Monday, March 7, 2011

Expansion Review - Thunderstone: Dragonspire


Once again, I'm handing over tonight's review to my favorite (read: only) guest reviewer - my dad. He likes Thunderstone, and I don't, so I sent him Dragonspire and he reviewed it for me. Saves me playing the game (which, as I mentioned, I don't like) and gets me out of writing a review. It's like a one-night vacation. So while I kick back and go to bed early, you can enjoy this in-depth look at the newest Thunderstone expansion. Give it up for my old man! And don't forget to tip your waitress.

Dragonspire Sets the Bar a Notch Higher

It’s just arrived! I’ve been waiting for this game for a few weeks now, and can hardly wait to open the box and see what’s inside. Actually writing this as I open it up! And here it is! Oh, yeah! Cool new cover artwork, though it looks like the dragon has four eyes – and it’s not wearing glasses. Um, a bit weird, but it’s the artist’s prerogative, I guess. No, hold on, I can’t get past this. This dragon is REALLY weird – it looks like a Chinese dragon instead of the standard Smaug-kind. Forked tongue coming out of the mouth, with a head that looks like a black widow. Dragons are cool for cover art, but . . . . Nuf’ said about the box. Let’s get past the shrink wrap and see what’s inside.

If you began the Thunderstone journey with the original game, then bought Wrath of the Elements, one of the first things you discovered was that your original rulebook didn’t fit in the new box even though everything else did, and you still needed the old rulebook. Enough people must have carped about it that AEG heard, and listened, because first thing you see when you open the box is the rule book, not just tossed in on top of the components, but it has its very own niche to lie in. OK, I’m getting over the Chinese-forked-tongue dragon, this is good. Flip through the rulebook and it looks well done – illustrations done exceptionally well. This is better.

Beneath the rules is the first Thunderstone gameboard. First impression – this is way too big. I can build my dungeon in a lot les space than this. The board that came in my game has a smear of, I guess, glue, or someone had a cold when they packed the box. At first I was a tad unhappy about this, then I remembered my son sent me the game gratis, so I can’t get too upset about small smears of glue, or whatever it is. I’ll get back to the gameboard when we discuss game play.

First packet of cards I pull out of the box has a new Thunderstone showing. Opened it up and found behind it ANOTHER Thunderstone. First one reads, “Gain 2 Victory Points for each other Thunderstone you have at the end of the game.” This is WAY cool – better and better! After the Thunderstones are the five basic cards you use in every game: the dagger, torch, iron rations, militia and disease. This is a good thought on AEG’s part, since those of you who are buying each installment of the game are probably finding that some of these cards are getting frayed. New art, too. Didn’t say it was GOOD art. Take for example the torch. I like the old torch MUCH more than the new one. There’s this green hand holding what looks kind of like burning seaweed, and behind it what kind of looks like a missile warhead. I had to ask my wife what she thought it is, and she thinks it’s a knight’s helmet. Guess so, but it could be the Tin Man. Think I’ll stick with the old torch. Then there’s the Iron Rations. The new card has especially good art. But it really, really, really looks like a still-life of a picnic lunch, including the cutlery. The old Iron Rations look like REAL iron rations – like Lembas or hardtack. Now THAT’s Iron Rations. Think I’ll stick to old here, as well. But then there’s the new Militia. SO MUCH better! While the old looks like a punk Conan, new guy looks like a real militia. BTW, the artwork looks like Richard Geer. This militia looks like a real bad-ass, but that’s a bit of a contradiction since he can’t even lift a real sword. Like the artwork, though.

I pull out the second packet of cards and see it’s the new randomizers. Not just the randomizers for Dragonspire, but for ALL Thunderstone games so far. AEG, you’re really rising in my estimation! I’d heard that the randomizers had different back-printing to differentiate them from the other cards, but not until just now did I realize that each category of randomizer is different from the others – monsters have their own backs, heroes their own, etc. This is huge! I just may buy some stock in AEG. I think that with the release of Dragonsipire, Thunderstone has “come into it’s own.”

The quality of Dragonspire is obviously a cut above what’s preceded it. I LOVE IT when a game series only increases in quality with each installment. I’m sure we all know of some game that, with each expansion, the quality seemed to decrease. (Avalon Hill often let me down in this regard.) But AEG has only shown greater concern for higher quality and game play. Dragonspire has set the standard a notch higher. It may yet satisfy those who have disdained Thunderstone because it wasn’t up to the standards of Dominion.

