Sunday, 16 February 2014

Runewars: not quite a fantasy Twilight Imperium but I can see why people say that

Runewars is a game I've had my eye on for quite some time. My attention was first turned towards Runewars by +Paul Beakley, a member of +Ben Gerber's massive G+ boardgame community. At the time Paul was sharing posts of recent games he had played. There was talk about how this was pretty much a fantasy version of Twilight Imperium. That almost sold the game instantly for me.

Twilight Imperium is one of my favourite event games. What is an event game you ask? Well that's a game that is generally so big, so complex or so long (perhaps even all three) that it requires you to plan an event in order to play them. They aren't the kind of games you just pull out one night when you've got a couple hours to play. These take more commitment than your average game night. 

I've also found that these games aren't great for public play events. Over the last 10 or so years  of running gaming events in Windsor, I've found that the majority of players would much rather show up to an event and play a few different games with different groups of players rather than one long game with the same group. People would rather get in a round of Catan, two games of Tsuro and a game of Puerto Rico each with a different set of players rather than one game of Dominant Species. 

To me event games are games I generally play at home and make more of a big deal out of. We start earlier. We plan on ordering dinner. We expect to game for 5+ hours. Instead of your average game night, it's an event. Thus the term event game. Examples of event games I dig: Dominant Species, Twilight Imperium, Starcraft and now Runewars. 

Runewars Gameplay Summary:

My family is awesome so I got Runewars for my birthday this year. It's for 2-4 players and it claims that you can play a game in 3-4 hours. At one time it was one of those huge coffin box games from Fantasy Flight. In 2010 though the game was re-released in a revised edition that was in a much more stackable and storable standard square Fantasy Flight box (thanks for that FF). I only own this new edition so I can't talk to what the differences are from the original. Based on what I've read online it sounds like there were quite a few improvements, rules clarifications, inclusion of some of the expansion material and more.

The first thing you will notice opening this game is that it has a lot of bits! I mean a lot. Maybe a horde even. I don't think I have any other game, even from Fantasy Flight that has as many bits, cards, chits and minis in the core game. The picture above is all the bits out for a two player game. Note two player, not the full four. Thankfully unlike the original printing of Twilight Imperium 3rd edition, you don't have to cut out the minis. Everything is loose, bagged and ready to go. You just need to punch out all the cardboard, and there's a lot of cardboard.

The game is set in the same world as many of the other Fantasy Flight games; Runebound, Runeage, Descent and probably a couple more I don't remember. Actually the hero miniatures are the exact same ones you will find in these other games. I think there's also an out of print RPG in this setting but I could be wrong.

Each player takes on the role of one of four factions. There's the red chaos armies of Uthuk. The purple undead army of Waigar. The blue human army of Dagan and the green Elven army. The goal of the game is to capture and control the most Dragon Runes by the end of seven years of gameplay. In addition if a player ever controls 6 Dragon Runes they can try for an earlier victory.

Before the game begins you have to build the world. This is done using a hex based modular system that I really liked. Players are each dealt two set up quests and based on those get a set of hex tiles for them to place. In addition they each get a hex based on what army they choose to play. Player then in turn build the world under a fairly open set of guidelines (things like two rivers can't be next to each other and each new tiles has to touch at least two sides of an existing tile). Once the map is built, players seed it with Dragon Runes. This is also interesting as each player gets two tiles, one blank and one real Dragon Rune. They put both out on the board face down so only they know what they placed. This means that no one knows where more than one Dragon Rune is when starting but they know where they might be. All of this is done before anyone has decided where their actual empire is starting, which keeps things fair. Lastly the map is seeded with neutral monster units (these will really familiar to people who have played other games in this series, Giants, Dragons, Hellhounds, etc) and each player sets up their starting territories.

Once the map is made players gather all their bits. Did I mention there are a lot of them? Each army has it's own player board which has information on all of that side's military units, starting resources, starting influence, alignment and probably a couple more things I'm forgetting. There are three resource dials on each board which track the amount of Food, Wood and Ore your empire has. Along with the board you get all your minis. One of the most impressive parts about this game is that each armies miniatures are 100% unique. Each player also gets a hero, a couple of starting quests and an objective based on your alignment. Finally players put their starting units and hero on any of their starting territories.

Sounds like a lot doesn't it? Well wait we aren't done yet. You next have to sort out all the cards, and all the chits and find somewhere for those extra hero minis. Set up in this one is not short. I've found that it takes up to an hour on it's own. Remember: event game.

So now that everything's set up the game itself can begin. Gameplay consists of three repeating rounds: reveal a season card, choose an order and then resolve those orders.

