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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:

  1. 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.
  2. Having a few standard action  cards means you should always have a playable setup.
  3. 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.
  4. I’m not immune to theme. Dungeon crawling is a classic.
  5. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Written by taogaming

January 23, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Reviews

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15 Responses

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  1. Note that the rules state that to claim the 3pt bonus for the Thunderstone, you must DEFEAT the monster in rank 1 when the Thunderstone is in rank two.

    So it’s not an automatic 3 points for whoever ends the game – if you lose to the 1st rank monster, you’ll end the game, but you won’t get the 3 points, as you will not have defeated that monster.

    Still may have some issues, but certainly not as bad as you worst case scenario.

    Tim Isakson

    January 23, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    • Let the record show that the rules were explained to me. But yes, that makes it better. Not perfect, but not a showstopper.


      January 23, 2010 at 11:36 pm

  2. Be sure you play with the Undead Doom in the learning set NOT the Doomknights. There’s a misprint in the rules. It shows the value of the Cleric in a strong way.


    January 24, 2010 at 1:35 am

  3. I played 4 two player games of Thunderstone last weekend, and I’ll play more this afternoon, but here are my 2p thoughts so far:

    1) Games have not been as tight as Dom. Of our 4 games the smallest VP delta has been 5VP, and the median is about 12.
    2) The game with the really tough monster in Rank 1 (and moderate in Rank 2) affected the entire game, and was won easily by the first person to be able to kill the 8VP monster (basically luck).
    3) Set up and put away time are about 3 times longer than Dom, which is annoying. This is a function of the box, sure, but also the wider variety of cards in a typical deck.
    4) Understanding the distribution of the monsters, as Brian mentions, will strongly affect my strategy in the future. We also need to start reviewing the Lev 2 and Lev 3 class cards at the start of the game.

    Overall, we really liked it at the time, but talking a couple days later were concerned that it didn’t feel as deep as Dominion. Certainly, the luck of the monster draw has no parallel in Dominion. One of the games was a blowout because on the last 5 rounds, when we both had really powerful attacks, a high VP monster showed up in Rank 3 on my turn, but not on his.

    That being said, the number of trade off choices is awesome, and I think we will get much MUCH better at the game. Here’s an initial list of trade offs I’ve got so far:

    Early game, how do you value XP/VP/Gold when deciding which monster (if any) to Kill?
    Do you save XP to race for the top level classes (limited supply) or convert your Militia to make them more useful?
    Do you buy a spread of classes, so that you can do more leveling on a single Village trip, or focus on one?
    How much light is enough without being too much?
    Is it worth resting to get Militia, Iron Rations, etc out of your hand?
    Should you ever not buy Fireballs?
    When is it better to lose a battle than Rest?
    How much should you value the cards that give you extra cards in hand (i.e. there is no way can I keep track of the card distribution that accurately with a 30 card deck and a dozen different cards)?

    Okay, that’s enough for now. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of things to think about. And most importantly, even though there are less ways to direct effect the other player, Thunderstone feels at least as interactive as Dominion, because we are directly competing for VPs.

    At the end of the day, I’m much more excited about playing Thunderstone today than I’ve ever been about getting to play Dominion, and that’s got to count for something.

    Lou W

    January 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm

  4. I’ve seen Thunderstone in the local store, but no one local’s taken the plunge on a copy yet. I was well away from wanting a copy, but your post has definitely nudged me closer.

    Thunderstone certainly appears different from Dominion in several ways, but I can’t decide if they differ in ways that matter enough to own and play both.


    January 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm

  5. My initial Thunderstone thoughts, after playing once and watching one game:

    * It doesnt bother me at all that Thunderstone copies some mechanics from Dominion. In the same way that it doesnt bother me that Puerto Rico copied ‘having roles’ from Meuterer/Verrater, or that World of Warcraft copied ‘MMORPG’ from Ultima Online and other earlier versions. Dominion deserves huge praise for innovation, and unlike many games that are the first of their genre, it is quite refined. But I like games thatrefine and build on a genre as well.

    * I am excited to get it, in the same way that I would be excited to get a Dominion expansion. If you would buy a new Dominion expansion that had some differences and new mechanics, then you should buy Thunderstone.

    * It is very interesting that there are two types of ‘buying power’: Gold, and Attack Power. You dont just get some Gold in your deck and then buy Provinces. I feel that this adds something to the game.

