Monday, January 31, 2022

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
  • 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.

Note: in the original version of this post on the Opinionated Gamers site, I left out Avalon Hill's RoadKill which came along in the early 90s and was yet another car racing/fighting game that had some nifty ideas but moved too slow to create the necessary adrenaline overload.

thunder road… lying 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: Vendetta, right here.)

roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair… well the night’s busting open… these two lanes will take us anywhere

The result is Thunder Road: Vendetta… which re-launched on Kickstarter last week 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 Saturday the 29th was already funded at over $560,000!)

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.
    • And there's an Extra Ammo deck with a bunch of Kickstarter cards which add to the base game and to the expansions.
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 losers… and 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.

This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

#100: Columbus (Mark's Top 100 2022)


    • rank: 18,093
    • rating: 5.5
    • published: 1991
    Print Status
    • very out of print
    Why It's On The List
    • Historical accuracy is not the primary focus here - unless the Atlantic Ocean is full of reefs & rocky outcroppings, sailors can control the weather for malevolent purposes, and the worst thing that can happen to a ship is that it loses a single mast. Instead, the game is a delightful romp - a game that uses luck management (via the position you leave yourself in & the judicious use of provisions for re-rolls) and "take that" elements to fashion a fast-moving & truly "fluffy" game.
    Tips & Tricks:
      • The game is not, by any stretch of the imagination, rocket science. A few simple tactical hints:
        • Make sure you have provisions.
        • Try not to stop where it's easy to run aground.
        • Try to stay away from the storms.
      • It's not a think-y game... but what it does have, by the barrel full, is fun. It moves fast enough that being targeted as a leader isn't terribly discouraging - you'd do the same thing if you were behind. The wild swings of luck (esp. when a hurricane blows every boat in the game into a reef!) make for big laughs - while a short playing time (20-40 minutes, depending on the number of players) keeps those laughs from turning into yawns of irritation. And there's the spectacular bits.
      • Morgan Dontanville (game designer & friend) commented that "Columbus is so close to being a good game that I'm surprised that the developers didn't just spend the time to figure it out. It isn't all that tough. My recommendation for fun is that if you lose your main sail or if you are stuck in a lull you must (as according to the rules) roll a sail to repair or sail out, but regardless of what you roll you may use the other faces (with the exception of the compass). If you do roll a sail, then you may repair and use the other die faces." I'm looking forward to trying this house rule the next time I play!

      Friday, January 28, 2022

      Mark's Top 100 Games is Back + Honorable Mentions

      Starting THIS Monday morning, January 31st, I'll be using this blog to share one game per day in nearly 4 month countdown of my top 100 games as of early 2022. The last time I did this was in 2020... and I only did 50 games. So, you're getting double the value for your blogging dollar this year.

      Yes, I'm likely to do some posts on games that I receive/purchase after today (since I've already got the list built)... I know I've got some Kickstarter games fulfilling that are likely to end up on this list in the future.

      I also have some games that just missed the cut of the top 100 - I'm not going to write about them in any detail, but I wanted to make sure you see them as on a different day with me in a different mood, all of them could have ended up on this list. (They are listed in alphabetical order - not preference order.)

      Monday, January 24, 2022

      Classic: Memory Is A Funny Thing

      Certain things trigger memories - places, songs, smells, whatever. It was over 35 years ago when my best friend, Keith, came bounding across the AstroTurf greens of the Camelot miniature golf course (just off the 91, for those who know the area) to ask me for $20 based on "The Agreement." (We had a deal... if either one of us got a date & was short on cash, we could hit the other up for $20 without question.) I handed him a twenty, he smiled & bounded away again - and then I turned to explain this odd exchange to my date.

      Of course, as strong as that memory is, neither of us ended up married to the girls we saw that evening. But when I passed Camelot earlier this year on my way to a ministry conference, the memory came flooding back.

      When I loaded my CD collection into iTunes, I realized that a number of those CD's have strong connection with place & time as well. I was driving around the back side of Cal State Fullerton when I first heard Michael W. Smith's "The Big Picture"... and Tonio K's "You Belong With Me" always makes me think of Shari Jo, because I put it on not one but TWO mix tapes I made for her. (Yes, I am John Cusack in the film, "High Fidelity", except I don't own a vintage record store.)

