Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: Formula Dé

Start your engines! See if you can negotiate the hairpin turn, wind it up into the straight, draft your way to the lead and cross the finish line first. Watch your tires and make sure that your brakes don't fail or you might find yourself decorating the side of the track. I'm talking about Formula Dé, a classic game from Eurogames Descartes that simulates formula one auto racing.

The game comes with a large double-sided game board that represents two real race tracks (one on each side) from the formula circuit: Monaco and Zandvoort, Holland. The tracks are detailed and colorful, hand-illustrated tracks that faithfully capture the cultural flavor of their locations. They're a joy to look at and they make a perfect backdrop to this very attractive game.

Also in the box are ten little plastic formula one racers, each about a centimeter long, in five colors, and ten little plastic wings which attach to the cars so that each car can have its own distinct color scheme. There is a set of colorful, special polyhedral dice, some cardboard "dashboards" and associated paper sheets to track your car's stats, some colored pawns that serve as gearshift knobs, and a pencil.

Formula Dé is a dice rolling game. On your turn, you roll a die. The number rolled dictates how far your car travels. Your principal decision is which gear you wish to be in. Each gear is represented by a different die and has a different range of possible distance values. Higher gears use larger dice and therefore have a larger range of possible outcomes. Also, the dice don't all have uniform number distributions and the numbers don't all start at one, dice for higher gears start at higher number values.

On each of your turns you are allowed to stay in the same gear, shift up one gear, or shift down from one to four gears. If you shift down more than one gear, you over-rev and you pay a penalty. Shift down two gears and you give up a fuel point. Shift down three gears and you give up a fuel and a brake point. Shift down four gears and you give up a fuel, a brake, and an engine point. Run out of points and you may be out of the race.

The catch here is the corners. If the track were all straights, then you'd just keep shifting up until you get to sixth gear and then you'd stay there, but of course it isn't. Corners are tricky because they require that your car finish its movement a certain number of times in the corner. A gentle corner may require that you "stop" in the corner only once. A nasty hairpin may require that you "stop" as many as three times. (Of course you aren't really stopping, you're just finishing your movement at a given point on the track.) You can choose which line you take through the corner and the line you choose can greatly affect where you finish your movement, but the line choices are limited and when there are other cars ahead of you things can get very crowded. This is a simple mechanism that actually works surprisingly well. It manages to reward fairly realistic behavior: running all-out in the straights, heavy braking into the corners, and accelerating through the corners so you can be in a high gear as you enter the next straight.

If you overshoot a corner, you must pay a penalty. This is where the "dashboards" come in. For each space that you overshoot a corner, you must cross off a tire wear point. If you cross off your last tire point you spin out. If you go beyond your last tire point you crash and quit the race. You can also apply brakes to avoid disaster. Every point of brake you apply reduces the distance you must travel by one. Run out of brakes and you are completely at the whim of the dice.

There are also advanced rules that apply weather effects, different types of tires, drafting rules, pit stops, and multiple lap races.

In addition to the two tracks that come in the base game, there are a whole host of expansion tracks available. If you've got a favorite formula one track, odds are pretty high that you can buy a representation for use with Formula Dé.

I really enjoy Formula Dé. It's got a very pleasing blend of strategy and luck, leaning a bit to the lucky side of things. It's light and enjoyable and it does a fine job of capturing the basic feel of auto racing. For Christmas this year, I gave a copy to my sons. I figured it would be well received but I was astonished by just how much they liked it. My thirteen-year-old is constantly begging me to play with him, so much so that I'm finding it very hard to convince him to play anything else. If he's not playing it with someone else, he's playing it by himself. I'd call that a successful Christmas gift!


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