F.A.B: A REVIEW OF THE THUNDERBIRDS BOARD GAME’S EXPANSIONS

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CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

 

Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Modiphius
Players: The Hood expands the player count to 2-5, otherwise 1-4
Play Time: 60 minutes
Cost: TBC
Release date: June (Tracy Island), August (Above and Beyond), November (The Hood)
Mechanics: Co-operation, AI opponent, die rolls and die modifiers (in the case of The Hood, PvP)

In a sentence: Our game of 2015 gets three (very different) shots in the arm for 2016.

Disclaimer: The following three reviews concern Kickstarter projects not due at general retail for some time. As with any KS reviewee we’ve tried to avoid discussing any exclusive content (not that we’re aware of any) but as always check your copy before you buy.

For the late Sylvia Anderson, a key influence on Thunderbirds and, of course, best loved and remembered as the voice of the original upper-class badass, Lady Penelope.

It’s a good time to be a fan of Thunderbirds.

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Introducing Thunderbirds is one of three 21-minute adventures making the jump from 33RPM to Bluray thanks to an intrepid team of fans and over £200K in Kickstarter funding

Though the show’s 50th anniversary is now fading in the rear view mirror, a Kickstarted project bringing three, 33½ RPM audio stories to full, televisual life is likewise in its twilight, with fans (this reviewer included) set to receive shiny Blu-rays of the episodes any day and bring the episode count to 35 five decades after the thirty-second, Give or Take a Million, was put in the can and, along with it, the series in 1966.

Likewise, Thunderbirds Are Go!, the show’s CGI remake, has enjoyed a relatively acclaimed first series, been snapped up by Amazon Prime and had its third series greenlit – and the second isn’t even on TV yet. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we’re big fans.

Then there’s our Game of 2015, Thunderbirds, a collaboration between Matt “Pandemic” Leacock and Chris & Rita Birch of Modiphius. Needless to say, we liked it very much indeed, though even our rampant fandom of Anderson and Leacock did not disguise from us that, though thematically near-perfect, the base game had a few mechanical niggles. John was no fun to play, 4 felt like a low player count and while Thunderbird 5 was a handy orbital swap point for characters there was no Earth-bound equivalent.

A little time for the dust to settle also revealed, as it does to all games, a need for some new missions, some PvP and fresh characters to play. We also twigged that several TV episodes, most notably those heavily involving Brains, Parker and Tin Tin, were still missing or not quite ‘just so’ on the cards, as were the two TV films, Thunderbirds Are Go (note the lack of ‘!’) and Thunderbird 6. On this latter note, our most recent question to Modiphius on acquiring rights to include content based on both these and the three new episodes was still answered in the negative, albeit with room for consideration in the future.

We didn’t hold these factors against the base game during review since this observation can be levelled at pretty much any co-operative board game after long enough.

But that’s where expansions come in – they fix the issues with the old and offer the new to keep things interesting. With the exception of one, solitary FAB card from the base game, each of these three expansions are inter-compatible, and can be played and enjoyed in any combination.

TRACY ISLAND

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Tracy Island’s proposed box art, subject to change!

Due in June (try saying that a few times quickly), Tracy Island is the first of the three expansions on offer.

 

Most notable when you open the box first of all is the eponymous island in brown plastic, replete with no fewer than six peg holes and thus ample space for swapping characters around, immediately addressing one of our concerns with the base game.

Then there’s the brand new Disaster Deck which entirely replaces the base game’s 47 cards and adds 9 brand new ones. The deck replacement serves a variety of purposes, and not just for clarifying text or correcting mistakes. First, the 9 brand new cards bring The Man from MI.5 (sic), Move – And You’re Dead, notorious end-of-series clip show Security Hazard, Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday and Alias Mr. Hackenbacker into the game for the first time alongside four scenarios never seen on TV.

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Hurrah! Several TV episodes are represented for the first time alongside two brand new space missions, Man of Steel and The Twisted Wheel. Still sadly absent: Cry Wolf, Vault of Death and Brink of Disaster – oh, and Give or Take a Million…

Indeed, we were wondering, given that several of these rescues involve IR personnel in need of rescue, how Modiphius and Matt Leacock would tackle this. The most streamlined solution would have appeared to have been a slight narrative rework, so Move – And You’re Dead, for example, tasks players with rescuing Grandma Tracy, but never mentions Alan. There initially sounds like an interesting potential mechanic in there until you realise it would likely have been infuriating mid-flow as Alan to have this mission come up and be forcibly detained in South America, so the solution here does seem to be the best one.

 

Vault of Death, Brink of Disaster and Cry Wolf are still disappointingly absent, as is Give Or Take a Million. When we approached Modiphius about this, it was clarified that the game is already top-heavy on land missions, and that these missing four would potentially fall into that category as well.

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Sun Probe then (left) and now (right, note the TI top right of the card). Notice that while the difficulty, reward and location are unchanged, as is the +2 bonus for Scott, Virgil’s +2 ‘in in Asia’ bonus is instead replaced with a +2 for having Tin-Tin at the Sun instead. Note too how the Transmitter Truck is now helpfully marked with a ‘G’ to identify its model.

It’s our hope that they do turn up in future, especially as Brink of Disaster features Jeff Tracy himself in the field, which brings us on neatly to raison-d’être number two for the new deck: the game’s three new characters. In a real shake up for those who’ve played the game time and again, many missions are completely rejigged to accommodate the new pegs and narratively streamline some odd choices in the base game. Sun Probe now rewards taking Tin-Tin along rather than having Virgil in Asia, for example, while Towering Ocean goes from being the game’s easiest mission to one of its most difficult, relocated and reworked to instead demand Thunderbird 4 and the Ladybird Jet.

 

Indeed, that makes Brains’ assistant and Alan’s love interest Tin-Tin a good character to start with. From the off, this expansion wins bonus points in our book for making her more of a standout than in the original series, where she accompanied one rescue (Sun Probe) and promptly fainted. Here, Tin-Tin can draw a FAB card once per turn on Tracy Island without penalty, and as Brains supplements Virgil, so does she supplement Scott, allowing him to keep his Logistics tokens for completing Scheme cards.
It’s at the controls of the aforementioned Ladybird Jet, however, that she becomes really fun, since she gets a +2 bonus to any rescue she attempts when at its controls. This essentially makes her a formidable cross between Scott, Virgil and Gordon for any rescue taking place on Earth, and the Ladybird Jet can both hoof it at Speed 2 and carry a passenger. This all considered, there’s a wonderful, thematic appropriateness to Alan complementing Tin-Tin’s abilities with his Space rescue bonus, and several Space missions are knowingly reworked to make Tin-Tin truly versatile.

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Three brand new characters, two new vehicles and one new location enter the game. L to R: Brains on Tracy Island, Parker in FAB 2 (here loaded up with FAB 1) and Tin-Tin in the Ladybird Jet.

Where Tin-Tin breaks new ground, Parker, the second new character in the box, instead augments an undervalued vehicle in the base game, namely FAB 1, the slowest vehicle alongside Thunderbird 4 and doubly annoying to load into Thunderbird 2 and haul around. This is where the second half of Parker’s offering comes into play, since FAB 2, Penelope’s yacht from The Man From MI.5 (sic) is included and behaves quite literally like a seaborne Thunderbird 2, 2-speed and all. Even more brilliantly, Parker can remote control either vehicle from anywhere, hoovering up pod vehicles, FAB 1 and Thunderbird 4 in his (quite literal) wake. It wouldn’t be unusual to see him tucked up and cozy on Tracy Island or in Thunderbird 5 except for one whopping caveat – when in FAB 1 or FAB 2, parker adds 2 to his rescue rolls, being arguably even more powerful than Brains as a replacement for Virgil when at the helm of FAB 2.

 

Indeed, when we consider Parker, it’s a real shame that this expansion doesn’t afford John the same control of, as a minimum, Thunderbird 3 – that being on the assumption that were Jeff to feature in a future box he’d have control of the Thunderbirds as Parker does FABs 1 and 2. It would have made good thematic sense for John to be able to do this – and would have made him far more useful.

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Tin-Tin, Parker and Brains all pack their own unique abilities and stand as truly viable alternatives to favourites like Scott and Virgil.

For now, though, it’s onto the last new character, and it’s stammering genius Brains, who enjoys a +2 bonus to any rescue attempted provided a pod vehicle is present and can draw a piece of Technology once per turn if on Tracy Island. The synergies with Virgil are clear, and indeed, Brains’ addition to the player roster takes quite the strain off of Thunderbird 2’s pilot, with that player no longer having to spend an action each turn to reliably generate pod vehicles. In fact, players can quite happily leave Virgil in the box and take Brains instead. He can even go a long way to covering for an absent Scott given that several Air rescues feature pod vehicles as well. The one caveat is that, unlike Tin-Tin or Parker, Brains has no vehicle of his own. One argument is that, spiritually, Thunderbird 2 is ‘his’ vehicle by virtue of design and being almost always a passenger.

 

More awake fans will of course suddenly notice that Brains is cast in brown plastic, yes to match Tracy Island, but also, just possibly, because of Thunderbird 6. We’ve already said that Modiphius either can’t or won’t secure the rights to the films, but hear us out a moment.

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Just to prove we’re not making it up, here’s Thunderbird 6 from Thunderbird 6.

For the uninitiated, the late-60s movie carried on the Thunderbirds story beyond the cancelled TV show. It was the second to do so after Thunderbirds Are Go. While both were relative flops and not the best Thunderbirds stories, 6 is notable for a whole strand of the plot centring on a sort of air cruise liner created by Brains and as well as Jeff tasking him with creating a sixth Thunderbird (and routinely throwing out Brain’s suggestions as light relief from more serious scenes).

 

Of course, the liner hits trouble, being hijacked and then marooned atop a radar tower. Brains turns up in his very own IR uniform with (wait for it) a brown sash at a pivotal moment in the rescue, but most notably of all does so in an old Tiger Moth, the only vehicle light enough to touch down on the stricken liner. To much laughter, Brains unveils Thunderbird 6 at the film’s close, “built, tested and approved” to Jeff’s bewilderment. The Tiger Moth, of course, then trundles out of the hangar with a big 6 painted on its tail.

Yet this would make a very fine addition to the game for Brains and make him as flexible as Tin-Tin – there is no reason Thunderbird 6 couldn’t behave in much the same way as the Ladybird, with the only caveat being that there would be less to distinguish between the two characters. For now, of course, we have to do without, but something about Brains not having his own vehicle when the other characters all do stands out, and makes whatever it is preventing Modiphius from including movie content in the game rankle all the harder.

But let’s move onwards and upwards, because these are the pickings of a fan (I was seconds from saying that myself – Ed) and are focussing on what the box might have offered rather than what it does. To complement the new characters, vehicles and Disaster Deck, four brand new pod vehicles debut. The Jet Air Transporter and Neutraliser Tractor seen in Move – And You’re Dead get a workout in that mission, while the Monobrake seen in Perils of Penelope also features, as does the… um… Fire Truck (nope, us neither). While these new vehicles are all well and good, it’s the Monobrake at the moment that feels like the only one getting any real mileage, and we hope to see future missions that make more thorough use of the three other examples.

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Tracy Island not only brings the pod vehicle roster to 14, but includes a dinky miniature for each of them, helpfully lettered for identification. Pay especial attention to that tiny Jet Air Transporter!

That’s not all for pod vehicles though, since the now fourteen-strong roster gets a brand new overlay to place over the original Brains’ Notebook board space alongside another featuring the two new character vehicles. The new Brains’ Notebook overlay assigns each pod vehicle a letter of the alphabet – and that’s where possibly our favourite part of Tracy Island rears its head – each of the fourteen pod vehicles has its own, dedicated miniature. Ferrying around cardboard tokens in the base game seemed fine, but once these incredible little pieces hit your board for the first time, you’ll never go back. Conveniently, each has the matching letter embossed on the bottom for easier identification by the non-die hards sat at the table.

 

A few incidental round out this first box in the form of four new FAB cards and, for balance, four new Event cards, though there are no new Hood schemes this time out.

Alea_4We liked:

+ Three new characters of varying degrees of excellence – Parker is an especial standout with Tin-Tin a close second and Brains deservedly included;
+ 14 gorgeous little pod vehicle miniatures leave the cardboard tokens in the shade whilst realising four brand new entries;
+ Brand new disaster deck gives some missions needed tune ups and alterations whilst bringing further TV episodes into the fold and adding yet more imaginary tales;
+ Tracy Island layover addresses issues in transferring pegs between vehicles on land.

Watch out for:

– Brains is the weakest offering of the three new pegs, and we can only feel the absence of Thunderbird 6 content more painfully;
– Several TV stories still missing – though this hints hopefully at a fourth expansion in future;
– Of the four new pod vehicles, three feel underused at present;
– John sees no improvement from this box, yet Parker’s ability in part or full seems tantalisingly appropriate for him.

 

ABOVE AND BEYOND

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This is what Above and Beyond should look like on your FLGS shelf later this Summer.

Where Tracy Island adds more, more and yet more to the Thunderbirds experience, Above and Beyond instead takes the game in a new direction and encourages a far more thoughtful game whilst upping the challenge at the start and making it more bearable at the close.

 

This is achieved by the expansion’s arguable centrepiece – eighteen brand new tarot-sized character cards, the first nine of which feature the game’s (so far) nine characters (the six from the base game plus the three in the Tracy Island box).

Notably, these nine initial cards strip each character of their secondary abilities, leaving only their roll bonus intact (or, in Lady Penelope’s case, an Intel draw as an action). These, however, are the Level 1 variants. Dependent on the players sat around the table, these cards then call for a number of missions (between two and four) to be completed to level the character up. It’s worth noting at this early stage that that leaves nothing to differentiate between Alan and John.