    * The high VP monsters seem very critical. There isnt a stack of provinces, instead your access to high VP cards is limited. This is different, but I have no idea yet if its better or worse.

    * 3 monsters available seemed way too low for a 4 player game. Often there was no planning allowed, there was a completely new monster set each turn. I could see 3 monsters working well in 2 player, but I kindof wish there were more with more players. A big monster coming up and moving to the front and being killed all while you wait for your turn is annoying. If a lot more monsters came out and you could plan, see what was coming, and be rewarded for a high-light deck, that would be cool. Again, 2 player might be better.

    * The endgame feels as bad or worse than Dominion. Start player advantage is probably the most annoying part of Dominion to me. Now, the start player not only might get more turns, but also might get a 3 point bonus. I was feeling like maybe there should be a rule: If the Thunderstone is not claimed, then all players who had less turns than an opponent, get a 3 point bonus. Essentially, the first player might claim it, but if they cant then the people late in the order get it. Still this has problems.

    Also, I think it would be cooler again if there were more monsters available, and you could see the Thunderstone coming from a long way away. And possibly if there were ways to snag it when it was way down there.

    2 player might work a lot better, as with 3 cards out there, thats 2 monsters and the stone. If either player kills one of the two monsters, they set up the opponent to get the stone, which is interesting.

    * The opening setup can have money splits from 0 to 10 in each hand, as Brian posted. Not just 2/5 vs 3/4 with a heavy chance of 3/4. I have no idea if this is better or worse yet. In my one game, it seemed better. The thing in Dominion is that many $5 cards are massively better than any $3-4 cards, allowign the one lucky player a significant advantage. Occasionally, there are no good $5 cards, and no $2 cards on the level of $3 cards, so the 2/5 is screwed.

    In Thunderstone, I am not sure is such breakpoints exist. My start with two $5 cards seemed good, but it was my first game so who knows. Something like $7 and $3 did not seem like it would be better. The rule where you can spend a turn resting to trash a card from your hand is awesome. I think the comparison between 7/3 and 5/5 should probably be between adding two decent $5 cards, or adding a slightly better $7 card and trashing a bad card.

    More play is required to determine if the money splits are more fair, less fair, or equivalent to Dominion. On the other hand, a ‘choose your starting hand’ variant seems even more interesting in Thunderstone than in Dominion. You have a lot more choices to choose from!

    * As mentioned in the last point, the ‘spend a turn resting to trash a card’ mechanic is AWESOME. I hope that spending one of the first two turns doign this is a viable strategy! I like that it lets you use those bad turns to improve your deck.

    * Thunderstone felt like it had more viable choices per turn than Dominion, due to two types of purchasing power, and resting.

    * I like the mixing in of three monster decks. This adds a lot of variety to the game, in a way that having just estate/duchy/province does not.

    * I like the theme, feels more thematic than Dominion. But Dominion’s theme doesnt bother me or anything.

    * Art is much better than Dominion. (Or alternately, its like only using the half of Dominion’s cards with good art, not the bad ones).

    * And finally: Thunderstone is clearly better than Dominion because you DRAW ONE MORE CARD! 6 is more better than 5! 🙂 Kindof like how an Amp is louder if it goes to 11!


    January 25, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    • Some more notes after another day of playing (~5 more 2p games). Many relate to Alexfrog’s points.

