I'll confess at the outset of this review that I have little in the way of prior familiarity with either previous incarnations of Mike Elliott's Thunderstone games or Monte Cook's Numenera setting, save for the fact the latter is set to play host to a Planescape: Torment successor in the near-ish future.
Fortunately for Thunderstone Advance: Numenera (hereafter just "Thunderstone" for simplicity's sake), familiarity with neither of these things is necessary, since this is an interesting, accessible and self-contained game that doesn't assume any knowledge, but which rewards fans of its two component parts with additional depth and context through pleasant little references and callbacks.
Thunderstone is a deckbuilding card game that blends elements of Donald X. Vaccarino's popular kingdom-building title Dominion and Justin Gary's ever-expanding Ascension series. It successfully distinguishes itself from both with an array of unique mechanics and rules, however, and scales well to accommodate a variety of play groups ranging from a solo adventurer to a party of five. It takes about an hour or so to play (a little longer with more players), with a relatively short setup time -- though there's a bit of a caveat.
Being a card game, you'd expect Thunderstone to have a fair few cards. But you're probably not quite prepared for just how many cards there are in Thunderstone's box. Over 600, apparently, and while I haven't counted them just to make sure, given the amount of time it took to get the damn thing unpacked and stored safely in the box when I first opened it up, I can certainly believe that figure.
Fortunately, though, the game's box is well-designed and comes with a host of nifty little bits and pieces to help you keep those 600 cards organized. Like Dominion, you only use some of the available cards in each game, so it pays to keep your collection organized. Thunderstone helps you do just that through a combination of a notched plastic box insert, removable foam pieces and oversized "divider" cards that help you separate all the different groups of cards from one another -- assuming you don't shake the box around too much and store it horizontally, it's a fairly elegant storage solution that minimizes time wasted at the start of a session trying to find that one missing card you really need. Just pack it carefully if you're taking it somewhere!
The cards themselves are good quality, with a linen finish and a nicely shiny feel to them -- and this may sound like a strange comment, but they smell pretty great, too. If you're planning on playing the game a lot, you may wish to consider sleeving them to protect them from curling and sticky fingers -- but given the quantity in the box, it's probably best to figure out if your gaming group responds well to it before embarking on such a significant adventure.
Other components are similarly high-quality. A velvet bag houses the colored plastic experience point tokens that are new to the Numenera installment of Thunderstone, and a selection of thick, card-stock tokens are used in conjunction with certain cards to "mark" enemies -- though if you follow the recommended game composition for your first games, you won't be needing those for a while.
The only slight letdown is the board. It's big, thick and double-sided, but it's also rather bland, being overwhelmingly beige for the most part, with a small, darker strip at the top of both sides representing either the "dungeon" or the "wilderness" you'll be battling monsters in. Given that most of the game's visual interest comes from the cards, and that the cards take up the majority of the space on the board, this actually turns out to be a fairly minor issue with presentation, but upon unfurling the board for the first time it's hard not to feel a little disappointment at its relatively featureless nature.
And so we come to the game itself. Mechanically, things are fairly straightforward and the detailed rulebook explains things reasonably well for both new players and experienced Thunderstone veterans -- even going so far as to include rules for concepts introduced by other Thunderstone sets that aren't directly relevant to Numenera. In this way, the Numenera set opens itself up to expansion by welcoming guest cards from other Thunderstone sets, allowing you to customize the game experience very much to your liking -- or simply increase the amount of randomness you and your fellow players will have to deal with.
You're all competing against the board rather than directly against each other in Thunderstone, but that doesn't make the game a cooperative experience. Far from it, in fact; although the supposed "aim" of the game is to defeat a powerful "Thunderstone Bearer" monster shuffled into the last ten cards of the game's Dungeon deck, that's not a mutual victory condition; it's a game-end condition. Instead, what you're aiming to do is rack up as many points as you possibly can by purchasing cards and then using them to defeat monsters. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins. Simple, right?
Each turn, you can take one of four actions with your six-card hand. Of these four, two are pretty simple: resting allows you to destroy a card you want to get rid of by removing it from the game; preparing allows you to put as many cards from your hand back on top of your deck and discard the rest, allowing you to manage your next turn's hand to a certain extent.
