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Co-op Case Study: Thunderbirds

Meeples Together is continuing to crowdfund on Kickstarter. It’s already blown through its first stretch goal, which adds a case study for Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island to the book. We hope we’ll also be able to talk about his Forbidden Desert too, as our fourth stretch goal.

We wanted to add those two extra case studies to the book because they show the continuing evolution of a specific style of play that Leacock debuted in Pandemic. However, Matt Leacock is the main co-op designer of our time, and that means he’s branched out into other styles of co-op games as well. One of those is Thunderbirds, which we’re happy to discuss here as another bonus case study.

This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design. There will be some original Mechanics & Meeples content next week (and afterward the Meeples Together and Mechanics & Meeples articles will interweave.)

Publisher: Modiphius Entertainment (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Logistical


The players take on the role of Thunderbird agents, who race around the globe in their Thunderbird machines to defeat the schemes of the Hood before it’s too late. However, Thunderbirds agents must deal with ongoing disasters as well! If they don’t, they’ll lose the game!

Challenge System

The challenge system of Thunderbirds comes in two parts, following a standard cooperative pattern that splits threats: disasters must be solved so that the players do not lose, while schemes must be foiled so that the players can win.

A disaster appears nearly every turn, based on the draw of a card. Players have a few turns to solve each of these problems. The longer a disaster is around, the closer it gets to the end of the disaster track; if it reaches the end, the game is lost.

The use of a track for these game-losing disasters is interesting: it’s really no different from any number of games (like Pandemic) that trigger a loss when a certain component runs out (in this case: when the eighth card is placed), but it displays this loss condition in a visceral way while simultaneously providing a visual listing of problems that the players may deal with. It’s a prime example of making choices obvious through great “menu” design.

Schemes in contrast are selected at the start of the game, but only the next one is revealed at any time. Though the players must defeat the schemes to win, they’re not just markers of victory; they can also be dangerous. That’s because the schemes are arranged along a “Hood track”, which the villainous Hood slowly advances along though certain disaster-card draws, certain die rolls, and even player choice — much as Sauron advances in the foundational Lord of the Rings (2000) co-op. If the Hood reaches an unfoiled scheme, the game is (once more) lost.

However, the Hood track does more than just mark another advance of Doom. The Hood track are contains hidden events between the schemes; when the Hood reaches an event, it activates, causing various problems for the players. This is a nice feature, because it interweaves the big problems with small ones. It also introduces uncertainty: though the players can brace themselves for an oncoming event, they’ll always be surprised by its precise (random) result.

Though the Thunderbirds challenge system often feels dangerous — like there’s impending danger that must be overcome — there’s not a lot of decay in it. Things can get temporarily bad if the Hood gets near an unfoiled scheme or if a number of disasters stack up, but there’s never a sudden ramp-up, and if the players overcome the current problems, everything is back to normal.

Despite the cleverness of both the disaster and scheme tracking, Thunderbirds generally has a simpler and more forgiving system than Matt Leacock’s Pandemic games.

Challenge System Elements: Turn, Action & Random Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Interrelated Systems; and Skill Threat.

Cooperative System

The challenge systems in Thunderbirds are countered through logistical play. They require getting the right machines and the right characters to the right locations and then either making a die roll (for disasters) or expending resources (for schemes). Logistical requirements of this sort are a natural fit for cooperative games because they tend to focus on divided puzzles — a popular co-op pattern that requires players to figure out how to get resources that are split up among the team to the right places. Thunderbirds’ schemes create even more cooperative depth because they need those resources to be moved to different locations, requiring players to actively working together at different places on the board.

The movement system of Thunderbirds also creates some interesting cooperative puzzles thanks to the Thunderbirds machines. Players can jump from one machine to another over the course of a turn. Because some of the machines can seat two or more characters, this means that a player will frequently be joining with another player, as they move together in a single machine. This creates great tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together for a time before once more branching off.

Adventure System

Leacock’s classic co-op Pandemic (2008) just touched upon the adventure game space through its use of unique character powers. Thunderbirds dramatically expands on that. Each character has a unique power, and each of them can accumulate bonus tokens that given them one-time abilities. Each of their Thunderbird machines has unique characteristics too.

Once again, it’s the machines that really stand out as an innovation. By giving characters two adventuresome characteristics, one of which is permanent (the character power) and one of which can be traded around (the machine powers), Leacock adds orthogonal depth to his adventure play.

Final Thoughts

By now, Leacock clearly knows what he’s doing when he’s designing co-op games, as Thunderbirds was his six major effort following Pandemic (2008), Forbidden Island (2010), Forbidden Desert (2013), Pandemic: The Cure (2014) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015). It’s no surprise that Thunderbirds makes good, polished use of some classic mechanics like a bipartite victory-vs-loss threat structure and a card-based challenge system.

However Thunderbirds also has some nice innovations, primarily focused on the famous Thunderbirds machines. They allow for a new sort of movement-based cooperation and also add to the depth of the adventure play. As such, they show how one little addition to a co-op design can add a lot.

“I’ve become more conscious about elements that can make cooperative games better. When I designed Pandemic, I was doing this all instinctively. Now, I actively work different play patterns and mechanism into my designs upfront.”
—Matt Leacock, Interview, Mechanics & Meeples (March 2015)

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples