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Subject: Session Report: Thornwatch Solo play with minimal party rss

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culix _
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When the Thornwatch Kickstarter was announced, I was hooked. Here was an easy pick-up-and-play tabletop RPG, that can introduce casual- and non-gamers to roleplaying and board games without any pressure. The art is gorgeous. The lore is fascinating. And the game mechanics are meant to avoid many of the slow or cumbersome parts of traditional Dungeons & Dragons games. Sounds like a blast.

I'd like to eventually write a full review of Thornwatch, but first I need to play the game. To start, here is a simple session report, along with some background on why I think this game is great. I've got several game sessions ahead to playtest Thornwatch, and can post more then.

I'm dividing this review into sections; feel free to skip around and only read what interests you.

Background: Why I'm Excited for Thornwatch

Amazing Art: It pulls you in and creates an engaging setting for the game.

Love the Lore: Penny Arcade's comic "The Tithe" is a beautiful, moving experience. I want to learn more about this world. Who are the Daughters? What does a 3,000 year old druid care about? What binds the Thornwatch to this summons? Do the Thornwatch have memories? Can someone become a new Thornwatch? What do corrupted Thornwatch look like when your summons goes awry?

Easy to Play: I ran through two scenarios in an hour! It's fast to pick up and learn, and hopefully helps introduce people to the wonder of roleplaying and tactical boardgames, without seeming like it's doing so They just get to have fun. And that's the whole point.

It's Like Nothing I've Seen Before: It's similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but with beautiful art and easier area tracking. Characters use card decks so it's easy to track and use abilities. The Momentum system for combining initiative and health is insightful and elegant. And the Wound mechanic makes character damage meaningful but not punishing.

(Side request: I'd love to read a Thornwatch review from someone who has played many hours of Descent and Mansions of Madness. How do they compare?)

Fascinating Mechanics: To me this is the most interesting part of the game. Mike K. / Gabe has mentioned that he created this game to address some of the pain points he felt while running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I've felt some of these too, and it's great to see how you might fix them and create a game that still feels like a fun dungeoncrawl with friends, yet with smoother edges.

Specifically, here are pain points I think this game addresses well:

Not every player can make it to a session: Thornwatch characters appear magically and are stateless - it's easy to pick up a game and at the end they disappear
Some people don't enjoy games with heavy preparation or 'homework': Thornwatch characters come from a pre-constructed deck; characters are stateless and already powerful
Some players have never roleplayed/are nervous/don't want to roleplay: Roleplaying is not required, but there are mechanics and flavor to introduce it gently and encourage it (Hero Dice and prompt text)
Players don't pay attention to the game: Some character skills activate based on what other players are doing; initiative is shuffled every round; amazing art to draw you in!
Players always take the same actions in-game/no thought or variety: character skills have to be powered and can't be used every turn
Players don't cooperate: Once an enemy is "on the edge", excess damage from that attack is ignored; players must work together to deliver a one-two punch to remove enemies from the board
High-level characters don't care about hit points: Wound cards don't kill you immediately but do restrict your options; players have an incentive to get rid of them so they can have more fun playing/more cards
If a character dies that player may stop having fun: with the Wounds system the entire Thornwatch either succeeds or fails together; no one is left out watching the action

Mike K. mentions another goal:

• "[I wanted to give] the Judge a more interesting role. Making their setup easy and giving them simple tools to create stories was important to me."

And Chad Brown calls out some other bonuses:

More varied character actions: "In most RPGs, the players should always use their biggest, most effective attacks as soon as possible -- the Alpha Strike. This creates repetitive play not just round to round but also scene to scene. In Thornwatch, the characters start with a full deck and an empty mat, and must build up their attacks over time, which means that each scene depends (tactically) not just on the map, terrain, monsters, and story board, but also on what cards the players have readied, powered, and how much."

