Review of Thunderstone: Dragonspire

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

July 20, 2011

by: Shannon Appelcline

Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

Thunderstone is a great deckbuilding game if you're looking for heavy dungeon crawl theming, and this new standalone game is a nicely polished revision of the original.

Shannon Appelcline has written 672 reviews (including 354 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of The Struggle for Catan Card Game.

This review has been read 3488 times.

Product Summary
Name: Thunderstone: Dragonspire
Publisher: QuikLink Interactive
Line: Thunderstone
Author: Mike Elliot
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $44.99
Year: 2011

Review of Thunderstone: Dragonspire
Thunderstone: Dragonspire is a standalone board game that builds on AEG's Thunderstone deckbuilding system.

Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 60-90 minutes

Since this is my first review of the Thunderstone gaming system, most of it covers the basic concepts that underlie this and a handful of other expansions. When I'm referring to Thunderstone, I'm talking about the system generally, and when I'm referring to Dragonspire I'm discussing things specific to this standalone game.

Summary of Components

Thunderstone is primarily a card game, and thus the Dragonspire box comes with a ton of those cards. Well, 500 . It also has a tray and organizers that can be used to keep all your cards in order, plus some plastic XP tokens and a dungeon board (whose use is optional).

Quality: The cards are all medium-weight and linen-textured. The card organizers are similarly good quality. 4 out of 5.

Beauty: The cards feature a variety of great artwork. Their layout is also very attractive, as is the design of the rules and other components. 5 out of 5.

Usability: The cards are fairly complex, including info for gold, strength, weight, XP, light, cost, health, and victory points (with different values showing up on different sorts of cards). AEG has made a strong effort to differentiate all of these values while still showing which ones are connected (for example strength and weight are tied together and thus appear on the same place on different cards). In my first few games, I still did occasionally get confused on what some values meant and had to look them up, but that's probably more indicative of the complexity of the game than any flaws in its usability.

The optional dungeon board is a new element in Dragonspire that didn't appear in the original Thunderstone game. It provides spaces the ranks of monsters that you can fight and also lists the light levels and potential penalties for those ranks, which is a nice bit of usability.

However, my favorite usability element in the game is the way that it organizes cards. Every deckbuilding game has to figure out how to make its decks easily accessible, so that players can quickly grab new ones for each game. Thunderstone is the only game that's done it right, in my opinion. Oversized organizer cards make it easy to pull out individual decks. There's also lots of extra space left in Dragonspire's tray for expansions. At the same time AEG includes large foam blocks with the game, so that your cards stay in place even if you just have this one set of Thunderstone cards.

Though I do have some qualms with card confusion in early games, I think AEG has done a whole lot right in Thunderstone's usability. 5 out of 5.

Theming: Thunderstone is a terrific adaptation of deckbuilding mechanics for a game themed around dungeon crawling. You've got characters with weapons, monsters to fight, and XP to win. Overall, I think that this theming is Thunderstone's biggest strength. 5 out of 5.

Overall: On the whole, Thunderstone: Dragonspire is a beautiful and well-produced game. I've given it a "5" out of "5" for Style.

Summary of Play

The object of Thunderstone is to earn the most victory points primarily through the slaying of monsters, but also through the purchase of cards for your deck.

Setup: At the start of a game of Thunderstone, 16 stacks of cards are selected from a larger set and made available for purchase. Some of these are basic cards that are available in every game (dagger, iron rations, militia, torch). The other 12 decks are randomly chosen. Some are hero (character) cards, some are weapons, and some serve a variety of other purposes. In addition, three monster stacks are selected and shuffled together. The first three cards from the deck are then laid out as ranks 1, 2, and 3 of the "Dungeon Hall".

In addition, each player gets a starting set of 12 cards, which includes militia, daggers, iron rations, and torches. He'll draw 6 of these to begin his first turn.

About Deckbuilding: Thunderstone follows in the footsteps of Dominion, the first deckbuilding game. That means that it has a few distinctive elements:

Taking a Turn: When you take a turn, you'll assess your hand and decide which of three types of turns you want to take: village turns, dungeon turns, or rest turns.

Village Turns: On a village turn, you're going to buy stuff for your deck. Gold coins appear on most cards. You'll count up all of the coins in your hand, and use that money to buy one card.

Afterward you get to level up heroes in your hand. Most heroes, you see, come in 3 or more levels (which are arranged in the stacks so that you buy the lowest level heroes first). By turning in an appropriate number of XP you can replace a hero with the same hero of the next level (e.g., a first level half-orc raider becomes a second level half-orc marauder then a third level half-orc dervish.

Some cards in your hand may also have special powers that you can activate only during village turns.

Dungeon Turns: On a dungeon turn, you're going to go and kill a monster. (There are usually three monsters laid out in the dungeon hall.) To do so, you lay out the characters in your hand, assign each one no more than weapon (where the character's strength must be at least as high as the weapon's weight), then see if the total damage done is at least equal to the hit points of the monster you're targeting.

