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Reviews - Thunderstone: Dragonspire
 
by Lee Valentine


Thunderstone: Dragonspire boxThunderstone: Dragonspire
Published by Alderac Entertainment Group
Designed by Mike Elliott and Brent Keith
Over 500 cards, full-color rulebook, plastic tokens, a game board, a plastic storage insert, and indexed card dividers
$44.99

Thunderstone: Dragonspire ("DS") is the newest expansion for AEG's hit deck-building card game Thunderstone ("TS"). DS is playable as a stand-alone game as well, the first such TS expansion to have that feature. I refer you to my original TS review for information on how the game is played. In this review, I will be focusing a bit on the box's contents and what this set will add to the environment.

New Additions to the Game
DS includes all the cards you need to play a game of TS. This edition includes examples of Guardians, Treasures, and Traps, features that were added in the expansions. A new category of card appears in this edition of the game: the Setting. A Setting card is a metagame card that changes one or more basic rules of the game for all players. As such, Settings increase play difficulty, and I would not recommend their use for first time players.

Toryn Gauntlet cardThere's a good mix of Heroes, Monsters, and Village cards in DS, almost as many of each as were in the game's original base set. There is plenty of card diversity to allow for a lot of replay value.

A number of the new village cards in this set take some work to make them useful. For instance, some manipulate which monsters are in the Dungeon or the cards you will have in your next hand. While these may bewilder beginners, experienced TS players will enjoy the challenge and options presented by these cards.

A handful of cards also have potentially random effects that are triggered based on the type of card discarded from the top of your own deck or your opponent's. Sometimes you can manipulate your own deck to have more control over these effects, but other times they are just random. In a game that relies so thoroughly on mathematical calculations, players will either find these types of cards novel, or an unreliable addition to a game that demands more reliability.

One of the new Village cards, a weapon called the Toryn Gauntlet, increases a Hero's Strength, allows him to wield an additional weapon (presumably including another Toryn Gauntlet), and grants a bonus to attack. Combined with a high base gold value, this card seemed almost too good to be true compared to many other weapons already printed.

WindFury cardThe new heroes offer a variety of new abilities. However, other than forcing some occasional discards, the set continues to limit player-versus-player interaction. Two new heroes are noteworthy. The Veteran class has four different levels of heroes to advance to instead of the normal three. While there are only two levels of Phalanx heroes, the more Phalanx heroes you have the more powerful they all become.

This set is particularly dangerous for the dungeon delvers. Something always seems to be destroying your weapons or heroes. The monsters are often extremely challenging, sometimes requiring that multiple Heroes and weapons be destroyed after just a single encounter. This means that entering the Dungeon is not for the faint of heart.

Thunderstone, like a number of other deck-building games including Dominion, has an initial marketplace of cards for players to purchase "in game", the contents of which are determined randomly using special decks of randomizers. As I noted in my review of the TS base set, I thought it was a substantial error to give the randomizers used in TS an identical back to the other cards used in the game. AEG has finally gotten around to fixing this issue in DS. In this set, AEG has reprinted randomizers for all the editions of TS released to date. This time, their backs have minor differences to help separate them from core game cards. Oddly, though, the superior packaging and indexing system in this edition (compared to the base game) means this change is still a good one, but one substantially less necessary than in the original edition. One big oversight here was a failure to mark the randomizers with a set-specific icon. Why would this be useful? DS is meant to be playable as a stand-alone set, yet you can only identify the DS-specific cards by inventorying your set. With sorting icons, you could easily choose which expansions to play with and pull the appropriate randomizers for those expansions.

Rules Clarity
Much of the rulebook here is substantially clearer than the original edition of the TS rules. Some intentional rules changes were brought into being in this set (like how to setup Guardians in the Dungeon Deck), but were not highlighted in the rulebook as rules changes, so they were easy to miss.

A new game variant featuring cooperative play was described in a fairly murky fashion, leaving me initially puzzled over how it worked. The rulebook also features a new solo variant to try, but to use this variant you either have to download the core solo play rules online or own Wrath of the Elements.

Unfortunately, the card glossary does not cover all of the cards, and oddly sometimes covered the more obvious cards rather than the more troublesome ones. This is a particular issue because this expansion has more vaguely worded cards than most of the other expansions. With some cards I could correctly divine the intent even though the cards were not worded in a crystal clear fashion. At least one card I would have had no idea how to handle had I not seen a somewhat similar card (with clearer wording) in the original TS set. Still another card I have no clear idea of what it does and how it works.

