Review: 'Thunderstone' Makes Big Advances, But Still Comes Up Short

Grab a sword, rush into the dungeon, kill some monsters. It's a tried and true formula to be sure, but the Thunderstone series put its own spin on the genre when it arrived on the gaming scene back in 2009. It used a then-new game mechanic called deckbuilding, which had just been pioneered by Donald X. Vaccarino and his Dominion card game. Thunderstone was the first competitor off the block to also use this mechanic, attempting to best Dominion in its weakest area: the use of theme.

Thunderstone aimed to earn its keep by simply being cooler than Dominion. Would you rather kill monsters or play house in medieval times? It worked, and Thunderstone undeniably succeeded in making a name for itself. It cracked the Top 100, was nominated for an Origins Award, and spawned several expansion sets. However, as you may recall from last year's Thunderstone: Dragonspire review, the series never really took hold with my personal tastes.

Now, publisher AEG is back at it again with what is essentially a re-do of the Thunderstone base game in Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin. Games deserve a second chance, so I sat down at the table with an open mind to see what changes and improvements had been made to the game. Will they be enough to convert me over to the legion of Thunderstone fans, or will I remain the grumpy gamer in the corner? Read on for the full review to find out.

Just the Facts:

Players: 1-5

Playing Time: 45+ minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)

MSRP: $49.99

Release: March 12th, 2012

The Gameplay:

Thunderstone at its core is a good basic example of a deckbuilding card game. You draw a hand of six cards and can do one of two things with them: buy more (better) cards, or use what you have to defeat a monster. Early in the game, you'll more often be building up a collection of more powerful cards, which eventually get shuffled back into your deck. Once you start drawing these powerful cards later in the game, you'll often use them to take out monsters and earn victory points.

A hand of Thunderstone Advance cards. Image by user Mike Hulsebus, used under Creative Commons license.

Where Thunderstone originally separated itself from most deckbuilders is in its use of theme. The cards you can buy are piles of heroes, equipment, and spells, all laid out in a village area. The monsters are laid out in a row of three, with the left side representing the entrance to a dungeon. Moving to the right, monsters are found in deeper and darker parts of the dungeon, and players must bring cards with light effects to counteract the hazards of the terrain.

That was how Thunderstone structured itself to compete with Dominion back in 2009, and if you'd like to read more about the basic mechanics, check out the original Thunderstone: Dragonspire review. For now, we're going to focus on what improvements Thunderstone: Advance has made to its gameplay, and how they can help it compete in today's crowded deckbuilder market.

First off, Thunderstone Advance improves on the games strong point by giving it stronger thematic ties. The end-game condition has been changed from grabbing the thunderstone (a powerful rock in the Thunderstone mythos) to actually defeating a Thunderstone Bearer. It just feels better to end the game by taking down the big boss.

Mechanically, there are more options to take on your turn. In addition to the "village" and "dungeon" actions I described before, there has always been a "rest" action that let you skip your turn to destroy one card from your hand. This effectively thinned out your deck and improved your odds of drawing strong cards. Now, a fourth option is included called "prepare," and it goes a long way to fix one of Thunderstone's flaws: getting stuck early in the game.

The whole point of Thunderstone is to venture into the dungeon and beat up some monsters, so what happens when you face three very powerful monsters early in the game? Well, you're going to be sitting around for quite a while until someone can muster enough strength to push the game forward. Now with the "prepare" action, a player can set aside any number of cards from his hand, place them on top of his deck, and end their turn. This lets the player build a hand from 2 turn's worth of cards, which should give them the boost they need to leap early hurdles.

The double-sided Thunderstone: Advance board, showing its "wilderness" side

Another big change to the game is the added replay value of a double-sided board. The rules about travelling into the dungeon and fighting monsters in darkness have a habit of confusing new players. To help ease them into Thunderstone, AEG has included an alternate setup mode where the penalty for darkness corresponds 1:1 for each monster card the player skips over in going further into the dungeon. Thematically, this weaker penalty is explained by players fighting monsters in wilderness rather than a dungeon.

