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Subject: Initial Impressions: Love it. Lots of fun, great mechanics, tons of potential rss

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culix _
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Thornwatch is a fun game that's fast and easy to pick up and play, and easy to customize.

Normally I would wait to have more hours with this game - so far I've played three sessions. But I think it's worth sharing some initial impressions so people don't miss out on a fun game. Once I've had more experience (and as the game approaches its final design) I would be happy to post another review.

Background: Why I'm Excited for Thornwatch

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.

Here are a few reasons why I like 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: With the minimum party of 2 heroes and solo play I ran through two scenarios in an hour! With a group of 5 new players we completed a scene in 90 minutes. 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.

So far during play I found the idea that enemies might 'reset' their Momentum encouraged players to work together to kill enemies. For example, the Blade would check with others about what and where they could attack, and coordinate Feints (attacking on another player's turn) and Backstabs (extra dice when attacking around allies). Players would also choose to use more powerful attacks to kill off enemies once they were on the edge.

First Impressions


A Blade and a Guard take on The Swamp Choir


So far I've run three sessions: one solo where I played the party and the Judge, and two sessions with other players. All of them were fun. The game never took longer than 15 minutes to set up, and we were able to play games in the 60-90 minute range. This kept people interested.

Things I Liked

Setup was quick; turns were fast. I really like that 2/3 of the scene setup page is art and flavor text. This really helps to set the mood and adventure. It gives you a great way to begin. It also means the rules are only 1/3 of a half-sized page, so they're small and easy to reference and set up. That makes the game nice and 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. Thankfully the designers have been very responsive both here and over email about answering questions and updating the rules. So many thanks! I think with a few copyedits this could easily be fixed.

• Sadly, both the Briarlock and the Greenheart players I ran had a difficult time understanding how to use their abilities when the party had no wounds. This could easily have been because they were both new players. If I ran an intro session again, however, I would make sure to deal at least a few wounds right away, to help players understand the mechanics and so these classes had something important to do.

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".

Things I Can't Judge Yet

• Healers (need more experience)
• Hardcore tactical players (this would be a lot of fun)
• Class balance (i.e. are any of the Thornwatch classes more powerful than others)

Summary

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: Clarify playtimes (30 minutes for 2 heroes and solo play; 90 minutes for a full party of new players)
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Paul Glickman
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The fact that the only person defending this game is a new user from 3 days ago is somewhat troubling to me.
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Anthony Edwards
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culix wrote:
Thornwatch is a fun game that's fast and easy to pick up and play, and easy to customize.

Easy to Play: I ran through two scenarios in an hour!...


For me this would be the clearest indicator of a game without any substance. Thank you for mentioning this.
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Evgeni Marinov
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Paul G wrote:
The fact that the only person defending this game is a new user from 3 days ago is somewhat troubling to me.


Yeah, but does it really need "defending"? It has 4000 backers...
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Nathan Johnson
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Wow, this game can't catch a break

The designer (Mike) was at Mox in Bellevue WA on Sunday demoing the game. Ok, he wasn't demoing but there were people there demoing the game, he was more observing and answering questions. The game room was packed and they had 5-6 demos going at any given time. Interest seemed high and the feedback seemed mostly positive.

I happened to get a chance to play and agree with almost everything this 'review' says. Whether this is a legit review or not, not sure. However, I feel pretty close to the opinions/observations of the reviewer.

Good game overall--believe it or not, I like it better than Mansions of Madness for what its worth.

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Ryan
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I just ran this on Saturday as the Judge - had a blast!

Players
My daughter (12)played the Sage no RP experience at all
Friend's daughter (13) played the Greenheart - solid RP experience, plays D&D.
Nick (friend, 36) played the Warden - years of rpg's.
Keri (friend, 32) played the Guard - years of rpg's.

Everyone picked up the rules/roles pretty quickly. Traits were handed out and explained and then everyone did a good job of using them throughout the adventure.

