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Subject: Thunderstone - a breif review and play session rss

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Robert
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Last night, my FLGS hosted a demo of the new Mike Elliot designed "Thunderstone". It was a pleasure to have the actual game designer there to answer questions and explain the rules. What was even better is that he let us explore the game without being at all overbearing - truly Mike, you are a master of teaching.

So, the set up. It's myself, and my four friends Chris, Galia, Riley and Niall. Niall claims to be "bad at math" but I'm here to tell you differently. All of us are fans of Dominion, though we've recently switched over to playing more Race for the Galaxy - long story short - we had a basic idea of the mechanics of the game before Mike explained the specifics.

Mechanics wise, this game plays a great deal like Dominion - you have a set of cards that can be used as either gold or to produce a desired effect - such as allowing you to draw extra cards, or add to your attack. What really sets it apart from Dominion, however, is that there are two distinct tracks or paths you can pursue on your turn. It boils down to making a choice: Do I shop in the village to pick up weapons enhancements / deck enhancements / more fighters / spells etc, OR do I dive into the dungeon to face one of three monsters who will give me the resources to improve my "party" as well as provide me with victory points? Since the ultimate goal is to achieve the most VPs, you are very likely going to do some of both - the monsters appearing are random, so you might wind up with something your initial deck can handle, or you may have to build in the village a few turns. While I don't think it is possible to win with a strictly economic deck - one which eschews the dungeon completely in favor of buying items at the village that are worth VPs in addition to their fighting abilities - you might make a good showing.

How does it end? The game will start off with a deck of monsters of three types that will be randomized and set aside. Three of these monsters will be selected at a time and to fight the higher ones (the ones deeper in the dungeon) will require more light - via torch or spell. Near the bottom of the deck is the Thunderstone. When it appears and reaches the "top" of the dungeon, the game will end.

Our session started off with a good explanation of all the cards in play - there was a row of four heroes that you could buy, and then via XP earned by fighting and defeating monsters in the dungeon, level up to stronger heroes of the same class. Some of the heroes were able to use magic based attacks, others were strictly mundane "bash it until it dies". Another class of cards were weapons and torches (and you usually need both to fight the higher level monsters) as well as spell enhancements. One in particular that I bought several of were "Goodberries" which among other abilities, allowed me to turn any attack I made during my turn into a magic attack - very useful if the monster you choose to fight is immune to all BUT magic attacks. As it turned out, Niall spent most of his game buying enhancements in the village, and very little time fighting the monsters. Chris balanced his game between the village and the dungeon - getting what he felt he needed, then diving in for an easy kill. Galia did much the same. Riley seemed to think we were playing Dominion, as he bought cards from the village that essentially allowed him to cycle his deck each turn. As it turned out, he was doing this to make sure he had enough gold to buy more items. The problem he ran into was that even with his entire deck cycling each turn he didn't have many high value cards and never really dove into the dungeon much. I focused on buying one type of fighter and upgrading those fighters every time I could. The 3rd level fighters of each class have the advantage of being worth additional VPs at the end of the game, and this was one of the goals I was aiming for.

So, we're moving along through the deck of monsters and eventually we ran into the Sphinx. Being immune to all but magic attacks, none of us was willing to take her on as we didn't have the resources to fight her - or in mine and Chris' case, we couldn't get our magic attack cards into our hands along with enough strength to attack. Eventually, Galia managed to get the right combo, and there was much rejoicing. Also, as the Thunderstone had been in the 2nd monster position, it now hit the top of the dungeon and thus the game ended.

Scores were as far as I can remember:
Galia - 17
Chris - 19
Riley - 15 or so
Myself - 21
Niall - 12

I won somewhat by luck and somewhat due to the fact that though Chris defeated more monsters, the ones I defeated were worth more VPs. Also, I managed to upgrade two of my fighters to their third rank and each of them was worth 3VPs.

Total time played was around 53 minutes. Not bad considering that none of us had played before. I fully expect that if we had played again, we'd have been quite a bit faster, but this is NOT going to be as quick a game as Dominion nor should it.