      And I can't hear the hymn, "Just As I Am" (which is NOT the same thing as Andrew Peterson's "Just As I Am" which we're using in the worship service Sunday morning) without flashing to a little Central TX church where the music/drama group that I directed was the "special guest" for a night of their youth revival. When it came to the invitation (the part of the service where the pastor asks folks who want to respond to come down to the front of the church), he drafted my roommate to lead the congregation in singing - you guessed it - "Just As I Am". Jeff jumped up front & sang out... but then reality set in.

      You see, "Just As I Am" in the old school Baptist Hymnal has 7 verses - seven! People began coming down front, so we got to sing all 7 verses - and Jeff, who managed to get up there without a hymnal, was lost by the third verse. We attempted to feed him lyrics from the front pew without being obnoxious or breaking the mood of the worship service, but it was a lost cause.

      It's one of those situations that is alternately horrifying & hilarious - here's my good friend & roommate, a talented guy, who's completely adrift, trying to lead a congregation of people through the less-traveled regions of a slow & solemn hymn while he himself has absolutely no idea what he should be singing and is trying to lip-read the lyrics from the rest of us.

      For some of you who are reading this, your church memories aren't hilarious - they're just horrifying. When you think about church, you flash on business meetings that spun out of control in sickening ways. You have no trouble conjuring up the sound of a graceless preacher haranguing a crowd or the razor-edged laughter of gossiping church members. 

      Some of you have church memories that are interesting largely because of their absence of interest - you might ending up using like "droning", "uninspired" or the ever popular "boring." (You can say it like a teenager if you like, with two syllables: "Boh-ring..." It's fun, I promise.) 

      Regardless of the content & quality of your memories, whether it's a Pavlovian response to the smell of a musty church air conditioner or tears of joy that well up in your eyes when you hear "Amazing Grace," they aren't just memories. Our past - or at least how we remember our past - has a huge effect on right now... and on the future. 

      See, if the controlling image in your head of church is a fort, then you're going to think in terms of church as a place to hide, as people gathered behind a thick set of walls hell-bent (yes, I chose that phrase on purpose) at defending themselves against all the godless people on the outside. If the imagery of church life in your head is primarily a collage of preachers behind large wooden pulpits or standing above a congregation in their robes with dust motes floating around their heads, you're primed to see church as a place where stupid people go to hear a smart guy show off how smart he is & how damned they are. 

      And if you resonate like a tuning fork with my mentioning gossip-y laughter... if the sound of people talking behind their hands in stage whispers is like nails scratching down a chalkboard for you, you can easily come to see church as a beauty parlor with crosses on the wall or a country club where the Muzak comes straight from a Wurlitzer pipe organ. 

      That's sad to me - sad not just as a former pastor (because people who feel like that are really unlikely to take a chance & see what a healthy church is really about) but also sad for them - because they've let their past dictate their present... and their future. 

      Over a decade ago, I tried to suggest a few alternative pictures for the church in a sermon series I preached:
      • diving board - The church is a springboard for us to use to dive into the world with the love & grace of Jesus Christ. It does no good for us to sit on the board - we never get the pleasure of splashing in the world God created... and we never touch those who live there.
      • emergency room - Everybody without exception has some kind of injury - physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. No one has "arrived"... and so, just like a hospital emergency room, people in varying states of fear, frustration & need mix together, seeking hope & healing.
      • convenience store - Convenience stores aren't convenient for the people who work in them - who in their right mind wants to sell beer & candy to people in the middle of the night while worrying about some nutball trying to rip off the register for a hundred bucks & change?! Convenience stores are convenient for the customer. In the same way, churches shouldn't be convenient for the members but for the people who need Jesus.
      Some of you have reached this point and are thinking: "OK, I like those pictures better... but the junk of my past is a whole lot stronger than Mark's messages & a couple of PowerPoint slides." Let me suggest something simple.
      I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. (Philippians 3:12-14, NLT)
      Or, to shorten it up a bit (and add in some U2 at the same time), don't let yourself get "stuck in a moment." Ask God for help to get unstuck... maybe something like this: 

      Jesus, it is so hard for me to let go of the past hurts & wounds inflicted on me & others by people who claimed to be Your followers. It feels like trapped like a fly in amber... melt the memories and warm my heart, Jesus. Give me the ability to make more steps toward You and Your people, the church. In Your name, amen.

      This post is an edited version of a post I wrote in January 2009.

