GAME REVIEW: Thunderbirds

I’m a big fan of the Thunderbirds television show from the 60’s about an International rescue team battling the evil Hood.   No, I’m not that old.  I was born in 1976, but I watched reruns of it as a kid and picked up the complete series on DVD 15 years ago.  The show is an acquired taste, but I think the marionette puppets are very cool and love the models of the vehicles.  I respect the amount of work it must have taken to create that show.

When I heard that Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic, Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert was designing a new Thunderbirds board game just in time for the show’s 50th anniversary, well…. I got very excited indeed.  I immediately backed it on kickstarter.  I got my copy last week and played a few games of it this past weekend.  What did I think?  Did it live up to the hype that I created for it?  Let’s find out!

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Released by Modiphius Entertainment, Thunderbirds is a co-operative board game for 1-4 players.  Ages 8 and up and takes about 45-60 minutes to play.  There are a lot of little details in this game, so I’m just going to give a basic overview.

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The players will take on the role of one of the Tracy brothers from International Rescue (or Lady Penelope who is a British agent who helps the team).  The players will travel across the globe (and into space) to avert disasters and stop the Hood’s evil schemes from happening.  The game is won if 3 schemes are prevented from happening.  But of course, since this is a Matt Leacock game, it’s not going to be that easy.

If you’re familiar with Leacock’s other titles, you’ll definitely notice similarities.  Each player gets a random character (with a special ability) assigned to them.  Then the players put their character peg into their vehicle (which is the same color as their character).

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Before the game begins, you create a disaster deck, which will also include 8 “Advance The Hood” cards.  The Hood figure is placed on his track at the top of the board.  Every time one of his “advance” cards is drawn, he moves on the track.  When he reaches an event space, you flip it over and something bad will happen.  If he reaches a scheme card before you defeat it, then everyone loses.

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Besides trying to defeat schemes, you will be trying to prevent disasters from happening.  Disaster cards usually have a number in the top left hand corner, which is what you need to roll in order to defeat it.  It also says where the disaster is and bonuses you can add to your roll if you have certain characters and vehicles in the location of the disaster.

During your turn you get 3 actions.

  • Move your Thunderbird machine up to its top speed (which is either one, two or three)
  • Rescue – Roll the 2 dice to try to avert a disaster card (using any bonuses you may have).  You must be in that location listed on the card to do this. But be aware, there is a Hood symbol on the dice, which will advance him.
  • Plan – Take a F.A.B. card, but then you must advance the hood.  These cards do have helpful abilities, like adding numbers to a die roll, or giving you extra actions, etc.
  • Scan – Move a disaster card back one slot on the disaster track if you are in Thunderbird 5.

You may do any of these actions multiple times.

There are also free actions you may perform at anytime during your turn:

  • Transfer character pegs from one vehicle to another, which you may have to do in order to help you avert disasters.
  • Load and unloading vehicles into and out of Thunderbird 2 (either the Thunderbird 4, the F.A.B. 1,or 2 pod vehicles at one time).
  • Defeating schemes – If you fulfill the scheme requirements, you may discard the proper tokens.  It usually involves discarding tokens in a specific location, or having certain pod vehicles in specific locations.
  • Using bonus tokens – There are 5 different bonus tokens: One that allows you to re-roll a die, one that allows you to add 2 to any dice roll, yake an extra action, draw a F.A.B. card without advancing The Hood, and one that allows you to construct a pod vehicle from Brain’s notebook.

After you take your three actions, you draw a disaster card to add to the disaster track, which is at the bottom of the board.  If it’s a disaster, EVERY card moves on the track, even if there’s a space between 2 cards (something that I didn’t do during my first game).  If a disaster card ever reaches the end of the track.  Everyone loses.  If you draw a Hood card, then advance him.

Then it’s the next player’s turn.

That’s the game in a nutshell.  You essentially are just moving around the board, trying to fulfill the various things listed on the disaster and scheme cards.  It sounds pretty easy.  Even when I was doing a solo runthrough to learn the game, I thought it was going to be a breeze.  Well, I was wrong.  Once I was actually playing the game right, I found it to be quite difficult.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I like games that are challenging.  There is even 5 levels of difficulty.  I did manage to beat it on the second level, but not the third.

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The theme is strong here.  The artwork and the plastic models of the ships do a great job evoking the feeling of the classic show.  I even had the show playing in the background during the first few times we played the game.  It really added a lot to our gameplay.

