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Subject: Thunderstone: A good attempt, but not quite there rss

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David Bell
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Thunderstone, by Mike Elliott of AEG, is basically the hack and slash version of Dominion. Both Dominion and Thunderstone revolve around starting with a small deck of weak cards, using those cards to add better cards to your deck, and gradually improving your deck until you can start collecting victory points. While Dominion took this idea and made a game with very tight mechanics and a very loose theme, Thunderstone... well, they went a different direction. It would be easy to go down the line and compare every aspect of Thunderstone to Dominion, but that wouldn't be entirely fair. More importantly, it would be kind of boring, so I'll try to resist.

The basic turn of Thunderstone is simple enough. At the start of your game, you draw 6 cards of your starting deck of 12. Each turn, you play your cards, then discard everything, draw a new hand of 6, and wait for your next turn. During your turn, you can do either go shopping in the village, go fighting in the dungeon, or rest.

Resting just lets you remove a single card from your deck at the cost of your turn. Done.

If you go shopping, you lay out your cards, play any village effects that those cards might have, then you total up the cash value of all the cards you've played and buy one card that costs up to that much. Then, if you have any heroes in your hand, you can spend XP you earned in the dungeon to level them up. Then you're done. The cards you can buy are things like heroes, weapons, spells, and the occasional card that helps when shopping. The selection of cards is random each game, and never changes over the course of the game.

In addition to its normal function, each card can have a gold value from 0 to 3 that you use when purchasing. This means that you have to balance your purchases. Too many cards that don't have a gold value in your deck, and you can't purchase good stuff. However, there's not really a relationship between cards that are good for fighting being bad for purchasing. Some of the best weapons provide good income, while the only attack spell provides no income. Heroes, the most important cards for entering the dungeon, are almost never worth income, except for thieves. The overall effect is that the deck-building portion of the game feels muddied. There are two stages to building your deck, sort of; building the economic strength to buy the good cards, and buying the good cards to be able to take on the dungeon. But the unclear distinction between economic cards and combat cards just makes that all seem a little clumsy.

During the dungeon step, you lay out your hand of cards, assign any weapon cards to hero cards, use any dungeon powers to prepare yourself, then choose one of the three monsters to fight. The 3 monsters are in a line, representing how deep in the dungeon they are. The deeper they are, the darker the room is, which provides a penalty to the combat that can be offset by bringing light. The light mechanic is actually pretty nifty, and I wish they'd done more with it. It adds an extra variable to the combat that you have to consider, since light is an easy bonus to obtain, but any extra light beyond what you need to counter the penalty gives no bonus. [*]

Like the village cards, not all the monsters are available in every game. The monsters are divided by type into 8 decks, humanoids, dragons, oozes, etc. Only three decks are shuffled together in each game to make the dungeon deck, so you know ahead of time what monsters will be showing up. This mostly works well; it lets you know what situations you'll have to prepare for, which I like.

Once you've chosen a target, the monster performs its battle ability, and then you either win or lose. There's no randomness here, so in 99% of the situations in the game, you'll only choose a combat that's a forgone conclusion and there will be no surprise. There's also no way for other players to interfere with your combat, for better or worse. If you win, the monster is added to your discard pile where it is worth victory points, and you also claim the XP value of the card. If you lose, the monster simply goes to the bottom of the deck. Either way, the dungeon gets a new monster, so there's always three to choose from. The lack of randomness makes combat a little unsatisfying to me. There's no element of risk, no way to go for the long odds against a tough foe if you're behind, no way for a weak foe to have a surprise upset against a complacent player. Basically, it just comes down to meet-the-requirement-collect-the-reward.

The game ends when the Thunderstone leaves the dungeon. One of the cards in the bottom 1/3 of the dungeon deck is the Thunderstone. It can't be captured directly; to claim it you have to defeat the monster in the depth 1 slot when the Thunderstone is in the depth 2 slot. If the Thunderstone moves to the depth 1 slot for any other reason, the game simply ends with no one claiming it. Either way, whoever has the most victory points printed on cards in their deck wins.

