Runewars: high fantasy warfare with not enough war

Runewars, from Fantasy Flight Games, is one of those big-box wargames with a lot of components and a lengthy play time. The game definitely looks fantastic, with detailed art on the cards and tiles. The minis, while necessarily small, are also well detailed. The game itself is fun, with a lot of interesting mechanics, but there are certain parts that feel tacked, getting in the way of the real fun.

The initial setup of the game involves players choosing from the four available races (humans, elves, barbarians, or undead), each with distinct units and abilities. Players also receive one hero, some starting quests, and a secret objective (such as befriending dragons, or building strongholds). They then build the game board by placing tiles, each composed of a number of hexes. You’re responsible for placing the tiles that contain the locations of your starting quests, as well as your race’s home tile, so proper placement can get you a head start. You may also want to try to ensure that you’re starting near useful locations with good resources, cities, or neutral monsters worth recruiting or fighting.

Players also receive two “dragon runes,” which get placed on the board in hexes they control. The goal of the game is to collect these runes, either by sending your heroes out on quests, completing secret objectives, or more importantly, taking them from your opponents by force. When you receive a new rune, you must place it on a hex you control, and it therefore becomes vulnerable to being taken in battle. The winner of the game is the first player to control six runes, or the player with the most after a certain number of turns.

The game is played over the course of six years, each consisting of four seasons. Each season, after resolving random events from a season deck, players secretly choose one of eight command cards. These cards determine the action that player will be taking that turn, including moving, attacking, recruiting units, harvesting resources, building strongholds, etc. Once a command card is used, it cannot be used again until the start of the next year. The command cards are also numbered, and give you bonuses if you haven’t played a card with a higher number earlier in the year. For example, you can make two moves instead of one if you attack before recruiting new units, but recruiting before an important attack might also be worthwhile.

As armies are moved about the board, they can claim control of hexes, which provide resources (wood, food, or ore). Some hexes will contain cities, which can be used to gain various benefits, and others will contain neutral units, with which you can attempt to ally or fight.

Battle occurs whenever two armies meet, and is resolved using a deck of fate cards, instead of dice. Over the course of the battle, you draw a card for each of your units and receive the benefit based on the effect shown for that unit’s type. These effects include missing, causing damage, activating the unit’s special ability, or causing enemy units to rout. The cards in the deck have different distributions of effects for each unit type, so that, for example, infantry will miss more often, while heavy units (like siege engines and giants) will do more damage and can cause units to rout. Since the fate deck is only reshuffled at certain points in the game, it’s actually possible to do a bit of card counting, so that you can plan attacks for when the remaining cards are in your favor. Once the battle is resolved, the player with the most units remaining takes control of the hex, and the losing units are forced to retreat.

Another level is added to the game in the form of questing. Quests involve sending heroes to the locations specified on the quest cards and using the fate deck to determine if they succeed. Success is usually rewarded with a card, which is often a piece of equipment that provides a bonus or ability to the hero. Later, three of these reward cards may be traded in for a rune, making questing another path to victory. Because heroes don’t count as units, they can freely walk past monsters and enemies (but may duel other heroes if they encounter them). Thus, the questing mechanic feels almost like a separate game, with heroes not really interacting with the rest of the units on the board. This can lead to certain situations where a player can have a very surprising win.

For example, the first (and so far only) time I played the game, I won quickly with a very lucky draw: on their first three quests, my heroes ended up finding three runes. As there are only five of those cards in the 25-card reward deck, I can only chock it up to pure luck (or a poor shuffling job). Admittedly, this example is an outlying case, but it’s still a little disappointing that I was able to win a wargame without ever attacking my opponents.

Even with the win at the middle of year three, the game still ran more than two hours. If you’re looking to play Runewars, make sure to set aside about four or five hours. The game is definitely fun, but my first impression is that it would be more worthwhile if some of it’s more extraneous aspects were stripped out. I would consider removing the heroes and quests entirely, therefore forcing the players to contend for the runes through strategy and battle, rather than hoping for lucky reward draws. Perhaps that’s just my own taste in wargames coming through, though. I’ll definitely have to try the game again at some point, to see if my impression changes.

[tags]board games, Runewars, wargames[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Runewars: high fantasy warfare with not enough war

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  1. I’m a geek, in pretty much every sense of the word. I like computers and technology, board games, video games, roleplaying games, and improvisational comedy (just for a bit of contrast). Gaming, in one form or another, has been a part of life ever since adolescence, when I first tried my hand at Shadowrun and AD&D (2nd Edition of both). Along the way, I flirted with CCGs, discovered true love in indie RPGs, and developed a serious board game habit. I’m less serious about video games, but I do enjoy gaming on my Wii, DS, and more recently, my iPhone.


  2. Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing? I have a presentation incoming week, and I am on the lookout for such information


  3. I disagree. If you really did get three Timmoran shards, I think your other opponents would have already gotten combat-related reward cards, which would mean that only absolute noobs would ever not try to attack you. Generally, I find that Runewars is one of those games that has many deadly groupthink elements which consistently frustrate the players until all of them realize the impracticality of certain actions.

    For example, one time on Boardgamegeek, I read a forum about a person who consistently lost at Runewars as Uthuk Y’llan because he didn’t realize that berserkers should be his army’s bread and butter, as opposed to flesh rippers.


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