More varied battle tactics: "In almost every RPG, the group should "focus fire" -- pick a target, everyone eliminate that target as quickly as possible, and only deviate from that target if forced. This is a fine tactic, but it gets old when it's the same tactic for every fight. Momentum shifts that around dramatically, making people adjust to the changes in the conflict each round."

No card hoarding: "Knowing what to save or recycle requires fairly deep system knowledge (and a crystal ball really helps). In early versions of the game, characters were limited to a maximum hand size, but they could choose to keep cards for future turns, or they could discard them or play/power them, in order to make room for other cards. At PAX South this year, we tried an alternative that forced characters to discard any cards they had left - no saving, use it or lose it. This simplified the rules, made it easier to learn, and it results in better gameplay. We had to adjust the game for it (originally, there wasn't a limit on how many action cards you could ready, so some people had 10+ cards readied but not powered, which was Not Good), but once we did, it was a big improvement to the game."

*Many* thanks to Mike and Chad for chiming in and answering my questions about mechanics! I really appreciate it.

Background: My Perspective / Bias

I've been playing and running Dungeons & Dragons campaigns for more than two decades, and worked for nearly a decade at a company that makes RPGs. I enjoy board games like Game of Thrones, Twilight Imperium, and Mansions of Madness. I own far more cubic feet of Warhammer 40k than a healthy person should. All this means I'm likely biased to overlook rules that should be simpler but I'm able to figure out. Adjust accordingly

I also backed the Thornwatch Kickstarter before running this play session, so I'm biased because I love the Thornwatch idea, mechanics, and world.

Game Rule Explanation - The Momentum System

Momentum cards - Art by Mike Krahulik
Image credit: Mike Selinker / Lone Shark Games

Thornwatch uses the "Momentum deck" to handle both turn order and monster health. Each hero and monster type has a Momentum card. At the start of each round the Judge shuffles all Momentum cards and deals them in a line. Characters then take turns acting in that order. This means characters and monsters may act in a different order each turn.

The Momentum system is also used to track relative monster health. Each time a monster receives damage, they move one slot down the Momentum track, closer to "the edge". Monsters can only be killed when they are on the edge and are dealt one final point of damage.

I love this. Combining initiative and health meant much faster and easier tracking, which sped up play. As the Judge I didn't need to bookkeep separate hit points for each monster. It's easy to see at a glance.

The Momentum system also leads to anticipation and surprises every round, as the party is forced to adjust their tactics to meet the new situation. It gives the party something to focus and cooperate on - rather than every hero going in their own direction and fighting a different monster, they need to work together and focus on damaging a monster to move it "on the edge", and then kill it.

Session Report

What I Ran: Thornwatch Print & Play

In September 2016 Thornwatch is still in Kickstarter mode. They have graciously provided a free print-and-play PDF you can use to try the game. I played using print-and-play version 0.7.

Prework: Printing and cutting

Armed with a color printer, paper trimmer, and hand scissors it took me about 90 minutes to print, slice, and trim all of the game pieces. Stacking multiple pages to slice all at once saved a lot of time. Thanks to the creators for aligning card edges!

The only drudging part was carving out the circular tokens. I'd recommend using glass beads or some other of token for the purple Ebb counters instead. I also glued the colored and numbered Objective markers back-to-back, and waited for them to dry.

Prework: Reading

I read all of the game rules and cards before I sat down to play. You shouldn't have to, but I'm enraptured very interested in this game. That may have helped me understand things more quickly. However, I discovered some big gaps during play - nothing exposes what you don't know like actually trying it!

Sidenote: Lovely descriptions + prompts for roleplaying

Each player begins with two Trait cards that add flavor to their character. Usually these are drawn randomly. I loved the flavor text provided on these cards:

"Angry. She had only been alive for five seconds. And already she was tired of it."
"Just. 'There is a right way', he said. 'And then, there is what you have done'."

These made me laugh and imagine some personality for the characters that would be fun to roleplay around the game table. Thornwatch also puts flavor text on each ability card, asking questions like "What does it look like when you attack an enemy so quickly?" or "How do you protect your ally?". This is a great way to introduce players to the idea of describing their actions and adding details to the game, without forcing them if they don't want to.

