The Thunderbirds boardgame to the rescue in a post-Pandemic world!

, | Game reviews

The boardgame renaissance began about ten years ago when humankind finally invented good boardgame design. It had taken centuries. Previously, we had a bunch of roll-and-move junk, nerdyman wargames no one cared about, and old chestnuts like chess, Monopoly, and Settlers of Catan. Things like worker placement, deck building, and traitor mechanics hadn’t been invented yet. It was a dark time.

Pandemic, published in 2007, was on the cusp of the renaissance. It helped usher in this new era of good boardgame design. At the time, it must have been pretty sweet. But it hasn’t held up well. It’s a pretty terrible game for a number of reasons. One of the issues I have with Pandemic is the abstraction of the city cards. The victory condition involves individual characters collecting sets of city cards. The scientist has a Lagos card. The medic needs it to complete her set. But they can only hand over the card if they’re both in Lagos. And the only way the scientist can get to Lagos this turn is to play the Lagos city card, in which case she’s in Lagos but she doesn’t have the Lagos card to give him because she used it getting here. And while they’re in Lagos, why can’t the scientist give the medic the Hong Kong card as well?

What are these cards anyway? Research files? Virus samples? Plane tickets? Local contacts who need in-person introductions? Handshakes? Promises? Dreams? Wishes? Why are their groupings conveniently arranged within the same color categories as these nondescript viruses that obey geographical borders? I understand the gameplay reasons for this system. I can appreciate the mechanics of the design, which is a fundamental part of playing Pandemic. But as a logistics challenge, it’s a bunch of arbitrary nonsense rules without any real-world analog or consistent theming. Reiner Knizia would be proud.

Thunderbirds is a more recent game by Pandemic designer Matt Leacock, who I presume has picked up a trick or two from the ongoing development of good boardgame design since Pandemic’s 2007 release. It offers a solid rationale for Pandemic’s arbitrary logistics concepts: driving vehicles around to resolve crises. Of course a burning skyscraper in New York needs some sort of big-ass sci-fi truck thing to be driven onsite. Of course an even bigger-ass sci-fi rocket transport needs to carry it there. Of course one of the dudes needs to drive. There’s none of this nonsense about cards as travel shortcuts and set collection victory requirements and construction materials and only being able to give someone the Lagos card while we’re in Lagos. Hey scientist, hand over the car keys and I’ll be on my way. Simple.

I went into the Thunderbirds boardgame knowing next to nothing about the source material. I was just curious about the design, about what Matt Leacock would do nearly a decade after Pandemic. All I knew about the actual Thunderbirds was that it was a creepy puppet show for kids. I didn’t know what they did, or who they were, or why there would be a boardgame about them. In fact, I had a Thunderbirds toy when I was a kid, but I didn’t even know it was a Thunderbirds toy until I looked up the boardgame. The cover featured a strangely familiar shape. Why did I recognize that? Why did I feel I’d seen that somewhere before? What distant corner of memory had stirred?

Thunderbird 2 is a whale-shaped transport that carries stuff in its belly. The die-cast toy I had as a kid came with a little yellow spaceship inside. I have recently learned it wasn’t a spaceship. It was actually a submarine. It’s called Thunderbird 4. But when I bought the game, I didn’t know any of this. I couldn’t have distinguished Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbird 4, or even Thunderbirds 1, 3, and 5. I couldn’t have told you Thunderbird 2 pilot Virgil was the guy literally doing all the heavy lifting while Scott raced ahead in Thunderbird 1, arriving to do nothing more than announce that the actual rescue would be along as soon as the slower Thunderbird 2 arrived. Then he’d sit around and be useless while the deadline for some crisis ticked closer and closer.

“How long till you get here, Virgil?” Scott would ask over the radio.

“I’ll be there in just under two hours,” Virgil would respond from the cockpit of Thunderbird 2.

“Well, hurry, because the radiation shielding runs out in two hours and we need to get that pilot out of there before that happens,” Scott would tell him, instilling a sense of urgency, as if Virgil needed it. He was already going as fast as he could. Did Scott think Thunderbird 2 had a button marked “turbo”?

