Game Night Blog Carnival: Thunderstone

Welcome to the Game Night Blog Carnival! This is a recurring feature Roving Band of Misfits is running once each month with numerous roleplaying game blogs. Visit their site for more information about the blog carnival initiative.

This month, we had the unique opportunity to play and review the same game, Thunderstone. I was provided with a copy of the game by AEG at no cost to play and review. I want to extend my thanks to the organizers of the Game Night Blog Carnival and the developers of Thunderstone for making this happen.

Thunderstone is a card game with multiple RPG elements as each player builds up their deck of cards to take on various threats in a dungeon filled with monsters. The goal is find the famed Thunderstone, which lies buried deep in the dungeon under many layers of monsters. The winner is declared by the number of victory points accumulated throughout the game, which takes approximately 45 to 60 minutes to resolve. Below, I talk about my initial impressions of the game and my experiences playing it several times in recent weeks.

Getting Started

Thunderstone arrived in an attractive and sturdy box. The box and cards are not simply cardboard, but have a slightly grooved plastic coating, which adds a layer of durability to both the box and cards. This durability came into play the second time playing the game as the box was set on a counter near a sink, which unbeknownst to me, had a small leak. The box was surrounded by a small pool of water while we played, yet it did not suffer any lasting damage. Most other boxes would have been trashed, so I feel this is a bonus well worth mentioning!

The setup of the game is rather daunting, and may be a stumbling block for people to fully appreciate the game. The cards come packaged in various small sets inside the box. I started to take apart the wrapping and look through the cards before reading the rules. I highly recommend that you do not do this! The cards fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Hero 
  2. Village
  3. Monster
  4. Starter

While that sounds rather simplistic, opening up the box without knowing what to look for is a challenge because the cards all look very much alike. The cards are sturdy and the art is compelling. However, the only way to tell if a card is a Hero, Village, Monster or Starter card is by a small grey symbol on the middle-left of each card. Before I knew what to look for, the cards blended together. Granted, I did not look at the rules first (obviously a mistake), but I doubt I’m the only person that dives right into a new game without consulting the instructions.

The instructions provide an example of how to set up the game, and I highly recommend that new players follow this plan for at least the first game. To set up the game, the cards are laid out in different rows. The first row is for Starter cards, the next two rows are for Village cards, the fourth row is for Hero cards and the final row represents the Dungeon where the Monsters reside.

With so many cards, the box assists with the organization by having a plastic shell with different slots for the cards. Thunderstone comes with another set of Divider cards to keep the various card type separated. However, the Divider cards look exactly like the other cards in the game and are only slightly bigger so their ability to increase organization is limited; they simply blend into the other cards in the box. I suggest that you come up with an alternative method to the Divider cards to keep Thunderstone organized. I have found making a stack for each type of card (e.g., Hero, Village, Monster, Starter) is helpful. One can quickly shuffle through those stacks to find all of the cards needed during setup. 

The process of setting up the cards to get the game started can be a chore in and of itself, which is why I’m spending some time discussing it. Thunderstone is a fun game but it does have an initial steep learning curve. It is worth pushing forward to get to the game itself!

Playing the Game

As mentioned above, the premise of Thunderstone is to build up your heroes to clear out the dungeon and reclaim the famed Thunderstone. To do this, each player starts the game with 12 cards, and the cards are the same for each person. These are the Starter cards listed above. There are four types of Starter cards in the 12-card beginning deck:

  1. Militia (Hero) x6
  2. Iron Rations (Food) x2
  3. Dagger (Weapon) x2
  4. Torch (Item/Light Source) x2

Once the Dungeon, Hero, Village and Starter cards are prepared, the game begins. Each player deals themself six cards from their Starter deck and lays them out in front of everyone. The player has three options each round: Rest, Visit the Village or Enter the Dungeon.

This guy is a badass!

Resting allows the player to destroy a card from their hand, which can be useful later in the game when lower-level or negative cards weigh down the deck. Visiting the Village allows players to buy new items or hire a Hero (example pictured right). Entering the Dungeon allows the player to battle a monster in combat. The math involved in buying from the Village or battling monsters in the Dungeon is extremely painless. The game states it is appropriate for ages 12 and up, but with help in the initial setup phase, younger children could play the game.

Killing monsters grants XP, which can be used to level up Heroes in the Village. Buying items and Heroes in the Village increases your chances of defeating monsters in the Dungeon. Each player continues to build their deck each round in this fashion. This formula should be familiar to any roleplaying-game enthusiast!

Light & Strength

I found the emphasis on Light and Strength to be unique features of Thunderstone. A light source is required to battle the monsters in the Dungeon, and strength is needed to carry weapons, which cause more damage. Instead of feeling like busy work, the factors of Light and Strength add additional layers of strategy to creating a strong deck. For example, some items (i.e., Lantern, Lightstone) can be purchased from town while certain Heroes provide a small bit of light in addition to their attack bonuses.

Light is needed because the Dungeon is a dark and dangerous place. Entering the Dungeon without a light source imposes an attack penalty. The Monster cards are laid out one at a time in three columns. At any given time during the game, only three monsters appear and the columns are considered Ranks. The monster closest to the right is Rank 1, the center is Rank 2 and the left is Rank 3. The Rank represents the light penalty for attacking the Monster in that column. A player can decide to ignore the Monsters in Rank 1 and 2, and attack the monster in Rank 3, but that monster imposes a -3 light penalty to attack. However, the player may have light sources, and if they have 3 light, then there is no penalty. It may sound cumbersome, but I enjoyed the additional strategy it creates.

"I can see clearly now, the flame is on."

