Preamble: A Thought on Board Games
Before diving into this review, I want to set the stage: I have a deep appreciation for a good board game. While I love strategy and 4X video games, I also adore a great many board games – from raucous social deduction games like Mascarade or Spyfall to more cerebral affairs like Tigris & Euphrates or Race for the Galaxy.
Oftentimes, when playing strategy video games, I find myself comparing them to their analog counterparts – particularly in terms of how they frame and present player choice. And I’ve developed a little hypothesis: when it comes to making engaging strategic experiences – imbued with tough choices and consequences – a meaty, well-crafted board game beats out most video games hands down.
rogue_Love’s excellent eXposition discussing “strategy” does a good job of representing my reasoning behind the above sentiment. A board game’s design needs to (1) constrain playtime to something tolerable to players; (2) have a process for managing player actions; and (3) be comprehensible to players with as few directions as possible (since there is no computer running the show!).
Board games, as a result, force the player to make tough tradeoffs in their actions, as players are often limited to a certain number of moves per turn. Furthermore, the need for board game rules to be comprehensible forces more discrete choices that are higher-level in nature rather than something that can be reduced to an optimized answer. And because of constrained playtimes, excess fat is sliced off from the design, focusing the gameplay around the decisions that matter most to strategic depth.
Runewars aka Age of Wonders the Boardgame
Runewars was released in 2010 by board game giant Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). FFG, for those unaware, is one of the finest purveyors of so-called Ameritrash games. Ameritrash (a term of endearment by the way) refers to big glorious games with mountains of plastic figures, huge table-consuming boards, lavish (and often over the top) artwork, boisterous fantasy or sci-fi settings, and plenty of cards, dice, and other randomizing agents that help drive the game’s narrative.
Runewars is all of the above (minus the dice, but we’ll get to that). Thematically, the game is a Tolkien-esque wargame where four factions – humans, elves, chaos, and undead – battle across a randomly generated fantasy landscape in search of powerful dragon runes. Once a faction gets enough dragon runes (and holds onto them for a certain period of time), they unleash the runes’ power and win. Vague, I know, but it works. Among other things, the game features a season-based event system, questing heroes, unique military units for each faction, independent cities and creatures, secret missions, diplomacy, and a resource system. It’s almost Age of Wonders: The Board Game.
But Runewars is also an exceptionally well-crafted strategy game and a solid example of doing it right. In the four or so hours it takes to play Runewars, I make more meaty decisions and am held in suspense far more so than in most 4X video games. The tension is palpable as I select my actions and wait to see what my opponents will do – wondering whether my “friends” will fall neatly into my trap or take an unexpected turn at the last moment and stab in me back. It’s delicious.
So how does Runewars manage it?
Let’s get the technical overview out of the way.
Objective & Turn Sequence
Structurally, Runewars lasts a pre-specified number of (game) years – typically seven. The player who controls most Dragon Runes at that point wins. Alternatively, if a player can control a certain number of Dragon Runes for an entire year, they can force an early win. The game has a sneaky element because there are real and fake dragon runes scattered about the landscape. Much of the experience can hinge on finding and securing the real ones and using fakes as decoys.
Each year is broken down into four rounds of player actions, which correspond to a different season (spring, summer, fall, and winter, in case you forgot). In each season, players simultaneously select and then reveal one of eight order cards to play for the round. Before you ask – yes, each player has the same set of cards. Order cards are resolved starting with the lowest numbered card and proceeding in increasing order until all players have taken their actions. Then the season is over and the next season begins.
So what are these order cards? Order cards define what actions you can take on your turn. They are what you use to generate resources and fortify territory, move armies and engage in battle, and expand your political power. Imagine playing a 4X video game where each turn you had to decide whether you were going to build ships, versus move ships, versus colonize a planet, versus further develop a colony, etc. That’s kind of the idea. This approach forces very tough trade-offs. You want to be doing everything all the time but you can’t; you have to prioritize actions and build a strategy around sequencing orders.
Each order card lists a default action as well as a supremacy bonus. The rub is that the supremacy bonus can only be taken if that order card is the highest numbered card that you’ve deployed in the current year. Furthermore, each order card can only be played once per year. While you’ll generally aim to play cards from low to high over the course of a year (to maximize your supremacy bonuses), often the strategic situation will demand making an even tougher trade off (i.e. ditching a supremacy bonus) to pursue a bolder sequence of orders for the year.