So, how good is the game? Well, it's fun but it's also very, very flawed. Maybe even fundamentally so. My overall impression is that the game designers have played a lot of games (Dominion in particular) but have never actually studied game design, or even just looked at games from the perspective of what is and is not good design. It comes across as a very amateurish game with professional production quality.

For instance, the rules are just full of inconsistencies and confusions. The rulebook has been rewritten twice and still isn't quite right. Not even obscure things, either. It's all stuff that should have come up in playtesting. In some cases, the new rules actually contradict the cards. A simple note that the change is an errata would suffice, but the reading leaves the strange impression that the rules writer thinks the card says something different than it actually says.

Also, the endgame condition is, well, terrible. The Thunderstone itself only provides a small score boost, but it quickly becomes obvious that it's just random who will benefit from it. The random nature of the dungeon deck means that there's no buildup of weak monsters to strong monsters, so there's no last big challenge to claim the MacGuffin. The game ends with a whimper.

Thunderstone's attempts to do what Dominion did right backfire in the village. Simply put, there aren't enough different kinds of cards, and the distribution that does exist is strange in some ways. There's only one attack spell, and it's the most expensive non-hero card in the game. There are three different kinds of light source, one of which is guaranteed in every game. There are two different archery-themed heroes, but no bows. Worst, the cards that are available to purchase at the start of the game are all that will ever be available. Going into the dungeon and killing the dragon will never net you an awesome unique sword or magic bauble. It's an RPG with no loot mechanic.

(Actually, sometimes you get spoils from defeating a monster, but that just lets you buy an item. Your cards still have to have a high enough gold value. This is less like collecting exciting loot, and more like making it back to town before the store closes.)

There are things that I do really like. The hero levelling mechanic is fun, and provides a much needed way to interfere with other players by getting to the heroes they need before they can. The darkness mechanic is interesting, as I mentioned, and it does let them pull off a few neat interactions. Even the flaws I mentioned aren't really deal breakers. They're not the sort of thing that makes me stuff a game back in the box and leave it on the shelf to collect dust. However, I can't quite recommend it as a purchase. In my case, my FLGS owner opened it up as a store copy, and from my point of view 'free' is the perfect entry fee to this game.

As a final note, I think that there is a really good game hiding here somewhere. I know that AEG intends to release an expansion, and if they take that chance to really shore up the deficiencies of the game instead of just aimlessly adding more of the same, then I might change my recommendation. But for now: get someone else to buy the game and play their copy.

[*]: Apparently, in Thunderstone Land light is just the absence of darkness. Your penalty due to darkness can be arbitrarily high; there's no rule limiting how dark it can get. However, you can only add light until the darkness level is at 0, after that there's no more darkness to take away.
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Mike Elliott
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Chipacabra wrote:
Thunderstone, by Mike Elliot of AEG,

So, how good is the game? Well, it's fun but it's also very, very flawed. Maybe even fundamentally so. My overall impression is that the game designers have played a lot of games (Dominion in particular) but have never actually studied game design, or even just looked at games from the perspective of what is and is not good design. It comes across as a very amateurish game with professional production quality.



David,

Nice articulation of your issues. I encourage everyone to speak their mind fully whether it is glowing praise or harsh criticism. Regardless what you think of this particular game, however, if you are going to make an Ad Hominum attack by calling me an amateur, I would ask that you please do a little more research, and perhaps spell my name correctly also.

I could elaborate on my lack of experience in my 15 years in the industry, but I would just recommend you (and anyone else interested) go over and read the designer notes on Boardgamenews, which are linked at the bottom of the Thunderstone page and explain many of the various decisions in the game design.

-Mike Elliott
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Tommy Occhipinti
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Were I to write a review of Thunderstone, this is pretty much what it would say to the letter. Nice job. I too am holding out hope that the expansion will address these concerns.
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Garyp
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Yep - what David said goes for me also.

