Headin’ Back Down Thunder Road

they haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets

Ways that we know that I am officially old:

  • I learned to drive in a ‘69 T-bird with a 429 engine under the hood.
  • My goatee is now completely white/grey.
  • Spotify continually tries to get me to listen to playlists that reference the ‘80s in some manner.
  • I actually was a regular poster on the Usenet group rec.games.board.
  • I can remember buying Metagaming Microgames and Steve Jackson Pocketbox games from the local game store… including Wizard, Warp War, Fury of the Norsemen, Illuminati… and, most importantly for our purposes, Car Wars.

Ah, yes, Car Wars – originally packaged in a ziplock baggie in 1981 and featuring vehicular combat in the Mad Max/Road Warrior vein. Let’s be clear – while the game system spawned a BUNCH of expansions and multiple editions, I always found it to be similar in enjoyment to Star Fleet Battles. In other words, it was more fun to design the cars (or spaceship) than it was to play the game. 

But the idea of vehicular combat is pretty appealing to a kid who grew crashing Hot Wheels cars into each other… so when Games Workshop published the massive coffin-sized box of Dark Future in 1988, I plunked down a substantial amount of hard-earned cash to acquire it. Once again, the idea of the game was more fun than playing it… as was retrofitting Matchbox vehicles with guns & such.

thunder roadlying out there like a killer in the sun

It was sometime in the mid ‘90s when I found a copy of Thunder Road in a thrift store and picked it up… and I was blown away to realize that I’d been missing out on the distilled gaming goodness of this Mad Max-ish silliness for more than a decade. (The game was originally released in 1986.)

Honestly, Thunder Road was caught in the same trap as a number of really solid mass market designs (Fireball Island, Screamin’ Eagles, Dark Tower, Daytona 500) in that time period – I was a “Serious Gamer” who spent my money & time on MB Gamemaster, Games Workshop, and Avalon Hill… with no time for “mass market games for kids”. (Ah,overweening pride.) So, it took me a long time to get to the ‘hidden’ good stuff.

Now, let me be clear – Thunder Road wasn’t perfect. With streaky dice rolls, it can run overly long… or be over much too quickly. The power of the big vehicles (armor level 6) is such that once you get them up on the road, they’re pretty much nightmares unless someone’s copter can pick them off.

And I wasn’t the only person who (a) loved the game, and (b) thought it could use a re-boot. As proof, I submit to you this Twitter thread from 2012 between myself and Brett Myers (fellow Gathering of Friends attendee and all-around nice guy):

And a few days later…

Fast forward a number of years, and Brett (and his partner-in-potential-vehicular-mayhem, Dave Chalker) managed to get their design in front of the good folks at Restoration Games – whose mission in life is to take older classic names and make them “as good as you remember them.” (Note: I, the author of this post, am not simply a fan of Restoration Games – I’m also a playtester for their Unmatched series… and I’ve written a number of nice things about them over the years – so it’s possible I’m a bit biased. Just thought you should know.)

When I was on the Restoration Games Zoom call for game journalists (yes, Virginia, evidently I’m a game journalist now) in July 2021, I was deliriously ecstatic to hear the news that Restoration Games was restoring Thunder Road – and even more excited that it was Brett’s “fan project” that was the base for this wonderful news. (You can read my recap of the call, including my serious fan-boying over Thunder Road, right here.)

roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hairwell the night’s busting openthese two lanes will take us anywhere

The result is Thunder Road: Vendetta… which re-launched on Kickstarter yesterday and which (no surprise) I backed so quickly my computer mouse left burnout skid marks on the table. (Evidently I’m not alone – as of early this morning it was already funded at over $425,000!)

While I haven’t had the privilege of playing the new version (yet!), I have taken a deep dive into the rulebooks of the base game and the expansions – and, coupled with my experience over the years with the original Thunder Road, I have thoughts.