Briefly, the order cards are as follows:
- Strategize – Allows you to move armies or heroes to adjacent territories and/or draw tactics cards (one-time use special ability cards) depending on your resource dials
- Mobilize – Lets you target an area to attack and march armies from up to two hexes away to that location. The supremacy bonus lets you do this twice. As an alternative to combat, this card also lets you engage in diplomacy (which is one use for the influence resource that we’ll discuss in a bit) with neutral factions
- Conquer – Works as above, except the supremacy bonus provides a big buff to sieging enemy strongholds (player-built fortresses)
- Harvest – Adjusts your resource dials to reflect your territorial holdings (more on that below). The supremacy bonus lets you pull in bonus resources from your development projects and build new developments at your strongholds
- Recruit – Build new military units of one resource type (or two types with supremacy).
- Rally Support – Generate units, tactic cards, influence, or new quests from a city you control. The supremacy action lets you recruit a new hero unit to your faction
- Acquire Power – Provides influence based on your resource dials. The supremacy bonus lets you spend influence to take a title card (more on that later!)
- Fortify – Lets you build a new stronghold, repair a stronghold, and/or move a dragon rune
Resources & Resource Dials
Each player has their own player board with three big resource dials on it. These dials correspond to the player’s current level of food, wood, and ore. Each territory (hex on the game board) can provide a certain amount of these resources. When you play the Harvest Order (#4) you adjust these dials so that the resource totals for each dial matches the total resources provided by all the territory you control (i.e. each hex where you have at least one military unit). The dials show your current resource level and corresponding outputs in terms of units, influence, or tactics cards you can generate (by playing an appropriate Order card). This is a clever system and lets the resource dials perform double duty for a variety of production oriented tasks.
Season Events & Special Actions
As mentioned, the game’s progress is tracked by using season cards. At the start of a season, before players select their order card, the current season card is flipped over and two things happen.
First – each season has an event that must be resolved. Events can have a wide range of effects that can shake up the gameplay and prevent strategies from becoming too scripted. Perhaps autumn has rolled around, and a summer drought occurred – meaning that the Harvest card has no effect this season. In that instance, you would be unable to consolidate your territorial gains from the spring and summer campaigns, which could have dire effects when winter rolls around. This could even upset your strategy for the entire year and force you to recalibrate.
Second – each season as a fixed set of effects that are always resolved based on the specific season:
- Spring – Routed armies recover and players regain all the order cards played in the previous year. In addition, battlefields are cleared and units that attacked the previous year can be deployed again
- Summer – All players can activate each of their heroes to go questing or perform other feats
- Fall – The deck of fate cards (which are used instead of dice in the game), is reshuffled. In addition, each player receives either two influence resources or two tactics cards
- Winter – Winter is a harsh mistress. First, you have to account for food. You are only able to feed and maintain a number of units in any given location up to your current food resource level. This can be disastrous if you don’t plan accordingly. Second, water freezes over and players can move armies and/or attack across the water
Putting it Together
Order cards, season effects, and resources combine in a number of interesting ways to drive the strategic depth of the game to a profound degree. For example, in most 4X video games the “Doomstack” is an ever present annoyance. Why send less than your total number of forces when you could send them all? Such situations reduce the strategic depth of warmongering. Some 4X video games try to combat this with mechanics such as artificial fleet size limits – but they rarely feel satisfying or add any actual depth.
I believe Runewars takes a much better approach. When you launch an attack, you can send all of your forces into the fray and overwhelm nearly all your opponents. Nothing prevents you from doing that. However, if you go all in, your forces will be pinned to the battlefield for the remainder of the year. This leaves your settlements and other territories defenseless with no way to respond. Moreover, when winter rolls around you’ll have to actually feed that giant stack of units. Unless you have a huge surplus of food, many of your forces will perish.
