First, my cautionary tale
Earlier this week, we played our third game of Runewars. After playing the Undead in the last game, I wanted to try something different, so I chose the humans. I had an idea for a human strategy that was very different from the Undead’s. As it turned out, the human strategy was pretty good. If only I had stuck with it in the last turn, instead of making an incredibly stupid blunder that took the humans wildly off course, I probably would have won.
The Undead seek out battles, so their necromancers can keep generating "reanimates" (i.e., walking dead). The Undead don’t excel at influence, so combat is doubly important for them. Therefore, I wanted to try a defensive, influence-heavy strategy for the humans. Influence would help me win key dragon rune-generating auctions. Influence would help me maintain a healthy stable of heroes, so that route of dragon rune generation would stay open, too.
One of my heroes became critical to this strategy, late in the game. Mad Carthos got a reward that let him summon my units to any empty space where Carthos happened to be. Carthos quietly moved to an opponent’s home area, presumably feigning complete insanity to keep the locals from taking him too seriously. He reached a spot where he knew the Uthuk had placed a dragon rune, so he was ready to fire up the Rune of Summoning.
Unfortunately, I had managed to get into a precarious balance of power between myself and the Uthuk, right where we both had dragon runes on adjacent tiles. (Actually, he had the Dragon Throne exploration tile on his tile, but the Throne counts as a rune for victory.) Even though I had a fortress in my tile, I got worried about the Uthuk’s build-up in the adjacent one. If he had a nasty tactics card or two, I reasoned, he still wouldn’t take me head-on. However, he might sneak around my flanks. Therefore, I decided to take the battle to him--which was precisely the wrong thing to do.
My goal was either to evict the Uthuk from his tile, winning outright, or cripple him so that he’d think twice about attacking me. Instead, Dame Fortune slapped me across the face with a third outcome: I draw a bad set of fate cards. I retreat, and he’s barely scratched.
At this point, I did something even dopier, moving some units from my tile to an adjacent one to protect against a looming Undead attack. Tired and frustrated, I overlooked the fact that I didn’t garrison effectively the original tile that I was trying to defend. The Uthuk counterattacked, took the space, and knocked me out of the running for the victory. My only consolation was that the "Carthos summons my armies" part of the plan still worked. While the Uthuk stole my dragon rune, I stole one of his.
What should I have done differently? The risk of losing the battle was higher than the Uthuk having some way to get into my vulnerable rear areas. I should have used Carthos to summon some forces, played Fortify to build a fortress in the Uthuk’s home area, and then dared those smelly barbarians to attack me. In other words, I should have stayed with the defensive mindset with which I had started the game, instead of abandoning it for a risky spoiling attack.
The moral of this story
This anecdote is a good way to start this review, since it illustrates why this game works. I could blame my failure on bad luck, but I’d be kidding myself. I set myself up for a situation in which bad luck could play a big role in determining the game’s final outcome. I might not have sent an engraved invitation to the Uthuk to invade, but I willingly raised the risk of an invasion.
I also lost track of the influence-generating parts of my strategy--which, by extension, hurt the rune-generating part of my strategy. Instead of chewing on the military threat, I should have stayed the course on quests. While my heroes dithered, other people finished quests that gave them dragon runes directly, through the Shard of Timorran reward card, or let them trade in reward cards for dragon runes (via the Captain of the Heroes League). After one of my heroes drowned in the rapids, player demoralization crept into my approach without my noticing its perverse influence.
Runewars is a game that gives you real options for pursuing different strategies. The different moving parts (military, economy, heroes, influence, etc.) do interact in significant ways. If you play a dumb strategy, or you don’t learn how these sub-systems work together, the game hands you a well-deserved defeat.
The point of the game
My personal philosophy about game reviews is, Never write one until you’ve played the game a few times. Games are not like movies, books, or other things that you need only one "session" to review. With games, you can get key rules wrong. No, let’s be more emphatic: Except for the simplest games, you will get rules wrong, the first time around. In most cases, you’ll need at least a game or two to pick up the basic strategies. In the case of most strategically or tactically deep games, you’ll need at least several sessions to play the game extremely well. I learned that lesson a long time ago with wargames like The Russian Campaign, Squad Leader, and Third Reich.
Worse, you can play a game once or twice, and still completely misunderstand its point. One of FFG’s other epic games, Twilight Imperium, is a case in point. During our group’s first session, we bashed each other over the head militarily for hours, with no visible progress on anyone’s side. Fortunately, we took the time to research the game further, discovering things like the fixed set-up option that vastly simplified and balanced the game for neophytes.
