You know when you’re hearing a description of a person from a friend and they don’t quite know which words to use. How they settle for a few generic words before landing on the worst description of all; nice. An adjective that’s so bland, there is no doubt if it were a colour it would be beige. Well when thinking of a word to describe Thunderbirds the board game, all I could think of was nice.
It’s a nice trip down nostalgia lane, it’s nice to play as characters from your childhood and it’s nice you get to pilot different vehicles to save the world from The Hood. Unfortunately, you may have noticed I haven’t used the word fun yet because while you can rescue the world, I’m not sure you can rescue the hour playtime.
Let’s start from the beginning though, Thunderbirds is a cooperative game from well known cooperative game designer Matt Leacock based on the 1960’s British cult children’s television series. Thankfully there’s no link to the film 2004 Thunderbirds which was, and remains, a failure. The game sees one to four players each pick a Tracy brother or Lady Penelope and challenges you to defeat The Hood and his schemes while stopping trouble occurring across the world. Stop the three Hood schemes and you win the game, however, should you run out spaces on the disaster track or if the Hood progresses to complete one of his schemes then you lose.
So starting with one player and going clockwise you have three actions and an unlimited amount of operations to use. Actions involve tackling disasters, moving across the world or into space, taking a free F.A.B. card (at the cost of progressing the Hood’s plans) or if you’re in Thunderbird 5, pushing back a disaster on the disaster track. Operations include changing between ‘birds if they are in the same location, using bonus tokens or foiling The Hood’s schemes. Once your turn is over you push each disaster one space up the track and draw a new card. This will most likely be a brand new disaster but could also be one of the spread out ‘The Hood progresses’ cards that lurk in the deck.
So there’s two timers to the game that keeps things tense, the disaster track and The Hood track. The Hood track is made up of events and three schemes. Each of these are face down apart from the next scheme – which shows you want you need to do to stop it. So the sooner you complete the first scheme, the sooner you can find out what you’ll need for the second and likewise the sooner the second is complete the sooner you’ll know how to finish of The Hood! The Hood will progress either from a progress card from the disaster deck or by spending an action getting an F.A.B. card. As The Hood progresses events will unlock which will all impact your ability to put out disasters until you, as ever, discard tokens in a specific location to fix the event. If The Hood ever reaches the next unveiled scheme card you lose the game!
Along with that, the disaster track will keep you busy with new disasters popping up all over the world. To fix them you simply need to head over to the location and attempt a rescue action. This will see you roll two custom dice with sides 1-5 and a hood on each to try and match or beat the target score. Bonuses are awarded depending on vehicle and character locations along with any equipment in Thunderbird 2 present. If you roll a Hood, then the Hood progresses along his track. Successfully stopping a disaster will result in you earning bonus tokens which you can use in the future or straight away.
As the tokens are used to stop The Hood there’s an element of strategy to using them at the right time. Sometimes you’ll need to spend them to help boost dice rolls, eek out a bit more from your turn or getting one of the powerful F.A.B. cards! Five of the six character have the ability to spend one action to gain a specific token which can be a fantastic part of your turn but as the characters are unable to share or trade tokens naturally planning on who gains what from rescuing disasters becomes crucial.
So that’s how the game plays, one intense countdown after another which in fairness (from my foggy memory) plays out much like a Thunderbirds episode. When everything is going to hell, you need that one miraculous moment of inspiration to save the world from the brink of disaster. Which would be a lovely feeling if the transition to gameplay had made it. However, being on two timers with success and failure ultimately boiling down to some dice rolls can be incredibly frustrating.
Thematically, the game hits all the right notes, each disaster is reminiscent of an episode and the equipment that Brains can construct to help you solve disasters is a neat idea, especially as the tokens are small enough to fit into Thunderbird 2 which is a neat example of the game getting it right. The care and attention to the source material really shines throughout and it’s the game’s only strength.
The torrent of disasters that continues to fall down on you start to resemble a chaotic Rubik’s cube where you need to adjust one bit to clear one disaster only to realise you’ve made it more difficult to set up for the next. There genuinely is a great depth of strategy needed to successfully navigate the disasters but the payoff isn’t really worth the investment.
To us, the game feels stuck between attempting to stay light and enjoyable enough to remain enticing to newer gamers while trying to add some depth to replayability and in this it stumbles. I loved Thunderbirds as a child, our first playthrough I was so excited to be achieving a lifelong dream of being Scott Tracy but that joy didn’t stick around for long and if you’re looking for an enjoyable co-operative experience there’s far better options out there, mostly by Matt Leacock himself.
We can’t recommend Thunderbirds because while there may be some newer gamers out there who enjoy and appreciate the nostalgic trip this game doesn’t represent the best of modern board games, the reigning of luck or the thrill of success. Which is a real shame and means I can never quite say Thunderbirds is F.A.B.