Seasons are represented by decks of small cards, four of them (obviously). The first thing you do each turn is turn up the top one of the next season. These have a wide variety of events on them that affect game play in a variety of ways. Gaining armies, influencing votes, moving neutral units, and lots more. Way too much to go into detail here. In addition to the season event each card also has a special phase you do each time it comes up. Spring is clean up. Summer is when heroes go on quests (more about that later), Fall has you refresh the main randomizer deck and gain tactics or influence and Winter forces you to pay food for your troops or loose them. One extra bit in Winter I thought was brilliant is that the lakes all freeze and can now be crossed by non-flying units. Nice touch.

After the season is resolved it's time for all of the players to pick their orders. This along with the big hex map and all the minis is one of the biggest callbacks to Twilight Imperium. There's one big difference though. Here the order you pick applies to you only and more then one player can pick the same order. There are eight different order cards to choose from each of which can only be played once during a game year. It's also worth noting that since there are only four season in a game year you will only get to pick four different order cards each year. 

Each order card gives you something you can do on your turn. Move troops, build defenses, harvest resources etc. In addition each card has what they call a supremacy bonus. Each card is numbered 1-8 and you get to use the supremacy bonus of your cards if the card you just played is the highest numbered card you played this year. This ads a nice degree of strategy to the order phase and also sets it up so that things like troop movements usually happen early in the year and harvesting and building happens later.

The next phase has each player in turn (lowest order card first) resolve the order card they chose in the last phase. As this is really the meat of the game I'm going to go through each possible order in detail.

1. Strategize: This order is used to move your units around in friendly and empty adjacent territories. You can't attack here, but you can expand. The supremacy bonus lets you get tactics cards. You do this by looking at your resource dials and you get a card for each tactic symbol that shows up on your dial at the point your arrow is at and below (I found some players didn't grock this at first. Your resources don't go down, they aren't spent, and you get the level you are at and any level below which shows the appropriate symbol).

2. Mobilize: This is the main order for moving your units. We see more shades of Twilight Imperium (TI) here. That's because you put an 'activation token' into an hex and then move units into that hex from up to two hexes away (fast units can actually move three). Like TI you can never move a unit out of an activated area. Unlike Strategize this order can start battles. The supremacy bonus here is that you can take a second Mobilize action right after the first one. It's worth noting that any battles that occur are resolved as they happen. There's no separate battle phase for this. More about battles later.

3. Conquer: This is almost identical to Mobilize. The only difference is the supremacy bonus that gives your opponent a penalty when attacking an area with a stronghold (strongholds provide +5 defense, the supremacy bonus reduces this to +2).

4. Harvest: Every hex on the map shows some icons that indicate what resources are present in the area. These are referenced during the Harvest order. You add up all of the icons in the areas you control and update your resource pointers on your board appropriately. The supremacy bonus does two things: uses your developments and allows you to build new ones. Developments are like technological advancements that you tie to a stronghold you have built on the board. These are different for each army and include things like extra defenses, getting additional resources or generating influence. Note that you use your developments before you build new ones, so they aren't used the turn they are built.

5. Recruit: Put new dudes on the map. This works the same way the supremacy bonus for Strategize works. You pick one of your dials and you get the units pictured there based on where your resource pointer is currently at. You get the units at the current space and all lower spaces. These units have to be placed at a friendly stronghold. The supremacy bonus here lets you pick a second resource and generate units based on it as well.

6. Rally Support: When the map is made at the beginning of the game some of the hexes have cities on them. The actual cities are represented by cardboard tokens that are randomized and placed during set up (something I forgot to mention above). These cities can each provide you the opportunity to do one of four things: recruit neutral units, get tactics cards, get influence or new quests. The way you use the cities in this way is with the Rally Support order. The supremacy bonus lets you hire new heroes using influence.

7. Acquire Power: This order is the main way for players to gain influence. It works like recruiting and getting tactics cards, you look at your resources and get influence for the levels you are at and any below. I've mentioned influence a few times but haven't really explained what it's for. Influence is used for a variety of things. You can spend it to try to convert neutral units instead of fighting them. It is used for influence votes during seasonal events (this is an auction where players simultaneously blind bid a number of influence with the winner getting some form of advantage based on the event). Influence determines turn order in case of ties. You use influence when recruiting heroes. You also use it for the supremacy bonus of this power which lets you buy a title. There are three titles each of which gives you a large wide reaching in game bonus. For example the Primarch of the Wizards Council lets you decide the winner of any influence auction ties and gives you 1 free influence whenever there is a vote.

8. Fortify: The final order card is used to build new strongholds, repair existing strongholds and or move rune tokens to safer positions. There is no supremacy bonus for this card. Building new strongholds not only gives you a well defended area but it also gives you a new place to recruit troops and a new place to build developments. Moving Rune tokens is interesting due to the fact that they are all out there face down so there can be a big bluffing aspect to this move.

