Theme and What is it?
Deep in the Eyrewood, scarred veterans are summoned through ancient ritual, made manifest as the the Thornwatch, coming together to overcome whatever evil has befallen the Eyrewood. They are duty-bound to see it through. They will face many challenges as the overseeing Judge works to impede their every move. Having answered the call, will you defeat the evil forces and restore peace to the Eyrewood?
Thornwatch is a graphic novel adventure board game for three to five players, one of whom will take on the adversarial role of the Judge. Thornwatch comes with a number of storyboards that include mission setup, flavor text, and options for choosing a next mission based on success, failure, and how long the group wants to continue playing. To begin, one player will take the role of the Judging Wood, either the Judge Below or the Judge of the Stars, and the remaining players will choose a member of the Thornwatch, either the Guard, Blade, Sage, Greenheart, or Warden.
The Judge will choose a role and do some basic setup. There are four storyboards that serve as opening scenes. The Judge will select one which will inform which tiles to set out to build the play area and which monsters and/or denizens (NPCs) are involved plus any markers. It will also note starting areas for all character types. The Judge will receive a starting pool of ebb, a currency for fueling in-game powers, based on the number of players. While setting out the scene tiles, the Judge will also have the option to add some terrain elements which can either cost ebb to place, provide ebb when placed, or act as a cache of ebb that can be released to the Judge from an in-game trigger. The Judge also builds a wound deck of 10 wound cards per member of the Thornwatch.
For members of the Thornwatch, they must first select a character role. Each role has a male and female option that is identical in gameplay terms. After choosing, players will receive that hero’s deck, momentum card, player pawn, and hero tracker. They will also randomly select two traits, which encourage narrative description and can earn extra attack dice when played upon in gameplay. Each hero deck includes 15 skill cards (eight of their dominant skill and seven of their non-dominant skill) made of of two of the five skills (Agility, Brawn, Mind, Spirit, and Woodwise) and 15 action cards that are powered by said skills. Each hero operates within two skill groups, say for example the Blade who is Agility and Mind, and whichever ability powers their basic attack on their hero tracker is effectively their dominant skill. Thus the Blade has eight Agility cards, seven Mind cards, and 15 action cards. I mention this because I could not find it listed explicitly in the rules and while the decks come properly setup, should you pull them apart in an ill-advised attempt to sort your new copy as I did, you don’t know how to rebuild them without making an intuitive leap.
The primary mechanism to playing the game is the momentum track. When play begins each card will give their momentum card to the Judge. The Judge will add in any monster or denizen cards and shuffle the cards together before laying them out, left to right, from Root to Edge. This track will ultimately set the turn order for the upcoming round. After the initial deal, various things occur in order that affect the order. Monsters will shift according to their information card, then denizens will likewise shift. The Judge is able to use any of their available actions to enact a shift before finally the Thornwatch Heroes are allowed to make any shifts. Play will then continue according to the momentum track. After a turn, the correlating momentum card is rotated in the track to indicate that character’s turn is ended.
On a player’s turn, they may first choose between four options in any order. They may move to any adjacent tile. They may not move diagonally. A player may also “slot” any number of action cards onto or or more of their hero tracker’s four action slots. Should it be necessary, previously slotted cards can be discarded for no effect. A player may also choose to power up slotted actions with cards from their hand that will meet the requirements of the action card. Skill cards and Action cards can both be used to power skills. Each card provides the symbol indicated on the card. Lastly, a player can take an action, either by discarding cards from their hand to power an action on their hero tracker, meeting the requirements for a storyboard action if there is one, or by selecting a slotted action whose requirements have been met. After completing this step, the player discards any remaining cards into their discard pile and draws five new cards unless otherwise stated. Whenever a player’s deck is empty and they must reshuffle their discard pile, the Judge gains two ebb.
The Judge takes turns for both monsters and denizens. Both monsters and denizens may Move and Act in any order. Some monster types have special rules. In the case of Pack Monsters, all tokens of that monster type activate when that monster’s single momentum card is activated whereas Persistent Monsters have multiple momentum cards and take a turn when each card is activated. The possible actions for monsters and denizens are listed on their correlating information card.
Most actions from the various characters in a game of Thornwatch will be attacks. Attacks are either melee or ranged, where melee must target an enemy in the same tile while ranged may target the same tile or an adjacent tile, and will roll a number of dice equal to the number of attack symbols. The dice are 10-sided and will yield results that are either blank, one blood, two blood, or an ebb. Each blood is a hit and each ebb, when rolled by a hero, give the Judge one ebb token. If a hero has previously played to their traits through narrative play, they may have the ability to add a red focus die to their results. This is done after the initial roll and if chosen, flips the trait card back over, encouraging the player to once again play to their traits. Any blood remaining after various effects that may increase or decrease the total are taken as wounds.
When a monster or denizen takes wounds and is not on the Edge, it moves down the momentum track toward the edge, stopping when it reaches final position and ignoring any remaining damage. If the monster or denizen is already on the Edge when wounded, it is defeated and one of its associated pawns is removed from the map. If any pawns remain, the card shifts equal to its momentum shift back into the momentum track. If no pawns remain, the card is removed. When a hero is wounded, instead of shifting they will receive wound cards. They will place wound cards equal to the amount of damage into their discard pile and also discard cards from the top of their deck equal to the damage received. If a hero ever draws wounds into their hand, they are held face out, so everyone can see they are carrying wounds. If the wound deck is ever empty, the game ends in failure, unless it occurs while the heroes simultaneously succeed. In either case, the game ends.
