Wednesday 25 February 2015

Review - Thunderbirds: The Board Game

Thunderbirds: The Board Game

Thunderbirds: The Board Game
Designed by Susan Prescott
Published by Susan Prescott Games
For 2 - 6 players, aged 8 to adult

Thunderbirds: The Board Game
Looks exciting!

You've all heard the news, right?

Thunderbirds Are Go!

Really. That's the name of the new show. With the exclamation mark and everything, if Wikipedia is to be believed.

(Which it isn't.)

Yes, after years of waiting, Thunderbirds is finally coming back on the air, and it intends to arrive in style. It's a blend of live-action and CGI, with music by Ben and Nick Foster (Doctor Who), miniatures by WETA Workshop (never heard of 'em), and a cast including Rosamund Pike, Angel Coulby, and Thomas Sangster.

That's pretty exciting, right?

Well, unless of course you're reading this article after the 2015 launch of the show, in which case you're probably over it by now.

But right now, as I'm typing this, it's pretty exciting.

A little bit less exciting is Thunderbirds: The Board Game, a game with a title that explicitly states it is game lest people mistake it for some kind of demonic entity and kill it with fire.


Where to start with this one?

Well, let's get the obvious thing out of the way: It looks like shite.

It looks like a game from the '70s, but it actually came out in 1999. It has bland box art, bland card art (or no card art at all in most cases), and a hex-based board that looks more like something you would use for a war game rather than the uninspiring roll and move piece of pap this game actually is.

Thunderbirds: The Board Game board
Everything is so far away.

So now, having set the bar suitably low, let's take a quick limbo through the rules.

Brace yourself.

The rules are printed in large font on four sides of A5 paper, and look like something you would knock up for a prototype. They are badly worded, inconsistent, incomplete, and contradictory. I have read them a dozen times or more, and I still don't think I know exactly how the game is supposed to work. But if I concentrate really hard, and furrow my eyebrows in my very best "thinky" expression, a rough outline of the game seems to emerge, like an image from one of those Magic Eye paintings that I could never get to work.

Players start on Tracy Island, which is in the middle of a board comprising a series of hexagons, some of which are numbered. The aim of the game is to fly out to the numbered locations to avert disasters. Unfortunately, players are not allowed to leave Tracy Island until someone rolls a 5, because... Thunderbirds!

(Note: This does not mean that each player must roll a 5 to leave the island. It just means nobody is allowed to leave until someone rolls a 5, after which time everyone is allowed to leave freely, making the whole process entirely pointless.)

So, all the playing pieces are crammed together on Tracy Island, and players start to roll the D6, waiting for the number 5 to show up, accurately recreating the exciting world of Thunderbirds we all love so much.

When a 5 does turn up, it is time to reveal a mission from Thunderbird 5. This mission designates an area on the board where a disaster has occurred (maybe space, maybe underwater, maybe on a train, maybe at the office of Susan Prescott Games).

Each area of the board has its own deck of mission cards, and these cards give you a list of equipment and crew you need, plus a specific Thunderbird craft. To set off on the mission, you need to assemble a set of cards matching the list.

If you are thinking that collecting the cards is going to be an exciting element of gameplay, think again.

Starting with the player who rolled the highest number... Wait, what?

[Re-reads rules...]

Oh right, at the start of the game everyone rolled the dice. This is before the pointless bit where everyone was rolling the dice to get a 5. That first roll determines the order in which players choose whether or not to go on a mission. But wait... Hold on... That means the person who rolled the highest value at the start of the game always gets first option when a new mission card is revealed. That's a permanent, game-long advantage, based on a single dumb-luck dice roll. That can't be... But... You just... Ah, whatever.

So, a player who chooses to go on a mission takes the relevant equipment cards from a communal stack of equipment, thus preventing anyone else from going on the mission. This is one of my favourite bits of the rules as written, because it says, "If another player is already using the equipment you need then you will have to change your plans."

What plans would those be? Rolling the dice until you get another 5 to start another mission that the bastard who rolled a 6 at the start of the game is just going to nick off you before you get a chance to go on it?

Anyway, you grab the equipment.

Thunderbirds: The Board Game equipment
The cards really capture the essence of the show.

Each player also has an identical set of cards containing crew and ships, and you sift through those to find the other cards you need for your mission. Why these aren't communal like the equipment cards is beyond me, especially as there is nothing in the rules to suggest two players are forbidden from using the same ship or crew member at the same time, resulting in the situation where there are multiple Thunderbird 2s zipping around the board.