Suddenly, the decision about how many forces to send into war is a more multifaceted challenge. How many units do I need to guarantee I’ll win with acceptable losses? How many units can I afford to lose to starvation? Where else do I absolutely need to maintain forces to protect my territorial holdings? Should I plan to harvest after my military campaign to try and boost my food production to support a larger standing army? What if a drought occurs next season, or what if my opponent decides to counterattack my farm land? Practically every moment of Runewars is spent postulating these strategic gambits. And it’s glorious.
Runewars is a big game that requires a large amount of table space, and can be a bear to set up. The hex map consists of a series of large board sections that can be configured in a near-infinite number of ways. How many board sections are used depends on the number of players, causing the game to scale nicely whether you are playing with two, three, or four players. Which specific boards are used dovetails with the quest cards. Many quests are keyed to specific map locations. So a set of quest cards is randomly generated for the game and then the corresponding board tiles are then selected.
Assembling the board follows a rather convoluted process of players taking turns adding map sections to the table in an effort to make something that looks balanced and equitable. Personally, I’ve dispensed with the official approach because it takes too long. Instead, we just nominate someone to build the board with the other players yelling their recommendations at them. Whoever builds the board gets stuck with the last pick of starting location, so they have an incentive to make the board balanced for everyone.
Once the board is assembled, it is populated with neutral cities and monsters. Little icons on the map hexes indicate which stuff starts where. A scattering of real and fake rune tokens are also distributed across the board face down, so no one knows which is which until they visit their location. Last, players connect their faction’s home region to the map board, populate it with a starting army, hero, and fortress, and get ready to rumble.
There is little by way of proper exploration in the game, at least as far as the geography is concerned, since the map is fully revealed at the start. However, an optional module can be used that places exploration tokens on each territory. These tokens are kept face down, and the first player to “explore” each territory can take the token.
Exploration tokens have a range of possible effects. They usually provide a one-time benefit to permanent structures like villages or magic portals that provide bonus resources or teleportation services, respectively. It’s a nice addition to the gameplay that doesn’t add much overhead to the experience.
Expansion in Runewars is straightforward. Essentially, your controlled territory is wherever you have at least one unit (excluding heroes) or a stronghold, as well as your three home territories. Neutral cities are held in the same manner, which means that in order to control a city and derive resources from it you have to leave at least one unit garrisoned there.
Holding territory, however, has some clever nuances. As mentioned earlier, when you play the Harvest order, your three resource dials (food, wood, and ore) are adjusted to match the current territory occupied by your forces. This means, for example, that you could spread out your forces to grab many territories and then issue a harvest order to reset your dials. So long as you don’t issue a subsequent harvest order, you could re-deploy forces and still pull resources from those territories even though you’re no longer occupying them. Of course, this is not without risk, because some season events can force one or more resources to reset, which could leave you short of a vital resource at an inopportune time.
You’ll need to build your army to hold territories, and the Recruit order is the primary means of doing so. When you play the Recruit order, you select ONE resource type (or two if you have the supremacy bonus) and acquire all of the units listed at and below the current level for that resource. The more powerful units of a faction can generally only be recruited at higher resource levels (usually requiring ore), which means you need to actively plan out which territories you need to grab to maximize your recruit actions.
Cities & Strongholds
The final aspect of expansion pertains to cities and strongholds. As mentioned above, cities are controlled by occupying them with one or more military units. Once controlled, playing the Rally Support order card lets you tap each of your controlled cities for one of their benefits. Cities can provide influence tokens, bonuses resources, neutral units for you to control, tactics cards, or even new quests to embark upon. Controlling multiple cities can be a great way of expanding your base of power and increasing your options in the game.
Strongholds are constructed using the aptly named Fortify order card and spending wood and ore resources a little bit. Once built, strongholds provide a boost to any armies defending them. They also exert control over the territory, even if you don’t have units occupying them. If that weren’t enough, the Harvest order provides a supremacy bonus that lets you attach a special development to a stronghold. Developments provide additional bonus resources and each faction also has a unique development that can do something nasty in combat.
Influence, Diplomacy, and Titles
Influence is a fourth resource, but it isn’t tracked on the dials. Instead, players simply accumulate influence tokens from various actions. Influence is used in a number of important ways over the course of the game.
