Sunday, February 20, 2011

BoardGameGathering: Thunderstone, Pandemic, Earth Reborn

2/5/2011: We had another GameDay over at Brother Brett's: This one was a little more chaotic. One of the risks of getting together four to five IT mail/database guys on any given Saturday, is that it's not unlikely that someone's going to be doing weekend IT maintenance, or working some type of outage. And it was so on this outing.

On the upside, with the change in participants we were able to visit some paths less taken, game-wise: :P

Turned to Stone (AEG's Thunderstone): We started the day with a first-time run (for three of four of us), into designer Mike Elliott's Thunderstone. In addition to the base game, we had the Wrath of the Elements and Doomgate Legion expansions in the mix. I've played TS off and on for the last 3-4 months, and another of our group had also played Dominion (the game that initiated some of the core mechanics used in TS, albeit in a more abstract form). So we sailed in smoothly without too much discussion or learning curve.

(right: One of my recent solo games of Thunderstone)

For folks unfamiliar with the game, Thunderstone is a 'deck-building' game. Sort of a distant descendant of Magic: The Gathering. But in deck-building games, as differentiated from M:tG-style 'Collectible Card Games'(CCG), rather than an approach of 'pre-build a stock deck long before playing, and 'play' by using the deck to attack an opponent', in games like TS, the 'deck-building' process occurs over the course of the game and that process is one of the core mechanics and core goals of the game. You start with a minimal 'deck', and build or buy your way up to a better one. By the end of the game the winner is generally the player with the best deck, as measured in victory points (VP).

Oh, and one other fundamental difference from CCG's: Thunderstone's cards are not collectible. The full range of cards used in the game ship with the game. And as to the expansions, unlike CCG's (which give a substantial advantage to the player that spends real money to buy 'better' cards), TS expansions don't grant any edge to players using the expansions. The expansions simply enlarge the range of card types and the features of the game. So it's not a sinking expense hole, or an on-going load on your wallet.:P

For folks familiar with the prior game 'Dominion', TS adds a bit more 'theme' to the mix, by adding a 'Dungeon' deck of monsters, which are advancing out and need to be attacked with a player's deck. You 'build-up' your deck by visiting 'The Village' - an array of twelve piles cards for 'weapons', 'spells', 'useful-villagers', 'light-sources' (you've got to 'light' a dungeon to see what you're trying to hit :P), and general equipment. The Village piles also include four random types of 'heroes' to hire to do the 'fighting' function in your deck.

The idea is that you simply 'buy' your way to the heroes and equipment you need, by using the gold value reflected on some of your cards. Over time, you buy better heroes & equipment, defeat monsters that bring you more gold (or other advantages), and then buy even better heroes & equipment. Wash, rinse, repeat, and continue killing your way through the 'Dungeon' deck of monsters, until the 'Thunderstone' card comes to the top of the pile and advances to the last space of the Dungeon. At that point each player tallies up the Victory Points of their monsters killed, and the high-VP player wins.

On any particular turn, each player has three essential choices: Go 'shopping' in the Village (where you can also upgrade your 'heroes' to stronger versions), Descend into the Dungeon to fight one of three monsters visible at it's entrance, or 'Rest', which enables you to throw out one of your less-useful cards to thin-out your deck.

And thinning your deck is a critical point: An optimally-functioning deck will have you drawing the heroes you need to fight in the dungeon, along with suitable weapons, spells, or light-sources, every hand, with very little deadwood, or useless cards that you don't need. The only way to make that happen is to keep your deck as 'thin' as possible and optimized to solely your most useful cards.

The game is kept interesting in the long-run by making available a wide array of different types of monsters, heroes, and equipment. At the beginning of the game, you figure out which monsters to use, by shuffling a random stack of monster types and picking three. The same process applies to heroes and equipment (pick 4 types at random and 8 types at random, of each). The expansions essentially add in new types of monsters and heroes, and other new card types, along with new variant rules.

It's also worth noting that TS makes for one hell of a single-player game. I've definitely enjoyed a lot of solo Thunderstone play. :^)

The game took a little longer than typical, while everyone got up to speed. But I think everyone enjoyed themselves, and I'm pretty sure TS will see a return in future outings. When playing with folks that know the game, setup takes about 5-10 minutes and you can knock out a full game in approximately an hour. Things tend to move along pretty quickly, and there's generally not a lot of 'downtime', as each player spends the time between turns planning their next turn. It's also not a particularly complicated game; folks have been known to teach Thunderstone and Dominion to their 8 to 9 year olds. Good stuff all the way around. I heartily recommend it.

Like Wildfire (Z-Man Games' Pandemic): For the follow-up game, player number five had gotten his migration/outage to a point where he could monitor a laptop and still play a game. So we decided to tackle a session of Matt Leacock's Pandemic. Several of the regulars had played Pandemic before, as had our most recent new attendee, so it seemed a natural choice. And since we now had five players, we needed to use the On The Brink expansion, which adds additional optional player roles and variant rules, in addition to a fifth player of components.

Pandemic came out in 2008 and took the gaming world by storm, through it's novel theme and new mechanics for abstractly modeling the way that an epidemic spreads, and the broad ways that the Center for Disease Control attempts to slow and turn the tide on raging outbreaks.

It highly abstracts the above concepts, but the basic idea of the game is that each player is randomly assigned a cooperative 'role' in fighting outbreaks or researching and delivering cures, and there are four disease strains breaking out in random cities around the globe. The 'pandemics' are seeded at the start of the game, by drawing three random cities which each receive three colored 'disease' cubes. Then three more cities are drawn and two cubes are applied in those places. And then a final three cities are drawn, and a single disease cube placed in each of those places. This sets up the world stage to be ripe for 'outbreaks'.

