Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: Runewars

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while I've played all of the Terrinoth setting games at this point (but not all of the expansions), I am not really excited about the world setting. It's just rather generic fantasy, in my opinion, and therefore none of the games really need to be connected by setting.

The Overview:

The unnecessarily large box cover art. Unfortunately it didn't really take full advantage of the larger size.

What is inside the box. Also not pictured, a lot of air. 

Runewars is a fantasy conquest and area control game that has some elements of an adventure game and resource gathering and management in it. The game represents an epic struggle of up to four factions warring over the control of Dragon Runes in the game. Each player expands their territory in a world of limited space and resources, often causing conflicts as each faction grows in power, size and strength. Ultimately the game ends when one faction seizes control of enough of the Dragon Runes
and has enough territory to hold them. This is six Dragon Runes in the normal game, although I highly prefer the epic game variant that requires seven Dragon Runes.

Runewars is a game for 2-4 players, each controlling their own unique faction. The play time is listed at 180 minutes, and as experienced players we find this now to be the upper end ceiling for our game lengths. Most games end in about 120-150 minutes, and this is considering the fact that we tend to play with the Epic game variant which does significantly increase potential game time. Throughout the game, each player controls unique armies, but also a number of powerful heroes who are questing for the Dragon Runes individually.

The game's rules are long, but surprisingly intuitive to grasp. Because of the complexity of it, the overview will be a bit long and unwieldy. Feel free to skip to the next section if you don't want a long (but still not very in depth) rules summary.

The game actually begins with the set-up. The game world is comprised of a modular board and each of the players places world pieces until it is built. This allows each player to try to set up potential defensive areas and choke points if they think ahead. After the world is built, each player adds their starting realm onto the edges of the existing map. There are some rules for placement and such, but this is the gist of the set up.

Each player also begins with an Objective Card. These state requirements that if the player can resolve, he immediately gains a Dragon Rune.

The game is played over the course of six "years" (eight in the Epic variant). Each year is broken down into four seasons and during each season, each player gets to take one action. At the start of each season, a Season Card matching that Season is drawn. Players resolve the effect listed on the card. These may be world events that effect everyone or represent councils where all of the players bid for an action or ability listed on the card. Each season also has a secondary season related ability that occurs, affecting each player, but are obviously predictable and occur at the end of each season.

After the season cards are revolved (including the secondary ability), each player chooses their Order card from their hand. Each player possesses identical sets of 8 Order cards which dictate what actions they may take in that season. Each Order also has a potential secondary ability, called the Supremacy Bonus. Each card is numbered from 1 to 8 and a Supremacy Bonus is only resolved if the card you played is a higher number than any other card you have already played this year. This means that you are more likely to move armies and attack in Spring and Summer and more likely to Harvest your fields and Recruit Troops and Fortify your position in the Autumn and Winter months. You are not restricted by this, but you forfeit the secondary advantage of the card. So I could save a card to attack in the Winter, but it is likely that it will not be as powerful as it would have been in the Summer because of higher numbered cards being played.

The Orders consist of allowing you to move Units and Heroes, starting battles (or Diplomacy), harvesting resources for the territories they control, recruiting new Units into their army, gaining the benefits from any cities that the player controls, gaining Influence tokens (the primary currency in the game), or fortifying their position and building strongholds. Each of these has a secondary ability that is activated if the card played is a higher number than any other card already played that year.

This is repeated each season and through each year until one player controls six Dragon Runes and wins the game.

Now there are a couple of things to specifically highlight in the game, however:

Each player has a board that tracks their faction's current resources. Each hex a player's Unit occupies and therefore controls give that player certain resources. These resources include Food, Wood and Ore. As you possess more of a resource it allows you to you the Recruit Order to bring in more units of different types, as well as possibly granting you bonus Influence or Tactics cards. You do not automatically update your dials when you take over a new territory, however. You only adjust them when you play the Harvest Order. This means that after conquering new areas you'll often want to harvest the resources so that you can be well supplied to recruit more Units.

At the end of each Summer, every player can resolve the actions of any Heroes that they control. Heroes do not usually affect the armies on the board, but instead represent powerful heroes working for your faction that are trying to find Dragon Runes for your armies to possess and defend. Each player has a number of Quest cards that only their Hero can resolve for a Reward (which may be equipment making them more powerful, or it may be a Dragon Rune). This is almost a sub-game and to some it may feel like it has a bit less depth to it. However, the Heroes are rather strategic in a lot of ways and their movements (only at the end of Summer) are predictable. I view them as an important part of the game, kind of like Frodo and Sam running around doing rather important work while the armies are busy conquering and holding territories doing other rather important work. If you want the Hero portion of the game to have a bit more depth (or at least interest) to it, then I would highly recommend playing with the Exploration Tokens variant, which gives each hex a hero moves to a mini-encounter to resolve.

