Headin’ Back Down Thunder Road – A Chromed Up Review

18 months ago, I wrote a preview of a Kickstarter with just a “deep dive in the rulebook(s)”… and now that it’s here, it’s time to check out whether I was right or not. (Spoiler: I was. Totally.)

What follows is a re-examination of my original preview of Restoration Games’ Thunder Road: Vendetta… now with 8 plays under my belt with all of the various player counts. In it, I’ll let you know more about the components, the gameplay, and the very few quibbles I have with the game.

New paragraphs added to the preview/review will be in this lovely shade of blue, so those of you who only want my most recent observations can skip the parts you’ve seen before. 

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 in the spring of 2022 and which (no surprise) I backed so quickly my computer mouse left burnout skid marks on the table. 

At the point I wrote this pilgrimage through my motor vehicle mayhem gaming history, I had only read the rulebooks and I was full of thoughts – which I’ll now reproduce and respond to my somewhat-younger but clearly excited 2022 self:

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.

The new hazard system works as advertised. In the base game, it’s simple and straightforward… adding the expansions makes it delightfully chaotic. (We have chosen to house-rule one hazard: the Ramp. I’ll detail our house rule at the end of the review.)

  • 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.

The damage token system is genius… it makes the game more interesting, adds random craziness that players have to respond to, and coupled with the dashboard design addition (see below), makes for some great tactical decisions. (Suggestion: find a nice cloth bag to throw the damage tokens in for drawing – since you shuffle returned damage tokens back into the pile, it’s MUCH easier with a bag. BTW, a Thunder Road logo’d draw bag would be an excellent GeekBit for the BGG Geek Game Shop.)

  • 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.)

The dice work as promised… combat resolution and slamming (running into each other) both are resolved quickly and cleanly.

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.

As Brett will note farther down in his designer notes, this is the real heart of the restoration of Thunder Road – the dashboard & dice allocation system. While Vendetta is still chaotic and filled with highly enjoyable twists of fate, the dashboard system opens up lots of interesting tactical decisions and gives (some) control back to the players.

  • 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.)

Also important – slamming no longer does direct damage to the other vehicle. This makes it a much more useful tool/option depending on what you’re attempting to accomplish.

  • 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 five tiles to the end. (And, yes, you can still win by eliminating all of the competition – cuz total domination is part of the fun.)

So far, we’ve only had one game end due to the elimination of the other player – a 2 player game… and our multiplayer games (even the one with five players!) have ended due to the elimination of a player… usually me.

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!

I like all three of the expansions… plus elements of the Extra Ammo pack that came with the Maximum Chrome version of the game. If I was forced to choose, I’d pick Carnage at Devil’s Run as my first purchase. 

  • 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.

So far, my one play of the Big Rig (in a five player game) was a hoot – even though I was the first eliminated player. We took Justin Jacobsen’s advice to use the Choppe Shoppe crew leader dashboards and car upgrades when playing with the Big Rig to help balance the game. 

Our one play with the Final Five was a two player game – which I don’t think gave us a full picture of how best to play this motorcycle gang. I’m hoping to get another chance to try them this weekend with a full field.

Note: to play with five players, you’ll need to have this expansion.

  • 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.)

Being on fire is not as bad as it sounds… but it’s one more way to have fun. 

The extra boards and hazards are – in short – “da bomb”. 

Hidden ramps (on hazard tiles) are pretty rough in the rules as written… we’ve house-ruled it so that the car revealing it while moving forward gets to use it. (We feel justified since Justin J. noted on the Geek that “this was one we went back and forth on several times. You can definitely house rule that you can use the ramp when you reveal it if you want a little less mayhem in your game.”)

  • Choppe Shoppe & Roll adds drivers and car upgrades to Thunder Road: Vendetta… again, in ways that make sense with the base system.

Actually, not drivers. That was my mistake. It adds crew leaders – which replace the standard command dashboard with a passive special power plus your own set of unique dice-activated commands. (It also adds command markers – one-time-use markers that work like dice on your command dashboard.)

I was right about the car upgrade deck – and I like the drafting system (7 Wonders-ish) that they use to to distribute them to players.

This is the most gamer-friendly expansion to the game… there are enough extra decisions to make it less friendly to younger (age 7 and less) players.

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. 

My conclusion was correct – that’s exactly what Brett & David (and the Restoration Games team) accomplished. Well done!

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

One of the privileges of knowing Brett Myers 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 Brett did not want to lose as he 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 Daviau 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 added 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

But there’s still time for some final thoughts on Thunder Road: Vendetta:

This is decidedly NOT a Euro game – there are way too many die rolls, tile flips with potentially horrible consequences, chain reaction events that can hurt or help you in your quest to win, etc. Everyone I’ve taught the game to has – with that understanding – enjoyed it immensely… but if your gaming tastes run more in the “think-y/crunchy/puzzle-y” direction, this is probably not going to be a good fit for you.

Thunder Road: Vendetta is a game filled with improbable events and great stories… and while there are tactical decisions to be made, the amount of random tiles and dice rolls definitely slide Thunder Road: Vendetta towards the “experience game” end of the scale.

Thilo M. on BGG is doing great work compiling rulings on weird edge cases from our friends at Restoration Games.

I’m ecstatic that I own the Maximum Chrome box – the base game and all the expansions stored in one well-designed package – but I still think the base game is solid and highly enjoyable by itself.

There are six packs of “extra” cards created by the team (the Extra Ammo pack) which include five smaller decks with extra twists and a larger set of decks for the German Engineering variant (in which movement dice are replaced by individual card decks). We’ve tried the smaller decks (fun but likely to create more chaos) but have not tried the German Engineering version.

I’ll say it again – I expected this to be great and I am not disappointed in the slightest. 

I did NOT receive a review copy from Restoration Games – in fact, I bought TWO copies of this (one for me, one for my older son for Christmas) with my own money. 

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.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson: In this case, my rating of “love it” is an understatement. Amazing game. Congratulations to the designers and the team at Restoration Games for doing truly outstanding work on Thunder Road. So much fun.

Brian Leet: I love it! After much anticipation I now have the Maximum Chrome version of the game in my hot little hands. So good! There is much more game here than the original, and yet there are still plenty of opportunities for chance, chaos and pure fun. Even my friends who normally like more sedate strategic games are getting sucked in by the theme. In the spirit of house rules from the original, I offer my two little ones for the expanded game:

Tremors: If a sandworm is revealed before all cars have entered the map on round one, instead treat it as an earthquake.

Daffy Ramps: Any ramp hazard revealed is always pointed in a direction matching the movement of the car which entered that space. Place it accordingly and it is an obstacle if entered from any other direction.

Rating from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it… Mark Jackson, Erik Arneson, Brian Leet

I like it…


Not for me…

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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2 Responses to Headin’ Back Down Thunder Road – A Chromed Up Review

  1. Daniel Brown says:

    Put me firmly in the “I love it” team. I never played the original and I tend toward strategy games. But this game is an amazing amount of fun. Right now it is my #2 game and has a good chance of being in my top 5 when my hype dies down.

    • The original is slight compared Vendetta… but it always managed to get the Mad Max “feel” right even if the game was imperfect. Brett & Dave (and the Restoration team) took that uncut beginning point and crafted a gem of a game.

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