12 July 2011

RuneWars [Boardgame review]

Runewars is a 2-4 player game that mixes a strategy campaign with RPG light elements in form of questing heroes.  The game is, as the title suggests, about warfare to conquer as many magical Runes as possible. Each player starts out with 2 rune tokens (and one false decoy) and the goal is to have either as many Rune tokens in your possession at the end of the 6th year – or at any point owning 6 Rune tokens for instant victory. The game is made up of 6 years, with each year being divided into 4 seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter).

Runewars have a lot of very nice features, it scales very well depending on whether you play 2-3-4 players as the realm is generated randomly with each player placing 2 neutral tiles each and then add their home region somewhere along the edge. Though I must say that the game is most fun when playing 4 players as it offers a bit more competition compared to when playing 2 players, and a bit more player balance to when playing 3 players.

The 4 races in the game are Elves, Humans, Evil demon worshippers and Undead. Each race have 4 unique unit types that differ from the other races. Each unit has specific stats in form of combat abilities, special attack, initiative and amount of wounds.

So let’s start with the basic gameplay before I go into the advanced stuff and how heroes work.

The map as I said is randomly generated with players taking turns in placing tiles with numbers matching cards that are drawn at random. The map will in the end be made up of large hexagon areas with various terrain features printed on it. However only 2 things really matter when it comes to the terrain itself. Mountains are impassable for units without flying ability, as is water – with the exception of winter freezing it and making troops able to cross.
Each hex has resource values printed on it, showing whether the region has food, wood or ore. There are often symbols showing how many “Neutral” units reside within the region at the start of the game. And some hexes have a city symbol printed on them, while cities don’t provide with food/wood/ore they can provide tactics cards, power tokens and neutral units as allies.

At the start of the game each player has a home realm which is made up of 3 hexes which determine the starting resources. You keep track of your resources by having a special counter sheet with dials that are adjusted as you capture new regions. As each resource increases you will see more and more options unlocking on your counter sheet. The amount of troops that can be recruited or the amount of power tokens that can be gathered increase. Food is one of the most important resource types because you can only have as many units per hex as your food allowance indicates, if you end up having a surplus of units in a hex when winter comes the “starvation” mechanic kicks in and you must remove troops to match your food level.

The game is completely card based, so no dice are used to generate any results. Players use something called “Order cards” and a “fate deck” to determine what happens each turn or during a combat. Player initiative each turn is determined by two things, on the number printed on your order card as it is flipped simultaneously at the start of each turn – and by the amount of power tokens in your possession. You see, this game has a clever game mechanic which utilizes 8 order cards (all players have their own but also the same kind of deck). What you can do during a turn is printed on the cards. Be it moving units and heroes around peacefully, ordering an attack move, recruiting units in your strongholds, building strongholds, acquire power tokens, harvest (to adjust your resource dials according to the areas you control). Each player plays 1 order card each turn / 4 cards per year, and at the start of next year all played cards are picked up and you can play them again.

Not only do these cards determine what you do each turn, but they also all have something called “supremacy bonus” which is often a very important and much needed bonus during the game. The idea is that players are encouraged to play their orders cards in a fashion so that they place low cards first and higher cards over the following turns. As long as you place a card with a higher value than the previous order card played during the year you get the supremacy bonus. If you on the other hand start out aggressively with a high numbered card you will get the supremacy bonus on the turn the card is played, but the card played on the following turn will not get the supremacy bonus at all.

An example of supremacy bonus could be when playing the “Recruit” order (4), the supremacy bonus for that card is that you recruit units a second time during the same phase.
Battles are waged by moving friendly armies into enemy territory. Units from both sides are placed on your own sheet to keep track of unit initiative. Each player then checks his initiative and the amount of units hitting with initiative 1 (first). If both opponent and attacker share initiative they draw and resolve combat simultaneously, often though, units from one side can hit the enemy before they get attacked themselves. The norm is that mighty and hard to kill units have very high initiative numbers and hit last while the small fast units with few wounds hit first.