“F.A.B.,” Virgil would reply patiently, knowing that when he arrived, not only was he going to have to unload Thunderbird 2, but he was also probably going to have to drive whatever vehicle he was carrying in the pod. In case you haven’t figured it out, Virgil is my favorite. Frankly, he’s the only one of the men in the group worth a damn. The rest of them are douchebag, lily white, country club stereotypes living lives of luxury who occasionally get called to a disaster to fly a rocketship or something. I guess John is okay. He lives in space, so I kind of feel bad for him. The others might as well be frat boys. I don’t get why Tin Tin Kyrano, the hot lady puppet and daughter of the family’s manservant, is into Alan. Alan is easily the most nondescript in the whole family. I know, I know, Gordon is pretty nondescript as well, but on the blandness scale, Alan ekes out a win.

Is it obvious that I’ve watched a fair amount of Thunderbirds since I got the game? I’m kind of taken with it. The models are fantastic. If you like miniatures, if you like practical effects, if you like elaborate dioramas, if you were ever a twelve-year-old boy who built plastic models, and especially one who later burned or blew up the models because destruction is more fascinating that creation, Thunderbirds was for you. It might still be. And not just the game. I’m barely even talking about the game at this point. I’ll get to that later.

International Rescue was a secret do-gooder organization located on a remote island in the South Pacific. They rescued people from various disasters. Not disasters like Puerto Rico where a half a million people still don’t have power five months later. They only rescued people from more manageable disasters, usually involving one or two people trapped someplace that’s going to blow up or get irradiated soon, so they have to hurry. The leader of the organization was multimillionaire Jeff Tracy. His sons were the pilots and crew and, as near as I can tell, the only members of the organization except for a single agent in London. One of the sons, John, was relegated to a space station called Thunderbird 5, where he monitored communications around the world. If there was a disaster that local rescue teams couldn’t handle, John would hear about it. He was like God. Sometimes, people would actually reach out to International Rescue over the radio and John would hear. Again, like God.

So John would radio down to his father, who would dispatch his sons and machinery to save the day. In order to draw each episode out to 50 minutes, a couple of things might briefly go wrong. A circuit might short or a drill might break or a rope might slip. But in the end, International Rescue saved everyone. They didn’t lose a single man or woman. This was, after all, a kid’s show. It taught children that private industry is more competent, capable, and compassionate than anything a government could do. Tracy, you’re doing a heck of a job.

After playing the boardgame — I promise I’ll get to that eventually — I tracked down the original TV series. I expected it would be silly. Which it is. But there’s something else there. Something that sustained me through several episodes. Some reason that I find the miniatures utterly fascinating. It’s partly the clever designs, and not just Thunderbird 2. All the vehicles and machines. For instance, look at Thunderbird 1, which is frankly among the more boring designs, which isn’t a dig at Thunderbird 1 so much as a compliment to the other vehicles.

It’s just a rocket. Big whoop. We see those all the time. But look a little closer. Look at the tail fins at the back.

For some reason, the model makers stuck four V-shaped horizontal stabilizers around the base of the rocket. Why? Because they look cool. That’s why enough. You know you’re now going to try the same thing in Kerbal Space Program. Those little wings are called V-tails, and I probably know them best from the F-117 Nighthawk, a plane I’ve spent many hours flying.

Or you might know the V-tail from the Sulaco’s dropship.

A lot of the thrill of Aliens recalls my Thunderbird 2 toy. The Sulaco’s dropship plummets through the atmosphere, then unfolds its wings slash rocket launchers. “Immediate dustoff on my clear,” Gorman tells Ferro. It’s a combat drop. The dropship banks toward the landing grid and lowers three skids with a hydraulic whine. The bright headlamps on either side of the nose light up. The ramp in its belly starts to lower as it gently flares and now the APC’s headlamps peer out. Two pairs of eyes, the larger on top, lowering onto LV-426. As it swoops onto the ground, the motion of the weight pressing down the skids and the APC rolling down the ramp is 100% miniature effects in all their glory. The camera follows the APC as it trundles clear and the dropship soars into the air in the background. That shot still thrills me.

