Wed
Jan 19 2011 2:47pm

The Analog Gamer: Deck-Building Card Games, Part 2: Thunderstone

In the previous post we looked at Dominion and its role in establishing the deck-building card game as an accessible alternative to collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. In this post we look at the second title to adopt the format, the dungeon adventure Thunderstone.

Thunderstone card gameThunderstone was created by game designer Mike Elliott and published by Alderac Entertainment Group in 2009 on the heels of Dominion’s success. The game supports solo play or up to 5 for competitive play. The publisher claims an average game length of 60 minutes although it has been my experience that certain setup conditions may make the game take much longer. The mechanics of Thunderstone are so similar to Dominion that many initially dismissed it as simply a clone or rip-off of the original deck building concept. At this point those accusations have largely subsided and Thunderstone is recognized as the second entry in the new genre of deck building card games.

Thunderstone card gameThunderstone is targeted directly at Dominion’s greatest perceived weakness, its theme. Thunderstone has theme in spades. Players are financiers of a dungeon expedition looking to recover one of the lost Thunderstones. The card art is dynamic fantasy subject matter and well executed, even if somewhat familiar .

Players begin the game with 12 cards in a personal deck consisting of militia, daggers, iron rations, and torches. A player starts his or her turn with a hand of 6 cards and an important choice; visit the village to purchase improved gear, weapons, spells, light sources, etc... or use their current hand to delve into the dungeon and do battle with the monsters waiting in the dark. Defeated monsters are added to a player’s personal discard deck and are usually worth experience, victory points, and sometimes gold or other treasure.

Thunderstone card game

The dungeon deck is made up of 3 classes of monster of varying strengths (10 monsters for each class) chosen at random from the available pool of monster types, for example: 10 Enchanted Creatures, 10 Doomed Undead, and 10 Oozes. The 30 card deck is shuffled with the Thunderstone card placed somewhere within the last 10 cards. Three monsters are dealt from the deck and arranged in the order drawn with the last monster placed closest to the dungeon deck. Monsters closer to the dungeon deck are deeper in the darkness and therefore harder to see. Darkness and light sources play an important role in the dungeon. To defeat a monster the adventuring party must have a combined attack value greater than the monster’s health modified by monster and weapon ability and also any possible light penalties.

Thunderstone card gameThunderstone has everything you could want in an exciting dungeon adventure, specialized character classes, hero leveling, lots of cool weapons and spells, monsters to kill. So, with all this theme going for it I should love Thunderstone, right? I wanted to love it, but I don’t and it took a little while to figure out why. When I point out what I believe to be Thunderstone’s flaws, keep in mind that the game has a sizable following that will vehemently disagree with my conclusions. If you have an opportunity to play a demo copy I strongly encourage giving it a try, who knows, you could be in the group that love this game.

My first issue is that momentum in the game can easily grind to a halt making it feel like a lifetime before any player manages to draw the strength required to challenge the exposed monsters in the dungeon. The difficulty of the three exposed monsters is completely random. There is nothing to prevent three very difficult monsters from turning up early in the game, well before any player could possibly be sufficiently geared up to defeat them. When this happens either the players spend turn after turn gearing up in the village or alternatively players can take sacrificial turns attacking the monsters and loosing simply to cycle them back into the deck even though it makes no competitive sense to do so. The game can also drag when the items available in the village are a poor match for the equipment required to defeat monsters in the dungeon.

My second issue with the game is that it can start to feel like a tedious math exercise. There is no randomness to combat, no tense surprises. Combat is a matter of adding long strings of numbers and modifiers which either defeat a monster or not. Combat completely lacks jeopardy, if you can’t defeat any of the exposed monsters you can always return to the village and buy something without any negative consequences.

Remember, there is a large following of players that love this game. To them, the difficulties I've just described are a source of strategy for the game, requiring players to tune decks to take best advantage of whatever resources are available. Thunderstone is definitely worth trying, regrettably though, for me and my group this is one game that was more thud than thunder.

Next post: What happens when professional Magic: The Gathering players try their hand at designing a deck-building card game?


Thunderstone may be found at your full service local game store, from Amazon.com for about $29.28, and from many other online retailers.


When not playing games, Bob Gallo is a computer programmer specializing in Flash and interactive application design living in the Charlotte, NC area. Bob got his gaming start in the mid 1970s with traditional hex-and-counter war games and has played nearly all types of games including role playing games, miniatures, collectible card games, video/PC games as well as traditional board and card games.

9 comments
cmpalmer
1. cmpalmer
It sounds as much like a "serious" version of Munchkin than a Dominion retread.
Chris Long
2. radynski
No, its definitely a Dominion clone. Almost everything about the core game is exactly the same as Dominion.
But like I mentioned in Bob's previous post, I find this one to be so much more engaging than its predecessor. In Dominion, you will only go to town to buy things. That's all you do. You forever buy more things in order to build a better deck to buy more things.

By contrast, in Thunderstone you buy items from town, in order to build a better deck to go fight the monsters in the Dungeon. The difference is seemingly small, but makes a huge difference in my amount of enjoyment from the two games.

