Review – Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin

Towers of Ruin launches the second era of AEG’s Thunderstone franchise.  Thunderstone is a deck-building game of fantasy adventure (yes, that’s AEG’s tagline from the box, but it seems like the best description), where the players assemble a deck of heroes/stuff, and then sally forth to slay some monsters and grab a Thunderstone.  Thunderstone Advance updates and improves the base Thunderstone rules, and also revamps the starting deck to make things it a bit more interesting.  Although Thunderstone Advance is backwards-compatible with older Thunderstone cards, Towers of Ruin does not require anything else to play.  Because Towers of Ruin is a stand-alone product, this review will both give a look at gameplay for those who are new to Thunderstone, and also a “what has changed” look for experienced players.

What’s In The Box?

The contents of any deck-building game start with, of course, a stack of cards, and Towers of Ruin comes with a large one.  There are enough cards for five 12-card starting decks, plus another 15 of most of them (just in case you actually want to buy one during the game).  There are 11 different Heroes (12 cards each), 19 different village cards (8 of each), nine different Monster groups (10 cards each, plus an extra 10 for a Horde), three Thunderstone Bearers, 28 Curses, 7 Familiars, and randomizers for the hero, village, and monster cards.  In total, you get somewhere north of 550 cards.  There are dividers for everything, including dividers specifically for the starting decks (there’s even a divider for Avatars, a card type that does not exist yet – they will represent “you” in card form).

Thunderstone Advance also adds a full board for the first time (although one could still play without it, if one so chose).  The board has spots for every type of card that has to be put out during the game, including the Dungeon Hall.  The board is thick, sturdy, and sharply printed – unlike the Dragonspire Dungeon Hall board, you can actually read the Darkness level and penalties from back in your seat.  Oh, and the board has two sides – one for the Dungeon, and one for the Wilderness (more on that later).

In addition to the cards, you get a large-page, very well done full-color rulebook.  Thunderstone Advance has definitely raised its game on writing rules with clarity.  It includes a word glossary and a card glossary.  There’s also a four-page Learn to Play insert, for players who are new to Thunderstone.  The box easily holds all of the contents, with room for at least several expansions, plus the XP tokens that come with the game.

Gameplay (for those new to Thunderstone)

Each player in Thunderstone starts with a static deck of sixteen cards.  On each turn, each player must choose whether to go to the Village to build his forces, or venture into the Dungeon in order to defeat one of the Monsters found within.  Players must pick the right balance of attack power (to kill monsters now) and buying power (to be able to afford the cards to kill tougher monsters later).  Defeated monsters go into the deck and are worth Victory Points.  The game ends when a specific monster – the Thunderstone Bearer – appears in the Dungeon and is either defeated or escapes.

Setup/The Cards

Each player’s starting deck has six Regulars (a very basic Hero), two Torches (a basic light source), two Longspears (a basic Weapon), and two Thunderstone Shards (a special card that increases a Hero’s strength and hands out bonus Experience Points).

This basic deck will improve during the game with cards added from the Village.  I’d divide those cards into three types – Heroes, Weapons, and Everything Else (Items, Spells, and Villagers – there’s basically no rules difference between the last three, but different cards in the game will affect specific categories of other cards).  In addition to more copies of Regular, Torch, and Longspear, the Village always has four Heroes, and then eight other cards (which may be any of Weapons, Items, Spells, or Villagers, but never more than a few of any one kind).  By default these are randomly determined, although the rules contain numerous variants on how to pick the village cards.

Cards in the Village are purchased with Gold.  If a player chooses to go to the Village on his turn, then he may buy one card.  Many, but not all, cards produce some amount of Gold.  When going to the Village, all cards in hand are revealed, and the Gold added up to determine what can be purchased.  In addition, some cards have Village abilities (literally – abilities that say “Village” can be played when in the Village; abilities that say “Dungeon” can be played when in the Dungeon).  Items, Spells, and Villagers are basically just a Gold value and some number of Dungeon or Village abilities.

Innkeeper, a Villager
Summon Storm, a Spell
Moonstone, an Item

Heroes and Weapons are distinguished by (almost always) having Attack (Physical or Magic), which is used to defeat monsters.  Heroes have at least one class (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief, Ranger) and a race (Human, Elf, Dwarf).  They also have a level.  Unlike the other stacks in the Village, the Hero stacks are not all the same card – there are Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 versions of each Hero.  Players can only buy the top one, so the higher levels are only available later in the game, or if XP (earned from defeating monsters) is used to level them up.  Heroes and Weapons also have a unique interaction represented by the strength of the Hero and the weight of the Weapon.  Unlike other cards, which just do their thing, Weapons must be equipped to a hero – each Hero can only carry one Weapon, and he has to be strong enough.  Fighters, for example, tend to have a higher strength to use better Weapons, while other classes have other upsides – Clerics might remove negative Curse cards from hand, and Thieves might produce Gold (Heroes are generally not worth Gold).