James Cameron used practical effects in Alien, including miniatures, because the CG he experiments with in The Abyss and Terminator 2 is still a few years away. Aliens is the last of the great miniature special effects. If Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson could have managed Cameron’s aplomb with editing action, the Thunderbird 2 probably would have been able to make combat drops. That’s how I used it as a kid. It would swoop down, hawk-like, the very picture of grace, efficiency, and speed, launching its little yellow spaceship. The Sulaco’s combat drop was deja vu for me. But in the TV show, Thunderbird 2 is lowered gently to earth, strings sometimes visible. Then it slowly raises itself on telescoping stilts so it can slowly lower its midsection. A door drops open like a castle drawbridge. What’s going to come out? Something with treads and maybe a drill or a crane or magnetic grapples emerges. The birth of another one of Anderson’s models. Thunderbird 2 is more hen than hawk.

I can’t fully explain the appeal of miniatures. I’m guessing it gets at some of what we like about videogames in which we look down on miniature cities and armies. We can control and direct the world when it’s populated with small things at our fingertips, doing whatever we make them do. We can admire the charming attempt at verisimilitude. When I was a little kid visiting my grandfather in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he took me to a place called Tiny Town. It was just a big garage where a World War II veteran had built an elaborate model train set that ran through model scenery. I was stunned at the scope and detail. At the illusion of another world rendered in miniature. At the moving parts recreating real world activities. At the lights, at the little river, at the actual waterfall. I think I’d be just as fascinated as an adult. I should find out someday. Tiny Town is still there.

When asked why Thunderbirds appeals to adults, Gerry Anderson, himself an adult, responded in a documentary about the making of the series. “I think that it’s probably the technical fascination…”

And I’m nodding along, going yes, yes, yes! That’s it exactly, Gerry! The technical fascination. But Anderson speaks in that plodding British way of thinking about what you’re going to say rather than simply unspooling whatever is in your brain.

“…of seeing model characters…”

Yes? Go on.

“…and model machines…”

Right, of course. Yes! The model machines!

“…behave in a realistic way on the screen.”

Wait, what? A realistic way? He then compares it to Disney cartoons. People couldn’t believe they weren’t real, he says. To be fair, Gerry Anderson says this in 1966. Animation and miniature special effects must have been quite the marvel back then, in a way we can’t understand today, when live action with dinosaurs and spaceships is barely even a marvel anymore.

Realism isn’t what makes Thunderbirds, the 1965 TV series, still fascinating. What’s real isn’t a green whale-shaped rocket carrying imaginative bulldozers in its tummy. What’s real is the men (and women!) who built this world out of plastic and wood and paint and wires. A miniature world, lovingly pieced together, is a thing worthy of fascination. Mere fascination to a kid, and now technical fascination to that kid grown into an adult and yelling at CG to get off his lawn.

As for the creepy puppets in Thunderbirds, they’re creepy out of context. The primitive lip syncing, the glassy eyes, the awkward jangling movement. But when they’re spliced in between the scenes of Gerry Anderson’s models, they fit perfectly. They belong. They are part of a consistent aesthetic in the Thunderbirds universe. When you see miniatures in a Godzilla movie, for instance, they’re intercut with actual human beings. A man in a rubber Godzilla suit stomps around thigh-high buildings. Then the movie cuts to people in the streets reacting. Actual people. Actual streets with actual buildings. Then it cuts to the Godzilla suit among the model buildings. Then back to the actual people. Two universes pretending to meet through the now lustreless magic of editing. But Thunderbirds is all of a piece. Of course this world of miniature models is inhabited by puppets, dangled from the same strings that slowly lower Thunderbird 2. This is another world, belonging as entirely to itself as Tiny Town.

The TV series ran for two years in the UK, starting in 1965. It was the creation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who would go on to make pretty much every British sci-fi show that wasn’t Dr. Who. For instance, a series called UFO that inspired the X-Com games. Or Space 1999, in which the moon gets flung into outer space and the crew of a moonbase has to contend with, I dunno, whatever stuff is out there. Aliens? Spaceships? Other moonbases? I’ve never seen Space 1999. However, I did build a model of the Eagle Transporter when I was a kid. How did the hardware from these British shows brush up against my childhood?

