Game Night Blog Carnival: Thunderstone

Welcome to the Game Night Blog Carnival for January 2012! You can get more information about the carnival at the main Game Night site.

In mid-December, Benoit forwarded an email to the Game Night group with a proposal. He had been contacted by Jeff Quick at AEG who proposed sending everyone in the group a free copy of Thunderstone or one of the expansions in exchange for everyone reviewing it for January's Game Night Blog Carnival. So here we are with free Thunderstone boxes on our shelves, and January is officially Thunderstone month at the Game Night Blog Carnival.

A Little Background
Before I received my copy I took a quick look online for more information about Thunderstone. It's put out by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), and there's a Thunderstone section of AEG's website where you can order expansions, download the rulebook, and download the rules for solo play. The base set retails for $44.95 and the Wrath of the Elements expansion retails for $34.95, which is about what I'd expect for a deckbuilding game.

I played three games with my wife before writing this review.  Just so you know where we're coming from, we really enjoy Dominion and own several expansions. We weren't as keen on Ascension since it features a random draw rather than Dominion's more strategic fixed card market.

I heard Thunderstone described as a deckbuilding game that simulates a dungeon crawl. After playing a few times, that description fits. I've only played with two players so far. I wanted to run a 4-player version to see how play changed with more players, but the random factors aligned against me on that score.

I love the art on the box and the cards. It's suitably dark without belaboring the point. The rules spell out the premise: Monsters will come out of the dungeon and destroy the town unless the heroes can get in there and recover the Thunderstone.

When I unwrapped the cards, they had a cross-hatched finish that felt a little cheaper than I expected, but they seem to be holding up fairly well with all the shuffling. The cards also left bits of what looks like glitter all over the box. The glitter production seems to have subsided after the first game.

The plastic insert to hold the cards feels disappointingly generic after playing with Dominion's box where every card has its own slot to live in. I found the stack of slightly taller divider cards provided to put between different card stacks. I ended up with several extra dividers, so adding expansion cards to the base set and keeping all the cards in a longbox is an option to save space given the large box. I saw no recommended organization for the cards in the rules which irked my Virgo sensibilities a little, but I got over it quickly.

Game Setup
Setup takes longer than Dominion since you're dealing with 15 random card stacks to pull across 3 categories, plus the 4 basic supply piles, plus XP and Disease cards. Shuffling the Dungeon Deck and then shuffling the Thunderstone card into the bottom third of that deck takes extra time as well. There are no treasure cards, but over half of the available cards grant you some gold for purchases in a dual-purpose approach very similar to the card game San Juan.

The basic setup consists of a 16-card marketplace containing 4 heroes for hire using gold or upgrade using XP, the 4 standard supply piles (Militia, Dagger, Iron Rations, and Torch), and 8 other cards you can buy with gold. At the top of the layout sits the Dungeon Deck filled with monsters and three monster cards laid out next to the dungeon deck to populate the dungeon. The Disease and XP cards are stacked up next to the board. In this picture they're using XP tokens instead of cards, which is fine since they never get shuffled into your deck and are only used to level up your heroes.

The Rules
The rules of play took a few read-throughs to understand. They make sense and they're in a decent order, but there's so much cross referencing of rules that it can be difficult to figure out what's going on in your first game or two. We got the Village turn fairly quickly since it's very Dominion-esque, but making sure we had the Dungeon turn correct took some doing.

The overall game seems simple enough. Take a turn to add a more powerful card to your deck from either the Village or the Dungeon, and when the Thunderstone advances to Rank 1 in the Dungeon the game ends. Each player counts up the victory points in their deck and the highest total wins.

Strategy Tip #1: Victory Points come from monsters and from advancing your heroes to level 3. Going into the Dungeon every turn you're able to defeat a monster is the sure-fire path to victory, as my wife figured out early on much to my chagrin.

The Cards
Hero cards are your main attack and ability cards. Heroes can be equipped with one Weapon card which can only weigh as much as the Hero's Strength score or less. They may provide Light or Coins, and each Hero other than Militia has abilities which make them even more powerful.

Strategy Tip #2: Upgrade your Heroes as quickly as you can. Level 3 Heroes usually have sick special abilities, and their improved attack scores make monsters much easier to defeat. Plus they're worth a couple of victory points at game end. Defeat monsters first, but if you can't do that this turn head to the Village and level up.

