Relic Runners-Up: A Review of Relic Runners

In Relic Runners from Days of Wonder, you gear up as one of 2-5 archaeologists with everything in your arsenal except a pair of legs. Prepare to discover ruins, brave wild rapids, blaze new trails and explore the bloody blazes out of a bunch of different colored temples (because temples are nothing if not color coordinated) while attempting to recover relics in order to score big points with those folks back at the University. Times must be tough for scientific discoveries since you all seem to be sharing the same grant and Base Camp while running out into the jungle like a bunch of slap-happy circus clowns.

As with the better known Days of Wonder hit – Ticket to RideRelic Runners is route building game catering to families and emerging gamers with an easy-to-learn set of rules and a comfortable depth of game-play, nice art with a rather pasted-on theme. Routes are already established on the player board with explorers determining where and when to blaze a trail, create networks of paths, move up a technology tree of abilities and picking up various bonus and points from unexplored temples along the way. The whole game feels well-designed but contrived. Full of vibrant color but not much to be excited about.

Basics:

  • Designer: Matthew Dunstan
  • Year Released: 2013
  • Category: Exploration, Legless Pawns
  • Game Mechanic: Point to Point Movement, Route/Network Building, Contrived Theme
  • Number of Players: 2-5
  • Suggested Age: 8+
  • Playing Time: 60 minutes
  • The player pawns have no legs…why don’t they have legs?

How do I play?

Relic Runners set up
Relic Runners set up [source]

Each player’s turn is made up of two phases – Move and Explore:

1. Move: Movement is simple and straight-forward. When a players moves, their legless game piece glides along a trail – jungle trails or river trails – connecting locations (Base Camp, ruins or temples). Moves can be extended through the application of “pathways” which can be laid out from a player’s reserve, or moved from different locations the board. These allow the movement turn to be extended by the number of continuous pathways either before or after movement along a bare (no pathway) trail. Players can’t move along a gap between pathways but they can move across a gap at the beginning or at the end of a series of pathways. By chaining these pathways, players can move great distances around the board with a single turn. However, only pathways of your explorer’s color are accessible. You also can not move through Base Camp. Once you hit Base Camp (located in the center of the board) you fall into a soporific slumber or perhaps into a bottle of whiskey, the rules do not clarify which.

2. Explore: Once the movement phases ends, the player will likely be on temple or ruin. If that temple or ruin is unexplored (has tiles remaining on the space) the player may “explore” the ruin/temple by paying one ration pack from their supply and collecting the tile. Each player starts the game with 3 rations and can hold up to five through restocking and certain benefits of the Toolbox Progression Table.

There are four places to explore – ruins and three different colored temples (ivory, blue and purple). When exploring a ruin, the player pulls the top of the three stacked tiles and can then place a pathway on an adjacent trail. The ivory temples are also composed of three levels as well – the first level provides game-end bonuses, the second level provides single-use benefits discarded immediately after use and the third level provides a permanent effect. Only one layer of each type (top, middle and bottom) can be kept by each player. If you pick up two of the same level (size) then the player discards one and takes 2 Victory Points in compensation. When exploring a blue temple (no matter the level), the players gain a secret amount of Victory Points and when exploring a purple temple (no matter the level), players gain an immediate effect (most importantly being able to move up the Toolbox Progression Table and move Pathways to different locations on the board).

Whoa! Slow down, I thought you said this had a small set of rules…

It does. The basic rules are really simple but there are a bunch of these little middling rules thrown in all over the place. It almost makes it feel over-designed. They probably balance out the game better but each one hampers the flow of the game.

OK. Thanks for clearing that up. Now, please continue.

The Toolbox Progression Table: At the beginning of the game, each player has three plastic toolboxes. One toolbox is put into play at the bottom of the Toolbox Progression Table on their player’s personal Explorer Chart. There are three tracks to advance on; accomplished by picking up supplies along the rivers where toolbox tokens are located. Toolbox tokens are flipped once to move up the tool track. After that, in order to get more toolboxes on the board, player must explore purple temples. Once all the toolbox tokens are all used up on the board, they are magically recharged and flipped back over to be used again. Contrived? Yes. Helpful? Absolutely. The Toolbox Progression Table provides abilities to explore and resupply quicker, lay down or move pathways and hands out a few additional bonuses and abilities.

Relic Runs! After a ruin or temple is fully explored and all three tiles have been removed, a shrine is revealed and a relic placed at the location. To gain a relic, a player must start a turn at a relic and then end their movement on another relic of the same type. When that happens, you grab the relic and score a number of points equal to twice the number of trails moved along to get to it! Then each collected relic is worth an additional 5 Victory Points at the end of the game. This is how players will gain most of their Victory Points and it just feels over-designed. When I play something like Ticket to Ride the scoring makes sense. You get points for laying tracks and completing routes. Serenely simple and solid. But this whole begin with relic to end on a relic to gain a relic and then gain points equal to twice the amount of trails traveled just begs the question – WHY? And I’ve fielded that questions with “It is what the rules say and how the game plays.” No thematic rationale or story behind it (other than you gain imaginary clues at the first relic in order to obtain the second and that “getting there is half the fun!”)…so again, contrived and over-done but still pretty.

