Lionel Games, £7.95
Reviewed by John Harrington
This is another small production game kit from Lionel Games, this time on the theme of Formula One Grand Prix motor racing. Although it features representations of real life drivers and real life cars it is not a statistical replay game so is possibly of wider appeal than the company's previous offering, The Tour.
With the exception of the solitaire version, where all, some or none of the teams are controlled by the player, the game offers the opportunity for each player to run two teams over a series of races with a view to earning the most money. With two drivers to each team this effectively means each player controls four drivers at the beginning of each race; the trick is to still be controlling four drivers at the end of the race, as the attrition rate is fairly severe and, it must be admitted, often unavoidable even with sound play.
Of the thirteen teams provided, four are graded as Class A (McLaren, Williams, Ferrari, Benetton), four as Class B (Jordan, Dallara, Tyrell, Minardi) and the rest as Class C (Leyton House, Brabham, Footwork, Lotus and Ligier). Players control one 'good' team and one 'mediocre' team. More astute readers will have noted that in five or six player games there are not going to be enough A class teams to go round. This is not a problem as the financial rewards for getting the crap cars home (never mind in the points) are as good, if not better, than the rewards for getting a hot car home in first place. Indeed, in my experience of the game, you are more likely to win with two teams of Class C but it is not as much fun from a competitive viewpoint to be trundling (or Brundling) along in ninth place all race.
In terms of racing performance, the difference between the various classes of cars is restricted to their movement allowances. Class A teams may move one car up to seven squares per turn and the other up to six; class B teams may move up to 6&5 and C class 5&4. Which of the two cars on a team gets the higher movement allowance is decided on a turn by turn basis by the controlling player and his decision will obviously be influenced by the race situation. There is no effective difference in the performance rating of cars within the same class, by which I mean there is no reason for the Ayrton Senna driven McLaren to perform any better than Roberto Moreno driven Benetton, as both are A class cars. This may come as a bit of a shock to those of you who were expecting a (gasp) simulation.
Unlike most motor racing games, where only the player controlled cars compete, Grand Prix Manager incorporates the also-rans as well, so you are treated to the sight of 26 cars piling into the first corner. Those cars not controlled by a player are called 'Freelance' cars and their movement each turn is determined by turning over an action card for each team and referring to the movement factor assigned to the freelance team. The action card deck also contains event cards and charge cards to add a bit of unpredictability to the game. The event cards randomly affect the fortunes of one of the competing cars. The event might be good ('5th car moves forward three spaces after putting in fastest lap') or, more likely, bad ('13th car retires, handling problem'). The charge cards (no, not American Express) give the opportunity for player controlled drivers with a lot of open road in front of them to put on a bit of a spurt.
In the most recent race of this game I played, the randomness of the event cards came in for heavy criticism from the 'control your own destiny' gamers. One player was so incensed by the completely random elimination of his four cars (well, okay, he was prepared to accept the early elimination of Nigel Mansell as inevitable) that he rang one of the games designers and complained bitterly at having wasted a complete evening of his life playing the game. This is a common lament of players of sports games as anyone who has successfully pulled off a 55 yard touchdown pass in Statis Pro Football, only to see it nullified by the legendary Z card (Holding. Five Yard penalty against the offence) will testify. To a certain extent game designers are entitled to shrug their shoulders and say 'That's life', but they can only get away with it if they can prove that the random event factor is marginal. In Grand Prix Manager I suspect the fate is a bit too capricious for the good of the game, unless of course you really want to empathise with how Nigel Mansell felt when, through no fault of his own, one of his tyres came off as he was exiting the pit lane. He probably rang up somebody after that race too, and complained even more bitterly about having wasted a complete afternoon of his life (or, in fact, about five months).
