Mille Bornes is a game about racing … and delicious, delicious sabotage

Sajeev Mehta

Times have changed, that’s for sure. Remember “the classic racing game,” Mille Bornes, first launched in 1954? After a quick peek at Apple’s App Store and its Google Play counterpart, there are no fewer than four apps heavily based on the game. Let me assure you, however that this is not a hit piece on a younger generation smearing the successes of the past atop a new form of media, subsequently ruining it like pineapple* on pizza. On the contrary, it’s a testament to the game’s staying power that it has been able to evolve and survive in different media for different audiences.

A quick primer: The game is meant to simulate a road race of 1000 “milestones,” be they miles or kilometers, with each hand representing one race. Players cast distance cards to make progress, while hazard cards pose obstacles, remedy cards counter hazards, and safety cards prevent hazards.

Mille Bornes’ creator Edmond Dujardin was heavily influenced by the work of William Janson Roche, who created the nearly identical card game of Touring all the way back in 1904. One distinguishing element of Milles Bornes, however, is the mileage posted on the distance cards, reflecting a new era of effortlessly traveling hundreds of miles in one sitting.

The digital homages of today seem pretty close to Dujardin’s intended gameplay, albeit with a dramatic change: Most versions played on a device are one-player-only games. Be it smartphone or mobile tablet, this evolution of the game misses the joyous point of Mille Bornes. Sabotage! Players must expect treachery at every corner from their competitors, who are the usual suspects (friends, family, co-workers) in their everyday lives. That personal touch adds tension to the luck of the draw, ensuring competitive moves no less aggressive than those experienced on a race track. And while a computer may work hard to beat you to the checkered flag, it doesn’t hold a candle to the analog experience offered by in-person Mille Bornes.

Mille Bornes card game
Sajeev Mehta

That’s because Mille Bornes is a take-that game, with outcomes depending on how the four players interact with each other. Participants can choose to gang up on another player, ensuring their swift demise. Or perhaps everyone can take a turn getting pushed under the bus (or safety car, as it were). There’s also something satisfying in the physicality and tactility of a board game. Open up the box and you’re greeted by a simple set of instructions, a more formalized instruction booklet, scorecards, and playing cards stored in a plastic container.

Mille Bornes Distance Cards
Sajeev Mehta

The first category of cards to consider in Mille Bornes’ deck are the distance cards. These allow the cardholder to move at a snail, duck, butterfly, jackrabbit, or a soaring bird’s (?) pace. The goal for us Yanks who move around in FREEDOM UNITS is to travel 1000 miles as individuals, or 5000 miles when working with a partner.

Mille Bornes Hazards
Sajeev Mehta

And here’s where things gets deliciously diabolical. The red hazard cards are given to someone that must be stopped by any means possible. Well, by five means: stop sign, car accident, flat tire, speed limit (no more than 50 miles per turn), or an out of gas penalty.

As a child (in the pre-internet era) it was also fun to try to pronounce (read: mock) Mille Bornes’ French words while doling out a punishment. To this day I still think it’s more sinister to hand someone a “cree-vee” over a mere flat tire. And because you can’t get the same satisfaction from a game played on a smartphone, I’d encourage you to smash the like button if you agree.

Mille Bornes Remedies
Sajeev Mehta

The obvious counterpart to the hazard cards are these green-hued remedies. They are a soothing contrast to the angry red iconography of the hazard cards and include a green light, tank of fuel, auto repairs, replacement tire, and an end of speed limit sign. (This is also a good time to mention how much cooler the older, mid-century graphics are compared to later examples.)

The problem is that you always need a green light to get back on the road, so if you got a wreck/flat/out of gas hazard, you need at least two turns to get back on the road. It’s fair to say that remedy cards are not what you really want, as they are merely a bandage on the problem.

Mille Bornes coup fourré
Coup fourré! Take THAT! Sajeev Mehta

Instead you want a solution that both solves an issue permanently, and gives you the opportunity to rub salt in the wounds of your competition. You want a safety card, also called a coup fourré!

Your life is so much better with a coup fourré in your hand, be it the fire truck (immune to stop signs and speed limits), the driving gloves on a steering wheel (immune to accidents), the puncture proof tire (no crevés for you!), or the fuel truck (no more gas shortages). And while it’s great that you keep a sabotage at bay, the real perk is that you also take control of the game. You can lay down some mileage, or you can sabotage the saboteur without waiting for your turn. Or both, as coup fourré enablers get two turns after the saboteur foolishly attacked them.

And while the proper pronunciation for coup fourré is in the previous embedded link, I can still picture my mother giving a sinister smile, with a curt yet celebratory chuckle as she pulled one of these babies out and proclaimed “KOO-FRAY!” It’s the small victories that are indeed the sweetest. Turns out they are also unforgettable.

Digging through the Mehta family’s old score sheets gave me a newfound appreciation for Mille Bornes, and the overwhelmingly positive effect it had on my childhood. The game was challenging enough to entertain adults, but still easy enough that children could beat them. According to those tally sheets, yours truly even won the game at least once. I was a lucky kid with a damn great childhood, which makes me appreciate the fact that I didn’t lose our original copy of Mille Bornes. The only fly in the ointment is that my recent eBay purchase was made in vain.

Mille Bornes card game
Sajeev Mehta

Four chairs is fair, but what shall I do with enough cards for eight people? How embarrassing for me!

Perhaps we need another Hagerty contest, right after the esteemed Sam Smith completes his Volvo 240 endeavor. Yes, let’s focus on getting your 300-word essays in for that Swedish number first, but this begs a rather obvious question: What would you do for your own copy of Mille Bornes?


*Let the record show that I have no problem with pineapple on pizza. In fact, if we’re talking about pies made by your average American franchise restaurant, it’s one of my favorite options. So there.  

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