Drua Sacrist, a Level 1 Hero
Longsword, a Weapon

Of course, the Monsters have to be set up.  Each group of 10 monsters has a level (1-3).  One monster group of each level is selected, as is one Thunderstone Bearer.  The normal monsters are all shuffled together, and then the Thunderstone Bearer is shuffled into the bottom third of the deck.  The top few cards of the monster deck are placed face-up in the Dungeon Hall.  The deeper a monster is into the hall, the more Darkness must be overcome to defeat it.  How many spots are in the Dungeon Hall, and how big the penalty from the Darkness is depends on which side of the board is being used.  In the Wilderness board (recommended for first plays), the Hall has four spots and there is a penalty of -1 Attack for each rank into Dungeon Hall (it is always called “the dungeon” or “the dungeon hall,” even on the Wilderness board).  In the Dungeon board, the Hall only has three spots, but the Darkness penalty is -2 Attack per rank.

Monsters have a health value that must be equaled or overcome by a player’s Attack in order to defeat the Monster.  Most Monsters don’t do anything except when you attack them, but a few have global effects on the board or have an effect trigger when they are first revealed.  When beaten, a Monster gives XP (in the lower left of the monster card; this lines up with the number in the lower left of a Hero card, which shows how much XP is needed to level up) and goes into a player’s deck, where it will be worth Victory Points and will typically also provide some Gold.  Some Monsters also have Trophy abilities, which are basically Village/Dungeon abilities that you must take at some point during either phase when the Monster is in your hand.

Finally, there is a deck of Curses and a few Familiars.  Curses are negative cards (-1 Attack) that are handed out by some Monsters.  Like other acquired cards, they go into the discard pile, to later circulate back and clog the deck up.  There are several flavors of curse, and each has a built-in way to get rid of it, such as spending XP or gold.  There are other cards that can be used to destroy Curses.

 

 

 

Familiars are quirky things.  The first time each game a player defeats a monster, he gets a familiar, which goes into play.  The familiar has three abilities, which can only be used if the player is holding a certain amount of unused XP (0, 3, and 6).  Using the abilities doesn’t spend the XP, but at the end of a turn on which one or more of the abilities is used, the Familiar is discarded and must be re-drawn and re-played.  The rules recommend not using the Familiars when learning to play.

The Turn

Each player starts with six cards, and at the end of each of his turns his hand is discarded and a new hand of six is drawn.  A player has four options on each turn: go to the Village, go to the Dungeon, Resting, and Preparing.  The Dungeon and Village are the meat of the game – Rest and Prepare are essentially side things to do when you don’t like your other options.

–          Go to the Village: Flop your hand on the table, play any Village abilities you so choose (destroy bad cards from your hand, draw cards, get another purchase, etc.), count up your Gold and buy one card, and if you have the XP, level up any Heroes in your hand.

–          Go to the Dungeon: Flop your hand on the table, then play any Dungeon abilities you so choose and/or equip any Weapons you can until your party is as good as it’s going to get.  Then pick one of the 3 or 4 Monsters to fight.   If the Monster has Battle abilities (such as destroying cards in the attacking party or handing out a curse), it uses these to attack.  The Total Attack Value is compared to the monster’s Health – if the TAV is equal or higher, the party wins, and the Monster is defeated.  The Monster may then have an Aftermath effect (again, often destroying something in the attacking party).  If the monster was not defeated, it goes back into the Dungeon deck.  If the Monster was defeated, it goes in the player’s discard pile and XP is awarded.  Any “Spoils” abilities on cards involved in the attack trigger (these include the Thunderstone Shard’s award of bonus XP).  Then the monsters shift towards the surface to fill any gaps, and the monster on top of the Dungeon deck takes its place in the deepest rank.

–          Rest: Destroy one card in your hand (for example, a Curse).

–          Prepare: Place any number of cards in your hand on top of your deck (the rest are discarded as normal at the end of the turn), thus hopefully setting up a good following turn.

