Nothing from Nothing

Most of my favorite games are often considered trifles compared to “the hobby” as a whole. Games that are light as a feather, distilled to their essences, edited until there is nothing left to take away. I am The Magical Athlete Guy after all, but it goes deeper – Time Bomb, Strike, Push It, etc. are all games that I consider best-in-class for their respective categories. So when I saw that accomplished designer Friedemann Friese made a featherweight racing game I was automatically on board. Playing it has been a strange experience, one that has revealed more about my tastes to myself than I anticipated.

Full Throttle is not quite a moped racing game, despite its presentation. You play as some kind of alien parasites that have formed a betting pool, watching the race and placing bets by leeching strength from the racers themselves in real time. This reads weirdly, believe me I know, but mechanically there’s not a much better explanation as to why this game works the way it does.

Basically the game plays in two phases: the race completely running itself via flipping the racers’ movement cards from a deck, and the players taking turns to draft the racers’ cards, keeping them as bets. Any remaining cards are placed at the bottom of the deck, so when the deck eventually cycles the popular draft-ees will be significantly weaker than the unpopular kids as their cards are in the players’ hands. Your goal is to have as many cards belonging to podium-placing racers as possible, with first place obviously being ideal, so you’re pulled in two directions during the draft; weaken an established frontrunner, or root for a moped that’s lagging behind in hopes that they’ll jet ahead?

This, in theory, is brilliant! Investing in a racer being directly harmful makes the decision all the more interesting. Or at least it should. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. This isn’t an “oh if it was slightly tweaked” kind of situation either – I mean the gears literally don’t spin for almost the entirety of the game’s runtime.

Mathematically (which admittedly is not my strong suit) this is barely a game at 3 or 4 players. 7 cards come out, 4 get drafted, the rest go on the bottom of the deck. There are 84 cards to go through. This means the cards that everyone is collectively messing with don’t actually come into play until 12 turns in, and the game tends to end around turn 14-15. I’m not making an indictment of the choices the game offers here – I mean the players’ choices affect literally nothing until the last 2-3 turns of the game.

Is it better at higher player counts, then? Well yes, but actually no. Players will spend as much time operating the racers as they will actually drafting cards for their bets. You’d think pulling 9 cards at the full count of 6 players would mean the game gets to the good part sooner, but nope! The game just ends sooner. You get as much game to play, which is to say very little, and you have to spend longer each turn poking the wooden bits no one controls. Sure you can cheer at the uncaring pieces and enjoy each other’s company, but surely you can find something better to do with your friends than this?

My mind drifts to potential house rules. Removing some cards from every racer, thinning the deck and speeding up proceedings, could possibly work if it doesn’t create a stalling out problem. I could also see a variant where the deck is shuffled after each draft potentially adding a bit of spice to the proceedings, but that’s over a dozen shuffles just to create a swingier experience. Perhaps this would work as an option in a digital implementation, which would also presumably run the racers for you. Then again, I fear spending time watching a machine do almost everything would reveal just how little game Full Throttle actually contains.

Playing this for review has helped me find where some of my personal tolerances begin and end. I don’t mind light and fluffy, far from it. For goodness’ sake, Friedemann Friese’s Fuji Flush is fantastic and it has maybe two rules! What I do mind is inaction. Waiting between turns is inevitable is perfectly fine; what I’m not ok with is players being unable to actually do anything for an extended period, and when the vast majority of your game is procedural process I start to lose my patience. Unlike many contemporary hobbyists I don’t break out a game purely for tactile pleasures; I want to play something with my friends.

I get Full Throttle‘s joke. I just don’t think it’s especially funny.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.