The long-time PlayStation video game car combat series is maybe my favorite all-time PS experience. Although I have enjoyed playing through all of the games—Twisted Metal 2 took up so much of my time that I should have gone blind staring at the screen for so long—Twisted Metal: Black is the undisputed best of those games.
But all of the Twisted Metal titles feature the same things: taking on the “character” of a driver whose car is used to murder every other combatant off the map, using weapons that were picked up in the field of play as well as special abilities that could be triggered a few times in each match. The lore was insane with Twisted Metal; save for one or two characters in each game that were ostensibly “good” (former cops, a priest, etc.), everything about the games really was twisted, right down to the game series’ signature character, Sweet Tooth, a demonic-looking clown that drove an ice cream truck that happened to have a missile launcher.
Thunder Road: Vendetta (2023, Restoration Games) is a take on the 1980s board game Thunder Road, which may have been one of the inspirations for the original Twisted Metal video games. (Because video game adaptations are hot, yes, there is a Twisted Metal TV show streaming on Peacock.)
But Thunder Road’s main inspiration feels like it is the Mad Max film series (the originals, starring Mel Gibson as a man on a mission in the Australian apocalypse of a disastrous future state), right down to the way each car looks like it has been outfitted to survive.
Restoration has made a habit of rehabbing games I love and keeping the original spirit of their IP intact. As I found with my recent review of Crossbows & Catapults (set for release next year), Restoration can be trusted; backing Thunder Road: Vendetta was one of the easiest things I’ve done in a while.
I’m happy to say that the game works well as a “Big Dumb Fun” experience with dice chucking and cars getting blown off of the desert roads of the future. It does have one consistent flaw that won’t make or break the experience, which we will call out below.
Thunder Road: Vendetta accommodates two to five players (assuming you own all of the game’s available content), each taking on the lead role as a crew chief leading a band of 3-5 vehicles under their control into a race for the ages. Whoever can get a single car past the finish line—or become the last person standing amidst the carnage—will win the game.
In the base game of Thunder Road: Vendetta, each player manages three cars: a “Doom Buggy” (a small vehicle), an “Avenger” (medium) and an “Eliminator” (large). These cars are maintained with a Command board that provides additional options on each turn.
Also, everyone gets a chopper. Depending on your perspective, helicopters are the best or worst thing about Thunder Road: Vendetta because of their ability to rain damage upon vehicles outside of the range of other cars. They also look really cool on the board.
Turns are easy: all players roll their four dice (each of which is a standard six-sided die in their player color), then the first player moves one of their cars forward up a road composed of three road tiles which simulate travel through the landscape. If a car is within range of another enemy car just in front of them, they roll a Shoot die to try and damage their target. If the roll ends up with a die face matching the size of the target car, they hit; all cars can take up to two damage before becoming inoperable and requiring repairs on a later turn.
Sometimes, the best way to damage another car is to drive directly into them. Moving into another car (including your own) leaves the two cars in a stack on a single space; dice are rolled to determine which car and which direction one of those two cars moves, which may result in a car getting pushed off of the road—eliminated!!—or into an impassable space, which also eliminates a car.
So, you could shoot the bad guys, or ram those same bad guys, to get them out of the game. Also, this is a race to the death. The three road tiles? When a single car reaches the front edge of the front tile, the back tile just falls off (imagine retiling the board in games like Black Angel) and a new front tile is added. Anything that is on the rear tile when this process happens is eliminated, sometimes leading to multiple cars getting eliminated.
This game is comedy, right???
Hazards are everywhere, in the form of face-down tiles that are discovered when a car drives into a face-down hazard or is slammed into a hazard. Some hazard spaces are plain ol’ road. There’s mud, oil slicks, other wrecks, and off-road desert spaces…and all of this is just if you are playing the base game. Another issue: if your car ends its turn on the same space as a chopper, this will also lead to an elimination.
I mentioned earlier that you’ve got four dice, but only three cars to begin play. That fourth die is used to activate your Command board once per round. The Command board gets you four additional action choices, with the ability to trigger one of these four abilities along with a car action on a turn depending on the die value.
You could Nitro to increase the number of spaces a car can move, or Drift to ensure you can pass through the first car you would have normally slammed on a turn.
One of your spaces allows for Repair so that your car can keep humming towards the finish line. The last one is the best one, because it can be activated with any number of pips: Airstrike.
Each player has access to an indestructible chopper that can be deployed to an empty space once per round (so, once every three actions). Wherever this chopper is placed also becomes an occupational hazard, because anything—including your own vehicles!!—that ends its turn on a space with a chopper is eliminated.
Choppers are crucial. They are so important that I can’t believe I spent my entire first play not shooting at the lead player’s Doom Buggy that ultimately won the game; the chopper can fly to any empty space and fire. They also do a great job of blocking spaces in tight corridors when you want to cover your tracks and defend against a player that wants to try and sneak up on you.