Anyway, you have your crew, your ship, and your equipment.

Thunderbirds: The Board Game crew
The gang's all here... trying to roll a 5.

What next?

Well, on your turn, you roll the dice and you... move. And you keep doing this until you reach the numbered space on the board where the mission is happening.

And then you instantly solve the mission.

And then you head all the way back to Tracy Island.

And this continues until all 25 missions on the board have been resolved.


The winner, of course, is the player who doesn't put his head in the gas oven.

This is just an agonising slog of a game. A tedious, mind and butt-numbing horror show from beginning to end.

The rules are a mess, only vaguely describing the way the game should play, and the mechanisms are fundamentally flawed. There is no card play or set collection aspect. You just roll the dice, rummage through the available cards, and then move toward a mission if you can.

Thunderbirds: The Board Game rules
These are the rules. Seriously.

I think it would actually be pretty easy to rewrite the rules to make the game halfway decent, but that is just a testament to how shoddy the game is out of the box.

Frankly, someone needs to call International Rescue, because this game is a disaster. Let's hope the inevitable games released in conjunction with the new Thunderbirds Are Go! series offer something a little more entertaining.

I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Review - Drakon (Third Edition)


Drakon (Third Edition)
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Tom Jolly
For 2-6 players, aged 10 to adult

Drakon box

I don't understand part-baked bread. You know, the bread you buy in a sealed bag that you have to sling in the oven to finish off before you can eat it.

It doesn't make any sense.

If you want store-bought bread, why buy stuff that you have to faff about baking?

If you want to bake your own bread, then... you know... bake your own damned bread.

Part-baked bread is this weird sort of halfway house food. Home-baked bread for people who can't be arsed.

It's a shortcut. A bite-sized step into the world of baking for people who aren't really sure if they like bread enough to buy a breadmaker. An easily digestible chunk of urban living.

It's the Tweet of the food industry.

And it's bloody nice.

And that's true for many things that straddle the boundary between two worlds.

Take Drakon (the third edition) for example.

Drakon looks like a dungeon crawler, but it isn't. It looks like the players get to take on the role of might warriors, but they don't. And it looks like it has artwork from the 1980s, but it doesn't.

It's all terribly confusing.

What at first may look like a stereotypical adventure game where you dash into the dungeon, kill the monsters, grab the money, and then head to the tavern, is actually something more streamlined. More refined.

And darker.

Drakon Heroes
The "heroes."

One to six players start the game by selecting a character. These characters look like your stereotypical heroes: Butch barbarians, surly dwarves, mystic wizards, and... er... stabby knights. But these aren't heroes, they're just luckless adventurers who have been caught with their fingers in the cash register.

Unfortunately, that cash register is owned by a dragon: the Drakon of the title.

Drakon, is one of those fun-loving dragons who likes to play with her food, so rather than straight up eating everyone, she has decided to let them scurry like rats through her magical maze. The first character to beg, steal, or borrow, but mainly steal, 10 gold coins gets to go home. Everyone else gets invited to dinner at Drakon's pad.

I'm sure you can figure out what's on the menu.

Clue: it isn't part-baked bread.

Drakon coins
The root of all evil.

So, our "heroes" do not spend their time in the dungeon fighting orcs, rescuing damsels, and looting treasure chests. Instead, they spend the time screwing each other over. And they achieve this through one of the most elegant rule sets I have ever seen for a game.

On a turn, a player can do one of two things: add a tile to the existing maze (following certain limitations based on the direction of the arrows on tiles already in play), or move his or her character onto an adjacent tile (following the direction of the aforementioned arrows).

That's it.

The rules for the game fit on two sides of A5 paper, and you can explain them to anyone in less time than it takes to prepare some part-baked bread.

Of course, what really makes the game a blast is the special rules that work within that simple framework to create hilarious (and frustrating) situations. For a start, most of the rooms in the maze have special symbols. These range from a coin symbol that means a character gets to take a coin from the bank upon entering, to the deeply annoying magic harp, which forces characters in adjacent rooms to move towards it.

There are tiles that allow players to steal coins from other players, tiles that allow players to destroy other rooms, and tiles that allow players to activate the Drakon figure so that it stomps around the dungeon beating up everyone.

Drakon Maze
Characters can only move in directions marked by arrows.

The real joy comes from watching players create dungeons that benefit them while messing up the plans of everyone else at the table.

