Thunderstone Card Game Makes Bold Move, Brings "Free to Play" to the Table

What's a publisher to do when a once-popular title is replaced by a newer version, even though there is still some life left in the original? For Alderac Entertainment Group and their Thunderstone card game, the answer is simple: give the old version away. Starting today, Thunderstone is available as a free print-and-play downloadable card game.

Taking a tabletop game from store shelves to a free download could be as simple as uploading a few PDFs, but AEG chose to first make some upgrades to the set. The original Thunderstone has now been given a complete facelift. The card layout has been revised and new artwork added to help Thunderstone match the style of its successor, the newly released Thunderstone Advance.

"The original Thunderstone for us was a great success," AEG Senior Brand Manager Todd Rowland told me. "It was reprinted and sold out many times over (at least 6 from my recollection), and built a very large playerbase for the game. We thought it would be fun to give the player's a lot of added value to their new Thunderstone Advance game," Rowland explained.

A look at the new versions of two original Thunderstone cards. Image courtesy of AEG.

Free to Play in a "Freemium" Land

While a group of video gamers can't last more than 2 minutes without breaking into discussion on the merits of various emerging business models, AEG's decision on Thunderstone had less to do with overall gaming industry trends and more to do with their past experience in the hobby gaming market.

Rowland detailed his company's history with the concept, stating "we've long understood the value of 'try before you buy.' Back nearly 10 years ago when Warlord came out, we produced 10,000 free decks for the game on the release day.  That large scale sampling really built up an excited player base when the game came out."

Unlike with many of Thunderstone's video game cousins, players are actually getting the full game for free. There's also no weakening of the competitive aspect of gaming since gamers can't gain an edge by throwing money at some virtual item shop. Simply put, AEG can't invade your table once you decide to download Thunderstone. They won't serve you ads or poke you for micro-transactions. All they'll do is drop some suggestions to pick up Thunderstone Advance or its upcoming Caverns of Bane expansion, and have included a 10% off coupon to help you do so.

Print, Cut, Sleeve, Repeat

So how does one go about getting a free card game via download? AEG is adopting the tried and true traditions of hobby  gaming's "print and play" community. Yes, you read that right. Although the game is a free download, there is some assembly required. You'll have to print out the 44 pages of cards (9 per page), slice them out, and sleep them. There are many ways to go about assembling a print and play set, but there is a shortcut worth explaining.

Most card gamers had a love affair with the CCGs at one point or another, and have copious amounts of both sleeves and worthless cards lying around. For gamers in this situation, print out the Thunderstone cards as inexpensively as possible, with no regard for paper quality. However, when sleeving this cheaply-produced home set, add a low-value CCG card to the sleeve for sturdy backing.

Keeping the Torch Lit

Thunderstone was the first major competitor to Dominion, the card game that kicked off the industry's focus on deckbuilding card games back in late 2008. Both have gone on to develop healthy franchises for their respective publishers, but Thunderstone has always been billed as the thematic alternative to Dominion. Here, a fantasy setting has players assembling and equipping a party to hunt monsters in a dungeon. While still fairly standard genre fare, these fantasy trappings make a world of difference in separating Thunderstone from the "play cards to earn points" theme seen in Dominion.

Along with tweaks to the graphic design and a streamlining of the game's mechanics, AEG has kept theme at the forefront of their priority list with the new Thunderstone Advance line of games. In an effort to make the world of Thunderstone a more engaging setting, new Thunderstone games will tie into a continuing story supported by works of short fiction.

If this sounds like the sort of game your group would enjoy, and you don't mind having a date with your inkjet and a pair of scissors, then you've got nothing to lose. Go ahead and give Thunderstone a try, this one's on the house.