I have found great delight in deploying the chopper in a crowd. Placing a chopper near another player’s chopper to shoot at an enemy car might net me the chance to place that second damage token to make a car inoperable. It might also cause a damage that will force a player to Skid (one of the damage types) into another road hazard, slam another player, or force them off the map altogether as a result of a Blast Off damage token. We had a player forced off the map with a stunt die after getting hit by the chopper, killing them off with only a single damage token.
Thunder Road: Vendetta is a riot, folks.
You’re probably thinking what I was thinking when I first read the rules—is Thunder Road: Vendetta a player elimination game?
Now, here’s the great thing about that (as someone who was the person eliminated in both of my first two games): the game adds a finish line to the map as soon as any single player is knocked out. That usually means within the next turn or two, the game is going to end. In one of those plays, the game ended two actions later.
So while Thunder Road: Vendetta is a player elimination game, it is not a long affair once someone is killed off first.
But, it is long.
Here’s my only consistent issue in plays of Thunder Road: Vendetta—it’s too long.
The game is a joy as a dice-chucking laugher with beer and pretzels on a Friday night. The production quality is a joy; Restoration has really impressed me with their physical component quality. The rulebook for the Maximum Chrome edition of this game is excellent, truly excellent; my only issue is that I wish there was a player aid that explained more of the damage and hazard tiles as well as the typical layout for a turn. (It’s a breeze after the second play, but I still need to check the rules for the damage token differences.)
But a game like this should take about an hour. However, at three players, especially when the Shoot die comes up empty for much of the time, you are looking at 75-90 minutes. The game runs longer with more players, although the level of violence is a better fit at that higher player count: there’s always more people to shoot at, chaos, chained slam actions, etc.
The box says this can be a 30-minute affair, but it’s hard to imagine that happening even with lots of successful shooting rolls early in the game. I wish the game was shorter, because eliminations are required to drive the game to completion at most player counts. That means you might be better served house-ruling the ending—play first to race to the end of five road tiles, for example. Or, when one player is down to their last car, call it.
As it is, you might spend two hours in a five-player game of Thunder Road: Vendetta. That’s a miss.
But If You Can Get Past That…
Thunder Road: Vendetta is one of my favorite productions of 2023. It has it all—incredible table presence, easy-to-teach rules, dice, and the chance to create great memories. It feels like a game from the 1980s, and a silly game for the right now. The artwork by lead artist Marie Bergeron is gorgeous and the product gives me those vibes of some of my favorite video games and movies of the distant past.
The game takes too long, but one could house-rule their way out of that pretty easily. The game length is the only major negative I will call out here that consistently popped up during my plays.
This review assumes ownership of the retail base game with no extras. To be honest, I have not seen what the “peasant” version of the game looks like, and I don’t want to, because the Maximum Chrome edition is so dope.
The wash on the models is gorgeous. The box is massive but there is so much game in that box…I only played the game once with none of the expansion content, and I’ll never do that again.
That’s because the Choppe Shoppe and Big Rig and the Final 5 are must-have expansions to spice up the action. Choppe Shoppe adds crew leaders that replace the game’s standard Command functions with variable player powers, sweet art, and in some cases a special action. It also adds cards that are drafted pre-match to make each individual car from each player’s crew possess a unique power.
Choppe Shoppe feels like it should have been included as standard content, but here we are; buy it, and thank me later.
Big Rig and the Final 5 introduces two sets of other vehicles that really change the game: the Big Rig is almost certainly a ripoff of the truck Mad Max was driving in The Road Warrior (or more likely the truck that Max is driving in Mad Max: Fury Road), with a large truck that is much harder to drive as the controlling player, but also much harder to take down by other players. It also has a missile launcher.
But the more interesting set of vehicles are the Final 5, which are five yellow motorcycles that can only take one damage each before being disabled but are considered small vehicles, meaning it is MUCH harder to shoot them with standard attacks. This gives the controlling player a lot of options—they could try to shoot ahead and outrace everyone else, or use one or two of their bikes as blockers while trying to keep others ahead of the pack.
A game with the Big Rig, the Final 5, and 2-3 regular car drivers using the Choppe Shoppe expansion? That’s the big winner. There are additional expansions that are less interesting, including German Engineering, which replaces dice with a Gloomhaven-style deck of cards that dictate die results in a way that makes the game a Euro instead of a dice chucker.
Thunder Road: Vendetta is an incredible achievement, one that deserves to be played by almost any kind of gamer. I love that there’s a base game with no extras to create an option for a shopper who is challenged on budget. But if you have the dough, make the Maximum Chrome edition part of your holiday shopping plans!