Spice It Up: Thunderstone Quest

I’ve been reading a lot of comments online claiming that the popularity of dungeon dive games in the hobby board game market is due to euro gamers who don’t have time for role playing games.

At first, I was highly offended.

But then I thought about it.

I loved role-playing games back in the 80s, but today is a different story. With work and kids and social activities, it is hard to find time for a regular RPG group. My son just had another epic campaign night, and they played a D&D 5E campaign for over seven hours. Having the opportunity to play a game that long is very rare for me.

So, the “criticism” is probably valid, but in the end, does it really matter? So what if I want to mix in a little bit of nostalgic dungeon crawling with euro style mechanics?

That takes me to the current crop of these type of games. One of my favorite mechanisms, as any faithful reader of this blog knows, is deck building in games.

I especially love when the game adds to the original Dominion flavor with new interesting twists. And that’s why I was very excited when AEG sent us a copy of the latest edition of one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Dominion style game.

Does your game group like deck builders? Do you enjoy leveling up your character as you explore dark dungeons battling denizens of the dark and searching for tantalizing treasure?

Well, then, Spice It Up with Thunderstone Quest! Designed originally by noted game designer, Mike Elliott, but refined now by Bryan Reese and Mark Wootton, Thunderstone Quest should be returning to Kickstarter this July.

In Thunderstone Quest, up to four adventures will work their way through a giant box of cards, tiles, characters, spells, magic items, and monsters as they level up character parties of different races and classes in a competitive effort to score the most points per quest.

The Krewe de Gumbo has been playing this game for hours, and we have yet to see all of the content, so there is plenty of replayability and adventure for any party.

GAME PLAY:

I won’t try to fool you — in some respects, Thunderstone Quest is a standard deck builder but with some very important twists. Instead of playing as one character, like in a typical dungeon dive, players will play as an actual “party” of characters. Players will start with six basic adventurers in their deck, along with a few special items to help them upgrade their deck or aid in the adventure. Players will be able to buff up their deck in typical buy-a-card-at-the-marketplace fashion, which will be very familiar if you have played any other deck builder, as well as equip their characters with ever more powerful equipment from the village as well as magic items from the treasure deck. Players will also have the opportunity to add different races and character classes to their deck. For instance, a player could have a mix of basic adventurers and dwarven clerics. Or you could have a mix of Elven Rogues and human wizards. It’s all up to you.

Of course, players will not limit themselves to adding characters, but also adding cards from the marketplace that upgrade the decks, like magic spells and items. Like any standard deck builder, the money to buy those cards will come from the cards drawn from your deck, so a viable strategy is securing cards that not only give special powers but also add money. But, it feels like the basic setup of Thunderstone as a dungeon dive means that the strategy will focus more on searching for the best combos for the cards available in the marketplace.

When the deck / party is strong enough, it is time to venture out in the dungeon — where the real action begins. And for most people, the dungeon is the highlight of the game and the thing that differentiates Thunderstone Quest from its competitors.

The dungeon is made up of tiles where various random monster cards will be placed. The tiles are laid out like a typical dungeon where the deeper you go the stronger the monsters can be. As you can imagine, defeating its denizens is the quickest way to earn treasure cards and other upgrades. The monsters are also worth experience points which you can use to level up your characters from zero to level III, which is very important because the characters at level III can be ridiculously powerful.

The dungeon also triggers the timer of the game. Each time monsters are killed, the tiles get refilled with monsters out of the appropriate deck, but those decks also contain key cards. Not key as in “important” but actual “keys”. When a certain amount of keys are found, the final boss battle happens. By that time, players will hopefully have their deck ready to do a barrage of high point damage. Count up the experience points that have been earned from the cards in the deck and the experience points that have been earned in battle, and the player with the most points is the winner.

The box we were provided comes with five separate quests, each with a few “adventures” featuring different mixes of treasure, monsters, character classes and races. Plus, the designers have added a lot of flavor text in the quest manuals which outlines the continuing story of the adventuring parties.

