Thunderstone Initial Thoughts
Thunderstone showed up at the local game session, and I eagerly got in (after missing the first two games to play Cuba).
I like almost everything about Thunderstone, but to explain why I’m going to briefly review the mechanics. At it’s heart, very Dominion like. You draw your cards, then decide whether to go to the village (buy cards), go to the dungeon (fight monsters, which means, earn VPs) or rest (trash a card from your hand). Then you chuck you hand away and redraw. There are some actions that can only be done in the dungeon or village, which provides a bit more distinction than Dominions (base) actions. Heroes have a strength (which they need to wield weapons) and an “attack” value (which they use against monsters). Each character can only use one weapon during a dungeon crawl (So mages have low strength, but are otherwise not restricted on weapon).
Typically you can only buy one card a turn, but killing monsters earns you XP, which you can spend to “Level up” your heroes. At the beginning you can buy one of 4 (level 1) heroes, but you also start with 6 “Militia”, who provide 1 point against monsters, but can also be levelled up via XP.
There are always three monsters to fight, but the 2nd and 3rd monsters are deeper in the dungeon … you need more “Light” to get there. If you don’t have light, the monster effectively gets stronger. Monsters have various “Battle” special abilities (which affect when you fight them), and provide VPs and XPs. Most monsters just take up space in your hand (like VP cards in Dominion), but a few of the tougher monsters provide a bonus, simulating treasure. (Simulating sounds funny word, but Thunderstone is a dungeon crawl, and we all know what that means…). There are plenty of special abilities, in the two games I saw:
- Adventurers who get a bonus with edged weapons, versus those who help spells, and one who works best with ranged weapons.
- Monsters who disease those who fight them (similar to the Witch’s curse), as compared to monsters who kill your party, reduce strength (or even attack), destroy weapons or spells. Even a few who provide XP but no VP.
- A “light-poor” setup, coupled with monsters who reduce your light.
I don’t think variety is a problem. Dominion’s base game has (25 choose 10) setups, whereas this one has (20 choose 11) * (8 choose 3) * (12 choose 4). And Thunderstones cards seem to vary more. Additionally, when you pick monsters (8 choose 3) you really get ~5 different monsters that range from weak to strong that have a theme (like “Undead” or “Dragons”). If you randomly get the strong monsters first, that will affect the game. The party members (12 choose 4) also include 3 different levels, with differing rarity. You can only buy the lowest available level, but can XP up whenever possible. There are only 2 (I think) of the highest level card, which are also worth some VP in addition to having more abilities (a better attack, light, or whatnot.
So, why do I like Thunderstone:
- Variety — Today I also played a few games of Dominion with Seaside … my gut feeling right now is that Thunderstone and Dominion with 2 expansions have similar variety. Additionally, even if you play with the same setup having big monsters show up early will block the game and lead to a different feel. When Thunderstone gets the (inevitable) expansion, it should have lots of game space.
- Having a few standard action cards means you should always have a playable setup.
- You often have a tough call in attacking monsters versus buying. This is similar to Dominions “When to switch to the VP track” decision, but because the monster deck is slowly changing (and monsters have a variety of drawbacks and benefits), not nearly as straightforward.
- I’m not immune to theme. Dungeon crawling is a classic.
- The option to rest (and just trash a card) does prevent some poor draw options, although it likely won’t be enough to help. Still, I think that’s elegant. I approve.
The minor drawbacks:
- Like Dominion, you have an opening gold split. But it’s 10 points, and you could theoretically get a 10/0 or 9/1 split. Depending on the setup, that could be really bad (an 8/2 may be worse than the 10/0, and on our second game a player with a 5/5 split would have a huge advantage).
- Knowing the monster decks helps. For example, the stronger “Humanoid Darknights” (or some such) often kill a “fighter” character. If you didn’t know that and bought fighters when you could have bought mages, well, that’s a downside (but may still have been the right play).
- There may not be a great monster to kill when you have a great “killing” turn. So you earn a VP and XP or two, and then the next player (with a similar or even weaker turn) kills Sir such-and-such for 3+ more VPs than you earned.
- I think the art mainly sucks. I don’t care that much, but I know others do. I am actually annoyed that the Level 1/2/3 characters of each type don’t have different art (since they do have different abilities). But I suspect if they did some people would complain that setting up and putting away the game would be more difficult.
- XP are marked via cards instead of little gems or some such. Easily remedied, but XP cards seem to get shuffled into decks or misplaced, so I’m surprised about this one.
But the real downside? The endgame. You shuffle the Thuderstone into the last third of the deck . The game ends when it slides to the first monster spot. So in a four player game, if it shows up at the end of your turn, you aren’t likely to get another turn. No big deal.
But the player who ends the game gets an extra 3 VP. Considering both our (4 player) games ended with winners in the mid-20s, that’s huge. A random ending may deny a player one more turn, but getting the last turn is often 4-7 VP, occasionally more. And you can choose to fight a monster and lose (suffering all the effects of having the monster kill people and break stuff, which rarely cost VP) and then discard the monster. So if the Thunderstone is one slot away from the end, you can lose to the lead monster, get 3VP, and keep anyone else from getting a turn. You might kill the monster in the 3rd slot (which is, remember, harder to kill, requiring more light) to keep the game going, but the next player could just claim the 3 points. And likely (by this stage), kill the first monster as well.
In a two player game, I can see it. In a four player game watching the thunderstone flip up at the end of your turn (or the next player’s turn) means you can put your cards away.
Keeping the other players from getting another turn is bonus enough. And playing for 45 minutes only to have the game come down to who gets the 3 bonus VPs would make me question why I’m playing. (To be fair, the thunderstone bonus hasn’t yet decided a game I’ve been in, but it’s always been a non-decision once it shows up). I’m already tempted to drop the Thunderstone to 1 VP, if not nothing. (Perhaps a 2 player game could keep the VPs). Again, being fair, I’ve seen plenty of Dominion games where one player can’t be beat by the VPs left on the board, but in none of those was it a function of the random endgame condition.
That criticism isn’t enough to make me swear off Thunderstone, and I think I’ll get a copy. But it’s annoying me now just thinking about it. (Partially that’s because there’s already several copies of Dominion locally, and only one copy of Thunderstone).
Update — Based on Tim’s comment below (“you must defeat the first monster”), I feel a bit more mellow. I suspect you’ll still want to just concede the first monster (rather than risk letting any one of the next 3 players to defeat it), but if it’s a tough monster it may be realistic choice to just buy and hope, particularly in a 2 or 3 player game. I’m not quite willing to Emily Litella, but that downgrades it.