      * The high VP monsters are starting to bother me. In at least 2 games the win was determined basically by who was able to kill 1 or 2 more of the 6+ pt monsters. It’s hugely luck driven, since the range of attack values in the mid game can easily be between about 3 and 15 depending on combos so it’s just who gets a big draw first.
      * Part of the problem is that not only do they give high VP, they give high XP, and some give ‘trophy’ powers as well. The Sphinx is especially bad for this as if you can get it early, you could get to trash 3 or 4 crappy cards, a HUGE edge.
      * As far as three ranks, even in 2 player this isn’t enough. We kept having situations in the end game of a close game where the board would get clogged with 2VP monsters. The problem was that neither of us wanted to risk having a 5+ VP monster show up for our opponent to kill. With the elf wizards, or banish, this problem occurs with the Thunderstone as well.
      * The 0/10 to 5/5 gold breakdown is one of my favorite parts of the game. It really drives to different strategies right off the bat. When both of us got 5/5 or 6/4 we’d have a tendency to follow similar paths.
      * In 2p the start player doesn’t matter, there are 30+ turns, so who cares
      * Card cost balance isn’t okay, but not great. Feast is too good IMO. Fireball (especially since spells don’t need heroes) is too good. Pawnbroker is MUCH better than the other Villagers. I will say that the heroes seem well priced, although the Thief with Gold and Light appears really efficient.
      * Games with tough monsters at the top are particularly luck driven. You need such powerful decks to get the monsters flowing, that once the dungeon is unclogged the kills are trivial
      * Oh yeah, another thing about the big monsters. They are only one card. I continue to find the combat strength flow weird. Early game is around 6, mid game can get up to 15, and end game is often 10-12 as the deck gets cluttered with VP. With big monsters you stay stronger longer.
      * I really don’t like that there is no penalty for losing a fight. We started exploiting that to force high VP guys to the dungeon to keep them away from the opponent, and also to take advantage of the “Destroy a Food/Militia/Weapon” effects. Makes no sense thematically.

      I haven’t had a chance to look at BGG for variant proposals, but here’s where I feel the game could be improved:

      * Deeper dungeon. I’d add ranks 4 and 5, at -2 light penalty each (you’ve got to do something to avoid totally messing with the focus on Ranks 1-3).
      * I’d cap VPs at 5. Seriously, I don’t think it would really destroy the strategy and it would reduce the impact of luck.
      * A penalty for losing a fight. I have no idea what is appropriate, but my instinct is to force you to take a Disease-type card that can’t be cured. Heck, maybe I’ll just rename a half-dozen Disease cards to “Loser” and try that.

      Last note on the depth. My 7yo played his first game against my friend who’d played 10 times. Final score, 33-36. Sure, my 7yo lost, but that speaks to a high luck, low skill, game.

      Lou W

      January 25, 2010 at 7:50 pm

  6. Interesting points. Some thoughts:

    1) An easy variant is to deal out ~5 monsters at the start, and then put the 3 weakest out first (weakest in level 1), then reshuffle and setup the rest of the deck.

    2) Having 4-5 levels could be reasonable. -2 light for 4-5 seems a bit much, but there are light-poor and light-rich levels. I think I like this in theory, but I worry about a situation where you stall even more, since I know that if I kill A, B or C, the next player can probably take the current D, which is worth massive VPs. At least with only three levels, I can hope that D is another 2VP monster.

    3) I always figured the penalty for losing a fight was a lost turn. Now, if you can trash a card (as part of the fight) and deny a monster, that makes it a reasonable play. If you get to trash some of your stuff, that’s a bonus.

    4) I thought Feast and Fireball were both great. They pretty much dominated the games they played. (Fireball because it was also one of the only light sources, as well as a Can of Whoop-Ass).


    January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    • If the dungeon depth (or lack thereof) issue is bugging me after several more plays, I’m going to try out using a deeper dungeon, even in 2er. I like the idea of a -4 or -5 light area ( that could potentially have a big monster. You could build a light focused deck and then snap up the big monsters as soon as they appear! Seems interesting. Also, since a new monster will come out very deep, you dont have to worry as much that it will be a big one, that tkign some 2vp monster will open it up to the opponent.

      3) No penalty for losign a fight seems fine to me. You lose the turn. I want there to be a way to cycle a big monster that you cant kill to deny it to the opponent. Or simply to cycle to end the game faster when ahead, if you cant kill something! This is an interesting decision!


      January 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

  7. Hi, bought a copy a week ago, I’m at about 6-7 2p-games.

    * I don’t feel initial hand gives that high advantages. It heavily depends on what’s available for buying.

    Note that when you start with a high/low split, the low split might be able to go into the dungeon (if a 4 or 5 hp showed up at rank 1). And there are some very good cards at 4- cost (battle fury, even the arcane energies or magical aura with their “draw 1” are not that bad, often they let me attack something stronger than I expected, but ok they are luck-based 😦 ).

    If you have heroes in the 6+ gold range, and you draw 5/5 you are out stuck. If you have a rogue and a barbarian or magician, 5/5 split will focus on rogues, 8/2 splits on outlander or mister-magic-x2.

    So for me the split drives general “strategy”.

    * the randomness of when strong monsters gets out, and whether I’ll have a decent hand (or even a lucky hand) when they show up is indeed problematic. Also the fact that the one who pushed the stone in rank 2 is actually losing 3 vp and can’t really do anything about it.