More importantly, we discovered the real point of the game wasn’t fighting. Battles were a means to an end. The real purpose of the game was gathering victory points. In hindsight, that seems like an obvious conclusion, but we got distracted by the mechanics during our first play, since so much of the game involves researching, deploying, and using military assets.
Some early reviews of Runewars have sounded a lot like our first reaction to Twilight Imperium: they didn’t really understand the game. The point isn’t to win battles, so statements like, "If I want a military game, I’ll go play Risk or Wizard Kings," are really non sequiturs. Battles are exciting, but they’re only a means to an end, seizing dragon runes. Everything else in the game points to the same goal, too.
Winning the game
To be fair, Runewars is a big game, and it’s not totally obvious at first glance exactly how to get these precious dragon runes. Here’s a brief list of possible, for the newcomer:
Set-up. You start with one dragon rune.
Seasons. Others may appear as the result of seasonal events. Usually, they happen in the winter, and there’s an influence auction involved.
Rewards. The rewards deck, from which you draw whenever a hero finishes a quest, contains items that give you a dragon rune.
Exploration tiles. If you use the exploration option, there are tiles that act as dragon runes.
Objectives. These "secret missions," once completed, each generate one dragon rune. There’s a chance that you’ll get a second objective in the game, but don’t count on it.
Conquest. Dragon runes are always placed on the map. Therefore, conquering a space with a dragon rune is another way to gain one.
Titles. One of the titles, Captain of the Heroes’ League, lets you cash in three rewards for a dragon rune. Another title makes it easier to attack and conquer tiles with dragon runes.
Already, you can see the basis for different strategies. For example, the Undead faction can just keep driving forward with its armies, with the goal of conquering spaces with other players’ dragon runes. Another player might go the hero route for generating dragon runes. And so on.
The moving parts
While you can emphasize some aspects of the game over others, you can’t ignore any part completely. The moving parts include the following:
Seasons. Each turn consists of four rounds, each representing a different season. However, the word "round" is very misleading, because the seasons create the rhythm and complexion of the game. There are four event decks, one for each season. At the beginning of the season, you turn over a corresponding card from one of the decks, resolve the event, do regular seasonal activities, and then select a card representing the action you’re taking that turn. For example, you might start the summer with an auction, as explained in that turn card. Next, all the heroes do their primary actions for the year, which happens regardless of which summer card you draw. After you’re done with the heroes, you select your action for your summer turn.
Order cards. Every player has eight order cards, each representing a different action (Conquest, Recruitment, etc.) that’s possible in each turn. Every order card has a different number (1 through 8), which determines who goes first in a turn. If I pick action #1, and you pick action #2, I go first. Additionally, if the order card you select has a number higher than the other cards you’ve played this year, you get a bonus to your regular action. For example, the Mobilize card lets you make one attack, and then if you’ve played things in the right order, you get a second major redeployment of troops (but no second attack).
Resources. One of the major benefits of holding a region (one of those big hex tiles you’ve no doubt seen in Runewars screenshots) is the resources it provides. Each of the three categories of resources (food, wood, iron) provides a particular number and type of units, when you recruit them. Food is important for setting the maximum number of units that will survive winter attrition in each hex. Wood and ore are important for building fortresses and accompanying developments.
Units. These are your armies. Each faction has its own grunts, missile units, and cavalry units, but the resemblance ends there. For example, some of the grunts are faster than others, so they’ll get their punches in earlier in a battle. Every unit has its own special ability that may be triggered during a battle, giving each faction a different feel in combat. For example, the Uthuk barbarians try to deal as much damage to anyone in their way, while the elves are more precise in their choice of targets.
Fortresses. By building a fortress, your defense of a tile becomes much easier. Since both sides can put only 8 units into a hex, and combats are decided by the number of units left standing, the fact that a fortress counts for 5 units on its own makes it frighteningly hard to besiege them. Fortresses are also the mustering grounds where you place recruits. And, in a subtle touch, the improvements you can add to fortresses help you advance your strategy, while enhancing the differences among the factions. For instance, each faction has its own defensive add-on. While the humans add to the toughness of the fortress, the Uthuk have a caged monster that, when unleashed, does further damage to any attacking units.
Influence. If there’s anything resembling a core commodity in the game, this is it. You use influence to win auctions that sometimes mark the beginning of a turn. Since the auctions often give dragon runes, or bear directly on your efforts to get dragon runes through other ways, it’s impossible to win without paying some attention to the relative piles of influence. This commodity helps break ties, buy new heroes, and take advantage of other opportunities in the game.
