Designed by Premysl Chmelar
2-12 Players, 40-60 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
It's time to face the accusations of exoticism again. Peloton is a Czech cycling game available by mail order only from Adam Spielt in Germany. Surprisingly, it is the second such game in my collection but unlike the first, The Peace Race, it comes with English rules which tend to assist playing these games no end. Peloton is a game that impressed everyone the first time out, dropped quickly the second and all but died on the third, but I think I know why this happened and what needs to be done.
After my unfortunate experiences with East German cycling games and their ersatz production, the components actually aren't too bad. The wraparound box unfolds to show the board, which has a sort of double figure of eight track. An appealing feature is that, using the basic board, you are able to choose your own race route. This is achieved by laying out a series of signposts that show where the mountains (well, hills really - this is a city centre criterium course) start and finish, which roads are closed off and which route to follow. This gives a gratifying individual feel to each game and you could of course replicate your local street map for the Tour of Epping Forest. The rider counters are plastic blocks to which you need to stick coloured numbers (optional colours and numbers are thoughtfully provided so you can run up to twelve players) and the rest of the components, such as the dials discussed below, are to a good standard. There are a whole load of extra bits and bobs that enable you to slip 'jerseys' over the riders, conduct time trials and stage races and the like, but as the basic game caused us difficulties, these rules have yet to be investigated.
The main reason Peloton has been given a full review (rather than short shrift in Gamer's Notebook) is that the game is probably salvageable and the core movement system is quite ingenious. It starts with the premise that a rider will move, by rights, three spaces on the flat, two uphill and four downhill. If you start the turn slipstreaming another rider, you can move an extra space. This gives a movement of between two and five, which is then modified by the setting on your energy dial, for want of a better term. This is a simple device that allows you to burn stamina (you get a number of points to start) to temporarily increase your speed, hold it for a turn or two (simulating coasting, having accelerated) and then enforces a rest phase before you can do it all again.
The dial has five settings: 0, +1, +1, +2, +2. Zero represents rest, one stamina point is required to get you up to +1 and another point, obligatory once you have started round the dial, to get up to section three (also +1). The next two sections (+2) are free but you must rotate the pointer each turn until you are resting again. The alternative, representing a sudden sprint, is to spend three stamina to jump you straight up to +2 but of course you can't sustain this for as long. The net result is a total move varying between 2 spaces (uphill, no forcing) to 7 (downhill, slipstreaming, +2 forcing). I thought this a praiseworthy idea and close to what actually happens to riders in a race.
However, there are obstacles in the game that prevent the energy dial being all it could be. As I said, only on the third playthrough did the flaws in the game clearly appear. I think with hindsight the second game had something amiss, but it was late and the Vimto had been flowing. I can only imagine the source of the problems to be lack of playtesting or design experience. It is also possible that we have a rule badly wrong somewhere, but having checked and double checked the broken English and diagrams, I am as sure as I can be. The drawbacks are essentially all related to the movement system and pan out as follows.
The first flaw, and the least problematical, is the layout of the board. Rather than use hexes or squares or any regular shaped grid, the Peloton board resembles a crazy paved patio. It's passable on the straights, but the builder just couldn't handle the awkward bits round the corners and his tessellation goes bananas. The net result is that it is sometimes unclear where each rider can move to, which way he is facing and, worse, whether or not he is being slipstreamed. The other angle, and this is where the link occurs, is that with the facility to design your own course and set its length, it is virtually impossible to work out how many 'hexes' constitute one lap.
Problem two is that with this unknown course length, free choice of racing line and lack of suggested courses in the rules (I think), it is rather difficult to estimate what starting stamina values are going to work. Too few and you have a dull and slow race, too many and everyone accelerates permanently which is equally dull (but faster to play). As he fails to suggest anything helpful in the rules, what we might need is a letter to the designer who may well say something like 'Allow 10 stamina points for each fifty hexes' or something similar and if we could count the hexes roughly, this would help. This of course would assume that all tracks are flat, so mountains are going to screw it up a treat unless they are symmetrical (ie same length of climb as descent). Anyway, you get the picture.
The final problem, and it is inflexibly linked to the former point, is that unless you get the stamina levels spot on (I guess this implies an overall shortage) the game simply doesn't work as a race. The reason is the non-random system. The riders take off from the start, accelerate when they can (or hardly at all if stamina is scarce), the other players follow suit and there is very little changing of places. The start positions therefore tend to be closely duplicated at the finish, status quo maintained. There isn't much of a race, the leaders have no method of getting away and if you start at the back you can make little impression. The longer the course the less pronounced this is, but making up one or two spaces every few turns isn't much fun however long it goes on for, and chances are the cyclist you just caught will go away again while you rest.
The random variables are slipstreaming (but at just one space and hard to achieve consistently, this isn't a major factor) and timing of when you rest and when you don't. If you come into the finish straight in the lead, and are fortunate enough to have just rested, you can't really lose. In this form, Peloton is a game in which pole position can easily win you the race. As a possible solution, I have tinkered with a chit draw turn system, adding a d6 to the net move (as you really need to achieve more varied moves) or perhaps pre-setting your dials in secret, but I am not yet convinced and this one needs some extended thought or perhaps an overhaul.
As it stands, it is difficult to recommend Peloton because it is nothing more than a clever system carrying a flawed game. Played to the rules, it is going to be average at best after the novelty has worn off, but, if possible, it seems a shame not to do the corrective work to enable the system to shine. I am not entirely sure how to go about this but I'm hopeful that one of you will rise to the challenge. Otherwise, Peloton has an interesting, quick system, respectable production values, represents good value for money and, for that first outing, was a really thrilling game - so good that I considered it a find to rank with Sechs Tage Rennen in terms of recreating the feel of cycle racing as well as the cyclists themselves. How easily dreams are shattered. Whether you will want to buy it given the above can only be your decision. If you do, Adam Spielt can supply from stock and while you are ordering, you might want to consider Templum's sister game on Ice Hockey.
On to the review of Tal der Könige or back to the review of Time Agent.
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