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Interview with Thunderbirds: Danger Zone creator Andrew Harman (part 1)

Based on the classic British sci-fi television series, Thunderbirds: Danger Zone is a fast-paced cooperative family card game! Using characters and missions from the original TV series, players work as a team to avert disasters worldwide and beyond. Players take turns as Jeff, deciding what resource needs to be deployed and where. Players might use their cards to help get the right amount of fuel Scott needs for a rescue or to deliver the tools and gadgets needed by Lady Penelope to chase The Hood. Only Jeff can make the changes needed to ensure success. Every moment counts and if the numbers don’t add up vital time will be lost. Can you work as a member of the International Rescue Team, save those in peril and bring everyone home safely?

This new co-operative card game is now available to pre-order from the Official Gerry Anderson Store (for release in late August), and Jamie Anderson recently caught up with designer Andrew Harman to discuss the game & its creation…

Let’s start with the easy stuff! Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Andrew Harman. I’m a board game designer or inventor, depending on which side of the hobby market or mainstream market you are, but I invent board games and card games. I run a small publisher called YAY Games. And Danger Zone is going to be my 12th released game. My first game was released in 2014, and I’ve been playing games for 50 years!

So let me instantly jump in and play devil’s advocate… In a world of apps and PlayStation 5s (if you can get one, of course) aren’t board games and card games a bit old hat?

Not at all. One of the big major things about playing games around a table, so analogue games, as I like to refer to them, is absolutely about the social interaction that you get from sitting around facing your opponents or your cooperative team members. There’s nothing quite like just revealing a cool move or a brilliant hand or a smashing card and just watching everybody else’s reaction. The social, tangible side of it is something that you just don’t get from a digital machine. It’s like the difference between listening to a CD and seeing a live band. It’s just a completely different thing. Same music, but a completely different environment.

Okay, that’s a great analogy. So – moving on to Thunderbirds Danger Zone. I’ve been thinking about games, and to me, it seems that a lot of board games that people know are game mechanics that have been created in their own right purely to create a game. I’m thinking Mouse Trap for example. What’s the difference between designing a game for its own ‘gameness’, versus something where you’re taking a known IP and creating a game for that?

Well, I’ve done three games for known brands now, if we include working with you. I’ve also worked on a licence with Gibson’s to do with transport for London, which is a game called Connecting London. And I’ve also run a game using the Gruffalo. So there’s a set of cool games and books doing that. And for every single one of them, what I aim to do is find what’s inside the brand that makes it special and then build the game out from there. I think that approach comes from the fact that before getting into board games design, I was a writer. Not that the games are storytelling necessarily, but it’s what makes it important.

OK, so you focus on story, but what is the step-by-step process of building a game like this in terms of its mechanic? And do you end up going down development dead ends and finding intractable problems in a mechanic as you design it and having to start from scratch? Do you ever get to a point where the game works and feels unbreakable?

Ooh, I wish I knew that. I know when the moment I know it’s working and it’s strong. I shouldn’t say unbreakable, but strong. That just happens! I know when it’s happened, but I don’t know necessarily how to get to that moment. It’s quite organic –  an artistic games design process that I go through. And yes, that ends up giving me lots of dead ends, like you said, and going down rabbit holes.

But specifically, if we want to look at the approach for developing a Thunderbirds game, I looked at several different mechanics because I knew that there was a very successful game on the market, the Matt Leacock Modiphius game. And I know that one of the things that we were trying to do is appeal to new board gamers, but also very experienced board gamers as well. What I wanted to try and avoid at the beginning was just redesigning that Matt Leacock game – accidentally or otherwise. I really like it, but I didn’t want to redesign it as just a card game. So I started off trying to avoid making a cooperative card game, listening to what the storylines were telling me. So I went through and analysed what makes International Rescue and Thunderbirds work, which meant delving right back into the show and watching lots of episodes!.

Everything I was trying along the way ended up being very good games and they’re going to be used somewhere else, so all of that preparation work is not wasted. But working through them I ended up thinking “this is a nice game, but it’s not Thunderbirds. It doesn’t feel like Thunderbirds.” And in the end, there was this moment when I just went thought “I can’t fight this. The strength of Thunderbirds is, that it’s a team of people, it’s a family of people doing everything they possibly can to save people in danger.” And without that element, the cooperative approach, it’s not International Rescue. It’s not Thunderbirds! So the show forced me into it. So that’s where it ended up! But finding a way to make that happen and finding a way to avoid some of the pitfalls in some other cooperative games, was quite a task. 

