Cult of the New: Runewars

(image by Fantasy Flight Games)
I think I have a new favorite game.

Allow me to interrupt myself before I go further. Talking about a brand new game shortly after getting it can be dangerous while you are still in the “honeymoon period.” The newness has not worn off yet and it is easy to be overenthusiastic. At the same time, it is nigh impossible to not talk about the game; you are so excited you can’t help but tell everyone you know. This gives us the inaugural post for Cult of the New. When you read these you know you are getting relatively fresh impressions on a game so take them with a grain of salt: first impressions can be dangerous with strategy board games. There’s a good chance I’ll come back for a second look on these later.

As I was saying, I have a new favorite game: Runewars. I’ve talked about Fantasy Flight plenty already as they are behind some of my favorites: Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Britannia, Kingdoms, Battlestar Galactica and possibly my number one game, Twilight Imperium 3. They tend to put out western-centric games with modern Euro sensibilities that really hit a sweet spot for me. When Fantasy Flight first announced Runewars, early talk likened it to a fantasy version of Twilight Imperium… how could I possibly pass it up? After a couple of two player games and a four player game I think Fantasy Flight may have created their finest work yet.

Here is some of what makes the game great:

(image by sydo @ BGG)

Asymmetric powers: Player controls one of four different races, each with unique units and resources. I love games with asymmetry as it adds more variety and gives each player a unique way to approach the game. Your race may help direct your strategy for the game but it also seems like there’s no single path to victory to matter which race you choose.

Asymmetric maps and map building: Building the map is a crucial part of the game. Runewars has different shaped tiles made of hexes and each player is given two along with their starting area. In turn players put down one of their tiles until all are placed; this will always result in a unique map. In a fun twist, the first player then puts placeholders for all of the home territories but the person to their left gets first pick of those placeholders. This encourages everyone to build a balanced map and select balanced starting placeholders as nobody knows where they will be starting off. It’s a brilliant map building system and adds a lot of variability to each game.

Agonizing decisions: The game lasts a maximum of six years. Each year lasts four seasons and you choose one tactics card to execute per season. Tactics cards are numbered one to eight and have a primary and secondary ability. You only get to activate the secondary ability if it is your highest numbered card for the year. This creates an “ideal” sequence of play but often you find yourself having to go against that path. Weighing those bonuses against doing whatever you need to accomplish most while also trying to second guess your opponents makes for fun tactical decisions each round.

(image by DalimThor @ BGG)
Everything works together: You have heroes running around the map discovering runes and armies moving in to hold those runes to win the game. Each season has a special effect kick in which can greatly alter your plan for that season or even the rest of the year. Influence tokens are your key to winning auctions for various rewards and for attempting diplomacy with the neutral units on the board to try and convince them to join your side and managing your influence is crucial. Combat is resolved via a deck of cards but still manages to be exciting and quick to resolve. Long-term planning is rewarded but players must be flexible as things can quickly change.

Gorgeous bits: If nothing else, Runewars is a beautiful game. Each race has a unique set of units plus there’s a set of neutral units out on the map and the figures are fantastic. The tiles look great and manage to never be too busy. Of course the three dimensional mountains are the real kicker. Yes, they only serve to show borders that can’t be crossed but the aesthetic appeal really should not be overlooked. This may also be one of Fantasy Flight’s best rule books, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

Runewars has really taken me by surprise. There is a lot going on but all the mechanics compliment each other rather than feeling tacked-on. It is also a shorter game than others of this style while keeping an epic feel. My guess is that once everyone knows how you play you can easily finish in an hour per player, possibly less.

(image UndeadViking by @ BGG)

Be warned that early plays may not reveal the true fun to be had. The game is over either at the end of the sixth year or when one player controls six dragon runes. It isn’t hard for each player to collect four or five dragon runes on their own without venturing out much, so if all players hang back you may not see much action until the end of the game. Once everyone understands that and realizes the key is not so only collecting runes but doing so while preventing your opponents from doing the same then the game really heats up and starts to show off its potential.

It’s been awhile since a game has consumed my thoughts like this. Fantasy Flight has really been showing off their maturity as game designers and for my money Runewars may be their pièce de résistance. We’ll see how the game holds up over the course of 2010!