It’s game day once again here at spalanz.com, and today I’m taking a look at a real classic of the deck-building genre – today under the spotlight of awesome, I’m taking a look at Thunderstone!
Before I launch headlong into this blog, I should perhaps start with this caveat. Thunderstone is, like Runebound, one of these games that I’ve had for years and years, and is actually currently out of print. So this is a blog in the vein of my Runebound entry from last year, where I look at the awesome that was. Whether you can still find it for sale remains to be seen I suppose, though if you can I suggest you snap it up at once! It has been supplanted by Thunderstone Advance, which I have not yet managed to play, and which appears to be similarly difficult to come by the base set. At any rate, let’s begin!
Thunderstone is a deck-building game from what I suppose is the next generation of such games: Dominion, which started it all, is simply about building a deck; in Thunderstone, as with Dark Gothic and Marvel Legendary, you’re building a deck for a purpose in-game. So, rather than trying to buy cards with victory points in order to stand a chance of winning at the end, you’re building a deck to fight monsters, who are worth victory points. In a fairly unique move, this game has two distinct play areas – the village, and the dungeon – and you are fighting monsters in an attempt to find the fabled Thunderstone, which signals the end game.
If all of this sounds complicated, then it really isn’t. Allow me to explain!
In common with pretty much all deck-building games, you begin with a basic deck, in this case made up of 6 militia cards, 2 daggers, 2 torches, and 2 iron rations (all shown above). At the start of your turn, you have the option of either going to the village, where you can buy cards depending on how much gold you have, or you can delve into the dungeon and fight monsters, depending on how much attack you have. Both of these mechanics are, I think, superbly done. Let’s take a look first at the village…
The village contains eight different card types, such as items, weapons, allies and spells. It also includes four different hero types, who are also available to buy. These heroes are classic fantasy classes such as clerics, wizards, rogues and fighters. Each hero has three levels, with the weakest on top, and you have the option when in the village to level up your heroes. Remember the militia you start with? You can also level those guys up to level one of any hero currently available.
How do you level up, I hear you cry? Well, you gain XP when you defeat monsters; you can trade that in for the number listed in the bottom-left corner of the hero card to gain a hero of the next level. So for 2 XP, you can level up your Chalice Quester for a Chalice Defender! Militia cards all have a 3 in the bottom-left, and as stated, can be traded in for a level one hero (hero levels are shown in the middle-left, in the crossed-swords icon).
Each village card has a number of symbols and icons on, showing how much it gold it can generate (the coin in the top-left); the weight (under the coin on, for instance, the Warhammer); the cost (the number above the description, so the above Lightstone Gem costs 6), and how much light it gives (the Lightstone Gem gives 3). The iconography in Thunderstone can take a little getting used to, I freely admit, but it is really quite straightforward. The thing you need to remember is that the game has a fairly strict sense to it – however, it makes so much sense, this isn’t really a bad thing. In fact, this is perhaps one of the most sensible games you’ll ever hope to play!
If you remember two basic things, this game begins to really shine. Firstly, heroes can only use items if they’re physically strong enough. Secondly, the deeper you delve into the dungeon, the darker it is. Makes sense, right? Let’s delve into the dungeon, and see how this is implemented!
