Monday, April 23, 2012

Thunderstone Advance (Game Review)

Although it's been pretty rare in the past for me to officially review a board game (just once so far for "Doom"), I'm considering doing a little more of it in the future. And starting with Thunderstone Advance seemed like a no-brainer.

Thunderstone Advance is the latest version of the Thunderstone game. It is played almost entirely with cards (with an additional board and some tokens) and simulates a classic fantasy dungeon crawl. Thematically speaking, each player is the leader of a team of heroes who enter a dungeon to fight monsters, collect loot, gain experience, upgrade equipment and abilities and claim the Thunderstone, an artifact of great power.

Each player starts with the exact same deck of 12 cards. On their turns, players draw a hand of 6 cards which will contain a combination of heroes, items, spells and resources that can be used to either enter the dungeon and defeat monsters, or visit the village to purchase more goods and upgrade equipment. Some cards are better for dungeon trips and others work best when visiting the village. It's up to the player to make the decision each turn on where and how to use the cards in his hand.

Cards can be purchased and upgraded in the village. Treasure and gold cards can be found in the dungeon. But these additional cards can swell the deck and make it harder for players to get the cards they want each turn. For this reason, players can also choose to do nothing on a turn except remove one card in their hand from the deck forever. Various cards found in the game can also help to remove cards from a player's deck. As the game progresses, players are adding and subtracting cards from their deck to both make them effective in the dungeon and increase the number of victory points that will be totaled at the end of the game to determine a winner.

Monster combat is very simple. A row of 4 monsters is laid on the table, with those furthest to the right being the deepest in the dungeon. The deeper in the dungeon, the higher light penalty a monster has, due to the increasing darkness underground. To defeat a monster, a player needs to have enough total damage capability in his hand to meet or exceed a monster's health. They also need enough light points (from "torch" cards and similar light sources) to overcome light penalties which may reduce their damage capability. No dice are rolled. You either have the cards you need or you don't. Though there is still luck and risk involved, as some cards will let you draw a card from your deck to help you, but only AFTER you commit to attacking a monster. As monsters are defeated, the dungeon refills from a monster deck until the Thunderstone is found near the bottom.

Thunderstone has numerous expansions, though Thunderstone Advance has plenty of replay value on its own. The variety of heroes, monsters and equipment available is great, even without expansions.

Games can take from 1-2 hours (longer as you're learning the game), though you can easily shorten a game by simply creating a smaller monster deck.

For hardcore strategy players, Thunderstone may not scratch quite the same itch as Descent: Journeys In The Dark. But that can also be a plus, as it has been for me. Unlike more complicated fantasy strategy games, Thunderstone can be played in much less time, which will likely mean you can find more people to try it and more opportunities to play. (My wife won't eat up an afternoon with Descent, but really enjoys playing Thunderstone with me!) The turn sequence is also designed so that much of the strategic thinking happens while other players are taking their turns, meaning the game is not slowed down as often by "analysis paralysis", since when a player's turn comes, they've already had time to think about what they are going to do with the cards they have.

Although Thunderstone is technically played competitively, you are usually not directly interacting with or against other players, but instead are working mostly independently to accumulate victory points, which determine a winner at the end of the game. I avoid competitive games like the plague, but this one I really enjoy even in the competitive mode. That said, there are also solo/co-op rules which work very well. In fact more than half of the games I've played have been solo, and I've enjoyed them almost as much as playing with someone else.

Ideally, the story would play a stronger role. The art is fantastic and makes me want to experience more of the world of Thunderstone. But apart from some VERY small flavor text and a few bits in the rulebook, the story is not involved in play at all. It would also be nice to have more interaction with other players in the co-op mode (though I don't miss it in the versus mode). But these are small complaints against a really fantastic gaming experience.

I highly doubt much conversation or thought on spiritual matters will come out of the playing the game, especially with the lack of story. It's remotely possible Islam could come up at some point, since Thunderstone Advance contains "Djinn" as a monster class, which finds its origins in Muslim legend. A Djinn is an invisible spirit mentioned in the Koran and believed by Muslims to inhabit the earth and influence mankind by appearing in the form of humans or animals. Similar in some ways to the concept of angels.

Despite the unlikelihood of the game itself stimulating thoughts on spiritual matters, the cooperative or downplayed competitive modes of the game lend themselves to a more friendly and social gaming atmosphere for casual gamers who may be put off by cut-throat competitive games. This makes the game a wonderful activity to build a friendship over.

Quality: 9.5/10 

Relevance: 5.5/10