Review – Thunderstone Advance: Numenera

Thunderstone Advance: Numenera forms another new entry point into the Thunderstone series. With its genesis as part of the Kickstarter for Monte Cook’s Numenera RPG, Thunderstone Advance Numenera is a full, stand-alone version of Thunderstone Advance that can be played on its own, or combined with other versions. Thunderstone Advance Numenera supports 2-5 players normally (there is also a solo version), plays in 45 minutes to an hour, and retails for about $60.

This is a standalone expansion and, as usual, I’m going to give a full gameplay overview for those who have never played Thunderstone Advance before (note: yes, I am totally copying and pasting from my original Towers of Ruin review were applicable). If you have, you can just skip over the Gameplay section.

What’s In The Box?

The contents of any deck-building game start with, of course, a stack of cards, and Thunderstone Advance: Numenera comes with a large one.  There are enough cards for five 16-card starting decks, plus another 15 of most of them (just in case you actually want to buy one during the game).  There are 13 different Heroes (12 cards each), 21 different village cards (8 of each), 10 different Monster groups (10 cards each, plus an extra 10 for a Horde), 1 group of Treasures, three Thunderstone Bearers, 20 Iron Wind, 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).

In addition to the normal cards, there are six oversized Setting cards, a D20, multi-colored XP tokens, and a felt bag to hold the tokens.

Thunderstone Advance: Numenera also includes a full board (although one could 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.  The board has two sides – one for the Dungeon, and one for the Wilderness.

Gameplay (for those new to Thunderstone)

Each player in Thunderstone starts with a static deck of twelve 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.

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).  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 are named Numenera-style. Level 1 Heroes are just an adjective – “Graceful” or “Tough.” Level 2 Heroes get a Numenera “character class” – “Intelligent Jack” or “Strong Glaive.” Level 3 Heroes are then also marked as Enhanced – “Enhanced Learned Nano” or “Enhanced Mystic Glaive.”

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 cards from hand, and Thieves might produce Gold (Heroes are generally not worth Gold).

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.

In addition to its use in leveling up Heroes, XP can also be used for Cypher effects. One Cypher effect may be used per turn, and requires discarding one XP. XP tokens come in six different colors (what color you get when earning XP is random), and the color of the discarded token determines which effect you get – draw a card, destroy a card, gain physical attack, gain magic attack, gain gold, gain light.

The Monster deck may also have Treasures in it. When a Treasure is revealed in the Dungeon, it is equipped by the closest Monster. The Treasure boosts the Monster in some way, and then is “looted” when that Monster is defeated, getting added to the player’s deck along with the Monster.

Beyond all that, you may also play with a single Setting card (you’ll probably want to just leave these alone while learning the game). The Settings are oversized cards representing locations in the world of Numenera, and each has a global effect on the game. Each setting has a trigger, and whenever the trigger occurs a d20 is rolled, producing some manner of effect.

Finally, there is a deck representing the Iron Wind. These are generally negative cards that are handed out by some Monsters, giving a penalty of one to Gold and a penalty of 2 to Attack. However, they also have a Village/Dungeon ability that lets you draw a card. Like other acquired cards, they go into the discard pile, to later circulate back and clog the deck up. These may or may not come into play every game, depending on what the Setting and Monster are.

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.

Differences Between Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin and Thunderstone Advance: Numenera

Familiars are gone. Instead excess XP can be used to fuel Cypher effects. One Cypher effect may be used per turn, and requires discarding one XP. XP tokens come in six different colors (what color you get when earning XP is random), and the color of the discarded token determines which effect you get – draw a card, destroy a card, gain physical attack, gain magic attack, gain gold, gain light.

Amber MonolithSettings have returned, although in a somewhat different format. The Settings are oversized cards representing locations in the world of Numenera. Each setting has a trigger, and whenever the trigger occurs a d20 is rolled, producing some manner of effect. Triggers range from the common (every time the first player starts his turn, every time the active player has a Monster in hand) to the rather rare (every time a player gains a Level 3 Hero). Some Settings do something with almost every roll, while some have “no effect” for rolls from 2-16. Effects include gaining diseases, cycling through the Monster deck faster, or saving destroyed cards.

Standard Curse/Disease cards are replaced with Iron Wind. An Iron Wind card has two negative effects – a penalty of one to gold and a penalty of 2 to attack. On the other hand, they also have a beneficial Village/Dungeon to draw a card (rules note: you cannot destroy a card in your hand after you have used one of its abilities). Unlike Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin (but like the original Thunderstone), all of the Iron Wind cards are identical.