A scene will either end in success or failure for the Thornwatch. The storyboard will dictate how the story continues, if at all. Sometimes there is a branching option that can be decided on between the players or by the Judge. Depending on how much more everyone wants to play, you can also choose to go directly to the ending scene for that story. When changing scenes, only the map tiles, pawns and markers are removed, the heroes progress unchanged with their hands, decks, discard piles, and slotted actions remaining in place. When a full story ends, both the heroes and the Judge may gain rewards or suffer punishments. Certain storyboards can award specific knots (instructions for tying are available on the website) and provide once per adventure bonuses. Negative effects include Scars, which take the place of a trait card for the duration of the next adventure. Scars are attached to players, not characters, so will follow that player to the next game regardless of their chosen role.
Coming from the minds of the folks at Penny Arcade, the ideas that became this game have been germinating for a while and I have followed its evolution, excited by its goals of creating a game with group narrative storytelling elements that encourages light roleplay, while eschewing some more traditional elements of roleplaying games. When I saw it at Origins 2018, I had to know more.
Game Build Quality
Thornwatch comes with 28 momentum cards, 1 Root and 1 Edge card, 150 Hero deck cards in 5 hero decks, 15 denizen and monster rules cards, 50 wound cards, 5 turn summary cards, 26 terrain cards, 25 trait cards, 5 scar cards, 5 hero trackers, 1 Judge tracker, 15 storyboards, 75 pawns, 30 ebb, 16 markers, 24 map tiles, 6 basic dice, 2 focus dice, 8 dividers, and the rulebook. The various 10-sided dice are standard dice with game specific markings. The cards are all relatively thin and were beginning to show signs of wear on the edges after minimal play and my group is pretty careful with components. I would recommend sleeving the cards. The trait and terrain cards should be fine as they are a smaller card size and are not handled as much. The hero and Judge trackers are thin cardstock. They are pretty flimsy, but should hold up ok through repeated plays.
The pawns and tiles are the biggest disappointment. As I mention later in this review, the art in this game is fantastic. Unfortunately the quality of the punchboard lets it down. The die cuts are not very clean. Almost all of the punchboard components have noticeable cardboard burrs left behind after punching. Exercise extreme caution when punching the tokens. Even with care, we had a few that were difficult to punch and a couple that stuck and begin to delaminate and separate. It is very easy for them to grab when punching and peel, damaging the amazing art. Even the game box feels thin.
The art in Thornwatch is amazing. The tiles that make up the adventure layout have a wide range of colors from warm village locations to dark brooding forests to cold barren landscapes. The intended effect of simulating a graphic novel is clear as the tiles look like panels and the tokens match that same style. Between player characters, enemies, and NPCs, sometimes the tiles get a little too cluttered to maintain the look of a graphic novel, but overall it works and is a unique design choice that sets Thornwatch apart.
Age Range & Weight
Thornwatch lists itself as intended for ages 13 and up. I think you could easily bring this age range down. The mechanisms are pretty simple and if playing a member of the Thornwatch, they can rely on other players for assistance. The Judge might be a little more difficult to play as intended for younger players. In our experience, the Judge really needs to be an adversarial role to the Thornwatch and be relentless against them. While the game intends to encourage group narrative storytelling, it stays pretty mechanical and should be easy for young players to manage and incorporate into the gameplay.
Thornwatch carries mixed emotions for me, but was primarily a positive experience. I enjoyed the gameplay. While you are limited by what you draw into your hand, the option to use action cards as well as skill cards to power your slotted actions helps and you rarely run into having a dead hand or turn with little to do. The momentum track is pretty unique in my experience and is a great way to handle game flow. I like that it displays not only turn order, but is an abstract representation of monster and denizen health as well. I very much enjoyed the storyboard approach to running an adventure and it keeps with the thematic presentation of this game as a graphic novel. It also provides a simple way of offering expanded content through primarily more storyboards, though extra characters, monsters, and denizens can be added easily enough. Unlike some, Thornwatch is a one vs many game that requires the adversary, in this case the Judge, to embrace their role and do everything they can to punish the heroes in order to maintain game balance.
I had expected a little more inspiration from RPG mechanisms in Thornwatch, as I had followed the game since its days on Kickstarter when they seemed more prominent, but there really isn’t any character progression of which to speak. The traits function as an attempt to encourage narrative description as players play to their traits, but they fell a little flat with our group and I am unsure how necessary they are to the final product. The rulebook was also a bit of a mess. Repeatedly it would tell you to do a step, but then not explain that step until a page or two later. I feel the game may have needed more blind playtesting because I have spoken to others who were similarly lost when faced just with the rulebook. The biggest disappointment however has to be the component quality. It just is not what gamers have come to expect from a big box game with a similarly big box price tag. Most unfortunately, it feels like it does the art a disservice.
At the end of it all, I think Thornwatch is a really fun, albeit relatively light, adventure game. I can easily see myself doing short sessions at game night and long all day sessions with my kids. The component issues, while unfortunate and hopefully rectified in any expansions or second printing, can largely be overcome with extra care, the cardboard burrs being the trickiest to fix and most difficult to ignore. However, the art of Thornwatch is its saving grace. I cannot overstate how beautiful the art is. This, when coupled with a few unique mechanisms, make Thornwatch worthy of checking out, particularly if like a good fantasy-inspired adventure.