Thornwatch: Eyrewood Adventures
Thornwatch is a role-playing/hand management game for three to six players set in the Eyrewood Forest. One player assumes the role of Judge (GM), while the other players are members of the legendary Thornwatch, a group of spirit guardians who aid the forest's denizens.
About 60-90 minutes per story card.
July 10th, 2018
-Engaging card management system
-Unique initiative system called the Momentum track
-Beautiful tiles and character art
-High replay-ability with different story arcs called "Branches"
Designer: Penny Arcade
Artist: Mike Krahulik and others
Publisher: Lone Shark Games
Category: Role-playing, card management
Player Count: 2-5
Price: $80 (Expansion $40)
Thornwatch: Eyrewood Adventures is the result of Penny Arcade‘s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins collaborating with Lone Shark Games, as well as over 5,000 Kickstarter backers. Mentioned on their website as far back as 2012, showed off at PAX back in 2014, then delayed nine months to make sure everything was right, getting Thornwatch in player’s hands has been a long time coming. And if you’re a fan of role-playing games with deep lore, quick setup, and great art, it’ll be worth the wait.
Thornwatch is a fantasy role-playing game, and players will run into various magics and enemies one would expect in those scenarios. The Expansion, Dark of the Wood, continues the themes and elements found in the core set, but with a darker twist – enemies and even heroes in the expansion have been corrupted by the “ebb” in the forest. One of the heroes uses blood magic, another’s face is visibly changed by ebb corruption. Suggested player age is 14+.
Thornwatch puts 2-5 players into the roles of the legendary Thornwatch, a guard of spirits that can be summoned by magical knots when events in the Eyrewood forest turn for the worse. The other player takes on the role of Judge, which will feel familiar to anyone who has played a game of Descent or the original Mansions of Madness. It’s a familiar take on the players versus Game Master setting, but here everything but attack damage is done with cards. Each player has a deck of thirty cards, fifteen abilities, and fifteen cards to provide power, and on his turn can use his hand of five cards to slot and power up attacks, as well as move and act. Even the initiative is done with cards, on the “Momentum Track”. From left to right, characters take their turns each round. When heroes take damage, they get a wound card which takes up space in their hand. Also, if too many wounds are taken and the deck is depleted, the scene ends. If an enemy takes wounds, he is pushed down the Momentum Track until he reaches the edge. Any enemy on the edge that takes damage is killed (with the exception of certain boss monsters). Players also have abilities on their character board that can even be used on a teammate’s turn (the Guard, for example, can take wounds intended for an ally). This leads to more player interactions and people paying attention to the table and not their phones or other distractions.
On my first play, we chose the story, “He May Die in the Forest,” where the Thornwatch was summoned to protect a group of Lookouts (Eyrewood’s Boy Scouts). The players were able to grasp the gameplay easily and made quick work of the threats. It took 90 minutes from setup to put-away, but didn’t feel that long at all. If we had wanted to keep going that evening, the storyboard directed us which of two story “branches” to choose from next since the Thornwatch had prevailed; had they failed, there was only one to choose from. The game encourages players who want to do a long campaign, something akin to a long Dungeons & Dragons module, but it also encourages pick-up-and-play for those who just want to play a bit then be done or switch to something else. It feels impressive they were able to accommodate both in one box. Either type of player will find hours of content in just the core box. It has fifteen story cards and five different heroes, each with a Male/Female side. The expansion adds five more heroes and nine more storyboards.
First the bad: As with many role-playing games that come in a box, the options for what you can do can feel limiting at times, especially if you compare Thornwatch to a traditional RPG like Dungeons or Pathfinder. The upside of this is Thornwatch is faster to set up, play, and understand for new players. It might even be a good gateway game for people trying to introduce RPGs to new gamers. Just don’t expect to be surfing down shields and filling orcs with arrows after rolling a 20. However, given the right combination of heroes and powered abilities, and you might get moments just as epic. In one round as the Judge with 2 players as the Sage and Blade, I watched as the Blade got to pull three attacks in one turn, thanks to an almost-overpowered synergy of attacks. Early in the stories, the Judge has a steep hill to climb to make things difficult for the heroes—if you approach it less as a “Versus” and more of a cooperative storytelling, it will probably make things more enjoyable if you’re in the Judge’s seat.
My other gripe is a small one: The boards and player mats feel flimsy. The gold standard in my mind is something like the thick chipboards that come with most Flying Frog games—thick and sturdy, even down to the individual cards. The boards and player cards feel as thick as regular playing cards. Mike Krahulik stated they wanted the game to feel like an interactive graphic novel (which is also why everything is tokens and not minis), but I don’t think slightly stronger material would have taken away from that. I’m very careful with my games, but I still worry it won’t take much to bend these.
That being said, the artwork on the boards is amazing; like hang-on-the-wall or new phone or desktop background good. All the artists on Thornwatch did a great job, from the inhabitants of Eyrewood to the character and play tiles. With a little organization, Thornwatch could be set up in minutes, which is a great boon for a role-playing game. Having almost everything be done with cards makes things clean and neat, and I like the way players can power up and ready their abilities. Overall, I think Penny Arcade has made a solid game that will entertain a lot of players, including new ones. It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong contender for one of the best role-playing games in a box I’ve been able to play.
+Solid, intuitive game mechanics
+Able to do a one-shot or full campaign
-Play boards and character cards feel too thin
-Limited options compared to traditional or full role-playing games
-Blade Hero feels more powerful than others