The Daily Worker Placement

Thursday, May 23, 2019

YOU SHOULD REALLY PLAY: Breaking Away

by | published Monday, May 13, 2019

There is a special kind of thrill that comes from discovering and enjoying an obscure old game. It’s a bit like wandering around looking for somewhere to have dinner and discovering a somewhat seedy-looking restaurant that turns out to have amazing food and courteous service. Not that that’s ever happened to me, but I can imagine. 

The last time I had the game-discovery kind of thrill was at last fall’s TABSCon. TABSCons are run by the same folks who run Breakout (which I wrote about in March) in a quaint legion hall out in the city’s east end. One of my old tabletop chums waved me over and asked me if I wanted to play this bike racing game he had. It looked like a prototype. 

“Did you design it?” I asked. 

“No, it’s an old game and I made my own copy.” 

“Huh, ok.” 

Considering the popularity of cycling in Europe especially, its surprising there aren’t more games about it. The classic version is Um Reifenbreite, which means “by the width of a tire”. Originally published as Homas Tour in 1979, it soon went out of print and was reissued as Um Reifenbreite in 1992, winning that year’s Spiel des Jahres. It’s nicely balanced between skill and luck as movement is governed by dice, but you also have one-use cards you can use on your bikes (each player runs a team of four). There’s a lot of maneuvering for position and blocking, as the track narrows in places so you can’t get by. I had a copy for a while back when, but it never hit the table so I traded it away. 

Then Flamme Rouge came out in 2016. It has great production values, modular tracks, and a couple of expansions which have helped flesh things out, but I found the basic deck-driven movement system unsatisfying somehow. 

“So what’s this game called?” 

Breaking Away.” 

Faint bells went off in my mind (it’s an inner ear problem, I’m having it seen to). There was an utterly charming cycling movie called “Breaking Away” from 1979 about a kid from Indiana who aspires to be a champion cyclist–to the point of insisting on speaking in an Italian accent because all his cycling heroes are Italians. I highly recommend it. 

ANYway, the association with the movie didn’t hurt, and I sat down to play with my friend and four others. Each of us got a gridded sheet to keep track of our cyclists’ movement, with each row of the grid representing one turn. Before the start of the game, we all simultaneously (and secretly) assigned each of their four cyclists a set amount of movement points split up into three or four values and wrote those down in boxes in the first row of the grid. For instance, team leaders received 30 points in total; I could have split that up 10, 10, and 10 (I found out that was a bad idea for reasons I’ll explain) or 15/10/5, or 12/8/7/3. And so on. 

On Turn 1, play proceeded clockwise from the start player, with everyone moving their Team Leader first, then everyone moving their #2, and so on. You had to choose one of the available movement factors assigned to that guy and move that many spaces, then cross that value out and copy the unused ones onto the next row. At the end of the run, each cyclist had one empty box; we filled it in with a replacement value which depended on the cyclist’s position. If one of your bikes “broke away” into the lead, they got a one-time bonus. Otherwise, if there was no one directly ahead of them, the replacement value was “3” (not good) but if there were bikes directly ahead of you the replacement value was three plus the total number of bikes ahead of you until the next gap in the pack–which could often turn out to be quite a large number.  

On Turn 2 and later, turn order didn’t exist; the bike in the lead moved first, with its owner choosing one of its available values and moving it forward, then the bike in second place, and so on (ties were broken by starting from the outside lane and working in). 

There were three waypoints in the race, with the top eight in each case getting points. The final waypoint was the end of the race and had the highest rewards. Whoever had the most points at the end won. 

I loved it. It was simple, elegant, played quickly even with six players. But above all, there was no luck. No dice, no cards, no hills, terrain, or weather effects. It was all about managing your team’s “energy” (as measured by movement factor), especially as you neared the waypoints. The ideal situation is to stay near the middle of the pack and then sprint out at just the right time to nab the most points–and achieving this was the crux of the game. You wanted to have lots of different (and, if possible, large) movement values to choose from to have flexibility–did you want to draft behind a huge group, or sprint out in front? Drafting at the end of a very long “tail” would give you a very large replacement value, but then you risked running out of juice and bailing out of the race entirely. Oh yes, it was an unforgiving game, very old-school in that sense. But I actually preferred it to cursing my bad luck with bad die rolls. 

Two hours later I got up (having lost horribly) resolved to find out more about this game and, if possible, track down a copy. It was all on BGG, of course. Breaking Away was released in 1991. It had excellent user reviews–and there was a link to the UK publisher, Fiendish Games! I fired off a fawning email, and by the next day they answered. “We are down to our last 700 (or so) copies…so I think it will be available for a while yet.”  

Now, I could have, like my TABSCon friend, printed out my own copy, but I just have this thing about paying creators for their work (it’s different if they offer a free PnP version, of course), so I gladly paid the $60 (including shipping) to get my official copy.  

The photos accompanying this post should serve as a warning to those of you who, after reading this, want to follow in my footsteps and order a copy from the publisher; their presentation is…to be desired. Amateurish is a kind way to put it. When I brought it to the table everyone assumed it was a prototype I was playtesting. 

With a mainstream company, when I get a game with missing or damaged components, I always write to ask for replacements. But this time, I just didn’t think it was worth the bother. The rules were readable. The game was playable. The major issue were the sticker dots for the bikes; I could figure out a better solution, someday. It just seemed like the best they could do.  

I am ok with paying them for their idea, and I don’t want to return it. I have just decided to suck it up. Caveat emptor. It’s a shame, though, because it’s a damned fine game. They should sell it to a proper publisher and let them give it the treatment it deserves. You should definitely play it; it’s just up to you whether you buy a copy or make your own. 


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