Designers: Mike Elliott, Bryan Reese, Mark Wootton
Artists: Jason Engle, Matt Paquette, David Su
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
Year Published: 2018
If you have read any of my reviews over the past year, it is no big secret that I am a big fan of Deck Builders. However, it is just as likely that I have plenty of criticisms to offer for the genre as well (for an example, you may check out my reviews for Mage Knight and A Touch of Evil : Dark Gothic for some of the more recent games I have reviewed).
You may also have read another review from Thunderstone Quest in Issue #3 of Everything Board Games Magazine, where the review allotted a score of 6.8 out of 10 to it.
To the average reader, you might be thinking that this is quite a low score for such a prolific game, and that there must be some sort of mistake. For myself, being eternally reminded of grade school and high school grading systems, a score such as this would indeed be what I would consider to be a “Failing” grade.
But to be honest, I would personally feel inclined to score the game even lower than a 6.8, and probably rate it around a 6.5/10.
I know that it can sometimes seem that I gush superlatives over games that I review, so I do want to make it abundantly clear with this particular review that I absolutely do not think great things about every game that comes my way.
And I do feel the need to quantify the reasoning for the low grades Thunderstone Quest has received from EBG reviewers so far, as I am sure there are those who would like to know the justification for such a relatively abysmal rating.
But first let us start with what I think Thunderstone Quest did right :
—It tried to improve upon the original ideas of Dominion rather than being a strict copycat unlike other game developers.
—The production quality is among the best I have seen (more on this later).
And…well…that’s about it.
Now, unfortunately, the “improvements” wrought by AEG and basic Thunderstone basic (or any of its other later forms) that I thought would fix some of the issues I have with classic deck builders ended up being far less meaningful than I thought they would, and highlight the fact that what I once thought to be a rectifiable gaming issue for the series is in fact a much larger hemorrhage that cannot be patched up with a mere bandaid—the basic underlying systems require some overhauls of the entire engines they are built upon to be “fixed”.
But first, let us show a general evolution of some of these deck builders starting with Dominion.
Dominion – a great innovation in introducing the deck building mechanic that offered a fresh new idea. Gameplay was more isolated rather than interactive, and thematically sometimes felt like there was a disconnect between what cards pictured and the resulting actions/consequences they produced, in other words sometimes abstract. Wonderful art, tough.
Thunderstone : Made for a less abstract gameplay than Dominion. Wonderful art that tied into the theme well by introducing the concept of fighting monsters in addition to acquiring cards to achieve Victory Points. Could not only purchase new cards with “gold” but also fight monsters with strength/weapon damage resources on cards. You can go to “town” when buying cards, or to the “dungeon” when you want to fight.
Thunderstone Advance: Heroes gain levels and Experience. Players can also utilize resources such as “light” that is needed to (figuratively) go “deeper” into a dungeon (note : there is no need for board for movement, this is all in your imagination—going deeper only requires a certain level of light) and fight monsters with a minimum light requirement, in addition to needing a certain damage requirement to defeat.
Thunderstone Quest : In addition to the aforementioned features such as gaining experience, and leveling up heroes, there is now a new “movement” feature where you can directly traverse among six dungeon tiles with various debilitating effects on players (and now fight monsters directly on these tiles, too). There are new resources such as iron rations that can be traded for other resources. You have character boards with Hit Points and can also obtain health potions.
At an initial glance, all of these games probably seem great on paper. I know I was certainly attracted to the ideas as presented in Kickstarters and advertising.
The reality of my gaming experience with all of these games has unfortunately not lived up to my expectations, and for the following reasons : (note, this list is an excerpt from my Mage Knight review, which does NOT suffer from these afflictions!)
Thunderstone Quest :
1) Most cards feel too similar to others, with only marginal differences, leading to a sense of monotony.
2) Little player interaction —when I hear people deride these types of Deck Builders as “multiplayer solitaire games”, I must wholly agree with this designation.
3) Dominion initially felt like it needed some other mechanic such as fighting and movement to maintain my interest. Yet when these “features” were finally both implemented in Thunderstone and Thunderstone Quest, the games still felt stagnant, much to my surprise.
4) Cluttered decks and acquiring too many garbage cards.
5) The traditional use of large piles of identical cards in a central marketplace means that adding new types of extra cards means that you start accruing piles and piles of identical cards for each new card type—making for some intense space issues as you add more card varieties, since each “type” of accessible card usually comes in quantities of 10+.
Now I will state that throughout the years, the production quality of the Thunderquest product line has only gotten better. The art and components have always been making significant strides in improvement, and the box design for all of the newer Thunderstone Quest is extremely well-designed and does a far better job storing contents than say Gloomhaven. The card stock for Thunderstone Quest dungeon tiles is beautifully thick and a pleasure to handle and sort through. And it is quite a let down that all the excitement I get when looking through the dungeon tiles ends up amounting to nothing when it comes to what actually matters most : gameplay.
