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Thunderbirds are Go!
Specifically, the Thunderbirds board game, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the TV programme has hit the UK this past week – in high street retailers right about now, roughly a week after the Kick-starter landed.
Thanks to a friend who backed the Kickstarter, I’ve already had the chance to play a few games, and thought I’d offer some thoughts.
The game for 1-4 players, is a co-operative experience, where players represent the agents of International Rescue, either one of the five Tracy brothers, or Lady Penelope. They must deal with an ongoing series of disasters which threaten the world, whilst also working to combat the grand schemes of the Hood:
Players lose if the Hood manages to execute one of his schemes, if any of the ongoing disasters moves 8 spaces along the turn track, (indicating that International Rescue have failed to deal with it in time), or if the disaster deck runs out. They win by successfully thwarting the Hood’s final scheme.
On a player’s turn, they can move around the world in one of the available vehicles (Thunderbirds 1-4, or Lady Penelope’s Rolls-Royce, Fab 1), attempt to stop one of the pending disasters, or take a bonus “FAB Card” at the cost of allowing the Hood to advance a step on his path to victory.
The game comes with a game-board, in the shape of a world map, plastic tokens representing the 5 Thunderbird vehicles and Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce, as well as pegs representing the characters themselves. A string of disasters are churned out round-by-round from a randomised card deck, and players must counter these using their own characters powers, bonuses acquired through the game, and rolling a set of dice.
In terms of gameplay, I’d say the closest feel I’ve encountered to this is Pandemic. It’s a co-operative game, where players need to balance staving off the imminent threat against working towards the overall win conditions.
So far, I’ve only played the Kickstarter version, so this is what all my references will be to. The actual game is very similar either way – we were using metal tokens which were an optional upgrade for KS backers, and there’s a few other very minor extras, but the game we were using seems to be essentially the same as what you’d pick up in the high-street, barring the odd art-print.
This game definitely feels like it started with the theme and worked out. Each character has a power that seems to be tied in to their role in the classic show, and both the Hood’s schemes and the ongoing string of disasters seems to reference specific events from the TV show.
The component quality is good. Most importantly, the little plastic Thunderbird vehicles seem sufficiently durable that they won’t break the first time you play it.
I’m not sure that the “unique character pegs” really have a lot besides their colour to distinguish between the figures of Virgil, Scott, Gordon or… the other ones, but I could never really do that with the puppets on the TV show, so this wouldn’t really bother me. Overall, I can’t see component issues becoming a problem any time soon.
The mechanics are fairly clean and simple, leading to straightforward gameplay – there’s depth to the strategy, certainly, but you won’t be spending long periods sat waiting for someone to search the rule-book for clarifications.
This game is hard. Really quite hard. With a group of people who are fairly experienced in games, playing at the easiest level, we lost our first game, and scraped a win on the second attempt, with only the smallest amount of retroactive decision-changing…
Obviously, hard isn’t necessarily bad- indeed some people are more likely to view a game with a lack of challenge as being a disappointment. It is also worth noting that, as with any game of this nature, a certain amount of familiarity will help you improve over time, and you will start to work out which resources need to be hoarded carefully and which can be used freely: by our third game, we were already starting to get on top of some aspects. However, despite all these caveats, I think the difficulty does present some definite issues:
Given that we were playing at the easiest difficulty level, I suspect that the overall difficulty of the game may have been pitched a bit high, to the point where the extra-nasty configurations never get used: in reality, this may only be two or three cards that aren’t getting used, but it feels a shame to think that this much of the design-space, if not of the components, may have been at the wrong level.
Linked to this, Thunderbirds seems particularly vulnerable to the “alpha-player” scenario – where the experienced player, rather than simply introducing the game to friends, ends up telling them what to do. Obviously, there is a temptation in any co-operative game to do this, but in a game like this, where the difficulty is so high, and a single sub-optimal turn could result in defeat, it becomes all the stronger. Even after a single game, I can recall at least one case in our second session, where players 3 and 4 were heatedly discussing what player 2 should do on her turn.
Obviously, there is an extent to which this sort of situation is best managed by people behaving themselves (and I look at myself, just as much as at anyone else when I say this), but any point where a game feels like it’s naturally pushing people towards slipping into bad habits counts as a negative in my book.
Another knock-on from the difficulty, is the danger of analysis paralysis, or some other situation where you reach your turn only to have nothing good to do – there is no generic resource or research-generating action, and if you are playing one of the characters without a special ability to pick up a token on your turn, you can end up as little more than a taxi driver, getting your teammates in position for their own turn.
As I mentioned above, the theme in this game is really strong – it’s clear that the designers are people who really know their source material, and have tied it well in to the mechanics of the game. That’s great if you’re a massive Thunderbirds fan.
I’m not old enough to remember the original run of the Thunderbirds TV series 50 years ago. I do remember when it was re-run in the 1980s and 90s, and I think I had a plastic model of Thunderbird 4 at some point, but I was never a massive fan, and I never built the Blue Peter Tracy Island. I saw about 3 minutes of the new Thunderbirds cartoon this past Sunday, which looked dubious and I think I’ve seen half of the film (featuring Gandhi, the girl from High School Musical, The Girl in The Fireplace and a soundtrack by Busted [I’m not great with names]).
The problem with this game for me, is that the main selling point is the theme, and that without the theme, the underlying mechanics are not that interesting – in that respect it reminds me quite a bit of Firefly – a game that has done a beautiful job of capturing the flavour of the TV series, but is otherwise just a fairly dull pick-up-and-deliver. Thunderbirds, under the hood, is basically a movement puzzle, with some dice rolling thrown in to randomise it.
It’s also worth noting that, as with the Thunderbirds TV show, not all characters are created equal. Scott and Virgil have fun, active powers, giving them bonuses when dealing with disasters on land or sea, and encouraging dynamic, wide-ranging game-play. The guy who basically just sat in Thunderbird 5 (the space-station) has a power that encourages him to just sit in Thunderbird 5 on over-watch – potentially very useful, but with the possibility of having a turn where he can do nothing if his fellow players haven’t been kind enough to make sure that Thunderbird 3 is on hand for him to pop down to earth. As above, it’s worth noting that this captures the theme of the original TV show well, and in game as in show, Alan and John are boring.
Buy this game if you’re a big Thunderbirds fan: You’ll probably enjoy it quite a lot. The mechanics are simple enough to learn, even if the strategy can be more complex, and the theme is really well integrated throughout the game.
If you’re not a Thunderbirds fan, you might want to think twice – you can still play the game without a deep familiarity with the source material, but a lot of the depth and nuance will be gone. Instead, you’ll be left with a game that feels a lot like a puzzle – a need to plan several turns ahead, calculating probabilities and movement distances, then watching it come down to a dice-roll (potentially all down whilst fighting off the group alpha as they try to take control.)
This certainly isn’t a bad game, by any means – and I expect to keep playing when the friend who backed the Kickstarter suggests a game – but I think it’s a lot less fluffy and accessible than the box might make it look, so it’s worth making sure you’re aware of what you’re taking on before you buy.