Are you tired of dry, abstract deck-building card games? Do you long for the chance to sink your teeth into a game with rich theme? Thunderstone may be the perfect choice for you, with its diverse cast of heroes, monsters, weapons, and items.
Nearly two years after the original Thunderstone and several expansions later, Thunderstone: Dragonspire has been released as the first fully stand-alone expansion in the series. The original has its fair share of flaws, so Dragonspire sets out to be a second chance at life for the game. But are the game mechanics strong enough to keep this title on the table? Read on for the full review:
Just the Facts:
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Age: 12 to adult
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
Release: February 2011
Players in Thunderstone: Dragonspire begin by setting up a randomized field of play. The game uses five rows of four card stacks: one for monsters, one for heroes, one for basic starting cards, and two for village cards. The monster cards are accompanied by a dungeon deck, also randomly create during the game's setup, that will allow new monsters to enter combat once the existing ones leave.
Play follows your basic deck-building card game structure. Each player starts with an identical deck of 12 cards, and will be playing from a hand of 6 cards. Throughout the game, players will be discarding their hands and drawing new ones at the end of each turn, allowing players to cycle through their decks rather quickly. The strategic decision is choosing which cards should be added to a player's deck as it grows beyond the starting 12 cards. If players choose wisely, their 6-card hands will become increasingly more powerful, affording them the ability to slay even the toughest of monsters.
The object of the game is to collect victory points, which are listed in the corners of cards you may add to your deck. Cards with point values are generally obtained by declaring combat and defeating a monster card, but there is a balance which must be maintained. Cards generally fall into two categories: those that will afford you great in-game abilities once added to your deck but do not significantly add to your deck's victory point value, and those which have a large number of victory points yet do not have a strong in-game use. Focusing too much on victory points early on causes players to begin drawing these weak hands and stalls out their attempts to gain more points later in the game. On the other hand, players who wait too long to focus on points could find their attempt to be too little and too late.
Two examples of hero cards in Thunderstone: Dragonspire
There are three choices for a turn in Thunderstone, and it is up to players to decide which path is the optimal move considering the strengths and weaknesses of their current 6-card hand. The choices are:
- Visit the Village: This option allows players to strengthen their deck by adding and improving cards. Here, the 6-card hand is revealed, and a gold value symbol on each card added up to determine the player's purchasing power. From that number, they can spend gold to purchase a new basic, hero, or village card for their deck. At this time, experience tokens earned from defeating monsters can also be cashed in to replace hero cards with more powerful versions of themselves, or to promote a mercenary to an entry-level hero.
- Enter the Dungeon: The monsters are laid out in three ranks, with the card furthest from the deck being the closest to the dungeon entrance. After a monster is defeated, the player takes that card into their deck, and moves any monsters up from lower ranks before drawing a new monster from the dungeon deck.Combat is resolved by simply comparing the attack values of the cards in a player's hand versus the total health of the monster they are targeting. Players may elect to fight any of the three monsters currently face up on the table, but each position has a corresponding penalty. For each increasing rank, the dungeon grows darker, making it hard to defeat monsters here unless players have equipped items that light their way.
- Rest: Choose one of the six cards in your hand to destroy, thereby removing it from the game. Defeating some of the more powerful and rewarding monsters usually comes with the risk of having disease cards added to your deck. These cards will clog up your hand and actually penalize you in combat, so it is a good idea to rest from time to time in order to flush them from your deck.
As the game progresses, players will defeat monster after monster, slowly depleting the dungeon deck. Shuffled into the last ten cards is a powerful thunderstone item card, which will signal the end of the game. Once a player claims the thunderstone, the game is immediately over, and players can begin counting the victory point totals of their decks.
In addition to the basic rules above, players can include traps, dungeon settings, and powerful guardian monsters among other advanced cards should they want to increase the complexity of the game. There are also a variety of alternate rules included in Dragonspire, ranging from co-op, to campaign mode, to a solitaire variant.
- 1 game board
- 500+ cards
- Plastic experience tokens
- 1 rule booklet
The cards in Thunderstone: Dragonspire are a home run. They succeed in print quality with above-average card stock that includes a textured linen print, while also featuring some top-notch fantasy artwork. Aside from the cards used in the main game, AEG went above and beyond by including a full set of randomizers to speed setup, and dividers to help with card organization. The box itself is large enough to fit not only Dragonspire, but the original Thunderstone and its expansions as well. Card game publishers take note, this is how its done!
Dragonspire is also the first of the series to include components beyond just cards. The most beneficial to the game are the new plastic experience tokens, which replace the previously-used experience cards. These cards were prone to being accidentally shuffled into player's decks, so the new tokens do have a positive impact on the game. Besides, these little thunderstone-shaped bits are just awesome to look at and play with.
A dungeon board is also included to help players keep track of the various ranks and their corresponding penalties. Viewing this from the eyes of a first-time player, I felt that the board was actually quite helpful. This does raise this issue that the board is not of very high quality, though. It is not flush-cut, leaving a large crease down the middle, and can be hard to read from across the table. It is just not very high quality, but it is difficult to knock a game for going out of its way to help new players. The saving grace here is that you won't need to use the board after a few rounds.
The last component to cover is the rulebook, which is abysmal. For a game that is being looked at as Thunderstone 2.0, understanding the rules will be a challenge for any player not already familiar with the game series. The book starts with an involved setup phase, but neglects to define the different types of cards or explain the features printed on them until several pages later. Better skip this section for now. Throughout the remaining rules, the book is short on visual explanations and will force readers to jump from wordy section to wordy section in order to gain a complete picture of how aspects of the game work.
It's hard to compare Thunderstone pound-for-pound against other card games of its type because beyond any other factor, the game primarily sets out to deliver a dungeon-crawling experience. You could play a video game (World of Warcraft), a pen-and-paper RPG (Dungeons & Dragons), or a board game (Descent: Journeys Into Dark) and wind up scratching a very similar itch. In trying to judge Thunderstone, it really comes down to defining whether the players have that itch for a thematic dungeon crawl. As far as card games are concerned, Thunderstone provides an unmatched thematic experience
Looking at the actual dungeon-crawling gameplay though, it is purely hack and slash. Trap cards, which could have been an opportunity to inject more skilled play into the game, instead only serve as chance encounters and bad luck. The new setting cards are not overly thematic, but do provide added replay value for veterans and fans of the series. I would not recommend the setting cards in beginner play, but their inclusion in Dragonspire is a positive.
Ultimately, Thunderstone does a great job of tapping into this dungeon-focused fantasy setting and distilling it into a deck-building card game. It works as a perfect substitute for the games listed above, fulfilling the inner desire of players to gear up and go on quests. If you are a player seeking a complex test of skill, I would not recommend Thunderstone, but the game definitely has its niche. AEG must also be commended for their job in putting together Dragonspire as a standalone expansion. Game publishers are putting out expansions at an alarming rate, which can intimidate players who did not get in on the ground floor. Dragonspire not only provides a new path of entry into the series, but the opportunity was taken to fix many flaws seen in the original Thunderstone, making it a superior choice.
AEG provided a complimentary review sample of this game.