Good review that explains the issues very well - at least as far as my experience of playing the game goes. Thunderstone looks beautiful but has stopped at deck building whereas Dominion has deck building and deck engine building (get more actions, to draw more cards, to get more buys, and get more gold, to obtain the top ranked prize)

Some things that might be considered:

The monsters have some variability in their attack value to add some risk to the dungeon phase - maybe a weapon/skill/effect deck for the monsters to draw on that varies the stats of the monsters from the ones seen by everyone before they look at their hand, add up their factors and then decide to enter the dungeon or go shopping

Special weapons/skills/items available only by defeating the monsters (nice suggestion David!)

More cards that drive the deck engine - drawing/discarding cards, cards that allow using cards multiple times, cards that negate/enhance an attack

I would also like to see Heroes increase in levels only by gaining experience in the dungoen - so remove them from the village and make them a seperate pile of cards with cards of each level of each hero equally available to each player - you just need to get the experience to advance. Perhaps if you die in the dungoen you drop back a level and lose some cards from your deck as a penalty. Level one, or even Militia, would be the starting point for each player.

I will still play Thunderstone and do not regret my purchase - the production values are very good - it is a good game but could be so much better.




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Maciej Teległow
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First: I cannot see any flaws in design. There are things I do not love Thunderstone but I see them as designers decisions not mindless flaws.

Second: There are too little difference in village cards to buy from. I cannot see it also. There are a lot of different opportunities. You can destroy cards for exp., for money, you can have more cards, buys and there are a lot of dungeon cards to choose from. There are a lot of weapons, thats true, but i cannot see a single card which would never be bought as it is (in my group) in Dominion. We play Thundesrtone from Essen very reguralry and our perception for many cards changed few times. Like in Dominion there are cards doing more less the same but one is stronger and more expensive and the other is weaker and cheaper (lightstone gem and lantern for example). I want more attack spells off course but i want more of everything

Third: No deck engine. Maybe for some of you this a designer mistake or flaw of the game, for me it is one of the best thing comparing Thunderstone and Dominion. No looking at my friend going through all his deck and buying village after 10 minutes of drawing and shuffling cards is very awaited and refreshing change for me.

Fourth: Monsters and their randomness is something which i like more and more with every play. It make some risk strategies valuable and you have to be ready from the start that the big bad monster would be there.

Overall i cannot see the game flawed. Personally I love it and wait for expansions to make the game even more interesting.
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Dane Barrett
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Chipacabra wrote:
But for now: get someone else to buy the game and play their copy.


Even the bad reviews for Thunderstone are still suggesting you play the game
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James Cartwright
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I'm so fed up of reading review after review comparing Thunderstone to Dominion. It's like reading a review of cheese, in which it says this new cheese isn't like the very first cheese that was made because of blah, blah..blah.

Most reviews seem to be either picking fault with the rules or picking fault with the game design.

I for one thing Thunderstone is an excellent game, quick to set up and easy to play if a little common sense is used.

I think the theme is great and the artwork is fantastic.

I remember when Dominion first came out, I took one look and thought hmmmm 500 cards for £35 no theme and no solo rules option, don't think I be buying that anytime soon.

So, far from being a 'good attempt' I think Thundetstone blows Dominion right out of the water

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Robert Hill
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I have to say that I am one of the very few who feel that Thunderstone is MUCH better than Dominion.
Just my opinion.
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Ian Walker
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My benchmark of a good game is that I enjoy playing it and so far I am enjoying Thunderstone. Congratulations to the designer(s).

We managed two games on Friday night and everyone had a great time playing in a game which for us had a new mechanism. We've never played Dominion as we are a 5 player group and up to now I haven't fancied forking out for copy of the base game and an expansion just so we can all play.

Sure, in our game of Thunderstone on Friday there were a few rules queries but nothing that spoiled it for us. Version 1.3 of the rules will hopefully clear some of these up and I'm very pleased that the designer(s) are in here supporting the game for us.