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Alan at Levels 1 and 3. At Level 1 he loses his ability to draw up a Teamwork if in Thunderbird 3 as we’re used to in the base game, maintaining only his +2 to Space rescues. Come Level 3, however (after a cool 9 missions in a 2-player game) Alan has a whole raft of abilities above and beyond (I see what you do there, Rutland – Ed) those we’re used to.

However, once the level up requirement is tripped, the Level 2 card enters play, restoring the secondary ability players know and love from the regular variant of the Thunderbirds game, but even these have some tweaks to make up for their early game absences – all of Scott, Virgil and Alan’s draws of tokens are now free rather than costing an action, while Penelope’s European Intel draw becomes free, and, when combined with her ability to exchange tokens for free, essentially becomes ‘draw any token you like at the start of your turn’ – provided she remains in Europe, which is the big caveat.

 

Where it gets most interesting, however, is when the next level up is triggered (requiring one more completed mission than the last) and the second card is flipped over to Level 3, not only raising all rescue roll buffs where available to 3 points, but also potentially bringing nine brand new abilities to the game.

Scott gains an ability befitting his role as the lead scout and co-ordinator on rescue ops, and is able to place Intel tokens from the supply onto any Disasters taking place in his space for free once per turn. These tokens can then be spent by any player attempting the rescue.

Virgil, often the go-to Tech guy, can repair Thunderbirds crippled by Event cards completely gratis. It’s situational for sure, and still requires Virgil to be in the same space, but is a useful counter to the likes of USN Sentinel Strike, Pod Hydraulics Sabotaged and Rocket Engine Malfunction – indeed, the first two of these Events concern Thunderbird 2 herself. We’re hopeful that future expansions will see fit to affect Thunderbirds 1, 4 and 5 and make this ability even more useful.

Alan takes his Teamwork-generating ability one step further at Level 3 and addresses one of the game’s biggest spikes in difficulty – transferring tokens between players. But for a scant few FAB cards, this is ordinarily an impossibility. Alan can now confer a Teamwork token upon another player any time, anywhere for free.

Lady Penelope, meanwhile, can draw two Intel tokens at Level 3 if in Europe, still exchange one for free and give a token for free to a player sharing her space, moving her out of the danger zone of being one of our lesser favourites. Combining her with Parker can create a token distributing monster, especially given that Parker himself draws an Intel token for free regardless of his location at the start of each turn when he hits Level 3 and adds 3 to his rolls if in either FAB.

Brains at Level 3 gets free Tech draws on Tracy Island and, when taking the Plan action, is able to draw three FAB cards for consideration.

Tin-Tin is able, at Level 3, to draw FAB cards gratis on Tracy Island once per turn and can utterly ignore one Hood result for each rescue she performs in a watered-down variant of John’s ability. Indeed, coupled with him she is the perfect insurance against the dreaded 1 in 36 double Hood roll.

Indeed, taking all the characters into consideration thus far, it’s clear that something else is being subtly addressed here: the first Hood scheme being too easy and the last one being too tough for large player groups in particular to take down, and it’s done expertly.

“But hold up,” you cry, “what about Gordon and John.” Well, Gordon’s a bit disappointing given that he already has a +3 buff to rescues at Level 2, which does not grow at Level 3. Further, Gordon’s Level 3 ability actually replaces that of his Level 2/Standard Game card rather than being a third option in its own right. Instead of drawing a Determination as an action when in TB4, Gordon is able to draw both that token and another of his choice, making him a veritable scheme-busting powerhouse for sure, yet more limited in options when compared to the other eight characters.

And yes, then there’s John, LIL’s perennial punching bag when it comes to this game.

Unfortunately, John is not Beyond, and is only Above in the sense that he still remains irrevocably rooted to Thunderbird 5. Worse, his abilities are a hodge-podge of those belonging to other characters. Sure, he gains an even more powerful version of Scott’s ability at the third level, able to place an Intel token on any rescue once per turn – provided he remains on Thunderbird 5, and it still remains only an augmented version of Scott’s own bonus. Likewise, when you consider Tin-Tin’s Hood-negating powers, John’s play only as an enhanced version of these, and as for his Space rescue bonus, that isn’t even an enhanced version of Alan’s, being the same 3 points at Level 3.

For sure, there are definitely game balance considerations working, if you’ll forgive the pun, under the hood (Ooh, a Thunderbirds joke, I’ll bet the girls love you – Ed.) but it seems such a shame that this opportunity to really set John apart from the others feels wasted. John is better only by virtue of standing still, and yet by Level 3 everyone else is trucking around and keeping mobile and doing a job two-thirds, even three-quarters as well, especially Scott, Alan and Tin-Tin.

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Above and Beyond features 10 cool minis including the Fireflash and the Sun Probe. Here, we see the reward card for the Crablogger, which presents players completing Path of Destruction with a tough choice: claim the usual reward, or instead take the Crablogger card and its bonus.

But let’s move it on to happier things, since Above and Beyond does not stop there. In a follow up to the 14 adorable minis in Tracy Island, ten more are added to the roster depicting the ten most iconic rescue targets in the series – and finally making good on the printed keywords on the bottom right of certain Disaster card art. The Sun Probe, Fireflash, Eddie’s Roadlayer, the Martian Space Probe, USN Sentinel, the Crablogger, the Sidewinder, Seascape Rig, a captured Zombite fighter and… erm… a helicopter from the imagined Bolt from the Blue scenario all feature alongside cards explaining their bonuses.

 

These ten vehicles, some of them from the game’s most difficult missions, leave players with a tough choice – go for the tokens ordinarily offered, or instead take the vehicle and its card as a reward – rewards which can be very powerful indeed. Standouts include what we’ll call the four ‘buff’ vehicles, each of these offering the player a permanent +1 bonus to the relevant rescue type. This allows characters to play as diminished versions of others on or off the table, or can turn the matching character into something unholy – a Level 3 Scott with a Helijet, for example, adds 4 to his Air rolls. In a move mirroring FAB cards like Personal Hoverjet or Underwater Sealing Unit, these vehicles can be discarded for a one-time +3 bonus in emergencies.

Rounding out the expansion are two new FAB cards, two new Events and five much-needed new Level V Hood Schemes which really up the ante for a group of Level 3 players. While the game recommends one of five difficulty levels, a full Scheme roster now brings the potential number of difficulty levels to a not-to-be-sniffed at 125, from three Level I Schemes for the newest of the new to the hardcore slamming down three Level V cards – and buying a lottery ticket while they’re at it. In seriousness, though, it and the character-levelling both add to the game’s scalability that we lauded in the original review.

Actually, make that number of difficulties 150, since a completely blank Scheme VI card is included in the box for through-and-through sadists to have fun with – and that’s not all, since a sand timer is also included in the box to curtail long, drawn-out turns, although with a 60-second run time we found this a little generous.

Still, here and now we’re throwing down the ultimate gauntlet – beat the game as a team of 4 against a triple V setup with the timer running and let us know how you do.

If, instead, you’d prefer slightly lighter fare, blank variants of all the game’s card types are included. We’re pleased to say this resulted from some fan questioning over on the Kickstarter, and these were delightedly fed to the LIL scanner. You can enjoy a few of our humble creations below, though Modiphius have promised that a submission process entitled Brains’ Notebook will at least see fan ideas shared with the community (though it’s our secret hope that even more will come of it.)

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s one last addition, and it’s a bittersweet one: Modiphius originally intended, as one last stretch goal, for 28mm figures of each of the characters to be produced to supplement the RPG. Only Jeff’s made it, sadly, as a new first player marker. Our quiet hope is that the other figures aren’t entirely dead and buried…

All going well, Above and Beyond will wing its way to you this August.

Alea_4We liked:

+ Levelling system is a brilliant difficulty smoother – the early game is harder but the endgame is more achievable for large play groups;
+ More lovely minis, this time in the form of 10 iconic disaster vehicles which really encourage some though when completing their missions;
+ Sadists will love the new Scheme V cards, sand timer and scope to create Scheme VI cards;
+ Photoshop junkies will love the new blank cards.

Watch out for:

– Jeff’s 28mm figure will leave you furious that we didn’t raise enough on the Kickstarter;
– Gordon doesn’t come off as brilliantly at Level 3 as the other characters;
– The feeling that so, so much more could have been done to make John shine.

 

THE HOOD

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One more time: box art not confirmed!

Pandemic unified its players against its fiendish AI, four (five if you expanded) diseases and pandemics and outbreaks. But as in video gaming, there’s a combined dread and satisfaction in taking on a living, breathing human that can learn, adapt and be creative rather than an AI, however well coded, that goes through the best motions it can. There’s another element to this thinking too, since an AI can be coded to cheat or be unfair, or at least be accused of doing so by more sore losers.

Pandemic’s bio-terrorist from On the Brink addressed just this line of thinking, placing what was previously an AI-only element into human hands, in a stroke making it tougher, adaptable and creative whilst also allowing select players to inflict misery rather than suffer it. This alone can bring untold harmony to certain groups who feature the aforementioned AI-paranoid player or the player who doesn’t really like co-op player and quickly apportions blame when a game goes south.

What that means, then, is the bio-terrorist brought in previous naysayers, and now Thunderbirds has its own version: The Hood, due in November.

Where the previous two expansions featured bits and pieces of everything, The Hood’s singular focus is on bringing a very different (and potentially fifth) player into the game and, much as with Above and Beyond’s levelling system, upping the difficulty.

First point of note is of course the brand new purple Hood character card and peg. While excluded from the levelling up shenanigans of Above and Beyond, The Hood is still a formidable character to play since he has a host of abilities rather than just the two afforded to IR members. His brief is simple: make sure everyone else loses the game.

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The Hood is not light on new content, most of it seen here. Centre bottom we have the lovely camera board and photgraphs, while the Hood’s plane, peg and sub are at the left. Just above these is one of 8 minion pieces and the Hood’s Temple, with Lady Penelope’s manor top-centre. The Hood gets his own character card and lays Act cards along the Hood track. It’s the Thunderbirds’ job to gather tokens like those bottom right, satisfy their requirements and add them to the Act cards to defeat them.

Helping him are two brand new vehicles for his exclusive use (and a double-sided speed overlay to incorporate these or the full suite of vehicles for owners of Tracy Island) in the form of a plane and a submarine. In a nice mirroring of his niece, Tin-Tin, the Hood’s plane behaves very similarly at 2-speed, while his submarine is an evil Thunderbird 4, pootling along at 1-speed. There’s also the imposing Hood’s temple, placed in Asia at the game’s start. You’d be forgiven for calling it an evil Tracy Island, except it stands in far more direct opposition to the game’s other new building: Creighton-Ward Manor, which is placed in Europe to really bring Lady Penelope into the action as another, convenient layover spot. As we’ll see in a bit, however, it does a lot more than that.

 

The first big changes to game mechanics to note is those to the game’s Hood track. Scheme cards stay in the box and, instead, three Act cards are put in their place faceup, with Act I bearing one blank space and Act III, unsurprisingly, three of them. Onto the blank spaces of the track the player controlling IR’s nemesis then places a host of tokens.

Again, scalability was clearly the watchword when devising this expansion, since the Hood can make this initial draw from a ‘standard’ pile of ‘B’ tokens or make half of them ‘A’ tokens for an easier game or ‘C’ tokens for a harder one. Of course, as with the base game’s Scheme cards, it’s more than straightforward to subvert the manual’s recommendations, and with three token difficulties and seven spaces, we make it just shy of 2,200 potential combinations, and the game doesn’t just include 21 tokens to cover it either – it goes for 32. Long story short: each game is going to be different and as hard (or easy) as you’d like it to be.

Finally, a token (B at any of the three difficulties recommended by the manual) is placed in Asia alongside one of the Hood’s 8 minions, which are his variant of IR’s Teamwork tokens, buffing any of his rolls by two points. That, indeed, is a good time to talk about what the Hood actually does.

Rather than playing once per round like the other players, the Hood instead acts at the end of each player turn. To keep things balanced, the Hood only gets two actions per turn rather than three, but without the distraction of rescues to complete and lives to save, the range on offer is diverse.

First up, whenever we saw the Hood in the TV series he was always trying (and failing) to photograph the Thunderbirds and sell the snaps on to one tinpot dictator or the next, and the Hood can pull up alongside a Thunderbird in this expansion and do likewise: provided he rolls a 6, and he removes a point for each IR character sharing the space with him. Should he get the goods however, he adds a photo token of the Thunderbird he just snapped to a rather nice camera board – and moves his figure up the Hood track one space. IR can counteract this with an Erase action, and rolling a 5 removes the photo (with a buff of 1 for each other IR member in the space) and sets the Hood one space back on his track. This last element is important, being a much more reliable way for IR to control the Hood track and slow his advance than FAB cards that may (or may not) appear.

Then there’s Conspiring and Plotting. Conspiring allows placement of a minion in the same space in preparation for tough rolls, with each minion so discarded offering the 2-point buff. Plotting, meanwhile, allows the Hood to draw an Event card from the deck and place it faceup on the track. We were a tad unsure of the faceup placement, and presumably there’s nothing stopping the institution of a face-down house rule instead.

Mind you, it doesn’t matter much given that the Hood can place the Event card on any free space and react to IR as needed since the Events trigger, as in the regular game, when the Hood figure reaches the matching space. Drawing up Rocket Engine Malfunction could see the card placed in the next available slot when a host of space missions are available, or placed much later for when they appear instead. Worse for IR, the Hood can also move backwards on the track as already discussed, and this allows for some delicious plays that present IR with some devil-or-deep-blue-sea choices. A favourite is to photograph a Thunderbird, move ahead one space on the track and then slam down a nasty event in the previous space to deter erasure of the photo.

