5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Thunderbirds are GO!
2015 brought with it a great deal of international strife, uncertainty, and the death of Leonard Nemoy. But with the hindsight of all these horrible things happening in the world, there could be no better time to celebrate the exploits of a top secret organization, dedicated to saving human lives. I refer, of course, to International Rescue and the 50th anniversary of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation classic Thunderbirds.
The best part of the Thunderbirds 50th-anniversary celebrations, for me, was the release of the Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game. It took me a while to get my hands on it, and frustratingly long to get a chance to play it, even with the solo play option. Since this is a game steeped in history, I think the best place to start is a short overview of where exactly Thunderbirds came from.
The best description comes from the Thunderbirds 1965 documentary:
“Thunderbirds is a sixties view of the future, and of America, by people who have never been to either. That in itself makes quite a fun show. […] It’s such a unique form of filmmaking. There was nothing like it on television either before, or since really.” -Stephen LaRivière
Set in the mid-2060s (about 100 years in the future, at the time), Thunderbirds followed the exploits of wealthy American widower, Jeff Tracy, and his five adult sons. Together they operate International Rescue, a secret organization dedicated to saving lives anywhere in the world, and are often assisted by the aristocratic Lady Penelope and her retainer Parker.
The entire show has an interesting and unique aesthetic to it. If you look at many shows set in the future, they work to create a look and feel that screams “future”. Thunderbirds did this mostly with the technological gadgets that are used by characters, along with futurist fabrics like polyester. Otherwise, the look of the sets, fashion, and architecture, all had a distinctly contemporary 1960s look.
Of course, the most defining thing about Thunderbirds is the Supermarionation process that Gerry Anderson pioneered over his career. Over the eight shows that Anderson produced, Thunderbirds is probably the most iconic of all of them.
The Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game draws lovingly on all of that to create a wonderfully retro feel, while still boasting solid modern gameplay. The game is designed by the King of Co-op, Matt Leacock, who created Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and the Pandemic series of games. (I’m sure that someone has to have coined that moniker before I did because it’s pretty suited.)
One of the more interesting things about this game is that it is 1-4 players, yet all five Thunderbird vehicles, along with FAB1, are in play and so are all six of the characters associated with them. Each player will choose a character who they will directly control, and who has a unique set of abilities. On a player’s turn, they can move their own, and/or any, character between vehicles and move the vehicle they are in around the board. If you move off the side of the board you continue to move around to the other side of the map, almost like even in a game, the earth isn’t actually flat. Then, at the end of every turn, a new disaster is revealed; if too many turns elapse without that disaster being resolved the players lose. But any time a disaster is revealed, and any time a Rescue Attempt is made (to resolve a disaster) there is a chance that the plans of The Hood may be advanced. If the players are unable to foil his evil Schemes in time, the players lose.
Disaster cards are simple to figure out, and often comparatively easy to resolve. When a Disaster Card is revealed it gives you a location on the map, the type of rescue it is (Air, Land, Sea, or Space), and usually a difficulty number that must be rolled to succeed along with any potential bonuses to the roll. For example Operation: Crash Drive requires a roll of 9 in the North Atlantic, with a +2 bonus if Thunderbird 1 is at that location, another +2 if Alan is aboard Thunderbird 5, plus Gordon always gets a +2 bonus if he is the character attempting a Sea Rescue. Suddenly the player may only need to roll a 3 on two dice. However, even if success is assured on one die, the second may cause problems if the Hood icon is rolled. Whenever the Hood icon is rolled The Hood figure moves ahead revealing a new problematic Event or activating a Scheme (defeating the players). Similarly, there are eight cards spaced out in the 55 cards Disaster Deck that also advances The Hood.
The solitaire play works almost identically to co-op play, except that the single player directly controls three characters, and there is a handy turn marker included that is used to indicate which of the three characters is currently active. When that character’s turn is over, the marker moves to the next character, and a Disaster is revealed just like a co-op game. While there are other games that use multiple characters for solo play, having both the ability and necessity to move other characters around you makes this mechanic vital to Thunderbirds. The other aspect that changes in solitaire play is that you can use a full turn to swap the active character out for any of the remaining characters not currently in use. This is important since there are some Disasters or Events, and even more Schemes, that are significantly harder without certain characters in being used. That doesn’t mean those same cards aren’t just as hard to deal with in a group, but having more friend’s brains trying to find a solution together makes a potentially impossible situation less frustrating than by yourself.
This is a great game. Modiphius has managed to build in all the stress and pressure that a good disaster-based co-op game needs, but still keep the lighter tone that exemplified the original sixties tv program. I picked up all three expansions that are out for Thunderbirds, and I’m looking forward to integrating them into my game over next few months.
[BONUS: Here’s a documentary about the making of Thunderbirds, with a ton of old behind-the-scenes footage:]