My Thunderstone experience might even tempt me into buying Dominion
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Evan Stegman
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Chipacabra wrote:
... The lack of randomness makes combat a little unsatisfying to me. There's no element of risk, no way to go for the long odds against a tough foe if you're behind, no way for a weak foe to have a surprise upset against a complacent player. Basically, it just comes down to meet-the-requirement-collect-the-reward.
...


Sounds just like Dominion. Disregarding theme, do you think Dominion as a game would be improved if there was some randomness to whether you got a province card instead of just 'do I have enough to buy it'?

One of the reasons I am pretty luke-warm about Dominion is that once you have your deck going, your hands pretty much play themselves: if you enough to buy a province card, that's what you do.

While Thunderstone is somewhat similar, at least the calculation is more complex than just adding up how much money you have.
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AxonDomini
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garypgary wrote:
Yep - what David said goes for me also.

Good review that explains the issues very well - at least as far as my experience of playing the game goes. Thunderstone looks beautiful but has stopped at deck building whereas Dominion has deck building and deck engine building (get more actions, to draw more cards, to get more buys, and get more gold, to obtain the top ranked prize)


Why does a deck building game also need deck engine building? It sounds to me like Thunderstone just took a different approach, not an inherently inferior one. Rather than taking an engine building approach where the cards you buy allow you to buy bigger and better cards, Thunderstone sounds like it has some more decision making beyond what you buy. Do you go to the village (buy more cards) or do you go to the dungeon (get VP's)? Or do you rest, gaining nothing but trimming down your deck? In Dominion it's possible to do all three with the right combination of cards. Also, it sounds like Thunderstone's multi-purpose cards make deciding which cards to acquire a more involved decision.

I don't think either approach is better or worse. In fact, I'm GLAD Thunderstone took a very different approach. It only serves to increase the gaming experiences you can have with the "in game deckbuilding" mechanic.
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Marc-Andre Blanchet
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Rindel wrote:
Most reviews seem to be either picking fault with the rules or picking fault with the game design.


Most reviews seem to be picking faults with the game's faults.
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James Cartwright
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True, but I think in this case alot of reviews are finding faults where there are none. Also reviews are finding fault with the game because it is or isn't like Dominion.
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AxonDomini
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Rindel wrote:
True, but I think in this case alot of reviews are finding faults where there are none. Also reviews are finding fault with the game because it is or isn't like Dominion.


I haven't played Thunderstone yet, but it does seem that a lot of the "flaws" people are finding are, in fact, design decisions. That doesn't mean people should like those decisions, but they should understand that it's more a matter of personal taste than an actual flaw. Things like no randomness in battling monsters, no bows for amazons and the endgame condition all fall in this category. Nothing in the review made me think the game is "fundamentally flawed".
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Kuba Kosicki
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Chipacabra wrote:

So, how good is the game? Well, it's fun but it's also very, very flawed. Maybe even fundamentally so. My overall impression is that the game designers have played a lot of games (Dominion in particular) but have never actually studied game design, or even just looked at games from the perspective of what is and is not good design. It comes across as a very amateurish game with professional production quality.


It's very unfair opinion about designers of the Thunderstone. An amateruish game means for me that game engine is a bit broken, there are good elements (even from other games) but they don't work well with each other and due to this fact satisfying playing is impossible. Certainly not everything in the Thunderstone is perfect but you can't say there's something wrong with overall engine.

Quote:
For instance, the rules are just full of inconsistencies and confusions. The rulebook has been rewritten twice and still isn't quite right. Not even obscure things, either. It's all stuff that should have come up in playtesting. In some cases, the new rules actually contradict the cards. A simple note that the change is an errata would suffice, but the reading leaves the strange impression that the rules writer thinks the card says something different than it actually says.


I agree rulebook was written without good playtasting and should have been done better. But what I find really impresive is that AEG after all complaints did new one, much better for those people who had problems with interpretation of some rules. And could you give some examples where you find dissonance between cards and new rules?