That’s not all, since Events not marked for discard stay in play and can come round multiple times! The one shame is that the Hood’s camera is the only way in which the Hood can actively cause the track to move up – and he has no way of moving it down beyond goading the Thunderbirds into tampering with his camera. We made several confused passes through the manual to see if there were any other methods for manipulating the track – and couldn’t find them.

IR doesn’t just wipe the Hood’s photos, however, since they can also actively capture him with a roll of 7, buffed in the same way for each other character in the same space and, if successful, sends the Hood for house arrest at Creighton-Ward Manor where his only available action is to roll a 5, escape, and return himself and his vehicles to his Asian temple. Neatly, if the Hood is on his submarine during a capture action, a penalty of 2 is applied to the Thunderbirds’ roll.

And we’re not even at the part yet where the Hood can cause some utterly show-stopping mayhem, since he’s not the only one that can do some capturing, although in his case, it’s called hijacking and kidnapping. On a roll of 8, the Hood can jump into an empty seat of a Thunderbird in his space and use it, removing it and its bonuses from IR’s control. Worse, if a character peg is on board, that peg is considered kidnapped. At this point, the Hood can even take kidnapped characters to his lair and drop them off.

At this stage, a kidnapped character can either try to capture the Hood at the wheel or escape. Captures require a 7, with escapes only needing a 5. If they can, the captured character jumps into a Thunderbird in the same space and burns for the horizon, otherwise they pop back up at Creighton-Ward Manor.

The whole capture/hijack/kidnap/rescue mechanic is a fascinating one. For the players, it’s a deeply unneeded distraction layered on top of the disasters and Hood track and key for the Hood player triggering defeat. It also completely alters the way the game is played, since casually jumping out of one Thunderbird, leaving it empty and commandeering another, is just not an option any more. Players now have to consider the safety of particular machines and personnel. Even pod vehicles aren’t safe for abandonment any more, with a particular Event card allowing the Hood to nab these as well.

It adds a whole new dimension to the game that we love. So: how do you beat him?

That’s the last strand of this box. We mentioned at the very start that instead of Schemes, the Hood draws up three Acts and places tokens on the track and in Asia. As play (and the Hood) progresses, he’ll hit further tokens on the track placed at the game’s start. For each one hit, the Hood places the token face down in a space occupied by one of his minions. Should he lack foresight, the Hood player may find no minions on the board, and the token is immediately added to the next available slot on an Act card.

Otherwise, facedown tokens are flipped faceup by moving into their space. Crucially, this means that should a token appear where a Thunderbird already is, it isn’t revealed. It also means that International Rescue have yet further considerations – attend to rescues or go and investigate Hood tokens? This is doubly the case when a clever Hood player makes sure the tokens pop up where rescues aren’t.

When a token is revealed, it behaves much as a row of an old Scheme card would, demanding tokens or pod vehicles be dropped off at that country as before. As each token is completed, it is added to the scheme card and, when the card is filled, it is traded in for a FAB card as before.

This does remove the simultaneous element from the base game, where all rows of a Scheme card had to be filled at the same time, and instead allows players to ‘chunk’ the Act cards down into smaller parts. There’s also the complete lack of interaction between the Hood and space to be borne in mind. The Hood is never allowed to hijack Thunderbird 3 and thus cannot leave Earth. As with anything, we’re sure there’s a game balancing mechanic in there somewhere, but we’d have loved to have seen the Hood in possession of his own space rocket setting up moon lasers and Martian lairs – it could certainly have given John something to do.

But that’s to uninformedly knock what is a great expansion that nevertheless changes the tone of Thunderbirds massively. It’s tough to call which of these three expansions is ‘the best,’ but if you want the one that shakes the game up most drastically, it’s this one.

Alea_4We liked:

+ Turns the Hood from a faceless AI into a living, breathing bastard sat across the table from you;
+ Captures, hjiacks, escapes and rescues are a whole new dimension to the game;
+ The Hood’s Temple and Creighton-Ward Manor are welcome new buildings – the latter has purpose beyond being a sanctuary for characters and a prison for the Hood and works well in the base game;
+ Scaleable, as always, in a bewildering number of ways.

Watch out for:

– The Hood and IR not as able to manipulate the Hood track as we’d like;
– New Act cards remove the simultaneous nature of defeating Schemes, which made the base game trickier;
– The Hood’s domain is Earth – no space naughtiness here.

 

So all in all, three corking little expansions? Wishlist? A fan expansion of missions for sure, the missing TV episodes added in and, we can but hope, Jeff Tracy. While it’s a stretch for sure, content from both the movies and the new episodes would be the icing on the cake, but with three solid 4s, whether you want just one or all of the boxes, they all get our recommendation.

And not a Minute Later: A Review of 10′ to Kill

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CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Designer: Benoit Bannier
Publisher: La Boite de Jeu
Players: 2-4
Play Time: 10-15 minutes
Cost: Approximately £14
Mechanics: Bluffing and deduction

Editorial note: The edition reviewed here was Kickstarter Exclusive – while we’ve tried to avoid discussing KS Exclusive content, do double check the copy you end up buying at retail as something may have slipped through our net.

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Our edition of 10 is from the Kickstarter stable, though this image gives you a good indication of what your retail version will include as a minimum – 16 characters and their cards, 16 city tiles and 8 policemen.

If I told you I’d seen a giant zebra dressed as an architect using a sniper rifle to assassinate a shark dressed as a dentist, you’d come to many and varied conclusions before walking, very carefully, away. It reads like the weirdest of Halloweens, most brutal of acid trips or as the tale that then leads to you invoking our country’s laws on sectioning an individual under the Mental Health Act.

You’d be wrong on all counts, sadly, because I stayed at home for Halloween, will never take acid again and am of sound mind and body (mostly). What you won’t have factored in (because I really did see the aforementioned scene) is that 10 Minutes to Kill (stylised 10′ to Kill) arrived at LIL Towers from France via Kickstarter not so long ago.

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This Killer Whale judge is one of 10’s wacky anthropomorphised animal player pieces

Indeed, 10’s Gallic origins explain a great deal. This is not so much the Busy World of Richard Scarry as the Downright Mental One in a way only the great nation of France could muster. In fact, we’re just waiting for some breakout characters to trump the main ones and get a game series all of their own. Sixteen giant anthropomorphised animals inhabit (in the base game at least) a randomly generated 16-tile city whose locales and characters are both beautifully drawn in comic book stylings. At the game’s start, the players are each dealt a random character in secret who is now their assassin. Three further characters are then dealt to each player, becoming their assassin’s targets.

The premise, thereafter, is delightfully simple: kill your three targets, don’t get caught and, in a bonus twist, dob in or assassinate your rivals for a bonus. Each turn, players can take two actions, with the two major options being moving a character anywhere on the board or killing. Delightfully, movement can not only bring your own targets into the firing line, but also screw with the plans of others. That’s because killing is a more difficult affair, with three options: knife, gunshot or sniping. Sniping, while potentially devastating, is the hardest to get right, since the assassin must be alone on their tile to use firearms, and rifles can only be fired from special blue-edged tiles in straight lines across the play area (gaps included). Gunshots aren’t much easier, since again, the assassin must be alone and, on this occasion, adjacent to the victim or otherwise the only other piece on the victim’s tile. Knives, while silent and able to be used with near impunity, require being on the same tile as the target. Whatever your method, though, killing is made all the more satisfying by the characters’ 2D cutouts sitting atop bases that (whether just by luck or by design we can’t work out) are utterly perfect for flicking over without disrupting anything else on the board.

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10’s action takes place on a completely randomised 16-tile city generated at the game’s start. Here, the 8 blue-framed tiles allow sniping in rows and columns across the city – even across the gaps in the tiles.

The delights of murder are short lived, however, since there are policemen to contend with, giant gorillas in uniform (obviously) who appear after the first murder. Any other characters at the murder scene flee one tile in any direction, including the murderer if they were there, and the policeman establishes a zone in which no firearms or knives can be used, not only on their own tile but one tile in each direction. This nice mechanic also means that assassins can’t cluster victims onto a tile and stab or shoot them one after another.

And thus begins the real crux of 10′ – working out, based on what could and could not have possibly been, where the killing shot or stab came from. Once they hit the board, policemen can be moved like any other character, and a third action opens up: investigation. Players can move a policeman and then, at the policeman’s destination, ask a player if a character there is their assassin. Should this be so, the assassin is arrested, not only causing that player to lose the 2 point survival bonus at the game’s close but the arresting player to gain 2 points. It’s not a move without risk, however, since moving and using the policeman constitutes use of a whole turn. For the more daring, assassin’s can target one another, although killing a character who is neither your target nor a fellow assassin imposes an amusing 1,337 point penalty.

Once an assassin does hit their third mark, the game ends, and points are awarded for targets slain, rivals caught or killed and whether or not your own assassin made away. Funnily enough, this scoring happens (wait for it) about ten minutes after the first move is made. Yet that ten minutes is a riot of fun, deduction, accusation and machination, and, so intense that it’s good that’s it’s only ten minutes after all. Yet the game, so far as we can see, isn’t set to get stale any time soon given that the board, characters and targets are randomised every single time and there are sixteen of each. Our rudimentary maths tells us that you simply will never play the same game twice.

It’s a small box, too, and you see exactly where this is going: it is perfect for several quick rounds either to warm up the group or to give them pause between longer games, and as far as we’re concerned you can never have too many games like that, especially one which is exceptionally reliable in its duration (it really does take about 10 minutes a game, seriously) simple in its mechanics and yet deep in its gameplay at the same time. It’s also beautifully illustrated and, we have to say it, bloody mental in theme – and we love it.

Alea_5We liked:
+ Simple mechanics, deep gameplay;
+ Literally takes ten minutes to play;
+ Perfect for in-between sessions;
+ Utterly mental game world of anthropomorphic, knife and rifle toting animals;
+ Literally endless combinations of game board, assassins and targets.

Watch out for:
– Not suited for longer sessions – we found two or three games to be our limit each time the box came out;
– No word as yet on a release beyond Kickstarter or what it will ultimately contain.

2015 in Review: The Second Annual Ludimus in Londinio Awards

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It’s incredible to think it has already been another year of gaming already and that Ludimus in Londinio is now trucking on to its 2nd birthday.

Of course, as is always the case, we’d be totally remiss in not wishing a very Merry Christmas to you and yours in advance. Here’s hoping Santa is bringing you lots of good games to play and share.

Indeed, on that note, sharing’s the best gift of all: last year it was humbling to have had over 5,000 unique visitors, so the news that this year has seen over 16,000 of you stop by is simply mind blowing, and not just readers from London, nor even those from the UK: this year, Ludimus in Londinio has been read in over 110 of the 196 countries on Earth! Globally, 2015 has been one of our race’s most trying and strained, yet it’s heartening to know that, across a huge swathe of the world, we’re all united by our love of gaming.

If I have no other hope for the end of 2015, it’s that hobbies like ours bring people closer together.

Out there are games, venues and retailers doing their bit to make that hobby stronger than it’s ever been, and that means it’s time to dust off Ludimus in Londinio’s tiny little cupboard of sixes as we once again take a look at our etailer, game and, in a slight remix this year, venue of 2015. From last year, Boardgameguru.co.uk, Citadels and Travelling Man Leeds respectively doff their well-earned and well-worn crowns to this year’s nominees.

And this year, there aren’t many, with just two nominees in each category – and we’ve had some good experiences this year with plenty of 4s being handed out. It’s always been the case that any venue, game or online store nabbing itself a 5 has already done a lot to deserve such an accolade, and that can only mean this year that they’ve really gone the extra mile in what they do.

Don’t forget that we have not in any way, shape or form been incentivised to make the choices we have made today by publishers, distributors, developers, retailers, etailers or anybody else within the industry, and to this day it remains the case that Ludimus in Londinio hasn’t yielded a single penny to anyone involved – and that’s how it should be.

In case you are forgetting, give our Who Are We? page a quick nose before we begin!

Done that? Smashing. Without further a do, let’s kick off with the etailers!

It feels more and more like etailers are being embraced by the gaming community, and what is often great is that companies, built with the same love as any bricks-and-mortar store, are allowing gamers to marry the convenience of online shopping with the desire to support smaller businesses. This year we’ve engaged primarily with two etailers, and they are:



GamesLore.com
“[GamesLore] has two massive aces up its sleeve: first, it offers by far and away the best discounts on larger purchases and second, and more importantly, its staff have proven themselves to be immensely helpful.”


the-outpost.co.uk
“So far as we can see, provided miniatures are your thing, The Outpost is the place to get them at the best price and with the most user friendly experience we’ve had by far.”

We’ve had superb experiences with both of these etailers this year, and both do certain things very well indeed. In fact, in an ideal world we’d marry The Outpost’s slick website with GamesLore’s range and pricing.

But we have to choose one – and that’s hard. The Outpost is most definitely the superior website – quick, clean, easy to navigate and with a superb set of guidance on each miniatures system they stock. It remains our go-to suggestion for minis purchases, and can often be relied on to stock what others don’t or aren’t.

Then there’s GamesLore, where ‘Customer Service’ must surely have been carved in stone and put up on the wall somewhere in their Telford digs. No request has been too small in the multiple dealings we’ve had with them this year, and they come into their own when bulk buys are the order of the day. On this latter point in particular, GamesLore is onto a winner, with LIL often getting a basket up to £150-200 and then roping some friends in to tip it over the £250 mark. We’ve already discussed togetherness once in this post, and the number of times GamesLore has seen a group of us sat around a computer pointing at things… well.

