So Dominion has its 73rd expansion out today, the small-box Alchemy release. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the game has become a phenomenon. To commemorate that deckbuilding milestone, I wanted to take this week’s column to talk a bit about Thunderstone, the Dominion-like game that AEG released last year.
I must say that my first concern when I approached Thunderstone was whether it was just a pale imitation of Dominion. I mean, it’s pretty hard to draw the line between when something is purely derivative and when it’s been clearly influenced by another game, but is still imbued with its own creative energy.
Personally, I think that Thunderstone falls squarely on the right side of the equation. It doesn’t use the same mechanics as Dominion. Rather, it matches Dominion most in the style of play: building decks in order to gain victory points. Sure, that seemed original when Dominion came out (and it was and is), but that’s meta-rules, sort of like: collecting resources to exchange for victory points. If anything, it speaks to how much Dominion innovated the field.
With that said, I’m going to talk a little about what Thunderstone is and the ways that I think it improved the Dominion style of play … and the ways in which I think it didn’t.
So, for those of you who haven’t played the game:
Thunderstone is a game of building up decks of adventurers and weapons that you can eventually use together to kill monsters, which are worth victory points. The victory-point monsters aren’t a static set of cards, like in Dominion, but are instead three random cards available at any time from a larger set. Whenever you take a turn, you can do one of two things: you can take a “town” turn, which means that you’ll buy a new card using your gold; or you can take a “dungeon” turn, which means that you’ll use your cards to acquire a monster.
There are a number of other elements, among them — adventurer strength, weapon weight, light values, and monster distance — but I’m going to cover those as I get into the good and the bad of the game itself.
You can find more info in my complete review of Thunderstone.
Some of the innovations that Thunderstone offers are definitely good. Though I wouldn’t say they improve on Dominion — which is very good at doing exactly what it does — they’re nonetheless good ideas that I hope will influence the next people designing a game in the “deck creation” style.
Robust Starting Hands. In Dominion your starting hand is pretty basic. It takes several turns of play before it becomes interesting. Contrariwise, in Thunderstone you get adventurers and other interesting cards in your hand right from the start. If you want (or rather, if you get a good draw), you can make a run straight at monsters on your first turn. It makes the first few rounds of play feel more fulfilling.
Multi-value Cards. Though we’ve seen a few VP-slash cards in recent sets, most Dominion cards are pretty monotonic. They tend to do a single thing (though this got stretched a bit in Intrigue). Thunderstone cards, on the other hand, each offer a complex (sometimes confusing) array of possibilities. Every single card allows actions of various sorts and provides you with money for purchasing cards. Many also give you light and many are also worth victory points. This allows for some increased richness when different cards can work in different ways at different times.
Upgradable Cards. I’ve been taking these “good” elements as you meet them in play, but I have no doubt that the upgradable cards in Thunderstone are the one element of genius in the design. Basically, when you kill monsters, you not only get their VP value by placing them into your deck, but you also earn experience points. You can then use those experience points to upgrade your adventurers. Each set of adventurer cards tends to have three types that are ordered in their respective decks. As the game goes on, you’ll be buying the better adventurers, but if you earn the XPs, you can also trade-in your Level I adventurer for Level II (or Level II for Level III), and that tends to offer a pretty big boost in functionality.
Good Tactics. I was going to say that Thunderstone was more tactical than Dominion, but I actually think it’s differently tactical. In Dominion you have to figure out how to use your actions and your draw abilities and other stuff in order to maximize your turn. In Thunderstone you have to figure out which monsters you can kill based on light level and damage available (and also decide whether drawing cards might improve your lot).
Great Theming. Thunderstone also gets big points for how well it adheres to the core ideas of a hack-and-slash roleplaying game. Gathering adventurers, giving them weapons, fighting monsters, and earning experiences points — that’s all dead on. It’s a lot of the appeal of the game (for people who find appeal in such things, of course).
I’m less thrilled about some of the other elements in Thunderstone, though I offer these as matters of personal preference, not as an actually objective view of whether they’re straight-up good or bad.
No “Bad” Cards. I prefer the more strategic play of Dominion, where you have to make hard decisions about when to start collecting VPs. That’s somewhat missing from Thunderstone, as the VP/monster cards offer you some benefits. They (almost?) always give you gold that you can spend in town to buy new cards. They sometimes give you benefits that you can use in the dungeons while attacking monsters too.
More Random. I prefer the more serious play of Dominion, where I feel like increasing the “tightness” of my deck will slowly make me more likely to win. On the other hand, Thunderstone feels a lot more chaotic to me. Part of that is my inexperience, I’m certain. However part of it is doubtless the fact that multivalue cards can provide a wider array of effects. Another part of the randomness equations comes from the requirement to put multiple cards together (e.g., adventurers and weapons), which offers that much more opportunity for failure.
Can Drag. I prefer the game length of Dominion, which I think manages to get a high amount of gameplay into a small amount of play. I feel like Thunderstone drags more. I think its core design requires a longer game and that random elements can stretch that even more (e.g., if you get a bunch of tough monsters at the start of the game).
Very Bad Rules. Finally, I should note that the rules boxed with Thunderstone are pretty terrible. Fortunately there’s an online update which is much better.
Overall, I think that Thunderstone is a sufficiently innovative game that it’ll appeal for its differentness. However, I’m not convinced that it’ll appeal to quite the same people as Dominion. To the more American gamer, however, particularly ones from the roleplaying community, it might be just as much of a Game-of-the-Year as Dominion was for Eurogamers.
So what’s your opinion of the good and bad of Thunderstone?
Before I close out: my other recent writings. I’ve actually been slowing down on just about everything lately because I’m back to serious work on my 200,000+ word history of the roleplaying industry. It’s been getting 4-8 hours of my time every week and will through next year. I’ve still managed to get a few reviews out, though, most recently: Pillars of the Earth Builders Duel, Bridge Troll, and Railways of England and Wales. My next review, due in a week, will be on Carson City. For those of you not in the know, I’ll offer a preview: great game.
Author’s Notes: In playing more recent deckbuilding games like Nightfall and Ascension, I’ve realized a bit more that Thunderstone and Dominion are pretty tight, even having identical meta-rules like just having one buy and all purchase stacks always being available to everyone. Still, I think it innovates enough to stand on its own.
I also neglected its perhaps best feature in this article (because it didn’t arrive until the first supplement): the packaging. Thunderstone has pretty much the ideal box for a deckbuilder for me: space for a few supplements, card title tabs, and foam so that everything doesn’t slosh around if you don’t have all the expansions yet. —3/11/2011, 6/15/2012