Leader 1 Takes the Yellow Jersey — December 2, 2008

If you’re looking for a special gift to give to the cyclist who has everything, and who happens to enjoy board games, I recommend Leader 1.

Early reviews on BoardGame Geek  gave it a big thumbs-up. I received the game last week and after a couple of plays I can see why. An accurate simulation of a bike race has been achieved on cardboard. On top of that, it’s FUN. That says a lot. Dozens of game developers have tried — and failed — to make a game of the sport.

The key to this game and to any simulation of a bike race is the peloton. Developers Christophe Leclercq and Alain Ollier, no doubt Europeans with a passion for cycling, got it right. The peloton in many ways dictates the pace of the game even though it has no real part in the action.

Components: The components are worthy of the $40+ game price. Thick hexagonal cardboard terrain tiles allow you to make any number of courses with hills, mountains, flats, and descents. The player pieces look just like bike and rider, although they’re fragile. No fist pounding.

Strategy: Just like a bike race, the key to winning is picking the right time to break away from the peloton. As in real life, early breakaways usually fail. If there’s a flat run to the finish line, it’s probably best to keep your sprinter fresh for the final charge.

The game allows 2 to 10 players, even more. Fewer players, more bikes to handle. Riders start with an “energy supply” or movement points. The start points are dictated by board combinations. Each tile has a number. Add up the numbers on all the tiles in play, and that’s the movement points to start the game.

In the peloton, riders don’t burn points often, so they conserve energy. Once they leave the pack, they use points after exhausting free moves, which vary according to the type of rider. It’s hard to regain points, although you can pick up a few at a feed station somewhere on the course.

The peloton can decide to crank up the pace, adding one movement to the die roll, although ownership of the peloton shifts between players, so there could be some foot-dragging by a player, depending on where his or her riders are located.

Not surprisingly, there are rules for exhaustion (crack), crashing, flatting, special abilities (climbing and sprinting), and drafting. The rules also accommodate stage races, if you’re really into it.

All in all, Leader 1 has the feel of most race games, but the peloton adds a nice wrinkle and captures the spirit of a bike race. The other bike race game I highly recommend is Breaking Away. It takes place on a track, the rules are more basic, but it does not use dice, thus eliminating the element of luck.

Christophe and Alain deserve a round of applause, a flower bouquet, and the yellow jersey for their winning efforts. Great work.

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