But actually, there’s one thing ultimately edges it: the number of times GamesLore have picked up the phone to make sure everything’s spot on, and no less than twice now they’ve done us the great courtesy of noticing our usual school address for delivery would be closed at the time of dispatch for two of our orders, not to mention the customer care we received on our original shop as detailed in the review.

So:

Congratulations to the the team at GamesLore.com – keep up the superb work in 2016!

 

And now for something a little different – 2015 in particular has seen a real spike in gaming venues, spaces where, yes, games can be bought, but the emphasis is on playing them from a library and enjoying food and drink as well.

London has been graced by two such venues just this year – Draughts, which we’ve reviewed, and Loading 2 in Stratford, which we’re going to in the new year, meaning that it is just out of time for nomination this year.

And so:


Stratagemma, Florence, Italy
“So all-in-all, we loved Stratagemma very much. Probably the biggest criticism we can level at it is that it’s damn near a thousand miles South-East of London, but all that means is that you’ll have to go to Florence to visit – and that’s no bad thing either.”

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Draughts, Hoxton
“Add to the fact that there’s also a massive library of titles, supremely friendly staff, good food and drink and the venue has ensured it stands out in the neighbourhood, our conclusion is a simple one: Draughts is helping gaming go mainstream, and quite apart from everything else that we like about them, that alone makes us like them most of all.”

 

“Hold up,” you’re thinking, “surely this is foregone?” Well, yes, in a way, it is. There’d be a degree of lunacy in a site called Ludimus in Londinio giving a game store 1,000 miles from Trafalgar Square an award, for sure, and yet we can’t round off 2015 without talking about Stratagemma and returning yet again to that theme of gaming worldwide. It really was the last bit of icing on the cake that was our visit to Florence this summer and an encouraging sign that gaming is, arguably, in ruder health on the continent.

Then there’s Draughts, which technically wins this award by default, but has done a lot to earn it: Draughts is reinforcing togetherness right here in London with its enormous games library and inclusive environment, making gaming approachable, comfortable and fun for those who wouldn’t ordinarily try it.

So yes:
Massive congratulations to Draughts – please keep bringing new players into the hobby in 2016!

But wait! Why should, we’re thinking, Stratagemma be discounted just because it’s not in London? We’ve played a lot of games with a lot of rules, so if there’s a time to break one, now’s it. In the spirit of this post celebrating gaming beyond London, we’re cooking up something a little special, and here it is:

sawardA very special thank you to our friends in Florence – here’s hoping we meet again one day!

Of course, all of these places to buy games would be useless without the very reason we’re all here in the first place: the stars of the show themselves – the games!

2015 has been another superb year, but two titles stood head and shoulders above the rest, and they were:

Thunderbirds
Thunderbirds has that most crucial ingredient of all: it’s been made with genuine love for the source material and the fans who’ve held it close over the last five decades.

Quite often you can reliably hang whatever you like on that.

When it’s a game as good as this, so much the better.”

 

Istanbul
“It looks complicated. It sounds complicated. It isn’t. It’s the speediest Eurogame we’ve played, and that’s saying something in a genre well-known for its accessibility to the beginner.”

On paper, this is really hard. We’ve had immense fun with both games and both have earned their respective 5s well. Thunderbirds is co-operative perfection, while Istanbul takes everything that makes Eurogames good and accessible and refines it down into one of the tightest we’ve ever played.

 

For this one, we ultimately couldn’t decide, but fear not: there was another way. I’ve mentioned elsewhere throughout this blog that I’m a secondary school teacher, and twice a week I run a tabletop gaming club to encourage young people to turn off their phones and computers and try board and card games instead. A modest budget (plus a couple of awards) has seen the club’s library grow to include both Thunderbirds and Istanbul.

Both are enjoyed at Games Club. Istanbul’s colour and quickness make it a favourite at lunchtimes, but after school allows the club to stretch its legs and expand its scope – and you can set your watch, every Thursday afternoon, by the same question: “when are we playing Thunderbirds?” Bear in mind that most of the pupils have never heard of, much less engaged with the veteran TV series, recognising, therefore, only a game with utterly superb mechanics. Congratulations to Ludimus in Londinio’s 2015 Game of the Year:

goty2015 is nearly done, and we haven’t forgotten our promises from this time a year ago – a review of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG system is in draft alongside a host of other draft reviews that will, eventually, make it to you. Until then, big congratulations once again to Draughts, Stratagemma, GamesLore.com and, of course, Thunderbirds, and remember:

We play games in London!

No Strings Attached: A Review of Thunderbirds: The Board Game

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Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Modiphius
Players: 1-4
Play Time: 1 hour
Cost: Around about the £40 mark
Mechanics: Co-operation, AI opponent, die rolls and modifiers

In a sentence: Bang on time for its 50th anniversary, an icon of British children’s programming finally makes the leap into board gaming with Matt Leacock’s most refined setup yet.

While never actually happy with the format himself, Anderson brought Supermarionation to the world – and nailed it.

Just a few short weeks ago, the late, great Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds celebrated 50 years since its first broadcast in the UK. For those who have found themselves under a papier-mache rock at any point during this period, Thunderbirds is an action TV show centred around International Rescue, a family of five young brothers and their father who use a 60s vision of near future tech to save the world from their secret island in the South Pacific in 2065.

Crucially, the entire show’s cast is marionettes and the whole thing has a delightful 1960s kitsch to it.

The sets and vehicles are a modelmaking marvel even by today’s standards, while the miniaturised, practical on-set effects of the late Derek Meddings are similarly revered. Indeed, an LIL favourite is to drink along with an episode of the show each time something explodes.

Even negotiating the starting credits is dangerous. Let’s just say here and now we don’t recommend you follow our endeavours.

A still from Episode 1, Trapped in the Sky, which featured all the quintessential Andersonian ingredients: near future tech (the elevator cars) remedying an ‘it-could-happen-to-me’ disaster (a booby trapped airliner) with a lovely twist of dated 60s’ outlook on the future (the airliner is nuclear powered).

Yet in spite of all these seeming limitations, Thunderbirds always sought to overcome them by telling stories that have stood the test of time far better (we think, at least) than Anderson’s earlier series Stingray, but to a far more mass audience than his later efforts, the dark and violent Captain Scarlet and the Boys Own-esque Joe 90. Sure, many can name these shows in the same breath as Thunderbirds – but never with quite the same reverence.

It’s a series that has a special place in the hearts of two certain ages – those who would have been kids at the time and, more importantly, been fed dreams of outer space just being the start for breakfast, and, in turn, the lucky ones who would go on to be their kids in the early 90s, when the show, alongside Anderson’s other big productions, just happened to enjoy reruns on the BBC. Like many other children of one of the most undersold decades going, we were lucky enough to be handed the torch from our own folks, attached strings and all.

One of our favourite designers takes one of our favourite TV shows and brings it into one of our favourite hobbies – to say our expectations of Thunderbirds have been high would be an understatement.

Some of us even remember Anthea Turner teaching us all on Blue Peter how to make a modrock Tracy Island to replace the sold-out Matchbox version.

So the short way of saying it would be to state that Thunderbirds in particular is a show thought of with exceptional, nay, unconditional fondness here at Ludimus in Londinio. Yet strangely, for all its action and adventure trappings, Thunderbirds has never really crossed into the world of gaming, electronic or tabletop.

Until now.

Because we find ourselves in another, glorious ‘how come this hasn’t happened before?’ moment. Disasters. Insurmountable odds. The ticking passage of time. The distribution of people and resources around the world to bring order to chaos, relief to injury, survival instead of death. Co-operation. Let’s not forget the insidious force that IR’s nemesis, the Hood, represented. An intelligent force, working against others.

Thing is, there’s never really been a game like that…

No easy way of saying this other than straight up: Pandemic and Thunderbirds are close stablemates, but then when they’re by the same designer and the ‘save the world’ premise is broadly similar, why fix what ain’t broke?

…except, of course, there has: Matt Leacock’s Pandemic.

We like to imagine what the eureka moment must have been like as it formed itself in the heads of Modiphius’ Chris and Rita Birch.

And it’s an idea the Achtung! Cthulhu publisher would go on to take very seriously, evidenced by a Kickstarter for the game opening six months ago in pursuit of a humble £20,000 to put a little mark on the show’s 50th birthday and the securing of Mr Leacock himself for the actual design of the game.

Since then, the Kickstarter has perhaps unsurprisingly amassed a quarter of a million pounds, and now the game goes on general retail to a public that holds the show dear and is currently enjoying a much-better-than-expected CGI reboot (Editorial note: We’re big fans of this too, for the revised record!) Question is, is this 250,000 of our invested notes well spent, or more along the lines of the 2004 live action movie we do not speak of?

Well, first impressions are excellent. Retail purchasers will be greeted with the time-honoured artwork of Graham Bleathman (see above right), while our Kickstarter edition bears that of Shigeru Komatsuzaki (above left). If you’ve been within half a mile of a Thunderbirds annual or comic, you’ve seen their work, and it’s great that the time and effort was taken out to track down these guys and their artwork to adorn the box rather than rehash some stock photos.

This continues on to the game’s board, which is a bright and riotous map of Earth, split into various regions including a lovely space track at the top of the board anchored to Earth by a single route between geostationary orbit and the South Pacific, which also features the solar system’s inner planets, the asteroid belt and, of course, the sun itself. It’s exactly the sort of map you want to put little toy planes down onto and shuffle them around like you’re in a war room.

Thunderbirds’ board looks like it’s stepped right out of one of Graham Bleathman’s 90s cross section books – which is just how it should be.

Which is pretty handy, since Thunderbirds comes with six lovely miniatures of the five eponymous rescue craft and the iconic pink Rolls Royce of the original upper class badass, Lady Penelope. Even cooler (and in something of a nod to the 90s Thunderbirds board game by Vivid Imaginations?) are the character pegs that can be slotted into the individual craft.

It’s at this point that Mr Leacock steps in, because even if his name didn’t proudly adorn the box and manual, this game practically sweats its Leacockian (we just coined it) DNA. Colourful pieces to shift around a world map is just the start since, as you’d expect, there are fleshed out roles to go with each, in this case the five Tracy brothers and Lady Penelope. Each comes with a special ability, and it’s a marvel (and not the first time we’ll note it throughout this review) how the show’s lore has been so carefully fused with an unhindered sense of playability and yet left completely unaltered. Each character’s spec will immediately resonate with fans while being fun to play but, critically, the design has not proven too slavish to the mythos: any character can marshall any of the available vehicles in the game provided there is space for them to sit on board. This in itself is not as unusual as it sounds – while yes, each Tracy had their own signature vessel, there are nods all over the series to the five brothers being equally able to take control of one another’s runabouts. Provided the active player’s peg is in the vehicle, it can be moved about, with each Thunderbird able to cover a differing number of squares in an action.

Thunderbirds’ character roster in part (not seen: Alan and Scott). While each character is associated closely with one particular Thunderbird they are free to pilot any machine they wish, though each usually gets a special bonus for being in the seat of their usual vehicle.

Right away this has more than some trace elements of Forbidden Desert, another of Mr Leacock’s efforts that we were rather fond of. Players working in tandem with other characters, player controlled or otherwise, is encouraged, and one whole strand of the game is a magnificent exercise in glorified carpooling (that’s not an insult), making sure that you’re picking up and dropping off the right rescuers at the right times and in the right places. It provides, cleverly, space for the thing that can normally ruin co-op games, the Alpha Player. In Thunderbirds, other players will actually appreciate a player with an overview of a board that can potentially have 8 rescues on it, 4 human players, 6 Thunderbird machines… you get it.

Even better, unlike previous efforts, Thunderbirds keeps the non-player roles active. Controlled by a human all five brothers may not always be, but their impact on the game is still felt – and we like that. We also like trucking around in Thunderbird 2 with all our buddies like some great, big, green battle bus of rescue.

There is, of course, more. This wouldn’t be a Matt Leacock game without actions to be spent each turn – 3 in this case, centred around moving Thunderbirds, attempting rescues and other beneficial moves like Planning and Scanning (more on that in a moment). The interplay between roles and players is also present and correct, and pins can be transferred from Thunderbird to Thunderbird provided they share the same space although in a much more difficult twist of the formula, mission rewards, instead representing innate personality qualities like determination or teamwork, cannot.

Tick tock! A disaster card is drawn each turn giving International Rescue plenty to do, with a target to hit (top left) and various modifiers to be applied to both clear the mission and score the rewards (bottom left).

Then there’s the proper trademark: the inexorable passage of time, and this is ably provided by the disaster deck, from which a card is drawn each turn, spawning a new emergency situation into the game and pushing extant disasters closer to deadly tragedy. Should 8 such situations ever be concurrent, one of the game’s defeat conditions is triggered, with the rightmost mission a failure resulting in death, though having a Tracy on Thunderbird 5 performing Scan actions can slow this down a tad. Rescues are multi-layered affairs, each with a type (land, sea, air, space or general) and those with a specific setting having a difficulty rating. When attempting a rescue as one of their three actions in a turn, players must roll 2 d6s and hit or exceed this number.

