You know what takes the excitement of a racing game, all that high octane of the “gotta go fast” mentality, into the next gear? How about bullets? How about cars slamming into one another, sending unlucky vehicles into deadly collisions. How about attack choppers dropping dynamite on the competition? If you’ve ever wondered what a Mad Max style race would look like in a board game, wonder no more.
Thunder Road: Vendetta is one of the newest offerings from publisher Restoration Games, well known in the community for getting ahold of older, beloved games and giving them a fresh coat of paint in updated mechanics and production quality. And I’m just going to say now that this game is easily one of my two favorites from this year’s PAX Unplugged. Not only that, but we have expansions to take a look at as well!
There’s a lot to show you, so let’s put a foot down on the gas and hit this cracked pavement!
Thunder Road: Vendetta
Dave Chalker, Brett Myers, Noah Cohen, Rob Daviau, Justin D. Jacobson, Jim Keifer, and Brian Neff
Dice Allocation, Racing, Miniatures
Number of Players:
2 - 4 (5 with expansion)
45 - 75 minutes
Copy provided by publisher
Everything you get in the base game. Just seeing a set up board makes me want to hit the gas and run down my opponents!
The Rules Of The Race
Here’s a quick rundown of the competition. Thunder Road: Vendetta, which I’ll just be calling Vendetta henceforth, is a dice placement game at heart. At the start of each game round, all players roll a pool of dice. Each car still fit to race will receive one of these, and one die will be left over for use with a board of special powers. These powers range from a nitro boost for speed, to repairing damage, to drifting through the competition without hitting them, to calling in that tasty attack chopper for some extra damage. Cars must use the full move of any die plus nitro given to them, unless something causes them to stop mid-move, and if a car starts on and takes its full movement on pavement, it can opt to take a bonus move, as well.
Aside from some small rules like “no shooting on the first full round of the game,” giving everyone a chance to get their team of three cars (a small, medium, and large-sized vehicle) onto the table, that’s about it right there! Cars must move forwards, and given the way road spaces line up with each other that means they always have a choice of the three spaces forward or slightly to their sides. If they end their movement behind another car, they can roll a die to shoot their guns. Two points of damage disables a car, though it can still be repaired and put back into the race, and damage tokens themselves come with all kinds of funky effects, sometimes causing hilarious and deadly consequences on the board for more than just the recipients of a new bullet-ridden chassis.
The first round of the game usually lends to a large pack forming, tension rising as everyone gets ready to gun and ram each other all over the place.
In addition to your standard driving and shooting, cars can also slam into one another by moving into each other’s spaces. When cars cause a slam, the slamming player rolls two dice, one to indicate which of the two cars is moved (slightly favoring the car causing the slam) and one to indicate in which direction the victim is moved by one space. This is perhaps the single most fun mechanic in the entire game, and every group I’ve played with can’t get enough slams! It’s incredibly satisfying to smack an opponent into a hazard or off the board, wasting their car immediately regardless of damage, but it’s even funnier when someone slams the first car in a pack driving in tight formation, and the cascade of resulting slams bounces back, sending one of your own cars off the course. In a nice twist of tactics, if two cars slam, the owner of any larger vehicle can demand one re-roll if they don’t like the results; smaller cars meanwhile are harder to hit with bursts of gunfire, so which car you choose to put up front, leading your pack, is up to you.
And those are the basics! Roll some dice, race some cars, shoot some bullets, and slam some competitors hopefully into those rocks that are coming down the road a little too fast. Three, double-sided road boards form the initial track with more in the box, and as cars move off the front board, the back one drops off and a new one is placed down in front. The catch? The finish line tile isn’t placed on the front track until all of one player’s cars are disabled. So players are encouraged to play dirty right from the start.
My favorite vehicle is the medium-sized car. In my opinion the perfect blend of slamming and gunning capabilities!
What’s Under The Hood
I’ve reviewed a Restoration Games game before, quite some time ago, and my respect for how they buff up old game systems hasn’t diminished at all since then. I’m still just as impressed with how tight the new mechanics are while remaining simple enough to run past new players in five minute or less. I’m a big fan of games that put the time and effort into streamlining their rules, a maximum of interaction for the minimum of memorization, and Vendetta tightens all the right bolts.