As for Strength, each Hero has a Strength rating.  Food items, which can be purchased in the Village, add strength to one or more Heroes in your deck. Each Weapon in the game requires a certain level of strength to wield. A Flaming Sword (which also produces a small amount of Light!) takes 5 Strength to wield, so a strong Hero is needed. But if you have a Food card that boosts the Strength of a Hero, then a lower-level Hero can wield the Flaming Sword for extra damage. Again, I found this type of management to be enjoyable, and it adds to the fantasy feel of the game – even though I loathe encumbrance in games like Skyrim and D&D!

Winning the Game & Player Motivation

Thunderstone is a fun game to play, but the dynamics of victory are slightly uninspiring. The premise of the game is to find the lost Thunderstone, but finding the Thunderstone is rather meaningless in terms of Victory Points, which is truly how the winner is determined. Victory Points appear on cards such as Monsters and high-level Heroes; at the end of the game, the player with the most cards and associated Victory Points wins – regardless of who discovered the Thunderstone. The premise does not truly match the conditions for victory of the game, which was jarring for those that I played with in recent weeks. As one player told me, “I played the game and never did understand what the Thunderstone was, or why we needed it.”

The Thunderstone is worth 3 Victory Points. By way of comparison, the average Monster is worth 3 points and other monsters are worth 6 or more Victory Points. In addition to Monster cards with Victory Points, the highest level of Hero Cards (Level 3) provide 2 Victory Points each. So the goal is truly to kill as many Monsters as possible while leveling up Heroes quickly. The Thunderstone itself is rather irrelevant in the equation even though it is the name and premise of the game. I’m not advocating for the Thunderstone to become as unbalanced as The Golden Snitch, but it feels like the namesake of the game should be more meaningful to the outcome. A second player commented, “Winning doesn’t have much to do with the Thunderstone itself. It’s all about monster kills with a smidgen toward hero leveling. This was a bit disappointing, as you would think with the name like Thunderstone, this object would be a prime game changer. In this game it’s more of a tie breaker should a tie ever occur, which would be extremely rare.”

A related concern expressed by several who played Thunderstone with me is the lack of player interaction. Thunderstone is certainly not a cooperative game, but there is not much in the way of player interaction or competition. A few of the Heroes allow one to force opponents to discard, which weakens their hand, but these cards are few in number. One player voiced his desire for a more competitive experience thusly, “I want to be able to screw the other players and laugh at them.” As a result of these factors, the motivations for playing Thunderstone become obtuse because it’s a multiplayer game without a lot of interaction.

Lessons Learned

One feature I did not delve into yet in this review is the option to randomize available Monster, Hero and Village cards that appear in the game. After playing a couple of the basic games, as described in the instructions, I used the Randomizer cards to create new groups of Monster, Hero and Village options. One comment I received from several players is the lack of strategy involved in the game, but I found expanding to other options outside of the recommended setup introduced more strategy to the game. It seems the developers of Thunderstone introduce players to the game with a basic set of Hero and Village options, but those options are not the most dynamic in the game. I encourage people who try the game to go beyond the basic setup for the game once the rules are understood.

I found the game more rewarding with varied options. For example, I fell in love with the Feayn Archer (pictured above); he provides a small source of Light but had powerful attacks against Monsters further into the Dungeon (i.e., Rank 2, Rank 3). His Level 3 card grants more light, a higher attack bonus and additional XP for certain monster kills. I built a deck around him and a few other cards last night and went on for a big victory (even though I did not land the Thunderstone).

I played Thunderstone with five, four and three people. The game is built for 2-5 players, but I found that three players worked the best out of the games I played. Five players seemed to be too many, but the game felt like it hummed along quite well when it was only three. Additionally, having only three players allowed me to explore the Rest option more often, which allows a player to destroy one of their cards forever. I Rested quite often during the last game to sweep away low-powered cards, and my deck felt very strong by the end of the game.

On the flip side, I believe two players might be too few, but I have not played under that condition yet. The game seemed to flow better as I became more aware of the rules and the quirky fundamentals of the game’s design. The same applied for the players that participated in the game more than once.

Final Thoughts

I like Thunderstone, and certainly plan to play it again. It felt very rewarding to develop a strategy and then draw a hand that fit perfectly into what I was trying to accomplish. In the future, I think the game would benefit from increased player-to-player interaction and an examination of the premise and how it relates to winning the game. A variety of house rules for Thunderstone already exist online, and I encourage new players to create their own once they get a true understanding of the game. As someone who has primarily played D&D for the past two years, the game serves as a nice change of pace once the initial hurdles of the setup are overcome.

I once again thank the developers of Thunderstone for providing me with a copy of the game. I realize some of the feedback is critical, but my thoughts are geared toward making a good game a great game. If the Expansion sets offer more variety, strategy and player-versus-player options, then I think many will enjoy the game. Be sure to check out the various reviews of Thunderstone through the Game Night Blog Carnival!

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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4 Responses to Game Night Blog Carnival: Thunderstone

  1. David R says:

    I would suggest checking out Dragonspire, its a stand alone expansion for Thunderstone, but it adds a lot of cool things, including new Thunderstones that do things other than just signal the end of the game

    If you like that style of game, but want something more PvP, checkout Nightfall, its also made by AEG, and is another deskbuilding game, but its all about hurting the other players and is a lot of fun.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the suggestion. I certainly want to play the game a bit more, and an expansion with more options would be great. At this point, it’s tough to get everyone together for our ongoing D&D campaign, so it’s quite difficult to add in extra sessions for other games.

  2. Pingback: Game Night Blog Carnival (Gen Con 2012 Edition): Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer | The Id DM

  3. Pingback: Ego Check: Justin Gary, Creator of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer | The Id DM

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