Things I liked: The artwork is very good, easily the quality of any CCG on the market today. I loved having the choice between building my resources, running the dungeon, or even just taking a turn to "rest" which allows you to "trash" a card from your deck - much like getting rid of a curse in Dominion, many monsters will give you disease which decreases your attack rating and you want these gone.

Things I didn't like as much: I'm not a huge Fantasy guy, the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing doesn't really do it for me, but I can appreciate a good mechanic despite the theme, and this game is very solid in that regard.

So, is it Dominion Jr.? Mike had an interesting comment while we were playing, he said that Dominion was like a "Tech Demo" and that Thunderstone was intended to take that tech and make a much deeper game around it without overwhelming the players. I think that he's done this very well and while it will certainly help your initial understanding of the mechanics if you've played Dominion before, I don't think it is necessary for your enjoyment of Thunderstone. I agree with Mike about the Tech Demo comment. Dominion has become boring to me because despite the large number of cards, there does seem to be a limited number of strategies that work with that game and deviating from the narrow path will assure that you lose. It remains to be seen if Thunderstone will have a similar flaw, but my initail impression is that it won't because you are given far more choice in how you pursue the VPs instead of "everyone make a run for the Provinces!!!"

Final thoughts - This fall, I've really been looking forward to the AEG release Infinite City. Having played Thunderstone, it looks like AEG will be getting even more of my money.
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Diz Hooper
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Great review. I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to play this. I've been hoping for a Dominion-like game with a stronger theme.
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James Cartwright
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Nice Review.

I really looking forward to this game.

I've just got the Island of Doctor Necreaux and thought it was a great little card game. Looks like AEG will be getting more of my money as well if Thunderstone and Infinite City live up to the hype
 
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Robert
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Thank you for the comments. Thunderstone looks absolutely gorgeous, and I am seriously considering purchasing a copy once it comes out. Infinite City looks brilliant as well, and having read the rules I think it could be a great medium weight game that will appeal to a wide audience. I think of the two, that Thunderstone will likely be received better, but they both look really good. For what it's worth, Mike said he'd played Infinite City and enjoyed it when AEG were at Gencon.
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Marc-Andre Blanchet
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Do you have any comments as far as player interaction go?

In Dominion, for example, there are ways to harm or slow down an opponent trying to do something fancy.
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The Cheng Meister
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Escher26 wrote:

Final thoughts - This fall, I've really been looking forward to the AEG release Infinite City. Having played Thunderstone, it looks like AEG will be getting even more of my money.


Great review.

I too was getting bored with Dominion until the expansions came out. I also bought Tomb from AEC and was quite disappointed with the game despite the great 'idea' and production values.

That said, it also looks like I'll be giving AEC a LOT of my money, The Adventurers, TOMB Cryptmaster, Infinite City and now this laugh
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Joshua Hammack
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I am glad that you enjoyed the game. I am a teeny bit sorry that I had to bow out of the game. I just wasn't excited about it, especially the comments of it being like Dominion. (I am not tired of Dominion, but have not played it as much as you guys.)

Any other comments you want to throw out about it?
 
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Robert
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Mabool wrote:
Do you have any comments as far as player interaction go?

In Dominion, for example, there are ways to harm or slow down an opponent trying to do something fancy.


Marc, with the card sets we played with, there wasn't really much player interaction. I didn't ask Mike about that as we were really concentrating on the mechanics of what we had available. As it was, there was no direct player interaction, but there certainly was the "denial by buying it all first" aspect. In fact, one of the things I didn't mention is that all of the fighters that you can buy are laid out in decks with the higher levels on the bottom. What this means is that if enough of the low level heroes are bought, you will reveal the 2nd and 3rd level heroes and be able to buy them rather than level up your existing heroes. That can certainly lead to some indirect player action as you must balance out weather to get that last level one hero knowing that your opponents will be able to buy a level 2 without having to fight for the XP in the dungeon.