As a married couple, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shared creative credit for Thunderbirds. He did all the vehicles and she did all the characters. He did the models and explosions, she did the puppets and their costumes. She was even the breathy voice of Lady Penelope, who represented British dignity and resourcefulness (the Tracy family was conspicuously American to make it an easier sell to American networks). The Andersons collaborated on all their shows, and Sylvia was a rare prominent women working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. After their divorce, Sylvia would confess that she felt sidelined by Gerry, who “hated to share the limelight.” Gerry was stricken with Alzheimer’s in his 70s and died in 2012 at the age of 83. Sylvia died in 2016 at the age of 88.

A globally distributed Thunderbirds cartoon has been running since 2015. The episode I watched was painfully bad and entirely contemporary. It has the usual rote animation, dumb jokes, and Adderall appropriate pacing you’d expect from something engineered to get kids to buy toys. Powerful beams of crackling energy tear into the atmosphere from an orbiting space station run amok, boiling the ocean. A fancy jet airliner carrying a rare panda bear is stricken. The shaky-cam conveys the chaos and a smash zoom homes in on the important stuff. Virgil wears a mech suit. Scott flies around with a jetpack like Buzz Lightyear. Gordon — or is it Alan? — wants to meet the panda bear. Ha ha! The brothers bicker affectionately about one of them shorting out Tracy Island while using his hair dryer. Lady Penelope is a lithe blonde who would be played by Hilary Duff. You can’t see the strings because they’re not there. It hasn’t been 1965 for 50 years.

So here I am with this newfound appreciation for a British TV show for kids from 1965, exploring the design of a boardgame launched from a 2015 Kickstarter campaign for its fifty year anniversary. The Kickstarter goal was £20,000 (the game’s publisher is in the UK). The campaign ended with over 3000 pledges totalling £230,000 British pounds. It’s a cooperative boardgame, like Pandemic. Which means solitaire for me, since I prefer to make better use of my and my friends’ time than doling out the moves in a game playable by one person.

The map of the world is a lot simpler than Pandemic. Really, there’s no geography beyond some places being too far away to reach in one turn unless you’re flying Thunderbird 1, the rocket with the v-tails glued to the base. Cards flip up every turn announcing a disaster somewhere in the world. If too many disasters accumulate, it’s game over. There’s a lot of moving around the board, putting out fires. Sometimes literally.

An important difference between Pandemic and Thunderbirds is how randomness is introduced. One of my favorite things about Pandemic is the cardplay when it comes to infecting cities. Because you always put the discard pile back on top of the draw deck, you have a sense for which cards — and therefore which cities — are in rotation. It’s a smart mechanic for how it introduces managed randomness to simulate the idea of a virus simmering insidiously in certain population centers. Damn that persistent strain in Moscow! As long as it doesn’t come up next turn, I’ll be okay. This is furthermore busted wide open during an epidemic, which introduces a card from the bottom of the deck and throws all your plans into chaos. Delhi? I didn’t plan to protect Delhi! The card management is a fundamental part of Pandemic, combining foresight and uncertainty. I can’t help but think of Rumsfeld’s absurd prevarication about known knowns and unknown knowns when I’m drawing a card in Pandemic and checking it off my written list of discards (the rules say I’m allowed to take notes).

So what does Thunderbirds offer in lieu of this card management? A simple die roll. Which is fine by me. I don’t always want the note-keeping brain teaser of tracking cards from a shuffled discard pile. Sometimes I’m happy to have a die roll rescue me or doom me. It lets me off the hook. It was the dice! My planning was beyond reproach. If only I hadn’t rolled that one, I would have won!

