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Formula Dé Mini

Designer: Eric Randall/Laurent Lavaur
Publisher: EuroGames
Players: 2-8
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

Everyone should have a racing game. There are so many on this subject that it seems guaranteed that at least one of them will suit your particular preferences. I suspect that the most popular current title is Formula Dé but it is not without its detractors. Chief amongst the complaints is that it tends to take a long time to play, particularly with a full field of tens cars. Formula Dé Mini aims to address this with streamlined rules and shorter tracks that are playable in about half the time.

The basics of gameplay are simple—on your turn you first decide what gear you'd like to be in. You may only increase one gear at a time but may decrease several if you wish (at a cost). Once you've decided, you then roll the appropriate die which will dictate the number of spaces you must move. (For example, third gear will move you 4-8 spaces whereas fourth gear will move you 7-12 spaces.) Once you've moved the next player (in race order) takes her turn. It would be a poor game if you could simply get into top gear and stay there and what prevents you from doing this are the corners (naturally enough). Each is clearly marked and the spaces all show a pattern of arrows. These arrows dictate movement but the more important aspect is the "turn rating". This will be from 1 to 3* and indicates the number of turns that each car must stop in that corner. It's possible to "overshoot" but the penalties can be severe so the entire game revolves around setting yourself up to navigate these corners as efficiently as possible.

(*Actually, all the corners in Formula Dé Mini are rated "1". Personally I think this was an odd design choice as multiple turn corners afford the greatest opportunity for skill.)

This is the basic structure of the game and it works fairly well. Obviously, you want to to maintain as high a gear as possible and this involves much maneuvering and positioning so that you do not have to slow down too much in the corners. It captures the feel of auto racing to a pretty good degree and I think that this goes a long way to explaining why the original is so popular. Added to this are many extra rules to include slipstreaming, braking, collisions, etc. In the original most of this was accomplished via your car record sheet. Each car was rated in a number of categories: tires, fuel, transmission, etc. As you took damage you crossed off the appropriate box on your sheet. In Formula Dé Mini each player is instead given 20 chips that are used to pay for these penalties.

The most difficult aspect of any racing game is how to handle pit-stops. In most forms of auto racing this is an absolutely critical portion of the contest and one that is so often done poorly. Why is this such a problem? Well, most racing games are forced by necessity to reduce the number of laps run—it's very difficult to actually conduct the 50 or so laps that a real Formula 1 race includes. However, when you run only 2 or 3 laps you obviously reduce the opportunities to pit as well as increasing the effect that each has.

Formula Dé Mini gear diceSo far, I have not seen any game that handles pits very well and this includes Formula Dé Mini. In fact, I'd say that these rules, as written, are easily the weakest part of the game and can't imagine playing with them as is. The first, and most egregious, problem is that it is easily possible for you to move further by pitting than not! When you enter the pits you roll the black die (a regular d20) and if successful (more on this in a moment) you immediately leave by rolling the third gear die! In effect, it's possible for you to move twice by pitting! At first I thought that this had to be an error and instead you left on your next turn in third gear but that is not the case (the rule book is very clear on this point).

The second problem is the procedure for actually repairing your car while in the pits: You roll the black die and if the number rolled exceeds your current chip holdings you may then leave (with your total chips equal to the number rolled). This means that it's quicker to repair a nearly destroyed car than one that has very little damage! I suppose you could argue that you'd only enter the pits if you're actually in need of repairs (perhaps a realistic assumption) but the effects are simply too extreme. What often happens in practice is that players will intentionally damage their cars on the final corner so that they don't get stuck in a long pit.

Imagine that Mika has run a nearly flawless first lap, he's in the lead and currently has 16 chips. Wisely, he decides not to enter the pits. Michael on the other hand is not doing so well—while he managed to maintain second place he nearly destroyed his car and has but a single chip left. So he enters the pits where he luckily rolls an 18! He immediately rolls the third gear die which ends up moving him past Mika. This means that Michael, who ran a poor first lap, is not only in front of Mika but has more chips despite Mika's superior play.

Further to this is that far too much luck is introduced with this method. Now some people will shout out that it's a die rolling game and so there's a huge luck element to the game already but I disagree. Yes, there's luck involved but since you roll so many dice throughout the game it tends to even out. You will fall short of a few corners while other times you will roll exactly what you need. Sometimes you'll roll high and other times you'll roll low. Most of the rolls you make will be of equal importance over the course of the race. However, the pit roll is so much more important than any other. If you happen to roll badly and spend 4 or 5 turns in the pits it does not matter how well you do in the rest of the game, you will not win.

One of the attributes of the original Formula Dé was how easily it accepted variants and the same thing can be said about this Mini version. If you're as troubled by the pitting rules as I am it's pretty easy to come up with a variant more to your liking. Still, considering the fact that the original has been available for so long it seems a real shame that a good solid rule was not included in this version. While house rules are fine there's a real advantage to having official rules that work well.

Formula Dé Mini "dashboards"

The production of Formula Dé Mini is up to the usual, excellent Eurogames standard. You get 8 plastic cars with removable spoilers so that you can customize your team's colours. The dice are high quality and the two tracks are well laid out and have nice artistic touches. (Note to purists: whereas tracks for the original are based on real-life courses, the ones included here are strictly fantasy set ups.) Also new in this Mini version are improved "dashboards". (See picture above.) An especially nice touch is the puzzle cut end so that you can match your car's body and spoiler colours. (Formula Dé Mini only includes dice for gears 1-5 but if you look close you can see that there's also space on the dashboard for the sixth gear of the original.) For the most part the rules are well written and clear but there are some problems. The first is that blocking is practically identical to braking and so its inclusion merely causes confusion. There's also a typo that states that you cannot decelerate from 5th to 1st gear despite later telling you that this is in fact permissible.  

Should owners of Formula Dé consider purchasing Mini? The new dashboards are nice and another set of dice are always helpful (even without "big blue", the sixth gear die). The rules do have some interesting streamlining and there are enough chips to accommodate 10 players. However, the biggest incentive would have to be the included tracks, they're a nice change from the plethora available. They're quite short which can be useful if you prefer playing a quicker race. Since one of the tracks has only two lanes this also makes things more interesting in races with fewer cars—there's quite a bit of bumping even with only four cars running!

What if you've decided that you'd like to buy Formula Dé Mini but wonder if it's not better to just buy the "full version"? Well, Formula Dé has quite a few additional rules, most notably the customization of your car and the introduction of weather. While I think you could easily live without these there are those who love a more complicated game. There's also the fact that Formula Dé includes the 6th gear die as well as two full courses including Monaco (in my opinion, the best course available). To be honest, I think it's a toss-up and that purchasing either will be perfectly fine. I could live with just using the Mini rules, the lack of a sixth gear does not bother me and there's no problem utilizing the existing expansion tracks. (If you really want that 6th gear, Eurogames sells the dice as a set.)

In any case, Formula Dé Mini is a fine racing game and I do recommend it. It isn't perfect and there are some serious problems with how well it works as a simulation. (I've always been bothered that the best "line" through a corner is usually the exact opposite to how it works in real life.) Despite this it captures the flavor of racing quite nicely and is enjoyable to play. Importantly, it accomplishes the goal of drastically shortening the playing time and I'm glad to have both versions in my collection.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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