Quote:
Thunderstone's attempts to do what Dominion did right backfire in the village. Simply put, there aren't enough different kinds of cards, and the distribution that does exist is strange in some ways. There's only one attack spell, and it's the most expensive non-hero card in the game. There are three different kinds of light source, one of which is guaranteed in every game. There are two different archery-themed heroes, but no bows. Worst, the cards that are available to purchase at the start of the game are all that will ever be available. Going into the dungeon and killing the dragon will never net you an awesome unique sword or magic bauble. It's an RPG with no loot mechanic.


I think that when the game designing was in progress, first expansion was too. I'm also waiting for bows, more spells but I'm pretty sure they will appear soon. And killing the dragons sometimes gives you a trophy (ex. +3 attack) You can't have everything you expect it should be in one box. Remeber that Dominion has two big expansions and another in progress. After playing the Intrigue I can't stand playing basic Dominion cause of lack of new cards and mechanics. And I know this game is designed to has a lot of expansions.

My overall feeling about your review is that you was expecting a little too much from the game Mechanics of the Thunderstone in some cases doens't fit the theme. But it's just impossible to do everything like in RPG or classical adventure games. Theme is an atmosphere, it doesn't matter if there are some small lacks but that you can find playing based in great scheme (deck-building) matching this theme.
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Evan Stegman
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Rindel wrote:
True, but I think in this case alot of reviews are finding faults where there are none. Also reviews are finding fault with the game because it is or isn't like Dominion.


I look forward to the day when there are many games that use this deck-building mechanic and reviews will stop feeling like they have to compare this game to Dominion.

I suspect it was sort of similiar back when there were few games that used, say, the worker placement mechanic but now that there are so many games that use that mechanic, people are past feeling the need to compare games to the first (or first widely known one anyway) one.

Especially since I have never been much one for the 'If A is greater than B then B must be negative' philosophy anyway.
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This review is nothing like Dominion, there for it sucks. This reviewer is an amateur and should really read up on review design before just releasing a review without playtesting...er...I mean editing it.

Thunderstone is awesome. Perfect? Nope. But it is really a great game. We haven't touched Dominion since we picked up Thunderstone.


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Jeffery Qualey
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A good review, but also a good game.
I have played this game once, and I can see lots of potential. This is what I liked:

1. Leveling up characters after earning experience defeating creatures
2. The light mechanism
3. The different character options and their strengths
4. It is an approachable and enjoyable hand building game - a type of game I usually hate.

What I didn't like:

1. Lack of interaction between players (aside from defeating a valuable creature before they could)
2. Little to no during-game rewards for defeating larger creatures

What I would like to see in the future:
1. More options in the store
2. Face-down options in the store (this is a pile of torches that cost x, but some of them burn brighter - this is a pile of lanterns that cost x+1, etc.)
3. During-game rewards for defeating creatures (defeating a "level 3-5" creature gives you one face-down card from treasure pile 1, which may include a light stone, 1-3 gold coins on a set-aside card which can be added to the value of one hand at a store visit, a tome which can be used to level 1 character, etc.)
4. More player interaction options
5. More options to change the hand (discard unwanted cards, etc)
6. Creatures that can be defeated only by the use of "excess" light.
7. Different sections of the dungeon (the first three creatures are in the starter dungeon and are used to get your first XP, while the second three are tougher and provide some during-game rewards)
8. Have the Thunderstone bring forth a "Boss" creature.
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Trystan
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Pepsi4Me2 wrote:

8. Have the Thunderstone bring forth a "Boss" creature.


Those are all great ideas but I really really like this one.

I might try this out and see if it works at all. We can put one or more big bad's face down to the side (archduke of pain, ebon fume, etc) and then when the thunderstone is drawn sit one random big bad guy on the stone face down as a guardian. Other than that play as normal, you only get the stone if you kill the guardian, rather than the guy in the rank before it, and if you're feeling brave and have tons of light you can maybe even go down into rank 2/3 to bring the thunderstone out, as long as you can take the boss. As normal if anyone doesn't kill the guardian the thunderstone goes to noone and the game is over, not sure what you'd do to stop people attacking the guardian with no hope of beating it to kill the game as soon as they appear but depending on your group that may not be an issue. Might be best to say the game's not over until the guardian is defeated and he can't be cycled, though with some games that might bring the end to a grinding halt.