The dice resolve disasters. Spend one of a character’s actions (the most important resource in the game), roll the dice, and see if you got higher than the disaster’s difficulty number. But the dice introduce a potential threat. Every time a die is rolled in Thunderbirds, there’s a 1 in 6 chance you’re going to get a Hood face. This advances the game clock and sometimes flips an event face up. These events are various wrenches in the works. One of the Thunderbirds might break down and move fewer spaces until repaired. A volcanic eruption in Iceland (prophetic…) might stop the board from wrapping around, so suddenly the North Atlantic and Europe aren’t adjacent. Now not even Thunderbird 1 can get where it’s going in one turn.

Among these events are Hood’s schemes, which are a game clock. Hood is a shadowy villain of indeterminate ethnicity stalking International Rescue, trying to foil their plans and filch their technology. I’m not sure if Hood is his name or his title. It might be his character class. I’m not entirely clear what the deal is with him, because he only shows up occasionally on the TV show. If you don’t stop his schemes in time, that’s also game over. You have to pour resources into each scheme before it times out. Stop the last one and you’ve won the game. This is your ultimate goal, but your focus belongs on the disasters. Most of the gameplay is managing the march of disasters around the world. You’ll get to Hood when you get to him. Ideally, before his plans come to fruition.

For a guy like me who whines about the theming issues in Pandemic, Thunderbirds is the perfect solution. And not just for the simple logistics of driving the necessary vehicles to their corresponding crisis. Every card is explained with some sort of text. Every disaster is spelled out, with a picture from the show and a list of the options to help resolve it. Special power cards are called F.A.B. cards, because International Rescue’s lingo for A-okay or Roger is saying “Fab”. I figure that’s a British thing. These F.A.B. cards represent gadgets or favors from assisting agents. Even the generic “advance the game clock representing Hood’s interference” cards have unique Hood quotes. Stuff like “It is useless to resist my power”, “This time you will fail”, or “They cannot stop me now.” On one of them he says, “Excellent! My friends are just in time! In fact, DEAD on time!” He can be a real chatterbox.

But the disaster cards are the real narrative and gameplay meat in Thunderbirds, managed by moving around the plastic vehicles. Characters are little pegs with tiny sculpted heads that fit into each vehicle’s slots, like the families in the car in the Life boardgame. Their little heads preside hugely over the toy vehicles as if it were some sort of kart racer.

Unlike Pandemic, it’s all very intuitive. It makes sense. It doesn’t resort to abstraction. For example, Bolt from the Blue is a disaster in the Indian Ocean. To resolve it, I have to move a character to the Indian Ocean and then roll an 8 or higher on two six-sided dice. Because one of the die faces is Hood, these dice only go to five. Your average roll is not seven, as is the case with two six-sided dice without a Hood face. Which means an eight difficulty is actually difficult. But the logistics challenges give you bonuses to your rolls. In the case of Bolt from the Blue, if I have John present, I get a +2. If I have Gordon in Australia, I get another +2. This is an air disaster and Scott automatically gets +2 while resolving air disasters. The idea is that you can get the required roll down to almost a sure thing by using your actions to position people and machines. Or you can just hope for a lucky roll.

But why do I want to get John to the Indian Ocean and Gordon to Australia to prevent a disaster called Bolt from the Blue? How is this any less random than the scientist only being able to give the medic the Lagos card when they’re in Lagos? Because flavor text explains any given card. At the bottom of Bolt from the Blue, it reads, “Locate the missing World TV helijet and prepare for a sea landing on the Great Barrier Reef.”

You see, John, the satellite data dude, has to find the jet missing in the Indian Ocean (prophetic…) and Gordon, the ocean dude, has to prep the Great Barrier Reef. It’s all very silly, but it makes the same kind of internal sense as puppets in a world of model rockets. And if you really want to go down a rabbit hole, every card is an episode of the TV show. Unfortunately, the names of some of the recent cartoon episodes have been appropriated. Bolt from the Blue was the episode of the cartoon I had the misfortune to watch. It had nothing to do with a World TV helijet landing on the Great Barrier Reef. It had to do with Scott donning a jetpack to rescue a stupid panda bear. As far as I’m concerned, the cards in the boardgame are more canon than the cartoon. But I recognize episodes in disasters like Pit of Peril (“Save the crew of the upturned Sidewinder from certain death in the African jungle”), Trapped in the Sky (“Land the Fireflash airliner safely without triggering the bomb attached to the landing gear”), and The Perils of Penelope (“Foil Dr. Godber’s evil plan to steal the secret of Hodge and Borender’s new rocket fuel”). Believe it or not, I know what all of those are referencing.