A while ago while browsing an online forum, I came across a rather interesting comment somewhat to the effect that “Kickstarters have become a contest among developers of seeing who can do the best job of polishing a turd.”
And I had to laugh, not because I find the statement to be universally true, but I do see applicability when it comes to big giants such as Thunderstone.
Mass marketing can really delude our sense of good judgement, and I do feel that I was foolish giving this game series so many chances over the past 10+ years. I was left feeling disappointed virtually after every new incarnation and expansion of Thunderstone—I have owned them all, and as of now have sold all of them other than Thunderstone Quest.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that you can “fight” monsters, and “move” in a “dungeon”, but by the end, I do not feel like I have really engaged in any of those actions—it does ultimately feel like a grindy point battle still for its competitive mode (I will discuss the To The Barricades cooperative expansion in just a bit).
What contributes most to my dissatisfaction is a primarily a result of a sense of stagnation that occurs by the time the game is over. Everything I did over the course of the game feels like I have just been needlessly doing the same thing over and over. Cards and their effects—though sporting vivid, illustrious design—all feel too similar to each other. A level 1 character does not feel distinct enough from a level 2 character, and a level 3 character feels to similar to a level 2 character card of the same name. Even when acquiring entirely different types of cards (weapons, artifacts, spells), it can nevertheless leave you with the feeling that somewhere in your pile of thousands of cards there is probably another card type that does close enough to the same thing as to make you feel the redundancy palpable.
And there are literally thousands of cards in Thunderstone : Quest alone, even without expansion material. I own it all and can testify that in my own experience, having more upon more content thrust upon me Kickstarter after miserable Kickstarter has not changed my impressions of the game for the better in the slightest. Nothing has made an improvement for the game. It has only procured more and more of the same thing without addressing my main gripe for “classic” deck builders in their being fundamentally boring when failing to deviate from their more archaic foundation and failing to evolve to address this pitfall.
Because playing Thunderstone Quest can be an exercise in endurance. It takes a long time to setup, takedown, and ultimately play—and playing is often where it is at its worst, taking 2-3 hours or more of the usual sorts of slogs that these types of games can bring.
Now in its favor, I will state that Thunderstone Quest did a great thing in eliminating the fact that monsters will clutter up your deck needlessly when defeated (as they did in Thunderstone original and Advance), but you will still need to plow your way through all those monsters and “dungeon” tiles , and now need to find 6 keys before taking on an ultimate boss.
And I suppose the boss fight could be exciting—were it not for the fact that in the spirit of being “fair” to all players in the game, every player gets a chance to beat the boss. And this is rather anticlimactic with this approach, because it really doesn’t make sense given that others can continue to pummel the Boss for more victory points even if another player already defeated it.
We did also try” To The Barricades cooperative expansion” from their second TQ Kickstarter, and while it did add a lot more cards (as all the expansions do). It ended up feeling bloated, obtuse, and tacked on. We forever avoided it after just 2 play throughs.
I also thought that the extra inclusion of “Epic” Thunderstone variant and cards would help alleviate some of the boredom I experience with this game. In a nutshell, for this particular variant, there are absolutely no duplicate cards allowed—given that the game has tons of card types available, the collection is so expansive you can actually get away with using only ONE of each card type in the Epic Thunderstone variant.
And the game still falls flat. In fact, the Epic variant makes it all the more transparent that everything feels samey when you can look at all the seemingly “different” cards in front of you at once and see that they really aren’t too distinct from each other.
And the so-called “narrative “ is a bland attempt to give players a sense of control and immersion. It offers no choices at all, and pretends to be driving a story , but in reality it is nothing more than filler text detailing specific dungeon setups. Absolutely nothing special.
It is a pity that Thunderstone Quest really failed to evolve into something that was much better than its original game was 10 years ago. I feel that the “improvements” have been only marginal at best, so while I might have originally given Thunderstone a 6.0, the fact that Thunderstone Quest only manages to sneak by with a 6.5 tells me that the more things “changed”, the more they stayed the same.
In fairness and conclusion, I will state that my wife does actually love Thunderstone Quest, and would rate it around an 8.5 out of 10. It is especially notable that she usually claims to abhor competitive games, but she can tolerate Thunderstone Quest much more since the fact that it is competitive is masked thoroughly by all the monster fighting you do—it distracts her enough to focus on the monsters rather than the ultimate goal of defeating me.
If you want shining examples of deck building games that managed to put quality of gameplay ahead of quantity of materials, please check out my recent reviews of Mage Knight and Dark Gothic : Colonial Horror. I will post more shining examples of good deck builders as able, but for now, these are the ones I have officially covered.
And if you disagree with my assessment, feel free to chat with me on the Everything Board Games forum, as I welcome any and all discussion of games I have covered!
To sum it all up in a few words: Thunderstone Quest doesn’t feel like a Quest!
Want a different perspective? See what another reviewer Bogue thought about Thunderstone Quest.
Jazz Paladin- Reviewer