Card Game Review: Thunderstone Advance – Quality of Life Just Improved
I’ve been a fan of Thunderstone ever since my introduction with Dragonspire. Thunderstone is thematically appealing (for those who like fantasy), and I enjoy the management of two different currencies: gold for village cards and attack for dungeon cards.
But as much as I enjoyed it, I have to acknowledge that there were some definite… issues with the base game. After about a dozen plays, there were recurring difficulties that definitely made their presence known. The first several turns (even as many as five or six) were almost always village turns. The start cards were terrible. Some setups could result in a game that was overly long. And it unfortunately needed an “intelligent randomizer.” True random setups could result in bizarre,, unwinnable setups such as monsters that required magic attack to kill, but a village and heroes bereft of that asset.
Thunderstone Advance set out to make a series of what I might call “quality of life” improvements, while maintaining the basic structure of the game almost completely.
The Basics. The meat of the game plays out very much like the original. Each card has a gold value along with an effect. Players can go to the village to buy cards and level heroes, or they can enter the dungeon and try to slay monsters that are worth points. But Advance implements several improvements to speed up the game and have you spending more time in the dungeon and less at the village.
First, Thunderstone creates a new set of starting cards. While torches remain the same, useless Iron Rations are replaced by Thunderstone shards. In addition to increasing strength, they also give a point at game end and a bonus XP when brought into the dungeon. Daggers are replaced by polearms, and Militia are replaced by Regulars. Regulars have a measly +1 attack, but if equipped with a polearm, they can draw an additional card into your hand. This means that they aren’t so laughably awful. It also means that riskier adventurers can enter the dungeon earlier and hope for good draws. This helps lower overall game time.
Advance also includes a large board with spots for everything in the village. The board helps to minimize bizarre setups that make a game lopsided by allowing only a set number of slots for different card types. And it’s double sided. The reverse shows a “Wilderness” area where the Darkness penalty is reduced. Again, this makes for a faster game and gets characters into the dungeon earlier and more often.
Advance also no longer includes thunderstones, but instead Thunderstone Bearers: powerful villains that are essentially the “boss” of the dungeon. The players must attack and kill the bearer. If he gets to the dungeon entrance, then he flees and escapes. Either way, it seems more thematically appropriate than to have a giant rock just start rolling out of the dungeon at some point.
But it’s not all improvements on the original. Thunderstone Advance t also introduces new concepts. The first is familiars. After a successful battle, the player may draw a random familiar. It stays in play in front of the player until used. Its powers are contingent on the player having unused XP, but they can and do help buy weapons or slay monsters. This also provides another key aide, especially after the player gets a monster or two under her belt.
Finally, though not included in the game itself, AEG has promised Avatars. Avatars are a permanent card or mat representing you, the player. They might come in various iconic professions (Fighter, Wizard, etc.), or maybe they will be tied to certain people in the lore of Thunderstone. AEG promises that some will be available as promotional material, though it’s an area I’m sure will be ripe for expansions.
The Feel. Thunderstone Advance generally keeps the same feel as the original iteration. You have the capability of improving your deck, of leveling heroes, of gaining help from townspeople, and of preparing to invade a dark dungeon. But all of the little improvements make a huge difference. It keeps the sweetness but removes much of the bitter.
The goal with the new start cards is to get players to enter the dungeon earlier. That goal is achieved. In my first play, one player was able to execute a kill on his very first turn. The draw mechanic allows players to have a shot at drawing just the right card, so entering the dungeon on a gamble is more prevalent. Even if the player fails to kill the monster, he can still send one to the bottom of the deck, thus still decreasing overall play time. This is a welcome change as classic Thunderstone would sometimes (not always) overstay its welcome with certain set ups.
The new board and monster levels also ensure that the risk of a wacky setup is much reduced. Monsters are divided into level one through three. When doing a random setup, the players should pick only one of each level to form the dungeon deck. That way, you never have a dungeon that is all ridiculous, hard to kill monsters, or one that is all pushovers.