Components
This set uses other artists in addition to Jason Engle to produce the cards for this expansion. Even the basic cards have new art. While there is now no longer a unified artistic sense throughout the set, most of the art is extremely high quality. The exception comes with some of the monsters, the Dark Enchanted. Some of the art on those cards should have been rejected, as it clashes both in style and quality with the other cards in the set.

The stock used for the playing cards was of similarly good quality to that found in the previous TS sets. However, very minor deviations in the length of some cards in the set might cause occasional problems with riffle shuffling.

I was not pleased with the collation in this edition. I spent quite a lot of time separating cards out, sorting them by type, and arranging them to put them into the box. One thing that spending that time counting and sorting the cards did clue me in on was that the numbers of some basic cards (Dagger, Iron Rations, and Torch) have changed. In the base TS set there are 15 each of these, allowing each player in a five-player game to have two each plus five leftover for purchase. DS ships with only ten of each of these cards, meaning that in a five-player game there are no leftovers for purchase. I did not find this information highlighted in the rulebook, but it is an important change; I presume also that the change was an intentional one.

Half Orc Marauder cardAnother new addition to the game in this expansion is a board to track which ranks of the dungeon hold which monsters. Dungeon rank (or "level" in RPG parlance) is not a complex mechanic to begin with. If a board was required for this purpose, it would only be necessary for beginning players. The light penalties mechanic, however, can be very troubling to keep track of. While the new dungeon board lists the standard light penalties for each rank, the font effects applied to the typography make the relevant text quite difficult to read. Furthermore, even within this set there are creatures that cause significant modifications to light penalties, including some that globally cause changes to light penalty calculations for the whole dungeon, rendering the information on the board useless when those creatures are in play. As a result, the board is more novel than it is useful. A set of counters with "-2" printed on them to help calculate attack penalties due to darkness would have been helpful. I have handcrafted just such things myself and have used them ever since I started playing TS.

The final new components introduced in DS are small Thunderstone-shaped plastic tokens to be used to track Experience Points ("XP"). These are fantastically useful. The original edition of TS used XP cards to track this information. This was one more pile of cards to keep track of, and you could not tell how many XP you had at a glance. Now you can. This is a very welcome addition to gameplay.

Packaging
The DS box is larger than the game's other expansions, and is similar in size to the original TS box. The storage insert included here has places to separate out basic cards (used in every game) and tokens from the rest of the set. AEG also included tabbed index dividers (like those used in the previous expansions) for all the new cards included in this set to help keep different types of cards separate and well organized. Storage and indexing is one way that DS is vastly superior to the original edition of TS.

Leaving out older basic cards and diseases (in favor of the new versions of them from DS) I was able to fit all the TS cards produced to date into the DS box. There was not a lot of space leftover, however, and so I have my doubts as to whether you could sleeve all your cards and still fit everything.

Conclusions
While the original edition of TS had many problems with rules clarity, I have heard that AEG fixed most of these with their second printing of the base set, making it a better set to start with for beginning players. Wording problems aside, the cards in DS are a bit more advanced at times than those found in the base TS game. However, if some occasional murky text doesn't bother you and you want a game that has plenty of bells and whistles that can grow with you as your knowledge of the game progresses, then Thunderstone: Dragonspire is a solid game. Veteran Thunderstone players will particularly enjoy some of the new Village cards, the new XP tokens, and the fact that this expansion was designed to house a complete Thunderstone collection. While Dragonspire costs a few dollars more than the base set, the extra dividers and the inclusion of a Dungeon board and the XP tokens more than explains the additional costs.

For Retailers
The art on this box is great, and will likely attract attention if you display it face out. While this can be a jumping off point for new players, consumers who aren't already players of TS might not bother to pick up the back of the box to learn that this is a stand alone gaming product. So, this may be the kind of product that could benefit from some hand selling or a sign telling customers to check the product out, and noting its stand-alone play potential.

 

Lee's Ratings
Overall: B+
Gameplay: B+ (overall strong, with some occasional quirky cards)
Artwork: A- (great overall, with a handful of substandard pieces)
Components A- Packaging: B+ (nice packaging with awful collation)
Rules Clarity: B (overall high, with some unclear cards and rules sections)
Retailer Saleability: B (perhaps higher if you hand sell consumers on the stand-alone nature of the product)

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