Taking Turns
On your turn, you take a look at your hand and choose one of three options:
  1. Go to the Village to buy one new card and upgrade any heroes you may have in your hand using XP garnered from defeating monsters.
  2. Go to the Dungeon to beat up a monster with a simple attack vs. defense mechanic and add that card to your deck as a Trophy.
  3. Rest and destroy a card from your hand. Handy for destroying Disease cards given by some monsters in the Dungeon.
If you went through a whole Thunderstone game and did nothing but go to the Village, you'd be playing a very slimmed-down version of Dominion with almost no victory points available to you. If you did nothing but go to the Dungeon, you'd be playing a slimmed-down version of Ascension with a Thunderstone card in the deck as a game-ender. But in mashing those two games together, Thunderstone provides a great dungeon crawling, hack and slash game experience.

The Light Penalty throws an extra dimension into the Dungeon battle. There are 3 ranks of monsters in the Dungeon. The closer you get to the deck, the deeper into the Dungeon you go and the darker it gets. So there's a penalty to you overall attack based on darkness. There are light items and Hero cards (the Elf Sorcerer) that give you light points to overcome the darkness and decrease the attack penalty. Some monsters incur additional light penalties, and some like the Blink Dog can hide in the darkness and not be attacked if it still has a Light Penalty. I thought this layered needless complication onto the game at first, but it's actually a pretty interesting monkey wrench to play with.

Playing The Game
We played three games which gave us a variety of results.
  1. We used the cards recommended for the first game. The Thunderstone was the second-to-last card in the Dungeon deck. My wife beat me soundly.
  2. Random cards. Abyssal, Humanoid, Ooze monsters. Thunderstone came out as card #21, the earliest it can possibly come out. My wife beat me even more soundly.
  3. Random cards. Doomknight, Humanoid, Undead: Spirit monsters. The marketplace card selection was so bad we called the game after 10 consecutive turns of being unable to go into the dungeon.
The box says a game takes about 45 minutes. Between setting up and figuring out the rules, our first game took about 2 hours, and subsequent games ended up around 60-90 minutes.

The random cards (both in initial card selection and random draw for your hand) have a huge impact on what you can do during a turn. In our third game, we had 3 fighters and a cleric available for heroes - no wizards or thieves. We also drew only one weapon and a fairly large pile of villagers who are only useful in the Village. It took a long time to get our decks even started, and with the special abilities of the monsters who destroy a fighter in combat, it turned into a hard grind. Some monsters had light penalties, and we were sorely lacking in light sources in the Village. When powerful monsters come out early, it's tough to get anything going in the Dungeon and you're stuck going back to the village and trying to pick up more powerful cards.

Overall Reactions
Overall I like the game. It's more complex but has fewer gameplay options than Dominion. I may pick up an expansion set and see if it adds more strategic options. I would love to download pre-balanced card lists from the AEG site. That would save some time during setup and prevent the issue of randomly drawing all fighters and no weapons.

The basic set feels very basic. With Dominion, you can make very different games using different card sets from the basic set. With Thunderstone, it seems very hack and slash. A couple of Hero cards allow you to force all the other players to discard a card from their hands, but that's the only direct interaction between players. One card lets you buy an extra card in the Village, and a couple let you draw extra cards in both the Village and the Dungeon. Options for expanding or altering the basic play of the game seem very limited, something I hope gets addressed in expansion packs. I mean, if you've got a thief in your hand why not take a Rest to try and steal a Trophy from your opponent's hand?

Heroes are the only cards which get scarce quickly with 2 players. There are only 2 of each Level 3 Hero card, and once they're gone you can't upgrade that Hero any more. We only ran out of one supply pile across all three games. The scarcity will become a factor with more players.

I only had 2 Heroes upgraded to Level 3 in the first game, and those 4 Victory Points could have come from a single monster instead. There's no strategy to victory that involves upgrading Heroes, especially since you need to defeat monsters to get enough XP to upgrade your Heroes. Heroes will help you kill monsters, but they won't be a significant source of victory points on their own. Given that insight, the monsters are the only cards in the game that give you victory points. This reinforces the hack and slash mentality since you must go to the dungeon whenever you can if you expect to win the game.

TL;DR - Executive Summary
  • Thunderstone is a deckbuilding game that simulates a dungeon crawl.
  • Retails for $44.95, and it has expansion sets and solo rules available.
  • Rules are complex to read, but fairly easy to pick up during play.
  • Supports 1-5 players. Works well with 2 players.
  • Slow to start, but great fun when your heroes beat up monsters in the Dungeon.
  • Biggest complaint: Bad random card selection can make a game almost unplayable.
  • Wish List: Card lists like Dominion provides - balanced card selection is key.
  • Strategy Tips: Focus on defeating Monsters and upgrading your Heroes.
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