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Reviews - Wrath of the Elements
 
by Lee Valentine


Wrath of the ElementsThunderstone: Wrath of the Elements
Published by Alderac Entertainment Group
Designed by Mike Elliott
1-5 players
Contents: 340 cards, full-color rulebook, 76 card dividers, foam storage inserts
$29.99

This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2010.

Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements ("WE") is the new expansion for AEG's hit deckbuilding card game Thunderstone ("TS"), which I previously reviewed here on OgreCave.com. WE features a new storage box for this expansion and the original set as well. It also comes with hundreds of new game cards for use with your TS games.

Packaging & Components
Typically I don't lead off a review with a discussion of the packaging, but card storage was a problem in the base game, and it's great in this set. WE comes with a new box and 76 index tabbed dividers. Each divider has the name of the card it is supposed to be filed with. These dividers are noticeably taller than the game cards, unlike the dividers in the original set, which were barely taller than the game cards and had no names on them. While the dividers keep the cards easy to find, sponge blocks keep categories of cards separate from each other (like Village cards and Heroes), and keep the cards from moving in the box during transport. The blocks are obviously removable to allow for further expansion cards to fit in this storage box. Overall, the storage solution is well thought out and appreciated.

WE comes with a rulebook covering the new rules and cards introduced in this set, but it does not come with a comprehensive rulebook covering the first two editions of the game. As a result, those of us with the first edition printing of TS will have to deal with using a printed PDF of version 1.4 of the core rules plus the new WE rulebook.

A printed copy of the rules PDF will fit in the WE box if you trim down the white space on the edges of the rules, but the WE box is too small to hold the original first edition printing of the rulebook. This didn't bother me because the original rulebook had so many flaws in it that I only use a home printed PDF edition of the rules anyway.

The new game cards have slightly smaller corners than the original cards, and the color and press coat on the backs don't match perfectly, occasionally allowing a perceptive player to note whether a new card or an old card is on the top of his draw pile. Otherwise the cards are similar in size and shuffle easily enough. Since the cards get shuffled and drawn so frequently, the minor differences between the original cards and the new cards did not interfere with play at all. The art on the cards is generally high quality and thematically appropriate.

New Cards
Gohlen cardThere are seven new categories of heroes in the set. Typically the new heroes are not as good in a fight, pound-for-pound, as some of the heroes in the base set unless you combo them with other cards. Almost all the new heroes, however, have interesting metagame effects like the Blind Neophyte who gains a bonus to attack if he discards a light-producing item. This is a great way to discard torches or similar items late in the game if you want to thin your deck. Many of the original set's heroes were useful during a fight in the dungeon, but were often chaff in your hand when you are visiting the village to buy goods and services. Some of the newer heroes have village-related powers like the Gangland Thug who gains gold for every other hero in your hand. This is great when you draw a hand of militia who are too weak to go to the dungeon and are otherwise worth no gold in the village. Speaking of Militia, there are 30 new copies of the Militia with the missing "Hero" trait replaced, in case you have a first printing of the game. Most other cards with errata were not replaced.

There are 14 new types of village cards in WE. Just as some of the heroes helped to add value to cards that otherwise were chaff late in the game, some of the village cards enhance characters from the first set. An example of this is the Short Bow, which grants a +3 to attack versus the monsters in the second and third rank (read "levels") of the dungeon, but grants additional bonuses in the hands of one of the archers from the base set. Most of the village cards were interesting, but some, like Ambrosia, are minor twists on cards in the first set. Depending on the monsters and other village cards in play, you may always prefer to buy Ambrosia, as opposed to Feast, or vice versa, effectively limiting your play options if both are in play in the village at one time. This may occasionally make you want to tweak the randomly selected setup to "cure" this if you perceive it as a problem with diversity in the Village's marketplace.

Golem cardThere are four new categories of monsters in this set: two sets of elementals, one set of golems, and a new type of monster called the Horde. The Horde is effectively a very vanilla monster, but a special mechanic in the game makes each horde card more difficult to kill than the last one (and potentially worth more victory points as well). The golems and elementals are often very difficult to kill – so difficult, in fact, you may be hard-pressed to come up with the tools to kill them. Only characters with high strength can attack the golems, for example (finally a good use for those Iron Rations that are always clogging up your deck late in the game). Some of the new monsters have so many attack restrictions on them that they are only beatable by amassing level two and level three heroes in your deck. This is easier to do in a three or four player game because more hero purchases brings these valuable heroes to the top of the hero village decks more quickly. When playing with two-players (or using the solo play variant), it's harder to get these higher-level heroes and harder, therefore, to beat some of the tougher new monsters. This creates a sweet spot in the number of players which I'm guessing is three or four total players, but I cannot say that with certainty.