The Components:

  • 566 cards
  • 1 set of card dividers
  • 1 bag of Thunderstone tokens
  • 1 double-sided game board
  • 1 rule book

One area we don't have to spend a lot of time on is the component quality. It's near top notch in Thunderstone Advance. The cards are thick with a linen finish and the box is sturdy. The only complaint about physical quality lies with the board, which does not use a flush mount and leaves players with nice big quad-fold creases through their playing surface as a result. It doesn't have a huge gameplay impact for a card game, but we're talking components here, and creases aren't pretty. It also weakens the game's long-term durability, as creases tend to split over time.

As for the art and graphic design, Thunderstone Advance is leagues ahead of the original Thunderstone. The best way to demonstrate this is to simply show you a comparison of two similar cards: the Militia and Regular, which serve similar purposes across the two games.

The Militia from Thunderstone is replaced by the Regular in Thunderstone Advance, and the improvements in card layout and art are striking.

The new cards are hands down better at laying out information. Numbers are closer to the edge and use more recognizable symbols to convey their meaning, while the body text area has been expanded and brightened up to the contrast and readability. It's also a nice touch that the art is more representative of what the card does. The Regular has a polearm-related power, so the artist chose to stick a polearm in his hands. This is a comparison of just two cards, but the artwork in Thunderstone Advance is better across the board.

The last components-related point to make is about the rulebook. This was one of my major gripes when I reviewed Thunderstone: Dragonspire, as it was a standalone expansion with a rulebook that spoke with an assumption that players already knew how to play base Thunderstone. This new version makes no such assumptions, and goes so far as to  included a short "New to Thunderstone" quick start pamphlet. To its credit, the main rulebook even points out what page experienced players can skip to if they don't want a re-hash of the basic rules.

Issues are still apparent in how well Thunderstone conveys information, though. Should a 45-minute card game really need a 40-page rule book? A tome like that can go a long way in turning casual gamers away. And the book is so large that is makes finding key information a bit of a chore.

For instance, in writing this review, I wanted to double-check a player's hand size. This is something almost any gamer who hadn't played a game in a few weeks would do. So I flipped the rulebook over to its quick reference where it showed step 1.b: "Shuffle and draw starting hand." Well, how many cards? Rather than read 40 pages, I consulted the table of contents, which let me to Page 10: How to Play Overview. Nothing there. It turns out the starting hand size is on Page 9, in the last paragraph of a lengthy setup section. That was a bit painful.

Final Thoughts:

If you've read the past thousand words, it should be clear that Thunderstone: Advance makes numerous improvements over the original Thunderstone. Has this won me over, though? I can't say it has. After playing many more rounds of Thunderstone, I can now see that my issues with the series stem from its very core. Simply put, if I wanted a thematic dungeon crawling experience, I would never choose to play a deckbuilding game. It's an uphill battle to establish a strong theme with just cards, and affordable miniatures games such as the D&D Adventures Series or Descent 2.0 have done a fine job of scratching that itch.

It may seem unfair to say that I don't like Thunderstone simply because it is Thunderstone, but there's definitely a chance you may be in this same boat, so I have to present my honest opinion. The catch here is that if there was a top-notch game underneath the theme, I'd still have Thunderstone on my table. But the core gameplay hasn't evolved very far past basic deckbuilding,and it's getting to the point where only the most compelling games in this crowded genre hold any appeal.

One complaint that stuck out during my games of Thunderstone: Advance leading up to this review was that every match came down to which player got the fastest start. There was never any suspense that a player might recover from a few early bad hands and snatch victory away at the last second. In the instances where I was the player left in the dust, there didn't feel as though there was any sense of progress in my deck until right before the game ended. Winning is important, but when a game comes to the table, every player should have fun.

If you're a Thunderstone fan and haven't already stopped reading this review in rage, I do have one thing to say to you: from an objective standpoint, Thunderstone: Advance is hands down the strongest entry to the series. If the complaints I levied against the series above don't hold water with you, then you'll surely love this new edition even more than you loved the originals.

For newcomers to the series, I caution you to think about what you want to get out of Thunderstone, and consider trying it before you buy it to see if you side with me or the hordes of established Thunderstone fans. After all, the original game is 100% free to play through a .pdf download, so it can't hurt to give it a shot. Also, as I've found with Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, deckbuilders work a lot better in digital form, so you may have even better luck trying Thunderstone's Facebook, iOS, and Android implementations.

Disclaimer: AEG provided a complimentary review sample of this game