Reviewed by Al Newman

(Alderac Entertainment Group, 2 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 60 minutes; $39.99)


thunderstone1After the phenomenal success of Dominion (featured in the Winter 2009 issue of GAMERS ALLIANCE REPORT), it was inevitable that card games with the same mechanics would appear. Although detractors might term Thunderstone a “knock-off,” the theme and mechanics of designer Mike Elliott’s game are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own. While the game will never command the popularity of Dominion, it has established a solid niche for game players seeking a Dungeon style adventure that should not extend much beyond an hour at worst.

Like Dominion, there are a huge number of cards in the basic set (580 in all), although 50 wider cards don’t even come into play and simply function as dividers. When sleeved by standard card protectors, the regular size cards will fit precisely within the pockets afforded by the platform in the attractively designed box. Jason Engle’s artwork sets a proper tone all throughout, from the rendering of your army of Heroes to the awesome Monsters of the Dungeon. Although it has been suggested that three players is best, our play sessions have gone well with four contestants. The game will accept a fifth player and is also playable by only two.

To begin each game, a randomizing deck is used to select card sets from the groups of Heroes, Monsters and Village cards available for game play. Given the number of sets, variety is never a problem and at least one expansion to provide even more variety, is in the works.

Players each begin with 12 cards (6 Militia, 2 Torches, 2 Rations and 2 Daggers). The Militia fight Monsters in the Dungeon and have a basic attack value. The Torches provide light in the dark dungeons. The Rations provide strength which enable your Heroes to carry heavier and more effective weapons. The Daggers are your initial weapons and provide an attack bonus. This starting deck is shuffled and six cards are drawn. When your turn is finished, whatever cards you played and those remaining are discarded and six new cards are drawn for the next turn.

Leftovers in the starting deck categories are placed in the Village, along with 8 other stacks of 8 cards each, randomly chosen from a host of possibilities, a la Dominion. The mix might include a heavier Flaming Sword that not only provides light but a “magical” attack bonus. The Village might also host a Town Guard, who enables you to get more cards when you visit on your turn. All of these cards have a COST and most have a VALUE, which provides GOLD for future purchases.

Also in the Village are 4 classes (stacked) of randomly chosen Heroes (12 each), all with differing attacks and abilities to help fight in the Dungeon. In each class, there are 6 level One, 4 level Two and 2 Level Three (L3 are worth either 1 or 2 Victory Points).

Three classes of randomly chosen Monsters (10 each) are shuffled together to stock the Dungeon. The Thunderstone is shuffled into the bottom 10 and the 30 are placed face down. Three Monsters are then placed face up side by side to the right of the deck. The Monster all the way to the right is in the 1st rank of the Dungeon. The Monster in the middle is in the 2nd rank and the Monster next to the deck is in the 3rd rank. Why the distinction?

Well, the deeper you go into the Dungeon, the darker it is! Without light, you suffer a penalty to your attack. 1st rank = minus 2. 2nd rank = minus 4. 3rd rank = minus 6. However, you can provide light to reduce the penalties, like the Torches you are initially dealt, which reduce the rank (not the penalty!) by 1. Thus, if you have 2 Torches and are fighting a Monster in the 3rd rank, it’s as if you are fighting in the 1st rank (3-2=1), which means a penalty of minus 2 to your attack. But worse yet, some of the Monsters can actually cancel out some of your light bonus and some can even make it impossible to fight if there is any light penalty at all. Complicated? A bit, but the light penalties are the most difficult thing to grasp about the game. Once you have that down, you’re fine.

Finally, Experience point cards and Disease cards are placed nearby. If you defeat a Monster, you will earn Experience points and they enable you to level up your Heroes. Unfortunately, some Monsters carry disease and if you defeat then, you receive a Disease card, which will reduce the effectiveness of subsequent attacks. Experience cards earned are placed off to the side, not in your deck. Disease cards go right into your deck, so they not only cost you in future battles, they take up valuable space. Fortunately, there is a way to get rid of Disease cards.

thunderstone-elf-archmageYou have three options on your turn and the easiest is also the way you can rid yourself of Disease cards or any other cards that are no longer necessary.

1) “Rest” and destroy any single card in your hand. The card is now out of the game. You discard everything else and draw another 6 cards (exactly like Dominion) for the next turn. The discard deck is always shuffled in need be to to make a new deck. Later in the game, you might even want to “Rest” to get rid of weaker cards, even Torches, Daggers or Militia, since you will likely acquire stronger cards along the way. “Resting” can be instrumental to increasing the effectiveness of your deck.

2) Visit the Village. You lay out your cards and use their GOLD value to purchase 1 item (only), including the topmost Hero in any stack. As in Dominion, cards played as Gold are always retained in your deck, however certain cards give you the opportunity to destroy them for additional Gold. After the purchase is made, all cards are discarded and another 6 are drawn for the next turn.

3) Attack a Monster. Again, lay out your cards, equip your Heroes with a Weapon and choose a Monster to attack. Re equipping, each Hero has a STRENGTH number, which must equal or exceed the WEIGHT of the Weapon he is carrying. So, if you wish to equip a Militia (strength 2) with a Short Sword (weight 4), you must assign Iron Rations (food +2 strength) to them. Then, the Militia’s normal +1 attack is bolstered by Short Sword’s +4 attack as well.

Bear in mind when you enter the Dungeon, there will be a light penalty if you cannot provide any light. If you attack a Monster in rank 1 and have a Torch, it reduces the rank to 0, which means no light penalty.

If you lose the battle, the Monster retreats to the bottom of the deck. Players can actually lose their battles on purpose, which adds the strategic element of a shorter game. If you win, you get the card and the Monsters fill in the vacated ranks. Monsters are worth VPS and as cited before, you also receive Experience point cards, which are not placed in your deck but enable you to level up Heroes later on. Certain defeated Monsters provide a bonus at the end of the battle, such as allowing a visit to the Village to buy food but some also carry a penalty, such as forcing you to destroy one of your fighters. Defeated Monsters are then placed in your deck and although most have no ongoing use, some do provide a bonus if you later go to the Dungeon.

Thus far, our play sessions have been quite entertaining. There is ample opportunity for planning, especially in calculating the best way to build an effective deck to play with. The learning curve is confined mostly to reading the text on the cards for the first few games but after that, players usually know the cards by sight. The presence of so many different cards ensures variety. There are 8 sets of Monsters but only 3 are used. There are 11 sets of Heroes but only 4 are used. There are 19 sets of cards for the Village but only 8 are used. That’s an incredible number of possibilities and a lot of variety.

The Monsters all have victory point values, but some like the Bloodskull Orc have zero VPs and are useful only for Experience points. Others, like the Noxious Slag, are worth as much as 6 VPs. The Thunderstone is worth 3 VPs and can be captured if it is in the second rank and a player defeats the Monster in the first rank, subsequently ending the game. The game always ends when the Thunderstone moves to the first rank. Also, Level 3 Heroes are worth 1 or 2 VPs. At game’s end, players count their VPs and the highest total wins.

The only caveat is that the original set of rules were likely written very hastily and did not provide sufficient examples and guidance. The rulebook is now in its fourth incarnation and has gone from 16 to 24 pages. This raises the specter that the game may not have been tested as well as it should have been and that situations may arise that are not explained by the rules. However, the risk seems well worth it. The game is utterly cool and tremendous fun. If you’ve had the itch to roam the Dungeons in search of Monsters, Thunderstone will definitely provide the scratch.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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