Thunderstone is a deck-building game by Mike Elliott, published in 2009, one year after Dominion hit the market, creating a frenzy with the introduction of a hot combination of game mechanics: deck building and card drafting. In games using these mechanics, players choose cards from a common pool laid out on the table, and try to gradually built the best deck of cards with which they will acquire the most victory points. The theme of such games may differ but the main idea remains the same. With this review we will look at 2 games, the original Thunderstone released in 2009 and the new Thunderstone Advance, which is a new improved implementation of the original game.
In Thunderstone, you are the leader of a heroic party of adventurers arriving at Barrowsdale, near Grimhold Dungeon where the first Thunderstone, an artifact of evil power, is kept. You seek to find the Thunderstone but in order to do so, you have to battle powerful monsters that guard the dungeon. You must build a deck of cards, consisting of adventurers, weapons, magic spells, food and other items.
Before beginning the game, you have to setup 3 different kind of decks. Remember that in each game of Thunderstone you won’t be using all cards available in the game but each time the cards you use will be different:
Dungeon deck: There are 8 different classes of monsters. You choose 3 or more classes at random, take all monsters belonging to these classes and shuffle them to form the dungeon deck. Shuffle the special Thunderstone card with the bottom 10 cards of the Dungeon deck. Now you are ready to populate the hall which is the area where you fight the monsters, placed next to the Dungeon deck. There are 3 ranks of monsters in the Hall Area. The card farthest from the Dungeon deck is rank 1 and the one closest is rank 3. These ranks are populated with monsters from the Dungeon deck. The rank of each monster, is associated with a specific amount of Light penalty, subtracted from the heroes attack power. This element of the game tries to simulate a real situation in a dungeon, where the farther you advance into it, the less light there is, inhibiting you to properly see the monsters, thus lowering the power of your attack. Each point of light penalty subtracts 2 points of power from your attack. Monsters placed in rank 1, give a light penalty of 1 (thus attack -2), monsters in rank 2 give 2 points of light penalty (thus attack -4) and those in rank 3 give 3 points of light penalty (thus attack -6).
Village deck. The village deck consists of Heroes, Magic spells, weapons and various items. Those are chosen randomly each time you play, using randomizer cards, just as monster classes are chosen. However there are 4 basic card types that will always be present in the village: Militia, Torch, Iron Ration and Dagger. In each game you will choose 4 different Heroes and 8 different Village cards to populate the village along with Basic cards. All these cards populate the village. Each time you choose to visit the village as your action, you can buy one of them.
Starting Deck. Each player is dealt 6 Militia (6 Regulars in Thunderstone Advance), 2 daggers (Longspears in Thunderstone Advance), 2 iron rations (Thunderstone Shards in Thunderstone Advance) and 2 torches. This is your starting deck which you will gradually grow, filling it with cards from the village and monsters you defeat. You shuffle your deck and place it face down in front of you. Draw the top 6 cards of your deck and you are ready for adventure.
On your turn, you can choose to do one of the following actions:
Visit the village: The cards you have in your hand, give you a certain amount of gold coins. You can use this gold to buy cards from the village as you see appropriate. In fact that’s what you will mainly do in your first few turns, as you wil probably not be strong enough to attack monsters in the hall.
Enter the dungeon: Each hero has an attack power, indicated on the card. The combined attack power of all the heroes in your hand is your total available power to defeat monsters. Moreover some cards, like the torch, give you light, thus reducing or even eliminating light penalties. If you are strong enough to defeat a monster in the Hall, taking into account light penalties, you can enter the dungeon, equip your heroes with weapons if available, cast spells and defeat a monster. Each monster, when defeated, awards you with a certain amount of victory points and some experience points which you can use to level up your heroes.
Rest. By choosing this option, you can rest and may destroy one card from your hand. It goes to the destroyed cards pile, not to the discarded pile.
At the end of your turn, you discard all cards in your hand to the discard pile and draw six new cards. When your deck is depleted, shuffle all cards from the discarded pile to form your new draw pile.
The game ends when a player collects the Thunderstone (by defeating a monster in Rank 1 thus causing the Thunderstone to move to that open rank) or it enters Rank 1 because a monster wasn’t defeated. Players count up victory points from cards they have collected throughout the game. The player with the most victory points is the winner.
In 2012, a new updated version of Thunderstone was released: Thunderstone Advance. The first set of the new version is called “Towers of Ruin”. Cards from original Thunderstone and Thunderstone Advance can be mixed together. Here are the most important new features of Thunderstone Advance:
Changed terminology: Light penalty is now called Darkness. React is a new ability that enables players to act during other players turns. Raid is a new effect that occurs when monsters are first revealed in the Dungeon Hall.
Thunderstone: The Thunderstone card has been replaced by the Thunderstone bearer. Now the game ends when a player defeats the Thunderstone bearer or he escapes the Dungeon Hall (reaches Rank 1).
