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THUNDERSTONE QUEST

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

THUNDERSTONE QUEST (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-90 minutes; Base Set $69.99)

 

If Dominion and Dungeons & Dragons had a fling, the result would undoubtedly be Thunderstone Quest.  The massive game from designer Mike Elliott and AEG combines the deck-building features pioneered in Dominion with the dungeon exploration and nasty creature encounters popularized by the classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.  If either of these genres appeals to you, then Thunderstone Quest may be worth exploring.

After the incredible success of Dominion (featured in the Winter 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) which was truly the pioneer in the deck-building genre, a flurry of other games appeared that used that mechanism.  While I played many of these Dominion-influenced games, I never did play Thunderstone, (Spring 2010 GA Report) which had players battling nasty fantasy creatures.  Thunderstone Quest takes a giant leap forward in that it introduces a series of quests, allowing the challenges to increase as the storyline unfolds.  This does, however, add significant layers of complexity which may be a bit much for those who prefer the relative purity of Dominion.

An important aspect of Thunderstone Quest is the quests, which are divided into three chapters and an epilogue.  The concept is to begin with the first quest and, in order, progress through the chapters, as one would do with a book.  The storyline unfolds as one progresses, as do the challenges, which become increasingly difficult.  However, unlike many role-playing games, characters do not get stronger or improve in abilities.  One starts afresh each game, which means that players are not restricted to playing the quests in order. [(The game is marketed in different editions: The Champion Reward is available to backers of the Kickstarters. The Champion Reward consists of the base game components, 5 Quests (Q1: A Mirror in the Dark, Q2: Total Eclipse of the Sun (Kickstarter Exclusive), Q3: Risen from the Mire, Q4: At the Foundations of the World, and Q5: Ripples in Time, and some additional content exclusive to Kickstarter backers. The Thunderstone Base Game includes the base game components and 2 Quests. (Q1: A Mirror in the Dark and Q3: Risen from the Mire). Quest 4 & 5 will be released in 2019.)]

Game setup takes some time, as each scenario calls for specific sets of dungeon tiles, monsters, weapons, items, adventurers, etc.  Players begin with a player mat whereupon they track their hit points and store their special items, cards and discards.  Each also receives an identical set of 12 cards consisting of adventurers, lanterns, thunderstone shards and daggers.  Since this is a deck-builder, players will acquire new cards and discard cards as the game progresses.  If players so decide, they will also each receive a Side Quest (which grants rewards if the conditions are achieved) and Guild Sponsorship (which gives them bonuses for focusing on a specific strategy).  The overall idea is to acquire useful weapons, items and adventurers that will help you defeat the dungeon dwellers, find treasure and ultimately defeat the evil and powerful guardian. 

A player’s turn begins with the decision to either visit the village or enter the dungeon.  If visiting the village, the player places his nifty miniature pawn at one of the several possible locations–temple, bazaar, Shop of Arcane Wonders or the Guild’s Quarter.  The player may then use his hand of cards (which is drawn at the conclusion of one’s previous turn) to perform the action(s) associated with the selected location.  He may spend any and all of the gold depicted upon his cards to purchase one card from the marketplace (which sells weapons and items) or the Guild’s Quarter (where adventurers are recruited).  He may also heal one wound (one additional wound may be healed if at the temple). 

In addition to these actions, a player may spend experience points (which are earned when defeating most monsters) to increase the level of one of his adventurers, discarding the old one and taking an identical adventurer with a level that is one  higher.  This is important as characters generally become stronger and possess enhanced abilities as they increase in level.  Be careful, however, as the supply of adventurers may–and likely will–deplete, so the needed level may not be available.  A character cannot skip levels when being upgraded, so it is possible to get stuck and unable to upgrade a particular type of adventurer. 

It is important to note that using a card for its gold value does not prohibit the player from also using the card for its special ability.  This is different than many deck-building games. 

Normally, if a player visits the village, he will not be entering the dungeon that turn.  However, if he plays a lantern card, he may enter the dungeon after performing the actions in the village.  This can be quite handy, giving the player the best of both locations.

