Richard Borg’s name is synonymous with the Commands & Colors system, a set of rules for light wargaming that has spawned a multitude of different games in eras ranging from thousands of years ago (Commands & Colors: Ancients) to the distant future (Abaddon), and taking in many stops in between, the most famous of which is likely the hugely popular Memoir ’44 series. It’s not all war with Borg though, and Thunder and Lightning is a redesign of his 2000 game Hera & Zeus, a two-player only affair of bluff and deduction…ok, I’ll admit it, and a little bit of war thrown in for good measure. There is a crowded field of quality head-to-head card games out there, so Thunder and Lightning steps into a hotly contested arena, but does it have what it takes to win the battle?
The box for Odin’s Ravens – sorry, Thunder and Lightning!
Published by Z-Man, the box is good and solid, and is similar in size to the Kosmos 2-player series, and with evocative artwork on the front. Perhaps understandably however, it always takes me a little by surprise to find that this game is not actually Odin’s Ravens, given that the cover features a Norse god and several large ravens. Despite the strong artwork reading the back of this box can leave you underwhelmed, as the flavour text is complete gobbledygook in some places, as if it has not been proofed by an English speaker. For example, “This ired the Allrather, Odin, was so great” or a sentence like “To help his son, Odin granted his son Draupnir” are the worst offenders here, even if I think I know what they mean. It is hard to guess what has happened here, whether this is an instance of bad proofing or just a simple error, but it is an unfortunate lapse from a company that normally takes care of such things.
Hit the decks! The art plays a part…
The components themselves are minimal, initially underwhelming – two decks of fifty cards each and two wooden markers, red for Loki and blue for Thor, sitting in a plastic insert that feels pretty flimsy, but is just about up to the task. Aside from the rule book, twelve pages long and in full colour, it does not seem as though there is much game in the box, so how does it all come alive?
What awaits you inside the box.
Well, turning the cards over and looking through them is a positive experience. The artwork is colourful and evocative, and the characters on the cards are all featured in Norse mythology. In fact, if you want to do some digging you will find that their actions in Thunder and Lightning are well related to their mythological significance. After the slight disappointment of the box itself and what lies inside, this is the first hint that the whole might just be greater than the sum of the parts.
The rules are decently laid out and fairly easy to understand, and Thunder and Lightning can be set up and ready to play in very short order indeed. Thunder and Lightning is at heart a game of bluffing and deduction expressed on a battlefield, and begins with each player placing three cards face down in a row. These three cards face each other and form the “front line” of the battle, and, after each player has taken their first turn, they may challenge the card directly opposite. These cards also mark the topmost points of three columns, and each player may have up to three other cards behind each of these, meaning that the maximum size for their tableau is three columns of four cards each, so twelve cards in total. It does not sound particularly inspiring, but it is on this battlefield that Thunder and Lightning will be played out.
Keep these hidden at all costs – lose them and it’s game over.
One, two, three (and maybe four)! Time for actions…
On each player’s turn they have as many actions as they have columns on the battlefield, and if they cannot use all of their actions then they instantly lose the game. For each one of their available actions a player may draw a card, play a card to the battlefield, challenge an opponent’s card or play a mythological card from hand.
- Drawing a card is as simple as it sounds, the only limit being that a player may never have more than twelve cards in hand, although in practice, you will rarely have that overabundant luxury…and if you run out of cards in your deck then that’s it for your army as there is no reshuffle here.
- Playing a card to the battlefield involves placing a card face down (usually) in one of your columns. This card can go in front of those already on the battlefield, in which case the others slide back to make space, it can go in between them, again sliding back those now behind it, or it can bring up the rear. The only real limit is that there must never be a gap in a column and that when Thor or Loki are played they must always be placed face up at the head of a column.
- To challenge a card a player selects a card at the head of any of their columns and attacks the card directly opposite. Both are revealed if not already face up and their numerical values compared, the card with the higher value winning. The losing card is discarded, those behind it slide forward to fill the gap, and the winning card remains face up. In the event of a draw both cards are discarded. Some cards, however, have text on them modifying the battle process, so for example, a Shield Wall may only be defeated by a Female Archer.
- Cards with mythological symbols may be played from hand, in which case their text is activated and they are then discarded. In this way a card such as Ravens may challenge and defeat even Thor or Loki, and other more subtle effects can be triggered – play Idunn from hand, for example, and while she sits on top your discard pile you will win all challenges that result in a tie. These mythological cards could also be played to the battlefield, but they tend to be very weak indeed, so would really be little more than bluffs.
