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Reviews - Thunderstone
 
by Lee Valentine


Thunderstone boxThunderstone
Published by Alderac Entertainment Group
Designed by Mike Elliott
2-5 players (solo play rules online)
Contents: 530 cards, full-color rulebook, 50 card dividers, storage insert
$39.99

 

Thunderstone is one of Alderac Entertainment Group's newest card games. Like Alderac's Tomb product line, Thunderstone (TS) has a deep dungeon-delving theme. TS falls into the same category of game as Dominion – it's a game where you compete to collect cards to include in an ever-growing deck which you will continue to use throughout the rest of the game. TS's designer, Mike Elliott, has worked on a variety of collectible card and miniature games in the past, ranging from Heroclix to Hecatomb to the Harry Potter Trading Card Game. Alderac's Jim Pinto did some additional design work on the product line.

Mechanics: The Village
In TS you play the leader of a dungeon-adventuring expedition. You start the game with some food, some meager weapons and torches, and a half-dozen militia men. These form your starting Party Deck of 12 cards.

A Dungeon deck is filled with 30 cards representing three randomly selected categories of monsters such as demons, dragons, or humanoids. In the lower third of the Dungeon deck is randomly inserted the Thunderstone, a card that is thematically the object of your quest, but is practically just a game ender card. Three Monsters are revealed and represent creatures roaming the first three levels or "Ranks" of the Dungeon.

The Village is populated with four randomly selected character classes of adventurers or Heroes. You could have rogues, holy warriors, wizards, and rangers, for example. There are three levels of each class and multiple Heroes of every level. At the start of the game your reputation is low enough as a leader that you will only be able to recruit first level Heroes. As the game progresses the Heroes you recruit will gain experience and "level up", and you'll also be able to hire on higher level Heroes to your cause.

The Village further contains some basic cards common to every game as well as eight total stacks of randomly selected equipment, weapons, spells, and hirelings that may help you on your quest to find the Thunderstone. Some of these help you gain advantage in the Dungeon, while some Villagers will help you wheel and deal in the Village itself.

The game has an odd mechanic for purchasing things in the Village. While you don't usually sell your old items off to get new ones, many Village cards, and most Monsters that you defeat in the Dungeon, have a gold value of some kind printed on them. When you enter the Village you reveal all the cards in your hand with a gold value, generate a gold total, and you get to purchase one weapon, item, spell, or Hero. The new card and all the rest of your hand is discarded into a discard pile. When you run out of cards to draw from your Party Deck then you reshuffle your discard pile to start a new Party Deck. So your purchases in the Village become permanent additions to your ever-growing deck.

Mechanics: The Dungeon
Sometimes your draw from your Party Deck will generate a handful of militia and other Heroes, armed with weapons and brandishing torches. It's now time to visit the Dungeon.

Most of your cards that don't generate Village-specific effects will either generate attack bonuses of some kind or will generate light in the dark Dungeon. Monsters have a health score (read "hit points"). If your attack score is equal to or greater than a given Monster's health, then you can kill it off. The Dungeon Deck is a giant monster conveyor belt, and as one Monster is defeated, all the other Monsters move forward to fill the gap, and a new monster fills in Rank 3 of the Dungeon. As a result, there're usually three Monsters to choose from at any one time.

Thunderstone Deadbone TrollLike Village purchases, defeated Monsters are added to the discard pile of your Party Deck, becoming a regular part of your future draws. Most Monsters generate long-term gold, but also generate experience (for "leveling up" your Heroes into more powerful variants of their class). Lastly, Monsters generate Victory Points. The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the game wins. Since the majority of Monsters don't help you in the Village or in future Dungeon combats, victories become a self-limiting process; if you have a hand that's full of previously killed Monsters you typically won't generate the necessary resources to defeat other Monsters in the Dungeon. Since Monsters do generate gold, you'll have to use the gold that they generate to buy better and better cards in the Village to continue to guarantee that the non-Monster cards you draw are sufficient to generate you a win in the Dungeon.

