Runewars: But How Does It Play?
I recently wrote a series of articles on a recent gaming session (well, sessions) of Runewars and its expansion, Banners of War. It was humbly entitled Runewars Mega (Part 1 here, and Index here), and I wrote it as a story—a retelling of the narrative that four friends created together. The reaction to this series was encouraging, but I kept getting the same question from readers: “But how does it play?”
In writing about the story of our game, I entirely neglected to explain much about the game mechanics themselves. In so doing, the only applied information I seem to have imparted was that Runewars is incredibly complicated—which, sure, it can be. So now I’m writing this as a sort of formal apology: this is how the game plays, and why I believe it to be one of the best games on my shelf.
Like many of Corey Konieczka’s games (Battlestar Galactica, Mansions of Madness), Runewars looks complicated because it comes with hundreds of colorful components. These shouldn’t be intimidating! Rather than being an impenetrable mess, the rules are generally logical and easy to learn. In Runewars, each game round consists of three phases:
1. Flip over a season card and resolve it.
2. Everyone picks an order card in secret.
3. Reveal order cards and resolve them in proper sequence.
Season cards have two effects, one that takes place during each season of that type, and a second that is unique to that card. So two winters are the same in that armies will starve in the cold and can cross frozen lakes, but different in that one might provide a strange offer from the local Wizards’ Council while another temporarily alters the abilities of your spellcasters. Springs are for preparing for war, reorganizing routed troops and breaking camp, while summers are for adventuring, and autumns are for consolidating power.
This works well for the most part, though it gives birth to some heavy abstraction; for instance, it’s hard to find a discussion of the rules of Runewars that doesn’t bring up how lazy the heroes of Terrinoth are, only going out to quest during the summer months. Most of these oddities are necessary compromises for the sake of gameplay, but they can seem jarring at first.
(Furthermore, without the expansion, the game simply doesn’t work as well. The game works best when it’s emulating the interdependency between heroes and armies that we commonly see in fantasy—think Lord of the Rings, in which the victory of Good over Evil rests on the shoulders of both plucky heroes and sizable armed forces. While the base game does a fine job of balancing the dual need for champions and soldiers, it fails in one key way by omitting the ability of the champions to lead the soldiers. In our game, it was common for heroes to alternate between adventuring and marshaling. Without this mechanic, found only in the expansion, the heroic portion of the game simply isn’t as dynamic).
Before I go on, let’s talk combat for a minute.
There are four types of units in Runewars, determined by the unit figure’s base (see above). Triangle units are common and tend to miss more often than not in battle. Circles are spellcasters, and are more likely to do special attacks than anything else. Rectangles are better, and hexagons even more superior.
Combat in Runewars isn’t based on the whims of dice. Rather, you line up your units according to their initiative and draw “Fate” cards. Fate cards look like this:
So if you drew this card while attacking with a weak footman (a triangle unit), you would have missed.
Battle proceeds down the line, with all units of a certain initiative firing at once. So combat is simultaneous, though units of a later initiative might not ever get a chance to attack because they were killed by a volley of arrows before they ever made it to the field.
Once combat is concluded, you total up the number of surviving, non-routed units. You add bonuses, such as special attacks or local strongholds to get a total value, and whichever side has the higher number wins the combat, while the loser retreats all their units.
The benefit of this system is surprisingly organic battles. Rather than being all-or-nothing affairs, it’s possible to raid with fast low-initiative units, or see huge armies clash without resulting in very many casualties, or to tailor your army into a lumbering fortress-buster.
Also, you’re never allowed to have more than 8 units per territory, except when attacking—and even if successful, any attackers in excess of the 8 unit limit must be disbanded or retreated.
The main meat of the game is found in the interaction of order cards. There are eight of them (nine with the expansion). Once a season card has been resolved, everyone picks one and simultaneously reveals it. These orders are then resolved in the order of lowest to highest card number (see above).
The twist is that each card has two actions. The first is free: if you play the card, you get that action. The second action is a “supremacy bonus.” You only get to take this additional action if this is the highest-numbered order card you’ve played so far this year. And you don’t get to pick up your order cards until spring, so this can be an excruciating choice.
In the picture above, it’s winter and the player has just played the “Mobilize” card, which has the number 2. In past seasons he’s earned his supremacy bonus, since each season he played a higher number than in previous turns (and in spring you always earn your supremacy bonus, since there are no higher-numbered cards in play). For this last move, however, he will not get the card’s supremacy bonus, since 2 is not the highest numbered order he’s played.
Sure, this is another level of abstraction. It’s fine if it seems strange—plenty of people find it just as objectionable as heroes questing only in summer. After all, surely an army could rally support in a city and then mobilize? But the actions do have a sort of sense to them, as though a kingdom could conceivably be expected to run in roughly the proposed sequence. In practice, this mechanic is simply elegant. It deepens the selection of order cards from a neat little guessing game to a subtle contest. Rather than just picking any old order, you’ll be trying to pick one that trips up your opponents. You’ll find yourself sacrificing supremacy bonuses just to throw your friends off, or to surprise them with a sudden attack. With just this one mechanic, Runewars stops being merely a fantasy sim, and becomes a game of psychological warfare.
Since they’re the core of the game, let’s take a look at the order cards.
