Deck-builders were the first type of game that I really loved. I tried many of them, but the one that I felt had the most to offer was Thunderstone Advance. Eventually I started moving away from deck-builders, and their heavy reliance on theme applied through artwork and flavour text. But I held a candle for Thunderstone for quite some time. When I saw that Mike Elliott had re-implemented the Thunderstone system for a third time, I became a little cynical - was this just milking the cash cow, or did the changes in Thunderstone Quest make a better game experience?
What is Thunderstone?
Thunderstone is a classic deck-builder. Players start with a basic small deck of cards, from which a hand of cards is drawn each turn. This hand of cards is then used to “purchase” other cards available in a tableau. Newly purchased cards are added to the player deck, boosting the strength of future hands.
Typically, cards will synergise, making some awesome combinations. In Thunderstone games, the player deck represents a party of heroes, setting out on an adventure to defeat the evil warlord/horde of zombies/vile rat king…
In Thunderstone Quest, players can either visit the Village or the Dungeon.
The Village is where new cards are acquired, or one of the small number of resources in the game can be purchased. Cards include equipment, spells, weapons, as well as new heroes which can be hired. Some equipment and weapons are better suited to specific hero types (daggers for rogues, for instance). Several spells are most effective in the hands of magic users. Yes, Thunderstone Quest conforms to all of the classic fantasy tropes. There are other locations which can be visited in the Village, for various reasons - these will be mentioned later.
The Dungeon is where the monsters lurk. In previous versions of Thunderstone, the Dungeon was just a constantly progressing tide of monsters. If one was defeated, the next one in the line took its place, and the gap was filled from a deck of monsters. Players could choose to defeat a monster further down the line, deeper in the Dungeon, provided they had sufficient light to see all the way in, and enough combat strength to defeat the monster.
In Thunderstone Quest, the model is similar, but there are rooms to the Dungeon. Monsters that lurk in the deeper rooms of the Dungeon do not come out to explore the light. Instead, there are three decks of monsters, each replenishing the adjacent rooms. And speaking of rooms, there are three levels in the Dungeon, each with two rooms in. Each room in the Dungeon has a particular effect. This may be requiring more light than other rooms or making the monsters more difficult to defeat. There are multiple rooms available, so there is quite a bit of variability in the Dungeon set-up.
All monsters carry some sort of reward for their defeat, in the form of treasures (usually items which can be included in the player deck) item resources, and experience points. Some monsters may also inflict wounds. This is a new mechanic to the game. The more wounds inflicted on a character, the fewer cards they can draw into their hand. Wounds can, however, be healed by visiting a Village location, or by drinking a potion (one of the resources available in the Village bazaar).
Using Experience Points
Experience point tokens, earned by defeating monsters, can be saved up, as they are equivalent to victory points at the end of the game. However, they may also be used effectively on return visits to the Village, to “level up” existing heroes, as well as the level zero starting heroes.
All heroes have three levels; if a level zero, one or two hero is drawn into the hand, the player may choose to spend the appropriate amount of experience points to replace that hero for a more powerful one. These characters are also worth more victory points at the end of the game, so it is a worthwhile investment, earlier in proceedings.
Adventure "Chapters" and End Game "Guardian"
Not all sets of cards are used in a given game of Thunderstone Quest. With several different items (equipment, weapons) and spells which may be available in the Village, there is considerable variability in set-up. This also applies to the rooms in the Dungeon, the monster decks, and the hero decks.
It is possible to use card randomisers to select the different decks available in a game. However, there are a couple of “chapters” outlined in the base game, which have a predetermined selection of cards. Each chapter features a series of adventure set-ups, which, when followed in order, provide a loose narrative.
There is a Questbook in the base game which details the flavour text and the card selection for each adventure. The Questbook spans the two chapters in the base game, as well as two further expansions (chapter three is notably absent - this was a Kickstarter exclusive).
Eventually, as more monsters in the Dungeon are defeated, players will discover Guardian Keys. Once four out of the possible six guardian keys have been found, the Guardian attacks, triggering the end of the game. Players each have a single chance to defeat the Guardian, although they may instead visit the Village, if their hand is not strong enough for combat.
Once the Guardian has appeared, and the game has finished, players total up their victory points from purchased cards, and any remaining experience points. The player with the greatest total is the winner.
How does it Compare with Thunderstone Advance?
At a push, I would have always described Thunderstone Advance as my favourite pure deck-builder. The combination of the deck-building mechanic with the option to use the cards to delve into the Dungeon made it feel like there was a reason to purchase cards. It never felt like deck-building for the sake of … well, of building the deck. Thunderstone Quest has built on the model offered by Thunderstone Advance, and mostly improved it.
- The wounds effect on the player hand feels more thematic than a simple mechanic ought to.
- The Village feels more versatile. There are simply more things to do. Also, visiting the Village doesn't just feel like the thing you do when you don't have enough strength. Here, it feels purposeful.
- The Dungeon levels feel more interesting. It may mean slightly more admin as there are three monster decks instead of one. However, the variety of the rooms enriches the Dungeon experience and gives it a little more of a Dungeon Crawl feel. Plastic minis, used to track player positions in the dungeon, add to this feeling.
One small criticism, and it really is a small thing, is of the experience point tokens. In Advance, these were plastic Thunderstone shard, and they were really quite lovely. In Thunderstone Quest, these have been replaced by featureless grey wooden tokens - they look rather like tiny grey coffins. A new player may not notice this, but as someone who enjoyed Thunderstone Advance, this is something of a shame.
Final Thoughts on Thunderstone Quest
Thunderstone Quest is a classic pure deck-building game. It has a lot more going on than games like Ascension, and is simply more interesting than Dominion. Set in a classic fantasy world, it provides a variable set-up - different cards available in the Village marketplace, different heroes available to level up, different rooms in the Dungeon, and different monsters to populate them.
It is enough of an evolution of the Thunderstone Advance model? Probably not. But if you are looking for a new deck-builder which offers lots of variety, this is a very good place to look.