While the original (which I also never owned, and thus have no nostalgia over) was also a dice allocation game, there are a couple glaring upgrades to this new addition. Firstly, rather than a player putting all their dice onto their cars on their turn, dice are placed one at a time, going around each player at the table. A small difference, this has huge implications for decision making! For example, we’ve had multiple occasions where the race leaders were about to move off the front of the board, triggering a new road board going down and removing the back-most one; do you take a much desired shot against an opponent that will surely disappear once they move? Or do you repair your disabled car that’s chilling on that about-to-be-dropped back board, soon to be out of the race for good? Is the trade of one of your cars for one of your opponent’s worth it? How risky do you like to race?
An attack chopper takes out a runaway leader who loses control after being hit, crashing into the cliffs.
The other big distinction, from my understanding, comes from the road boards themselves. There are a variety of wacky, thrilling track sections, and all the boards are double sided. While you are required to use side A or B of the starting board when beginning the race, everything else is random. You will find combinations of rock formations that have the racers zooming all over the place to avoid instant death, or simply looking for the fastest route to taking the lead as the finish line looms. Hazard tiles on the road are varied, again rewarding risk and punishing those that push their luck too hard. Especially when desperate racers make those final pushes to come out on top, the finish line on the horizon and only one car from their crew still spinning its wheels. The original game has only straight road pieces, a huge missed opportunity that the new edition absolutely knocks out of the park.
The mechanics may be simple, but the theme drips from this game like hot oil on parched pavement, leaving a rainbow in its wake. At a glance, anyone can see how the race is progressing. Who’s in the lead, who has no undamaged cars, or perhaps who’s got the most damage if you’re desperate to zero someone and rush out that finish line. Play it as safe as you like, but as I remind players when I teach this game, that finish line only comes out when one player’s cars are flipped upside down into the dust. And of course, because you play with a team of three cars rather than just one, if one of your cars does explode in a ball of fire you can yell “Witness Me” on your turn, put the pedal to the metal, and try to pay back that grudge twofold!
The fun doesn’t end there, though! What solid base game isn’t made better by a few expansions? Exactly the next thing in the garage we’re going to have a look at!
This particular stretch is tough going when you have bigger cars threatening to knock you into the rocks. But even without them, which hazards are the right ones to hit?
I find the base game of Vendetta totally fine by itself. It delivers on what it sets out to do, it’s clean, it’s not overly complex, and it gets right to the good stuff quickly. You could happily own the base box and never look back. But you’re not still reading because you’re satisfied with your fleet as is. You want upgrades! You want hood-mounted rail cannons, mine dispensers, cloaking technology, or maybe you just want to slap treads onto one of your cars and go barreling through things that would hamper lesser vehicles.
The Choppe Shoppe expansion is, in my opinion, a must-own for lovers of the base game. It brings that little bit of extra that takes a simple but symmetrical game and tunes it asymmetrically, keeping things exciting and different every time you play. In the box you get a deck of upgrade cards which are drafted at the start of the game, keeping one for each of your three cars, and you get a pile of crew leaders. You are dealt two of these leaders to choose from, keeping one for the race, and they each give a persistent power as well as changing your four power-ups in cost, ability, or both. There are also a handful of special tokens that allow you to get extra uses of your special powers, giving you the flexibility of hitting the nitro on that turn you also really need your attack chopper up front. Some boards require these special tokens specifically to activate some powers, though, so spend at your own risk.
Just a few of the vibrant personalities that Choppe Shoppe introduces. Each comes with their own persistent power to enhance your crew.
I am convinced this expansion is a must-buy. Having taught the base game to all my friends, I doubt I’ll ever play without it ever again! And to be honest, it’s not so tough to grasp on a first play that I would withhold it from brand new players to the table. Unless you really want to slow things down for a group and introduce new rules gradually, say for a group that doesn’t do lots of board games, it’s totally acceptable to load this one up on a teaching game. You know your own gaming group. Just make the call that’s right for them.
I could easily see the base formula of Vendetta getting a bit samey after several plays with the same group, but Choppe Shoppe adds just the right amount of asymmetry and special powers you want to keep things fresh every time. And this is without over-complicating the streamlined gameplay with tons of new concurrent systems and rules! I always flinch when a game’s expansions add a level of complexity to a game that ultimately excludes newer players, both because of new systems to be learned as well as by creating a gap in play ability between the veterans and those who are learning the expansion content; I’ve seen some games that only get played with the same select few people because they are the only ones who can handle all the additional content that’s been stacked into their game over multiple expansions. The fact that Vendetta can welcome in new players with this expansion says a lot about just how easy it is to play even as it expands the game into new possibilities. Frankly, if you like the look of this game just from this review, I recommend you pick up at least this expansion along with your copy of the base game. You can thank me later.
