Thunder Road
Areala takes the "Ram & Wreck Survival Game" on a test drive.
on Wednesday 08 August 2007
by Areala author list print the content item create pdf file of the content item
in Reviews > Tabletop Gaming Reviews
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Ever wanted to engage in virtual vehicular manslaughter in a wasteland of your own? Yeah, Areala did too, so she's rolling out the retro for this review of Milton Bradley's take on the popular "Car Wars" genre boardgame.

Burning Highway!
Klaxons howling in the night sky.
Burning Highway!
Dreams burst into flame.

-- "Crisis - Ikari o Komete Hashire", SHOW
(translated from the Japanese)

Way back in 1981, the world of gaming was given the blessing of a film that would practically create a new genre single-handedly. That film was Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and it did more to bolster the interest in car combat games (especially in the United States) than any other film or television show before. Five years later, the game makers at Milton Bradley saw the potential of this "car combat" market if it was scaled down and simplified for younger and more casual gamers, and they released Thunder Road, their entry into the world of post-apocalyptic car and copter chases across a desert wasteland.

Right from the start, it is clear that Thunder Road is meant to be a very simplified look at the whole "driving and shooting" game. The instruction manual is a mere 8 pages long, features many pictures, and is printed in a very large, friendly font suitable for easy reading. Unlike other entries in this field such as Steve Jackson's Car Wars or Game Workshop's Battle Cars, Thunder Road is not filled with rules for laying out terrain, making tight turns, creating characters, supplying a vehicle with weapons, or exiting a burning car. Instead, Milton Bradley's game is focused on just the absolute basics of the genre. What this ultimately means is that even your mother or younger brother can pretty easily understand how to play it with you, and that to sustain this game without all those "essentials" of car combat requires the fun factor to be through the roof.

Thunder Road is more than up to the challenge. Assembly of the pieces is quite simple, setting up the board for the initial game takes all of three minutes, and the rules are so simple that you can take a "learn-as-you-go" approach with new players to introduce them to the game.

Meant for two to four players, Thunder Road is one of those games where more is better, if for no other reason than that it gives you more potential targets to ram off the road or fire upon. Each player gets his or her own team of off-roading vehicles, though the roster is the same for all players with the only variation being the colour of the nicely-detailed plastic pieces. Ranging in strength from weakest to strongest, each player begins the game with one Doom Buggy (a roll-cage covered chassis with one driver armed with a pistol), one Avenger (a sedan with busted-out windows and a rear-mounted machine gun turret), one Eliminator (imagine a cross between a bulldozer and a school bus with a front-mounted 40mm cannon), and a Thunder Chopper (a whirligig-like flying machine with a grenade launcher).

Play is quite simple, with each player on a given turn rolling the 3 yellow six-sided dice, picking one number to go with each car, and moving each car forward on the board the requisite number of spaces, avoiding the wrecks already on the board, making use of the road whenever possible, and driving off-road when it's not. Vehicles in Thunder Road are not allowed to turn around or move backwards, but instead must always head inexorably towards the end of the board. But this is where things get interesting--the playing area consists of two smaller boards that lock together at the side to form one larger board. Short game, you say? Actually, the board continues on into infinity, and this plays a huge part in strategy. See, when any vehicle reaches the edge of the second board, a very volatile thing happens: the first board is detached, every vehicle and wreck on it is dumped and removed from the game, then the former rear board is placed in front of the second board, standard wrecks are replaced where indicated, and the battle continues. If one or more of your cars are on the rear board when someone causes that board to get dumped, those cars are removed from the game. If you lose your last car, well, tough luck - you're out. The lesson here is: drive hard and drive fast, or get left in the dust. The only exception to the "lost when dumped" rule is the Thunder Chopper, which cannot be lost or destroyed during the game.