Thornwatch rewards players that add descriptions by granting them special Hero Dice which are more likely to succeed when rolled. This is a great mechanic. Hero Dice can be added to any player roll even after they see the results. That way players won't feel like they wasted a Hero Die if they spent it to no effect.

Session Overview

To begin I ran two scenes by myself, to learn the rules and get a feel for how I might run Thornwatch with other players. I played both the player hands and acted as the Judge, doing my best to act with the optimal strategy during each.

I ran with the minimum number of heroes - two - and selected the Guard and the Blade, to try a character combination I thought would work well together. I avoided selecting the Greenheart to see what the game was like without a healer. (If I run more solo sessions I'd like to try a Blade/Sage combination, to test not using a tank class, and a game with a Greenheart to see how big of a difference the healer makes).

I also avoided using any Hero Dice, to see if the game would be difficult without them. As a solo game, it's not fair to award myself points for great roleplaying And hopefully this would give a baseline for difficulty.

I played through both "Singer In The Dark" and "Silence The Swamp Choir" from the print-and-play PDF. This is basically the intro and boss encounter, with no adventure branching. "Singer" has innocent villagers that the players must protect or their mission fails. "Silence" has a Huge creature with multiple Momentum cards and big damage attacks that takes up more than one game area.

Game Setup

One of the first things I noticed is: this game takes a lot of table space! I have a small kitchen table, but the game map used most of it. This may be fine, as players don't need a lot of room for their cards and mat. Certainly less room than D&D character sheets, reference books, and dice. But this game isn't meant to be played on the bus

It took me 13 minutes to set up the game and Judge components for my first scene, and 5 minutes to set up both players. This seems not bad, as both could happen simultaneously, and it hopefully speeds up with experience.

In my first game I forgot to set up terrain cards, which the Judge can do to make the scene more difficult. I think the Judge mat would benefit by adding a breakdown of the game setup steps on the back (print the page 2-sided), as well as referencing the steps in the Judge setup rules. This can likely be fixed with some minor copyedits to the rulebook.

Scene One: The Singer In The Dark

All hungry things are in his thrall
he pipes, and beasts do heed his call

(Artwork by Mike Krahulik. Image credit: Mike Selinker / Lone Shark Games)

I set up the scene as described, shuffled the Momentum deck, and ran to completion. It was fun! The game was fairly easy to figure out - it took me 2-3 minutes to run each Hero turn. It took almost 5 minutes to run the first enemy turn, but felt faster after that.

The first scenario has a neat mechanic where the party must move to intercept enemy attacks and save innocent villagers before they're all killed. The enemies for this scene - Gliders - are fairly mobile, and it would be easy to focus on killing villagers or attacking the party.

The rules gave only two Glider enemies for this scene, but that was enough for them to move around the map and kill a Villager. It's interesting that enemies attacking NPCs (or "denizens") uses the same mechanic players use to kill enemies - first they must cooperate to put targets "on the edge" of the Momentum track, and then use a second attack to kill them. It makes for nice cooperative play as the Judge figures out how to use all of his enemies for the round.

Print-and-play note: it was sometimes difficult to slide the paper tokens on top of the paper map without losing them underneath. I'm guessing this would not be an issue in the final product.

In the end the Thornwatch won this scene after only a few turns. The Gliders were able to kill one villager before the heroes cooperated to kill both enemies. Some lucky Momentum draws let the heroes act first, and once they were in the same starting space as the Gliders a few attacks were all they needed.

It took 32 minutes to play out this scene, 13 of which was setup. That's nice and fast for a short game session.

Player skills seemed interesting - there was variety where e.g. the Blade could draw extra cards have more options for play, and move around the field damaging enemies. I'd like to play a longer session with more characters (and real players) to see the character skills more in more depth.

Scene One Summary: Heroes win, 13 minutes setup, 19 minutes to play.

