I’ve got a long history of loving and writing about Thunderstone. So of course I need to write a Thunderstone Quest review. And I had this notion that I was going to write my Thunderstone Quest review after having played through all of the quests. But it turns out that there are really a lot of cards in the Gloomhaven-rivaling box TSQ comes in. Every time I go back to it I think I’m closer to the end than I am. So instead of waiting until I’ve played every single one of the quests, I’m writing this having “only” completed four of them.
Thunderstone Quest is the third implementation of Thunderstone, which was one of the first deck-building games after grandmaster Dominion. The general concept of Thunderstone came from asking what if you did something with the deck you were assembling (a first for a deck-building game). In the case of Thunderstone, you assembled a deck of fantasy heroes, weapons, spells, and items, and then used that deck to venture into the dungeon to kill monsters for victory points.
Thunderstone Quest still has that same basic vibe, although the changes from Thunderstone Advance to Thunderstone Quest are more significant than were the changes from the original Thunderstone to Thunderstone Advance. The very basics of the turn remain that you either go into the village to buy a card to make your deck better, or you go into the dungeon to defeat a monster to get victory points. But there’s now a lot more going on for either path (including a greatly increased chance that you do both paths in the same turn).
Gone is the dungeon row with it’s use of light as a pseudo-penalty to attack (something that, I think, always tripped up newer players, even in the Thunderstone Advance version). Now the dungeon is more of a map, with a miniature that you actually move from space to space on the dungeon (and will start the turn still on that final space if you go to the dungeon again next turn). Light is still a concept, but instead of interacting with attack, light allows you to move deeper into the dungeon – without light, your party will still be able to chew up lower level monsters in the entry level, but juicier targets will remain out of reach.
The dungeon itself is composed of three levels, each with two rooms. Each level has its own monster deck, and each room always has a monster. Monster cards have a strength that the party must overcome, and the basic consequences of combat listed on the bottom – wounds taken, experience rewarded, and tokens/treasure handed out (more on those below). In addition, each room may modify these values. Monsters might be tougher in that room or do more wounds, or the room itself might provide additional rewards. Monsters and dungeon rooms can also have rules text, including text that interacts with dungeon movement. For example, several rooms are ‘trapped’ and will damage the party (for example, forcing a discard) if the party moves through without a rogue.
I’ve mentioned wounds a couple of times, and the are implemented in a brand new way in Thunderstone Quest. The default hand size is six. When a player takes wounds, they play them on a track, which will reduce the player’s hand size (although not on a 1:1 basis). Too long in the dungeon can result in accumulation of words, until a return to the village is forced. A few creatures also deal ‘festering’ wounds, which are the more traditional deck-building mechanic of putting a bad card in your deck.
In addition, there is a wilderness – effectively a level zero of the dungeon – where the much-beloved giant rat sits waiting for new adventurers to seek it out. Defeating the giant rat grants only one reward, but that reward is to level up one of the level 0 starting adventurers into one of the level 1 adventurers from the village. The wilderness takes on an additional prominence because the starting Lantern card, which allows the player to visit the village and then go into the wilderness (but not any further into the dungeon), accelerating the presence of more heroes in the deck.
Finally, the wilderness becomes the site of the final battle against the Guardian. Six keys are mixed throughout the three monster decks, and when four of them have been found, the poor giant rat card is flipped over to reveal the Guardian. Every player gets a supercharged hand for their one final effort. Defeating the Guardian is usually the right call if you’ve got the strength, but players may also visit the village or defeat something else in the dungeon, if it is more beneficial.
Going to the village now involves not just the opportunity to buy a card and level up a hero. Notably, a trip to the village also heals a wound. But the first difference is that players must choose one of four locations in the village. One location allows the player to additionally buy one single-use token – food (extra gold or extra skill), a lantern (discard for light), or a potion (heal a wound). Another (the guild) allows the player to level up two characters. A third (the temple) allows for healing two wounds and stashing cards for next turn (but turns off the Lantern and the ability to level up heroes). The fourth and final location allows the player to spend 10 gold to by a treasure, which might be a shot of XP and tokens, or might be a unique item/hero that goes into the player’s deck (when monsters drop treasure, the player gets a draw off of this deck).
The village layout is semi-rigid. There must always be a hero of each class (wizard, cleric, fighter, rogue). There must always be at least two weapons, two items, and two spells (out of eight card in the market). Weapons are still gated (although it is now represented as skill to wield the weapon, rather than raw weight of the weapon) so that they are likely to be more effective for fighter-types. Spells may be fully usable by anyone, but may also have kickers that make them much better for spellcasters (or particular kinds of spellcasters). Rogues still have the benefit of being the only gold-producing heroes.
