Despite my hopes for some noticeable advances in game design, nothing seems to be coming of the card game boom in the States. Car Wars and Wrasslin' are little better than Snap, S&T got a very low feedback on their Napoleonic card game and even if there is a MNB 4 I can't see that it will benefit the system greatly. My last hopes remain with Mayfair's Express which is a railway card game and therefore a required purchase. Thankfully, things are a little brighter in the UK as Terry Goodchild has recently diverted some of his undoubted replay game skills into the broader area of card games. Being Lambourne Games they are predictably still on sports subjects but the emphasis is firmly on gameplay and, hopefully, appealing to the general games market.
The first two games to appear were The Big Fight (boxing) and Forty Overs (one day cricket) which I personally rate highly, particularly the clever cricket game that really does work well. The games are at the basic end of the complexity scale but they are light, fun and quick and both have that undefinable something that makes them interesting and replayable. Although they are simple games, both have neat design ideas, are produced to a good standard and cost a reasonable £3.95. As an example of how the Sporting Deals series is styled, I am going to comment on the latest of the three games, Speedway Challenge.
Rather than overselling the system as I have done in the past (with the not dissimilar German systems), I will simply describe it. The game can be played by two to four players, but three is weaker as one player has to control two of the four bikes. Two and four players can play as individuals or pairs as in real speedway. Each rider is dealt five cards which he must use to perform a good start and race over four laps. As cards are played, they are replenished either from an open area of ten face-up cards or from the pack which of course offers pot luck. Each card has a number ranging from 4 to 10 and an indication of which area of the track it can be used in. The imaginary track is divided into three lanes, the 'White Line', 'Centre' and 'Round the Boards'. The start is simply a matter of deciding the lane draw and playing the highest card, one of which can be the unbeatable 'Great Start'.
After that, the lead rider plays first and maintains a slight advantage in doing so as he wins any subsequent ties. Basically, each rider lays a card with a highish number (though tactics may dictate otherwise), preferably with an inside lane position, in an effort to stay in front or grab the lead. If, for instance, the lead rider plays White Line 9, the second player can either come round the outside with a higher numbered card (unlikely and thus realistic) or slip in behind in the same lane (again, spot on). Conversely, if the lead rider can only play a Round the Boards 6 (drifting wide on a corner) and the second man plays White Line 6 or Centre 6, we will have a new leader. A leader playing White Line 10 cannot be overtaken as it is, fairly obviously, the best card. Riders in third and fourth do their best to work through the field and, although they are usually blocked out of the two best lanes (a neat design trick), they always remain in contention for a sudden late burst.
Some cards, particularly the higher rated ones, carry a 'Risk' warning that requires another card be drawn if that card is played. This triggers a random event such as mechanical failure (a real pig on the last lap), falls and disqualifications. This is similar in effect to the legendary Z Card but you have the advantage of knowing that something might happen. Although low key, enough spice is added to makes things interesting. In the games we played, the thought of running a minor risk to gain the maximum possible move was greedily jumped upon by most players.
In play, Speedway Challenge certainly recreates what I remember of Saturday afternoon speedway on the telly. In some races, the rider getting the jump at the tapes roars off, hogging the white line, leaving the other three making no impression (he only has to have three or four good cards to win easily), while in others the race is really close with the lead changing three or four times with riders diving for the inside gap or creeping past outside in the loose stuff. One of the latter exciting races at the end of a close meeting just has to be experienced. The individual races take literally a couple of minutes to complete and in fact I would say that the shuffling and dealing probably takes longer than the play. I therefore don't want to make Speedway Challenge out as a difficult game to play or understand (it is very much an 'Is that it?' candidate), simply that it feels right, has a lot of speedway flavour and is fun.
Where Speedway Challenge scores is in having a very quick, workable system that enables you to play a whole meeting in an hour or so. The system as it stands is very basic but appealing for just that reason. It is a game system that offers a building block for more complex designs and yet should remain flexible. It cries out for tweaking and adding on house rules to make a game as 'realistic' as you like. Terry himself provides optional rules for star riders (they get more cards), reserves (they get less), statistics and so on, and that is just the beginning. I also suspect it would make a very good AI computer project. The card to be played is usually quite obvious and the replay value with computer resolution speeds and graphic display would be enormous.
I enjoyed Speedway Challenge, not because it is going to keep me occupied for months running my own league but because it is a clever design that has had a lot of thought put into it. It is also possible that general gamers, speedway fans and certainly kids might just go for this type of game. If not, I suppose Lambourne is no worse off than if only the sports gamers buy it. I also feel that this is a simple, clever race system (one of those where you nod in agreement while reading the rules) that would stand comparison against the German efforts - and that is what they do best. As a gamer rather than a replay buff these days, I rate the three Sporting Deals releases as among the best games that Lambourne has put out. Recommended with the proviso that you will want to do some tinkering to get beyond the basic card system. Now where are those Britains speedway bikes?
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