Garrison adds 2 to that total number at the end of battle that I discussed above—and as small as that number sounds, it can really add up, because other factors like forts or units’ special abilities are altering that total too. The supremacy bonus of Garrison is only going to work if it’s the first card you play that year, but it lets you plop down two triangle units (your weakest) onto a stronghold.
The strategize card lets you make adjustments to the placement of your units and heroes, even if those adjustments move you into new territories. You can’t start fights with this card, but it can be a great way to expand into swaths of empty territories or bring an army to the front in preparation for an invasion.
The supremacy bonus is a bit trickier. When you gain resources (food, wood, or ore), you move a dial up. The higher your dials, the better and more numerous the troops you can recruit. Sometimes influence or Tactics are marked on the dials as well.
Tactics are basically wildcards. They have all sorts of effects—some let you travel through mountains, kill enemy units without engaging them in combat, or steal from other players—and nobody gets to look at the Tactics cards you have in your hand. This means that even a weak player armed with a thick stack of Tactics can be terribly dangerous. Cultivating a strong hand of Tactics can be key to shaking up the game and stealing a victory.
2. Mobilize / 3. Conquer
These cards have similar effects, so I’ll lump them together. Both let you move groups of units, potentially to attack. When you do, you “activate” an area (by placing an Activation Token there). These tokens represent army camps after a long march, and cannot be removed until spring. What do they do? Oh, just the little inconvenience of locking your units in place. This means you need to think long and hard about how many troops you’re bringing on any given attack, because they aren’t going anywhere until spring sees them break camp or if you happened to draw a lucky Tactics card that will remove that Activation Token.
The supremacy bonus of Mobilize lets you activate a second area, but you can only initiate one battle per season. The supremacy for Conquer reduces that battle total we talked about earlier, but only if you’re besieging one of their strongholds (which give a +3 or +5 to that total), thus making it easier to push into enemy hardpoints.
These two cards are staples of your orders, and you should expect to employ them consistently.
4. Harvest / 5. Recruit
Your resource card has three tracks, one for each resource. When you conquer a region, you don’t immediately get its resources; first you must Harvest. It’s possible to take an area, Harvest, and then lose multiple regions without damaging your resource dials until you Harvest again or a Season card forces you to. The Recruit order lets you gain troops at your strongholds based on one of your three resource tracks, or two of your resources if you gain the supremacy bonus.
Each nation’s troops are unique. The Uthuk Y’llan barbarians focus on dealing damage and winning battles at any cost. The Latari elves lack heavy hitters, but have elite light troops. The humans are dull and as jack-of-all-trades as you could imagine. And Waiqar’s undead troops focus on gaining masses of weak reinforcements.
The supremacy bonus for Harvest lets you build a development at one of your strongholds. These can be economic upgrades that let you gather extra resources when you use Harvest in the future, or they can help defend that region in battle, or they can help you gain Tactics or influence (more on that later). With the expansion, Harvest also lets you research special “development cards” that grant your nation extra bonuses, such as helpful peasants for the humans or extra zombies for the undead.
6. Rally Support
Cities are interesting regions. They can be difficult to hold onto, as strongholds cannot be built in the same territory, and they afford no defensive benefits of their own. This might make them sound useless, but each one comes with a few symbols, like this:
The city on the left shows that Rally Support can be used to gain 3 circle neutral units, 3 Tactics cards, or 1 influence. The city on the right may provide 1 rectangle unit, 3 influence, or 2 Quest cards. Both have a dragon rune as well. Incidentally, dragon runes are the way to win the game—rather than beating your opponents into submission, you’re trying to find and protect a certain number of these runes.
Influence is the side of the coin opposite Tactics cards. Influence is used for all sorts of useful things: diplomacy with neutral forces (to persuade them into joining your cause), dealing with the fickle Wizards’ Council, breaking certain ties, and more. It’s hard to say whether Tactics or influence are more important, so it’s best to just leave the debate aside and try to be rich in both currencies.
The supremacy bonus of Rally Support lets you spend some of that influence to gain a new hero. The more you spend, the more options you have, which is a good idea since you don’t want to be a Good guy with an Evil hero, since he might realize the strangeness of his employment and abandon your cause at some inconvenient moment.
7. Acquire Power
This order is probably the most reliable way to gain influence, and it comes paired with a supremacy bonus that lets you spend it. Title cards announce that you’ve finagled your way into a position of authority—over a guild of warriors or merchants, for instance. These titles give tidy benefits, but other players can spend their own influence to steal a title that you’ve claimed. Every time this happens, the title becomes more difficult to steal, and more infuriating to everyone who doesn’t hold it.
Fortify is the one order that doesn’t come with a supremacy bonus, for the obvious reason that it will always be the highest-numbered card you can play. It offers a number of ways for a player to secure their position: building or repairing strongholds, or moving dragon runes.
See, dragon runes are physical objects on the game board, and when taken they remain right where they were. In order to hide them away, you’ll have to play Fortify and move them back from the front. It’s possible to play with decoy runes as well, which gives this card an additional element of trickery as you shuffle real runes with decoys.
More than any other game I’ve played, Runewars captures the feel of an epic fantasy. Heroes go on epic quests, armies clash, and… well, those are the main things. Oh yes, and players square off in a game of wits. Which is why I must give it a final score of Mount Doom. Which is to say, it’s impressive, and imposing, and basically impossible to topple. Unless you’re a hobbit. But hobbits aren’t known for making boardgames, so the Runewars legacy is safe for the time being.