What’s interesting about the game to me is the way you have to figure out how you’re going to fulfill everything on all the disasters and scheme cards.  At first, you kind of just want to start working on collecting items for defeating schemes (since that’s how you win the game), but if you ignore the disaster cards, you’re going to be in big trouble.  You have to find a way to collect items for the schemes while averting disasters.  It’s a bit of a juggling act.  Speaking of juggling act, it can be a bit of a challenge to figure out where you need to go, and what vehicle to be in to prevent disasters.  You’ll find yourself constantly moving to locations, transferring your characters to different vehicles, picking up characters to assist you, flying up to space, flying back down, building pod vehicles, picking them up and delivering them to specific locations….. whew!  There’s a bit of thinking to do when it comes to your turn.  Player’s can discuss with each other to figure out who will avert which disasters and who will discard what for each scheme.  I guess you can say it’s almost a pickup and delivery game in a way.

So what do I think?

Well, the artwork is terrific!  I love that they use screenshots from the specific episodes for the disaster cards.  Fans will love that.  Even though the board is just a map of the world, it does have a retro vibe going for it that fits the theme like a glove.  The components are quite nice.  I think they did a great job with all of the vehicles.

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The pegs are super tiny, but they still look pretty neat.

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The gameplay was different from what I imagined.  I was thinking it was going to be more like Pandemic, where you simply move and prevent things, but no.  You have to have specific vehicles in certain locations, as well as specific characters.  You really have to plan everything out.  It’s kind of like a puzzle in a way, figuring out how you’re going to get everything done before it’s too late.

The way the game plays kind of feels like an old board game from the 80’s.  I’m not saying that as a negative, but the way you’re moving these plastic pieces around and saving the world…… I don’t know how else to explain it.  It feels retro.  And I mean besides the theme.  The gameplay has a very 80’s feel to it, and for this game I think it’s a good fit.

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I will say the only thing that rubs me the wrong way is having to roll dice to avert disasters.  In Leacock’s other games, there is nothing that lucky.  Sure, his past games are really hard and there is some luck in the way the cards are drawn, but there is no dice rolling, which really raises the random element here.  Now, there are ways to re-roll, and add bonuses to the roll, but I still had games where I would get six bad rolls in a rowl and there was nothing I could do about it.  Now, I do love dice games, and I love push your luck games, but in a game that has lots of strategy, this luck element just seems out-of-place.  Does it ruin the game for me?  No.  It doesn’t.  I still like it, but every once in a while, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I played this with my buddy Dan, and he thought it was just okay.  He thought it was too easy, but we also weren’t advancing the disaster cards when there was a gap between them.  I played it a few more times with my 9-year-old nephew (who thought the game was “really cool”) and found it to be a lot more difficult once we were playing the game correctly.

I enjoy the pressure of trying to get everything done before it’s too late.  I love figuring out what to move and where things should be.  And I love the theme.  If you’re not a Thunderbirds fan, I would try before you buy.  If you are a fan and enjoy board games (especially co-op games), then I recommend you picking it up.

I do think the price point is a bit too high (70 bucks) for what the game is.  I understand why it’s so high (because of the plastic models), but the game itself feels a bit too light for that kind of price point.

If you’ve never played a Matt Leacock game before, you’ll probably really enjoy this game.  This is a great entry-level co-op game.  It is my least favorite of his games, but that’s not to say it’s not good.  It’s decent.  It didn’t blow me away, but maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe my expectations were too high.

The strong theme does help me overlook it’s shortcomings.  I feel like if it didn’t have a Thunderbirds theme then I would be looking to trade the game off.  Man, I really sound like I don’t like the game.  That’s not the case.  I really do like it.  I think I’m just disappointed because the game is just “good”, not fantastic.  And like I said, that’s not fair.  If you’re curious about it, then I would recommend checking it out.  Maybe playing it first before you buy it.  I am glad I have it though.

It’s a great looking production with some interesting decisions to make.  I do have a couple of issues with it, mainly that the dice rolling to avert disasters feels like lazy designing.  But once you get past that, there is a fun game here.  I think this is also a great gateway game to introduce people to co-op games.  I think middle school kids will eat this up.  Hardcore gamers might not like it as much, but maybe that’s not who this game is for.

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