Heroes. These characters deserve a whole section on their own, which they’ll get later in this review. For now, let’s just say that they create another plane of competition that also contributes to the race for dragon runes.
Rewards. When heroes finish quests, they get rewards cards, which represent special weapons, armor, and other items. Rewards often contribute to the dragon rune race, make heroes tougher when they fight each other, and present other options that may be critical to the game. (See my anecdote at the start of this review for an example.)
Titles. The game has only three titles, each of which has profound game effects. I’m sure that you can win without holding one, but it seems as though it would be a much harder slog without at least one title. To give you a feel of what the titles are like, let’s consider the Primarch of the Wizard’s Council, which gives an influence token when many seasonal events happen. Vastly more important, however, is the Primarch’s power to decide who wins ties. Given the frequency with which auctions present opportunities to gain new dragon runes (particularly during winter turns), being Primarch changes the dynamics of the game substantially in your favor.
Neutrals. Many neutral units start on the map, usually in the way of where you want to expand. You can either attack the neutrals, or try to recruit them to your faction. However, the diplomatic route is a bit iffy, so in most games we’ve played, the neutrals wind up six feet under. On the other hand, some objectives require allying with the neutrals, so you may have to show them some love regardless.
Cities. Several hex tiles contain cities. While you can’t build a fortress where there’s a city, the city is enormously valuable all by itself. If you choose the Rally Support action, each city you control generates one or two tactics cards, influence, quests, or neutral units. Cities are therefore a key resource for getting that one missing thing you need this turn, such as a tactics card needed to help win an impending battle.
Tactics cards. I’m tempted to call these cards the other main commodity of the game. With them, you expand your options for screwing with opponents during battles, and they even give you the occasional interesting option outside of combat. One I had last game let me automatically recruit all the neutrals in a hex, which moved to one of my friendly spaces. Without them, you look like easy pickings to your opponents, who might otherwise be deterred by a healthy hand of tactics cards at your disposal.
The game experience
These different game components are the gears that turn in a bigger machine, each contributing its own part to the overall experience. For anyone who wants to play an epic fantasy game, the result is a definite success:
You’re always engaged. The only noticeable downtime occurs when two other players are having a battle. (And even then, the battles are so short that the downtime is negligible.) Choosing your action for the turn is fast. Resolving your turn is fast. At least half of the time, you’re paying close attention to what the other players do before taking your own action.
The game maintains a brisk pace. The game rewards a particular sequence of events that matches the campaign seasons of medieval warfare. The real action occurs in the spring and summer, followed by retrenching in the fall, and planning for the next year in the winter. Each turn is pretty short, regardless of the action you take. The risk of analysis paralysis is much lower than in comparable epic strategy games.
You have real choices. Even though the action cards reward following a particular sequence, there’s nothing scripted about this game. You might forgo the bonus for acting in the correct sequence to pull a nasty surprise on an opponent. Even though each faction has a personality, you can play to these strengths and weaknesses in different ways. You can emphasize different parts of the game (for example, heroes over conquest), regardless of what faction you play.
The game rewards both planning and improvisation. When a new year starts, you’ll find yourself making plans a few seasons ahead. However, the other players and the game itself will throw you curves, so you also have to be ready to make adjustments. Therefore, at a strategic level, the game doesn’t feel as though every turn wipes the strategic slate clean, nor do you feel as though you’re locked into a colorless, chess-like sequence of events.
Every game will be different. Obviously, with random draws of events, rewards, quests, and the like, the pieces with which you will build and execute a strategy will be different. Players take at least a couple of games to learn how to play well, from placing terrain tiles to maximizing the chances of finding and securing dragon runes. And, undoubtedly, you’ll want to try playing different factions, or the same faction in different ways.
Battles are quick and interesting. The battles resolve quickly: All the units in initiative rank #1 fight, then initiative rank #2, and so on. At the same time, there are definitely decisions to make, particularly about which units you want to rout or damage. Therefore, it doesn’t feel as though battles are on autopilot, with no human decision-making required. You’re also not spending a lot of time grinding through a complex combat system, or waiting for your opponent to finally commit to a particular course of action.
The battle cards are themselves a great innovation. Rather than roll dice and add modifiers for different types of units and conditions, or consult different tables for the result, you flip a card, look at the section that matches the type of unit that’s fighting, and apply the result. In the same fashion as the resource dials, the battle cards cleverly distil several different operations into one simple mechanic.
FFG moves the game design ball forward
It’s clear from how well the game works that Corey Konieczka carefully studied what worked, and what didn’t in earlier Fantasy Flight titles, including some that he designed. For example, the action system moves faster than the order placement in Starcraft. It also gives you a stronger sense of control over your destiny than the "shuffle the action cards together" mechanic in Warrior Knights.