There are two additional setup elements that are new to Thunderstone Quest – guild sponsorships and side quests. All players have access to the same four guilds, and choose one at the start of the game. Each provides a slight bonus when using heroes of the matching type. Side quests are a stack of unique cards (players are dealt three and pick one), and come in two broad flavors. First, there are side quests that reward points at the end of the game for meeting certain conditions. Second, there are side quests that provide an in-game target, and then if that target is achieved, the player gains a unique legendary card from a separate stack to add in to their deck. Unfortunately, side quests were probably the most disappointing aspect of Thunderstone Quest for me, because they seemed to have a lot of variance in value. In general, the end game scoring quests tend to end up better than the in-game item quests, which is a shame because to me the latter are a lot more interesting. Additionally, within the end-of-game quests, some are clearly much stronger than others. For example, there is a jack of all trades quest that rewards you for having one of every card in your deck – which is a terrible way to build a deck. There’s another side quest that rewards focused purchases – you must have exactly one hero, one weapon, one spell, and one item in your deck. Which is often somewhere in the ballpark of ‘how I wanted to build my deck anyway.’ Too bad.
There are also some more subtle distinctions in Thunderstone Quest that affect game flow. For example, there generally isn’t much gold produced by the cards purchased in the marketplace. There are some strategies that will focus on one of the cards that does, but for many card arrays you won’t end up increasing the purchasing power of your deck much, which tends to make visits to the village less attractive (sometimes you really only go back to the village because you’ll be able to double-level your heroes, and visiting the marketplace becomes somewhat incidental).
Overall, the way these changes work out, when combined with the particular cards available (as discussed above), mean that you go to the dungeon a lot more than you ever did in the prior iterations of Thunderstone (especially early). There’s more likely to be a monster you can kill and there’s less likely to be some big purchase to make. Repeat visits to the dungeon can result in accumulation of wounds, which can eventually force trips to the village, but judicious use of clerics can stave that off for a while – and even when you are accumulating wounds, that four-card hand is still often enough to kill something, which can still warrant a visit to the dungeon. Combined with the lantern, this can result in decks with a much higher proportion of level 1 heroes than in days past.
When it gets down to brass tacks, Thunderstone Quest is a great game – especially if, like me, you like deck building and like fantasy. The idea of ‘deck-building with a purpose’ isn’t new like it was when Thunderstone first came out, but it still just works. The gameplay has become about as thematic as it can get for an admittedly generic fantasy setting. There’s still a lot of divergence in the feel of different monster groups. The updates have made every turn just interesting than it used to be, especially in the village, where there are options every time beyond which single card to buy. Everyone now gets the chance to fight the guardian. Bad cards get out of your deck faster. The game length and pacing hummed with the new system to unlock the guardian. There was always a lot of variability with Thunderstone setups, but Thunderstone Quest takes that to a whole new level right out of the gate.
There may be a few quibbles, some depending on your playstyle. I would have liked to see better from the art (note: I’ve seen others praise the art, so perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but that’s where I stand on it). Some of the art is good (the heroes are the cards most likely to have the best art; you can see one of the really nice ones to the right). Some of the art just barely holds up at the small image size used for a card, but feels like it would fall apart if blown up at all. I would have expected AEG to be able to get some really excellent stuff in for a premium product like Thunderstone Quest. Also, while I’m perfectly content playing scenarios and pre-determined setups, I could see frustration from a player who wanted to be able to truly randomize setups. There are quite a lot of marketplace cards that really synergize well with particular heroes. How good the heroes and marketplace cards are can strongly depend on whether they show up together. That works well for set piece games where the synergies are clever, and you can see how a particular card might play differently with this hero versus that hero. But it can result in random setups where a few too many cards are semi-useless because they don’t really work with the other things that showed up.
On a bonus, personal note, I can attest to the dedication to the customer of the folks working on Thunderstone in its iterations, including Thunderstone Quest. I won a Thunderstone Advance tournament at Gen Con in … I don’t know, let’s say 2013? That tournament had a ‘help design a card’ prize. Well, it turned out that Thunderstone Advance did not have any further new cards designed (the remaining sets yet to be designed ended up essentially being updates of original Thunderstone cards). But the lead designer for Thunderstone (Mark Wooton) ended up as the lead on Doomtown Reloaded. So there was a Doomtown Reloaded card that was a nod to what we had discussed about the Thunderstone Advance card (although it ended up being kind of terrible). I would have considered that prize fulfilled, but then Thunderstone Quest comes around, and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but the Thunderstone fulfillment of that long-ago tournament prize. Although I don’t use it as much as I used to, I went by the handle of ‘Daramere’ for many, many years. So when you get to Risen from the Mire, Part 2, you can say hello to Darameric, who sports keywords that are a throwback to an old Dungeons & Dragons character of mine. That’s a long memory and just bothering to care to super-fulfill that old prize.
Ultimately, Thunderstone Quest is the best version of Thunderstone, which makes it one of the best deck-building games there is (and I do love deck-building games). It’s well worth checking out if this style of game is at all up your alley. Which, by the way, you can do on Kickstarter starting on July 17, 2018, when the “Back to the Dungeon” follow-up arrives there.