But there's one more catch: light. The further something is back in the dungeon hall (from rank 1 to 3) the more light you need to see it. Light appears on the cards you're playing too. If you don't have enough, your attack will be penalized.

To make things even more complicated, some of your cards will have special powers that can activate in the dungeon and many monsters have special powers (that might make it harder to see them, that might make it so only certain weapons can attack them, that might penalize you when you kill them, etc.). However, you'll usually know going in whether you can kill a monster or not. It just takes a little math.

When you kill a monster, you get to place it in your deck (which mostly gives you victory points, though it might also be worth gold or even offer a special power when you later draw it). You also get some experience points.

Rest Turns: You'll usually use this last option only when you're "stuck" (unable to kill any monsters and unable to buy anything worthwhile). Instead you destroy a card from your hand. This is actually a good thing, because it typically means you're getting rid of a less useful starter card, like those militia.

Ending the Game: The game goes until most of the monsters have been fought, at which point a special "Thunderstone" card shows up in the monster deck. When that Thunderstone card is taken, the game ends and everyone counts up their victory points--which mostly come from monsters killed and from higher level characters.

Relationships to Other Games

Thunderstone is a deckbuilding game that follows very closely on the gameplay of the original deckbuilding game, Dominion. You can read my thoughts on how the two compare in My Deckbuilding Look at Thunderstone. I've written similar articles on several other deckbuilding games: Ascension, Eminent Domain, Nightfall, Quarriors (*dice*building!), Resident Evil, and Tanto Cuore

Dragonspire is the third expansion to Thunderstone, and the first one which can be played as a standalone game (meaning it gives you everything you need to play, just like the original Thunderstone did0. Thus, it's another excellent stepping-on spot for the game.

Dragonspire differs from the original game in several ways. First, of course, it has a totally different set of hero, village, and monster cards. There are also some new concepts like traps (which appear in the monster deck and cause something to happen when revealed), guardians (which are super monsters that have a bad effect when they get to rank 1, and which then move up to rank 0) and treasures (which are rewards that appear in the monster deck).

Dragonspire also introduced the "dungeon board", which you may or may not choose to use, but which does give you a nice reminder of how the dungeon ranks work. Experience points, which appeared as cards in the original game, were also converted to plastic bits in this new release--which is a nice change as you already have plenty of cards scattered about when you play the game. The original game also had some big problems with its rule presentation, while the rules in the new game are instead spot on.

Finally, Dragonspire is the first "base game" for Thunderstone that's correctly organized with tabbed dividers for your game. (AEG came up with the system only when putting out their first expansion, Wrath of the Elementals.)

The Game Design

The deckbuilding genre is about two and a half years old now, and in that short time it's created a robust and vibrant new type of gaming. Thunderstone shares in the general advantages of the genre, including lots of variability in gameplay (meaning no two games are the same) and a terrific combination of strategy (as you build your deck), tactics (as you make a best decision for any single turn), and randomness control (as you figure out what to do with the unlikely hands you're dealt).

My aforementioned article comparing the gameplay of genre-leader Dominion and Thunderstone highlights a lot of the strengths that Thunderstone brings to the table. Most specifically: the starting hand feels more robust, letting you get into the game immediately, while the multi-value cards make it harder to draw totally useless hands (and Thunderstone even controls for that with its "rest" action). Finally, having cards that improve over time is a terrific innovation.

However, I think the best element of Thunderstone doesn't have to do with its mechanics at all. Instead, it's the theming. Whether the dungeon crawling theme appeals to you will probably be the best indicator as to whether you'll enjoy Thunderstone or not.

On the downside, I don't think that Thunderstone is as well polished as Dominion. Decks don't feel as tight (because of those same multi-value cards) and all of the counting involved in figuring out light and combat totals comes at a high cost in elegance. Some players may also be put off by the playing time, which I find runs 50-100% longer than a typical Dominion game (but is still well within the bounds of more American game designs, which is likely the target audience given the dungeon theming).

Overall, Thunderstone is a workmanlike reinvention of Dominion for a new genre with some twists. As such it earns a "4" out of "5" for Substance.

Before I close, I also want to compare Dragonspire to the original Thunderstone. I think it's a better and better-produced games, but the advanced concepts that appear within might be sufficient to intimidate first-time players. If you just ignore traps, guardians, treasures, and settings when you're sorting cards for the first time, however, you'll probably end up with a superior play experience, and thus I recommend Dragonspire as a possible alternative to the original Thunderstone game if you're looking at the system for the first time.


Thunderstone is an interesting reinvention of Dominion for the dungeon-crawl crowd. If you're a fan of fantasy RPGs (or fantasy games or other sorts), Thunderstone is the first deckbuilding game you should try. This new standalone game, Dragonspire, is superior to the original Thunderstone release, though it does have some advanced concepts.

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