The interactions among different components also show evidence of lessons learned. The resource dials, for example, neatly combine different game mechanics (unit recruitment, influence draws, tactics card draws, and stacking limits) into one easy-to-understand system. Events do more than add randomness to the game; instead, they reward planning ahead, such as keeping enough influence to be competitive in the winter auctions (but not hoarding so much influence that you can’t take advantage of other opportunities).
Most of all, each action you take feels like an essential part of your strategy. Rarely do you find yourself doing something just because it seems interesting. Neither do you feel as though there’s only one real choice at that point in the game.
Why heroes are essential
Obviously, in any game where different gears turn around each other, it takes a little time and thought to figure out how each gear works, and how the interactions among them work. Perhaps the most misunderstood component in early commentary about Runewars is the hero system. While you might not understand the point of heroes in your first game, it’s a mistake to jump to the conclusion that they have no purpose at all.
I’ve already explained earlier in this review how heroes matter, but I’ll repeat the essential truth about them: they are another way to generate and secure dragon runes. In that sense alone, they’re anything but extraneous. Heroes have other roles in the game, normally dependent on particular tactics card coming into your hand. That’s another way of saying, until you’ve seen these tactics cards, you won’t know what sort of options you’ll have with heroes. In that sense, the first game or two might be opaque, hero-wise, but you can easily dispel that problem by skimming the cards in the tactics deck.
The complaints about heroes are odd, given how in similar games they play a separate or even lesser role. For example, in Twilight Imperium, leaders are completely extraneous, providing only marginal advantages in battles and other situations. In War of the Ring, the Fellowship’s quest is completely divorced from the military struggle, providing a parallel but definitely separate path to victory. In Age of Conan, the wandering, eponymous hero does contribute to the military game. Unfortunately, the quests are colorless, and there’s only one Conan to be had.
That’s not the same as saying that the hero system is perfect. As other reviewers have observed, it would be nice to have a few more quests. However, the focus for heroes isn’t really the text on the hero card. Players spend more time figuring out what to do with a hero on a given turn (train, heal, quest, or duel), and there’s a meta-strategy for heroes that’s just as important as individual hero actions.
The game works for what it is, not what it isn’t
I’ve read some extremely spurious comparisons between Runewars and other games. While it might draw on the same background as Runebound, it’s a grand strategy game in which heroic quests play a role. It is not a game that depicts these quests in greater detail, nor does it need to.
The game definitely aspires to be epic, without being unwieldy. I don’t know why people who are willing to sit through three hours of the special edition of The Two Towers can’t abide the idea of playing a game, in the same genre, for the same amount of time.
Unfortunately, you can’t do "epic" in an hour. You’ll need to plant your posterior in a chair for about the same amount of time as one of Peter Jackson’s CGI-fests. That’s still a lot less than playing other epic games, such as Twilight Imperium, and even less than an average session of D&D.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Runewars, it has one major flaw, and one minor one.
The major defect is the rulebook. It’s not terrible, particularly when you read through it the first time. However, when you need to use it as a reference during a game, the rulebook is extremely frustrating. Try finding the rule covering when and how the game enforces stacking limits in a hex. Since the downtime is low, you want to find the rule quickly, so that the game can move on.
For all the grumbling about the dryness of the old Avalon Hill rulebooks, they had one key advantage: the structure of the content was clear enough so that you could zero into a specific topic, such as stacking limits, with very little trouble. The Runewars rulebook not only needs a more scannable structure, but it also needs a real index. Every time I tried to use it to find a rule, the index let me down. Not only is it incomplete, but it follows a strange format. (Next time, how about "Dragon runes, looking" instead of "Looking at dragon runes"?)
There’s also no comprehensive example of play, depicting a sample turn. I’ve had an easier time learning more complex games, such as Sword of Rome, that have complete sample turns, than many FFG titles like Runewars and Twilight Imperium, which are simpler but lack these comprehensive examples.
The minor flaw is the much-discussed 3-D terrain, which amounts to some plastic mountains that add a marginal amount of eye candy. They’re really an unnecessary trifle, not worth the added production expense that probably nudged the game’s price tag over $100. While it’s good to spot the borders with blocking mountain terrain, there were plenty of other ways to achieve the same end. And while the mountains are clearly visible, the water borders are much less so.