It's not all death-at-every-turn! Sometimes there are just inconvenient straightaways full of hazards and mud, and a speedy racer can power into a commanding lead!
Who couldn’t use just a little more? The Carnage At Devil’s Run expansion I’m going to refer to as “the More Stuff expansion.” There are new things in this box, but they come in the form of more variety of stuff you’ve mostly seen already: more types of terrain to race over and a few new status effects referred to as ongoing effects. They get a matching deck of status cards to describe what new hilarity has befallen your cars. Ok, there is a special new status, complete with its own special die to roll, where your car is literally on fire. That’s pretty darn hot (pun intended)! Most of the time it makes you race even faster, though sometimes you just—you know—explode! But all in all I have to applaud this expansion for the same reason I praised the last one: despite all the new stuff it gives you, it doesn’t actually add that many new rules. Most things work off the existing systems from the base game that you love. That is, you get more ways to wreck each other’s cars with a minimum of new hazards to memorize. Also, there are ramps to make some sick jumps off. It’s absolutely brilliant!
While I don’t think this expansion is quite as much of a must-own as the previous one, I do have to give it a strong recommend if you find you just can’t get enough of Vendetta. It’s everything you love! More cool stuff without bogging down your game with tons of rules minutia. I would advise you play with just the Choppe Shoppe expansion for your first game before mixing Carnage in if you’re teaching newbies. Let them get used to the thrill of the race and the combat before you send them flying off ramps while on fire ala Evel Knieval.
Look at this bananas piece of track! Just look at it!!
Finally, there’s the Big Rig and the Final Five expansion, technically one of the earlier expansions for Vendetta. Full disclosure here, like an idiot I didn’t request a copy of this one when coming home from PAXU with review copies of everything else. I tried to get my hands on it prior to finishing this review, but the timing just didn’t quite line up. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a few things about it after having done some homework on what it brings to the game.
First of all, you can expand your game to five players via a 3-section Big Rig or a fleet of five motorcycles, either or both of which can be combined with the base game’s car fleets. This may not seem like much at first, and some titles can certainly get bogged down if a base game isn’t properly planning ahead for expansion shenanigans, but I categorically do not think Vendetta is one of those games. There have been many game nights where I simply sat out and let others play Vendetta, teaching the game, acting as a sort of game master and commentator, and laughing at the misfortunes of my friends. A 5th seat at this game absolutely does not go amiss. There is definitely room on these road boards to accommodate one more player! That said, the rules as written only expand the player count to 5. You can race the rig, the bikes, and 3 other car teams together, but using the everything to hit 6 players, in my opinion, would crowd the boards a little too much. Nothing stops you from doing this, of course. Play how you want! I would caution you though, considering all the hard work of the developers, that a little extra room to maneuver will be far more appreciated.
The Final 5 get taken out with a sneeze of damage and they can't slam, but they make up for it with a swarm of gunfire!
While this expansion is labeled as “part 2,” the first expansion in numerical order after the base game’s release, I would honestly recommend this purchase last. To be honest, the Big Rig itself is the single largest addition of novel rules and minute tweaks to the way things normally play that I’ve seen so far. While the game overall is still pretty easy to grasp and play even if you do drive the rig, it does in some ways break that elegance of the other expansions I’ve mentioned. I’d sooner mix all the exceptions the rig brings into play after the additions of Choppe Shoppe and Carnage. While the bikes are fairly straightforward, going down after only a single damage apiece, and drifting through traffic automatically (they always lose slams if hit), the Big Rig presents a very different way to play.
Instead of a team of separate cars, with the Big Rig you get three sections of the rig linked together like a train, moving in tandem. The Big Rig ignores hazards, even instant death spaces, taking damage instead and replacing the board spaces with plain off-road terrain tiles. It’s constantly repairing itself while chugging mercilessly through everything in front of it, only shifting lanes occasionally as it has a manual die set to the number of lateral moves it’s allowed to make. It shoots from the front. It shoots from the back. It has a missile launch that can fire in addition to all the shooting it normally does. It automatically wins all slams. Restoration Games certainly nailed the feeling of “big honkin’ death rig” with this one, but it is also the weirdest, most unique way to play the game, very unlike all other vehicles. Managing it, while fun looking, will also take some time to master.