One really interesting Dungeon mechanic is Light. The Monsters are well-adapted to fighting in the dark, but most of the Heroes aren't. The deeper in the Dungeon you travel, the darker it becomes, and the harder it is to see the monsters you are fighting. This translates into attack penalties which can be offset by carrying sufficient light-generating items into the Dungeon. I had a couple of problems, not with the idea of the mechanic, but with the way it was expressed in the game. The formula for the Light modifier is: ((amount of Light you produce + penalties - Dungeon Rank of the Monster) * 2), up to a maximum of +0. Since this formula has to be calculated for every monster in play, some of which are at different Dungeon Ranks or may have other custom Light modifiers, this can become a bit tedious. Rather than expressing the darkness as "Darkness", it is expressed as negative light, and you constantly have to multiply after summing, making this mechanic a bit more math-intensive than it should have been. A simpler mechanic could have been achieved by including Darkness counters with "-2" on them, adding and removing them from play as needed. Since I've made my own counters, game play has sped up substantially when it's my turn.

Mechanics: Purging Cards & Resting
TS has a variety of mechanics to remove cards from your deck if they have overstayed their welcome. Since some Monsters put permanent penalty cards (called "Diseases") into your deck, this is a welcome mechanic. Sometimes barebones cards like Militia or Dagger serve you well early on, but are weak compared to your other cards – TS gives you multiple ways to prune these weaker cards if you want to.

Functionality Issues
TS has a randomized setup to increase its replay value by making the strategies that should be employed vary substantially based on the Monsters, Heroes, and other Village cards that are selected for use at the start of the game. I have a fairly organized collection, but it still takes me about 10 minutes to setup and a similar amount of time to pack up the game. This is not very much time if you are playing only one game. If you play multiple games in a row, however, this adds up, since you typically break down the random setup and choose a new one each time, factoring in about 10-20 minutes between games just for cycling cards in and out.

Thunderstone Elf ArchmageWhile TS advertises that it is playable with from 2-5 players, the Alderac website features solo play rules as well (see the links below). The game is highly playable as a solitaire game, but oddly these rules were available only online and not as part of the product's print edition rulebook.

TS's gameplay changes as you add more players. With fewer players it's pretty easy to access the cards you'll need cheaply, particularly Heroes. With more players, however, you can easily run out of Level 1 versions of Heroes, forcing you to buy more expensive, higher level characters. Competition over higher level heroes can also limit your ability to level up your own Heroes – a higher level card must be available to you before you can level up your character.

The randomized setup can make some cards very useful for the current game, while others will be less useful. With more players there is much more competition over a scarce number of optimal cards, making the game more tense. With fewer players, the game is more of a multi-player solitaire. For example, in two-player play, most of the player-to-player interaction occurs in the Dungeon, based on which Monsters you choose to attack and which you'll leave for your opponent.

In multi-player play, the mechanic of the Thunderstone card itself can randomly favor one or more players. When the Thunderstone reaches Rank 1 of the Dungeon, the game ends abruptly; the player with the most accumulated Victory Points in his Party Deck and discard pile wins. The randomization of the Thunderstone's location in the Dungeon Deck during setup means that it's possible for some players to get one more turn than other players. Since the a player can earn anywhere from 0 to 11 Victory Points on the last turn of the game in the Dungeon, the swing could occasionally be substantial.

Rulebook Clarity
The rulebook is a bit of a sticking point for me on Thunderstone. The original print edition of the rulebook has some gaps in it. As a hardcore gamer geek, I just filled in the gaps with my own best guesses and got on with the game. This generally worked fine for most cards, but some cards required a bit more homebrew rules than others. This version of the rulebook was playable, just not very thorough. As a reviewer, I always try to investigate how the game was intended to be played to compare the intent to the rulebook. TS, as it was intended to be played, apparently varies somewhat from the rules that come with the game. Mike Elliott, the designer, apparently intended the timing of some steps of gameplay to work somewhat differently than described, and some of Elliott's intended rules didn't make it into the rulebook. The game's use of so many card types also generated some combinations of effects not described in the initial rules draft.

Alderac has tried to keep up with online rules questions by redrafting the rules multiple times since the game was released a few weeks ago. The current online edition of the rules fills in a lot of the gaps, but still is a bit rough around the edges, with a small handful of internal inconsistencies. Overall, TS has a very playable set of rules, but some parts are mildly convoluted. So, you have a choice of two rules sets – one which requires a fair bit of guesswork as to how the game works, but which will produce as good a game as you can tinker into existence, and another rules set which is more complex, more complete, and occasionally a bit rough around the edges.

