Dancing with myself – Thunderstone for One

There’s going to be a few changes here on The Little Metal Dog Show over the next few weeks, not least the fact that you’ll have the opportunity to read more than just my ramblings. I’ve asked some of my favourite writers if they’d care to get involved in talking about board gaming of all kinds and have had a lot of positive responses. One of these are the excellent Campfire Burning who writes here about the joys of playing Thunderstone all by yourself…

I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with Thunderstone. The moment it clicked. The moment I learned how I to play.

I was floundering, I’ll admit. I’m a newbie to this kind of game at its most elemental level. Thunderstone’s a deck-building game, and I didn’t have the first clue how to build a deck.

There’s no indication of how to do so in the rules, you see. That’s the beauty of the game. It presents you with myriad cards of differing kinds and expects you to pull them all together into a single mighty game-winning deck. There’s little discussion of tactics in the instructions, and what there is isn’t applicable to the single player game. In fact the base set doesn’t even come with rules for solo play – I had to download them from the publisher’s site and try to fathom them by myself, the same way I had to work out the rest of the game.

Pressure. That’s the thing. Thunderstone the multiplayer game is a shooting range. Players compete with each other to kill monsters inside a dungeon. At no point do the monsters leave the dungeon; they hang out there, waiting for heroes to have a go at them before taking a swing. The pace of the game varies based on the playing style of the other players – it’s as ferocious as they are, so if they’re relaxed hey, then the game’s relaxed, too.

In solo-play the monsters are pro-active. With every turn they stalk from chamber to chamber across the dungeon hall, until they emerge and attack the village you’re charged with protecting. Every monster that escapes the dungeon costs you victory points. Every monster that escapes is another step towards defeat.

They will not stop unless you kill them.

There are a couple of grace turns right at the start of the game as the monsters negotiate the dungeon hall. Once they’re out you’re on a strict time limit to get your deck together. You can’t rely on your opponents to make mistakes; the monsters are unrelenting. The fate of the village is entirely down to you and your deck.

For the first few games the village burned and the villagers were eaten. I sifted through the rules certain I must be doing something wrong – surely there was no way to beat this game, even on the easiest level. I played and failed again. I sweated. I whined. I didn’t know what to do.

And then it clicked.

It was the Militia, those brave single attack point soldiers that fill out the majority of your starting deck. I’d been hoarding them back to bolster my heroes’ attacks, and every game I’d failed. Then, spurred on by the pressure of the advancing monsters, I sacrificed them.

I swapped them out for spells and equipment. I bought Trainers, and used them to trash cards for experience points. I stripped my deck down to the basics, bought a couple of heroes, tooled them to the nines and set them against weak opponents, and when they’d pushed back the darkness for a single turn I sent them back to the village and leveled them up. All of a sudden my tiny band of level one adventurers had gained new powers – and what powers they were!

Heroes in Thunderstone can only advance twp levels, but those two levels make a difference. Take the Selurin Mage. At level one the hero only has a basic magic attack, but advance him a couple of levels and he becomes a Selurin Theurge, a hero capable of multiplying the damage caused by all magical attacks across your entire hand.

I’d been so stupid. I’d been holding back from levelling my heroes so I could have more militia.

But that was behind me. Every hand yielded a couple of heroes, with enough weapons and light sources to take on all but the steeliest of opponents. They ransacked the dungeon, looting monstrous corpses, racking up experience and victory points alike. The dungeon that has previously been insurmountable had become my playground.

The final monster crushed beneath my adventurers’ heels, I nabbed the Thunderstone, saved the village, and had some Burt’s crisps to celebrate.

I can’t say I wouldn’t have learned to play the game so quickly if I’d been up against a human opponent, but I’ll tell you something: Those automated monsters whipped my legs. With every turn leading inexorably toward failure I had to learn the game; with that pressure looming over me, I learned to enjoy it.

Not all of us have friends who’ll drop by at a moment’s notice for a night’s gaming. If you don’t have one of these mythical gaming parties but still want to go dungeon delving for epic XP, take heart: Thunderstone was made for people like you.

Campfire Burning’s blog can be found right here – I thoroughly recommend checking it out. You can also follow him on Twitter by going to, shockingly enough, @CampfireBurning.

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