble a little. Instead of rolling all of your dice one at a time (which gives you the flexibility to quit when the cautions start piling up), you can choose to throw caution to the wind (see what I did there) and roll them all at once. This does two things: First, it greatly increases your chances of losing control, but then no reward without some risk, right? Secondly, it rewards you by gaining some extra time back. For each die you roll, you get one time chip worth -1 second at the end of the race. In other words, successfully rolling five dice at once will get you both your usual gear card as well as five time chips. So the time you used on that turn is reduced by five seconds. Might not sound like a lot, but when you do it right you’ll find yourself having gained back a full minute or more, which makes a huge difference.
If you lose control on a time attack, you just move forward to where the loss of control would have taken place (so if you rolled five dice and lost it on the fourth die, then you’d just move the four spaces) and finish your turn by taking the gear card and flipping it as usual. You still get time chips for each space you managed to move (obviously not for the one where you lost it, because that would be silly).
But wait! There’s more! Now that you have time chips, you can actually use them on future turns. The next time you roll your dice one at a time, you can choose to pay time chips to guarantee success on the rolls – in other words, spend time to take a little extra care that you’ll make it safely. The first die you choose to guarantee will cost you one chip. The second costs two, the third three, and so on. So not only does the game give you a chance to be aggressive and make up time, it gives you the option of being cautious and limiting your risk when appropriate – just like real racing.
For me, knowing when to go for it and when to play it safe is the heart of the game. It’s also what keeps the die rolling from becoming too scripted, with each player simply rolling the same sequence as the player in front of them. After all, if the guy ahead of you just time attacked for a ton and managed to miraculously make it through, are you really going to risk it all to catch up? Maybe it’s better to let him continue his high-risk ways and eventually laugh when he slams into a nice rock wall at top speed…
Time attack is also the best way for players who know they’re behind to try and make up ground. In this sense, the game is a little like Can’t Stop, since coming from behind means having to take more risks. I’m okay with that, since real racing features much of the same dynamic. If you’re trailing, you’re going to have to go for it at some point or just resign yourself to buying a nice bungalow in Loserville. I hear the block parties there are pretty sweet, though.
While my overall impression of the game is that it is very, very good, there are a few aspects to the game that I wish were better. Chief among them is downtime, that scourge of racing games everywhere.
Because the game models rally racing’s staggered starts, the game doesn’t start with each player going in turn. Instead, player 1 goes, then goes again, followed by player 2. Then player 1 goes yet again, followed by players 2 and 3. Finally, by the fourth round, all players play in turn. This means that a four player game will leave the last player waiting for their first turn for quite a while. Sure you can spend that time watching what the other players do, but it’s still impossible to escape the fact that watching and doing are two very different things. I think Rallyman is best as a two player (or solitaire) game, with three player also being very good. I would only play a four player game with four gamers who are already fans of the game, since they are more likely to accept the lag.
Another minor quibble is that there don’t seem to be quite enough time chips supplied to fully supply a four player game. We might just be more aggressive with our time attacks than we are supposed to, but each of the four-player games I’ve played in the past has seen the supply run out. Another reason not to play with four, I suppose.
Finally, there is some potential for the players going later to simply mimic whatever the lead player has done, which essentially assumes that the lead player has ‘solved’ the best way through the course and that there is no benefit to be gained from trying something different. I’ve seen this a little bit, and it’s a bit disappointing, but in my experience it is minimized in longer stages, especially once the losses of control start setting in. Once the lead player spins out, all bets are off!
I think that Rallyman is not only the best racing game released in the past year, it’s one of the best racing games released in the past decade. The mix of original gameplay, beautiful components and risk vs. reward adds up to a compelling, fast-paced game that’s nearly perfect in its execution. I, for one, look forward to sending my little MRC hurtling down narrow mountain roads many more times…
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers
Patrick Brennan: The first few plays of the game are fine as players try different approaches and work out the tricks to a fast leg. Then, the game degenerated for us into a luck-fest. It may be groupthink, but here’s what happened. Each leg starts as a mathematical plan ahead game, spending as much time as you need to get your plan perfect. If there are several approaches that will achieve the same time, then the best one is that which has fewer turns using all 7 dice. This need for planning means there’s a sloooow start to each leg. If everyone is diligent, everyone will find the same optimum plan. If everyone is going to race to the same plan, then everyone needs to do time-attacks every turn in order to win. Those who don’t are betting that all the time-attackers will crash, because if there’s one time-attacker left who hasn’t crashed, and who is a bunch of time up on those who haven’t been time-attacking consistently, he can then play safe due to having time up his sleeve. If a time-attacking leader starts playing safe, the only way for those who haven’t been time-attacking to get to the lead now is to time-attack, and then the leader re-starts time-attacking … anyway, everyone pretty much has to time-attack for a vast majority of the race to be in a position to win. All of which is risky and explains why legs fall to the luckiest after all that initial planning. Though I enjoyed learning and playing the game to begin with, and I can admire the design and appreciate that other people will enjoy it, the schizophrenic nature of the game (you must have worked out the optimal plan, but it will mean nothing if you don’t get the best luck) means I have little interest in playing anymore.