Whichever you choose, TS's gameplay is worth any struggles you might have with the rulebook. Much to their credit, Alderac's staff as well as gamer-volunteer Ryan Metzler, have been working around the clock since the game's release to bang the rulebook into shape. I recommend avoiding trying to visit online forums and looking into past answers to questions, as I am not sure that older answers are consistent with current rules. The game's rulebook wasn't fully baked when it was released, but now, a couple of weeks after release, it's closer to a finished product. Alderac has hinted that they may provide a revised printed rulebook in their first expansion, Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements. So, if you are the kind of consumer that buys gaming expansions, the revised rulebook online may be worth a look, as it will likely to be closer to the forthcoming expansion rulebook.

Product Appearance & Component Quality
The fantasy artwork in the game is great. Artist Jason Engle has produced art for this product which brings it up to the high level of standards that I expect when I see an Alderac card game.

Thunderstone Flaming SwordThe cards' trade dress looks very good as well, but the game suffers from production decisions of form over function. Cards which are used solely as pre-game randomizers have substantially similar appearance and identical card backs as cards actually used in the game. I think that was a mistake.

While TS cards are designed to segregate different types of information into different places on the cards, the numbers often appear over round, colored circles rather than evocative icons. As a result, if you can't remember the information based on pure position on the cards and color, then you are completely out of luck for understanding certain cards in TS, particularly Monsters. My wife's not a gamer geek, and I saw her eyes glaze over when I handed her a TS card – the lack of appropriate iconography would have been a major stumbling block if I had asked her to play, so I didn't bother. Gamer geeks are used to positionally identifying data, so this shouldn't be a problem for you if you are anything more than the occasional gamer.

The cards themselves are noticeably thinner than other game cards, which is odd for a game which requires as much shuffling of small groups of cards as Thunderstone does. Alderac selected a black border on the cards which shows wear more than a white border would have.

Packaging
The shrink wrapping of the cards in this product made first time setup and sorting something of a trial. Similar cards like Items or Heroes weren't all shrink-wrapped together. Sometimes part of one stack was shrink-wrapped with another category of cards, like Monsters. Since the cards have relatively similar card frames on their faces, and since the setup information in the rulebook starts several pages before the rulebook even shows a picture of the cards, I spent longer doing an initial sort of the cards than I should have had to.

The game includes 50 slightly oversized cards with Thunderstone logos on the front and back. At first, I thought these were the "Thunderstone" card referred to in the rulebook, since this stack of cards wasn't mentioned at all in the original rules. Only by asking a question in an online forum was I able to figure out what these "mystery cards" were. The box has an internal plastic tray which is designed to hold the normal game cards with these oversized cards as tabs or dividers. Since these 50 dividers have no labels on them like traditional tabbed indexes, and since the rulebook doesn't discuss storage at all, you are left to your own devices for figuring out a sorting and separation system that suits you.

The product insert seems fairly sturdy as does the box the product comes in. The artwork on the box cover is beautiful, featuring a variety of the spectral monsters from Grimhold Dungeon and the TS logo itself. The box is impressive overall, but a good bit larger than it needed to be to store the cards. Perhaps extra space was built-in to allow for the inclusion of the upcoming expansion. For the time being, I've transferred over my cards to small gripseal bags for each type of card and put them in a smaller box.

Conclusions
Thunderstone is a game with great replay value and some solid thinking behind the design. Unfortunately it was released without enough blind testing of the rulebook. If you like a fantasy theme and puzzle solving, then TS is a game that is probably a good fit for you. If you like cutthroat games, more players at the gaming table will create a greater player-to-player interaction while competing for scarce resources. $39.99 is not a bad price for 530 game cards. While the game has its warts, the product art and the gameplay make this a keeper for me. If you are willing to puzzle out a few rules on your own or download a revised rulebook then I think you'll really enjoy this product. Its playability as a solo game is what sold me on the product. I look forward to reviewing more of Alderac's future board game releases.

Retailer Saleability
Typically I include a retailer saleability projection for most of my product reviews. This game is obviously designed to capture some of the market share of Dominion. Since I've never had the pleasure of playing that gaming juggernaut, I don't feel comfortable giving a saleability rating for this product. I can say that Thunderstone will likely appeal to Dominion players, and will certainly appeal to players who enjoy CCG-style drafts.

Lee's Ratings

Overall: B+
Gameplay: A-
Rules Clarity (print rules): B (if you are willing to fill in some gaps); C+ if you want to play exclusively according to designer's intent
Rules Clarity (revised rules PDF online): B+
Artwork: A
Card Layout: B due to lack of useful iconography on some cards
Packaging: B sturdy and attractive, but may not be the ideal storage solution for a product with this many pre-game and post-game sorting demands

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