I have a theory. I'll walk you through it, and then you can tell me I'm an idiot, and I can tell you that you're retarded.
Dominion is one of the most influential games of the last ten years. Whether or not you like it, it's tough not to see that a whole new kind of game has been invented. The game has drawn a huge audience, and people from all over the gaming spectrum have been drawn to it like skeeters to a bug zapper. That kind of success draws more than just fans, too - it draws people who would like to tap into the money well of gamers who have found some new shiny thing.
In fact, it reminds me of Magic: The Gathering. Before Magic, the collectible card game was, for all intents and purposes, non-existant. Suddenly this game comes out where you buy massive boxes full of cards, spending hundreds of dollars (if not thousands) on a game where you only need 60 cards to play. This makes a ton of money, so there are more CCGs being invented, almost overnight. The core idea behind the CCG is brilliant, and both gamers and designers can see lots of potential. It's not just the money pit - the whole idea of building your own game and then playing it is just plain fun.
Enter Dominion, the current game generation's version of Magic. Right now, when a deckbuilding game is released, the first descriptions of it will inevitably say something like, 'it's like Dominion, except...' But wait ten years, and people will just call it a deckbuilding game, the way Ra is a bidding game, Age of Steam is a train game, and Apples to Apples is a dumb game. We're only now beginning to see more deckbuilding games emerge, but give it ten years, and they'll be everywhere. And like CCGs, the draw is not just the money. Dominion created a whole new kind of game, and the whole concept behind the game is just plain fun. It adds a new weapon to a game designer's arsenal and gives us a new evolution in gaming.
So my review here is not actually about Dominion, it's a review of Thunderstone (the picture at the top of the review may have been a bit of a giveaway in that regard). And Thunderstone is a deckbuilding game, but it is not Dominion. Thunderstone uses the deckbuilding concept pioneered in Dominion, but it implements the idea in a rather different way. The question that remains, however, is whether or not that different way is a good one.
Thunderstone has two areas of cards. The village contains 16 different stacks, including four basic cards like food and daggers and untrained grunts, plus four hero types, and then eight random village cards that range from flaming sword (great for cooking wieners, not so useful if you have a tendency to wipe your knife on your pants) to magic spells, useful equipment and helpful villagers. Apparently the bartender does not mind being purchased, which makes him not unlike many bartenders I have personally known.
The other stack of cards is the dungeon, and at any time, three monsters from the dungeon are visible. The thunderstone is somewhere near the bottom of the dungeon stack, and you have to plow through the monsters, earning trophies, experience and victory points on your way to recover the not-very-valuable magic rock. To kill these beasties, you have to display a hand of heroes whose attack is stronger than the defense of the monster in question, and you have to show a light source, or you can't see so good. When the thunderstone finally makes it out of the dungeon, the game ends, and everyone counts up the victory points they got from killing monsters and having epic heroes (plus the points you get from owning googleberries, which despite the way that sounds, are food, not testicles).
Thunderstone is not anywhere near as tightly designed as Dominion. It relies heavily on an adventuring theme and some brilliant art (not to mention really nice cards) to draw you into the game. It's fun, but it's kind of chaotic, and you'll find yourself buying crappy stuff in the village just because you can't get enough attack points to clear out the mean critters you need to end the game. I suppose that if you play this lots of times, you'll figure out good combinations to speed up the game, but in the meantime, Thunderstone plays bad house guest and thoroughly overstays its welcome.
And I think that's the biggest issue I have with the game, really. It's an interesting use of the build-your-deck-as-you-play thing that was introduced in Dominion, and there's certainly some potential for huge awesome factor with cool art and fun stuff to play. But after about an hour, you're good and ready to see this thing come to an end, and you'll find yourself coaching the other players to try to get them to beat the bad guys so you can put it away. That's a huge shame, really, because it's definitely fun, until it's not any more. Basically, it's fun for about 45 minutes, which would be cool if it didn't take an hour and a half.
Thunderstone is interesting simply as a study in game evolution. Without Magic, there would be no Dominion, and without Dominion, there would be no Thunderstone. Thunderstone alone is not interesting enough to be the next step in the chain - there will be many more deckbuilding games, and Thunderstone will soon be lost in the historical shuffle. But it is cool to see another twist on the idea Dominion presented, and it will be fun to watch what other neat games we see in the future. Thunderstone is fun, even if it is too long, and it's super pretty, so it will amuse me until the next shiny bauble crosses my game table.
Interesting new deckbuilding twist
Really nice cards
45 minutes of fun
Not as tightly built as Dominion
90 minutes of game
Matt is a staff writer for Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated reviews.