Also the face down-ness might be too random and annoying, they might want to go on face up, and/or you might only want to have one known boss from the start anyway.
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Mark Chaplin
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Quote:
8. Have the Thunderstone bring forth a "Boss" creature.


This is a brilliant idea from a list of good ideas. I'm going to try it.

BTW, I agree that Thunderstone is nearly a brilliant game. With an expansion or two, I'm sure that this will exceed Dominion, and I'll not feel the need to play that again.



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Jeffery Qualey
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In the boss creature variant, perhaps defeating it crowns the winner - or the points attributed to it are high enough that it would be uncommon for someone to defeat the boss and not win the game. In this variant, there should be no way to bypass it - aside from defeating the other creatures that were already in play.

I've played Dominion 3 times just to get to the point that I feel competent with it. I enjoyed my third play of it and came in second place.

Thunderstone for me was enjoyable the first time. It was not difficult to understand, and I did win the game by a fairly large margin after defeating two of the stronger creatures. The appearance of the Thunderstone, however, was anti-climactic in its current form. It simply signalled the end of the game.
 
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Thomas Staudt
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Pepsi4Me2 wrote:
In the boss creature variant, perhaps defeating it crowns the winner - or the points attributed to it are high enough that it would be uncommon for someone to defeat the boss and not win the game. In this variant, there should be no way to bypass it - aside from defeating the other creatures that were already in play.


So in a tight game in general you automatically lose by defeating the creature before the boss appears?
I like the boss creature idea, but it shouldn't negate the complete game happening before.
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Lordnameci wrote:

I could elaborate on my lack of experience in my 15 years in the industry, but I would just recommend you (and anyone else interested) go over and read the designer notes on Boardgamenews, which are linked at the bottom of the Thunderstone page and explain many of the various decisions in the game design.

-Mike Elliott

Designer notes! Why did no one tell me about them!?
 
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Rindel wrote:
True, but I think in this case alot of reviews are finding faults where there are none. Also reviews are finding fault with the game because it is or isn't like Dominion.


Like the design fault of "the game has 2 archery themed heroes but no bows." I had never even considered that problemtic even in the slightest sense. My main concern has always been the rulebook. And since it's latest release (1.3) I have found it to be pretty concise. The jist of the review seems to be it isnt as good as dominion becuase it's not dominion. Other than that, I see i bit of nitpicking being offere up as glaring flaws.
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Tim Collins
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Pepsi4Me2 wrote:
I have played this game once, and I can see lots of potential. This is what I liked:

1. Leveling up characters after earning experience defeating creatures
2. The light mechanism
3. The different character options and their strengths
4. It is an approachable and enjoyable hand building game - a type of game I usually hate.

What I didn't like:

1. Lack of interaction between players (aside from defeating a valuable creature before they could)
2. Little to no during-game rewards for defeating larger creatures

What I would like to see in the future:
1. More options in the store
2. Face-down options in the store (this is a pile of torches that cost x, but some of them burn brighter - this is a pile of lanterns that cost x+1, etc.)
3. During-game rewards for defeating creatures (defeating a "level 3-5" creature gives you one face-down card from treasure pile 1, which may include a light stone, 1-3 gold coins on a set-aside card which can be added to the value of one hand at a store visit, a tome which can be used to level 1 character, etc.)
4. More player interaction options
5. More options to change the hand (discard unwanted cards, etc)
6. Creatures that can be defeated only by the use of "excess" light.
7. Different sections of the dungeon (the first three creatures are in the starter dungeon and are used to get your first XP, while the second three are tougher and provide some during-game rewards)
8. Have the Thunderstone bring forth a "Boss" creature.


I think all of your suggestions re fantastic and I believe we will be seeing some of what you meioned touched upon in one way or another in the expansion.
 
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