Each player draws a number of “fate cards” equal to the number of units attacking and checks the card to see if the unit base (rectangle, triangle, hexagon and circle) appears on the “Fate card” and if so – what effect is inflicted. Effects range from “nothing”, “inflict a wound”, “inflict a rout” and “special ability” which is unique to each unit type. Once all unit from both sides have attacked, combat is summed up – the winner is the player with most units left standing (not routed). The defender is pushed back towards a friendly or empty area or becomes destroyed.

Now let’s talk about the advanced aspects of the game.

Each area outside of the player controlled starting positions contains a number of “neutral units”. These are obstacles on the player’s way to capturing the region. A player moving in with friendly units into such an area can chose between combat against these neutral units – or – try to perform “diplomacy” and have them join your side. To perform diplomacy players discard as many “power tokens” as they wish from their own supply, and draw an equal amount of “fate cards”. On top of each fate card there is a symbol printed symbolizing either a “success” “neutral” or “Failure”. To have neutral units join you, you need a fate card with a “success” symbol printed on it. If you only draw “neutral” cards at best, the Neutral units retreat to another area. If you draw a “failure” you have to retreat back to where you came from.

Players also have access to a “tactics card”-deck, these cards are special abilities that can be played either during the players own turn or under certain circumstances. You can for instance hold onto a “Blackmail” tactics card until someone attacks you – immediately pull out the blackmail card and have their army fall back to where they came from. Other cards can have you finding a secret passage through a mountain range allowing you to make a sudden surprise attack on your enemy lands etc.

Power tokens are not only used during diplomacy with neutral units, they are also used to “bid” on certain occasions when the game calls for it, or to buy special positions in the realm, such as buying the “wizards council” or “warrior guild”. Each such position will give the owning player a nice bonus in specific situation.

To their help each player also starts with a “hero” character that matches their alignment (either good or evil). These heroes have their own “quest phase” during the summer phase before players play their order cards. The heroes can move around freely on the table, even into areas containing neutral or enemy units. The heroes perform quests that are printed or randomly drawn “quest cards” and  as they accomplish quests they get a “reward card” which always have something good printed on it and there are even a few “Rune tokens” you can win this way.

The heroes can also scout the area they are staying in by looking on the rune tokens place on the table to see whether they are real or just decoys so that your armies don’t march on an area in vain. Heroes also have their own random encounters as they move to new hexes with unexplored “Exploration tokens”. As a hero ends his movement in such an area the exploration token is flipped and you check the chart to see the effect. Either you are lucky and get some sort of reward or find a magic portal – or your hero gets beaten up by raiders. Players can also opt to attack other heroes with their own heroes (the only way to kill enemy heroes taking active action). The hero combat works just like the regular combat between armies, with the exception of each player attacking 4 times instead of just 1. Last man standing wins, and picks up any loot the enemy hero may have been carrying.

Finally I should also mention a bit more about the 4 seasons that each year is divided into. At the start of each turn the appropriate season generates a card and the players resolve the text printed on it. Sometimes it can be that you recruit automatically out of sequence, other times the game can perform an “auto harvest” action for you. Sometimes however, the game plays tricks on the players by only allowing them to pick up 2 out of 4 previously played order cards making for some difficult choices as you have to decide whether you want to play efficiently with the units you have or try to max out on supremacy bonuses.

So trying to wrap this up, this game has lots of game mechanics that can be a bit daunting and overwhelming to get into during your first game unless you have someone to guide you through. Our game group really likes this game as it has some clever features and a good balance between player decisions and luck. The heroes can add an extra layer to the game but can also be completely removed if you think them make too much of an impact. During our last game for instance, I was determined to kill the heroes of my enemies while recruiting additional heroes of myself. I ended the game with 4 heroes that fine combed the landscape and won me the game by finding enough Rune tokens to give me instant victory during year 5.

Often however, the players are fighting border wars with each other trying to secure what rune tokens are placed on the board and no one really knowing who’s going to win until the end of year 6.

There are ways to achieve victory in this game through manipulation of the other players, military victories, gathering rune tokens with heroes, and completing faction quests that also have rune tokens as the main reward.

All in all this is a very nice game that, once you learn it, is very enjoyable to play for anyone liking strategy games that are a bit more advanced and have all sorts of options to them rather than just rolling a die to generate results.

You can get this game over at GameManiacs.

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