Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Thunderstone - Dragonspire

Periodically I’ll be participating in the game night blog carnival, which gives me a chance to review some board games that might be a good break from your typical RPG session nights.

This month I’ll be reviewing the fantasy card game, Thunderstone: Dragonspire from AEG games. This is a stand-alone expansion that can be added to the basic set of the game, but also has enough cards to play as a game on it’s own. The 2-5 player game falls into the deck building theme, where players try to pick up cards to fill out their hand. I’m approaching this review as a game, and avoiding talking about it as an expansion, as I haven’t had a chance to pick up the original game.

In a nutshell, the object is to secure as many victory points before a thunderstone relic card enters the last area of play (or ‘rank’) on the table, or gets picked up by a player. Each player represents a party, trying to head into a dungeon and defeat monsters for victory points, obtain treasure, or at the least gain experience to hone their combat skills. As a theme, it plays out very much like a basic hack and slash D&D game, low on story and high on action and hording loot.

Players all begin with the same cards and have the option during their turn to pick up new equipment or improve their heroes, discard their hand for a new one, or try their luck defeating a monster. Each player has their own deck and discard pile, so they will find themselves occasionally throwing in their current hand and drawing a new one if needed. A key point of the game is to try and pick up cards that will give them some fighting advantage to consistently enter the dungeon and win battles against monsters.

There are a couple of wrinkles to the game play. One that there is a limited number of resources. Once a pile of heroes or equipment is gone, that’s it for the rest of the game. So each player is typically in a race to pick up the best cards before they are gone. The second interesting portion of game play is that many special abilities and card functions require it to be destroyed. This can even happen if a hero is crippled in battle. Usually most cards are placed in the discard pile, which can be shuffled into a new deck that players continually draw from. However, destroyed cards are pulled from the game entirely. Combined with limited resources and heroes, this can make for some interesting game choices during a player’s turn.

Combat itself is pretty simple. Players add up their attack bonus and try to equal or beat the monster defense score. Additional card effects on the monsters, heroes, or weapons the heroes employ usually give modifiers. Monsters also line up in a queue, with increasing attack penalties for those deeper in the dungeon. This adds some tension to the game, as players that opt not to fight might find themselves up against even tougher foes if the other players manage to defeat that creature on their turn.

Another neat feature is that only a few types of cards for equipment, heroes, and monsters are used out of the entire game set. A special set of cards are used representing one of each card type. After shuffling, you then draw a particular number (4 heroes, 4 monsters, 8 village cards, etc.), ending up with a pretty decent way to make each game a bit random. As a nod to the other sets and expansions, these ‘randomizer’ cards have a different back to help distinguish them from other normal cards. Dragonspire has randomizer cards from all the previous sets so they all can be used interchangeably. It’s a nice touch and gives a new player an idea of what cards are in the other sets.

As gameplay goes, it is a bit low on direct interaction. Interestingly your actions typically limit your opponents as you might fight easier monsters, or pick up the last card of some spell or weapon. The game does feel like a bit of a race though to pick up the best heroes, fight the most monsters, and gain the most treasure. Slip behind and it can be a little difficult to catch up. Also, in some situations you might end up with a slew full of tough monsters, without the resources to take them on effectively. Having to opt out and redraw your hand in such cases can be a bit of a downer while other players forge ahead.

The Good - It’s a fun game that seems to capture feel a little bit of that classic, hack and slash, dungeon crawl. A fair amount of random setup allows for a slightly different game to reduce repetitiveness and there is a decent variety of cards out of the box. The artwork is nice and the card quality is good. I have to say the box is spacious enough to also accommodate cards from other sets which is a nice organizational touch.

The Bad - Direct player interaction is pretty much non-existent. At times a player might get a bad draw of cards against monsters in play, resulting in not much else to do but clear out their hand. With a lot of people downtime can creep in a tad. Even with the different cards, repeated play might start to encroach on the familiar. Something that likely would be alleviated picking up other expansions or the base Thunderstone game.

The Verdict - Thunderstone: Dragonspire is a fun game that has that feel of progression with a group of adventurers (through buying equipment and leveling up) fairly well. It is an abstract game and to say it captures that feeling of exploration and adventure in a dungeon crawl can be a bit of a stretch. The gameplay is pretty much a race to pick up the most effective heroes and equipment, all in the name of slaying the most vile and toughest monsters. While direct player interaction is low, your actions do have an effect on other players, and the mechanic of destroying and obtaining limited cards does put an interesting twist on this deck building game.

I found the game entertaining. It is a light, fantasy card game that revolves around killing monsters and looting stuff. Much of the strategy is trying to work out decent combinations with different heroes and equipment to become effective in combats, and in that sense, fits into the deck-building niche of games pretty snugly. While Thunderstone: Dragonspire is slated as an expansion, I would consider it a great buy if you wanted to initially get into Thunderstone. Be sure to pick it up if you’d like a fantasy-themed card game.