One way round it would be to have some sort of reliability rating for each car, so that at least you'd understand it when, as in real life, Ayrton Senna's pit stops only take an average of 7.3 seconds whilst team mate Gerhard Berger's take 14.2. Not that it matters, because Berger's engine will blow up two laps later whilst Senna's will last to the end. I am sure this feature was considered by the designers and rejected on the grounds of unnecessarily complicating and slowing down the game, but if they get too many whinges from hard done by players it may be worth bringing out an optional reliability rule. This would probably also entail changing the team allocation system at the start as there then would be differences between teams of the same class. Frankly, I would be a lot happier about running a McLaren than I would a Ferrari in the 1991 season. Paul Oakes, during one of the games, suggested starting each player off with a money allowance and allowing them to bid for control of teams, but then he always suggests adding some sort of trading element to every game - even chess, 'Here, how much do you want for that rook on B5? I'll give you two pawns and a five turn amnesty on putting your king in check.'
I suspect there would have been less complaints about the event cards had the tactics on the racing side been more varied, but compared to Speed Circuit or Grand Prix (two admittedly excellent games), there is not enough decision making involved. The circuit has no chicanes or speed limitations, it is merely a two lane loop, with both lanes containing the same number of squares, so there is no advantage to cutting corners. The freelance cars poodle along in the outside lane and perform much the same function as the 'drone' cars in the old TCR slot car racing game, whilst the player controlled cars stick to the inside lane. Cars may only move into the other lane to overtake and may only perform one 'out and back' manoeuvre each turn. Furthermore, they must return to their own lane at the end of the turn so nipping into gaps is an essential requirement. Perhaps the game should have been based on the M25 rather than Formula One?
The order in which teams move is determined randomly each turn, which is a further impediment to strategic planning but does offer some scope for unexpected 'slingshot' overtaking. The slipstream rule is quite powerful in that it more or less gives a free move to the slipstreaming car - or cars (you often get slipstreaming conga lines as in Homas Tour). The major skill seems to be in avoiding traffic. Cars which move less than three squares on a turn spin off and may fail to come back on again next turn at the whim of an action card. Other than that, the only other major decision is when to play your strategy cards.
Each race each player is given a set of four strategy cards. Fast Pitwork enables a driver to move a few extra squares when exiting the pits. Superb Cornering and Great Manoeuvre enable the driver to ghost through traffic on the bend and straight which is useful in avoiding spin offs. Lastly, the No Slipstream card prevents the car behind from slipstreaming that turn. Note that each player gets the four cards, not each team and certainly not each driver. Once a card is played it is discarded for the rest of the race so timing is critical. My advice is to use the No Slipstream on your best car in order to try and break away and get ahead of the traffic whilst the other cards are probably best used for the second line team as it is more remunerative to get the duff cars home.
Although not without its design faults I liked this game, but I must warn you that Messrs Oakes, Warne and Birks gave it a big thumbs down. Certainly the two player game I played with Mike Woodhouse worked better, possibly because we were both occupied with turning over the cards whereas in the four player game two of the players were spectators for most of the game and therefore felt no real involvement. Also, Mike and I were sitting there saying things like, 'Alex Caffi's performing unusually well' whereas Oakes was saying things like, 'What's on the television tonight'. This probably confirms Mike and I as Duvet Stuffers (TM). The game is certainly not recommended to people who like a high skill element. If you don't mind games where the major interest is what happens rather than how well you are doing then you might enjoy this provided, of course, that you have an interest in the subject matter.
Lastly, having given the game a heavily qualified recommendation it would be remiss of me not to point out the fairly heavy preparation needed to make this game playable. Far more so than in The Tour, it is necessary to spend a lot of time cutting up counters and pasting them onto cardboard. Most of the time is burned up cutting the 36 action cards and gluing them to cardboard. I can't help thinking that some sort of arrangement with sticky labels could have been arranged but again, doubtless Lionel have already thought of this and rejected it to keep the price down. All in all it took me about three hours to get the game ready to play but then I did have my son Jack 'helping' me some of the time. Playing time is pegged at 30 minutes a race for players familiar with the game. Me and Woody knocked out races at about 45 minutes a go whilst the four player game took about two hours for once race, partly because of my inability to remember the rules.
On to An Incomplete Survey of Election Games or back to the review of East Front.
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