Of course, if the goal of the game was just a flat-out race, it wouldn't be all that exciting. Where the fun comes in is attacking your opponents' cars. This is accomplished by either ramming them or shooting them, something with is allowed on any turn except the very first one for all players. Ramming involves moving your car into the same square as your target by exact count, then both players involved each roll 1 of the red six-siders provided with the game and add their car's rank (4 for the Doom Buggy, 5 for the Avenger, and 6 for the Eliminator; the Thunder Chopper cannot ram) to the number. If the defending player rolls higher, both cars remain intact. If the attacker rolls higher, however, the defending player's car is wrecked and play continues. Shooting is possible when you land by exact count one square behind your target. In this case, the attacker rolls one red die but does not add his car's value to the attack. If the number the attacker rolls on the die is equal to or greater than the defending car's rank, the defender is wrecked. Otherwise, the shot bounces harmlessly off the car's armour and nothing happens. Note that shooting is the only course of action allowed to the Thunder Chopper, and rules restrict the chopper from attacking only once on each given section of the board, and once for each new section of the board that is dumped and replaced. You are permitted to make as many attacks as possible on a given turn, but each vehicle can only attack once no matter how many targets may present themselves.

If your car gets wrecked, the bad news is that you can't move it anywhere (though you still roll all 3 yellow dice each turn and pick which number goes with your remaining vehicles as normal, you just ignore any leftover numbers). The worse news is that if your vehicle wrecks on the rear board, as soon as someone hits the end of the lead board, your car is gonna get dumped and removed from the game. The good news, though, is that if you manage to roll double-sixes on the yellow dice at any time, you can choose to repair one of your wrecked vehicles and then proceed with your turn, moving it however you like (though you can only repair a wreck that is still on the board; a dumped car is gone from the game for good). The player remaining when all the other cars are dumped from the board is the winner.

If this sounds overly simple, that's because it is. Thunder Road is not very big on variety or clusters of special rules, which makes it a great game for younger players or gamers who have not had much experience in the way of board games in the past, as well as players who are anxious to just jump into a game without a ton of prep time. A typical game will last you somewhere between 30-45 minutes depending on how many players are involved and the randomness of luck, so it's a nice choice to play if you've only got about an hour or so to kill. Turns move very quickly, so even with four players, there isn't a lot of down-time.

Alas, Thunder Road's simplicity is also one of its down-sides as well as one of its positives. With so few rules, there is very little variation in what happens, and only a number differentiates the three different ground-based vehicles. The addition of the chopper component adds a nice layer of play to the game, but it is quite limited in its application and it is entirely possible to play a whole game where the chopper makes no difference in how play proceeds.

Since so much of the game relies in luck more than strategy, it is also possible for players to be eliminated very quickly from play only to have it come down to two players, each with one car remaining, that are racing and swapping the board three or four times before one of them manages to keep the opponent wrecked long enough to dump them and end the game. It's possible for this to get boring for the eliminated players who are sitting and watching the remaining two duke it out, but at the same time, with an appropriate number of last-minute repairs or come-from-behind surprise ramming victories, it can also be exciting and the cause of more than a little trash-talking.

Another down-side, though the fault of the march of time as opposed to the game itself, is that Thunder Road has been out of print for roughly twenty years now. This makes eBay and other online sources about the only way of acquiring a copy today. The upside is that the game is not terribly collectable, and can usually be found without spending a fortune.

The simple rules of the game also leave it wide open for the creation of "house rules" that change the way the game works. Popular variations include the potential for an attacker to wreck his vehicle if the defending player rolls a certain amount higher than the attacker, permitting more strikes by the Thunder Chopper per board, and having lower-value cars easier to repair than higher-value ones. While these rules introduce additional complexity to the game, they can also increase the play value, especially for older gamers who might be looking for more than just a "bumper cars with guns" approach to their car combat.

The plain truth is that Thunder Road is easy to learn, easy to teach, and can be played by just about anybody with an average of 30 minutes to kill. Kids can play it with adults equally well, and there is very little "strategy" involved besides just rolling the dice and deciding which of your cars gets to move the fastest, and praying for that 6 on your combat die. For hardcore gamers who are looking for a more in-depth game involving things on wheels blasting the oil out of one another though, Thunder Road isn't likely to cut the mustard and such players would be better off looking up one of the other games mentioned earlier in this review.

For everybody else, though, this game can serve as a magnificent introduction to the world of vehicular combat and possibly serve as a gateway to other, more in-depth games in the same genre which otherwise casual gamers might never become interested in. So check your tire pressure, fill up your gas tank, load your weapons, and strap yourself in for a Mad Max-esque adventure of your very own! (Mohawked mutants sold separately).

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