I recommend this expansion wholeheartedly for players who have enjoyed the rest of what Vendetta has to offer and are looking for something quite different to modify their games. Or for players who really vibe with 5-player-count games. I don’t consider this one totally essential, but as an expansion that offers something totally different from every other expansion box, if you love this game let’s face it: you’ll want this one to round out your set for sure.
I'm not gonna lie. This Big Rig does look hella fun and intimidating to play!
Good Things Yet To Come
I’ve got one last little secret for you, if you’re still reading. How would you like a little sneak peek at Restoration Games’s upcoming Kickstarter for the next Vendetta expansion? Barring delays, it should be hitting Kickstarter around mid-February 2024. I’ll spoil my thoughts up front and say, having played the prototype at PAX Unplugged, this is 100% brilliant and 200% what this game needs next! What if I told you we were getting a Thunderdome to battle in?
The upcoming expansion, which will hit Kickstarter around mid-February, barring any delays, adds a circular arena which cars drive into from three entry points made by connecting one existing road board at three points around the arena itself. If you love the chaos and combat of the game and wish you could turn down the “race” dial while turning up “combat,” you’ll love this expansion. Like the base game, you’re not allowed to shoot anyone at the start of the game, but words as technically written at the time of playtesting were not “first round” but rather “until you are in the arena.” You might see all the lovely jank this leads to! Got a weapon upgrade with range? You might be able to shoot at someone before they’re allowed to fire back if you can hit the nitro and get into that arena quickly. And even if this changes before the final release, while you might not be able to shoot on the entry roads, nothing stops you from slamming and smearing the competition against the rocks while they’re waving to the spectators on their way in! That never gets old.
Please note that all components and rules featured for the upcoming expansion are subject to change. For what it's worth, though, I had a fantastic time trying this prototype and can't wait to see the finished version.
Despite the massive change in board layout, there are no rules tweaks for movement in this expansion, which highlights the beautifully elegant simplicity of the base game’s design. Want to reverse direction as you drive around the arena? You just need to take movements along the side arc of your moveable spaces and your car will naturally make a gradual turn. Maybe you need to evade someone on your tail, or maybe you want to swing around to collect one of the special power-ups in the arena. Or maybe you just want to hog a spotlight, special spaces that shower you in scrap, the expansion’s victory point currency you’re all competing for. It’s wonderful to see all this new content fitting inside rules that all players will already be familiar with!
There are some extra goodies like random events the arena owner is calling out each turn, and there are hazards popping up and down from the floor that you can knock others into (or be knocked into if you’re not careful). There are power-up tokens that will let you pull one-time special moves. But at all turns, I once again have to say how impressed I am that you get a maximum of new, fun things to play with while not having to learn lots of fiddly little extra rules. I’m hard pressed to think of another game whose expansions were this thoughtful.
When the race is on, sometimes it's just nice to lean back and take it all in. This game, as with the entertainment it portrays, is truly a spectacle!
A Symphony Of Destruction
Simple to introduce to new board gamers, varied and fresh every time with just one expansion, and ramped up even more with every further expansion you buy, all without overcomplicating what is at its heart a streamlined, action-packed base game. I’ve recommended games like this on the site before, and I’m not about to stop now!
I don’t think you need me to point out that this is the kind of game where you will swerve intentionally into a smaller car, aiming to knock it into the rocks, and through sheer dumb luck it will cause a chain ricochet that slams back into your original vehicle and ends it ironically on the same outcropping you were originally aiming for. Everyone I’ve played with laughs in moments like these. We cheer and holler, and if you will too then this is definitely a game for you. There’s still strategy and planning, what upgrades go well on which cars and who you choose to put out front. When you hang back and fire your guns and when you blast the nitro and shoot into that final stretch. But you have three cars for a reason, so laugh when something bad happens to one of them. Karma usually repays your foes sooner rather than later.
And if you like the idea of turning this wacky race into a total death match, keep an eye for the upcoming Kickstarter! This game has already received a plethora of extra content in its current expansions, so the move to changing how the game at its core plays, all without actually changing the mechanical rules, is a stroke of pure genius. More ways to play a game you love without ruining what makes it special! What more could you ask for? I know I’ve said this about other games, but once again I am hard pressed to think of another singular title you can get this kind of varied mileage from.
I don’t think Vendetta will ever leave my shelves, it’s just such a perfect combination of little things that add up to something very special. Buy a little or buy it all, there’s no wrong way to play. Give it a look and see if it belongs on your shelf, too. And if so, I’ll see you on the open road!