But again, we didn't see any cards like Dominion's Militia, or Witch, which ( ) allow you to directly affect another player's deck. Since the game mechanic is solidly based in Dominion, I'm sure that such cards could exist, if not in the initial release, than via a future expansion.

-Robert
 
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Tim Synge
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These two comments interest me ...

Escher26 wrote:
- the monsters appearing are random, so you might wind up with something your initial deck can handle, or you may have to build in the village a few turns.


Escher26 wrote:
I won somewhat by luck and somewhat due to the fact that though Chris defeated more monsters, the ones I defeated were worth more VPs.


Doesn't this turn the whole thing into a bit of a lottery?

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Robert
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There is a certain amount of luck in which monsters show up. The decision you have to make is: Is my deck as it is now able to handle the monsters I see or should I build up my weapons a bit. The other decision you need to make is: Do I go for monsters that are worth less XP, but I can easily handle, or do I build up a bit and wait to take on more monsters.

Since you will start with a hand of six cards, you might get the cards you need to handle something worth say, 7 VP, or you may only have enough to handle a monster worth 3VP. The "luck" came when I was able to draw the exact hand I needed to take on a really large monster late in the game, which, combined with my second purchase of a level 3 warrior worth 3 Victory Points allowed me to win the game by 2 points. The other portion of luck came when Galia ended the game on her turn by defeating the creature blocking the Thunderstone. If it had come around to Chris again, I very well might not have won.

So, I guess what I am saying is, yes there is a bit of lottery, as there is going to be in any card based system where you draw from a deck, but there is a great deal of careful planning and strategy that you can use to make sure the odds are as much in your favor as possible. And unlike Dominion, it is hard for one person to run away with the victory as there are many varied opportunities to gain VPs - not ALL of which rely on the random monster deck.
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Ted Vessenes
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This sounds like the same problem as Dominion, where it's good to go first because the rules don't specify equal turns. When the first player gets 8 turns and everyone else gets 7, that's a clear advantage. At any rate, it seems easily amendable by stipulating equal turns once the game end has been triggered. As far as Dominion goes, almost everyone I know plays with equal turns, and that's among a sample set of nearly two dozen players from a variety of gaming groups.
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Ian Kelly
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Is the Thunderstone worth points at the end, or is it purely a tie-breaker? If it has a point value, that could exacerbate the uneven turns problem.
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Robert
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I have checked the rules that are posted and do not see that the Thunderstone itself is worth any points, but it DOES serve as a tie breaker. In the case that two players end the game with the same number of points, the one who holds the Thunderstone wins - please note this does not mean that if I GET the Thunderstone, I win - it means that if I have the Thunderstone and you and I are tied for most points, I win.

The game ends imediately upon the Thunderstone reaching rank one of the dungeon - so yes, there is the potential for an unequal number of turns per player. This is a problem that Dominion faces, and I think any game that bases their mechanics on Dominion will have similar issues. What I think Thunderstone does well to mitigate this are the multiple ways you can accumunlate VPs.

In Dominion, the winning strategy is BUY THOSE SIX POINT CARDS!!! Sure, there are other ways to win, but essentially, everyone is trying to race there deck so that they can draw eight gold a turn and buy a Province. Thunderstone does not have Provinces. There are cards worth a lot of VPs, and most of them are going to be monsters that you defeat, but that is not the only way to earn VPs, nor is it necessarily the easiest. We only played one game, so I don't know how it's going to play out in the future, but the top three scores were very tight, I won with 21, Chris was right behind me with 19 and we had our thrid place player with 17. Each of the top three of us were persuing different strategies, I went for the BIG monsters and bought high powered warriors worth VPs but only won by two. Chris nearly beat me by consistantly taking on dungeon monsters. The thrid place player bought equipment that was worth VPs and fought only a few monsters.

Again, one game is not enough to fairly judge if this game is going to suffer from the same issues that affect Domnion, but it certainly appears that there are a lot more paths to victory in Thunderstone than in Dominion.

