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Not Cardboard Children: THUNDERSTONE!

This week I've been playing a card game called THUNDERSTONE! It has to be written like that, in all caps, and if you're saying it you have to pronounce it in a voice like somebody who eats trumpets for every meal. THUNDERSTONE!

THUNDERSTONE! is a deck building game. Do you know what that is? Because it's not like Magic: The Gathering or any of the other collectible card games where you're expected to build a deck before the game starts. No. Deck building games are much, much friendlier. They're where you construct a deck as you play, gradually bulking up your intial, runty booster-pack sized deck into a magnificent engine. Do you see? No? Alright, well you will, and you should. These games are a clever bit of design.

The game to kick-start the recent fashion for deck building games was Dominion, released in 2008. It looks like this-

In Dominion (and subsequent deck building games) stacks of different cards are laid out on the table. Players draw hands of cards from their decks, then take turns to play actions on those cards and "buy" cards from the centre of the table and shuffle these new cards back into their decks. Through this, you can slowly build a deck that screws over your opponents, or lets you buy better cards, or do more in one turn, and so on.

In the end, the player with the most Victory Point cards in their deck wins, with the problem that VP cards don't do anything except clog up your deck.

The thrill in these games comes from watching your little baby deck evolve into something beautiful (or, occasionally, a tottering mutant that has you holding back tears each time you draw a hand). What does your deck need? What does it have too much of? Is there a way to turn these imbalances into advantages? And what are you trying to grow it into, ultimately?

Dominion went on to sweep award ceremonies and find a place on the lop-sided shelves of gamers the world over, as well it should have. It's genius. Today the publishers are gearing up to release the fifth expansion, Dominion: Cornucopia, which brings me to another smart thing about Dominion's design. By swapping in and out the card types available to players in the middle of the table, you get a different game every time. If you own just one of the core sets and a single expansion, you're already dealing with tens of thousands of possible setups. Perfect.

But I haven't bought Dominion. Not me. And I'll tell you why.

Reading the logo on the box makes me feel like I'm eating soap. Just looking at it makes my nose run. And while nothing in the theme or art is anywhere near as repulsive, none of it excites me. Also, that logo appears on the back of all the cards. Twice.

Urgh. If there is a Hell, it's teal, beige and navy blue.

As happy as I'd be to play an ASCII PC game or some eyeball-wrinkingly hideous PSX 3rd person adventure, I feel differently about board and card games. But that's another article.

Lucky for me, there's a great alternative to Dominion. THUNDERSTONE takes that cloudy, unsure-of-itself setting and replaces all of it with groups of adventurers racing one another in a distinctly bleak fantasy world. Here's what it looks like-

When a game of THUNDERSTONE starts, your deck conists of militia men, daggers, iron rations and a couple of torches, and you're facing down everything from abyssal terrors to endless swarms of insects. Oh, and diseases. THUNDERSTONE likes a good disease. Maybe you don't like diseases. If THUNDERSTONE could respond to that, it would laugh in a voice like the falling pebbles and grit that come before a landslide.

Each turn you get two choices. Either you go into the dungeon and take a pop at a monster, or you go to the village and buy something within your price range.

Like Dominion, what's available in the village is up to you, so it changes every game (as do the types of monsters in the dungeon). In the village you'll find weapons, spells, items, mercenaries and guides, all of which will give you an edge in the dungeon, and - most importantly - you can recruit heroes. To begin with, your hero cards won't be so hot. But the excellent thing about heroes is that as you kill monsters you'll amass a tidy pile of experience points, and when you're in the village you can use those points to level up your heroes. Whatever hero was in your hard goes back into the game's box, and you insert the next level of that hero card into your discard pile, where they'll sit with all the innate danger and patience of a discarded hypodermic needle before finally cropping up in one of your hands.

And ooh, oooh, a fully upgraded Hero is a card to be feared. Those thieves you've got? They'll start knocking cards out of your opponents' hands. That mage might let you transform your milita cards into even more heroes. And paying a visit to the Dungeon with a veteran warrior and a great weapon is like dropping monsters into a giant blender.

What to do about your opponents' heroes? Well, there's always the odd asshole card for sale in the village. Like this one:

But for my money it's the monsters that are the star of the show, and I wish they'd start including a few more of them in the Thunder-- I mean THUNDERSTONE expansion sets.

Look at that art. Beautiful. These are monsters that cry out for a beating. Which is lucky, as beating them and inserting them into your deck as glossy trophies is how you win the game. The bigger the monster, the more points it's worth at the end, which also means there's a balancing mechanic whereby the more a player kills, the more watered-down his deck will be. You can try and build a properly furious deck by only going for the best kills, but that's a dangerous game.

What else to say? Ah, there's also the fun 'Light' system. At any point in the game the dungeon hall is made up of three monsters, like you can see above, which represent your three targets. The one closest to the entrance only requires you to have a little light in your hand (from torches, lanterns, wizards, flaming swords, fireballs, magic gems, etc) to take him on. But the next monster requires two points of light, and the third and deepest monsters needs three light.

For each point of light you're missing you suffer a penalty in combat, and there's all kind of fun stuff to do with burning monsters who provide their own light, or evil monsters who darken their surroundings. One of the heroes is a blind monk who gets bonuses to combat when there's no light, and I think there's even one priest who converts surplus light into extra damage.

It's this kind of thematic fluff that I love Thunderst-- THUNDERSTONE for. The stuff that blows the dust off your imagination and gives it a kick. That time the Iron Golem who could only be hurt by heroes with a strength of nine sat in the dungeon entrance for the entire game. The plague-ridden zombie that your bard took on mano-a-mano with a cheap mace, only to come limping home with two disease cards. I love it.

About the only flaw I'm willing to accuse it of is that it's not a game that benefits from plenty of players. It might work fine with as many as five players when you're happy to sit and brood on your options, but way less so when you know what you want to do and have to wait for four other people to finish their turns, with the last of them almost certainly buying the card or killing the monster you'd been planning on picking up. On the flip side, the solitaire varient you'll find in the manual is fun enough, and Thundersto THUNDERSTONE is one of my favourite two player games. So there you go.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, THUNDERSTONE: Dragonspire is the set to start with. It's the standalone expansion the designers came out with that addresses some of the foibles of the original base set, and it's altogether a more generous package. As always, FindYourGameStore.co.uk is ready to help.

Right, that's altogether too much time spent writing about Thunderstone when I could have been playing. I mean THUNDERSTONE. Shit. I'm outta here.

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About the Author
Quintin Smith avatar

Quintin Smith

Former Staff Writer

Quinns was one of the first writers to join Rock Paper Shotgun after its founding in 2007, and he stayed with the site until 2011 (though he carried on writing freelance articles well beyond that). These days, you can find him talking about tabletop board games over on Shut Up And Sit Down, or doing proper grown-up journalism with the folks at People Make Games.