For example, as characters always have to follow the direction of one of the arrows on each map tile, it is possible for a player to create a closed loop of four or more coin-generating tiles. What follows is every other player at the table rapidly trying to break open that loop by blowing up tiles, sending in the dragon, floating tiles into new locations, or (ingeniously) making their own loops full of coin-stealing tiles.

Through clever positioning of tiles, players can rush around the dungeon, bypassing dangerous tiles to hit the coins they need to win. Nothing is more satisfying than a good shortcut that teleports you past a sequence of magic harps to land in the middle of a coin-rich area of the map. Nothing, except part-baked bread, I mean.

Finally, as an optional rule, it is possible for characters to get a one-shot special power. Each character has a different power, and if employed at exactly the right moment, it can make the difference between success and failure.

Drakon instructions
The rules couldn't be simpler.

It really is an incredibly simple game that offers a wealth of enjoyment from its streamlined rule set. It is hilarious to see players desperately clawing coins from each other, bickering and fighting as they do everything within their power to avoid becoming Drakon's dinner.

For that, I recommend Drakon highly; but there are two important provisos, which are actually the same.

1. This is not a dungeon-crawler.

You will not feel heroic playing it. You will feel like a complete sod. You will screw over your friends, again, and again, and again.

And then you'll do it again, just to make sure.

Every turn, every move, is fifty percent to aid you, and fifty percent to ruin the lives of every other player.

If you don't like that idea, then you won't like this game.

In other words, if you want to save the day, look elsewhere; because this is all about saving your own neck.

2. This is not a dungeon-crawler.

There are no dice, no magical weapons, no chests to loot, no monsters to fight. Nobody dies (until the end). You can't fight the dragon, you can't upgrade your skills, you can't gather experience points.

You can play a tile. Or you can move one space.

This is a tile-laying puzzle game, and it is surprisingly thinky.

But it's not a Euro game either.

There is lots of luck in the tiles you draw, and the coins you pull (which have secret values ranging from one to four). Good play will get you a long way, but it doesn't guarantee a win. There is too much interaction between players to perfectly map out your solution.

It's a little from column A, and a little from column B.

It is the part-baked bread of the gaming world.

And it is delicious.

She looks hungry.

So, what have we learned today?

Mainly, we have learned that I probably shouldn't write reviews when I'm hungry.

Oh yeah, and Fantasy Flight Games have recently announced the fourth edition print of Drakon with new artwork and miniatures. It's well worth checking out.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different...

As a novelist and freelance writer, I am one of those lucky dads who gets to work from home. Being around the house, and working to my own schedule, means I get the great privilege of spending a lot more time with my four-year-old daughter than some other parents do.

It also means I get to spend a lot more time wearing princess hats and having tea parties with stuffed toys than some other parents do.

Fortunately, despite my daughter's love of My Little Pony and Sofia the First, she also happens to be a keen boardgamer, and a huge Marvel superheroes fan. She actually knows more of the superheroes than my wife does, and seems to have aspirations of becoming Black Widow, Hulk, Captain America, or Loki, depending on the day of the week.

So, when we were shopping in our local superstore the other day, and she noticed that Kinder Surprise have released a new range of Avengers Assemble surprise eggs, she naturally asked if I would buy her some.

Kinder Surprise Captain America
He looks annoyed about that hole in his head.

Who am I to refuse?

To be honest, there was no real way of telling what was inside those eggs, and I was expecting some cheap little model or something. And yes, what we got are cheap little models. But they are also something more...

Kinder Surprise Falcon
Bird brain.

Inside each egg there is small Marvel character.

Each character has an oversized head.

Each head has a hole in the front of it, and a disc inside with a series of numbers printed on it.

When you press down the head, the disc spins, and a different number shows through the hole.

The numbers range from 1 to 6.

So, these things are random number generators...


They are the most unusual dice I have ever seen, and for superhero themed games that require a D6 they are the perfect accessory, although it is probably much easier to fudge the results than if you were using a regular dice.

Yes, it might be a little bit creepy to see Captain America with a hole like a lobotomy wound in his swollen forehead, staring vacantly as you crush his spine to project numbers on his brain, but...

Okay, no buts. It's just creepy.

But kinda cool.

Kinder Surprise Hulk

I intend to wrestle them away from my daughter to use on games nights for determining player order. It has to be better than playing a round of Cthulhu Dice. Right?