SdJ Re-Reviews #14: Um Reifenbreite (a.k.a. Homas Tour)

  • Designer:  Rob Bontenbal
  • Publisher:  Homas Spelen; Jumbo
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  60 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 5 (On Jumbo’s German SdJ Edition)

Um Reifenbreite Cover

Um Reifenbreite: A fire, a legal battle, and the 1992 Spiel des Jahres…

Um Reifenbreite, the 1992 Spiel des Jahres winner, traces its roots to Homas Tour, which was first published in 1979 by Homas Spelen.  The history of Homas Tour is one of the more interesting tales I’ve heard as part of this series.

Rob Bontenbal, the game’s designer, was fascinated by cycling and cyclists as a child, and at a young age he made cardboard figures to emulate the Tour de France.  Later in life, during the early 1970s, Mr. Bontenbal would frequently babysit the children of his friends, and he began experimenting with racing games to entertain them.  On a trip to Belgium, he purchased some plastic cyclists, which he paired with a wooden game board to form the earliest prototype of Homas Tour.  

The game underwent numerous changes – at least fifteen – over the next several years.  Initial versions used primarily dice, but over time Mr. Bontenbal worked in mechanisms to reduce the luck factor.   With each new iteration he added some of the game’s more thematic elements, such as road surfaces and falls.  Mr. Bontenbal called the game Demarrage, a name that would later be used on the game’s Dutch and Spanish releases.

Mr. Bontenbal was turned down by a publisher in 1976, but he found success a couple of years later, when he was introduced to a woman who worked for IKON Beleidsconsulenten.  IKON formed a separate company – DION – to promote the game.  Rob and IKON/DION signed a contract in February 1978, and they soon teamed up with Dutch manufacturer Homas, who was most known for making wooden toys.  Homas changed the name to Homas Tour and printed an initial run of 20,000 units for release in 1979.  They also modified some elements of gameplay, most notably reducing the game from six players to four to save on costs.

Unfortunately, a fire at a Homas warehouse destroyed most of the units of Homas Tour.  It isn’t clear how many copies of the game were destroyed, but a few hundred to a few thousand were already on the market.  Today versions of Homas Tour are rare and sought after by collectors.

Homas Spelen went bankruptcy in 1983, and IKON/DION took no additional steps to further promote the game.  Mr. Bontenbal thought that was the end of Homas Tour’s story.

The game’s notoriety, however, began to slowly grow.  By the late 1980s Homas Tour was selling for exorbitant prices in Germany.  It also was one of the early Eurogames in the United States: the North Shore Game Club enjoyed playing Homas Tour.  The game got some mentions in the first issue of Sumo, including in a letter from Alan Moon.

Ben Leijten of Jumbo phoned Mr. Bontenbal in the early 1990s.  Thinking that DION/IKON had abandoned their rights to the game, Rob licensed it to Jumbo.  He again wanted to call the game Demarrage, a familiar term to fans of cycling, but thinking Germans would prefer a German title, Jumbo came up with the name Um Reifenbreite.  (Demarrage is a French and Dutch term for an attack away from the peloton.  Um Reifenbreite roughly translates to “by the width of a tire.”)  Jumbo also made a few alterations to the Homas Tour design, which can be seen over at the The Game Cabinet.  The game received releases in several other languages, but not English, as there wasn’t much U.S. or U.K. interest in cycling at the time.  (One of the more interesting changes from Homas Tour to Um Reifenbreite is the cheating mechanism: in Homas Tour it is styled as doping, but in Um Reifenbreite it is grabbing a car.)

According to Mr. Bontenbal, due to internal conflict Jumbo didn’t expend much effort or money promoting the game.  To everybody’s surprise, the game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres and won.  The jury cited the game’s exciting gameplay and approachability.

Rob traveled to Germany and Austria to promote the game at Essen, on TV, and even in large toy stores.  The game also placed second in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year and won game of the year (“Spel van het Jaar”) in the Netherlands.

The game sold about 400,000 German copies and about 100,000 copies in other languages.  With the game’s newfound success, IKON / DION threatened to sue Mr. Bontenbal for part of the royalties, but the parties settled out of court, with Rob paying them 10% of his portion of the royalties.

In 2002 Jumbo released a 10th-anniversary edition of about 10,000 units.  Interestingly, Rob told me he has never seen a copy of that version of the game, even after several requests to Jumbo.

As for Mr. Bontenbal, he made a career in the Netherlands as a therapist.  He once made a soccer game (which might be the game Mike Siggins talked to Mr. Bontenbal about at Essen), and he showed it to Jumbo, but they didn’t pick it up.  He’s also developed a game about balancing karma over seven lifetimes, but he’s only shown that game to friends.

I asked Mr. Bontenbal what he would change about Homas Tour.  He said he would have kept the six player design and marketed the game as a tactical game for ages twelve and up.  He also mentioned that for years he played a large prototype of the game with 10-12 friends; he said that version had sixty cyclists and was almost entirely a game of skill.