That said, we run into the inevitable comparison between Thunderstone and Dominion. I’ve read comments by Dominion fans who say some pretty nasty things about Thunderstone. Seems to me, the worst thing Thunderstone fans say about Dominion is that it lacks theme. Not too nasty, and oh-so-true, don’t ya’ think? For me, theme in any game is of essential importance. I readily admit, Dominion is a very good “game” and a slick product. I can enjoy it, and I agree the mechanics are smooth and well thought out. But then – it just keeps cropping up – it has no theme. There are moments when I feel Dominion has no soul. For my own personal analogy, I think of Dominion like wine tasting. A bunch of folks get together and sip wine holding their pinky fingers out, eat expensive cheeses and pretend they can pronounce French. In juxtaposition, Thunderstone is kind of like a cold beer just pulled out of the creek and a bratwurst cooked over the campfire on a stick. Wine tasting is certainly a viable hobby, but for me personally, I’ll take the campfire every time. And the same for a choice, for me, between Dominion and Thunderstone. Love the campfire, even if I get ashes on my bratwurst.

Well, I can’t describe every card as I pull them out, so let me give a run-down of those cards that deserve “honorable mention”.

New monsters: Eight new monsters. I really like the Bandit – these guys are TOUGH! You have to have 3 - 5 Heroes present to defeat them, so if they’re in the dungeon, you’d better stack your deck with a lot of Heroes. If you also happen to have the Giants in the dungeon, then you’re in definite trouble, because every time you fight one of them a Hero is gonna’ die. This would be a very difficult combination. The Hydra Dragons are also pretty tough. But let me add here, the artwork for the dragons is great (except for the Hydra, IMO) – they should have used the Wind Fury Dragon for the cover art. And if you like diseases in your deck, then you’ll especially love the Undead Plague. Yeah, it’s one of those cards that gives you a disease every time you fight one, and three cards that give EVERYONE a disease. Your friends will thank you for that.

New Heroes: There are eleven new heroes. The Chulian Rat makes for a more interactive game, since levels 2 and 3 require all the other players to discard a weapon. Kinda’ cool. And then there are the two Heroes we’ve heard about: the Phalanx and the Veteran. These two cards both introduce new concepts to Thunderstone. The Phalanx has only two levels, but as you get more in your hand they become exponentially stronger. The Veteran adds a fourth level, and these guys are strong in their own right, and get stronger if you have them feed another hero to the monster. I guess veterans are like that. But without a doubt, my favorite art of Drangonspire is the Hero Gorinth. This guy fulfills all the criticisms of those who claim Thunderstone has comic-book art, and validates all those who love comic-book art. This guy is AWESOME! He looks like one of the homeless guys here in Reno. The Amateur Gorinth isn’t all that special, but as his levels increase he becomes potent – you can discard a card and get magic attack equal to its gold. (Hmm, what if I discard a disease in the middle of the battle?) But what I most love about this guy is the art, and I like the Stoneguard Brute art as well.

New Village cards: The Burnt Offering – kind of like cheating the gods – destroy one card, even a disease, and draw an extra card for your next hand. Like getting to rest and work out at the same time. The Frost Giant Axe is great, attack +4, but you need a he-man to lift it. In fact, it would take three Richard Geers to pick it up. It offers the opportunity to help you find a guy strong enough to lift it. (Then watch the Veteran toss him to the monster – HA!) The Quartermaster is a powerful card when he shows up in either the village or the dungeon. You’ll want some of these guys in your deck. The Scout is pretty darn cool. You can pad your own deck, or lay boobytraps in the dungeon for the next player to enter. And I find the Guide to be an especially great help – lets you buy another card in the village, and carries Light +2 into the dungeon.

New Traps: Dragonspire traps are, well, “Draconic”. Man! These traps are nasty! If you want a challenging game, include these.

New Treasures: Also having to do with dragons, except these are all figurines. Some provide real help, while others are kind of ‘nyeh. (I played one game with them, but the treasure I wanted to get most, the Ivory Dragon, was stuck beneath the Thunderstone. That treasure can give you a HUGE amount of experience points.)

The last cards that need a comment are the “Settings”. These introduce an entirely new concept into Thunderstone. They basically move you to a different site with varying effects. For example, if you get sent to Feayn Swamp, there are no light penalties (swamps are sunny places). Actually, I’d like to see more Settings which are outdoors. Seems to me, giants inside dungeons would be very cramped. Well, nice feature that will provide even more variety for those who are getting a bit tired of the same old dank dungeons.