Scene Two: Silence The Swamp Choir

This time I remembered to add terrain cards, and they seemed to make a big difference! I added 5, one less than allowed, and they helped to shape the battle. Some terrain cards cost ebb, which forces the Judge to spend their game currency. Others grant ebb but give bonuses to the players if they spend their turn in that area. This felt like there was strategy and depth to placing terrain cards - putting them in the right spaces to influence the adventure and force players to make decisions.

For example: One card grants the Judge extra ebb every round, but the players can spend actions to stop it. On the villager map I would have put this far away from the villagers, forcing the players to decide: do I save villagers, or stop the Judge's long-term mana? On the Choir map I put this terrain behind the boss, encouraging the players to move in his direction, so he could start killing them sooner.

It took me 12 minutes to set up this scene, and 17 minutes to play all turns. This felt very quick. Basically the boss monster advanced, activated an Ebb buff to become powerful, and dealt a TON of damage. With two players the Wound deck contained 20 cards. With three Momentum cards (out of six) the boss enjoyed three turns per round, and was able to quickly hand out Wounds.

In this scene the Guard advanced to take on the boss, and was able to damage it but not survive Wounds. The Blade moved quickly around most of the map and dealt damage as well, but not enough to kill the boss before the Guard fell.

In this scene the heroes really felt the pain of not having a healer, and of only having two players. Had there been more targets to absorb Wounds, or something to stave off Wound cards, I felt the party would have stood a much better chance. Perhaps they needed to use a different strategy of picking off side enemies before tackling the boss, so they could better control the Momentum track.

Scene Two Summary: Monsters win, 12 minutes setup, 17 minutes to play.


Things I Liked

Setup was quick; turns were fast

The game flow moving from turn to turn seemed fast and easy

I didn't have to reference the rules much (and with a few copyedits I bet this could be cut near to zero)

The Momentum card art is *really* pretty, and having it close by was fun. The poor players may not always see this if they're not sitting close to the Judge (perhaps a player could track Momentum order).

Using large game areas made tracking player and monster movement easy and fast. It was nice to avoid small grids. I felt the areas still gave me some interesting tactical choice while not feeling overwhelming.

Area art is really nice, even in the print-and-play. It really feels like playing in a comic book (the terrain cards are like narrator captions!).

Even when the battle looked grim I still felt like the characters could kick ass and have a chance at winning. Having the Blade dance around the battlefield, roll lots of dice, and dish out damage with Trail Of Blood was quite satisfying. Cards that also let you take an extra action lead to a lot of great play.

Good variety of adventures and goals. You have a protection mission, a 'find the objective' mission, and a boss mission. This is a nice overview of game mechanics.

Good variety of monsters. You have a pack enemy with one Momentum card but multiple pawns on the board, and a boss enemy with one pawn but multiple Momentum cards. This gives a good overview of different tactics the party may have to use to take down each type of enemy - learning how and where to focus their attacks and how to coordinate.

It seems easy and fast to create new scenes and adventures. Place some tiles in a shape, choose the mechanics for that scene, and pick some enemy types. You're ready to rock! It feels easy to create or adapt scenes on the fly to make the game interesting and provide more play if the group wants it.

Interesting and fun game mechanics. I enjoyed playing a character that was a deck of cards. Powering and using abilities is elegant. Allowing four powered abilities feels like the right size - enough to have variety, not too many to remember.

Wounds are important, but not overwhelming. Being dealt too many wounds directly impacts your options, which makes you care when you get them. But you still get to play and have fun.

There were interesting choices and tactics for using Judge terrain cards. I didn't always want to buy all of them, but could see situations where they would be useful. One card grants the Judge extra ebb every round, but the players can spend actions to stop it. On the villager map I would have put this far away from the villagers - the players then have to decide: do I save villagers right now, or stop the Judge's long-term mana? On the Choir map I put this behind the boss, encouraging the players to move in his direction.

