Review – Thunderstone Starter Set

Thunderstone was one of the first wave of deckbuilding games to follow in Dominion’s footsteps, and last year got a (mostly backwards compatible) reboot in Thunderstone Advance. Now, Thunderstone is picking up a new and different sort of entry point with the Thunderstone Starter Set. With a lower price point ($30) and a smaller number of cards, the Starter Set covers all of the basic card archetypes of AEG’s deckbuilding game of fantasy adventure. Go to the village to recruit heroes and acquire equipment, then go to the dungeon to thematically farm VP kill monsters!

Since the Starter Set is a standalone expansion, I will include a short intro to the gameplay for those who might be new (a fuller look at Thunderstone Advance gameplay can be found here). Those who are already familiar with Thunderstone can skip over the “Gameplay” section below.

The Quick Take: The Starter Set does a good job distilling Thunderstone Advance down to a lower price point.

What’s In The Box?

The Starter Set includes exactly enough of the starting cards to make base decks for five players, 5 different Heroes (12 cards each), 10 different Village cards (8 cards each), three different Monster groups (10 cards each), one Thunderstone Bearer, and 10 Diseases. There are solid plastic dividers for each of these, including ones to keep each basic deck worth of cards in, and one for randomizers.

The Starter Set does not come with extras like the board and plastic XP tokens found in Thunderstone Advance.

Gameplay (for those new to Thunderstone)

In Thunderstone, each player represents some manner of adventuring organizer, with the deck representing resources available to deploy. The deck, as is common with deckbuilding games, starts out with low-power cards – half Regulars (wimpy Heroes), a couple of Longspears (weak Weapons), a couple of Torches (Light sources), and two Thunderstone Shards (special sources of Strength and extra XP).

                Every turn a player gets to choose one of four options for his or her six-card hand (the hand is discarded and replenished at the end of a player’s turn). The basics are going to the Village, and going to the Dungeon.

Players can improve their decks by visiting the Village – everything in the starting deck that isn’t a Regular produces Gold, which is used to buy cards in the Village. There are better Heroes and Weapons, plus Spells, Items, and Villagers – 4 Heroes and 8 of other stuff. Heroes come in traditional fantasy flavor – fighters, mages, clerics (some Monsters can put negative cards called Diseases into your deck; Clerics trash those for you), thieves, and rangers. One new card can be bought each trip to the Village – just play any Village abilities on your cards, add up on the Gold, and pick something.

With a sufficiently strong hand, players can venture into the Dungeon. The Dungeon has three ranks with one face-up card each – when a rank is emptied, all existing monsters shift away from the monster deck, and a new monster is flipped face-up into Rank 3. Monsters are defeated by comparing the adventuring party’s Attack with the Monster’s Health. Heroes, Weapons, and sometimes Spells and Villagers, will generate Attack. The only Attack that does not just get added in is Weapons, which must be carried – that is, the player must identify a particular Hero who is strong enough to carry the Weapons, and each Hero can carry only one Weapon (this lets Fighter-type Heroes carry better Weapons). Cards in hand may have Dungeon abilities (such as drawing cards), and the Monster may have Battle abilities (such as destroying Regulars, or discarding Weapons). If the party can meet or beat a Monster’s Health, it is defeated – the player collects XP and the Monster, which is worth VP, goes into the player’s deck. If the Monster is not defeated, it is sent to the bottom of the Dungeon deck, and a new one comes out to take its place.

Light provides a wrinkle to the standard Attack v. Health comparison. There is one level of Darkness for each Rank that the Monster is in the Dungeon. So the Rank 1 Monster is one Darkness, the Rank 2 is two Darkness, and Rank 3 is three Darkness. Light cancels out Darkness (you’re shocked, I’m sure). For every level of Darkness that isn’t met with Light, there is a -2 penalty to Attack. So some Light is much more efficient than Attack for getting at deep Monsters, but tons and tons of it is redundant.

On later trips to the Village, the XP can be used to level up the Heroes to more advanced, and more powerful, versions (so, for example, a Level 1 Fighter with +2 Attack becomes a Level 2 Fighter with +3 Attack who gets another +1 Attack if he has a Weapon). Regulars (who are Level 0) can be leveled into any Level 1 Hero.

Besides visiting the Village or Dungeon, the other two turn options are Rest and Prepare, both of which give up this turn to improve future turns. Rest shreds one card from hand, and tends to be used when your hand is just really bad – get rid of the worst card to improve your odds later. Prepare sets aside a few cards from hand to keep for next turn, and tends to be used with there are a few good Dungeon-delving cards in hand, but not quite enough.

The game ends when the Thunderstone Bearer appears in the Dungeon, and is then defeated. The Thunderstone Bearer mostly works like a normal monster, except it can’t be moved around or sent back to the deck, and is a bit flashier than the normal monsters.

The Cards (you can start reading here again if you already know how to play Thunderstone)

What? My Player’s Handbook says Dwarves can’t be mages!

The Starter Set provides a nice spread of card archetypes to introduce the new player to a full array of the standard options. Of the five Heroes, there is one each of fighter (high Strength, high Physical Attack, wants Weapons), mage (low strength, produces light and small Magic Attack), cleric (small Physical Attack and shreds Diseases), thief (only Hero worth Gold), and ranger (high Physical Attack, solid Strength, cheap, but worth negative Gold). The Village cards include a cheap Item that’s mostly just good Gold, a choice between an item that’s double Light or a Villager that’s single Light but actually has Attack, a way to shred Regulars out of your deck, a spread of three Weapons with escalating Attack but also increasing Strength requirements (the lower-end one is also a Polearm to interact with the Regulars), and a strong 6-Gold Spell with +2 Attack and 2 Light (no Gold production, of course). The three Monster sets include one super-easy set of Bestial Humanoids (low Health, tend to have Trophy effects and/or kill your Regulars), a moderate set of Virulent Undead (hand out Disease), and a tough group of Behemoth Giants (massive Health). The Thunderstone Bearer is a Dragon.

Judgment Calls/Opinions

In my review of Thunderstone Advance, I said “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.”

This is one of the small Behemoths.

The Starter Set does a good job of distilling Thunderstone Advance down to a smaller price point. As I’ve noted above, it covers all the basics. Of course, it doesn’t provide the repeat gameplay variety of buying Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin – but, well, what did you expect for $20 less? The one thing I’d watch out for if you’re playing with just the Starter Set is that the Behemoth Giant monster group really does have a ton of Health. If you’re playing with two players and you can quickly hoover up the easiest monsters, use the XP to level up, and really get finely tuned decks, that’s not a problem. But if you’re playing with 4-5 players and/or less experienced players, then the decks you end up with may have a tough, tough time taking out the Behemoths. If you’re first playing Thunderstone with this, you might want to set aside most or all of the Behemoths for a smoother initial playthrough.

If you’re interested in Thunderstone, what’s the best starting point? I think that has to be a personal judgment call. The Starter Set is cheaper, but it’s less efficient (Towers of Ruin has twice as many cards, plus it has the board and XP tokens – and since I made sure to play the Starter Kit as a standalone experience, boy did I miss those XP tokens). If you get excited by Thunderstone, you’re almost immediately going to want to add something beyond the Starter Set anyway. Still, the Starter Set is, indeed, a solid place to start.

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