That, of course, is half the story, since 10 is the highest number than can be rolled naturally, with many missions’ difficulties far exceeding this. That’s because, in more than a little nod, we sense, to Firefly et al, the other big part of Thunderbirds’ logistical challenge is having not only the right people in the right places, but the right machines too. Having particular brothers, ships or pod vehicles (two of which can be carried by Thunderbird 2 at a time) present at the mission or in certain locations can add buffs to the rolls. It’s here in particular that the depth and passion of research into the show is evident, with fans looking at the requirements of certain missions and just knowing that all the right people involved with Thunderbirds: The Board Game’s development are fans too who had a good rewatch of the show during the game’s formation. The Sun Probe mission, for example, works best with Scott on Thunderbird 3 by the Sun and Virgil and the Transmitter truck in the Himalayas – because that’s how the original episode went. Yet, somehow, as we mentioned before, sticking tightly to the lore of the show somehow doesn’t compromise gameplay one iota. Either Gerry Anderson wrote a believable screenplay or this is one tightly designed game.

We’re pretty sure it’s both. Told you they should have done this a long time ago.

Four mission cards based directly on TV episodes. Note the 4 different rescue types, Land, Air, Sea and Space. Each Tracy by himself adds a bonus (usually 2-3) to any die rolls provided they are the ones undertaking the rescue and it matches their affinity. Having other Tracys, Thunderbirds, pod vehicles and more in the right places can help yet further!

Even nicer, not all of the missions are based on the TV episodes at all (although lots of fan favourites feature). Some are made up, and when we drew these missions we felt a pang of sadness that these awesome sounding stories never came to be. Like the CGI reboot, Thunderbirds Are Go, the game acknowledges the original series’ comparative lack of space missions by throwing in in particular some really imaginative tales that take in Mars, Venus, Mercury and the asteroid belt.

The completion of missions, meanwhile, not only declutters the disaster track and staves off defeat, but also grants rewards. Tokens are offered up, allowing many and varied bonuses – extra actions each turn, buffing of die rolls, rerolls, bonus cards and even new technology. In this latter case, players begin the game with Brains’ notebook full of useful vehicles to carry in Thunderbird 2 – but the tokens must be earned to build and deploy them on missions to buff die rolls yet further.

But as we all know, there’s usually a second, more sinister force underpinning AI driven games. Pandemic had its infection rate and outbreaks, while Forbidden Desert had the ever-intensifying storm. In Thunderbirds, it’s the Hood, who may just be the most fiendish of Leacock’s AIs yet.

The Hood’s Schemes range from pretty easy to nigh-on impossible, and in a masterstroke, the game allows you to mix and match Schemes to create the difficulty level to best suit you.

That’s because the Hood, on his own track, is a paradox. You don’t have time to engage him with all the rescues popping up on the board, and yet engaging him is the only way to win the game. In many ways, he’s a rare set of windows during the game where you get to take a shot – and need to make it count. The Hood serves up three Schemes dealt randomly at the game start, and failing to foil any of them is an instant loss. Players can, during a turn, draw up FAB cards as an action, which confer powerful, one shot benefits. Each card so drawn however, unless from a mission reward, advances the Hood one space up his track and closer to defeating the team with his Schemes. Worse still, we mentioned previously that 10 is the highest natural roll – that’s because the 6s have been cruelly replaced with Hood icons, each one rolled pushing him another space up his track of Schemes. Oh, and Pandemic’s eponymous cards are here in their own guise too, with some draws from the disaster deck instead advancing the Hood yet further!

In a move of genius, these Schemes are rated from 1-5, and while the game suggests a starting line up of 1 each of levels 1, 2 and 3, there is nothing to stop utter sadists trying a game with three, Level 4 Schemes (at present there is just a single, hellish Level 5 card) or the newest of the new running 3 Level 1s. In a stroke of evil genius, these Schemes do the exact three things the players don’t need – split up the team, drain their hard-earned resources and tie up their time, with the Schemes requiring the turning in of precious mission rewards at different locations simultaneously. The hardest even play to the fact that mission rewards form a limited economy, with each reward having just 6 tokens. If players aren’t careful as to who completes missions, they can come unstuck, since tokens cannot ordinarily be traded between players. Some high-level Hood missions can call upon close to the entire stock of tokens in the possession of a single player.

And it’s brilliant.

In other AI-driven games it’s the players versus the AI, whereas here there seem to be two AIs at work: one that can’t help throwing spanners in the works (the organic, chaos-theory driven rescues) and the far more cunning and calculated machinations of the Hood which delight in the aforementioned spanner throwing. But that’s not all, since the Hood also spawns random event cards which screw things up even further, slowing down Thunderbird craft, making rescues harder and other shady shenanigans. Whereas the Hood invariably found himself cartoonishly walking off another serious vehicular accident and shaking his fist at the air, in Thunderbirds: The Board Game he’s a formidable opponent.

It’s an exceptional balancing act that players have to strike between the two tracks given that both serve up defeat, and that, coupled with the logistical demands that both tracks entail, is the core delight of Thunderbirds. Pulling off a combo of moves that sees disaster after disaster rectified followed by a swift spot of justice being sent the Hood’s way will make you feel utterly masterful.

But how difficult is it? What’s great is that that’s up to you. While the recommended setup is not the easiest you could create, it is still a nice learning curve, with the 2nd of the 5 difficulty levels yet to be beaten under this roof, and we tried the game with 2, 3 and 4 players. We found that the game really starts to come to life the more people there are around the table, and though there are 6 roles in this base game, a maximum of 4 people can play according to the rules. We’re presuming this cap goes no higher on account of the time between particular characters being too long and potentially game breaking, though we’d be interested to test this theory.

On this note, we found one potential flaw with the game that is less Modiphius and Matt Leacock’s fault and more down to the original show: as it stands, John is the least fun character to play of the lot, starting the game as he does stuck on Thunderbird 5 in Earth orbit, detached from what is ultimately three-quarters of the game action. The rules do place Thunderbird 3 with him for easy shuttling to and from Earth when he is a Player Character, and some missions do call for his presence on the ground, but nowhere near as many as the other brothers.

Much as in the show, John is best when left among the stars. This was awesome in our space-heavy first game with John often undocking TB3 from TB5 to take him and Alan to sort out Martian invasions and crash landings on Mercury, but then really mundane for our 4th player in the second game when not a single space mission came up (and there should be plenty, it was a bad shuffle) and the other players felt like precious time was being wasted having to go and pick him up. Being on TB5, John can grant the team the useful bonus of ignoring their first Hood roll each turn and trigger the Scan action, but there was a feeling of John needing to be more active in proceedings rather than a passive support when this happens. Carefully played, John can be mildly entertaining, but we’ve found it all too easy in our games so far to leave him be, and thus far our fellow players have called for him to be popped back into the box.

There is, of course, another Anderson-based reason for this where the ties to the mythos need to be looser. John’s puppet was allegedly based on one of Sylvia Anderson’s old flames – or at least, that’s one of the various urban legends. Compare this with the new CGI series in which John’s episodes, such as E.O.S. and Skyhook, for us, stand out as highlights.

It’s something, however, that can doubtless be remedied in future expansions…

…and these are all a matter of weeks away. The sheer number of missions and potential initial deals of characters, plus the variety of the Hood’s Events and Schemes, already make this a highly replayable game – it’s only going to get more so in the weeks and months to come. We’re not sure just how much license Modiphius can take with the license (if you’ll forgive the pun), but the mission cards are an encouraging hint that this could be a proper expansion of the Thunderbirds mythos. It would be even nicer to see some nods to the recent Thunderbirds 1965 project (another Kickstarter) that’s turning 3 audiobooks into fully fledged TV episodes using the old methods – there’s three potential Disaster cards right there if we’re not mistaken.

So, if it’s not already apparent, we like Thunderbirds: The Board Game very much indeed. It marries two success stories from two very different camps: a much loved TV show with one of gaming’s most acclaimed formulae refined and sharpened like never before – and it really is quite a match. Even if you aren’t a fan of the show, Thunderbirds is a wonderful and accessible gaming experience whose rules are actually relatively lean, and a much lighter hearted one than Pandemic, evidenced even when the game manual suggests that, in the face of defeat, you should simply dust off, go back and try again. It scales wonderfully in difficulty too, although by far and away the greatest appreciation is going to come from the fans.

It can’t be understated – from inception, through the Kickstarter and, it has to be said, the excellent service Modiphius offered on a couple of delivery issues for which Chris and Rita Birch deserve an especial mention, Thunderbirds has that most crucial ingredient of all: it’s been made with genuine love for the source material and the fans who’ve held it close over the last five decades.

Quite often you can reliably hang whatever you like on that.

When it’s a game as good as this, so much the better.

It can only be:

Alea_5We liked:
+ A TV and board gaming great collide with a spectacular explosion that Meddings himself would be proud of;
+ Matt Leacock refines his formula like never before, cherry picking the best bits of his previous games;
+ Bright and colourful, Thunderbirds keeps the art of co-op in more light-hearted territory;
+ Two glorious AIs to play against – the Disasters and the Hood;
+ A logistician’s fantasy – getting everyone to the right place at the right times will make you feel masterful, and Thunderbirds wide scope means even the Alpha Player in the room is kept busy;
+ Slavish attention to detail when it comes to the components, missions and just the overall package – fans will not be disappointed…
+ …and yet new players will find this supremely accessible to with its ludicrously easy-to-modify difficulty level;
+ 1 player mode is always a bonus, but this game flies with 4 round the table.

Watch out for:
– Still some small issues around swapping of characters that will doubtless be addressed very soon in the Tracy Island expansion providing a layover spot;
– Some issues with playing as John that will hopefully also see redress;
– 4 player limit means (in theory) that all 5 Tracys can’t be in play together.

You might also like:
Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island have been mentioned pretty consistently throughout this review as they’re all Matt’s work too. Red November may also scratch your co-operative itch.

Empta Extra Londinium: A review of Stratagemma, Florence, Italy

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Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Address: Via dei Servi, 15/r, 50122 Firenze (Florence), ITALIA
Public Transport: Florence itself is a small city and you can walk from one side to the other in under 45 minutes, so any bus passing through will do, however the closest routes are 6, 11, 14, 23, 31, C1 and C2. Santa Maria Novella station has high-speed links to Rome and Bologna but also connects with Pisa, Livorno, Lucca and Faenza.
Parking: Luckily our half of the party had complimentary parking within the hotel complex, though the rest of our party spoke well of the Park-and-Ride which tourists are encouraged to use. We’d imagine parking in the area is pretty hellish, so avoid it.
Hours: Unlike many Italian stores, Stratagemma doesn’t close during the middle of the day, so it’s 1030-1930 Monday to Friday and 0930-1330 on Saturdays. They’re closed Sunday and public holidays.
Stock: Stocks clothing and toys on the ground floor, an extensive range of sci-fi and fantasy books and RPGs in the middle and a large range of board games, card games and a limited 40K and paints stock in the back. Obviously the majority of stock is translated for the Italian market and only a handful of games (always thanks to the publisher) had rules in English. However, a dedicated and still rather substantial English/text-free selection is located on the mezzanine above the cash desk.
Pricing: Wildly variant in comparison to the UK and, of course, dependent in no small part on the current rate of the Euro. Big name titles were priced just as you’d expect back home with a number of titles we picked up pleasantly under by quite some margin. A few titles, probably down to the local distributor, are worth waiting to collect when you get back to Blighty.
Play Space: Both play and painting space for (we estimate) 30+ people and a games library were in evidence
Website: http://www.stratagemmaonline.com

In a sentence: True to its name, Stratagemma might just be an already great city’s trump card.

Editorial note: We realise this review is likely to be of scant interest to most readers except those actually aiming to visit Florence, but we had too good an experience not to share it with you!

The bags are still in the car back from Florence as this is being penned (from a dressing table, in true LIL style, this time from a rather nice Tuscan villa) and, by all accounts, Florence is really rather lovely – doubly so at night.

Speaking even as a regular joe for just a second (that’ll be the day – Ed) the Medicis’ old stomping ground is well worth a visit. In fact, it was once declared on these very pages that:


“my favourite Mediteranneans (and they really are, I mean that from the bottom of my heart) do two things brilliantly: building nice stuff, and cooking something yummy inside it.” – Review of  La Città, September 13th, 2014


and our brief time there has only strengthened that love.

But you didn’t come here to hear about that – you came to hear about a little shop tucked away on the Via dei Servi not far from the very middle of the city. You came to find out whether Italians can add ‘running a good game store’ to the list of things they’re good at (they’re good at building roads and keeping everything very clean in case you were wondering). It’s a store whose name literally translates as ‘Strategies’ but far more poetically translates across as anything from ‘Ruses’ to ‘Ploys’ and ‘Tricks’ – and on that latter note, Stratagemma has loads up its well-suited sleeves.

Tucked away on the Via dei Servi, keep your eyes peeled for Stratagemma!

Blink and you really will miss this unassuming shopfront on the Via dei Servi.

You’d be forgiven for missing it right up until you catch the lovely glass window full of goodies. In a move that entices punters of all varieties in, 40K minis and board games rub shoulders with cuddly toys and mainstream cinema tie-in merch. Indeed, stuff of that ilk takes up the front third of the shop, with a particular emphasis on Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who. The selection up front is rounded out by a lot of dice (great for souvenirs), the ubiquitous Magic: The Gathering and other accessories and bits and bobs you might need.

Moving through we buzzed jealously past a rather ample Star Wars minis display replete with Wave VII stock that we aren’t even going to lay hands on until next week. Indeed, this is also worth noting simply because this (and a small 40K supply at the back) was the extent of Stratagemma’s minis.

Next you end up in the middle third of the store, which has plenty of play space, bookshelves of sci-fi and fantasy novels and RPGs and even a little painting station and modest supply of paints and brushes. We’d made it there in a minute and been asked in pretty much perfect English whether or not we needed anything, and while we never expect to be spoken to in English abroad, it was still a nice consideration – little did we realise this was only the first.

