A Vicious Cycle: A Flamme Rouge Review

by Corey Whelen
12 May 2021

2-4 Players, ~40 Minutes, Low Complexity, Low Strategy, Ages 8+

If I were to sell you on a racing board game, you’d probably expect high-speed action, hair-pin turns, and the very real possibility of a teensy bit of drifting. Flamme Rouge is very much the opposite of that- it’s a tricky little racing game that rewards the cleverest player as opposed to the fastest. You see, Flamme Rouge is based on that sport of kings- cycling. More specifically, players will be partaking in the early days of the Tour de France, the most famous bicycle race in the world.

Flamme Rouge review by Corey Whelen - box shot
The race is on! See you in twenty-three days!

Of course the winner will be the first player to cross the finish line but the Tour de France is an endurance race. You’ll take control of not just one cyclist but a team, and much like the real Tour de France, they’ll have to work together to manage exhaustion and have a shot at victory. Your rouleur and your sprinteur each have a deck of movement cards that they’ll cycle (heh) through. Players select which biker they want to move first, draw four cards from that biker’s deck, play a card, move the amount on it, then remove the card from the game. It’s a little bit like a deck-builder, except the only cards that go into your deck are bad; exhaustion cards are handed out to any cyclist that is out in front while the others get to glide along behind.

The real Tour de France is so long that exhaustion is the biggest challenge racers face, and anything they can do to combat that exhaustion helps. The sprinteur gets all the glory because they’re the ones who cross the finish line, but it’s the rouleur’s job to keep the sprinteur fresh for that sprint to the finish line. The rouleur leads the way for most of the race, breaking the wind so the sprinteur can slipstream behind, facing as little exhaustion as possible. Ideally, your sprinteur and the rouleur function much the same in Flamme Rouge, although it takes some coordination (and luck!) to line them up properly. Your sprinteur will have the fastest cards, sevens and nines that you’ll want to save for the end- he also has the slowest cards with some twos stinking up the deck. Your rouleur is more consistent- most of his cards are in the four-five range. Since you lock-in your card for one biker before even looking at the options for your other biker, it takes planning and luck to line them up properly- good thing you can end your turn behind other players to avoid exhaustion as well! 

Flamme Rouge review by Corey Whelen - cards
Each racer has their own look, but nationality is only implied. Of course, only the Germans could produce such a fine moustache.

Slipstreaming, or drafting, is the main mechanic in Flamme Rouge. At the end of each round, any cyclist that is exactly one space away from the cyclist in front of them slides forward to close the gap. Then any cyclist without another cyclist in front of them shuffles an exhaustion card with a value of two into their deck. One of these doesn’t hurt but take a couple and you’ll start to really feel it, just like the building exhaustion that the cyclists face. Every exhaustion card you put in your deck represents fewer options on a future turn- if you get a handful of exhaustion cards at the end of the race, you will absolutely lose. This creates an interesting dynamic where you DON’T want to be in the lead for most of this race-it’s better to coast along in second so your cyclists are daisy-fresh for the sprint to the finish line. This is difficult enough by yourself with two cyclists, since, again, you can’t even look at the cards for your second cyclist until you’ve chosen one for the first. Quite often you end up stuck at the front of the pack, or even worse, trailing behind, forced to use your fastest cards just to catch up to the pack of slipstreaming speedsters ahead of you. You end up trying to guess what your opponents are planning every turn- quite often the plan is to go sliiiiiightly slower than you, so that’s all good, but it leads to this interesting game of reverse psychology and chicken. If your opponent wants to end their turn behind you, and you’re trying to end behind them, well, I’m sure you can imagine how that plays out, especially since the road is only two spaces wide, and it regularly gets so jammed up that nobody can pass in 3-4 player games! You also have to decide when to break away from the pack and go for the finish line- we spent most of the game in anticipation of this moment, nervously glancing at each other, waiting for someone to make the first move.

Flamme Rouge review by Corey Whelen - cyclists
Leading the pack AND ahead of the curve.

Flamme Rouge is a fascinating game to me- it’s a lot of fun, it’s easy to get new players into, and it looks amazing! Moving plastic pieces toward a finish line is an easy and familiar concept to introduce to players, and the modular board means you can use one of the suggested pre-made tracks or assemble your own. You can even add uphill and downhill sections to spice things up once you know how to play, and the expansion, Flamme Rouge: Peloton,  adds single-file cobble roads, bridges, and two extra teams. That said, this game, with its sepia tones and newspaper cut-outs and old-timey mustachioed-men… It’s aesthetically aimed at older adults, but it plays like a game for younger kids and new players. Moving pieces forward is an incredibly basic mechanic, and I can’t imagine it keeping many adults entertained for more than a handful of plays. And yet, I can’t imagine a kid picking this off the shelf over something more colourful or cartoon-y. I’d say Flamme Rouge is a solid intro to hobby gaming, especially for cycling enthusiasts, but there are other introductions with more broad appeal that I would recommend first, like Pandemic, Keys to the Castle, or even Camel Up.  To be fair, I have yet to experience this game at the full four-players (pandemic problems), and I suspect that more players does equal more fun in this case. Unfortunately, at two or three players, this game is definitely light on strategy for adults, and perhaps not as appealing to kids as it could be.

Disclaimer: Not distributed by Outset Media