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Thunderstone - Card Game Review

A drawn-out, deck-building dungeon dive

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Thunderstone

Thunderstone

Image courtesy of Alderac Entertainment Group

Players assemble a team of heroes and equip them to battle dungeon monsters on their quest for the Thunderstone in this deck-building game. Fill your deck with heroes, weapons, and more, in preparation for attacking the monsters in the dark.

Vital Stats

Players: 1-5
Time: 45-75 Minutes
Designer: Mike Elliot
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group

Components

50 card dividers, and 530 cards. These are broken down into 132 hero cards, 152 village cards, 90 basic cards, 80 monster cards, 38 randomizer cards, 32 experience cards, 5 reference cards (one for each player), and the Thunderstone card. The cards are pretty high production quality, weighty, visually appealing, and easy to read.

Gameplay Summary

4 random heroes and 8 random village cards are chosen, and are laid out in piles. Three monsters are laid out to form the dungeon. The four basic piles are laid out, and each player receives a starting deck from those piles consisting of six Militia, and two each of torches, daggers, and rations.

On your turn, you draw six cards from your deck, and choose whether to go to the village, dungeon, or rest. At the village, you may use the gold value of the cards in your hand to purchase more cards to add to your deck. In the dungeon, you use the attack value of the cards in your hand to defeat monsters and gain victory points and experience. If you rest, you simply remove a card from your deck.

Experience is used to level your heroes into more powerful versions of themselves while taking a village turn. Light is necessary to avoid attack penalties when fighting monsters in the dungeon. And as the monster deck dwindles, someone will discover the thunderstone, thus signaling the end of the game.

Note: This is only a brief summary, with many details omitted.

The Good and the Bad

Good Stuff

The theme here is fantastic, and well-integrated with the gameplay. You start with your lowly town militia, a few torches for light, daggers to add to their attack, and rations to keep up strength. But you can acquire different types of heroes who have their own specialties: The thieves have more gold to spend in town, the wizards have a magical attack, the knights consume food to become stronger, etc. The weaponry and light sources and so forth all feel like preparations for a dungeon dive, as opposed to arbitrarily named mechanic widgets.

Great artwork. This is especially nice tying in with the theme, but the dwarves look gruff, the hatchets sharp, and the flaming swords appropriately impressive. Those who need a game to look good in addition to playing well will definitely appreciate the artwork in Thunderstone, which is not only very pretty, but really throws you into that fantasy world.

Leveling up your heroes is a lot of fun. Killing monsters (and a village card or two) earns you XP, which you can spend to upgrade the heroes in your deck. As they improve, they grow in both basic stats and special abilities, with only two heroes of the highest level being available. The race to attain these fully-levelled heroes is an entertaining part of the game.

Bad Stuff

It's too easy to have dead turns. The inclusion of two different kinds of "currency" (gold for the village, attacking for the dungeon) generally means that if your hand is split evenly between the two, you won't be able to do much of anything. Granted, you can always "Rest" to destroy a card from your deck, but not being able to do anything else a few turns in a row (an even distribution one turn means a higher likelihood of even distribution next turn as well) can be frustrating.

The random monster layout adds some fun uncertainty to the game, but also can create less interesting games where the most difficult monsters come up first, forcing everyone to take many village turns before the first monster is killed, only to have every other monster be a pushover for the rest of the game. In addition, it will frequently happen that one good monster will appear for a player to kill, but the next player will have no good options.

The monster deck too often causes a stand-off. Sometimes there are two monsters in front of the Thunderstone, and nobody wants to kill the penultimate monster and hand the Thunderstone to the next player. Sometimes the monsters available offer no victory points, and nobody wants to kill one and open up a worthwhile monster for the next player. There are times when the game is a lot of fun for the first half, but drags for the second half.

Conclusion

I really wanted to love this game. It's got strategic deck-building goodness, a fun theme, and heroes that level up. But too often the game feels a bit clunky, and takes too long for what it is. Don't misunderstand; Thunderstone is still a fun game. I'd still play it again, and fantasy fans will likely enjoy it. But one can't help feeling that it could have been a truly great game, and due to a few persistent issues, is not.

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