Stratagemma’s back room – curse our lack of Italian skills!

Then there’s the back. Hoo boy. Your only regret as you sift through Stratagemma’s yawning shelves of board and card games (some of them bloody hard to find back home) is that the majority is printed in Italian. This blogger has only been speaking the language for six days and kept wishing, perhaps a little lazily, for a text-free/English rules section.

Oh wait, Stratagemma has one of those too.

Yes, in a move of brilliance, the blink-and-you’d-miss-it mezzanine above the cash desk as you walk in is stocked exclusively with board and card games that are either text-free, have English translations inside or are just simply English imports. It’s still an exceptionally healthy selection too, with a nice, considered mix of appropriate titles to bring home from Florence (keep an eye out for our reviews of Florenza: The Card Game and Patronize) and some simply well-chosen stuff that maybe hasn’t made it to the Italian publisher yet (keep an eye out too for our review of Specter Ops).

Stratagemma’s front window sure is enticing…

When we took our bundle to the cash desk the staff were incredibly friendly and happy to banter away in both our broken Italian and English. The gentleman we dealt with in particular clearly keeps one foot in Anglo-American gaming culture and the aforementioned English section is not only clearly a matter of pride for him but, in his own words, a necessity for the Italian hard core who want to play the latest games yesterday.

We were also pleasantly surprised with a little gift (a rather lovely Stratagemma 20th anniversary calendar) and at having change from 110/£75 after passing Specter Ops, Florenza the Card Game (and it’s War & Religion booster) and Patronize through the till – a transaction that would have clocked in at £80 on Amazon UK without the Florenza expansion, which seems to be rare elsewhere. In fact, Stratagemma had a lot of titles in its English section which we know from experience to be harder-than-average to track down back on our fair island.

So all-in-all, we loved Stratagemma very much. Probably the biggest criticism we can level at it is that it’s damn near a thousand miles South-East of London, but all that means is that you’ll have to go to Florence to visit – and that’s no bad thing either.

With love from the UK, it can only be a:

wbn-brk-5We loved:
+ Great to see that gaming is, arguably, a bigger thing in Europe than it is back home;
+ Really friendly staff who aren’t above speaking English to tourists;
+ An exceptional range of board and card games, RPGs and novels, with mainstream minis stock and some toys, merch and oddities that make great souvenirs for your gamer friends;
+ Has a good number of rarities that are much harder to pin down in the UK;
+ English/text-free section is a really lovely provision for tourists that means they won’t leave Stratagemma empty handed;
+ When it all averages out, your shopping basket comes in a shade under what you’ll pay online at home.

Watch out for:
– We actually missed the mezzanine on our first visit and assumed it was staff only;
– It’s a 1,000 mile trip from Trafalgar Square, obviously.

“PARTY LIKE IT’S…” – A REVIEW OF 1989

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Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Designer: Ted Torgerson and Jason Matthews
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 2
Play Time: 3 hours
Cost: Around about the £40 mark
Mechanics: Conquest, card draw, hand management, die rolls

In a sentence: In what essentially started life as an expansion for Twilight Struggle, the action hones in on one year and one particular region of the Cold War – Eastern Europe as the shit starts to hit the fan for the Soviet regime in the eponymous year of 1989.

Fun fact: in a move likely to infuriate would-be Commies everywhere, we’re not allowed to give this review its complete and obvious, if slightly redundant title. That’s because a certain Ms Swift of pop-singing fame has trademarked the phrase which roughly means having a celebratory gathering of friends in the vein of the final year of the 1980s.

Even better, Taylor Swift was alive for precisely two-and-a-half weeks of the year in question.

From this, we can only infer that a gathering at Swift’s pad should involve a lot of gurgling, vomiting, screaming and then shitting ourselves… which actually sounds about right for our sort of party.

So, now we’ve dodged that legal bullet, here’s a review of Twiligh… we mean 1989.

Categorising today's reviewee is hard. It follows on from Twilight Struggle but isn't a sequel. It develops the formula but isn't an expansion. What it isn't, though, is a wholly new game, even though it comes in a different box.

Categorising today’s reviewee is hard. It follows on from Twilight Struggle but isn’t a sequel. It develops the formula but isn’t an expansion. What it isn’t, though, is a wholly new game, even though it comes in a different box.

Yes, it turns out that a certain songstress’ intellectual property isn’t the only thing being cribbed in today’s review, because, and there really is no other way of saying this than bluntly, 1989 is damn near a complete clone of Twilight Struggle.

That’s not a criticism, you understand: many GMT games follow successful formulae with thematic twists dependent on the battleground in which the game is set, but it’s a fact to get out of the way immediately. But we can save you some time right now: if you enjoyed Jason Matthews first co-effort, you’ll like this as well and really should buy it.

If, on the other hand, you want to find out why, read on.

Just as in TS, play is driven

Just as in TS, play is driven by cards bearing Ops values and events. Here are three Democrat cards, and the Democrat player must pick between the event or the Ops value. Since each event is marked with an asterisk, it is an historically significant one-off, and the card is removed from the game should the event trigger. the Soviet player has a tougher job: Kiss of Death’s 3 points could certainly help, but playing them would also automatically trigger the event.

Just like Twilight Struggle, 1989 is a card-driven, Cold War affair onto whose map tokens are placed in an effort to seize ideological control of different areas; areas which are then scored in an effort to pull the score track (a sort of tug-o’-war rope) across the goal end of either player. Each card has a points value and associated historical event, the former of which can be used to spread influence or foment dissent and the latter of which can cause some pretty rapid shifts in the landscape and allow you to put the very real events of the year to use.

Present and correct: a -20 to +20 score track. Sadly absent: an equivalent of TS's shit-inducing DEFCON track.

Present and correct: a -20 to +20 score track. Sadly absent: an equivalent of TS’s shit-inducing DEFCON track.

There are some key differences and changes, however, which mean this is neither an exact clone nor even an expansion to Twilight Struggle. The first, of course, is the theatre: where Twilight Struggle set its sights firmly on the entire world as the stage, here, 1989 focuses on a slither of Eastern Europe, namely the DDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Second, TS took in a hefty chunk of the 20th century – there are no prizes, meanwhile, for guessing 1989’s timeline over the course of its 10 rounds, although, curiously, these are not, as you might expect, each a 5-week slice of history. Straight away, what this homing in means is that the events this time around are far more local and small scale while, conversely, big events quite often affect the whole board rather than the regions we saw in the other game.

excerpt

A typical slice of the 1989 board, here focused on the DDR. The countries we know and love in TS become regions, replete with their usual stability values and, in some cases, battleground status. Where it all goes into new territory is the fact that regions now bear specialisms, such as writers, students, clerics, workers, farmers and the elite – these can have small yet not-insignificant repercussions later on, meaning battlegrounds aren’t necessarily always the way to go.

There’s a notable addition, too. While each of 1989’s locations (areas of a country this time rather than countries themselves) bears a stability value to be met and (just maybe) battleground status, carrying the same, additional weight during scoring, each also bears a symbol, indicating the key player in that district, from elites to workers, intellectuals to clergy, bureaucrats to farmers.

And that’s hugely significant. Twilight Struggle generally afforded the best to players able to lock down entire regions of the world, while 1989 instead keeps things far more lively given that control of a country can see a shock sea-change because of one, crucial district and its particular affinity. Games of 1989 can see an isolated band of pro-US students overwhelm a Communist majority or a few, frightened priests who wouldn’t survive some gulag time shore up the Marxist status-quo.

That’s because, in the most radical departure from the Twilight Struggle formula, how areas change hands and are scored has been refined in the former case and expanded in the latter. Given, in the last big twist, that the Communist starts in de-facto control of the entire board, you’re going to need it.

In Twilight Struggle, players could use their Ops points to realign regions, with each Ops point granting a roll-off between the two players. Buffs and debuffs were applied depending on who controlled what nearby and, in the event of the attacker triumphing, that many of the defender’s influence went bye-bye. The second option, and far more devastating, was couping, doubling the country’s stability and setting it as a target to be hit, with the played card adding its value to the roll. Of course, TS’s infamous DEFCON track came into play here as well, limiting both the number of coups taking place and where they occurred.

We like this little twist on the setup, which, rather than calling for simultaneous land-grabbing, starts off a little war of parity and tit-for-tat before play has even started.

We like this little twist on the setup, which, rather than calling for simultaneous land-grabbing, starts off a little war of parity and tit-for-tat before play has even started.

1989 cherry picks different elements of both systems and blends it into one system of realignment, since coups are now an outcome of scoring, not a means of influencing it. So, realignments in 1989 follow Twilight Struggle’s coup model, but then also add in modifiers and debuffs for nearby friendly or enemy sectors as per its realignment rules.

We actually quite like this, and in one way it makes 1989 more accessible than its muse, since there is only one system to learn for altering influence on the board rather than two. It also sees consideration of the more regional problem, since successful realignments often follow careful seizure of other areas in the country first, and thus it feels more suited to 1989’s scope as well as demanding longer and more tactical plays. After all, a single country undergoing a sea-change as it might in TS is no surprise – a few streets of a city, on the other hand, more so, and 1989 caters for this well.

It does also mean, however, that a great deal of the shock and surprise from Twilight Struggle is lost. A player knocking over regions in Hungary like dominoes can only mean they’re after something bigger in the country and, of course, there’s no DEFCON tracker to carefully manipulate. The fact that all areas are open for subversion at any time lends its own shade of insecurity and paranoia, but we do also miss the ability to close off areas and generally flirt with Armageddon.

But it does a lot well, and all of that leads to the next major change: scoring. Just as in TS, yes, players can achieve presence, dominance and control, and Battlegrounds are worth an extra point apiece.

As in Twilight Struggle, countries offer a points bounty for presence, domination and control, but they ALSO offer up an opportunity to the Democrat to sway the country to the world of McDonalds and Starbucks. This said, each country bears a power bonus to the Soviet player that gets stronger each time the Democrat tries (and fails) to sway the country.

As in Twilight Struggle, countries offer a points bounty for presence, domination and control, but they ALSO offer up an opportunity to the Democrat to sway the country to the world of McDonalds and Starbucks.
This said, each country bears a power bonus to the Soviet player that gets stronger each time the Democrat tries (and fails) to sway the country.

Except when a scoring card is played (and just as before, holding onto one between rounds means instant loss) an entire subgame suddenly enters the fray in the biggest addition to the formula: the Power Struggle. Players draw six cards if they control at least one area, and then two for each subsequent area they control in the country after that. Needless to say, having control of more areas tips things marginally (but only marginally) in your favour.

Players have the option at this stage to ante up, and thus express their (lack of) confidence in the result. By discarding three cards, each player can affect the final scoring. That being done or not, it’s then on to the cards themselves, organised as they are into four suits – protest, march, strike and rally. The player who triggered the scoring begins by playing a card, and it is up to the opponent to match the card’s suit. The defender then rolls a die, and should it match or beat the value of the attacker’s card, they seize initiative and start the next round.

Power Struggle rounds, then, have two considerations – playing high value cards to retain initiative and thus not be backed into a corner and playing suits that you hope your opponent does not have. Helping out in this eventuality are leader and wild cards. Leaders can be played as any suit provided the player controls the matching institution in the country, and it’s here that we get our earlier remark of a single university toppling a country, since these leader plays can be just what a player backed up against a wall with a 6-card hand needs. It’s the same with wilds, the ultimate get-out, albeit invariably at a penalty to the player using them.

There is, also, a degree of Twilight Struggle’s brinkmanship, since petition and the 1-value rally cards also affect the final scoring as with antes should they be the card that wins their player the struggle. While playing a 1-value rally guarantees initiative to your opponent next turn, winning the struggle with it instead buffs the next round, while winning with a petition debuffs it.

However played, Power Struggles always end the same way: with consultation of this table.

However played, Power Struggles always end the same way: with consultation of this table. First, the loser rolls to see how much support they lose in the country, but if the Democrat wins the power struggle a second roll takes place to determine whether or not the country has hit critical mass – if it does, the Communist is toppled and the scoring card removed from the game.

Once a victor does emerge, those buffs and debuffs are all added up. The loser then rolls a die and consults a table printed on the board, immediately losing a number of influence in the country. Dependent on who won the struggle, different things then happen.

The Democratic player in the case of victory rolls for a coup, with a result of 4 or more immediately seeing the country overthrow its Communist masters and join the West. The linked scoring card is also removed from the game permanently, rendering the country of no further scoring value to either side. To the Communist, meanwhile, that country is lost from the Soviet Union forever, and its time to cut losses and focus elsewhere. This is, of course, double-edged, since the loss of the country frees up resources to make those left even tougher for the Democrat to fell.

Should the Communist retain power, however, the time comes to crack down and solidify power. Each country has a power value and, on the first scoring, the Communist scores this many points. The scoring card then enters discard, giving the Democrat the opportunity to try again later. Should this occur and the Communist still retains power, they score twice this power value – and three times it should the card come round on the third go!

It’s at that point that scoring in the Twilight Struggle mould we all know and love takes place, but it’s fair to say that the Power Struggle is a huge pause to gameplay – not that we mind. It’s a really enjoyable addition that really captures the sense of chaos in 1989 Eastern Europe as well as the mixed will of the peoples in each country rather than the whims of national governments in TS. It allows for some shock reversals of fortune, too, though crucially the fact that dominating players get to draw more cards in the first place means that winning the Power Struggle (and the country) as the underdog never feels easily done – though you’ll relish it when it happens. In that sense, 1989 neatly sidesteps a potential problem.