Winning the Game

As the end of the Dungeon deck nears, the Thunderstone Bearer will eventually appear in the Dungeon Hall.  The Thunderstone Bearer is generally going to be a tough nut to crack.  If the Thunderstone Bearer is defeated or reaches the first rank of the dungeon (through players defeating or chasing away the monsters in the brighter ranks), then the game ends.  Whoever has the most Victory Points wins.  Almost all VP comes from Monsters, but Level 3 Heroes are also worth VP, as are the Thunderstone Shards.

What’s New In Thunderstone Advance

                If you’ve played Thunderstone before and you pick up Thunderstone Advance, you’ll probably want to start with page 28 of the rulebook, which contains the highlights of the rules changes.  Although it isn’t about one specific place, it’s worth noting that the rules have, as a whole, been greatly clarified – they are more precise about timing and about what the flavorful defense of the monsters mean, for example (no more “half damage” traits in a game that doesn’t have damage).

–          The starting decks have been revamped.  Militia are gone (they were “prone to taking long rest breaks”), replaced with the improved Regulars.  Regulars are 3 strength instead of 2 (they are now stronger than some of the non-physical Heroes).  They draw a card when equipped with a polearm.  And, perhaps most importantly, they level up for only 2 XP now, instead of 3.  The Dagger has been replaced with the Longspear, which is a polearm to work with the Regular, and produces 2 Gold instead of 1.  Iron Rations (and food in general) are gone, replaced with Thunderstone Shards.  Thunderstone shards give a +2 strength boost, and also have a Spoils ability to give out an extra XP.  They are only worth 1 gold (so the total starting deck still has the same gold spread), but so you don’t just trash them ASAP, they are also worth 1VP (although you may still want to trash them at some point).  The Torch remains unchanged.

–          There are two sides to the included board, with the “classic” Dungeon on one side, and the Wilderness on the other.  The Wilderness has a bigger hall, and the light penalties track the rank evenly (rank 2 = -2 Attack, and so on).  The Wilderness side is recommended for new players, although the reduced penalties skew the value of Light.

–          Setup has been tweaked.  Monster groups now have a level (1, 2, or 3).  You start with one group of each level, to try and avoid super-hard dungeons.  There are now limits on how many of any category of village card (Weapons, Items, Spells, Villagers) can show up, although that wouldn’t stop something like a random Weapon-less village.


There is a fourth thing to do with your turn, called Prepare.  It lets you drop part of your hand on top of your deck, setting up your next turn (the rest of your hand gets pitched).

–          A new type of card called a Familiar has been introduced.  You get a familiar when you first defeat a monster.  The familiar has powers that only work when you’re sitting on extra XP.  It stays in play, but gets discarded at the end of a turn during which you used one of the powers (it goes back into play as soon as it gets drawn again).

–          The game ends when you defeat a special kind of Guardian, a Thunderstone Bearer.  Or, as the rules say, “The game is not won when you pick up a rock.”

–          Diseases are now Curses, and each has a built in Dungeon and/or Village ability to get rid of it, such as by paying 2 gold or drawing fewer cards at the end of the turn.

–          Destruction is no longer delayed.  If a monster’s battle ability destroys something, it gets destroyed.  There are now Aftermath effects that only kick in after the fight is over.

–          No Rank 0: There is no Rank 0.  Breach effects now happen when the Monster reaches Rank 1.

–          Terminology Changes: Light Penalties are now Darkness.  There’s a “React” ability word.  Anything that happens when a monster is first placed in the hall is a “Raid” effect.  Archers are Rangers.

In addition to the rules changes, there are also story changes and graphic design changes.  On the story side of things, there’s actually a particular story to Thunderstone now, including fictions on AEG’s website.  There’s flavor text on cards.  There are variant setups in the rulebook to vaguely represent story events (attacking the three towers in the title of the game, such as the undead-heavy Tower of Corruption of the fiery Tower of Contempt).

The big graphic difference is that the relatively busy and wide card borders are gone, making more room for text and art.  The class/race info is under the card title instead of in the middle, and is joined by the character’s level, so there’s one less icon cluttering the left side of the card (potentially three now, instead of four).  The Weapons and Items have a uniform design focused on the object in question (more on this later).

Variants

Thunderstone has gotten a lot of extra play with variant rules, and some are included in the rulebook.  These include a solo variant and the Richard Launius/Tom Vasel “Epic Thunderstone” variant.  There are also several smaller variants, some of which are portions of the Epic Thunderstone ruleset – for example, sorting the monster deck by level.