Setup was quick, easy and we moved through fairly quickly. I took a little longer on my turns, but players moved fast readying actions, powering them and then selecting an action. The adults did not dominate tactics and everyone worked well together to complete the objectives.

Everyone said they would definitely play again.
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Sean Franco
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culix wrote:
Sadly, both the Briarlock and the Greenheart players I ran had a difficult time understanding how to use their abilities when the party had no wounds. This could easily have been because they were both new players. If I ran an intro session again, however, I would make sure to deal at least a few wounds right away, to help players understand the mechanics and so these classes had something important to do.

I hope this would be a first game only thing. I have no desires to help other players when playing a competitive game, especially a team competitive game.
 
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Lance McMillan
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Nostromos wrote:
Wow, this game can't catch a break.


I've read up about this game and am definitely interested, but there's been so much negative feedback that I'm reluctant to pull the KS trigger. My gut instinct tells me that it's a clever concept that hasn't quite acheived its full potential due to insufficient development and testing, but it's hard to say for sure. Now a couple "reviews" by a brand new BGG user further muddy the waters by making me wonder if the publisher (or his friends) aren't trying to generate faux hype to increase KS subscriptions.

Yeah, there's definitely something odd going on...
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culix _
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logopolys wrote:
I hope [understanding abilities] would be a first game only thing. I have no desires to help other players when playing a competitive game, especially a team competitive game.


Hey Sean, yeah I hope so too. I moved recently and had to leave my gaming group behind, but I'd be very interested to try this with a more experienced group. If anyone has session reports I'd love to read them
 
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culix _
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Yes, I am a new user. Please do not assume the worst about me just because I haven't used this site before

I read about Thornwatch on Penny Arcade, and saw the Kickstarter. In the comments someone said "hey I have questions because this game doesn't have much info on Board Game Geek. That's the place to discuss games". So I thought "Oh, cool - a place to talk about the game with other people who are also interested!".

I'm excited for this game. I think it is cool. I just came here to talk about a game I like with other people who also like that game.
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Niall Smyth
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Paul G wrote:
The fact that the only person defending this game is a new user from 3 days ago is somewhat troubling to me.


This tremendously unfriendly, unwelcoming comment is somewhat troubling to *me*.
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James J

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poshniallo wrote:
Paul G wrote:
The fact that the only person defending this game is a new user from 3 days ago is somewhat troubling to me.


This tremendously unfriendly, unwelcoming comment is somewhat troubling to *me*.


Nah. The only objectionable part is the "only person defending" bit. There are a few positive threads. There are also some critical threads. Nobody is alone on either end of the spectrum.

However, it's part of plain old due diligence to note that the three most glowing review threads are all posted by the same user who joined specifically to make those threads. But as culix said, he (or she) noticed there was a dearth of chatter here and joined to add some personal observations. Both possibilities (shill and excited player) are just about as reasonable. If I hadn't noticed it myself, I would have appreciated someone pointing that out to me.

I really wanted to back this one, but it just isn't grabbing me. I'll definitely be watching it when it comes out. I'm a big fan of Mike and Jerry's work, and they are both swell gents. I even considered backing it just to get the pin for a friend who is crazy about trading them, but $50 extra for a single pin was ludicrous. Even if it is a relatively small run. (And while it may not be a fair comparison, it's hard not to look at Mechs vs Minions--another board game passion project from a company that is also not strapped for cash--and wonder why Thornwatch couldn't deliver at a better price point.)
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culix _
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trayl wrote:
culix wrote:
Thornwatch is a fun game that's fast and easy to pick up and play, and easy to customize.

Easy to Play: I ran through two scenarios in an hour!...


For me this would be the clearest indicator of a game without any substance. Thank you for mentioning this.


Hey Anthony, np. For full context - the 30 minute game was me playing by myself as both the heroes and the Judge. The 90 minute session was me playing with 5 new players. I can update to mention that if that helps.
 
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culix _
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@Nostromos and @tthorn23 - thanks for sharing I'm glad to hear if other people are liking it too.
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