Another great change, for those who like thematic games, is that Thunderstone now includes an ongoing story line. More than just a lore element, this game (subtitled Towers of Ruin) now has three pre-made sets for players to defeat, each representing one of the towers. Not only does this create a fun thematic element, but the pre-made sets also work well together and include interesting tactics and interactions for players to discover.
But perhaps the best change is a new action. It used to be on your turn it was either Dungeon, Village, or Rest (meaning trash a card). Now there is also Prepare. On your turn, you can skip going to the dungeon or village and instead discard only cards you choose from your hand. So if you have a hand that has some heroes and some coins, you might discard just the coins in the hope for more heroes so that you can go to the dungeon next turn. Or discard the heroes and hope for more coins and a big village buy. Either way, it really helps you to mitigate bad draws and ensure that you can stock your hand with what you need. In my plays, I found that even one or two turns of preparation were enough to get me what I wanted, and certainly preferable to several random draws in a row that might all be sub-par for my designs.
So are all these changes successful in revamping Thunderstone? By and large, yes. While each change individually seems small, their combined effect is to streamline play, eliminate long slogs, and reduce the chance for wacky or lopsided setups. If you liked Thunderstone before, then this is a must buy. Your old cards are all completely compatible, but frankly, the new cards work so well together I’m hesitant to combine it with the old sets.
However, it should be noted that Thunderstone, as a card game, retains a random element. Even though easy, level one monsters will be in the dungeon, it is possible that the first three cards for the players to face will all be level three, beefy monsters. That’s unfortunate, but thankfully uncommon.
While I love the monster levels and think it will go a long way toward keeping the game at the right difficulty, Advance doesn’t do as much for hero and village cards. Hero cards are still randomly assigned (meaning their might not be any heroes with a needed magic or ranged attack). And the village ensures that there will be cards of each type (items, weapons, villagers, spells), but not that each needed effect will be represented. The method certainly works for the cards that come with Thunderstone Advance, but I wonder if that method will be suitable when more sets are introduced.
Components: 5 of 5. This game has stellar pieces. There didn’t need to be a large board for the village. In fact, the previous incarnation had no such thing. But it is included. And it does a great job of representing things visually for the players. The cards are on thick stock with a nice gloss. The artwork should please any sword and sorcery fan. It retained the XP tokens from Dragonspire and the Randomizers will not be confused for the in-play cards. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the bits.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Advance takes a lot of care to ensure that luck isn’t too massive a factor. The ability to “prepare” on your turn is a phenomenal innovation that puts the player’s choices firmly at the forefront. An unfortunate draw might cost you a turn, but at least you can improve your odds for your next turn.And the new start cards are a fantastic method of opening up possibilities in the early game. Still, luck will be present as in any card game. A bad monster draw at the beginning can be a drag.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. This is the biggest area of improvement over the original version. Better start cards. Better random setups. Better, more functional curses (which can be removed by methods other than “resting”). The familiars are an excellent touch to help differentiate each player and fine tune strategies. And the Thunderstone Bearer, as a boss of the dungeon, just seems like it was the right way to go all along.
Replayability: 5 of 5. Deckbuilders have an inherent advantage in replayability. Unlike most genres, every play is truly different. More than just a modular board or random start space, Thunderstone creates a random village and heroes. The players must look at the available cards and create a strategy – all the while racing opponents to empty the dungeon of monsters.
Spite: 1 to 3 of 5. The amount of spite largely depends on the cards in play. In many setups, spite will be minimal. The only way to spite a player is to fight and lose to a monster to send it to the bottom of the deck just so your opponent doesn’t get it. But, some setups do include opportunities for more spite. The Kobolds, for example, include a monster worth -1 points. When defeated, you can send it to the player’s deck of your choice. Spite! But I suspect that most games will be lower on the spite spectrum.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Don’t get me wrong. At it’s core, this is still Thunderstone. If you were a fan of the original, I would urge you in the strongest of terms to get Advance. If you didn’t like the original – especially if you didn’t like the theme or the village/dungeon aspect – then this will not win you over. Advance very much stays true to its roots while improving on the concept significantly. If you are new to Thunderstone, then definitely start with Advance. It will provide you with a superior play experience and hours of entertainment.
(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Thunderstone Advance)