On top of all this, there’s also clear consideration of when countries come up. In a patterning of history, certain countries are available for scoring from the off and can potentially come round three times. The likes of Romania, meanwhile, are Late-Year, and scoring is a one-time only thing. Just like in Twilight Struggle, this does have a downside, namely that it shapes the strategies of experienced players and follows history just a tad too slavishly. There’s also the same issue as in Twilight Struggle: mid-to-late game, matters start to swing pretty clearly in favour of one player, even with 1989’s capacity for the underdog to score some surprise hits.

tiananmen

Like TS’s Space Race track, the Tiananmen Square Track offers the opportunity to discard duff cards and little rewards for successfully making your way along. In an interesting departure, the ops value of the card is added to the roll made, and each side needs differing numbers to move to the next space. One criticism? Why Tiananmen Square when China otherwise doesn’t feature in the game?

But it’s generally a system that works excellently, and it’s not the only refinement to proceedings, either. There’s always the inevitable moment when you draw up a juicy event for your opponent – and desperately don’t want to play it. Twilight Struggle’s Space Race returns in the form of the Tiananmen Square track with some subtle alterations. First, any card can be discarded, with none of the limiting stipulations found in TS. However, unlike TS, advancing to the next square can require much higher die rolls. For this reason, the discarded card’s Ops value is added to the roll and, in the event of failure, all subsequent attempts to move up to the next box receive a +1 modifier until you get there. In a nice move of asymmetry, too, the values each side needs to get to the next square are different.

The bonuses for advancing up the track are also far more substantial than those in the older game, sometimes ongoing bonuses (until your opponent catches up) or one-time boosts. They make ‘squaring’ cards even more attractive than ‘space racing’ them.

turntrack

1989 takes place over 10 turns just like TS, but EACH of these is 7 rounds from the off. Note the cleaner visual style compared to its muse.

In fact, we’ve only one criticism of the system, and that’s a thematic one: why Tiananmen Square? Sure, the ‘June 4th Incident’ is, short of the Berlin Wall coming down, 1989’s (the year) biggest watershed moment for international Communism, but it feels so disjointed from the rest of the game’s European flavour. What would have been wrong with a Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall or Red Square track?

But, whether you’re a fan of the Tiananmen choice or no, play, as they say, continues thus. Just like TS the game takes place over 10 rounds, with reshuffles of the discard pile during rounds 3 and 7. Likewise, mid- and late-year cards are added to the pool in rounds 4 and 8. Unlike its progenitor, 1989’s turns all feature 7 action rounds and drop the headline rounds from Twilight Struggle, meaning it’s 7 potential plays worse off than its older sibling – effectively a whole turn.

We don’t mind that – it makes 1989 slightly more manageable and also accounts for the fact that Power Struggles can really elongate rounds. A typical game will still breach the 2-hour mark reliably just as before.

While possessive of a generally cleaner style than TS's board, 1989's is no less pretty to look at, and, again, armchair rulers wouldn't be remiss in hanging it from their walls.

While possessive of a generally cleaner style than TS’s board, 1989’s is no less pretty to look at, and, again, armchair rulers wouldn’t be remiss in hanging it from their walls.

So the big question needs to be answered now, since this has been not so much a review as a comparison: does 1989 qualify as a standalone product that develops the Twilight Struggle formula, or should it have been an expansion pack?

It’s a resounding shout in 1989’s favour – yes, the two games share probably over 85% of the same DNA and mechanics, but then we  share 50% of our DNA with bananas, so there. What 1989 does to the remaining 15% allows it to stand on its own two feet. Certain fat is trimmed from the Twilight Struggle experience and new features are added in its place.

What that does mean is that neither game is any easier or any harder than the other – they simply require subtly different approaches. This said, Twilight Struggle probably edges it, as it is probably more culturally resonant, and thus the best place for newer players to kick off.

1989, though, is a delightful follow-up once Twilight Struggle has its hooks in you, and scratches the itch for more perfectly. Lots of TS’s elements are trimmed and refined, and great new ones added in their place.

Unlike the real 1989, the party in this 1989 is never over – unless, of course, it’s the Communist one!

Alea_4We liked:
+ Cheekily manages to be more than just a mod to Twilight Struggle, although let’s not beat about the bush here: the core 85% of both games’ DNA is identical;
+ Power Struggles add a whole new and welcome dimension to the formula – probably 1989’s biggest contribution;
+ Zooming in on one region in one year is an almost relaxing change of pace from TS’s epic global scope;
+ Specialisms to regions are another welcome addition we’d love to see grandfathered into TS as an expansion;
+ While careful planning is generally the order of the day, shock underdog antics are also possible.

Watch out for:
– Still not radically different to Twilight Struggle in spite of the changes – if you weren’t keen on that, you won’t find anything massively different in this to sway you;
– As in so many games of its ilk, 1989’s conclusion can be foregone before the Late Game has even kicked in proper;
– Some odd thematic choices, such as the Tiananmen Square track;
– Lacks a huge dollop of Twilight Struggle’s tension with the loss of DEFCON and military mechanics – definitely a more sedate affair than its progenitor.

You might also like: Twilight Struggle, obviously. If either it or 1989 are still a tad too complex for your tastes, Kickstarter baby 13 Days is on its way. Should you seek greater challenge, on the other hand, Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? may scratch your itch.

“So Great A Space Should Be Red”: A Review of Twilight Struggle

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Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Reviewed by CorporalRutland

Designer: Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 2
Play Time: 3 hours
Cost: Around about the £40 mark
Mechanics: Conquest, card draw, hand management, die rolls

In a sentence: Edward, Bella and Jacob come to terms with starring in an awful set of novels and an arguably worse saga of films. I am, of course, joking: Risk is taught its table manners in an excruciatingly tense game of tug-o’-war with an enormous dollop of late 20th century history.

After a long hiatus, Ludimus in Londinio is back! Let’s kick off as we mean to go on:

In 1989, we were shitting ourselves. (You’re back two minutes Rutland and it turns to poo, classy – Ed)

This was not, as you might expect, because the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile had hit its peak of some 40,000 warheads, more than enough to annihilate the world several times over and probably knock whatever was left into the sun.

Nor was it down to the fact that Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ was beginning to implode spectacularly with potentially dangerous consequences, starting with the Berlin Wall at the end of the year and going like dominoes through Eastern Europe after that.

No, in 1989 we were soiling ourselves because…

…we were all babies and toddlers.

This writer was, anyhow.

This is one of the reasons that the Cold War has fascinated us at LIL. While we technically lived during it, it was pretty much over by the time we got here, and yet, as we said in our review of CIA vs KGB last year, it was a good, half-century of sabre-rattling, one-upmanship and general playground antics. Rather than a trip to the head’s office in the event of pugilism, however, nuclear Armageddon was instead the order of the day.

Scary.

Today’s reviewee, Twilight Struggle, doesn’t so much take us back as take us there for the first time.

For that reason we’ve said before that the Cold War has not translated across as readily or as often to gaming due to the fact that dropping the nuke generally means the end of the game. It’s the ultimate defeat condition, yet also the most fun to trigger, which is why you see it repeated a lot more often in video games.

This is still true in today’s reviewee, Twilight Struggle, except that that doesn’t matter, because Twilight Struggle captures the three other quintessences of the conflict: passive aggression, enormous tension and general cloak-and-dagger type stuff.


In the hallway [at Yalta] we stopped before a map of the world on which the Soviet Union was coloured in red. Stalin waved his hand over the Soviet Union and exclaimed, ‘They [Roosevelt and Churchill] will never accept the idea that so great a space should be red, never, never!’ – Milovan Djilas, Communist Party of Yugoslavia, 1948


TS’s board manages to take a subject so very serious and still make it colourful and so very beautiful to look at. You’d be totally forgiven for framing the board and hanging it on the wall, an honour we’re prepared to afford only to this and High Frontier.

All of this takes place on a gloriously colourful-yet-weathered (to the point of a coffee mug stain that momentarily fooled this reviewer) world map depicting the world at the height of the Cold War, and, with more than a nod to Risk, it’s a map demarcated into continents which are then further split down into countries. Not all of them, of course, but all of the significant ones that were on one side or the other between ’45 and ’91.

The similarities end there, though, since where Albert Lamorisse’s time-honoured wardrobe ornament sees forces of tiny plastic soldiers deployed to the map to do battle, the Cold War never featured a direct, conventional confrontation between either of the superpowers. Instead, if you’ll forgive the playground metaphor that touch longer, both the US and USSR cajoled, bribed and generally strongarmed smaller parties into stealing other people’s lunch money and putting their heads in the toilet for them, on at least one if not both sides of any Cold War flashpoint. The only time US and USSR would ever have met each other directly in conflict would have been in the brief interlude between slapping the big red button and developing extra limbs.

It is the spreading of influence and securing control first of countries and then of entire regions that is instead the goal at hand – whilst being careful to goad your opponent just enough, but not so much that he drops an ICBM on you.

tscountries

A great example of how countries are laid out in TS: Morocco has a stability of 3, which is generally pretty average as the game goes, being neither a first-world bastion of democracy and McDonalds nor a tinpot regime apt to fall over at any moment. In order to secure control, the US or USSR must have at least 3 influence and 3 more than their opponent. Algeria, meanwhile, has a special blue and red header, indicating that it’s a special Battleground state – doubly juicy considering its stability of 2. Movement is not unfettered, and influence must spread along the black lines between countries or, in this special case, the red dotted line back to Southern Europe.

Each country has a stability value – the higher the better. Once a player’s influence in a given country both matches this value and exceeds their opponent’s influence by this value, they are said to control the country. This is doubly important in the case of so-called battleground countries, which carry more weight during the game’s vital scoring rounds.

At the game’s start, both the US and USSR are given control of several countries and influence in several others in a close mirroring of 1945 – so the Soviets kick off with their hooks in North Korea and growing support in the likes of Iraq and Syria, while the US counts such nations as the UK and Australia as full allies from the get go. So that game starts aren’t predictable and bear a little asymmetry, however, each side then has a number of influence points to spend in their respective halves of Europe, the only rule being that, in order to be influenced, a country must be adjacent to another already influenced or controlled by that power. Adjacency tends to run within continents and with a few, precious links between continents.

Influence in action. Here is France, a 3-strength Battleground. Accordingly, though the US player has 4 influence, their control is tenuous at best since this is only just 3 more than the USSR's influence of one. Note the full-colour US marker but the inverse colours of the USSR marker, indicating control and presence respectively. Now the USSR has a toehold in France, it can realign her or simply brute force its way in, buying influence at 2:1 instead of the usual 1:1.

Influence in action. Here is France, a 3-strength Battleground. Accordingly, though the US player has 4 influence, their control is tenuous at best since this is only just 3 more than the USSR’s influence of one. Note the full-colour US marker but the inverse colours of the USSR marker, indicating control and presence respectively.
Now the USSR has a toehold in France, it can realign her or simply brute force its way in, buying influence at 2:1 instead of the usual 1:1.

It initially seems unfair that the Soviets only get 6 such points to distribute throughout Eastern Europe while the USA gains 7 to dole out in the West. However, neither superpower in Twilight Struggle can change control, but is considered to be a controlled country – and the USSR by sheer size alone begins the game next to a whole lot more countries than the US and thus has a lot more options than its Capitalist opponent.

Placing these initial points can also dramatically shape the outcome of the first few rounds. The amounts offered are enough to either secure full control of two countries at best and at least one precious battleground to brag about, or spread the net wide in several to have lots of expansion options in the first round. Of double significance is the fact that Finland and Austria are considered as both Eastern and Western European, making them early-game flashpoints in particular for incursions between the two superpowers. Experienced players, meanwhile, aware of the sorts of events that can crop up even in the early game, will deliberately reinforce some countries and neglect others in anticipation of these events occurring (pro tip: leave Romania be as the Soviets and ensure France is capitalised up to the hilt as the US)

Twilight Struggle’s cards are the very heart and soul of the game. Here we have a Mid War card, which enters the game as of Turn 4. It’s a dual-affiliation event worth 2 points, and so either player playing it must make a choice: claim the 2 points to place influence, stage coups or effect realignments, or instead trigger the event. Because this particular event is a one-off, it is marked with an asterisk. If a player does choose to trigger it, the card is put back in the game box.

Players are then dealt 8 cards, and it’s these cards that drive the very core of the game. At the start of the game only the Early War cards are in play, with each card featuring some form of event, sometimes an actual, significant milestone in the War. So on offer are the likes of Vietnam and the Suez Crisis alongside more everyday fare such as Latin American guerrilla cells, nuclear treaties and so on.

That’s only the half of it, since the points value is the other half of the card, with cards offering anywhere between 1 and 4 points. ‘Hold up,’ you say, ‘what if the USSR draws the NATO card?’ Ah, that’s where TS’s delightful dichotomy sets in: each event has an affiliation, US, USSR or both, and this must be borne in mind when the card is played. Should the card match your own affiliation (e.g. the US player plays NATO) then there is a choice at hand – play the card for its points or to trigger the event, but not both. If, on the other hand, the card is of the opposite affiliation (so the US player plays the Warsaw Pact as an example) then the card can still be played for its points but the effect benefitting the enemy player triggers immediately. Shoring up Soviet Turkey, for example, might provoke pro-US uprisings elsewhere in Eastern Europe, all from one card.

artrack

Just as the superpowers eased into the idea of the Cold War, so TS eases you into things. For the first three turns of the game there are only 6 action rounds, with this rising to 7 as the Cold War kicks off proper and players get comfortable. While we’ve yet to ever do it, finishing the Space Race grants an optional 8th go each turn.