The punchline: the game
Runewars is an epic fantasy game of clashing races that’s playable in 3 or 4 hours. While the mechanics are clearly the offspring of several earlier games, Runewars is a lot more than just a mishmash of borrowed ideas. As a whole, the game points you in a clear direction, and gives you multiple paths to victory.
Despite the variety and complexity of the game, it’s clear that Runewars rewards good play--and, as I described earlier, punishes you for boneheaded mistakes. If you want this type of game, and you’re willing to accept that your first game will be a learning experience more than a demonstration of your strategic mastery, it will keep you coming back for more. I’ve thought about Runewars for days after playing a session, pondering how I might use components like the heroes system better, or thinking about how to play a faction differently. The $100 price tag seems small, if it gives that interesting a gaming experience over many plays.
The punchline: the early reviews
This is the second time I’ve written a long review because the early reviews of a game didn’t give it a fair shake. The other was Fields of Fire, which suffered from a rulebook that placed a barrier between the first-time player and a rewarding gaming experience.
While I have my criticisms of the Runewars rulebook, it’s not the barrier to entry that its counterpart in Fields of Fire was. You might get some mechanics wrong, especially if you need to look up the exact wording of a rule during the game.
Even with a perfect rulebook, it's going to take more than one play to "get" Runewars. Play it once, and the connection between the heroes and rune tokens might not be altogether clear. Play it a couple of times, and you'll see it.
By the way, it's not just bad early reviews that are damaging. Excessively gushy praise for a game that just hit store shelves sounds like just another exercise in wish fulfillment, instead of the sober examination of a game that might lead someone to make a good buying decision.
Positive or negative, reviews after one or two plays are nearly worthless. Nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection can get basic inforamtion about a new game, such as the rules and designer’s notes. Premature reviews add very little additional value, and they may do a grave disservice to a game.
- Last edited Sun Feb 7, 2010 5:03 am (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Sat Feb 6, 2010 7:38 pm
Powers:Coleridge:Milton: Faith...must be, if anything, a clear-eyed recognition of the patterns and tendencies, to be found in every piece of the world's fabric, which are the lineaments of God.
That's Tim Powers' fictional Samuel Coleridge "quoting" John Milton in _The Anubis Gates_.
Did you lose a sentence fragment at the end of Moving Parts/Neutrals?
Great review, BTW.
Yeah, thanks for pointing out the fragment.
Resources. One of the major benefits of holding a region (one of those big hex tiles you’ve no doubt seen in Runewars screenshots) is the resources it provides. Each of the three categories of resources (food, wood, iron) provides a particular number and type of units, when you recruit them. Food is important for setting the maximum number of units that will survive winter attrition in each hex. Wood and food are important for building fortresses and accompanying developments.
Excellent review! Enjoyed your short game summary intro as well. I think it added much to the review itself.
Note in the above paragraph (under the heading "The Moving Parts") I am sure you meant to put "Wood and ore are important for building fortresses and accompanying developments." (instead of "food".
This is hands down the best review of Runewars here. Congrats!
My personal philosophy about game reviews is, Never write one until you’ve played the game a few times.
Great review. The more I read about this game the more I think I need to get it.
I've only had a chance to play this once so far and I really enjoyed it. Great review. I can't wait to play it again.
This is an excellent review, especially your discussion of the heroes. I am right there with you--most of the non-shard uses of heroes are contextual based on what tactics, objective and reward cards you are holding. They can potentially influence the army game quite a bit but you would never know it if you couldn't read the cards and didn't own the game.
- Last edited Sun Feb 7, 2010 2:31 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sun Feb 7, 2010 2:31 pm
Excellent review. And I would like to second the point about knee jerk reviews which I believe hurt the gaming community. I gotta go get this game and my only trepidation WAS the issue with heroes, now disspelled. Thanks!
Just picked this up on an impulse buy (that enormous box was calling my name) and after playtesting a few times, I can agree 100% with your review sentiments.
The rulebook is kind of a pain (although admittedly better than other FFG books... looking at you, Arkham Horror...), but I do wish they had outlined a game turn a bit better.
The game is an area control game in wargame clothing and it works wonderfully!
The Electronic Eremite
Thanks Tom! I've been wavering on this one (partially because I worry about getting people to play) but this review pushed me over. I agree totally, there are some "early" reviews out there that are critical of "incidental" things (like preference for dice or the "theme" of the diplomacy mechanic with neutrals). It isn't helpful to read 3 pages of people worrying about why a Dragon is running or joining one archer. What is helpful is seeing how these work together - and this review does that!
I am the white void. I am the cold steel. I am the just sword.
To pointlessly nitpick two years later, home realms don't count as empty regions, so you couldn't have summoned your army there.