There are a few other good resources about Homas Tour / Um Reifenbreite worth mentioning.  Opinionated Gamer Mark Jackson has a nice entry about the game on his blog.  Another board gaming blog in Dutch has a newspaper account of the game from 1992.  Lastly, a more recent Dutch interview with Rob provides fascinating details of the game, as well as some pictures from the game’s past.

[I owe an enormous thanks to Rob Bontenbal for answering my questions about the history of Homas Tour and Um Reifenbreite.  Without his participation this entry wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]

The Gameplay: A Tour de France-type of Bicycle Race

This review focuses on Um Reifenbreite and uses the rules translation from The Game Cabinet.  Another Game Cabinet page has the translations of the chance cards.  I’ll start with an overview of the basic game and then do a quick overview of the optional advanced and professional rules.

Each player receives four riders, and each rider is numbered.  The red team gets 21, 22, 23, and 24; the blue team gets 31, 32, 33, and 34; the black team gets 41, 42, 43, and 44; and the green team gets 51, 52, 53, and 54.  The rider numbered “1” (i.e. 21, 31, 41, 51) is the star of the team.

Um Reifenbreite Figures

Each player also receives a deck of energy cards.  Movement in the game is controlled by dice rolls, but players may replace one or more dice with a energy card, reducing the randomness in the game.  Many energy cards can only be used with a particular rider, and the value of the cards vary from rider to rider.  The star has the best energy cards, and the most.  There are four jokers that can be used with any rider.

Um Reifenbreite Cards

For the basic game, players start facing towards Finish C, and they will race towards Finish A (see picture below).  The starting player is determined by rolling two dice; the player with the highest roll places first.  Placement then proceeds clockwise.

Um Reifenbreite Board

The game is played in a series of rounds.  Each rider will move once per round, and a round ends when all riders have moved.  The rider who is furthest ahead always moves first.  If two or more riders are tied then the rider who is on the far right in the direction the riders are moving goes first.

Every rider may be moved either by rolling dice or drafting the rider in front of him.  Movement is fairly straightforward: a rider can either move forward one space or move to a diagonal space in the next row.  A rider may not move sideways or backwards, cross a bold line, or into a space occupied by another rider.  A rider may move fewer spaces than he rolled (except when crossing the finish line).  If the way is blocked, the rider’s movement ends.

Drafting is basically following another rider.  A rider must follow normal movement rules when drafting.  He must not move more spaces than the rider he is following, and he must end his move immediately behind the rider he followed.  A rider that drafts another can himself be drafted, leading to large chains of movement.

Energy cards can replace one or both of the dice in a dice roll.  Energy cards cannot be used on the first round.  When using energy cards, a rider may attempt to breakaway (the player must announce this in advance): the effect is that his rider then can’t be drafted.

A player rolling a seven receives a chance card, regardless of whether the seven was obtained solely by dice or in part through an energy card.  Some chance cards are good, some are bad: you can see the list over at the The Game Cabinet.  Chance cards are never drawn in the first round.  Some chance cards cause falls, which can affect not only the rider, but also the riders to his left and behind him.

The game ends when all riders cross the finish line.  Points are given based on rank; the player with the highest score for his team of riders wins.

Advanced and Professional Rules

The below overview isn’t intended to be comprehensive: I’m merely trying to give the flavor of the advanced and professional rules.

The advanced rules make the game more realistic, and in my opinion, they don’t add that much complexity.  I actually recommend starting with the advanced rules: they’re intuitive, and the game is much more fun with them.

The big change from the basic game is that the road surface is taken into account.  Beige is asphalt, red is uphill, yellow is downhill, and blue-green is cobblestone.  A rider may only draft if he starts the turn on the same type of road surface as the rider he is drafting.  When riding uphill (red spaces) a rider subtracts the number printed on his square from his roll.  Conversely, when riding downhill (yellow spaces), a rider adds the value of the square to his roll.  When on cobblestone (blue-green) a player subtracts the number on the square.  For mountains and cobblestones, if the subtracted value is zero or less, the rider dismounts and is moved off the board for the rest of the round.

The road surfaces alter the use of energy cards.  On the uphill climb, only energy cards without the mountain shield may be used.  On cobblestone, only one energy card can be used (whereas normally you’re free to use two).

The game also has professional rules, and even these do not add too much complexity to the game.  Unlike the advanced rules, I don’t see them as integral to gameplay.

A rider may cheat by hanging onto the chase card during his turn, but if he is caught (i.e. photographed), he is disqualified.  He does this by rolling just one die and adding six to it (and drawing one photo card) or by just moving twelve spaces (and drawing two photo cards).  Each time a photo card is drawn the rider drawing it is noted and the card is returned to the stack.  At the end of the game two photo cards are drawn from the stack and the riders who drew those cards during the game forfeit all of their points.

The professional rules also set out certain race courses and designate extra “sprint points” for the first three riders to cross certain sprint finish lines.  The rider who crosses first gets the yellow jersey.  Each team has a yellow jersey piece which is substituted in for the piece of the rider that obtained the yellow jersey.  The yellow jersey rider earns two extra points for each round he keeps the yellow jersey.