Greg Schloesser: From what I understand of Rally racing – and admittedly that is not much – Rallyman seems to do a good job of recreating a bit of the strategies, tension and excitement of the sport. There are decisions to be made regarding the gears to use, how far and fast to push your vehicle, and track and terrain considerations. The pressure to go just a bit faster in order to make a better time is continuously present. Pushing your luck is part-and-parcel to ultimate success and victory, but it does not come without significant risk. All of these factors are present in Rallyman and help make the game enjoyable.
However, as with many racing games, it is ironic that the game plays rather slowly. It has a significant amount of mental calculation, which detracts from what one would think would be an emphasis on speed. Racing games should be fast, not slow. I realize that it is extremely difficult recreating the strategies, decisions and mental calculations that must be made while traveling at tremendous speeds. Usually, one or the other – speed or strategy – must be sacrificed. Here, as in many race games, it is speed that suffers. Players can consume a considerable degree of time planning their move in advance, arranging and re-arranging dice until they arrive at what they feel is the best move for that turn. This takes time, and detracts from the fast racing atmosphere that should be present. Downtime can also occur for players who are late in turn order due to the staggered start rule. The player who is fourth in turn order will have to wait a considerable amount of time before he even begins the race.
Another concern is that there are often optimal moves that can be made during the course of a special. Players coming later in turn order can simply repeat the optimal moves made by those who preceded them. Unless someone loses control by rolling three caution symbols, the results will be the same. While this is a reasonable tactic, it also deprives players of exercising creativity.
In spite of its differences, the game has a similar feel as Formula De. Missing, however, is the difference in speed caused by the gear dice. In Formula De, you can try using the same gears as the previous player, but the dice rolls will almost always be different, causing you to try something different on your next turn. There is the excitement of trying to catch and pass the other players, something which is mostly missing in Rallyman due to the nature of timed, point-to-point racing. This isn’t a knock on the game, but rather a statement on the differences in the sports. Unfortunately, at least for me, these differences also make for a less exciting game. So while I enjoy the different feel of the game and its recreation of a sport about which I previously knew very little, I prefer Formula De. However, for race fans, the game is certainly well worth investigating.
Valerie Putman: My husband and I have very different tastes in games and racing games are one of the few genres where our Venn diagrams intersect. For that reason, I am constantly looking for good race games. We tend to prefer the heavier race games with thinky decisions (like Bolide) over the light and fluffy filler games. I kept my Essen purchase of Rallyman a secret from Tyler until his birthday and I was glad to see that we both liked it as much as I would have expected. We took it to our local game night and played two back to back games (so 6 stages overall). A few players changed between games and one of the things that impressed me is that people just watching the game were able to pick up enough rules to just jump in when we started the second game, but the subtlety of the decisions to be made really became clear to them as they started to race. This is one of those wonderful minute to learn, lifetime to master games (okay, maybe not a lifetime, but at least a lot of replay).
Frank Branham: This is one of the best racing games around. It absolutely nails the unusual aspects particular to its subject matter, and does so with a system that outclevers anything a “real” game designer has come up with. Once you get your head around the basic twist, the rules are very intuitive in a way that racing games tend not to be. And the game speeds up dramatically after a few plays as players get experience.
There is also a bit of a variable experience to the game. The weather rules, in particular, break up the processional nature, and also lead to one or two passes per segment. Especially if players have chosen different tires.
My quibbles with the game are a little different: Snow tires seem to have too large of an advantage. Throwing dirt up on the corners also seems extremely rare, although it is a given in the actual sport.