Game board: Thunderstone advance comes with a double-sided board that serves more than one purposes. The game board helps to organize cards better as there are slots on it to place monsters and village cards. Additionally it provides a more balanced setup, by determining a specific number of each card type to be used in the game. There are 4 slots for weapons, 3 slots for items and 3 slots for spells. During setup village randomizer cards will be revealed and matching stacks of village cards will be placed on the appropriate slot. If all slots of the revealed randomizer card type have been filled, then another randomizer card is revealed. The two sides of the game board provide for novice and advanced play. The novice side is called “wilderness side”. darkness rules are easier and there are 4 slots for monsters in the Dungeon Hall. Advanced side is called “dungeon side” with classic darkness rules and 3 ranks.
Monsters: Monsters now have levels. During setup, one monster group from each level (1,2 and 3) is chosen randomly to populate the Dungeon Hall. This way monsters have balanced power and weird setups e.g. of most monsters being overpowered are avoided.
New action: Apart from visiting the village, the dungeon or resting now players have the option to prepare for their next round, by placing as many cards they like from their hand on top of their deck and discarding the rest.
New card types: Familiars are new special cards that can be gained after defeating a monster. Each one of them has one or more different abilities that require a certain amount of XP points to be used. Each player can have only one familiar during the game, placed face up in front of him. Curses have replaced generic Disease cards.
New starting cards: Militia has been replaced with Regulars who are leveled up easier and when equipped with a Polearm, while in the Dungeon, you may draw a card. Iron Rations have been replaced with Thunderstone Shards and Daggers with Longspears.
Upon opening the box of Thunderstone, you see a number of cards and some xp tokens. Artwork on the cards is beautiful and detailed. And then comes the difficult task of reading the rules. Although the rulebook is well written, there is so much information in it that one needs some time to absorb it and put it into use, especially if you never played a similar game, like Dominion. But even if you have, Thunderstone provides advanced mechanics along with extensive terminology and may at first discourage you from playing it. Of course things get a lot better if there is someone willing to explain the basics to you, this way taking away the burden to read all the 24-page manual.Thunderstone Advance makes a better first impression by providing a board (it’s also a double-sided one), which helps you to easier get involved in the game and understand what’s happening. There are slots drawn on the board for monsters in the Dungeon Hall as well as village cards and all seems better organized and gamer friendly. The two-sided board serves as a way for both novice and advanced players to enjoy the game experience. When you reach the point of understanding how the game works, gameplay is smooth and you will soon find yourself very engaged and captured by the theme, striving to find the right combinations of cards to build a working, and hopefully winning, deck!
The components of Thunderstone are only cards and some xp tokens. Cards have beautiful and carefully designed artwork. In Thunderstone Advance, things get even better. There is also a gameboard, which gives a sense of organisation and cards are redesigned with more variety in colors, even more detailed graphics and more clear card layout. (Thunderstone: 7/10, Thunderstone Advance: 8/10)
Gameplay is interesting and gets you really involved. The game mechanics are well-thought, blending the theme with game actions and abilities. I think the idea of using the light / darkness element is a really brilliant one as is the ability to level-up your heroes with xp won from beating monsters in the Dungeon Hall. There are many more small details that enhance gameplay like dungeon effects and spoils, and all prove that gameplay has been designed very carefully. However, during setup, it is possible that weird combinations of village or monster cards will come up, making the game hard to beat, or somewhat uninteresting. Good news is that this problem has been eliminated in Thunderstone Advance, which provides specific number of slots for different village card types, as well as monsters of different levels. In Thunderstone advance, the extra option of “preparing” as a game action, allows you to design your next hand and provides more flexibility and the ability to utilize better your strategy. Moreover the replacement of Militia by the more efficient Regulars is a very important improvement, allowing players to enter the dungeon quicker and somewhat reducing the existence of “dead cards” during late game. The power of the game lies in developing the best strategy to win, by using the best combinations of cards and in the right amounts. (Thunderstone: 7/10, Thunderstone Advance: 8/10)
The game has a rather steep learning curve. The first game will last a lot more than 60 minutes and you probably will have to go back to the rulebook and look up some details throughout the game. However, after this first game, things will run smoothly and you will probably feel glad for all those small details in the game, that make it a bit complex but, in that way, more interesting too. 6/10
The element of theme is dominant here, in contrast to Dominion, and you constantly feel the urge and anxiety to reach further down the dungeon and beat those despicable monsters. There are many elements that contribute to the sense of immersion like the light/darkness element, curing diseases/curses with Clerics and more. 8/10
With dozens of different heroes, monsters and village cards, no two games will be the same. Randomizer cards can be used during game setup, to randomly choose heroes, monsters and village cards that will be available in the game. If you like the deck building/card drafting mechanic of the game, you will probably spend many hours playing this game and enjoy it a lot. A number of expansions have been released and more will be released in the future, bring to the game more heroes, monsters and village cards as well as new card types, thus enhancing replayability. 8/10