Many of the disasters give you bonuses to your dice roll if you build and move various silly vehicles around the world. The elevator car. The transmitter truck. The laser cutter. Something called the thunderizer. These are represented by chits with teensy snippets of artwork in the base game. The Tracy Island expansion for the boardgame gives you teensy models you can use instead. Nuggets of sculpted plastic, recognizable from the TV show.

Using your characters to move all this hardware is the heart of the Thunderbirds boardgame, and it was furthermore the heart of the TV show. Despite my admiration for Sylvia Anderson’s contribution in an era when the entertainment industry was run by men, Thunderbirds isn’t really about the characters. The puppet stuff takes a back seat to the trucks, tractors, planes, submarines, and spaceships. The cool toys brought to bear in the context of ridiculous disasters. Thunderbirds is about twelve-year-old boys building models and then smashing them because it’s cool when stuff explodes. But to its credit, it’s not about machines of war. If I had young boys, I’d rather they played with the toys from an international aid organization instead of a paramilitary group like GI Joe or the Transformers or whatever Bionicles are.

Among the stretch goals for the boardgame were three expansions. I’m sold on two of them. The third makes it a two-player game, with convoluted rules for one player as Hood, moving henchmen around and complicating the disasters. No thanks. But the various modular options added by the other expansions are mostly welcome. The first expansion, Tracy Island, adds new characters including hottie Tin Tin Kyrano and her jet, the Ladybird. There’s a bit of an issue with the power curve, because the new characters are more versatile and therefore more powerful than the core characters. The second expansion, Above and Beyond, adds a leveling system where the characters start weak, but get stronger as they resolve disasters. In theory, this is a great addition and it can make the characters more powerful than their default versions in the base game. But in practice, I’m not sure it’s practical. I can’t get my feet under me when I’m playing with gimped characters. By the time I’ve gotten characters to their default powers, the disasters are running away from me. I guess the added challenge is the point. You also get plastic Disaster Vehicles that represent special one-off powers as alternate rewards for certain disasters. More nuggets of sculpted plastic. I’m not complaining.

Above and Beyond also adds something called Crisis Mode. It’s a plastic hourglass. When it’s another character’s turn, flip the hourglass. That turn ends when the sand runs out, Dorothy. There you go. Crisis Mode. This is what happens when a Kickstarter campaign has to come up with stretch goals on the fly. “Timer,” proclaims one of the highest stretch goals before the campaign peaked at £234,602, “Optional timed play.” Protip: you can adapt Crisis Mode to your other boardgames.

In my collection of solitaire boardgames, Thunderbirds occupies a sweet spot somewhere below more complicated fare like Dawn of the Zeds, Eldritch Horror, and Spirit Island, but above the simpler games like the Onirim series, One-Deck Dungeon, or Warhammer Quest. It’s the Pandemic that Pandemic never was, offering a little taste of scenarios like this:

That’s the Firefly, a bulldozer with a little slot in the blade where a gun can stick out. It’s a gun that can stop oil fires. You see it in action in a brief scene at the beginning of an episode called Terror in New York City, in which the Empire State Building is being moved to make room for urban development. During the move, cracks open in the earth and the Empire State Building topples over, trapping two TV reporters in a basement. If they aren’t rescued soon, the basement will flood and drown them. I need to roll an 11. The Firefly, Virgil, and Thunderbird 4 will each give me a bonus to the roll. If Gordon attempts the rescue, I get an even bigger bonus because it’s considered an underwater rescue. You see, the only way to reach the reporters is through the underwater passage that was flooding the basement.

Or, as the card explains, “Blow out the oil well fire and save Ned Cook and Joe from under the Empire State Building.” I’ll take that over a Lagos card any day.

 
 

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  • Thunderbirds

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • A cure for the common Pandemic
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