First, influence is commonly used as a tiebreaker when resolving Order cards. If two players both play a Mobilize card, the player with more influence gets to act first. As a result, he or she can seize the initiative by launching an attack where it benefits them the most – hammering a weak point in their opponent’s forces for example. This alone is reason to keep a close eye on the influence reserves of each player.
Second, influence is used for conducting diplomacy with neutral units, including roving hordes of barbarians, giants, and dragons. While you can fight these neutral units to clear them out of a territory, it’s even better to engage them in diplomacy, as there is the potential to win them over to your side!
Basically, you can spend any amount of your influence and draw one fate card for each influence spent. Fate cards take the place of dice in Runewars and are used in a number of different ways. For diplomacy, each fate card has a little icon that reflects a success, failure, or partial accomplishment. During diplomacy, you look at the drawn cards and, if you get a success, the neutral forces will join you forever (so long as you keep one of your military units alongside them!). A failure forces you to retreat away from the neutral, while a partial outcome causes the neutrals to flee to an adjacent territory. Neutral units can be very powerful units, so engaging them diplomatically is often a good idea.
Third, influence can be used to acquire “Titles.” There are three title cards in the game (e.g. Primarch of the Wizards Council) that confer some powerful abilities to whoever controls the title. After playing the Acquire Power order card, you can spend influence to grab a title card. Your influence remains on the card and subsequently another player can spend more influence than is on the card to take the title away from you. It’s a clever way of adding some political brinksmanship to the game since some of the titles can give you a strong advantage in securing dragon runes.
Quests & Missions
As if the web of armies, territory control, and political influence weren’t enough, Runewars also weaves in heroics. Each player begins the game with a hero, and more can be acquired over the course of the game by spending influence. Your heroes can complete quests, duel other heroes, and train to improve their skills. Completing quests is their primary function, and usually requires players to move the hero to a certain location and perform an ability check. For each point of the required ability (might, wisdom, or agility) the hero draws that many fate cards and checks to see whether or not he or she get a success or fail result (just like diplomacy). If heroes get a partial result, they usually succeed in their efforts but take damage in the process.
Quests can reward heroes with a piece of special treasure that is drawn from (yet another!) deck of cards. Occasionally, these treasure cards will even turn up a hidden dragon rune, so it behooves players to try and accomplish their quests. Of course, if questing is out of the question, you can try and attack opposing heroes to steal a piece of their treasure instead!
One of the more interesting twists of heroes is that they can move around the map more or less at will. They can’t be attacked or blocked by an opponent’s regular military units, so they can perform double duty as a pseudo-spy, able to sneak into enemy territory and even take a peek at hidden rune tokens – revealing whether they are real ones or fakes. In this way, heroes can identify targets for your larger military forces.
What good are all those plastic miniatures if not to engage in mortal combat? The mechanics for warfare in Runewars are rather clever and strikes a nice balance between thematic detail and quick resolution.
Each of the factions has a roster of four different units at their disposal, all of which synergize in unique ways. The elves have archers (of course) along with sorceresses and pegasus riders. The Chaos faction has mighty Chaos lords, warlocks, and foul beasts. Humans get knights and siege engines. And the Undead wield necromancers and dark knights. Each unit has a special ability that can be triggered during combat that adds a unique twist. For example, the Necromancer’s ability summons additional undead units to the battlefield (no surprises there!). Elven sorceresses can immediately route enemy units, and so on.
When a battle begins, both players take their participating units and line them up next to the unit roster on their player board. The order that units are listed in determines their initiative order, with faster units attacking first. Each unit is further defined by the type of base (triangle, circle, rectangle, or hexagon) the miniature uses, which roughly corresponds to its strength. When a group of units attacks, you draw one fate card (yes those again!) for each unit in that group and look at the section of the card that corresponds to the type of base the unit has. The results are either a successful damage strike (which your opponent then allocates to their units), a route result (causing one of your opponent’s units to flee the combat), or a special ability trigger.
Combat proceeds until all units on both sides have attacked once and then both players compare how many units each side still has left standing and unrouted. The side with more units remaining wins the battle and the losing forces all become routed and retreat to an adjacent territory. Phew!
