WARNING: This review will contain instances of the D-word. You have been warned. Seriously.
Every once in a while, a game mechanic just blows up. Perhaps worker placement is your thing or you’re a fan of the rondel but this year? Well, this year, you can’t move for deck-building. Who knows why it’s become so ubiquitous, but there are plenty of games out there that use it – and of course it all started with Dominion. The game that began it all exploded onto the scene, picking up the 2009 Spiel des Jahres (as well as countless other accolades). This, of course, made other designers and publishers sit up and notice – how could they integrate deck building into their new release schedules? There are plenty of other titles out there that use it but the question is… are they any good?
The trick is to make your game different enough so the public can warrant buying it. Will plastering on a new theme be enough, or should new mechanics be introduced at the risk of over-complication? Thankfully, with AEG’s Thunderstone, a bit of thought was put into the game’s development meaning that both can co-exist happily in my collection. Before I explain why though, let’s have a bit of background…
Thunderstone sees between two and five players taking on the role of… well… co-ordinators? Middle managers? Whatever you call yourself, you’re trying to put together a squad of people to enter a dungeon, defeat a whole bunch of beasties and take control of a mystical all-powerful stone. Starting off with a mediocre bunch of cards, you deal yourself a hand and spend the gold marked on them (yes, like in Dominion…). Use the cards, discard them, deal another hand… sound familiar? However, in this game you get to make a few more choices – remember, you’re on the hunt for monsters, so instead of collecting areas of land you need to hire yourself some mercenaries. Thunderstone has a variable set-up, giving you a selection of thugs, brigands and magic users to send against the bad guys. You’ve also got to arm them (with weapons or spells) while considering their strength – no point giving a huge heavy weapon to someone who’s unable to carry the damn thing.
Buying this stuff is all well and good, but eventually you’re going to have to go fight. While setting up the game, you choose the types of monsters you’re going to go up against, shuffling them into what’s called the Dungeon Deck. Take ten cards off the deck, stick the Thunderstone card in there, randomize them and put them at the bottom of the deck – then you’re ready to go. The top three cards are taken off at the start of the game to represent the layers of the dungeon, which introduces another interesting aspect of the game – light. As well as being tooled up enough, you need to be able to see! Some items (and people) give you light bonuses, meaning you can venture further into the dungeon. If you don’t have enough light your warriors will be at a disadvantage, so there’s a lot to think about before you start fighting. Each time a monster is beaten, it goes to your discard pile – the others move closer to the ‘entrance’ and a replacement is flipped into the third position. You also gain XP for beating monsters which can be used to level up your characters – another really interesting touch. You can tell that designer Mike Elliot has played the occasional video game.
The game starts a bit slowly, but as your decks get more and more powerful you’ll find you visit the dungeon regularly, taking down enemies rapidly. When the Thunderstone appears, the game ends (through it being claimed or slipping into position one), victory points are totalled up and whoever has the most is declared the winner. It’s not necessarily going to be the one who gets the stone who always wins – if you’ve wiped enough monsters out, you could well be the victor!
There’s so much going for this game. People comparing it to Dominion are doing it something of a disservice (aside from the obvious link that they both involve building decks) simply because it requires a bit more thinking. You’re not racing for gold and land in Thunderstone, you’re actually putting together a strong enough team to go into battle, giving them the equipment and skills they need that’s effective against a wide range on enemies, and hoping that you get the right bunch of cards each time you draw. Sure, there’s an element of luck involved, but you need to be adaptable enough to deal with whatever you pull off your deck. The theme is strong, the artwork is great and the quality of the cards is high.
Downsides? Well, a couple. First of all, there’s a lot of icons on those cards and it’s not always obvious what they refer to. A crib sheet will invariably be useful for your first few plays until you get used to the layouts. Newbies may find themselves drowning in information, so you’ve got to keep on top of a lot of different things – a few practice games will shake out the cobwebs, but that initial learning curve may prove too much for greener players. There were a few issues with the rules in initial runs of the game, but the current set (version 1.4) are nice and clear – make sure you’re using the correct ones!
Do your best though. Break out that charm! Get them to stick with it, because playing Thunderstone is a rewarding and entertaining experience. If you’re after a quick deck-building fix, bust out Dominion, but if you’re looking for something a little deeper that requires a bit more thought, I’d heartily recommend getting yourself a copy of Thunderstone. All the fun of a dungeon raiding in card form, playable in less than an hour – what’s not to like?
Thunderstone was published in 2009 by AEG, and was designed by Mike Elliot. It handles between two and five players and games take between 30-45 minutes. It’ll cost you between £25 and £30 here in the UK, and if you fancy taking your experience further you can try out the recently released expansion Wrath of the Elements – more monsters, more heroes and, of course, more cards (in a really nicely organised box…). Enjoy!