Ravens are weak in battle, but very useful when played from hand.
Teetering on the edge of disaster? You need columns!
As Thunder and Lightning progresses players will need to tiptoe along the razor’s edge, trying to balance several conflicting demands. Focus too much on battle at the expense of drawing and you will find yourself lacking cards to play, but taking your attention away from the battlefield can leave you fatally wounded at an early stage, and Thunder and Lightning is a game that punishes the weak in relentless fashion.
Because losing a column means so much more than having fewer cards on the battlefield (remember that a player only has as many actions as they have columns) leaving any column below strength is teetering on the edge of disaster…but you will rarely have the cards to shore up your defences the way you would like to. There are three ways around this – you can try to have your leader on the field (Thor or Loki) as they will guarantee you four actions per turn, although they can be challenged directly by Ravens, so they are strong but very vulnerable; you could simply try very hard not to lose a column in the first place, although this can be trickier to do than it sounds, as playing a card to the battlefield takes up a precious action that could have been used for a draw or a challenge; or, keeping a very straight face, you can simply resort to bluffing and hope for the best. In truth, players would love to take one of the first two options, but it will most likely come down to bluffing…and huge amounts of tension, and it is exactly here where those few cards, all that make Thunder and Lightning what it is, spring thrillingly to life.
Thor and Loki beef up your actions, but are vulnerable to Ravens.
Bluff and deceit sound good? This could be for you!
A few plays in it becomes clear that this is an engrossing and engaging game of bluff and deceit, sharing its facedown mechanism with other games such as Android: Netrunner and Yomi. If you are lucky enough to play regularly against the same opponent then Thunder and Lightning will begin to reveal its depths as you try to outmanoeuvre each other with two decks of cards that are essentially identical. Third game in I knew (and I mean knew) that my opponent would put any Shield Walls they had into their front line, so I fronted my army with Female Archers (the only cards that can defeat Shield Walls) as best I could. That I went down to eventual defeat was solely due to my poor play, but it was a small victory to take out those Shields, and I felt that I had understood something important about Thunder and Lighting. If these mind games are important to you then you will probably love this game and it will really speak to you.
Battle is joined and that Archer on the right is about to destroy Blue’s Shield Wall.
It is hard to think of any real cons for Thunder and Lightning. Of course, it gets better as players get to know the decks, so playing it regularly against the same opponent is going to reap dividends and casual players might play it once and discard it, but it is not as complex as many living or collectible card games, so even a newbie should be able to play certainly decently after a few plays. The insert could be more solid and the back of the box is a little odd, but these issues affect the gameplay not a jot, so you can tell that I am really fishing around for negatives.
Thunder and Lightning is so easy to pick up and play that you can be up and banging heads within five minutes or so, as long as you are happy to acquire your deeper knowledge as you go along. Both players begin with the same set of weapons, so they know what their opponent may hold, meaning that Thunder and Lightning spreads out from the initial shuffle and set-up and the choices made at that point. It falls into the same genre of head-to-head card games as gems such as Battle Line and Revolver, although here the confrontation is direct instead of on either side of a central objective, and hidden instead of revealed.
A Thor-tful game with a punch? Or just Lo-ki?
You won’t want to keep this card in our hand for long, but it’s dangerous anywhere…
Thunder and Lightning has intrigued me enough for me to keep it in my collection and play it some more, as it packs a solid punch for the components, and involves its players in the playing, positioning and revealing of cards, all of which need to be timed to perfection. The idea of giving players only as many actions as they have columns is inspired, effectively making out and out attack a strategy guaranteed to fail and thereby forcing players to play the long game, which, in this case, is actually only thirty minutes or so. The intensity of Thunder and Lightning is beguiling, something to savour and it sits on my “should play intensively list”, alongside games such as Revolver. Even so, casual play promises to be fun as well, although repeated encounters are where Thunder and Lightning really shines.
While it may not sit at the heart of every collection, it fills the mid-weight head-to-head niche exceptionally well, and the bluffing element makes it tremendously exciting and nervy. If you have played and enjoyed a game like Battle Line then you should find this an exciting and engrossing next step, and it is also worth exploration by those who, like me, fear that their gaming partners are never quite going to get into Android: Netrunner and the like. In fact, I think that in time Thunder and Lightning might well take its place alongside my favourite head-to-headers. The story on the box is cobblers, the instructions on the cards can occasionally be confusing, and maybe the insert could be better, but those are tiny flaws – Thunder and Lightning is what happens when great gaming minds turn their efforts to intensity in a small package, and, as such, it comes strongly recommended.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.