Tour de Force

Review of board game Breaking Away by Pevans

It seems to be strange reviewing Breaking Away as the game is an old friend. Designer John Harrington has been running the game by post in his 'zine, TTYF! for several years. This has enabled him to try various different rules for the game, and has also earned the game many fans in the postal games hobby. A good indication of the game's popularity is that several other 'zines are running the game - with rules of varying vintages. The board game was finally launched at last November's MidCon.

Breaking Away is about cycle racing. Players have a team of four cyclists and score points for their positions crossing the finish line and the two sprint lines during the race. The player with the highest points total at the end of the race wins the game. With twice as many points at stake for the finish as for either sprint, a long-term strategy can pay off, but usually it's a good idea to get some points for the sprints rather than relying solely on a strong finish.

In each turn the bikes are moved forwards one at a time, starting at the front of the race and working towards the back. The owner plays a 'card' and moves the bike forward that many spaces. Once everybody has moved, players get new 'cards' for each of their riders - and this is the tricky bit: the value (movement factor) a rider gets depends on the number of cyclists in the pack in front. If there's nobody on the square in front of a cyclist, he gets a '3'. One is added to the value of the 'card' for each cyclist in a contiguous group in front.

This sounds complex, but is relatively straightforward to work out once you've done it a couple of times. For example: start with two cyclists on square 24 - they each get a '3'; on 23 (behind them) are two more - they each get a '5' (3 + 2); the cyclists on the square behind them get '7's (3 + 2 + 2), but the next square is empty so the following cyclist only gets a '3' movement factor again.

What this means is that the most advantageous place for a cyclist to be is at the back of the pack. Here you pick up a high value, enabling you to surge forward - but leaving you at the front where you then only get low value replacements. The trick is to be able to time it so that you sprint in the right places to collect points and then drop back to the tail of the pack. Without getting too far behind that you can't catch up. And this is where I consistently fail at this game! You have to guess what other people are going to play and then have the right numbers to get the optimum position. In the postal game you know what everybody holds and can spend some time on it: in the board game you only know about the riders who've moved before you - and you're usually being hassled to move quickly.

The overall effect of this mechanic is remarkably like a real cycle race. The pack stays bunched up most of the time, with riders making occasional sprints for points, but spreads out in the final section of the race. This is particularly effective in the board game, with the brightly coloured cyclists spread out along the track.

You will have noticed that I keep referring to 'cards'. The quotes are there because neither version of the game actually has physical cards. In the postal game, each rider's holding is simply printed as a set of numbers. For the board game, each player has a log sheet on which s/he keeps track of his/her cyclists' movement factors. This is the one awkward area in the game and it can be time-consuming as each player makes sure to record the new movement factors for all their riders correctly. Usually one player will take charge and go through the pack at the end of each turn, saying what each cyclist gets. The others scribble furiously and keep an eye on what the bossy one's doing to make sure it's right. This seems to be the best way of handling the process.

John and his partner in Fiendish Games, Mike Woodhouse, have deliberately pitched the game at the hobby market, eschewing slick (and expensive) packaging for the game. It comes in a heavy duty plastic bag, large enough to take the folded board (roughly A3). The board is fairly solid card which unfolds to A2 (-ish) and portrays an oval track with start, finish and sprint lines marked on it (a race is 2˝ laps). The cyclists are solid cards in half a dozen distinct colours. They come with plastic bases so that they stand upright on the board - this makes the game look very much like a cycle race (one quibble though: the card of the cyclists is a fraction too thick to fit comfortably into the bases). Finally there is a pad of the log sheets.

I find this a very enjoyable game - even though I have yet to score more than a few token points whether playing round a table or through the mail. The only problem is that the game can be a little slow. Despite its similarities with other cycle race games, Breaking Away has its own character and atmosphere.

Since this review as originally written, Fiendish Games has produced a second edition of the game. This is better produced and has slightly revised rules.

Breaking Away was designed by John Harrington and published (in the UK) by Fiendish Games. It is for 3-6 players and takes 60-90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 8/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 88, February 1995.

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