Most non-home base hexes begin the game occupied with Neutral Units. Neutral Units can be removed in one of two ways: either attacked and defeated, or through Diplomacy. If one or more of your Units moves into a territory with Neutral Units, you may attempt Diplomacy. When moving into the territory, the player may spend between 1-6 Influence. For each point spend, he draws one Fate Card. Each card has one of three symbols on it reflecting either a full success, partial success or failure. The player then chooses one of his drawn Fate cards and resolves the symbol on it. A full success indicates that the Neutral Units ally with the player and are now under his control (provided that he keeps at least one of his Units with them at any time, otherwise they defect and become Neutral again). A partial success means that all Neutral Units retreat from the hex and the player controls it. A failure indicates that the player must either immediately battle the Neutral Units or retreat from the hex. Diplomacy cannot be used against other player's Units.

Battles are resolves when Units of different factions occupy the same hex. Each faction has four different types of units, each of a different general strength and special ability. Combat is resolved in five Initiative Rounds. Each Unit type only activates and is resolved on its specific initiative. Starting at 1 Initiative, players draw Fate Cards for each of their Units that activate on 1 Initiative. Depending on the unit type (specified in game by the shape of the figure's base), the card will indicate if you hit (and cause how much damage), miss, rout enemy units or activate your Unit's special ability. At the end of each Initiative Round, damage is resolved. Any Units receiving damage equal to their health is removed. The next higher Initiative Round is then resolved in the same way. The basic set up for most units are that the weaker Units are generally the quicker ones, attacking early, while the most powerful Units tend to attack later, but are devastating when they hit. Each faction has different Units that play differently and each have their own strategy on how to play them most effectively. There are different kinds of Neutral Units as well, and each of them has their own ability and strengths and may often require different tactics in taking them down. At the end of the fifth Initiative Round, the battle is over. The player with the most non-routed Units standing at the end of the battle wins. If both have the same number standing, then the Defender wins the battle. The loser must retreat his troops (if any are left) to an adjacent friendly hex.

Since each hex can contain only one Dragon Rune, each player must expand their land and holds enough territory to house each of their obtained runes. This also means that territories holding a Dragon Rune are vulnerable to Conquest if not appropriately defended.

The Theme:

Runewars is an epic game of conquest and, uh... war over runes. It takes place in the Terrinoth world that also includes other games, such as Descent, Runebound and the new DungeonQuest. Since this is a macro-game of factions at war, it has a very different feel than each of the other games set in the world, which focus more on events of individual heroes. I think it also does not have to be set in the Terrinoth world. Sure the continuity of the world setting is neat, but it is completely unneeded, especially in a game that feels so different than the others in the realm.

That being said, the game feels epic. The expansion is strategic and borders are often tense locations of trying to trust your neighbor just long enough so that you can make the first move against them. Because there is a quantifiable victory condition that requires territory being held, alliances are often made and broken based on stopping other players from advancing too far.

There are Heroes in this game, but this game does not focus and flesh out their exploits. Some people believe that this breaks theme, but I disagree. This story is being told through the eyes of Aragorn and not Strider. Sure there may be small updates about how Frodo is doing along the way, but the war on the ground is the perspective that it is played through.

I find the political and military struggles of this game to be very tight and intense. From that perspective, it succeeds fully on the theme of the game and drawing me into it. I need to plan ahead and control my nation and outwit and outbattle each of my opponents.

Learning the Game:

There are a lot of rules in the game and it may seem daunting. The rulebook is a 40-page 8" x 10" full color book. There is not really too much ambiguity in the rules, but rather as Fantasy Flight games seem to be in recent years, a lot of little specifics are difficult to find and look up. But still, for a game with as much going on in it as this game has, the rules are ultimately rather intuitive after a couple of plays.

Intuitiveness, however, does not mean that determining strategy is easy and it is quite easy to take a bad action in one season that sets you back a lot further than you may realize. Since you only take four actions per year, they are vitally important.

The Components:

A game set-up with a map built.

An example of one of the tiles that is laid out to build the map. Tiles vary greatly in shape and size. 

The map has a 3-D elements to it.

Some of the sculpts of the figures in the game. There are many of them and they are varied and each is greatly detailed.

This is the Elven faction's reference board that also has the resource dials on it. 

The game is beautiful. Fantasy Flight definitely can make very beautiful games and this is no exception. It is also very functional. Each faction has four different types of sculpts for their different Units and the Heroes are all very beautiful sculpts. The plastic in this game is very pretty.

The hexes are functional and easily display all pertinent information on them and, more importantly, each is large enough to hold enough Units on it (unlike Horus Heresy where you often ended up cramming units into a small region). The inclusion of 3-D mountains is purely superfluous and is nothing more than aesthetics, but it does work and make things much pretty. Completely unnecessary, but pretty.

The cards are small, but functional and of a good stock. Combats, Quest resolution and Battles all are resolved with the same deck of Fate Cards, and they manage to put relevant information on the small cards to resolve each of these.

