A Thunderboats! primer

It’s been a long time on another blog site since I’ve written much about Thunderboats!  There’s been some interest on The Miniatures Page recently, so I want to get as much out there as I can so those who are interested can try to acquire boats, get the rules and have as much fun.

First of all, just a little history.  When I was a young boy living in Seattle in the 60’s, there were no major league sports.  Sure the Huskies football team had years when they were very good, won PAC-8 (?) championships and destroyed a very good Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl, but professionally, not much.  Except those damned hydroplanes.

For those not in the know, hydroplanes emerged after World War II to dominate the competitions held by the American Power Boat Association.  They replaced the deeper- hulled, high-powered boats by riding on top of the water due to their aerodynamic three point designs, driven my WWII surplus Allison and Rolls Merlin engines that once powered P-40 and P-51 fighters. By the 1950’s, boat designs like the Slo-Mo-Shun IV were competing with boats out of Detroit for the coveted Gold Cup Trophy and bringing Seattle its first championship since the Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917.

Hydroplane racing was THE summer sport in Seattle when I was young.  We would gather as a family to watch the Seafair races in August, or the Gold Cup if Seattle was hosting.  The drivers and boats from Seattle-Miss Bardahl, Miss Exide, Miss Thriftway, Hawaii Kai and a host of others, were our favorites and we rooted them on as their colors, and frequently their drivers changed.  Some boats were perennial favorites, and others were annual also-rans.

And sometimes the sport was beset by tragedy.  To this day, I have never forgotten the disaster on the Potomac River when three drivers were killed in the 1966 President’s Cup.  In a race that became known as “Black Sunday,” Ron Musson, Rex Manchester and Don Wilson were all killed. The sport was plagued by numerous deaths throughout the remaining seasons of the decade.

But certainly during the 60’s, at least before the arrival of Seattle’s first “big league” team, the NBA Supersonics, the city was obsessed with the loud, powerful boats that ran on Lake Washington.  New hulls, new sponsors, new color schemes were the talk of the town.  Anyone from the Northwest of a certain age remembers.

In the early 2000’s as Enfilade was winding down on a Sunday afternoon, we were hanging out in the convention hall discussing future game ideas waiting for the last knots of gamers to head home.  Dave Schueler wrote the Golden Age Air Racing rules, and one of the guys in the group suggested the rules could be altered just a little to make a fun set of hydroplane racing rules. It quickly got my attention.  Master modeler and owner of Craftworks, Shawn McEvoy assured us he could supply us with inexpensive resin hydroplanes. When Shawn showed up with real miniatures the next year, the die was cast, and a short time later, boats were on the mat and rules were out of the printer.

Thunderboats! is a fun game based on the simple premise that the most fun games are those in which the players have loads of choices to make.  It begins with choosing from my large collection of boats, to creating your lean, mean flying-on-water-machine and then taking all kinds of chances to run your boat in a race with 5-7 other unscrupulous ne’er do wells trying o finish ahead of you.

What do you need to play?  First you need a hex mat.  My racing hex mat is 6′ X 8′  felt with five inch hexes. Yours doesn’t have to be that big, and the hexes could be as small as three inches. The mat was hand-made in the days before screen-printed mats were available, and we used it for multiple purposes. Size doesn’t need to be standard, but generally you want to allow at least two full hexes on the outside of the course to provide a little maneuver room to the racers.  You need a set of marker buoys–they can be made of anything–and one should represent the start/finish line. Eight buoys is optimal

You need Formula De dice, and more than one set.  I have three, but probably could get by with two. These are 4,6,8 and 12 sided dice that are numbered irregularly, more like averaging dice.  Formula De is currently in print so the dice are available separately. About $12 a set from Amazon.  In addition to these, each player needs a ten-sided die-preferably not yellow, red, orange or green.

Finally, you need boats.  I get my boats from Mr. McEvoy.  If you are interested I can help you contact him, just message me through WordPress. Shawn’s boats are smaller, less expensive versions of his magnificent 1/48 and 1/25 scale resin hydroplanes.  Those are intended for collectors and modelers while the 1/87th (HO) versions we play with are for the game. Shawn has also begun producing decals for the boats so they don’t have to be completely hand-painted.  Limited decals available so far, but more on the way. Boats are $5-10 each, and well worth the price. An alternative is the Hot Wheels/Matchbox versions.  Unfortunately, these boats are all the later turbine boats, and don’t have the same historical cachet of the shovel nose, drop sponson, and picklefork boats of the Craftmaster models. Shawn also sells buoys and a few other goodies.

Finally, players will need something to represent a roostertail into the following hexes. I made mine out sheet styrene and shaped them with a Dremel tool.



My boats from the late 60’s and 70’s.  The checkered Miss Bardahl was a Gold Cup winner in 1968.  The picklefork designs widened the hydroplanes and made them safer, less prone to becoming airborne and “blowing over.” 

The rules are Thunderboats! by Dave Schueler.  The rules are owned by Dave, and I have his permission to distribute them. My association with the game is simply one of gamer, promoter and enthusiast, and I have the advantage that Dave is one of my best friends. The rules include basic rules, event cards (as a word document for business cards), boat cards, and an expansion of the rules for extended races of more than one three-lap heat (includes rules for the always exciting nitrous oxide bottle.) Again, if you contact me via WordPress I can make these available to you electronically, and there is no cost.

Rules are easy.  Players spend points to buy a driver and build their boats. They put ’em out on the table, and choose their throttle settings and roll the dice representing those. Players can choose to run their engines faster than they should, pay fewer points for turning than is intended, run through roostertails, or occupied hexes, all at a risk of doing damage to their boats.  My motto is no risk no reward.  It’s an easy game to play, and by the end of the first lap, players are running the game themselves.  It’s much fun.

Alan Ameel’s Hydroartprints is a great site for subjects to paint. 

Last, but not least, there is the question of how to paint those hydroplane miniatures. This is my favorite part and I’ve studiously tried to paint mine as historically as possible.  If you go that route, there are lots of great resources to explore. Here are a few:

Artist Alan Ameel has a great collection of hydroplane prints at $65 a pop.  But you can see them here at hydroartprints.

Leslie Field’s Hydroplane History site has loads of pictures, but is in the process of upgrading to another site with more sources.  Hydroplane History also has a wonderful Facebook page full of pics, if you are not Facebook averse.

Finally, the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, WA has a fine website with access to history and some photos.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you are interested in rules or contacting Craftworks about boats.  If you’re looking for something fun, that’s easy to run for gamer and non-gamer alike, Thunderboats! is a good choice.

From my collection of photos of Thunderboats! games including boats from the 50’s and 60’s. From upper left-Tahoe Miss leads Miss Wahoo down a back stretch, Miss Bardahl (1962-65), Miss US-5, with Miss Smirnoff (blue) and others in background.  Miss Exide gets an early lead with Slo-Mo-Shun V, Miss US 5, Miss Bardahl and Miss Wahoo grouped closely behind. 

4 comments on “A Thunderboats! primer

  1. Kevin, a post full of interesting stuff! You laid out the foundation for your hydroplane racing game and project very well. Nifty models! I recall seeing your air racing games from years ago at Enfilade! and those always looked fun. I am sure racing boats would be just as fun.

    Seattle had a professional ice hockey team?

  2. James Gibbons says:

    How do i contact you for a copy of the rules? I love racing games…

  3. Kevin – I sent you an email to that address a while back. Not sure if you got it. Still interested in this project, especially after attending Detroit yesterday!

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