  • Bits I like that have been added to the game:
    • Hazard tokens… stuff on the road that can cause problems – mud, oil slicks, mines(!), and (of course) wrecks.
    • Damage tokens… no more “one hit and my car flips over like a Trabant with a bad axle” – instead, it now takes two hits to render your car inoperable… and there are interesting random things that can happen when you take a damage token.
    • Custom dice… five (5!) new custom dice make resolving the plethora of craziness that much quicker and easier. (This is in addition to the 4 regular dice per player that generate movement.)
  • Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a big positive difference in a game design:
    • The original game had each player rolling the three dice + a road die (that only was added to cars that stayed on the road for their entire move) and moving all three of their cars. Vendetta has all players throwing their four movement dice (one of which is used to activate a “command” power) and players in turn choosing one of their dice and moving a single car. Much more dynamic and involved! (And, yes, there’s still a road die – but it’s roll is shared by all the players.)
    • The command powers (mentioned above) give players options to use a single die roll to repair a car, to push the nitro button & speed ahead, to drift through an opposing car or wreck, and to bring their chopper into play. 
    • The slam rules (“ramming” in the original game) are clarified and end up with much more interesting results… as cars can go careening off in different directions. (And size of the vehicle simply enables a re-roll of the slam & direction dice rather than making it nigh impossible to take on a bigger car.)
    • The game now has a reachable end – in multiplayer games, the elimination of one player triggers a “final tile” (aka ‘finish line’)… and in 2 player games, you simply work your way through the stack of tiles to the end. (And, yes, you can still win by eliminating all of the competition – cuz total domination is part of the fun.)
  • And, there are the obligatory expansions:
    • First, I’m not opposed to expansions, as anyone who looks at my collection on the ‘Geek will quickly understand. Done right, they can add some real oomph to a game system… and reading through the rules, I like what they’ve done here!
    • Big Rig & The Final Five adds a heavily armed semi-truck with trailers and a motorcycle gang as playable teams… and the rules to both integrate really well with the base game.
    • Carnage At Devil’s Run adds new road pieces, new hazards, ramps, and FIRE. Yes, you now have the rare privilege of jumping one of your cars off a ramp while it’s on fire. (I, for one, can’t wait.)
    • Choppe Shoppe & Roll adds drivers and car upgrades to Thunder Road: Vendetta… again, in ways that make sense with the base system.

Here’s my conclusion – the team of folks behind this re-boot of Thunder Road managed to keep the basic premise of the game intact while making it new, fresh, and much more dynamic. Your mileage (get it, a car joke?!) may vary – especially if someone slams you off the board. 

it’s a town full of losersand I’m pulling out of here to win

One of the privileges of knowing Brett for so long (we’re old, dude) is being able to ask him a couple of questions about Thunder Road Vendetta to share with y’all, our faithful readers.

First, I wanted to know what part of the original game did he not want to lose as you played with plussing/re-designing it?

Brett: In my earliest drafts of the game, I was hesitant to touch the core mechanics and mainly added layers on top; upgrade cards, a damage deck, variant boards, and obstacle tokens. Once Dave and I got the gig, Rob [Daviau] gave us the freedom to really tear it down and rebuild from the ground up. We identified a few essential elements that we felt were key to the identity of the game, though; rolling dice for movement, the switch & link board sections, a team of three cars for each player and, of course, helicopters! As you’ll see, we retooled all of these components into something modern and very cinematic in feel. We took a lot of inspiration from Mad Max: Fury Road. This game is one jaw-dropping, action-filled chase sequence from beginning to end!

Then I asked what new element he is most excited about? (I also commented that Rob seemed to be very into fire & ramps in his Tweets, which ought to concern anyone driving with him.) 