The 'outbreak' trigger point to the game is that no city can contain more than three disease cubes of a given color, and that a fourth immediately causes outbreaks in each adjoining city (modeled by placing single new cubes in all connected cities, one hop away). This 'outbreak' process can cause fresh outbreaks to cascade from city to city. And it's the job of the players to run around from city to city treating the various diseases while assembling enough city cards (5) to finally cure a given disease.

The opponent 'disease' process is played in this game, by having each player, at the end of their turn, complete a series of actions that automatically 'seed' further infections by drawing and infecting fresh cities.

The nifty innovation that makes a 'bad' outbreak worse, is that Mr. Leacock has specific cards in the deck that cause the players to take all of the cards used to generate prior outbreaks, and reshuffle them right back on top of the disease-outbreak draw pile. In this way, diseases start in a particular set of cities, and those cities become more and more likely to see re-outbreaks. Combine this with the 'cascading outbreaks' mechanic above, and you've got a situation that rapidly gets out of control if the players don't rapidly get things under control. :^D

In other words, it's a fun game. And it was fun on this outing. :D
BUT, I do have to make an observation: Pandemic is a lot easier with five players than it is using two, when playing by solely the base rules. With two you have to run like a madman to stay ahead of outbreaks. But with five players you've got plenty of people tackling outbreaks and collecting the materials for cures. So it shifts from a frantic and tense game, to more of a leisurely conversational game. :^P

Anyway, it was entertaining, and killed another hour or so.

The Birth of the Cool (Z-Man Games' Earth Reborn): One of our group had to leave at that point, and a second decided to only watch our next game. So our last run of the night was to crack open 'cold' my new copy of designer Christophe Boelinger's Earth Reborn. Earth Reborn is a massively detailed tactical miniatures game, set in a post-apocalyptic America, 500 years after a nuclear Armageddon. As to its inspirations, the game is a definite conceptual descendant of Space Hulk.

In ER, two to four players play as either the NORAD survivors or Salemite cultists pitted against each other through a series of kill-or-be-killed scenarios. The game includes a dizzying array of map components, doors, radios, bombs, and other various equipment tokens and bits, along with 12 exquisitely detailed miniatures representing the combatants, a sizable pile of cards and a stack of specialized dice. Oh, and if you haven't gotten a clue from the cover art and game-layout-picture above, this game owes a ton to the pc/video game Fallout.

The game has a lot of depth, and a 44-page rule book. Yup, 44 pages. On the plus side, the game attempts to scale up it's rather sizable rules set a bit at a time. For example, in the first scenario, the player is walked through building a map from all of the bits, and then utilizing two of the available actions in the game (Movement and Close Combat), to introduce basic concepts. In like manner each scenario introduces more detail until the range of actions and options are taught.

It's had some wildly positive reviews (like Michael Barnes' or Frank Branham's pieces at Fortress Ameritrash), and is widely reputed to be the second coming of 'Sliced Bread'. :P

Or at least that's the theory. :P Unfortunately, I hadn't gotten beyond opening the box, punching out the bits, and building the map for the initial scenario, before I brought it to this particular GameDay. Of course I knew that ER was too much game, too complicated to kick-start without a lot of prep; I'd brought it because it was one of the cooler boxes of bits I'd seen in awhile, and I knew we had a series of games we planned to actually play, instead. :P So I figured we'd pop the lid and ooh and ahh a bit, and put it away.

Unfortunately, a confluence of events got us through fewer games than we'd planned, and fewer players available at that point, earlier in the night than usual. We had some time left, but not enough to get into anything particularly heavy, and not enough players to play some of what we had. So opening ER and trying to work our way through one of the downloaded 3-4 player scenarios seemed a reasonable undertaking. Erm. That was really a mistake. We 'might' have gotten through one of the core-manual's 2-player scenarios, with it's larger more detailed map. But attempting to put together all of the various 2-sided tiles, based on an inkjet printout, was a slow, eye-straining process.

I can tell you that this game profoundly needs test driving by at least one player, prior to putting it in front of a group. The manual, though designed to be a slow introduction, has the relevant bits distributed widely enough, that it can be problematic to absorb quickly. Add the substantial setup time for map building (20-30minutes in most cases), and you've got a recipe for downtime and confusion. Not exactly a good combo when pitching a new game. So needless to say, by the time Earth Reborn left the table, it was a) a relief, and b) not a major hit with the group. I'll admit the fault is mine: I shouldn't have let it come out 'cold'. But, the game's supporters are absolutely rabid on the subject, and that it's worth the hassle to get your arms around. So I hope to get some more prep time into the box - maybe even type up another of the many manual rules summary sheets I've done for other games - before I try another run at getting it to the table at one of our gatherings in the future.

Net review from this end: Pretty and well-liked. But needs work, from both players and in terms of pre-game-prep. What it could really use are some solid aftermarket player-aids, and for someone to writeup a lengthy article on how to efficiently store & organize everything in the box, to cut the setup/tear-down time down. :^D

1 comment:

  1. Follow-up: Trading-fever hit, and Pandemic was washed away (along with the On the Brink expansion) in exchange for a copy of the out of print classic Nexus Ops. (

    Over time, Pandemic has been more and more supplanted by MattL's follow-up and much simpler & lighter sibling to Pandemic: Forbidden Island ( That and Nexus Ops has a great has great Ameritrash reputation, and I'd been trying to find a cheap copy. :D

    Hey, Pandemic found a more appreciative home, and I got a more useful occupant of my game shelf. :D