How do I win?

Victory points! By Jove, you win by collecting Victory Points! Welcome to medium-weight Eurotown, population – ME! So the person with the most Victory Points at the end of the game wins. You collect Victory points through exploring certain temples, some areas of the Toolbox Progression Table and, most importantly, collecting Relics. Points, points, points, points…points!

The strategy is fairly simple, build pathways early in the game and ensure a wide network of movement around the board while passing toolbox tokens to build up your abilities on the Toolbox Progression Table. Plan your routes carefully allowing yourself the ability to get from one unexplored location to another without exhausting your rations. Wasted turns really kill you in this game so plan your movements in advance.

What did you think?

The relics are gorgeous. I'd run after them...
The relics are gorgeous. I’d run after them…

Components: (Hot Damn!) The components are amazing. Gorgeous. I love the shape and sizes of the tiles that make up each of the temples – they look like a tiered temple! They stack up nicely and look fantastic on the board. I love these temples. And the plastic! The relics for each of the temples/ruin locations (an emerald toad, a crystal skull, a blue bird of paradise and purple juju) are awesome. I would hang these things on my Holiday Tree if they were only slightly larger. In fact, they keep disappearing from the box and appearing at my daughter’s tea parties and exorcisms (A Good Juju a Day, Keeps Cthulhu Away). The pathways and ration boxes are all nice. I can’t figure out the reason for the legless player pieces but assume it is to simulate a person wading through rivers or high grasses – but still, sort of weird. The board is nice and thick. Good stuff! No disappointments. But, honestly, I expected this level of quality from Days of Wonder.

Purple Juju is just messing with you man...
Purple Juju is just messing with you man…

Game-play: (Not Bad) The depth of game-play seems pretty standard for gateway/family/midweight games with the simple rules and the limited decision space. One thing that bugged me was how slow the game was to rev up. For a game that only lasts about an hour, I like to get into the think of it early in the game. But the beginning of the game is slow – painfully slow for new players. This isn’t AP slow, it is nothing-at-all-is-happening slow and I-guess-I-will-put-this-here slow. You pretty much move and explore and that is it. However, it does start to ramp up halfway through the game once some pathways are lain down and resources (ruins/temples) become more scarce. There is a strategic element of determining which areas to explore first (ruins to create pathways or temples to gain bonuses and abilities) plus where to start working up the Toolbox Progression Chart. The game also scaffolds well when taught to new players. Within one turn, all the mechanics are well-understood and the strategy begins to emerge as the game develops – albeit slowly. There are quite a few tiny middling rules which sometimes get in the way of the gameplay. Resetting the toolbox token when the last one is flipped over tends to be forgotten and it actually affects gameplay plenty when people consider it a limited rather than unlimited resource.

Theme (Meh): The theme just doesn’t connect. If you are looking for a story or narrative to emerge from the game, look somewhere else.

Bottom Line: Solid but somewhat disappointing game which may appeal to families and strategy minded fans of eurogames. Not so hot for people who prefer theme to mechanics. What Day of Wonder did was take some interesting mechanics, threw a high gloss of jungle adventure theme on top of it and then manufactured some nice damn components. My group was rather split between this one and Eldritch Horror. People who loved theme and story disliked Relic Runners and adored Eldritch Horror. People who prefered a nice euro feel really liked Relic Runners and wanted Eldritch Horror to die a quick and thou-shall-not-rise-again death. But, despite the split, it is easy to teach, looks gorgeous and plays fast so it is not completely irredeemable. Play first to see if it connects and then convince an acquaintance to buy it. A decent addition to a collection that needs another gateway game to appease the people once Ticket to Ride and Stone Age have lost their luster. But the romance will be a short one…

Would you rather?

Would you rather play Relic Runners or Ticket to Ride?  If given the option I would play a new Ticket to Ride board (Nordic or Europe) over Relic Runners. Ticket to Ride isn’t particularly dripping with theme but new players immediately pick up what routes they are attempting to make while in Relic Runners new players, while understanding the mechanics, tend to be annoyed by the slow beginning of the game and minuscule rules.

Would you rather play Relic Runners in the beginning of the night or end of the night? Totally would play it at the end of the night. You can easily say “we are ending the game in one turn to count up points” and most players really wouldn’t care one way or the other. Not that it is a bad game but there is no investment in any major strategy or storyline that would disappoint anyone if the game was ended and tallied early.

Would you rather play Relic Runners or Tikal? That is tough. If I were looking for a filler game with some feeling of exploration, I would take Incan Gold (I know you didn’t ask but I figured it was the next question…you are getting predictable). If I were playing with my family or a group of people new to gaming and I needed a gateway game (which I could WOW them with shiny bits and pieces) I would pick Ticket to Ride. Now if one of the players had a deep phobia of trains or hated train games, I may pick up Relic Runners instead. If I had a group of experienced or emerging gamers and I wanted to explore something in a jungle, I would take Tikal.

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