Through The Fire And The Flames – Thunderstone: Dragonspire review

Moosegrinder returns, his obsession with cards still burning in his soul. What did he think of AEG’s latest iteration of Thunderstone?


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It’s quite difficult to write about expansion packs, mainly because the chances are that if you like a game you’re going to buy the expansion as, more often than not, more of the same is never a bad thing. Unless you’re some kind of masochist that enjoys playing rubbish games and just like buying stuff in which case you should get help.I wrote a review for Doomgate Legion, the second expansion for Thunderstone, which showed that AEG are in this for the long haul and are looking at ways to mix up the formula and adding new cards to make your quest a bit harder and to get some player interaction going rather than just making it an arms race to see who can smash the most stuff in the face the quickest. Dragonspire does the same but is also the added bonus of being a stepping on point for new players as it contains all the basic cards (Dagger, Disease, Torch, Iron Rations and Militia) resplendent with new artwork from the original base set. Gone are the XP cards which have been replaced with funky little plastic tokens, which is much better although if you’re a ham-fisted gumby like me then you can have them skittering all over the place but at least they take up less space and look nice.

Light Penalties are printed on the board - very useful!

One large item they’ve added to the set is a board to place the Dungeon Hall complete with reminders of penalties. In all honesty, I’m not very fond of it as it’s reversed to how we populate the hall (yes, yes I know it’s a personal preference thing) but it’s also bigger than it really needs to be, seeing as you have 16 other piles of cards on the table. Still, it’s a nice thought. There’s a new type of treasure to loot from the dungeon in the form of Figurines, which revolve around card removal and destruction for other gains and a new set of traps named Draconic. These are nasty pieces of work which, when entering the hall, make you destroy cards. The traps from the previous expansions aren’t the most pleasant anyway, but these are just downright evil, like making you destroy 3 weapons if the first card you turn over is a weapon. Two new Guardians are in there as well, along with eight new types of enemy and as with Doomgate, in the main they seem to be getting bigger and nastier. Bandits need you to stack heroes to take them down, Giants destroy heroes based on strength, and the Hydra are just big and mean. A nice counter to this face punching is that some of the Elemental Fire cards have beneficial effects when they’re in Dungeon Hall, so they give the global effect of light +x thus negating light penalties in the dungeon to a certain degree. Of course, it wouldn’t do to have a completely useful enemy so Choking Smoke is there to counteract the balance by giving Global: Light -2. It even has light -2 as a dungeon card. Bastard. The Village cards are what you’ve come to expect but with a little more emphasis on cards bouncing off each other with their powers. Scout, Polymorph and Chieftains Drum are the best examples, with some Dominion-style card searching and cycling. Other cards give +x Magic Attack for each y Gold revealed (Silverstorm), or allow card draw if you don’t have a 6 or more strength hero in your hand (Frost Giant Axe). Naturally, the axe needs a hero with strength of 6 to wield it, but the power can trigger even if it’s unequipped.

There are whole slew of new cards to learn.

One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m not yet sure if it’s going to effect the game in the long run, is that a few of the village cards have 3 gold on them. If you play with the same people frequently you’ll start to notice certain cards going first so it kind of forces your strategy instead of letting you adapt naturally because 3 gold per card is crazy, especially if Creeping Death (an 11 cost spell) is in play, although it could be argued that that’s a kind of adaptation strategy. It’s hardly game breaking, though. The heroes are the usual mix of Magic Attack and normal Attack, with the incremental upgrades ranging from ‘not bad’ to ‘completely bonkers’. If you’ve played any Thunderstone before, you’ll generally know what to expect but there’s also some nice twists, like the rank 3 Flame Hero who has +2 attack for each light ABOVE penalties and has 2 light himself or the Stoneguard Tanker who is completely superpowered by having +6 Attack and then +4 Attack more if he’s equipped. It’s utterly crackers. The biggest development in the heroes comes from the Veteran and the Phalanx. The Veteran actually has 4 ranks rather than the usual 3, and that comes at a price of 5 XP if to upgrade him but he also grants 2 XP as spoils, has a strength of 10 and gives 4 Victory Points at the end.

Mental!

The Phalanx is exactly as it names suggest, the more Phalanx you have the bigger they get, but there’s only 2 ranks and it costs 6 XP to upgrade from basic to enhanced level. The heroes in this game can make light a little bit irrelevant against the right mobs as the designers have made them all mental when ranked up and when combined with certain village cards (like the Frost Giant Axe) you can decimate most things. If there’s a downside to games like Thunderstone it’s that the game becomes an embarrassment of riches, which can be to its detriment in two ways. The first is it becomes difficult to balance all the cards from previous sets so they seem to be going for a “bigger better faster more” approach and it’s worrying that later cards might make the older ones seem a little but irrelevant. The second is that sometimes, like with Dominion, if you’re randomising with multiple expansions you get a very, very, very dull game where you can’t kill anything and you’re circling the village waiting for a semi decent hand to come out. However, there’s ways around that problem, and it’s really quite churlish to complain about having too much choice so all you have to do is swap the cards out if you look like you’ve pulled a duff lot. The long and short is this: If you don’t own Thunderstone it’s a brilliant jumping on point as it’s a base set in itself, and if you love Thunderstone already there’s no reason not to own Dragonspire; the new cards are fun, the box (albeit having gone back to the ridged bottom which gets on my nipples) will hold all the cards from the previous sets (although if you have sleeved them you may have trouble, it’s apparently something of a tight fit) and the tokens are tactile and pretty. Mmm, pretty tokens.

It always comes down to the plastic bits…

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Thunderstone: Dragonspire is a standalone set from AEG, released this year. It’s currently available from all good game shops for around £35. Don’t forget, there’s an interview with Todd Rowland from AEG on episode 18 of the podcast – check it out to find out what the future holds for the Thunderstone franchise!

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