PAX East 2016: Thornwatch Impressions!



I’ve spent the better part of the past two days living the illustrious ConLife here at PAX East 2016. For those of you who may not be familiar, PAX is an annual gaming convention situated in the lovely city of Boston, Massachusetts (seriously, this city is gorgeous. Every time I’m in a car or walking around I can’t help but gaze at the architecture). PAX is put on by the good folks of Penny Arcade and covers all types of gaming: mobile, video, tabletop, card-you name it and if it’s a game worth its salt, it’ll have a presence in some way, shape or form at a Penny Arcade Expo. PAX East is one of the flagship events of the company, and I am fortunate enough to be attending it for the first time in 2016.

I’ve a confession to make to you Bros: I have no prior experience with board/tabletop gaming, save for a limited run during my middle school years with the Pokemon Trading Card game and a bit of Monopoly here and there. That being said, Thornwatch is a tabletop game Penny Arcade has been playtesting during multiple PAX events (PAXs? PAXes?) and has long been touted as a game which is easy to pick up “off the shelf.” I figure if a tabletop game is truly easy to pick up, even a crew of n00bs should be able to understand the mechanics with relative ease. As such, the crew and I jumped at the chance to be one of the lucky few who would have the opportunity to playtest the latest iteration of Thornwatch here at PAX East 2016.


As I’ve already confessed to being a complete n00b in the realm of tabletop, I’m not entirely sure what’s relevant when discussing this type of game. That being said, as a tremendous fan of narratives I figure that’s a solid place to start. To break it down simply for you Bros, there’s a forest called the Eyrewood. This forest is populated by mostly creatures. Some forest inhabitants are tame yet some are evil because they’ve been corrupted by a substance known as “ebb.” In said forest you’ve got the Daughters of Eyrewood, who do everything in their power to protect it. Outside of the forest are villages, populated by-you guessed it-villagers! Additionally, the villages are populated with Lookouts. Lookouts are young boys (think boy scouts) who are training to become protectors of the village. They go into the forest to hone their survival and battle skills. Then you’ve got the Thornwatch, who are spirits who assist those in need. They are summoned by tying specific knots around birch trees, and can be called by any party. That’s the simple breakdown of the “factions” who make up the Eyrewood, and I sincerely apologize if my limited background on the subject matter provides an inaccurate synopsis. I plan to pick up the books eventually, I swear!


Below I’ll describe some of the core game mechanics. Bear in mind-this game has been in the incubator (aka in development) for quite some time and since its inception it has seen numerous iterations. So while below I’ll describe the game in its current states, there’s a chance it may change before seeing the light of day.


The game is facilitated by the Judge, which can be considered the equivalent of a Dungeon Master. There are multiple classes to choose from, each of which should be familiar to any RPG player. Your Bro opted to play as the Greenheart, which is essentially the squad’s healer. Scenarios are determined by the Judge and span three acts, the goal of which is detailed in player cards. These cards provide both a narrative framework for the game and set the stage for the ensuing journey. Players are given a mat which details class-specific moves, general rules of movement and the number of cards you can have powered up and readied (think Pokemon). Once an action card has the necessary energy they’re good to go. As the order of movement is decided (the Judge shuffles a deck of player and enemy cards after every round to determine the order for that round) players shuffle their deck and then it’s off to the races!

The rules of the game are fairly straightforward and easy to pick up. I won’t bore you with the specifics, as this post is about impressions-although if you Bros are interested in the specifics I’d be more than happy to detail gameplay in a later post. After the first hour and a half-and I sincerely believe it only took this long due to the crew and I being completely unfamiliar with tabletop games-the game moved at a much more frequent pace. Whereas during the first couple rounds I felt like I had no earthly idea what I was doing, by the end of the first act I felt like I not only had a thorough understanding of what I could do in the game, but how my specific character could support my allies and engage our enemy in the most tactical way possible. Truth be told, despite my inexperience with the genre by the end of the game I felt I had a thorough enough understanding to be a judge for future playtests if given the opportunity.

20160423_001045137_iOS The board is essentially constructed of puzzle pieces, however you can see from the photos they are really good-looking puzzle pieces. Construction took only a few seconds and the backstory provided by the story cards detailing the premise of the adventure worked quite well with the vibrant and striking art style. When the board is fully assembled it’s reminiscent of comic book panels. The developers mentioned in the panel they were attempting to achieve this particular aesthetic, and I believe they accomplished this goal with flying colors. The board and character tokens (of which there are multiple for each class) are quite detailed, and the intentionally blurred landscapes of the game board help establish the feeling of your character truly being immersed in a new world. The backgrounds also allow the character tokens to pop without providing any clutter or distraction.


Apart from some minor issues with the diction of certain cards not being crystal-clear and understanding the different action and reaction moves (of which I’ve come to believe these are genre staples and the crew and I are just total n00bs), Thornwatch was a title each of us picked up with relative ease…after we were briefed on general tabletop conventions such as preparing cards and learning how to support other players without a controller in our hand. That being said, the quirks of certain characters and the addition of terrain cards (aka environmental effects) provide an added layer of depth to gameplay, and once players familiarize themselves with the nuances of each classes’ deck I can see how strategy can grow more complex. Things were undoubtedly kept simple for this playtest, and for that the crew and I are thankful.


Overall, Thornwatch is a tabletop game for both veterans (I’m guessing) and newcomers (of this I’m sure) alike. I’m glad this title was the first tabletop game I ever played and I cannot wait to see what the finished product looks like whenever it drops. Here’s hoping it’s soon and yo Penny Arcade-if you ever need a Bro for some playtesting you know where to find me. Lots more to come from PAX East 2016 so until the next post, Bros!


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