So there are all the orders. After the last player's order card is resolved, the turn ends. If it's the end of winter in year seven the game ends and the player who controls the most Dragon Runes (legit ones, not just face down Rune tokens) wins. If it's not the end of the game, the next season card is flipped over and the next turn begins.

That's pretty much the basics. What's left are a couple of subsystems. The biggest being diplomacy, battle and heroes.

When you move into a hex containing neutral units you have two choices. You can either try diplomacy or attack. Diplomacy is handled by spending up to six influence tokens to draw the same number of fate cards.

Fate cards are the main randomizer in the game, they are used any time a random result is needed. You start the game using them to determine who the start player is. They are also used during battle. You use them to resolve task checks in quests and more.

During diplomacy you are looking at the top of the card for the good happy white icon. If a player has a card with one of those it means that the neutral units join their army. Another possibility is the neutral black icon. It means that the neutral units move away to a neutral area. The last possibility is the red, bad icon. In this case the active player has to either retreat or fight the neutral unit. When two player armies end up in the same spot the only option is a fight. There's no diplomacy mechanic here.

At the start of a fight you take all the minis off the board and replace them with the red X fight token. This is done to remember where to put any surviving minis back on the board when the fight is done. The minis are place besides the players board in an order based on their initiative which is shown on the boards (there's a neutral army board which is used by the player on your left when fighting neutrals). Units then attack in initiative order with the attacker going first. All of the 1 initiative units attack, then the 2 initiative units, etc.

As mentioned earlier attacks are resolved using the Fate Deck. Each miniature is on a shaped base which indicates the units general strength. Triangle units are the rank and file and the weakest. Circle units are better trained specialized units. Square units are mounted units. Hexagons represent the biggest most dangerous units. You draw one card from the Fate deck for each unit attacking then you look at the area of the card that matches the base type. So triangle units look at the triangle part of the card. Each area will ether be blank, show a blood splat representing damage to the opponents troop, show a flag representing opponents forces routing or show a crystal ball thing that represents special abilities. Every unit has a special ability that is triggered when a card with that crystal ball symbol is drawn. These abilities and the amount of damage each unit can take are the main differences between each armies units.

After every unit has attacked once, you resolve who won the combat. This is done by totaling the number of non-routed units on each side. Strongholds and some other developments can give a bonus to this combat resolution number. The side with the biggest total takes the territory with the opponent having to retreat (and route) any surviving troops.

So basically what we have now is players using orders to move armies around on the board, recruiting or defeating neutral units, battling the other players and trying to take territories with Dragon Runes. To me this is one full layer of the game. The cool part is that the game has another layer. While this big war is going on each player is also using their Heroes to complete Quests.

You start the game with one Hero and can recruit more during the game (mainly by using the Rally Support order). Heroes are representing by grey minis and don't actually count as army units. They are also represented by a card that shows four stats (wisdom, dexterity, strength and health). Each Hero also has a special ability and alignment. The alignment comes up during certain seasonal events and it's worth trying to hire heroes that match your teams alignment.

Heroes can be brought into battle for support. This lets you draw one extra card during one round of the combat. This is just a minor role though, the main thing heroes do it move around the board and complete quests. You start the game with two quests and can get more during the game and replace any quests you complete with new ones immediately. Each quest card lists something you have to do on it. Most of these involve moving to a certain area of the board and then doing a test. Tests are done by drawing a number of Fate Cards equal to the appropriate stat and checking the top part of the cards (same as you do during diplomacy). Compare the symbols found and you do what it says on the quest card. Most of the times only a red, bad, result means failure. Failure can mean a variety of things, like damage to your hero, forcing you to retreat, etc. Success though mean you get a Reward Card. There's a whole deck of these and they contain weapons, armor, spells and other things that you can use to get Rune Tokens.

Reward cards are one of the easiest ways of getting Rune Tokens. Every time you get one, you actually grab two, one blank token and one with a Dragon Rune on it. These are both placed on the board with only the player placing them knowing which is which. Weapons, armour and spells make your Heroes better in some way and often make them much more powerful in duels.

Duels are battles between heroes. Why would you duel another hero? Well to steal their reward cards of course! Duels are similar to army based combat but are fought for four rounds of attacks in a row (not just one like in an army battle). There's no initiative, the attacker goes first. Fate Cards are drawn and heroes all count as circles so the circle area of the card is referenced. Here routs count as defense against opponents attacks and special ability symbols let you either do one damage or active some of those reward cards you picked up while questing.

Rewards cards aren't the only way to get Rune Tokens though. The other way is through goal cards. There are two decks of goal cards one for the good aligned races and one for the evil aligned races. As expected the goals on them match the alignments with the good deck featuring exploration, diplomacy and influence and the evil deck featuring conquest and tactics. Each goal lists something you have to do to complete it and includes things like: Move a hero into an enemy home territory, recruit 3 Giants (neutral units) to your army, discard 8 influence tokens and more. When you complete a goal you immediately get a new one and you also get two Rune Tokens. As before, you get one blank and one Dragon Rune which you can place anywhere on the board where there aren't any tokens yet. You can also, optionally, remove some blank tokens from the board at this time.

