A Bicycle Built For Gamers: VELONIMO review

Can anyone explain why these past few years have been so good for small box card games? Going back to BGG Con 2019, we have had at least two or three card games each year that have really captured our attention and have had some staying power in our game bags or on our Board Game Arena queue. Right off the top of my head, card games like Scout, Sea Salt & Paper, The Crew (especially Mission Deep Sea), Vaalbara, Codex Naturalis, Cat In The Box, and Oh My Brains all come to mind.

And when you add the name Bruno Cathala to a small box card game about bicycle racing, it’s not hard for me to want to take a look. Does Velonimo race through the Col de l’Iseran like Eddy Merckx? Or does it have a flat tire like I did on my last bike ride through Vicksburg National Monument park?

Velonimo is a simple card game to learn for two to five players that takes about a half-hour to forty-five minutes. Expect closer to the lower time period if you are playing with a knowledgeable group, and the latter for introducing it to new players. It’s designed by Bruno Cathala and published by 25th Century Games here in the States with illustrations by Dominique Mertens.

The box is the first thing that caught my eye. It’s your typical card game box that fits roughly into the palm of your hand, but has a stark white background that accentuates the cartoony depictions of the animals in the bicycle race that makes up the setting for the game.

When the box is closed, it leaves a slight gap with a red line all around the edge that looks like some kind of racing stripe or tire strip. It’s completely unnecessary but I love the way it looks, because it adds some kinetic energy to the illustrations on the side that really shouldn’t exist.

As much as I like reviewing boxes, I’ll bet it’s probably the gameplay that you are more interested in learning about. In this game, players are “racing to the summit” each round by trying to get rid of their hands faster than the other players. So at first glance, it’s a pretty typical card-shedding game like Scout which means it’s easy to teach because many players are familiar with that mechanism.

Each players starts with a random hand of cards, and cards can be played as singles — increasing the “attack value” (the game’s racing term for playing the initial card) of the hand that is played each time.

So if someone starts out with a “six” for instance, then the next person has to play a single card with a higher value number, or a combination of cards that add up to greater. You’ll start out by playing the single cards — getting rid of those cards is a no-brainer.

But the fun begins when you can play those combos. If you play a combination of two or more cards, either cards of the same color or cards of the same number on the face, then you add the face value of the lowest card that is played PLUS add 10 more points per card played to the total value (as a bonus for combo-wambo-ing).

First person to shed their entire hand gets the maximum points that round. In the first round, the points are small, just one point per person still left with cards in their hand. But each round, the points multiply, making going out even more lucrative.

That’s pretty simple. But, the designer has more clever little wrinkles up his Cannondale racing shirt sleeves. (Ask me about my jersey at a con sometime). There is a set of six “breakaway specialists”, cards with big point values (from 25 to 50 each) with illustrations of cute little jackrabbits speeding down the course. These cards can only be played as singles but they will *almost* always win you the right to start the next play. I say almost, because one of the fun moments in the game is when a player thinks they have a winning breakaway and forgets about a higher card that hasn’t been played, or a someone pulls out an amazing combo that totals a ton of points.

At the end of the round, players will enter their scores on the hand-dandy score pad and the leader not only gets the most points (a point for each opponent still in play) but it multiplies with higher and higher multiples each round. As an example, Dan might go out first in a four player game, so he scores three points (1 pt X 3 remaining opponents). If Don or Andrew go out next, they would get two points (1 pt x two remaining opponents). If the math sounds tough (it isn’t), just appoint a player to handle all the scoring each round and focus on the fun in dropping combo-bombs at just the right time.

Oh, I almost forgot my favorite little twist. The first player to go out not only scores more points, but also gets to don the beloved yellow jersey. Okay, there isn’t really a jersey folded into the box, but the game does supply a card with a picture of a jersey with orange carrots on it. Even without an actual tight-fitting shirt, it’s a lot of fun to have the yellow jersey on your side as you ride up Mount Ventoux because it adds 10 points to any of your attacks as a one-time bonus. In our plays, it has kept the players motivated to chase the leader position even in the early rounds when the points don’t really matter, because that extra 10 points can really help a player go out a little early.

The game has another tweak to the familiar card-shedding genre that I really enjoy. Normally, games punish you for passing too early. Not this time. You can always play a card later (called a “counter attack”) even if you passed that round. The attack only ends when all players in a row have passed, and that makes for tense and funny moments when a player holds back a good card or set of cards for use later only to change their mind and drop down the hammer.

This game is a no-brainer for me to recommend for the right groups. Do you like card games that offer you a little bit of control but don’t melt your brain in the process? Velonimo has just the right level of thickness. I love trick-taking games, but sometimes the obvious moves are just not so obvious to me. Here, it feels like you have more control than you probably have. Like Sea Salt & Paper, another delicious recent Cathala take on card games, you probably don’t have as much control as you think you do, but the game is short and the conversation is breezy, so any lack of control is really not that noticeable. When you get a lucky draw and make a nice little combo stick, it feels like a smooth ride down a breezy valley.

Velonimo has been a fun way to add some spice to the family game night. The production is absolutely top notch, the cards feel great, the artwork will draw your family in, and the gameplay will be just long enough to feel meaty but not overstay its welcome.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

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