Friday, February 05, 2010

The Thunder-business (Dominion x2, Thunderstone, Ra)

It was Shemp's pick, but Shemp did not pick. So, we brought games, and we played some of those. Three players again (me, Shemp and Kozure).


First up was Dominion, which I had never played before (although I've played Dominion:Intrigue a few times). When I had played the expansion, I was a little ambivalent... The games wants to be played quickly, but the cards were *just* complicated enough that I couldn't quite internalize what they all did or how they could be combined and still play fast. The result was that I just wasn't getting into it. The base game, on the other hand, is much easier to grasp quickly and I found it to be much more enjoyable. No doubt if I played enough I'd want the additional variety and interaction of Intrigue, but for now I'd pick this one every time.

We played two times. In the first, I focussed on mines, the bureaucrat and the cellar. I purchased coppers, upgraded them to silvers and then gold (or, alternatively, received silver from the bureaucrat and upgraded it to gold). My multiple cellars ensured that I had a copper or silver to upgrade whenever I had a mine in hand. I soon had many gold cards and purchasing provinces was relatively easy. The funny thing was that both Shemp and Kozure had a lot of thieves in their deck, and were repeatedly trying to steal from me... and not once did I turn over anything more than a copper! Luck was certainly on my side. I ended up winning... my first Dominion victory ever! In fact, it was my first non-dead last finish ever.

In our second game, the cards were strangely skewed to the high end. The only relatively inexpensive card was the moat (ironic, because there was only one attack action card available). I attempted a "garden" strategy by accumulating as many cheap cards as possible and as many gardens as possible. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me until later that I should have focussed on cards that gave me more "buys" so that I could bulk up my deck even further. I didn't quite make it to 40 cards, so my gardens only scored 3 points each. It wasn't quite enough because Shemp's last minute purchase of the final garden card gave him just enough to get by me.


I gave my son "The Adventurers: Escape fromt he temple of Chac" by AEG for christmas, and unfortunately after our very first play he gathered up all the cards (so he could figure out what was the highest possible score) and then sat them down on the couch. My other son was jumping on the couch. Within seconds, al the cards were bent and folded. Not great for a game where hidden information is essential. I wrote an email to AEG to ask if they sold the cards separately, and they offered to send me a whole new deck for free! Because of that great show of customer service, I decided to see what other games they sold and noticed Thunderstone. As I mentioned above, until today I hadn't particularly enjoyed Dominion but I did find the central mechanic interesting. This game seemed to have a bit more depth, a theme that actually was reflected in the gameplay and it was getting good reviews. I decided to go for it.

Our game group generally doesn't go for fantasy themed games. Shemp, in particular, voiced that his desire to play was low largely due to the theme and "me-too" gameplay. Luckily, the guys are good sports about trying out new purchases and Shemp proclaimed that we would follow up Dominion with "the Thunder-business".

There are a lot of similarities between the games. Cards in the middle of the table represent the village and are used in the same way as the cards in Dominion. The deck that players build over the course of the game are worth gold and depending on what you get in your hand you can purchase better cards. The main difference in the game is that players have a second option... cards have other symbols which indicate the kind of adventuring party that can be mustered for a dungeon crawl. To the side of the village, a dungeon awaits consisting of a deck of cars and three face up creatures. If a player decides to pit their party against a creature in the dungeon, then the strength of the attack is compared to the hit points of the creature and if defeated the creature goes to the player's discard pile (analogous to VP cards in Dominion). The game ends once the Thunderstone is unearthed from the near the bottom of the creature deck.

Although the dungeon represents the biggest departure from Dominion, many other aspects of the game have additional little modifications. There are hero cards that can be leveled up, heros have a strength rating and equipment can only be used by those that have enough strength. Fighting creatures in the dungeon requires light, and the deeper into the dungeon you go, the more light is necessary. There are other differences as well, but suffice it to say that the game is at once similar to Dominion and quite different from it.

My feelings on the game are mixed. The theme of the game is relatively well captured. Unlike Dominion, it doesn't feel like you are just acquiring cards for the sake of gathering VPs. The additional details add some interesting decisions and force players to balance more things at once (powerful heroes are good, but light is also necessary, and the dungeon can't be ignored too long as you build up your deck or else the other players will get all the VPs). There are downsides to these changes, however. In Dominion, each player determines which combos they are aiming for and nothing really constrains their actions except the common goal of gathering VPs. In Thunderstone, certain basic necessities are needed in order to achieve the overall goal , and each player needs to look after them to a minimum degree. For example, everyone needs to get light. Everyone needs to get heroes and upgrade them. Everyone will be going to the dungeon and fight the monsters. This may lead to an overall feeling of sameness even though the specifics of each game may be different. The variety is found within that context... the selection of heroes, the village cards purchased, the monsters encountered in the dungeon. Also, the larger number of factors that need to come together means that the decks are more prone to clumping.

Anyway, I'll need to play a few more times to make a final judgement. I'd say that I like it better than Dominion: Intrigue, but less than Dominion. I'm not a big fan of the way the game ends as written... it feels a little like kingmaking, but it's easy enough to fix it and say that the game ends as soon as the Thunderstone is revealed. I also think that there is a strange disconnect between the experience the game delivers and what we have come to expect from dungeon crawling games: usually the easy creatures come first and there is a build up to the big bosses at the end. The random distribution ensures that this won't be the case in Thunderstone, for better or worse. I suppose it would be possible to make a variant where the monsters were encountered in order of strength if it really bothers me later on.

I won the game because I managed a lot of dungeon victories early in the game. Later, my deck got clogged but I had a good enough lead that it didn't matter.

"Ok, Blink dog"


We finished up with Ra. Fun as always, I learned an interesting tidbit about Shemp... He told us that Ra is the game that makes him willing to keep playing games he is initially unimpressed with. At first he hated Ra, now he thinks it's great.

Kozure came from behind and won on the strength of a great haul from his monuments.

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