Individual Cards

For those who are going to be using Towers of Ruin to enhance an existing Thunderstone collection, here are some cards that might be of note:

–          Bandia’s Wisdom/Whetmages: The spell lets you temporarily gain XP as a Dungeon ability.  The Hero lets you blow XP to level up in the Dungeon.  Sounds like a combo to me.

–          Dwarven Bear Hammer: Race matters already, as seen in this 6-weight Weapon that allows Dwarves to ignore the weight.

–          Falcon Arbalest: This crossbow replaces the wielders attack entirely (with a +5), rather than just augmenting it – and it can be carried by a Regular.

–          The fragile Filagree Amulet, which breaks when you use it.  Great flavor.

–          King Caelan’s Writ: Blow your entire turn to trade the Writ for the top card of a Hero stack – great for picking up one of those expensive Level 3 Heroes.

–          Glamercast bards: At Level 1, this Hero has no attack at all, only enhances other Heroes.

–          Bhoidwood and Deepstrider: These Ranger Heroes are worth negative Gold.

–          Kobolds: These little buggers are mostly so terrible that you wouldn’t want them in your deck – luckily, you can beat them and then shove the negative VP in someone else’s discard pile!

–          There are Undead Treefolk.  So sad.

Judgment Calls/Opinion

To me, Thunderstone (Advance or not) is just flat-out a fun game.  It’s super-thematic.   It’s at a nice lowish to medium-depth level, where the complexity of the rules and card matches well with the amount of randomness involved, and the ability to play many games relatively quickly matches well with the variability of the setups.  And the card selection is appropriate for a base game – this isn’t just an expansion set of cards that happens to be packaged with new starter decks.

Comparing Thunderstone Advance to Thunderstone, there really isn’t any downside to Advance.  To me, it’s just a flat-out improvement (except maybe familiars, which are clunky, easy to forget once they’re in play, and didn’t add much to our experience – but you can just not play with them).  The rules are cleaner.  The rewording of Light and the option of the “Rank = Penalty” board are great for teaching new players, since Light always seemed to be the most confusing thing about the basic game.  The board, generally, is a nice-looking component.

I think the designers were shooting to get players to go into the Dungeon without guarantees a bit more, and we definitely did that (partially because the Regular/Longspear combo starts the deck with an added padding of Dungeon card draw).  In addition to adding more tension to things, to me, this helps out even out card values a bit, as cards with weak effects that tacked on “Dungeon: Draw a card” never seem to get much use for us, since we are relatively averse to riding a trip to the Dungeon on whether the top card of the deck was a +2 Attack card.

The games we played of Thunderstone Advance seemed to run a bit longer than usual, even with more XP running around (thanks to Thunderstone Shards and, I think, to increased XP awards from Monsters).  The monsters seem, on average, a bit tougher – there’s a substantial difference between the old “Battle: kill a Hero” (which would now be “Aftermath: Kill a Hero”) and the new “Battle: Kill a hero”).  These may be related.  Or we could just be imagining things – not like we kept a stopwatch running, after all.

It also felt a bit odd that the Thunderstone Bearers weren’t worth more XP.  I wouldn’t say that there’s any gameplay problem with them not being the most valuable monster in the dungeon, but it felt off from a flavor perspective.

The graphic design is overall, an improvement.  The cards are cleaner looking.  The icons look fine to good (I recall some complaints about them when the cards were first posted online, but there are no problems with them to me).  The one thing I disliked about the new graphic design (and, I think, the one thing I actively disliked about the entirety of the Thunderstone Advance package) is the sameness of all the Weapons and Items.  The object itself is the focus of the picture, but doesn’t take up all that much of the frame (if all your showing is a long, pointy thing, it’s hard to take up a whole rectangle), and the rest is a blank pink backdrop.  This means that, when there are Weapons and Items in your hand, you can’t really tell them apart at a glance.  Visual cues are important when you play a card game a lot – you glance down, see the picture, and know what the card is.  At a minimum, the Weapons and Items needs a more distinguishable background and, if it was my call, I’d switch up the presentation of those cards considerably, with a bit more oomph to the pictures, instead of just the static shots.

So, if you like the fantasy adventure theme and are looking for a not-too-heavy game with great replayability, I’d heartily recommend Thunderstone Advance.  If you already know you like Thunderstone, then Towers of Ruin should be the #1 choice for the next Thunderstone product you pick up.  Overall, a great game and a definite upgrade.

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