Thunderbirds Review

November 12, 2015

Matt Leacock’s Pandemic was one of the watershed moments of hobby gaming’s past decade. Even more so than earlier examples such as Knizia’s Lord of the Rings or the Faidutti/Laget design Shadows Over Camelot, that 2007 release popularized cooperative gameplay and also practically codified certain genre expectations. Mr. Leacock has also found success outside of the Pandemic product line with Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, but I think his latest game is possibly the best thing he’s done since everyone learned to fear the spread of disease-laden cubes across the planet. It’s Thunderbirds, published by Modiphius Entertainment in celebration of its subject matter’s 50th anniversary.

For the uninformed, Thunderbirds was a British kids’ show produced by the legendary Gerry Anderson. In the show the heroes of International Rescue work together to thwart various disasters and villainous schemes, usually perpetrated by their arch-nemesis, The Hood. International Rescue has at their disposal the titular Thunderbird machines, awesome super-vehicles that any kid or kid at heart will fall in love with at first sight. The whole show was done in “Supermarionation”, meaning that the characters were all highly detailed marionette puppets performing in real sets and with scale models. The show has a huge cult following but it never really gained much traction in the United States.

So if you don’t know what the Cham-Cham is or you can’t tell Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbird 5 on sight, you might want to visit Wikipedia first or hit YouTube. But do come back for the game, because it’s really quite good even if you aren’t a fan of the show.

Much like the great Gale Force 9 licensed titles, it appears that Mr. Leacock started the design process by asking what fans of the show would want to do in a Thunderbirds game. And that list of answers had to have included “Pilot the Thunderbird vehicles”, “coordinate missions between the Virgil brothers and Lady Penelope”, and “fight The Hood”. Because that’s what you’ll do in this design, which may be the only hobby game I’ve ever played that borrows an element from The Game of Life.

Each turn a player, representing a member of International Rescue, gets four actions. Typically, these are spent moving across a map of the world (and the Solar System!) in one of the Thunderbird machines. If you arrive at a location where there is a disaster in progress, as indicated by a row of cards at the bottom of the board, you can attempt a rescue. These all have target numbers that you’ve got to hit on two special D6s. But you get bonuses if you have a specific character or a specific Thunderbird machine either in the location or another specified place, if it’s a land/air/sea rescue, and other factors such as bringing a pod vehicle (utility machines that you can build). Roll it up, and if you beat it you get a couple of reward tokens that have a couple of different beneficial uses.

That’s the main action of the game. But where it gets interesting is that you have to sort of coordinate the team members to get them into place, which often means transferring them between vehicles. Each vehicle can hold a number of the peg-people figures (this is the Life thing), so you might fly to South America to pick up Virgil with John in the pilot seat of Thunderbird 2, then fly to Tracy Island to pick up an excavator, and then over to Asia to roll against a disaster there. But all of this coordination of bonuses takes actions to execute, and you inevitably find yourself in situations where you have to take a chance on a roll without everything lined up. Which can be risky not only because you can fail, thus wasting an action, but also because every die roll can make The Hood move along his track.

At the top of the board, The Hood has a number of Event and Scheme cards. As The Hood moves as the result of a die roll or when a team member chooses to take a helpful F.A.B. card as an action, he triggers these events that have a negative impact. But if he reaches one of the three Scheme cards, the players lose automatically. In order to stop a scheme, the team generally has to get to one or more locations with specific reward tokens to thwart The Hood’s plot. They are set up in staged way so that each one is progressively more difficult. You can also adjust the game’s overall difficulty by selecting from themes ranked I, II, II or IV.

The cool thing about The Hood track is that it has three terminal points, which creates a great sense of not only tension but also escalation. You can always see the next scheme, so it is up to the players to plan accordingly. But The Hood’s movement is unpredictable, so he can suddenly jump up three or four spaces unexpectedly. I’ve seen games go from cakewalk to critical in a single round. Which I think is really fun, but some may decry the randomness. My advice? Be prepared.

The players can also lose if the disaster line fills up, which is a very real threat if players can’t get it together to eliminate the more difficult ones or if they simply become swamped with work to do. There is an element of the “whack a mole” style of co-op gameplay that has gotten a little long in the tooth, but the gameplay surrounding the pop-up disasters is appealing and engaging. You can definitely sense some Pandemic in the design, this idea of specialists working together against a mounting threat.

Where Thunderbirds sort of stumbles, oddly, is as a multiplayer game. It’s sort of strange how it works out. Players can each control one of the six characters, but John Tracy tends to just sit in Thunderbird 5 (a low-geosynchronous orbit space station) unless someone comes up in Thunderbird 3 (a rocket) to take him to a mission. And the rules governing how players move each other sort of defies the notion of controlling an in-game ego. You can transfer any characters between any Thunderbird machines in a space and then whisk them away “with the owner’s permission”, so to speak. But at that point, it can feel somewhat like a game with mutually controlled pieces.

But that also means that the solo game is especially good as a lone player is faced with working out the logistics of managing the disasters as well as planning to go up against The Hood. It’s not that the multiplayer game isn’t fun or doesn’t offer players decisions, it’s that the game’s theme of teamwork and coordination is so strong that there is almost literally no “I” in team.

The production is fun and colorful with lots of great stills, but most importantly this game feels like a Thunderbirds game should. Fans of the show can rest assured that Mr. Leacock has turned in what is undoubtedly the best gaming representation of Thunderbirds to date. Co-op fans should be delighted once again with the Pandemic designer’s trademarks of simple, accessible gameplay and effective pacing.