Overall, the combat system will seem fairly simple once you’ve resolved a few battles. One of the more interesting parts of combat is determining, as you plan an attack or organize your defenders, which units you want to put together into an army. Many units have special abilities that synergize with others. For example, one unit might route an enemy with their special ability, while a second unit can automatically destroy any routed units they damage. As with many things in Runewars, decisions related to the composition of your forces are a calculated risk and no setup is ever a guarantee.
As a strategy gamer, I’m always looking for games with linked mechanics that create deep, interesting decisions. Runewars is a fine example of how relatively simple (by 4X video game standards) mechanics can come together to make a far more compelling experience than one might expect. And it comes down to the interconnected nature of the various systems.
I mentioned earlier how the sequencing of order cards around the ebb and flow of seasons links to the resource and territory system in a delightful way. Consider, then, how that also intersects with the layer of questing heroes scouting out the location of dragon runes and supplying additional targets for your precious military forces. Or how the influence resource weaves its way throughout the game. In one instance, influence might be vital for seizing the initiative, in another for conducting diplomacy, and in yet another for wresting a title away from an opponent on the eve of victory.
For me, the abstraction of the mechanics used in a game like Runewars results in an experience that can be more immersive than what I get from games with more detail. Sometimes, greater levels of detail pulls my attention away from the momentous decisions, making me feel more like a bean counter than an emperor. So while it’s easy to look at the restrictive order card system in Runewars and say “Yeah, but an emperor could do more than one thing each season! That is so immersion-breaking!” that sort of misses the point. As an emperor I want to be faced with ultimatums and do-or-die decisions where the right path forward isn’t clear. I want to be forced to make a tough choice with no going back.
Thankfully, Runewars takes the notion of making a strategic gambit to heart. Everything has its risk and opportunity costs. Often, this risk stems from uncertainty about what the other players will do, but other times it will arise from the randomness inherent in many of Runewars’ systems. I’ve spent half a dozen influence on a diplomacy attempt and had it fail spectacularly. I’ve sent heroes questing across the entire realm to be rewarded with a broken limb and an underwhelming treasure that wasn’t nearly worth the effort. But I’ve also had one lone unit of archers miraculously survive atop my stronghold against a horde of chaos monstrosities, tipping the tide enough to route their army and keep a dragon rune safe in my control!
Indeed, you can’t really have the narrative and storytelling potential of a game like Runewars without a modest degree of randomization. But in the end, the random elements are just one of many inputs into your success or failure. It will be your decisions and how you respond to your opponents directly that matters most. In the final turns of the game – with each player just a dragon rune or two away from securing victory – the tension is at a crescendo. And so another season comes to pass, and once again you are faced with a strategic choice to make – sweatily, your hands lingering over each order card as you ponder your next fateful move.
TL;DR: Runewars is a fantasy 4X-ish board game of epic proportions. It is the embodiment of big, boisterous thematic games: lots of plastic miniatures, lavish artwork, mountains of tokens and cards. But despite all of this, Runewars is also a fantastically well-designed and and tightly crafted game. The order based card system, seasonal events, territory control, and resource mechanics interlock in a deeply engaging manner. Each action you take take can be a nail-biting affair as you wait to see whether your friends (err, enemies) at the table will fall into your traps or ruin your schemes at a fatal moment. All this splendor comes with a cost however, as the game can easily run longer than four hours. But if you have the will and the means, it is worth every minute of it.
You might like this game if:
- You are looking for a rich thematic fantasy game of clashing empires and wild heroics
- You’re willing to put the time into learning (and most likely teaching!) this game.
- You want a game that’s going to challenge your strategic mind
- You are willing accept a little chaos and randomness in the spirit of having a good time and watching a glorious narrative unfold.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You still have horror stories of playing Monopoly and the thought of playing a board game, let alone one that takes many hours to play, fills you with dread
- You get overwhelmed easily by too much stuff
- You have no inner Tolkien and the high fantasy theme doesn’t appeal to you in the least
- You prefer games with a higher degree of player control.
Game Information: MSRP: $79.95, 2-4 Players, 3-4 Hour Playtime (official listing); 196 Plastic Miniatures, 235 Tokens, 13 Large Map Boards, 204 Game Cards, 4 Player Boards, 4 Reference Cards, 1 Rulebook. Oliver has played Runewars four times.