Let me end my foray through the box by mentioning the Experience Point tokens. I’m relieved to see them. I’m a very focused gamer and often find I forget about those EP cards lying on the table. These tokens stand out, besides being quite cool, and it’s a lot easier for me to remember to level up my Heroes. A nice addition, and one more indication of the upgrade in quality AEG has put into this game.

The box itself has the best arrangement for holding our expanding collection of Thunderstone cards thus far. This box now holds most the cards from the original Thunderstone, the two expansions, promos and the 500 cards from Dragonspire. But if you have everything thus far you won’t get them all in, so you’ll have to make some decisions about what to leave out. It’s been suggested that you keep the Radomizers out, but I like using them, so I want them in my box. But there are some cards I don’t personally care for, so they’ll have to sit in one of the previous boxes to make room for the ones I want for game play. WARNING: Don’t do what I did. I tried to fit ALL the cards in the box, just to see if they’d go, and I got most of them in. Unfortunately, the box was so tightly crammed I had a hell of a time getting them out.

The Rules: Because of the stupid mistakes in the rules to Doomgate Legion, I read these rules carefully. Again, AEG has taken notice and these rules are the best yet. There are a few punctuation errors, but nothing to throw you off the game (looking at the cover you might think there are only seven monsters, which includes the Elemental ● Fire Giant). And since this is supposed to be a stand-alone, they cover every detail of the basic rules with the few special rules that apply to this game. Very good job. For the uninitiated the rules for setup could be a bit confusing, but whereas the original rules had one paragraph on setting up the dungeon, Droagonspire has six paragraphs, which is necessary to explain dungeon features, Guardians, etc. At the end of the rules they’ve also added a variant for a cooperative game. (I haven’t tried it.) Funny thing about the rules, though – the gameboard isn’t mentioned in the rules at all. How weird is that?? Feels like the gameboard was an after-thought. Maybe explains the bugg, er, glue.

Game play: Ummm, if you’re a Thunderstone fan (and if you’ve read this far you must be) then you already know how it plays. Apart from the Settings, no huge new concepts. Not many light items, so you’ll really want to incorporate the other Thunderstone cards. The first game we played we had the Bandits in the dungeon, and after setting up, the Assassin was in Rank 1. The Assassin requires you to have 5 heroes in your hand to attack. OUCH! It took quite a while before we could clear her out. I was a bit disappointed with the Phalanx – inexpensive, but you need several of them to get the punch they offer. I tried out the gameboard just to be able to say something about it. My first impression of the gameboard was validated; it takes up a lot more space on the table than what I’m used to. Not only that, but it’s upside down. If you follow the rules setting up, then the dungeon deck is on the left, and Rank 1 is on the right – in which case the board is upside down. I used it in a game with a veteran gamer and his girlfriend, who is NOT a gamer, and they both liked it. (She did quite well, btw, coming in second and burying Chaz.) Personally, I don’t care for it, but I suspect many will appreciate it.

Dragonspire comes with the same number of monsters, heroes and village cards as the original game, so it’s a stand-alone in it’s own right, but for me, possibly because I’m spoiled with all the expansions, it feels a bit limited. But it does play well by itself; I know, because I played it twice with only the cards that came in the box – including the seaweed torch. If this is your first Thunderstone purchase and you like the game, you’ll want to buy all the preceding games as well.

Summary

Pros:
Some awesome art.
Upgrade in quality.
Great new concepts – especially the Settings.

Cons:
Some atrocious art.

I can’t think of any other negative aspects to Dragonspire. If you enjoy Thunderstone, you’ll be very pleased with this new addition.

OK, so let's say you just read my dad's review, and now you have two thoughts on your mind - you want this game, and you think Drake's Flames is good reading (go with me, it's a hypothetical). Well, do I have the answer for you - if you order this game from Noble Knight Games, you kill two birds with one stone! You get the game, and you support Drake's Flames. Here's a link for you:
A LINK FOR YOU

2 comments:

tinstoys said...

Thanks for another great review Mr. Drake!

Matt's found an excellent 'proxy' Thunderstone reviewer, to provide coverage for folks that like the game. Yea there are a lot fewer dick & handicapped jokes per column-inch, but it beats the heck out of Matt padding out a a negative review with humor. :P

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Matt's humor. I just also like TS, and enjoy a solid review on the merits. :D

accompagnatrici roma said...

So, I don't actually suppose this may have success.