Where things get interesting is when you choose to visit either the Village or the Dungeon areas of the board. In both cases, you flop your whole hand on the table for everyone to see -- no selective playing here -- and then make use of the cards' abilities to either buy cards (if you're visiting the Village) or defeat monsters (in the case of the Dungeon). Certain abilities are mandatory -- and not always positive -- while others are optional and depend on where you've chosen to go that turn.
Dealing with things in the Dungeon is fairly straightforward to grasp. "Hero" cards allow you to attack monsters with either physical or magical attacks, and these values may be boosted by equipping them with weapon cards. Equal or exceed a monster's health value and you defeat it, scoring experience points and adding it to your deck for the points and any "Trophy" special abilities it carries; come up short and you've wasted a turn.
Similarly, the basic way things work in the Village is straightforward, too; many cards have a monetary value which, like the currency cards in Dominion or goods cards in 7 Wonders, represent how much you have to spend on that turn, and are not consumed or destroyed in the purchasing process. This value may then be used to purchase one card -- more if you happen to have certain Heroes in your hand at the time. The cards on offer include several different types of Hero, and in true Numenera fashion, these are described using an adjective ("Strong" or "Graceful," for example) rather than a character class, though for compatibility's sake with previous Thunderstone games they're also described in more traditional terms in smaller print. You can also grab equipment items of various descriptions -- weapons boost Heroes' attack power if equipped; spells provide various benefits or boost attack power; light-emitting items are essential for engaging in combat without penalties.
While in the village, you can also use experience earned from defeating monsters to level up Hero cards into their next tier. There are three in total, and the top level of each hero type is worth victory points at the end of the game as well as being considerably more powerful than their basic incarnation.
Interestingly, it's rarely simply a case of gathering as much attack power as possible and then stomping through the Dungeon repeatedly -- a criticism which could perhaps be levelled at Ascension, particularly in its earlier, simpler incarnations. Varying monster types provide you with various restrictions and conditions before you fight them -- some might insist that you destroy (i.e. remove from the game) a Hero before fighting them; one particularly nasty breed demands that you kill them without exceeding a certain amount of attack power or, in some cases, by getting an exact figure of total attack power. And you also need to consider that defeating lots of monsters begins to clutter your deck up somewhat -- while many monsters are worth currency if taken to the village and occasionally have special abilities, drawing a handful of them isn't particularly helpful to anyone. But then they're worth points at the end of the game, so you need to keep at least some of them.
It's once your deck starts filling out a bit that Thunderstone starts to get more interesting. While having a bulging deck full of powerful Heroes and the fallen bodies of your enemies is indisputably satisfying, it may not be the most efficient route to victory. Depending on the cards in play for the game you're currently playing, it can often benefit you to follow a deck-pruning strategy, where you gradually attempt to systematically eliminate the less useful cards from your deck and leave you with an optimized set of Heroes and equipment that are ready for anything. It's also an aspect of the game that changes quite a bit depending on how many people are playing -- in single-player, an additional mechanic whereby monsters advance through the Dungeon and escape into the game's score pile forces you to play more aggressively, while when playing with a group you have to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing and whether they're likely to beat you on points come the end of the game.
Thunderstone's biggest strength, like Dominion, is the sheer variety of different scenarios that the cards included in the box lend themselves to. The instruction booklet gives you a recommended setup for your first games that provides you with a good, balanced experience, but after you've played once or twice you'll want to make use of the "Randomizer" cards for a completely unique lineup of cards, or perhaps to deliberately choose available cards based on a particular theme. There are a lot of different ways to play, and subtle differences in the available cards can make a huge difference to how a game unfolds.
For those left cold by deckbuilding mechanics and the semi-controlled randomness they bring, Thunderstone probably isn't going to do a huge amount to change your mind -- though for my money it's a more interesting game than Ascension in particular. For fans of Dominion and its ilk, however, Thunderstone is a solid investment that's well worth bringing to your gaming table -- its flexibility, ease of setup (after that initial unpacking, of course) and relatively quick play time make it a decent "weeknight" game, and one that can be played numerous times before it starts getting old.
It probably won't do much to convert those who dislike deckbuilders, but Thunderstone is an accessible yet deep example of the genre that is rewarding and enjoyable to play, and its admirable flexibility straight out of the box gives it a massive amount of longevity.