One complaint that I have with the game is that it offers the Epic Game variant requiring more Dragon Rune tokens to be obtained in a longer game. However, there are not enough Dragon Runes included in the game for a close four-player game. Ultimately other tokens can be used, but it just seems to be odd to offer a variant that it does not have the resources for when the other variant in the rules has 35 separate tokens only used when employing the variant.

My only other complaint with the components of the game are with the box itself. The box is large. Very large and very unnecessarily large. Shelf space is, of course, an issue, but I have another complaint with the box.

Since the box is so large, it by default ends up on the bottom of a stack when I am transporting games. If I am carrying 4 or 5 games into a place to play, the large Runewars box always ends up on the bottom with other boxes placed on top of it. However, because the box is really so empty, the weight of other boxes on top of it has caused damage to it. Sure, I should may multiple trips, etc. However, the excess emptiness of long width box makes it particularly and unnecessarily vulnerable.

Playing the Game:

While rules are intuitive, strategy is not necessarily. The game really takes a number of plays to fully grasp the complexities of strategy and, as such, experienced players have an advantage over the less experienced. A certain significant advantage is gained by a familiarity of the season cards and their effects. If you are familiar with them, then you can plan around the chance of one of them showing up.

The Hero phase of Summer seems to be a sticking point with some players. It is almost its own sub-game since it rarely affects the armies on the board that move and battle over every season of the year. However, it is something that cannot be fully ignored or discounted. Heroes can gain Dragon Runes and can win the game for a faction, so they must be monitored and watched at every point. Armies cannot stop an individual Hero, but other Heroes may encounter and fight with an opponent's Hero. While I can understand the claim that it is a distracting sub-game, I do not agree. I again refer to the feel of Aragorn on the battlefield hoping that Frodo will win the day for him.

There are two variants to the game, both of which I feel improve the game dramatically.

In one variant, the Heroes have Exploration Tokens on each hex and as they travel, they need to resolve these tokens, giving mini-encounters that may benefit or harm the hero. Some may even affect the armies who go to that location. It makes the Hero phase a bit more interesting and I do not play without this variant.

The other variant is the Epic Game variant that requires seven Dragon Runes to win the game instead of six. They also only start with one rune instead of two. The game can run up to eight years in this variant. Personally, I think that this should be the standard way to play. The base game often ends a bit quicker and often before there is any real conflict between the factions (a common complaint with the game). With this variant, there is no bluffing of where a rune is at and everything is up front. It makes battling for territory that contains runes more strategic and occur much more often. Not to mention that each faction needs to possess more land to hold more runes. This is the way that we play every game and I believe it should have been the base game with the "standard" rules to be offered as a shorter play variant.

Scalability:The game plays from 2-4 players and, like many games, more is better. However, I find the game fully playable with 2 players. The map scales according to the number of players and I would definitely not ever play without the Epic War variant with 2 players. But, it is a great way to learn the game and still is challenging and fun. However, the game shines when you have temporary alliances and great armies have to suddenly drop their conflicts and turn against an opponent who has suddenly come close to victory.

So it is playable with 2 and enjoyable with 2, but you are missing a lot of the fun of the game with just 2.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. That being said, I really thought that this was going to be a hard sell. When I first introduced it to her many months ago, I told her we'd just play two years as a learning game to determine how the mechanics worked. At the end of the second year, she still wanted to keep going.

My wife is also deceptively good at games like this and she has quickly adapted an understanding of the best way to play the Elves. For a long while, she would not play another race. Finally, she conceded and tried another race and won with their strategies as well. So she's not just an elf-player savant, but she's just plain good at the game. I think the length turns her off to the game a bit, but that is probably the only thing that makes her hesitate about playing the game.

The Pros:

*Excellent components that are pretty, but also functional.
*The game really feels epic.
*Asymmetrical balance in factions that really takes understanding the different strategies that work best for each.
*Complexity of the system really works in a surprisingly intuitive form.
*Resource needs causes realistic territory expansion and conflicts.
*Game can force some at table alliances and diplomacy to stop a potential victor which make for some uneasy and tense truces.
*Modular map and building in set-up offers a lot of variation in replay.

The Cons:

*Box size is unnecessarily large.
*Hero sub-game does cause some disconnect for some players.
*Using a single deck for all in-game resolution creates some "card counting" issues when determining potential success or failure of some actions when dice could have offered the same probability with just a bit more randomness.
*Play time can be daunting to some players.
*A single badly timed Order can really be difficult to recover from.
*Game can feel like it has an "attack the leader" mechanic sometimes.


Runewars is an amazingly tense and strategic game. Due to the limited number of actions and the penalties of playing them out of order, it really makes the decision for every season's Order card that much more important. Too many people may focus on this as an epic war game, but that is not true. I have seen people win without ever battling another player. Heroes, season cards and Influence can win enough runes to win. So the game is more meta than that and encompasses both war and politics and negotiation. The game does scale, but is definitely better with 3 and best with 4. This game is one of my favorites and I will rarely turn down the chance to play it.


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