This makes playing cards in Twilight Struggle an agonising process – in a good way, and quite often plays (of which there are 6 per round for each player to start with heading up to 7 or even 8 later in the game) involve chaining together the right events and decisions in the right order whilst mitigating, as much as possible, the side-effects of the necessary evil of playing cards suited to your opponent. This is doubly the case given that, at the start of each round, players must headline a card, the one time that the two players will play events simultaneously with no points gain and certain cards designed purposely to have maximum impact on the round ahead. Even this first play can completely unpick your planned strategy – or unexpectedly bolster it.

spaceraceturn

The Turn Record Track demonstrates how the game is demarcated into 3 distinct phases, each with its own cards which are shuffled into the deck. That’s not all, since on Turns 3 and 7 the deck is deliberately designed to run out, necessitating a reshuffle of the discard pile, less any one-shot historical events, meaning some events can, feasibly, serve you or bite you on the arse three times. The Space Race, meanwhile, is just like the real thing: a nice gimmick. One bad card a turn (or 2 to the first player to put an animal into space until their opponent catches up) can be discarded provided they meet the criteria. A die is then rolled to see if the player advances and, in some cases, scores points. Lunar Orbit, for example, offers 3 points to the first player, and a consolatory 1 to the second. Bonuses are only ever granted to the first player to reach them, and are turned off when the second gets there.

Helpfully, too, the game has a mechanic in place for the really bad hands – the Space Race. Definitely a showpiece part of the Cold War, the race here equally benefits players but not in any world-changing capacity. In this case, players can forfeit one of their plays (two under special circumstances) per turn to drop a card of a stipulated value from their hands. Each time this is done, a die is rolled, and if a particular number is satisfied, they advance to the next square on the Space Race track. Not only does this advancement offer precious Victory Points, but also particular benefits (at least, that is, until your opponent catches up).

ccw

The Chinese Civil War rules are a tiny variant, but they’re our favourite: instead of starting the game with the (rather powerful) China Card, the Soviet Player must first both earn it and bring it into the game by placing 3 influence in China – a not inconsiderable early game move – and there’s nothing saying they have to.

Some of the most important historic milestones with an ongoing effect, meanwhile, even have a special tile that can be placed in or near the affected country as a reminder, and our only criticism of these is that dedicated spaces aren’t set aside for them. More shrewdly, though, all actual historic events are marked with a little asterisk, ensuring that, should their event trigger on purpose or by force, it is removed from play – there weren’t, after all, two Vietnam Wars now, were there? On that South-East Asian note, there’s also one, very special card dealt separately to the rest, either to the Soviet Player at the game’s start or after they have placed 3 influence in a special China square – the China Card. This card is a nice move on GMT’s part, and really changes the way Asia is approached by players. Representing China’s currying of both sides’ favour during the war, the China card is worth 4 points (5 if spent in Asia, the most ever available in one play in the game) but, crucially, changes hands when played, becoming available to your opponent next round. It can mean seismic shifts in Asia for sure.

usa

Cunningly, each of the superpower’s neighbours has no start-game provision for outright control, leaving them potentially vulnerable to enemy influence. The wise USA player here wants Canada, Mexico and Cuba provided with guns, God and god-awful Country and Western ASAP.

But once vital points have actually been earned with the cards, what is there to be done with them? Well, quite a bit, actually. At a 1:1 rate, players can place their influence in new countries linked to ones in which they already have some sort of influence (or at 2:1 if enemy influence is present, which makes for some especially interesting late-game brute force attempts), and again, how much to place where is a key consideration. Spending a whopping 4 points can see as many new countries join the fold, albeit with none of them (some of the least stable African countries notwithstanding) actually under your control, whilst a slower approach would see all 4 points funnelled into one nation, making it nice and secure against counteraction but leaving more up for grabs for your opponent.

Indeed, that’s a good moment to talk about the two other options when spending points: coups and realignments, and realignments are kind of the half-fat version. As the game progresses in particular and each country starts to nail its colours to the red or blue masts, the control of countries in general becomes a delightful game of tug-o’-war, and not, as we will see, the only such game in Twilight Struggle. Players can use the points on a card and target any country containing enemy influence. Bonuses are then applied, including the number of adjacent countries controlled by each player, who has the most influence in the target nation and whether the nation in question is one of the ones directly adjacent to the USSR or USA. Dice are then rolled (each player is provided with a colour-coded d6), bonuses applied and the difference calculated. Any differences favouring the player staging the realignment see that many enemy markers removed from the target country, either emptying it (thus making it much easier to grab in a future round) or eradicating enemy influence preventing overall control. This can be done as many times in a turn as there are points on the card, and makes for a really nice, subtle game of gently altering the control of key countries around the world to soften them up for your own, future plans, and as we’ll see in a minute, the general lack of consequence for realignments can make them a more attractive choice in many situations.

Because then there are coups, which are the full-blooded variant and provide far more instant gratification and also rarely leave the target country open for your opponent to just fill up again on their next turn. Again, the cards’ points values are used in coups, albeit differently to realignments. First, the country’s stability value is doubled, serving as the target of the player staging the coup. Next a die is rolled, and to this is added to the value of the card used to start the coup. Any differences favouring the coup-starting player see that many enemy markers removed, just like in a realignment. However, unlike a realignment, not only does the opponent not get to roll any dice, but any leftover difference after all opposing markers are removed instead sees that many of your own markers added.

defcon

TS’s DEFCON tracker is the scariest bit of cardboard you’ll manipulate on a tabletop ever. It all starts nicely enough at 5 and, gradually, closes off sections of the world to Coups and Realignments with each passing step. Should the marker ever hit 1 as a result of foolishness or (more often than not) accident, the player who got it there is the loser.

What this means is that countries can rapidly and dramatically change hands, and it’s just as well, then, that there’s a mechanic in place to stop everyone going all George Bush Jr on us and effecting regime change until the cows come home: the DEFCON tracker. We’ve all seen it before in Hollywood, mounted proudly in a war room with big, flashing lights and quite often abused, with 1 indicating peace and 5 nuclear war when, in real life, the reverse is actually true. Each time a coup is staged, the DEFCON level creeps one step closer to 1 and everyone developing a nasty case of radiation sickness, and each time it ramps up, coups and realignments are forbidden in certain parts of the world, namely Europe, Asia and the Middle East with each step up the track.

Cunningly, the Americas and Africa, representing some of the least stable regions in the game, are always open for coups and realignments, while as the game progresses, players will deliberately affect the DEFCON track to keep certain strongholds safe. It’s not uncommon in the mid-to-late game for the US player to keep the DEFCON at 3 or even 2 and the USSR player to try and keep it as low as possible to keep their options open for subversion. Did we mention that there’s more than one game of tug-o’-war in Twilight Struggle? This is one of them.

It’s not the only one, either, since two further tracks in the game can be pulled backwards and forwards. During coups, a military track running from 0-5 is influenced, with a card of value 2 starting a coup also adding 2 points to this track. At the end of the round, any shortfall between the number of military operations and the current DEFCON level sees you lose this many Victory Points (and face for not meeting your opponent’s aggression in kind).

vps

TS likes its tug-o’-war mechanics, evidenced here by the score track. Should the bear or the eagle be reached, its game over.

Which brings us neatly onto the actual score track and linked cards, arguably the beating heart of the game. Starting at 0 in the middle, the track runs 20 points in favour of the US one way, and 20 in favour of the USSR the other, and if, at any point, either side can drag the marker to their respective 20, the game is over. Small events can cause little nudges up and down the track, as can, as previously mentioned, starting coups and attempting the Space Race, but it’s scoring cards that tip this balance fastest of all.

Critically, these special cards must be played in the round in which they are received, else any player found to be in their possession at the end of the round automatically loses. Thematically, they’re generally felt to sum up each side taking stock of each other and realising nuclear war is not afoot, while the manual stipulates that retaining a scoring card at the round’s close triggers accidental nuclear war, and so this prevents players from retaining the cards, bolstering the necessary territories before dropping them in a later round.

europe

Scoring in TS can come about as often as thrice a game depending on which phase of the war the region starts to be important. In Europe, simply being there nabs you three points, but more often than not this applies to both teams, so Domination and Control are calculated instead. Domination requires having more countries overall than your opponent and more battlegrounds, with at least one battleground and non-battleground to your name. Control requires, as you’d expect, a full grasp of ALL the battlegrounds in the region. Players claim the highest tier of points to which they are eligible, though in a very special case, Control of Europe is another route to victory not found in any of the other continents.

What this can mean is that, upon drawing your new cards for the round ahead, entire plans and schemes can suddenly see themselves abandoned when you discover that you only have 6 precious turns to shore up the Middle East, for example. Players with any sort of influence in the region are considered to be in one of three states for scoring: present, dominating or controlling. Presence is just as it sounds: you’re there. Well done you. It’s domination and control that players will chase, since each offers successively more points. Domination simply requires control of more countries and battlegrounds (and at least one of each) than your opponent, whilst control requires you grabbing all the battlegrounds and having more countries under your thumb to boot. There are also, invariably, bonuses for controlling battlefields and particular countries, and so when it’s clear that a scoring card is in someone’s hand a lot of couping, realigning and general chipping away at one another occurs to trim off points here and there.

Even when the card does roll around, that doesn’t mean that that particular region of the world is no longer of interest – at the start of turns 3 the deck is deliberately designed to fall short, since at this point the discard pile is reshuffled into it with all of those cards able to come around again in the rounds ahead. At the start of Turn 4, Mid War cards are shuffled into the pack and 7, not 6 rounds, are taken each turn. Once again, in turn 6 the deck falls short, the discard pack is reshuffled and the Late War cards are added. Cards, then, can potentially come around three times in a game of Twilight Struggle and haunt you second and third times.

Unless, of course, they’re Late War cards, and this is where an overall game of Twilight Struggle is not so much tug-o’-war as gentle drift. We found that, generally, the Early War (so the first 3 turns) are generally anyone’s game barring any huge accidents, though the Soviet player’s greater, early reach plus the China card means that, ultimately, the first half or so of the game is very much theirs to win, and only events such as NATO can truly punish them in these early stages. Indeed, that event in and of itself seems rather powerful, preventing any Soviet realignment or coups in Europe. Quite often, then, attention turns to other parts of the world.

In the later game, however, just as in history, things in Europe start to kick off, and a Soviet player who didn’t make aggressive gains into Western Europe in defiance of history early in the game will find it crumbling all around them just as Gorbachev did. It’s certainly realistic, but it does make Twilight Struggle feel a tad too rigid just as it properly gathers pace. Generally in our games so far we’ve found this to hold up – the Soviet player usually ends the game early or a US player able to dig in and hold on past the first 5 or 6 turns has a relatively smooth ride to the finish. This said, there is a final round of scoring at the game’s close as if all scoring cards had just been played, and this can still see some upset finishes (our most recent game saw the USSR clinch a narrow victory).

But all that means is that, much as in any game of two halves, each side is playing into the sun for at least one half of it, and that is not so bad after all. Plus, we really do like Twilight Struggle very much. On paper it initially sounds dull, but shuffling the DEFCON tracker around like it’s about to genuinely blow up in our faces and filling up that world map does give you a real flavour of both the tension (and absurdity) that the Cold War provided. It’s also nice, in those rare games, to usurp the historical framework, turning the UK Communist and installing a tax haven in North Korea, and we very much like the idea of the planning What If? expansion which will attempt to take these ideas further, and it’s this fact that anything could happen that makes the game endlessly replayable – the start point may be the same, but the conclusions can be subtly different each time.

There is of course, one last caveat – we often belly rumble about 3+ player games, so Twilight Struggle seems to answer our prayers, since two players can play! Except it’s just two players, no more, no fewer, so do be warned of that rather important detail. Even with just the two of you sat down to pore over the world map, play times are typically two or three hours if the game is played through to Turn 10.

As a simulator of the Cold War and its history, though, and little picks aside, Twilight Struggle manages to pull off two tricks – first, it’s detailed and immersive, and we have to give a big shout to coldwarsoundtrack.com which is specifically designed for Twilight Struggle and only adds to that immersion. Second, and in spite of its seemingly stuffy historical trappings, it’s enormous fun to boot and, when it comes down to it, actually a lot simpler than the sum of its parts.

New players in particular that we’ve slapped this down in front of seem to really enjoy ‘getting’ what looks like a very niche and complicated game – and there’s always some bonus points in that.

Alea_4We liked:
+ Captures the tension and absurd sabre-rattling of the Cold War to a tee;
+ Card-driven play presents some (often) agonising choices;
+ Multiple games of tug-o’-war to keep track of via some clever mechanics;
+ Actually a lot simpler than it looks;
+ Properly detailed and researched, with lots of real historical events, photographs and flavour;
+ DEFCON tracker is the scariest piece of cardboard we’ve ever used.

Watch out for:
– In following history, it follows history – the US player starts with the sun in their eyes, but by half time this is reversed and events feel like they gravitate enormously towards the US by turns 8 and beyond. This does give some rigidity to the USSR’s early game strategy in particular and allows the US to ease up towards the endgame;
– The cards are the main mechanic in spite of lots of colourful tracks and boxes on the board. Players looking to get down into the nitty gritty of deploying spies and tank columns have the wrong game here;
– Experienced players will quickly learn the cards belonging to each round and thus develop even more specific strategies over time;
– Two players – no more, no less. Understandable, but worth flagging.

You might also like: Twilight Struggle went on to spawn what is essentially a mod in the form of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, while Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? is a lovely bridge between the relative simplicity of Twilight Struggle and the pencils-up-your-nose complexity of full-on card-driven, hex-based affairs. 13 Days, a recently Kickstarted project, promises to be an even more pared down variant focused solely on the Cuban Missile Crisis.