Things I Didn't Like

• Some of the rules seemed unclear. Does the Judge draw from Ebb Well terrain on the first turn, or only after that? Can the Guard move Huge creatures with their Lure skill? Huge creatures take up two spaces - can they go to *any* adjacent area when moving? Does each 1 "success" from player damage move an enemy 1 space closer to the Momentum edge, or is it 1 space per attack? The Judge and players take turns moving Villager tokens around the map, but do they *have* to move a Villager?

I may just have to read through the rules again.

Suggestions For Improvement

A few copyedits to the setup, player mat, and Judge mat would help a lot:

• The backside of the Judge mat should contain a numbered list of steps for game setup, including placing terrain cards.

• The front of the Judge mat should list game turn order - e.g. start turn, shuffle and resolve Momentum, etc. This would help to remember all steps during play. It should also list the actions that monsters can take during their turns, even if that's only "Move" and "Attack".

If you're going to run the print-and-play, try sleeving your cards! I want to try this and see if it makes play easier.

Open Questions / Concerns

• Will new players be able to figure out how to coordinate to knock enemies to the Momentum track edge and then kill them? Will they still enjoy playing if it takes them a long time to learn?

• Some discussions I've read about Thornwatch express dissatisfaction with the Momentum system, and how player progress "resets" every turn. I really like the Momentum system, but I can see how this could be an issue.

What I Can't Judge Yet

• Healers

• Actual players

• Non-wargamers

• I do not feel this gave me insight into class balance (i.e. are any of the Thornwatch classes more powerful than others). I'd need to play many more games.

• I like the idea of every class having a skill that can only be activated during other player's turns. I didn't get to use this during play, so I'm interested to see how it pans out.


Should you try the print-and-play?

Yes. It's fun! Be warned you'll have to spend time on cutting and setup.

Should you buy Thornwatch?

You should get this game if:

• You have friends who don't like D&D, character sheets, or heavy roleplaying, but you enjoy gaming with them anyway
• You want an easy and fast game that makes a good story later
• You like introducing new, shy, or casual gamers to roleplaying or tactical games
• You enjoy creating your own enemy types, skill cards, map rules, objectives, or mechanics to make something new
• You like any game if it has great art

You should not get this game if:

• You don't like cooperative games (or maybe only play as the Judge?)
• You hate coordinating with other players (e.g. to focus on an enemy and eliminate them)
• You hate the idea of "resetting progress" if you damage an enemy but it doesn't die that round

My Rating

9/10. Lots of fun, easy to pick up, great art, good mechanics. There is lots of replayability as you try out different party combinations, character decks, scene goals, scene mechanics, and monster types. Can't wait to play more.

Thanks for reading!


Edit: Added game version: 0.7; added explanation/impression of Momentum system; inserted some images inline; added image credits
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Mike Selinker
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culix wrote:
Some of the rules seemed unclear. Does the Judge draw from Ebb Well terrain on the first turn, or only after that? Can the Guard move Huge creatures with their Lure skill? Huge creatures take up two spaces - can they go to *any* adjacent area when moving? Does each 1 "success" from player damage move an enemy 1 space closer to the Momentum edge, or is it 1 space per attack? The Judge and players take turns moving Villager tokens around the map, but do they *have* to move a Villager?

These are all good questions. Here are some answers.
1. The Judge can draw from it on the first turn.
2. The Guard can do so, but must follow the rules of Huge and move 1.
3. They can go to any space that touches either of the spaces it is in.
4. Each success. You can knock an enemy from the root to the edge in one swing with a particularly potent attack.
5. Either can say "this Villager pawn's movement is 'stay right here'," and then that Villager can't be moved again that turn.

Hope that helps!

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culix _
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Hi Mike - thank you very much for the answers! This is great

These mechanics work pretty much how I expected, so that's good news. I'll keep this in mind during future sessions.
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Mike Selinker
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culix wrote:
Hi Mike - thank you very much for the answers! This is great

These mechanics work pretty much how I expected, so that's good news. I'll keep this in mind during future sessions.

Happy to help!
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