Lastly, the professional rules allow for switching places, which essentially permits team managers to better use their energy cards.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I wasn’t looking forward to playing Um Reifenbreite, and it ended up being one of the last SdJ winners I tried.  From my vantage point the game didn’t have much going for it: its central mechanic was the much-maligned roll-and-move, the artwork on the box cover made the game appear dated, and the theme had no appeal to me whatsoever.  Nonetheless, my first play pleasantly surprised me, and I’ve really enjoyed my subsequent experiences.

Um Reifenbreite is a clever and refreshing entry into the time-worn racing genre.  The team race mechanic adds considerably to the game’s strategic depth, and many of the thematic rules make for an interesting decision space.  The energy cards greatly reduce the game’s randomness, and between them and drafting, I’ve found that roll-and-move is more of a sideshow than the main attraction.

The game is easily grasped, even with the advanced or professional rules rules.  Um Reifenbreite certainly has far more rules than the average SdJ winner, yet the game doesn’t feel complex, largely because the rules themselves are intuitive.  Like I suggested above, I wouldn’t play this game without the advanced rules: the different road surfaces add quite a bit to the game without adding much complexity.  In terms of the professional rules, I like the sprint and yellow jersey addition, but I’m ambivalent about the rest.  The cheating mechanism is clever but adds randomness.  The “switching the leader” rules would be important in longer races, but with my group, I never really play the longer races.

What impresses me most about Um Reifenbreite is the implementation of the theme.  Like many Americans, the extent of my cycling knowledge comes from cheering on Lance Armstrong over a decade ago, so perhaps I’m wildly off track (pun intended), but the mechanics do seem to imitate cycling quite well.  The team-based race, drafting, and use of road surfaces all combine to make me feel like I’m actually simulating the Tour de France.  To have that level of realism and still create an approachable game is quite a feat.

I still find the artwork on the box cover to be hideous, but the game board is surprisingly attractive, even if it does look a bit dated.  The game board is enormous, but otherwise the other components are nothing to write home about.  The chance cards being in another language haven’t proven to be a big problem: I just used the Game Cabinet’s translation to make a one-page crib sheet.

The game does work better with more than two players.  From my vantage point, a crowded course enhances the strategic decisions in the game, even if it does come at the cost of some downtime between turns.  I’d love to see a five or six player version of Um Reifenbreite.

Does it stand the test of time?  For the most part, I think so.  I haven’t sought out other cycling games (it just isn’t a theme that appeals to me), but I’d have a hard time envisioning a game with this level of both realism and approachability.  If the game were to have been published two decades later I suspect the dice might be gone completely, but I actually find them an inoffensive part of the game.  The artwork could certainly use a facelift.

Would Um Reifenbreite win the SdJ today?  I doubt it, although I don’t think that it would be out of the question.  I don’t intend that to be a knock on the game: rather, I think the jury of recent years is looking for something that is a bit more streamlined.  I don’t see Um Reifenbreite as a complex game, but it does have numerous rules, and that seems to scare the modern jury.  Additionally, race games are a dime a dozen, and despite this game’s novelty in the genre, I think it would face stiff competition to stand above the crowd, although it just might do so.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson: Um Reifenbreite is a brilliant, always entertaining game. Race games may be “a dime a dozen,” as Chris said, but great race games are not — and this is one of the very best. (Definitely use the advanced rules, even on your first play.)

Greg Schloesser:  I am not a huge fan of racing games, and have even less interest in bicycle races.  However, for me, Um Reifenbreite is one of the best, if not the best racing game.  While it appears to do a decent job of simulating various aspects of the sport, I consider it the best since it is very entertaining, presents the players with numerous options and tactics, and plays relatively quickly.  While other race games may be more detailed and strategic, they generally bog down in minutiae and become the antithesis of a race match.  Um Reifenbreite manages to capture the challenges, tactics and excitement of a race without slowing to a snail’s pace.

Joe Huber (12 plays): Once, I had three different bicycle racing games in my collection.  I’d reduced down to one, prior to thinking about what to write here – and now I’m going to drop down to zero.  I like Um Reifenbreite – unlike Chris, I actually like the cartoon artwork of the Jumbo edition, more than the original Homas Tour edition.  But – it’s still a racing game.  I’m not a big fan of race games (though I prefer a bicycle race to a car race), and while I still enjoy the game I find that too often I’ve been playing it specifically because it’s been too long since I last played it, rather than because it was what I really wanted to play.

Patrick Brennan: It’s a fun cycling game where luck rules the roost but you have two means to manage it – one-use-only cards which get played instead of rolling, and the ability to slipstream when the bike in front of you rolls well. Getting your team bunched together and organised at the start of the race can make a huge difference, where your cyclists can take turns spending their individualised cards to keep the speed high and minimise your luck. Regardless, you still need to roll well. Good thematic fun though, which we pull out mainly around Tour De France time.

Mark Jackson: Thanks, Chris, for tracking down the designer and doing such a great job telling the history of the game. This is – no exceptions – my favorite racing game… just wish I could get a group of friends to do all four races as a stage campaign!

Mary Prasad: I enjoying racing games and still love playing this one. I wish there were more tracks to play!

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Erik A., Greg Schloesser, Mark Jackson, Mary Prasad
  • I like it.  Chris W., Joe H., Patrick B.
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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