Treasures, which were reintroduced after the Thunderstone Advanced base set, appear in Numenera. When a Treasure is revealed in the Dungeon, it is equipped by the closest Monster. The Treasure boosts the Monster in some way, and then is “looted” when that Monster is defeated, getting added to the player’s deck along with the Monster.

There are certain Heroes who can “Mark” a monster as a Village ability. You place one of your Mark tokens on the Monster, and then if someone else attacks the Monster, and you have one of your Marking cards in hand (not necessarily the one you used to put the Mark on in the first place) you can reveal it for effects like increasing the Monster’s Health.

Individual Cards

Thunderstone core draws on fantasy concepts as filtered through Dungeons & Dragons, and so Heroes have a Race and Class and in most Thunderstone sets these are standard fantasy choices. Because this is set in Numenera, all of the Heroes in TA: Numenera are Human (not that it really matters, it just means that this expansion doesn’t have any cards that rely on Hero Race). The Heroes do retain their “D&D” Classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief, Ranger), and these do still matter for some other cards. Hero cards are also identified by a Numenera “character class” (Jack, Glaive, Nano), but these labels are only used in the card titles.

For those already steeped in Thunderstone, here are some cards one might find interesting:

–          At higher levels, the Clever Nano can ‘transform’ into one of the Monsters in your hand, getting Physical Attack equal to its VP or Health.

–          The Graceful Glaive is particularly effective against Monsters with Battle abilities.

–          The Mystic Glaive can shift her Attack between Physical and Magical depending on the threat faced.

–          The Rugged Jack earns XP whenever another player attacks a Monster he has Marked.

–          The Strong Glaive cannot be leveled up as usual, but only through his Spoils ability.

–          The Strong-Willed Jack lets you re-use Dungeon abilities on your Items.

–          The Backpack may or may not contain exactly what you need in it – look to the top of your deck to find out!

–          The Bio-Energy Cutter has an attack value equal to the XP value of the Monster you’re facing – plus it makes other players discard as a Spoils ability.

–          The Chemical Injector gives attack and light and is worth gold. Guess what’s the hot 6G Item in this Thunderstone set? Unless maybe it’s the Disruption Blade …

–          Buy one Paired Swords, get the second for free.

–          The Partisan is a Polearm with +2 Attack that’s worth 2 Gold and has a Weight of 3. Oh, and it adds even more Attack for every other equipped polearm you’ve got handy. Regular swarm? OK, maybe that’s never a good idea. Still not shabby.

–          The Punch Dagger has attack and is worth gold and Heroes can equip two of it – never worry about overbuying Weapons again!

–          Unstable Crystals add more Unstable Crystals to your deck every time you use their hefty Magic Attack ability … until you draw too many Unstable Crystals, and then BOOM!

–          The Ultraterrestrial Monster group requires you to get just the right attack value.

–          The more Automaton Monsters you’ve got in your hand, the harder the later ones are to defeat.

–          Ancient Ones are hard to defeat, unless you brought lots of Light.

Opinions/Judgment

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.

The Familiars from Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin never worked terribly well for me (I am not sure why, but no matter how many time we’ve played Thunderstone Advance, we forget to take the Familiar as often as not). I like the ‘cypher’ use of XP better as a way of siphoning off the large quantities of XP you can accumulate near the end of a game, although I do wish they had included player reference cards listing what each color does. On the bright side, even if you don’t use the Cypher rule, you still get a nifty felt bag out of it for holding your XP tokens.

I like the return of settings overall, because the variety improves replayability. However, some of them may not go over well with all groups. For example, the Foundation Stones hands out Iron Wind like candy, which is really going to bog things down unless there’s a card-destroying Hero or Village card handy, and even then some players just won’t like that sort of slowdown. And the Amber Monolith Setting only triggers whenever someone buys a Level 3 Hero, and when it does trigger it won’t do anything 75% of the time, which means you get an effect out of it maybe twice a game – what’s the point?

So, if you were going to get one of the Thunderstone Advance base sets (Towers of Ruin or Numenera), which one should it be? Well, they’re both solid, so first I’d go with flavor – if you want a more straight-up D&D-style fantasy, get Towers of Ruin. If you want to try Thunderstone but you like your fantasy a little Cook-ed up (see what I did there? As if Monte hadn’t done tons of D&D work) you should go with Numenera. If you’re indifferent, I’d give the nod to Towers of Ruin – its card selection is a bit more straightforward, so it probably makes a better entry point if you’re flavor indifferent.

All in all, 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, be it in Towers of Ruin or Numenera varieties.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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