I think the only thing I haven't really talked about yet are tactics cards. These are cards you can get in a variety of ways but mainly through the Strategize order. What these let you do is basically break the rules in some way. There are a ton of them (it's the biggest deck in the game) and their effects are widely varied. Some examples include getting influence, taking an extra move, moving neutral units, starting an influence auction, getting bonuses during attacks and a whole lot more.

I just thought of one more thing. Included in the game is something that was originally an expansion. This is the exploration token variant. This has you seed the starting board with a bunch of different square chits. These are only flipped once the hex is entered and include a bunch of very cool thematic things; there are events like Travelling Merchants, locations like dungeons and temples, and destructible locations like the Dragon's Throne. These add a lot more to the early phases of the game and really adds to the exploration aspect.

As I said at the start: Event Game. Lots going on. I hope that this summary covered everything clearly enough. There's obviously a lot going on here. Thankfully though, in play it's not that bad. By the end of the first year of the first game everyone at the table had the basics down.

Final Thoughts

I really like this game. This is truly a fantasy 4x game, something that is pretty rare to find. You start off on only three hexes and eXpand your empire. You eXplore both with your armies and with your heroes (especially with the exploration token variant ). You try to eXploit the neutral armies, cities and resources and build new developments. Lastly, while wholesale player eXtermination is rare, you will spend a lot of time wiping out neutral units and opponents armies.

What I really like though is that all of that is the backdrop to the other layer of the game, the story of the heroes. They move around the board completing quests, leveling up and collecting rewards while the war unfolds around them. I love this two layer feel and find that it's extremely thematic.

My only real complaints about this game are all due to this being an event game. It takes a long time to set up and an even longer to try to explain it to a new player. There are a ton of bits and just as many moving parts when you play. It takes up a lot of room. Which works in my particular gaming dungeon but this probably won't fit on a card table. It also takes a long time to play. Even a two player game took us over four hours to play. One four player game, we played for 6 hours and quit after year 5. Now I see this getting quicker with more rules mastery but I don't know if you can ever get it down to the box stated 3 hours. 4 with two players I think is possible.

I also have to say this one is not for everyone. My wife really didn't like the game. While she found many parts of the game very cool she didn't care for the Rune Token mechanic. The way everyone places a blank and a real one, and the way they can be moved around and how you got new ones. She really didn't like this. Unfortunately the Dragon Runes are pretty much the point of the game so despite liking a lot of the parts of the game this ruined the game for her overall.

A lot of people have called this fantasy Twilight Imperium (TI) and I can totally see why. There are definitely similarities. Big hex grid, lots of miniatures, action selection, move actions using activation tokens, lots of cards, etc. There are some very significant differences though, that makes them very different games. This is no mere re-theme. For one there's no politics and voting. While you do an influence bid now and then, it's nothing like the political actions of TI. There's also no tech tree. While each race has unique developments these are much simpler and have much less effect than technologies in TI. The inclusion of neutral units that can be conquered or recruited really changes the way exploration plays out over TI. Most importantly is that whole two layered aspect of Runewars, the way the heroes are played completely differently than the main armies. To me both are great games and I'm happy to have both in my collection.

If you like long, event games, and are into traditional high fantasy I think you will really like this game. If you want to recreate the feel of a fantasy setting with a world shattering war going on while heroes move across the land questing, you will probably really dig this game. If you like TI I think you should give this one a shot, it's something similar but unique and well worth giving a try.


  1. I would agree with you except... all of the 4x means nothing. The way to win the game is to run around with your hero and complete objectives. Your armies just make it easier; however, they won't win you the game. So much of the game (and the 4x) is tied up in something that has nothing to do with winning. It was a let down...

    1. Interesting. In the games I played there was one game that was ruled by heroes as you noted. That was the first game I played with my wife. In others though we seemed to be getting as many rune tokens from the goal cards as we did from the heroes. So things like having lots of influence and tactic cards meant more than the heroes did, which mean having cities meant more.

      It looks to me like the game can swing either way though the weight of the scales seem to be on the hero side of things.

      I do know there's an expansion out and I wonder if that helps with this problem.

    2. That would be interesting to see. Please keep us posted as you play more.

  2. Think you played it slightly wrong with "goal" cards. I'm assuming by "goal" you mean the "objective" cards, rather than "quest" cards. You get *one* objective card and once it has been completed, you *don't* get another. There are a small number of season cards which can give you another objective card but in general, you get one objective per game. Objective cards always give you a dragon rune.

    The quest cards, by contrast, do get renewed every time you complete one. However, quests don't give you a rune that often (1 in 8 maybe).