      Tuesday, January 04, 2022

      It's Still Personal: My Five & Dime Games for 2021

      Hey, campers... I may have stopped collecting the Five & Dime stats for everyone else - but I haven't stopped collecting my own!

      Here's my own personal Five & Dime list (the games I played 5+ and 10+ times in 2021).

      As always, I include only face-to-face games and games played with human opponents over apps/online. What that means is that games that I play only solo via an app or website (examples: Welcome To..., Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write) are not counted. (Both of those would be dimes if I did.)

      Games with an asterisk [*] were on my Five & Dime list last year, games with two asterisks [**] have been on my list for the past two years, games with three asterisks [***] have been there for three years, games with four asterisks [****] have been there for 4 years, games with a plus [+] have been there 5 years, games with a plus and an asterisk [+*] have been there 6 years, games with a plus and two asterisks [+**] have been there 7 years, games with a plus and three asterisks [+***] have been there 8 years, games with a plus and four asterisks [+****] have been there for the past 9 years, games with two plusses [++] have been there (wait for it) a decade! ++* And, believe it or not, there's actually one game that has been on this list for 11 years [++*].

      If you're curious, here's the games that have been on my Five & Dime list for 5+ years
      • Race for the Galaxy (11 years)
      • 7 Wonders (6 years)
      • 7 Wonders Duel (5 years)
      • It's a Wonderful World 30 *
      • Imperium Classics/Legends 18
      • CloudAge 17
      • Unmatched: Battle of Legends 15 **
      • Monster Expedition 14
      • My City 14
      • Minigolf Designer 13
      • Race for the Galaxy 13 ++*
      • The City 13
      • Archaeology: The Card Game 12 *
      • Terraforming Mars 12 *
      • Tiny Towns 12 *
      • Dune: Imperium 11
      • Impact: Battle of Elements 11 **
      • Hadrian's Wall 10
      • NEOM 10 **
      • Trails of Tucana 10
      • 7 Wonders Duel 9 +
      • Fine Sand 9
      • Lost Ruins of Arnak 9 *
      • Marvel Champions: The Card Game 9 **
      • PARKS 9
      • Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale 8 **
      • Era: Medieval Age 8
      • Port Royal 8
      • Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North 7
      • Jump Drive 7 ****
      • Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition 7
      • Xia: Legends of a Drift System 7
      • 7 Wonders 6 +*
      • Can't Stop 6 *
      • Hallertau 6
      • Luchador! Mexican Wrestling Dice 6
      • Oh My Goods! 6 *
      • Res Arcana 6 **
      • Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade/Ramp it Up! 6 *
      • Voyages 6
      • Wildlands 6
      • Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg 5 *
      • Fast Food Franchise 5 *
      • Just One 5
      • Nemo's War (second edition) 5
      • Patchwork 5
      • Star Wars: Angriff der Klonkrieger 5
      • Undaunted: Normandy 5
      • War Chest 5
      • Welcome To... 5
      • Wurfel Bohnanza 5 ***
      Just Missed (with 4 plays)
        A caret [^] denotes that they were on the Five & Dime list last year... and a pound sign [#] marks games I'm pretty sure will return in 2022. A dollar sign [$] indicates that the game was on the "Just Missed" list last year.
        • 6 nimmt! ^
        • Circus Flohcati
        • Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure ^#
        • Draftosaurus
        • Dungeon Alliance $
        • Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon Scrawlers - Heroes of Undermountain
        • Kingdom Builder
        • Proving Grounds
        • Rise of Augustus ^
        • Roll for the Galaxy ^
        • Sentinels of the Multiverse $
        • Stomple
        • Strawberry Sunset
        • Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends ^
        • Transformers Deck-Building Game
        Family Time

        There are certain game systems that don't always show up in these lists unless you list them as a group... I thought I'd honor those games this year.
        • Clank! 6 
          • Clank! 4
          • Clank! In! Space! 2
        • Ticket to Ride 6
          • Ticket to Ride 2 
          • Amsterdam 2
          • London 2 
        • DC Comics Deckbuilding 4
          • DC Comics Deckbuilding 2 
          • Rivals: Batman vs Joker 2
        After All These Years

        These are games that fell off the list... after years of repeated play. I felt compelled to say a few words at their passing.
        • DC Comics Deck-Building Game
          • The only one to fall off this list with a long pedigree (6 years) is DC Deck-Building... which is due to my older son taking his copy of the game off to college - and much less face-to-face gaming with my old gaming group.