The difficulty of the new monsters will occasionally force a player to spend a turn in the dungeon to chase away an unkillable monster. This will cycle in a new monster that can be dealt with more easily. This would be a strategy that tends to benefit your opponents but for the presence of a new "Dungeon Feature" called "Traps".

There are three new Dungeon Features in this set: Dire Traps, Death Traps, and Guardians. Dire Traps and Death Traps are new categories of cards that are shuffled into the Dungeon Deck with the monsters for the game. Like Monsters, they appear in one of the three ranks of the dungeon. Immediately after being revealed, a trap takes effect and is replaced by another card in the Dungeon Deck. Dire Traps cause minor misfortunes like giving players Disease cards. Death Traps kill heroes outright. Some of these only affect the "other players" (i.e., everyone other than the player currently taking a turn), punishing people who weren't brave enough to enter the dungeon.

There is only one Guardian in WE, the "Dark Champion". Guardians can create a fourth rank of monster to face (they can move to Rank 0). They are powerful and tend to have a negative impact on the players each turn they are in play. During Dungeon Deck construction Guardians are placed toward the bottom of the deck, generally signaling that the game is at least half way over.

All these new Dungeon Features have corresponding randomizers in the Monster Randomizer deck, but you always play with at least three monster types to fight. The new setup rules will then cause you to build a Dungeon Deck that is between 31 and 44 cards deep. Of course, when the Dungeon Deck is larger the game lasts a proportionally longer period of time.

There is also a new type of Thunderstone card. It is worth only one point instead of three, for those players who felt a three point Thunderstone added too much to the score of the player who was lucky enough to find it. This new Thunderstone also acts as a light source in some of the optional multi-game campaign variants included in the rulebook.

New Gameplay Variants & New Rules
The WE rulebook includes a wide variety of different optional play variations for use with TS. The first of these is a solo variant – this is just a printed version of the rules available on the AEG website since shortly after the base set's release. I used to regularly win solo games of TS, but the new monsters can really make these games more difficult.

Cage cardThere are also variant rules for playing multiple games of TS in a row, in campaign format – using multiple Thunderstones, for example, along with more than three monster types at a time. The ideas presented are solid ones for players looking for a whole evening of TS. I likely won't play them very often as the inclusion of the new Dungeon Features plus the difficulty of the new monsters tends to make games even longer than they were initially. A last set of variants are pre-set collections of village, hero, and monster cards that have a specific theme (like "holy war"). Theme is where TS really beats out Dominion, so this was a pleasant option to see.

There are a couple of gray areas in the new rules. Some of these are exacerbated if you have the first edition of the base game, as there are errors on a few cards from that set which can make you scratch your head when resolving some cards from WE. The second printing of the base TS game has a lot of the wording problems ironed out, so if you have that, some of these gray areas go away entirely.

Conclusions
TS continues to impress me, except for the usability of the cards' trade dress, which can make it pretty difficult to introduce this game to non-gamer geeks. One thing I wished that had been shipped with this set but wasn't is a set of -2 "light penalty" counters. The light mechanic in TS is sometimes onerous to calculate without using special counters. While I have homemade counters for this purpose, many other players would benefit from such a resource.

Overall this set adds a lot more difficulty as well as some additional time to the length of each game, making it most appropriate for people who are already familiar with the base set of cards. On average, our two- and three-player games have run around two hours of play time.

The new game cards alone would make Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements a good expansion for Thunderstone. However, the packaging was a hit with me, and that makes this a "must have" expansion if you are a fan of the base game, particularly considering the price.

For Retailers
I have only played one game of Dominion, but it did not compare for me in terms of the theme, art quality, and intricacy of TS. However, Dominion is a much more streamlined game with simpler rules and a shorter play time, and as such, it has a larger potential audience than TS does. Wrath of the Elements will probably not sell as many copies as it would if it were a Dominion expansion. Still, the art on the box is attractive, and TS is a popular product with good word-of-mouth. If TS sells well for you, then you should definitely consider carrying this product as I expect many people who own the base game will want this expansion.

Lee's Ratings
Overall: A-
Gameplay: A- (lower if you prefer shorter games)
Rules Clarity: B+ (A- if you are using the second printing of the base set)
Artwork: A
Card Layout: B (due to lack of useful iconography on some cards)
Packaging: A (a highly appropriate packaging design, useful for both storage and transportation)
Retailer Salability: B

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