PRESENTATION:

Thunderstone Quest is an impressive and satisfying box opening. There is no other way to say it — this box is huge. It really has to be, because the box has to somehow fit over 1500 cards, along with miniatures, tiles, resources, and all of the other bits needed to play the campaign. The box we were provided, which should be coming back to Kickstarter this month, contained five different quests with a total of fourteen adventures. It comes with a professionally printed Questbook which provides the set up instructions for each of the fourteen adventures, along with story information to drive the overarching story forward for the characters. Each of those quests provides the cards and dungeon room tiles that are specific to that quest and the contained adventures.

Let’s talk about my favorite part of the presentation, the game art. I really like the artwork for this game. It reminds me of an updated, upgraded version of the beloved art we grew up with in our D&D campaigns in the 80s, so the nostalgia factor is very high.

Next up, I love quality of the cards and dungeon tiles and resources. At least in the edition we were provided, the players will be treated to thick cards, sturdy dungeon tiles, and tons of colorful wooden bits. The miniatures are serviceable, but nothing really outstanding. One of the players noted that since we essentially play as parties, picking a mini is kind of anticlimactic because it really does not match up who you are playing. I cannot disagree, but I liked the fact that there are six different figures to choose from and plenty of differences in the choices.

The game board is my only quibble, but it is not a major fault. The board skews more toward practicality than it does aesthetics. In a word, the board is just one large greyish-brown space with places for cards. But, it makes sense, because the board and each of the dungeon tiles will soon be filled up with beautiful card art — it really does not matter what is below the cards from that standpoint.

BUT IS IT FUN?

Of all of the Spice It Up blog posts I have written this year, this one is definitely the most targeted of all the games I have covered. If you like fantasy themed games and you love deck builders, Thunderstone Quest should be right up your alley. In all of our plays, I found myself steered toward the same type of characters each game, fascinated by not only the card art and the abilities of the actual character, but also by the combinations that could be found in the market to upgrade the strength of that character.

But instead of being just some combo-tastic play in a themeless game like Dominion, it truly felt like I was adding strength to MY party of adventurers. They had names and fun art and felt like they more alive to me. Likewise for my fellow adventurers — I watched as their parties took on their own life, especially as they added unique items to their deck after every adventure in the epic mode that we played.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that Thunderstone Quest is any equal to an RPG light experience, because in all honesty, there’s not enough game play to generate ‘story telling’ from that aspect. But, for a gamer like me who plays a lot of games that admittedly tack theming onto dry abstract mechanisms, it was refreshing to play a good solidly built deck builder that had clearly refined game play that also gave me the feeling of equipping my characters for ever more difficult dungeon dives.

If you don’t care about fantasy themed games, or you hate deck builders, then in all honesty Thunderstone Quest will be a slog for you and a good one to just pass up. But in our hobby, players like that will likely be few and far between. My bet is that if you have gotten this far into the blog, you like a good fantasy dungeon crawl, and odds are, you are intrigued by the challenge of maximizing your party’s strengths in an effort to get that prized treasure card for defeating one of the denizens at the bottom of the dungeon. Plus, if you like replayability, you will love this game. The fact that there are so many different tiles and characters and cards all in this one giant sized box means that the average gamer can play this in campaign mode with three friends and have enough content for months of enjoyable and deep game play.

I have no experience with the original game, so unfortunately, I cannot speak to the differences between the editions or even whether Thunderstone Quest advances the game. What I can tell you is that Thunderstone Quest represents a positive evolution in the development of the deck building genre. I love the card art, I love the easy to learn rules set, and I love the puzzly challenge presented by the marketplace of characters and equipment / spell cards. The mark of a good game is that I enjoy it immensely even when I do not win. That was a pretty frequent occurrence in this game for me, and yet, even when I lost the quest to the other players, I enjoyed watching my party develop. I even admired how the other players crafted their strategy on attacking the dungeon, too.

If you like dungeon dives and you like deck building, then Thunderstone Quest is certainly worth a look from you. Hit me up on social media @boardgamegumbo (on Facebook or Twitter) and let me know Thunderstone Quest hits the same sweet spot for you.

Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler.

–B.J.

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