So I knew when I’d struck gold, because it just started working. Most notably it was working well in terms of game interaction – of everybody around the table enjoying it. But at that stage I realised that the game play was strong but it was still ‘breakable’. The balances were wrong. Parts of the game were ‘costing’ too much or took too long or seemed nearly impossible. So once I knew it was working mechanically, and socially, then came sort of the number crunching and making sure all the elements tie into their stories properly and all the elements are actually doable! That part of the design process is quite complex. The maths is hidden well, but there are an awful lot of complexities going on in the game. So refining those elements was by far and away the most time-consuming part.

It’s actually really nice to know that you’ve gone through that process and that the central aim of International Rescue has guided it like that. Thunderbirds has guided its own development.

Absolutely! One of the things that we said right from the first meeting was this has to be true to Thunderbirds. It has to feel like Thunderbirds, and it just can’t break those rules. If you were playing and thought “Well, that’s not what Gordon would do” it wouldn’t work! You just can’t have that in a game like this. Then there were things that I felt that fans of Thunderbirds would automatically know, or have an intuitive feel for. So, for example, that it should be harder or more expensive to get the Mole prepared to put in a pod than it is to get a set of hover packs put in a pod. So therefore that’s where the maths kind of starts. You’ve got to reflect that as well. There are lots and lots of spreadsheets of things going on to make it all work!

Wow. Okay. I love the fact that there are spreadsheets! Okay, you’ve brought this all together. You’ve avoided the Matt Leacock route. So then how does this differ from Matt’s game? What are some kind of key differentiators for somebody who has maybe played the Matt Leacock one? How is this not the same game, but in card form?

What I aimed to do is make sure that this game is accessible to novice gamers as well as interesting for experienced gamers. So I wanted to tread a careful balance between making it really simple mechanically and deeply interesting in terms of the choices that are going to happen during the game.

One of the perceived snags in some cooperative games there can be what’s called the “alpha player”. It’s where, in a game, it would be my turn, I want to join in with what everybody else is doing, and another player is telling me what to do. Telling me how to use my cards or telling me what actions I should take. And that’s a little bit frustrating and I wanted to avoid that. And I think we’ve come up with a very, very neat way of avoiding the “alpha player” scenario.

In a turn, one player is playing Jeff and is telling everybody else what to do. But the other players have got limited information about what Jeff has and he’s got limited information about what everybody else does. That action happens nice and quickly. Then the next player takes the turn as being Jeff. So you can advise, but there’s hidden information, so in essence, it creates a kind of rotating alpha player. We all take turns telling everybody else what to do. And I don’t know if anybody else that’s done that yet in a game, which is exciting!

But I’ve worked very hard to make sure Thunderbirds: Danger Zone has been designed to be accessible. It’s like if you look at chess versus draughts, it’s kind of that thing. If the Modiphius game is chess, then Danger Zone is draughts! They’ve still got similar elements, the same strategic elements. So all the mental challenges are there, but the mental challenges in chess are more tricky because you’ve got to remember what all the pieces do, and how they move, and there’s more strategy going on in that. 

Okay. Fantastic. The chess and draughts thing is great. That is brilliant. That’s the analogy that we needed I think for that. Without giving the rules away entirely what’s the basic kind of description for the gameplay? If I was trying to tell somebody about draughts, for example, or I was trying to tell somebody about Monopoly, I could probably describe the game in a few sentences. So let’s assume somebody’s completely naive to Danger Zone. What is the way that Thunderbirds: Danger Zone works around the table?

I think the first thing is the fact that it is a cooperative card game that’s simple to play. That’s important. It’s important also that it’s based on the original episodes and the storyline of that episode is set out. And what you are trying to do as a team is get through all the key points of the story, in the end, get the victory and save whoever’s in peril. So could be Eddie Houseman on the truck about to fall off. How are you going to save him? The way that is done is by supplying the right resources: fuel, knowledge, tech and team spirit. So you’re bringing all those things together by playing particular cards. Each turn, one player is allocated to be Jeff and needs to make the decision about what we’re going to supply. But the choices are entirely up to Jeff. So it’s a cooperative game, simple in terms of mechanics, true to the original storylines, but with an awful lot of choices all along the way. And it’s balancing those choices that make the game interactive and exciting!


Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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