    * What annoyed me the most about Thunderstone, are unclear rules. Like “when does ‘destroy’ actually happen within ‘battle effects'”, are using my cards in hand mandatory in the dungeon or is it only revealing my hand to my opponents that it ?, etc. The rules are improved frequently and made available online, yet they could be more… precise from scratch !

    * some village cards feel weak. e.g. Town Guard. If I must destroy a card from my hand when I banish, then Banish is quite weak. I wish we could “upgrade” the daggers ! I wish for more use for iron rations. Militia level up costs too much experience. Only 1 buy per turn is a bit annoying. It tends to make “fireball” a must-buy even in fighters decks, simply because “I have 9+ in hand”, and buying some food would be such a money loss.

    I still like the game, can’t say exactly why. There is actually a theme !


    January 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    • I agree with these comments.

      “some village cards feel weak. e.g. Town Guard. If I must destroy a card from my hand when I banish, then Banish is quite weak.”

      I think Town Guard is one of the few good Village cards. It lets you have a super-turn, and then you can trash it when youre done with the village so it doesnt stick around. Its really good when you are trying to do something like: Draw trainers with your remaining militias. Draw Pawnbroker with you remaining daggers, iron rations…

      On Banish, trashing the (bad) card from your hand is the main benefit. The monster rearrange is just a bonus, imo.


      January 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm

  8. One of my initial thoughts about the game was that there weren’t any cards that really changed the game if they were in (like Pirate Ship in Dominion Seaside or Garden in Dominion).

    But today we played with Trainer and I was really wrong. Trainer allowed the player who got them working early to grab higher level characters first and really walk away with the game. That won’t happen so much now. But only because everyone will get them early.


    January 27, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    • I dont know if Trainer is more ‘broken’ than Chapel in Dominion, but I think it might be. With Pawnbroker, Trainer, and Town Guard in a recent game, I very quickly assembled a 6 card deck that contained like 15+ attack power. And it was based on upgraded outland warriors, so they made any monster I killed give me several attack as well.


      January 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  9. Getting big monsters helps, sort of like having the company with the highest stock value in 18xx helps. The person with the best deck tends to get them. He or she then tends to go on to win.

    One tip: the ability to send a monster to the bottom of the deck by losing a battle with it is something you need to think about, at least occasionally. If a high-point monster is out and you don’t think your deck can take it right now, it’s worth thinking about just burying it. It’s not a winning play because if you can’t take it and your opponent can, you probably need to spend the effort improving your deck instead. But some of the big monsters actually have beneficial battle powers anyway (like destroy a Militia, or the Sphynx’ fairly powerful deck-pruning ability) so it’s far from the end of the world to nix a high-value creature you can’t kill.

    I’m not totally enamored of the Thunderstone scoring for the endgame; if you read the Designer’s Notes on BGN, apparently he was thinking the Thunderstones might be cool as “metagame” powers, if you win a game you start the next with the Thunderstone in your deck. That seems more interesting than the 3 bonus points, which can be pretty swingy. But honestly, Thunderstone’s endgame bothers me less than Dominion’s, especially when you consider cards like Banish or the Wizards that can affect the Thunderstone. I do wish both games had some sort of compensation for not going first, though. I know I’ve lost Dominion several times simply because I didn’t get an even number of turns.

    First number of times I played, I thought there ought to be some sort of ordering for the monsters, to ensure some low-level stuff came out first. Again, according to the notes on BGN, the designer considered this and decided not to do it. 15 games in, I tend to think he made the right call. Giving the monsters a ramp, or a deeper dungeon, would make the game more predictable. Part of the appeal of Thunderstone is its unpredictability – different games have entirely different tempos and feels based on the flow of the monsters, never mind what cards are available for purchase. I consider this a good thing. If you play too much of a “long game” you take the risk the good creatures will come out too soon. If you just kill whatever you can get your hands on early, you risk not having the firepower when you need it. It’s a balancing act. If it were a procession, it would be less interesting.


    January 27, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  10. I was thinking that for 4-5 player games, instead of a deeper dungeon, why not have two? Deal off say 7 cards and add the thunderstone to those – shuffle and stick 4 on the bottom of two decks and play two monster stacks.


    February 1, 2010 at 10:53 am

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