Brett: Ok, the fire rules and ramps are both awesome and I’m super excited by them, too! But, let’s talk about a thing we changed in the core mechanics that makes it really shine: the dashboard dice allocation system. In the original game, you rolled what you rolled and, well, rolled with it. If you rolled a bunch of low numbers you fell behind and it was hard to catch up. We’ve given players just one extra die to roll and that has made a huge difference in game play. You still assign one die to each car, but the fourth die can be assigned to an action space that helps to mitigate poor rolls or allows cool maneuvers when driving, that sort of thing. And just like the original game, even if one or two of your cars are wrecked or destroyed, you still roll all your dice and choose which to assign!

And Brett add this postscript (which I love):

You can tell how excited I am by how many !!! I used.

hey, I know it’s late, we can make it if we run

If you’d like to get in on the Kickstarter – or if you’re just interested in seeing what in the world I’m going on and on about – check it out at Thunder Road: Vendetta. The Kickstarter closes on Valentine’s Day… so, if you’re really desperate for something to get your significant other, this is at least one idea to consider. (Surgeon General’s warning: not recommended for significant others who dislike board games and/or were expecting something a tad more romantic.)

Note: there is not (somewhat obviously) a solo mode for this game – which makes sense when you work your way through the rules. As I’m kind of the go-to solo gaming guy for the Opinionated Gamers, I’ll point out that there is an upcoming vehicular mayhem solo game coming from the folks at Renegade Games Studio called Wreckland Run… and I’ll be writing about it in February. 

In case you were wondering, all of the section titles are borrowed from the Bruce Springsteen classic, “Thunder Road” (which is a much better rock’n’roll song than Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). Yes, liking this song is yet more evidence that I’m getting old.

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 57 as he did at age 7
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6 Responses to Headin’ Back Down Thunder Road

  1. Daniel Brown says:

    I missed Thunder Road when it came out. I was playing games in the late 70’s into the late 80’s but my focus was Avalon Hill, 3M, and roleplaying. I took a break from gaming until 2000. So, this is one of the many games where I have no nostalgia that Restoration Games have brought back. From reading the rules, watching play throughs, and reading articles like this one, I feel like the nostalgia is not required for this game to be enjoyed. I have backed this game on Kickstarter (First one since July 2019). I say all this to say I am excited for this one, but it is clear to me that many people are even more excited than me for good reason.

  2. That was pretty much my reaction to Dark Tower – which I didn’t play until the mid-90s – so imagine my surprise at how incredibly interested I ended up being in Return to Dark Tower. (You can actually read about it – https://akapastorguy.blogspot.com/2020/01/return-to-dark-tower-or-how-i-learned.html – on my blog.)

  3. Count me in on Car Was fandom as well as Illuminati. Those little boxes (usually tiny black boxes for me as I didn’t get to jump on the plastic baggie bandwagon availability-wise) are some of my fondest gaming memories from the 80s. I, too, spent much more time looking over vehicle options and building new ones (the weight/cost/handling balance of each car type was a great thing to play with…) I even programmed our family IBM PC to do the math heavy lifting and could print out new car designs on our dot-matrix printer. Whoo hoo for old people!

    I missed Fireball Island and Thunder Road (or Dark Tower for that matter) as a youngling. I didn’t back Fireball Island and somewhat regret it, but backed Dark Tower. Now, I’m off to the KS to see if I need to lose some more money to these people. Your article didn’t make hanging back any easier…

  4. Matt – I hear you loud and clear.

    I don’t think there’s any chance of it happening, but I’d love if Restoration got the chance to bring one of Rob’s best previous “restorations” back to life – the delightful Monopoly: Tropical Tycoon. Originally released as a board game with a DVD (that acted as the multiple card decks), the innovations he added (including victory point values for money & property) are wonderful and deserve to see the light of day again.

  5. gamingleet says:

    Some games lend themselves really well to the Restoration Games re-implementation approach. Thunder Road is such an obvious choice as the original game is too simple for most gamers today but has an incredible theme and some good core rules ideas. I had the chance to play a two player prototype play last summer and even with just the base game rules it was fun – and left me wanting to try out all the extra goodies and enhancements. I do think this game will shine with the full four players as it is all about chaos. This was an easy and instant back for me.

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