In terms of sports, cycling seems an obvious one for a board game designer to choose. You have long races, teams and tactics plus a long list of variables in terms of gradients, conditions and the rest – plenty of scope for design ideas.
On the other hand, sports games are notoriously hard to sell – first to publishers and then to the public. Unless you’re happy to add elves or robots to the mix, and give up on the ‘proper’ rules entirely, sport games can be real commercial stinkers.
If anything, cycling is the sport that has best bucked this trend. There are hundreds of cycling games listed on Board Game Geek, with the likes of ‘Um Reifenbreite’ (‘By the Width of a Tyre’), ‘Leader 1’ and ‘Breaking Away’ all in or around the top 1,000 on the all-time games list. Cycling Party, from Snake Eye Games, is the latest game to join the, erm, cycling party and it has already worked its way into the cycling game top 10.
Getting a good start
Let’s make something clear – Cycling Party is not a gamer’s game. You realise this during set up when each rider (each player has a team of six) roles two six-sided dice to decide their starting position. So as the race begins, your best rider could be 10 ‘spaces’ behind the leader. Those of a gamier disposition may wish to walk away in disgust right now.
To compound things this could get worse fast, as a standard move for a rider on their own is to roll – you guessed it – two six-sided dice for movement. A second low role could pretty much put that rider out of contention before they’ve even begun – without a tactical or strategic decision in sight. Thankfully those riders who rolled something a bit more likely on their first two dice will have a little more say in matters. But more on this later: I just wanted to clear out the haters early, and there will be many.
Looking the part
If you’re still here, I want to take a step back and look at Cycling Party’s components. I won’t dwell on the rules, as the copy I had was the first English edition and there was a full rewrite in progress. This is good news – but despite them not being great, the game is certainly playable out of the box (it isn’t rocket science).
you have to sticker up the wooden riders but once completed they look great – especially the ‘king of the mountains’ one. The team colour choices aren’t great though; who needs green and yellow when you can choose pink, orange and red right – right…? It’s also a little annoying that the numbers are on the sides, as it makes it very difficult to see who is who when you have a lot of bikes in the same square.
The tiles are nice and clear and give you plenty of options for building your own tracks. There aren’t enough for a really long race, so you’ll have to take pieces off the back as you go along; but there really is plenty in the box for your money and you can definitely get a good few hours out of what’s here – you’d have to be in for a serious session to run out of track. Beyond this, the associated dice and counters are all perfectly adequate.
Getting through the stage
So, back to the race! In the ‘senior’ version (the other version really is basic) each player will have six riders in their team – five with a specific skill and one totally pointless one you may as well leave in the box. You’ll have a sprinter and a climber, plus three guys who’ll help you in race lines, the peloton or on the hill climbs.
On the flat, if you have five or more riders across two spaces they make a peloton. While they still move with two six-sided dice you have the option of rolling or going with the flow. If no one roles the peloton moves at speed five – not great. However, anyone can choose to role and if they score six to nine the whole peloton moves up to that speed. A role of less than five sees you fall off the back, while 10+ sees you break away.
Two or more people in one space (that aren’t part of a peloton) make a race line. These riders all role and as long as their results are with three of another rider in the race line they all move at the fastest speed. So three guys rolling four, seven and 10 respectively will all move 10 spaces – but if someone had rolled three, for example, they would’ve been left behind.
Both of these ideas are solid and it’s possible to imagine how they could work strategically and tactically – in theory. It is also possible to see how your specialists can make a difference – if they happen to be in the right place at the right time. You also have water bottles you can spend to move riders forward a space between turns, but not enough of them to really make enough of a difference in a deep, team tactics way.
Climbs are just dreadful – if you do choose to buy this game, make them relatively short for the sake of the children. You go from rolling two dice per rider to one and all the interesting peloton and race line bits are ignored until you get on the flat again. Your climbers can have a small influence, but only adding an extra dice to choose from – so there’s little chance of them being overly useful.
Some rather varied conclusions
If you like dice, like cycling and don’t mind games being mindless on occasion – and/or you have kids, or non-gaming cycling buddies – Cycling Party is worth a try. It looks great on the table, is simple to play and has a good stab at getting the feel of a road race through some interesting peloton and race line mechanics.
But – and it’s a big but…
The fundamental mechanism of rolling two six-sided dice for movement is way too open to luck to all but destroy any hope of tactical or strategic relevance. In our first long race one of my riders rolled high at the start, rolled high again in the second round and got away, and went on to win the race. There was no skill on my part, and no lack of trying to organise an attack from my competitors. I wish I could say my team slowed them down, but they didn’t – overall, most riders rolled averagely and my one didn’t. So I won.
Next time out it was the same – except this time it was one of Dan’s riders who broke away. He even had the audacity to try a break away even though he had, by lucky dice, broken away anyway – at which point he rolled high again (this time on three dice) and left us even further in the dust. It’s fair to say neither of us will be writing memoirs about our epic Cycling Party victories.
Gamer friends of mine who like cycling games all speak very highly of Leader 1 and having watched it played on several occasions I can see why. It also has nice track pieces and cute little cyclists, plus some random/push your luck elements. But importantly cyclist movement is determined by the players by spending energy from a limited supply, making it a proper tactical battle while still being a fun experience. Their thoughts on Cycling Party, I’m afraid, were not fit for public consumption…
But I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have a bit of fun playing Cycling Party. Do I think it is a well designed tactical cycling game? Absolutely not. Have I kept it? Nope. But if the people I sold it to wanted a game on a wine-tinged and rainy Thursday night at their place, would I partake? Absolutely.