The game features monster groups, such as the above Enchanted and Doomknight Humanoids. These monsters have a strength value listed in the top-right; a Victory Point total in the bottom-right, and XP bonus in the bottom-left. Defeated monsters are put into your discard pile, and will later generate gold for you when you go to the village (coin icon in the top-left again). At the beginning of the game, you select three monster groups and shuffle them together – then, the Thunderstone itself is shuffled into the last ten cards, so you will always have to go through at least 20 monsters to find it. These cards are then arranged into the dungeon hall thusly:
Dungeons are dark places, as I’ve said, and in order to fight these guys, you need to have the combat strength to do so, but you also need to see them! Working out from the dungeon deck itself, each monster has a light penalty which also needs to be dealt with, descending from -3, -2 and -1: so Lord Mortis, being in the first dungeon hall space (called the rank) in the above picture, has a light penalty of -1. However, monster cards often mess with this in differing ways, such as Lord Mortis’ additional -1 light penalty. However, you can overcome this penalty with sheer brute force – if you don’t have any light-giving items with you, but you do have enough strength to defeat both the monster’s health value and the light penalty, you can still defeat them. I suppose it’s like you’re just wildly flailing around in the dark in a blind frenzy…
In the above picture, then, the Thyrian Squire is fighting Lord Mortis with a Flaming Sword. First of all, the Squire has a base attack of 2. His strength is 6, so he can easily carry the sword, which only weighs 5. The sword adds 3 attack, giving the Squire a total of 5 attack, while also providing one point of light. Lord Mortis has 4 health, but has a light penalty of -2 – he’s in the first dungeon position, but adds to the initial light penalty. The sword cancels one of those points, but there is still one remaining. Any remaining light penalty is doubled before you work out if you actually beat the monster, so in this example, the Squire doesn’t actually defeat him (unless you were to use his ability and discard one Food card for more attack points). So the hero is defeated (which just discards him), and the monster retreats into the dungeon, going to the bottom of the deck, and the other two move up the hall, with a third backfilling from the deck.
When you defeat a monster, it goes into your discard pile and can later generate money for you. Some monster cards, such as the Pegasus shown earlier, have a little cog next to an ability – this is a bonus the card will grant to you when you play it on later turns. However, most monsters aren’t nearly so helpful, and feature Battle effects, such as the Knightmare shown above. These effects take place as the battle resolves – destroyed cards still contribute their attack value, but some effects will just decrease values, which take place before the battle is resolved. Always best to make sure you can defeat these guys before you go delving, though it can sometimes be a good idea to go up against them anyway, to force them to retreat into the dungeon. Especially if you draw some really tough monsters into the hall on your first go!
Sometimes, however, it’s just better to go to the village. The above hand only generates 3 attack from the militia, plus 1 from the dagger, and 1 point of light from the torch. However, it also generates 5 gold if you go to the village, and in the early game it’s always worth buying stuff!
Especially when that 5 gold can net you a flaming sword!
I really enjoy this game! It was actually my first deck-building game, before Dominion, before DC, and before Legendary. It’s particularly good for having nicely implemented ‘legitimate’ solo rules that pushes a new monster out into the village each turn, adding a timer mechanism to the game – at the end of the game, you compare your VP total to that of the monsters in the village pile. For years, I hadn’t come across these rules, and had been playing it ‘straight’, but have recently tried this variant and I must say, it has a whole new feel to the solo game, like you’re actually in a race to stop the bad stuff, rather than just trying to kill 20-or-so monsters while waiting for the thunderstone to just show up. Marvellous!
There are a slew of expansions for this game, too – some of them are promo packs that add a single new type of deck (heroes or monsters, predominantly), along with small box expansions that add new ways to play the game. One of these, Thornwood Siege, builds on this idea of monsters in the village in a really thematic way – I’ll be taking a look at these expansions in coming blogs, anyway!
The game is, unfortunately, out of print nowadays, and even the Advance game seems difficult to get hold of. Surprising, considering AEG are a pretty big company for games publishing (Smash Up is another of their games), though they seem to be focusing more on Legend of the 5 Rings nowadays. That’s a nice game, my friend Tony bought it recently and we tried it out, though it’s in the CCG model that I disapprove of!
As I’ve said, this game is one of the most sensible games I’ve yet encountered. The mechanic of strength and weight means you don’t end up with ridiculous things happening, and is fairly reminiscent of the hands mechanic from Arkham Horror. The light mechanic is where this game also shines (ha!), and something that makes complete sense. As such, these things add up to make Thunderstone a really immersive experience.
The game is not without criticisms, however. I think my biggest gripe about it is the fact that monsters go into your deck, which can often clog your hand with fairly useless cards. They grant gold, of course, and some grant additional abilities, but they can be really annoying at times. The mid-game often becomes a boring cycle of drawing and discarding, rather than the more adventurous feel to the early rounds! Such meta problems are not enough to turn me off, however, and I can still heartily recommend this to anyone if you can still find it!