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Thunderstone Review 



Designed by Mike Elliot


                Thunderstone is an entry into the relatively new sub-genre of card game currently being referred to as a “deck building” game.  The central mechanic in these games has the players gradually building a deck from a pool of cards that is randomly determined at the beginning of each game.  This mechanic, first seen in the mega-hit Dominion, has a lot to recommend it, but it also has a built-in weakness—it is anti-thematic.  Maximizing the efficiency of a deck will nearly always become a mathematical exercise.  In Dominion, the mechanic dominated the theme to the point that I never felt I was doing anything other than trying to build a better card engine than my opponents, and I was wary of Thunderstone which presents itself as a deck-building, dungeon crawler.  Dungeon crawlers are among the most thematic of board games, and card game versions of dungeon crawls (even those that used some of the cards as dungeon tiles) have always seemed unsuccessful in capturing the theme.  Thunderstone was not just a card game, but one with a central mechanic that is known to obscure theme.  My hopes that the game could pull me in to the theme and be otherwise a successful game were, admittedly, pretty low.  The good news:  I was wrong.  The better news:  not only does the game feel like a dungeon crawler, it is one of the better dungeon crawlers of the past few years—despite being worlds away from the classic miniatures plus tile games like Hero Quest, Warhammer Quest, and the recent smash, Descent.

                Players begin the game by randomly selecting the following: monsters for the dungeon, heroes, and items for the village marketplace.  The monster deck is pretty self-explanatory: it consists of the monsters that the players will have to fight during the game.  Similarly, the heroes will be available to fight monsters during the game.  The village cards consist of everything from weapons and spells to food and tools.  The heroes and the items are set out in stacks to form the village.  The monsters are shuffled together and place above the village to form the dungeon.  The top three monsters are flipped up and placed beside the deck to form levels one, two, and three of the dungeon.

                Each turn the player draws six cards from his deck and, after evaluating his hand, decides whether to go to the village to make a purchase or hire a hero, or to go fight in the dungeon.  Nearly all of the cards, including some heroes, have a gold value for use if the player goes to the village.  The cards may also have a positive or negative effect according to which location they are used in.  If a player goes to the village, they can either hire a hero or make a single purchase from the available cards in the village.  Hired heroes and purchased cards are immediately discarded along with all of the cards from the player’s hand whether they were used to make the purchase or not. 

                If the player decides to go to the dungeon, he picks a creature to fight and adds up all of the attack values in his hand.  If his attack value is higher than the monster’s toughness, the creature is defeated and goes into the player’s discard pile (That’s right, defeated monsters become part of the player’s deck.  Some even have dungeon effects when they are in the player’s hand).  Of course, things aren’t quite so simple.  Before attacking, the player must account for the lack of light in the level of the dungeon he is attacking.  This part is a bit clumsy: first you subtract any light source in the players hand from the dungeon level, then, you multiply the result by two to get the light penalty  So, if you are attacking in the third level and have only one point worth of light source the penalty will be (-4).  As a result, it would take eleven points of damage to kill a creature with a toughness of seven.  If   that same creature had been in the second level, it would take nine damage to kill it instead.  It is important to note that the player could work out all of this math before deciding to go to the dungeon or village.  As such, the only time a player really loses a combat is when he chooses to.  The only penalty for losing a combat is that the attacked monster is removed from the dungeon.  This means a player can purposely attack a monster to remove it from the dungeon in order to keep an opponent from defeating it and collection the experience and victory points.  A player could also decide to do this just to accelerate the end game if he or she were ahead.

                That is basically the game.  When the Thunderstone which has been randomly inserted in the last few cards is flipped up in the dungeon and advances to the first level, the game is over.  Players score points for all of the VP values on cards in their deck.  The player who killed the monster that allowed the Thunderstone to move to the front (assuming that happened) gets points for the Thunderstone (3 pts).  The highest score wins. 

                I have really enjoyed my games of Thunderstone so far.  The light and level mechanism really adds to the immersion in the theme.  I have the ability to immerse myself in a theme even when it is pasted on, but Thunderstone legitimately feels like a dungeon crawl.  I have to assume many people will disagree with me on that, but, I’m pretty confident in saying this is a fun game for players who enjoy the dungeon crawl theme and like card games to boot. 

Final Score: 9/10—Excellent

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