Bob's comments that he makes against the game are completely valid, I won't argue those. But I'd take those flaws any day over the tedious nature of Dominion in which there is no goal.
Bob Gallo
3. StormbringerGrey
To the designer’s credit, it really is amazing how different this game feels compared to Dominion. I haven’t talked about dungeon crawlers yet, games like Descent or Castle Ravenloft, but anyone that enjoys those types of games will find Thunderstone worth investigating.
Bob Gallo
4. StormbringerGrey
For players of Thunderstone, there is a web based intelligent randomizer that creates matched sets of village cards, monster cards, treasures and traps (when using expansions). I haven’t tried it myself and the interface isn’t very flashy, sorry about the pun ;-) … but players of the game seem to like it and it goes a long way toward insuring that all village cards will be useful: http://asmor.com/scripts/tsrand/
cmpalmer
5. John Fiala
The problem of the random decks of equipment not matching up with the random types of monsters is one that can really make a game un-fun, and because of that I, and other players, have been gathering up suggested collections of cards to play instead of going entirely random. Additionally, most electronic card pickers will also allow you to choose rules, such as you must have a magic weapon, and the like.

As for the fights against the monsters being totally determinnistic, that's not always true. If you've got disease cards in your hand and a cleric, you can fight a monster you're not sure you can take out, and hope that the disease cards your cleric trashes allow you to draw cards that help in combat.

Additionally the first (and currently only) expansion has other cards that bring randomness to the game - for instance there's a card which can be discarded in dungeons to draw two more cards, IIRC. The expansion's box is also a great way to store all the cards from the original set and the expansion together - I prefer it over the original box.

I'm a big fan of Thunderstone, yes.
Bob Gallo
6. StormbringerGrey
The storage solution for Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements which introduced tabbed dividers for each card type was nothing short of brilliant and I’m surprised other deck building games haven’t cloned it yet. Readers that don’t yet play deck building games may wonder why it’s easy to get excited about a box, but how a game is stored can have a lot to do with how easy it is to setup and play, and games that setup easily tend to get played more often.

I’ll also have to admit, early in my ownership of Thunderstone I took the game to a local FSLG that didn’t have the game yet and ran a demo for the owner and 3 other players (5 total, counting myself). We used the suggested beginner setup and had a blast. We set the game back up and randomized the setup, big mistake. The intelligent randomizers (or using suggested setups) may be the key to maximizing enjoyment of the game.
cmpalmer
7. Christopher Byler
Where does the deckbuilding come in? It sounds like the monster deck is completely random, not strategically built at all. Maybe I'm missing something about the description -- for example, what determines what cards are available to you to buy in town?
Bob Gallo
8. StormbringerGrey
Dominion and Thunderstone use similar methods for determining the cards available for purchase. There are suggested setups or the selection can be randomized. For Thunderstone, four types of cards are always available (until the supply runs out): Daggers, Torches, Iron Rations, and Militia (essentially level 0 heroes). There are always 4 types of classed heroes (fighters, wizards, clerics etc…) available for hire (either picked from the types available or determined randomly). These heroes are stacked in level order 1 to 3, so as the stacks deplete higher level heroes become available. Lastly there are 8 types of items/equipment available for purchase, 10 copies of each, once again either selected per a suggested setup or determined randomly during game setup.

As described in the post, the dungeon deck contains 3 classes of monster, each class containing 10 monsters each. A monster class is a group of related monsters of varying strengths, for example: Oozes would contain 10 ooze type monsters, some tough, others easy. Which 3 classes to select follows the same pattern as village selection, it can be random or you can use suggested setups.

You start a typical game turn with a 6 card hand. The goal of deck building in Thunderstone is to create a deck that will yield hands with heroes and properly matched equipment eg: heavy weapons for fighters, blunt weapons for dwarves, light sources, items to buff strength etc… Six cards may not be enough to get everything you need so some sort of card drawing engine can be useful as well. Even if the monsters were selected randomly, understanding what’s in the dungeon deck is critical for strategy. Are you going to need lots of magical weapons? Is the deck filled with monsters that are resistant to edged weapons (eg: oozes)? Are there monsters that spread disease? … better get some clerics then.

Keep in mind, Dominion set out to put a CCG in a box and capture the feel of a game of Magic with long combo chains and complex card interactions. Thunderstone uses nearly identical mechanics with a completely different goal and result. Combo chains are possible but they’re not as common in Thunderstone. Thunderstone is much more about making wise hero and equipment choices to match the expected mix of monsters in the dungeon deck and getting those choices in the right proportions so that your deck plays out smoothly and effectively.
cmpalmer
9. Tomas5576
I think the big hangup some people complain about, monsters too tough early in the game, is because most dungeon-game-style players have a desire to kill EVERY monster they come across. Maybe dungeon-themed playersd are OCD, not sure, I could certainly fit this description. Anyway, in this game, if there is a monster too tough to kill early on, just fight it anyway, lose (no big penalty other than using your turn to figth a losing battle) and then that monster goes to the bottom of the monster deck and a new one is drawn in its place.

I guess the leason is, learn when it is best to move on.

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