Instead of going to the village, a player may opt to enter the dungeon in hopes of defeating its denizens, thereby gaining experience and hopefully finding treasures and other valuable items.  In addition to the mandatory entrance level, there are three levels in this dungeon, each guarded by nastier and more powerful creatures.  The occupants of each level are known, so a player can assess each creature’s strength, damage it will inflict (if any) and treasures it will yield if it is defeated.  There is no dice rolling or drawing of cards to represent battle.  If a player has enough strength on the cards in hand (adventurers, weapons, items, special abilities, etc.) to match or exceed the creatures strength–taking into account the creature’s armor and protection against certain weapons and attacks–then he can defeat that monster and reap the rewards.  If not, he doesn’t travel to that location.  If successful, the monster is removed and a new one takes it place.  Some monsters inflict damage–usually hit points–which must be tracked on the player’s mat.  Suffering too much damage will reduce a player’s hand size and could ultimately result in the player’s demise, but we have never come close to that occurring.

As mentioned, most creatures, when defeated, reward the player with experience points, items and/or treasures.  Some treasures are drawn randomly from a deck, while others are specific.  All of this is useful in gaining strength and abilities, enabling the player to confront even more dangerous and powerful creatures.

A player may opt to remain in the dungeon entrance and battle the usually feeble denizens present there.  This is sometimes necessary if a player has a weak hand of cards.  However, it is usually beneficial to descend into the depths and confront the more powerful creatures, where greater rewards can be claimed.  However, in order to descend past the dungeon entrance, a player must possess lanterns, either in the form of cards or items.  One lantern is usually required per level.  Plus, care must be exercised as some dungeon levels and even creatures inflict a cost (usually hit points, items or cards) to pass through that level.  This must be taken into account before taking action.

After completing one’s turn, the player discards his hand of cards and draws new ones, up to his allowed limit, which decreases when taking damage.  Players continue taking turns in this fashion until the fourth “Guardian Key” is uncovered. These keys are mixed into the various monster decks, usually divided amongst the three levels.  Be warned that these keys can appear quickly, bringing the game to a premature conclusion.  When the fourth key appears, all players draw six more cards into their hand and discard four.  They each then have one final turn.

A player can opt to take a normal turn or combat the dungeon’s Guardian.  There are many different guardians of various strengths, and each usually requires a player to discard specific items, weapons or cards before encountering them.  If a player successfully defeats a guardian, they usually earn experience points equal to half of their total attack value. So, the stronger a player has become, the greater the experience points he will earn.  Although a player may defeat a guardian, it remains in place for all other players to attack, if so desired.

After this final turn, players total their victory points, earning points for cards in their deck, completed Side Quests, and experience point tokens.  Of course, the player with the most is victorious and gains renown throughout the realm.

I generally enjoy the deck building genre, although for awhile there were too many new entries into the field, including the original Thunderstone.  The dizzying pace of new entries has seemed to somewhat abate, so I am more amenable to occasionally trying a new one.  Thunderstone Quest caught my attention as it added a quest aspect to the proceedings.  While I have often loudly declared my weariness of the fantasy genre, I can see how it was an appropriate selection for this rendition. 

Thunderstone Quest is certainly more complex and fiddly than most games in the genre.  As with many dungeon or fantasy-themed adventures, there are lots of calculations to perform: weapons and items that add modifiers, armor that fends-off attacks, hit points, exceptions to normal rules, etc.  All of these calculations and considerations can grow wearisome…but perhaps not for hardcore fans of dungeon adventure aficionados, who are used to such constant computations.   

The big question, of course, is does this added complexity make for a satisfying gaming experience.  My surprising answer is “yes”.  I enjoy the decisions that need to be made and the challenge of assembling a powerful cast of adventurers with complimentary weapons and items that will send shivers of terror through the most powerful creature.  In spite of the added complexity and associated rules and calculations, the game plays relatively quickly–usually in 1 – 1 1/2 hours. 

Since each scenario has different characters, weapons and items, I don’t think there is one overly powerful or dominant strategy.  I have not yet played all of the quests, but I have already seen different strategies succeed, which is a good feature.  Perhaps experienced players will learn how to assemble a formidable hand of cards and pursue a dominant strategy, but I think it would take a long time to possibly develop such skills. 

One of the appeals of deck-building games such as Dominion and Ascension (Fall 2010 GA Report) is that they can be easily taught and played by folks of just about all ages.  I don’t expect that is true of Thunderstone Quest, as the added complexity will likely narrow the target audience.  However, for those seeking more complexity, strategies and options, Thunderstone Quest is a fine adventure to take. – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


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