Dale Yu: This is most definitely one of my personal candidates for Game of the Year. Not as in SdJ game of the year, but as in MY favorite game of 2010. I’m definitely a big fan of racing games, and I’m generally willing to give just about every racing game a try. I first ran into this one at the Wednesday press show at Essen – the designer gave me a quick 2 minute demo on the game. After that first exposure, I was smitten with the game. Here was a game that looked to have a decent amount of complexity… yet, it was explained to me in a mere 2 minutes!
The racing here gives the players plenty of interesting decisions to make – and while I’ve seen some races where most of the players have taken very similar lines through the course, I’ve also seen some circuits that were approached in completely different manners. Early on in most courses, the “best” play is evident – and everyone takes a similar route. The key with Rallyman is figuring out how to end each of your turns in as high a gear as possible – as this is what will drive your overall time down. The times where people start to choose different paths are the sections of course where there are two or three turns placed near each other. You have to plan ahead to enter and exit the curves at the right point and speed to maintain your momentum. The other thing to work around is the prospect of crashing out and then having to start up again from a halt.
The rules could possibly stand a bit of tightening up – there were a few questions that aren’t adequately explained in the rules. For instance, the groups I’ve played with have had some issues with how the shortcuts are entered and exited, and I think that an additional (or different) example in the rules would have cleared any confusion up. Another area of confusion is how to start the second and third stages. The rules say: The starting order of the 2nd SS is obtained from the classification (based on time) at the end of the 1st SS — but never makes mention of whether or not the fastest or slowest player goes first… That being said, the designer has been answering a lot of these rules questions online, so obtaining clarification hasn’t been hard.
Also, I should mention that I’ve settled on my preferred use of the Time Attack rules without allowing the “spending” of seconds. This, in my mind, puts a premium on deciding how much risk you’re willing to take. In the few games that I’ve played where the players could spend their seconds to avoid risk later on – it because a very formulaic pattern of collecting extra seconds only to spend them — not much tension at all.
I also enjoy playing the game as a solo challenge – as there are many tracks available on rallyman.fr where you can test your skills against other gamers around the world. This has definitely allowed the game to make it to the table more than most racing games. I have spent a few afternoons already setting up a course on my dining room table and then playing around with the dice attempting to find the optimal path through the track.
In short, this is one of the best racing gamers out there – and it seems to capture all of the excitement of the actual sport. I find the amount of downtime acceptable between turns, mostly because I’m using that time to try to figure out what I’m going to do when my turn comes up. The solo play option as well as the multitude of possible tracks that you could create give Rallyman a higher level of replayability than most other racing games. I love it!
Ratings Summary From The Opinionated Gamers
Love It! (5) ……… Dale Yu, Frank Branham, Patrick Korner, Valerie Putman, Craig
Like It (1) ……….. Jonathan Franklin
Neutral (3) ………. Greg Schloesser, Patrick Brennan, Johnathan Palagyi
Not For Me (0) …
I agree with Greg on this one. The cardinal sin of racing games is slow play, and Rallyman commits it. The unique mechanisms and variable boards go a long way towards absolution, though.
So glad to see this gem get a decent review. This game, and Yomi, totally blew me away in late 2010 and have become top 10 games for me (the last time my top 10 changed was in 2007, and before that, 2004!).
This game is ingenious – it’s a look ahead puzzle blended with push your luck, brilliantly disguised and blended into a motorsport theme, and the fit is flawless. About six clever and/or original things in the box, unlimited replayability, brilliant support via the enthusiastic designer running his World Rallyman Cup, and the game is really, really tough to play well.
I can see why Greg Schloesser didn’t like it – it’s not a casual multi-player game, but something that requires careful study. Downtime will certainly kill the fun if played with slow, analytical gamers. I’m not sure what he sees in here that feels like Formula De, though (a track and some dice?).
Just love it – easily the best motorsport game out there. Great review, Patrick, well done.
Great review! I also love racing game and will be looking forward to adding this to my game colection. One question to those who have played: if all players agree, couldn’t you add a timer to force players to roll in a certain amount of time?
Just an FYI, according to the rules I downloaded from the website (the copy I ordered won’t be here for another few days ;) you get the second tokens in a time attack for all the dice you rolled — even if you ended up crashing out before using all of them for movement. So if you rolled five dice and got three hazards on the first three dice, you still get 5 bonus seconds (one for each die rolled in the attack).