(And has it struck anyone else as weird that I've had more to say about this game than in any other thread or post in my BGG career? )
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James Cartwright
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I never really liked Dominion but this game looks alot better to me. I'm hoping it's not going to be as expensive as Dominion either.
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Thomas Naumann
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I like your review very much. I played the game only once with 3 other guys on the Essen fair. It didn't convince me that much. It uses the mechanism of Dominion (a game I like a lot) and it has some new twists you have explained very well. But the result was (for me) a little bit artificial. For instance the light level: Every dungeon level gets darker, meaning that a monster in a deeper level is stronger because of the missing light. That is a nice game mechanism but not very theme-strong (imagine a cellar below a dungeon being brighter than the cellar below the cellar - that is rubbish, it is always dark without and the same degree of bright with a torch).

May be they chose the wrong theme - and saying that you should know that I in general like fantasy very much.

All in all my feeling was: it could have been better. If I want to play a dominion-like game I stick to Dominion for the time being.
 
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Ted Vessenes
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khurrad wrote:
I like your review very much. I played the game only once with 3 other guys on the Essen fair. It didn't convince me that much. It uses the mechanism of Dominion (a game I like a lot) and it has some new twists you have explained very well. But the result was (for me) a little bit artificial. For instance the light level: Every dungeon level gets darker, meaning that a monster in a deeper level is stronger because of the missing light. That is a nice game mechanism but not very theme-strong (imagine a cellar below a dungeon being brighter than the cellar below the cellar - that is rubbish, it is always dark without and the same degree of bright with a torch).

May be they chose the wrong theme - and saying that you should know that I in general like fantasy very much.

All in all my feeling was: it could have been better. If I want to play a dominion-like game I stick to Dominion for the time being.


Theme was never Dominion's strong point either. Other than theme, what could have been better about the game?
 
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Asa Swain
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khurrad wrote:
I like your review very much. I played the game only once with 3 other guys on the Essen fair. It didn't convince me that much. It uses the mechanism of Dominion (a game I like a lot) and it has some new twists you have explained very well. But the result was (for me) a little bit artificial. For instance the light level: Every dungeon level gets darker, meaning that a monster in a deeper level is stronger because of the missing light. That is a nice game mechanism but not very theme-strong (imagine a cellar below a dungeon being brighter than the cellar below the cellar - that is rubbish, it is always dark without and the same degree of bright with a torch).

May be they chose the wrong theme - and saying that you should know that I in general like fantasy very much.

All in all my feeling was: it could have been better. If I want to play a dominion-like game I stick to Dominion for the time being.


I think the darkness mechanic makes sense, if you aren't quite so literal. Often in lower levels of a dungeon evil is more powerful, the sense of darkness and claustrophobia more pervasive. Maybe the corridors and rooms are more complicated, harder to maneuver. Likewise to me, light represents not just light, but sources of good and courage against the darkness. And from a gameplay perspective having different levels of difficulty makes monsters easier to kill the longer they stay out. I'm curious to see what kinds of breach abilities trigger when a monster reaches the top level.
 
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Gurutej Khalsa
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Quote:
Is the Thunderstone worth points at the end, or is it purely a tie-breaker? If it has a point value, that could exacerbate the uneven turns problem.


The Thunderstone is worth 3 vp, a respectable number but not necessarily a game winner. In the only game I played (as of this writing) the person who got the Thunderstone won, but by a margin greater than 3, so the Thunderstone didn't "matter" in that sense. BTW, our scores as all newbies (in a 5 player game) using the canned 1st set were in the twenties (winner had 27).


Quote:
any comments as far as player interaction go?


In the canned 1st set there is a hero whose highest level has a power that is activated when the hero is in the dungeon: all other players must discard one card. Sort of like a very mild Dominion Militia...of course you could theoretically have more than one of these cards. I assume that among the vast number of heroes and village cards that we didn't see there are more "interactive" abilities.
 
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