Designed by: Andrew Fischer
Published by: Fantasy Flight Games
Game provided free of charge by Esdevium Games for review.
On my kitchen table two forces face off. On one side are the Daqan, noble human warriors with their block of spearman, fierce cavalry, brave hero and towering golem. On the other side stands the army of Waiqar the Undying, a dark horde made of skeletal warriors and horrific carrior lancers. Yup, it’s another game from FFG intent on making you spend all your cash on new models and expansions rather than on bills and food. Oh, and it comes with FFG’s typically bloody awful cardboard insert, too.
The first thing I always do with a box packed full of miniatures is to toss everything else aside like the junk it is and spend some quality time just staring at all the lovely plastic, and in this area Runewars does pretty damn well, offering up some awesome models to admire. The star of the show is the four-armed Rune Golem who feels nice and chunky when you pick him up, his soft plastic body crying out for a talented painter to have his/her naughty way with him. Even the smaller minis have a pleasing amount of detail and look awesome without a lick of paint. However, there are some problems; the bigger models can be slotted together nicely without glue, but the the joints on the smaller pieces are frankly very poor, often being distorted or roughly cut. I’d personally advise considering taking a file to them just to clean everything up before gluing the smaller minis together. There’s also some weak points in the skeletal army, so be careful as they’re quite easy to accidentally snap. I found that out the hard way. Poor archer.
The two armies in the box fit onto black trays in order to form the regiments you’ll be moving around, and here we find another problem; the trays themselves are made of nice thick plastic, but the models don’t fit onto them well at all, especially the larger units which wobble and pop out with the slightest pressure. Since models have to be removed as the game goes on, though, you can’t just glue them for stability. It makes picking up your army and shifting it around the table harder than it should be, and I hope we see some improvements as time goes on. As you can see in the picture above, the large Carrion Lancer has come out of position, and doesn’t even come close to fitting correctly in its base.
Once you get everything setup Runewars is very familiar stuff, using the dials, surge icons and movement templates that FFG have been using for a while now. Indeed, this is a safe game in many regards, playing out like a “Best of” hits compilation with very little room for true innovation or its own identity. Across eight rounds, or more if you like, both players will plan out their strategies and then take turns moving their trays of models across the table, either attempting to complete the objectives laid out in the randomly drawn scenario card or just trying to do the most damage.
Where the game’s interesting twist comes from is the command dials that players will secretly set before the activation phase begins, forcing you to make your plans before you know what the other person is going to do. The leftmost dial is the primary command you’ll be issuing to the corresponding unit, like moving, attacking, reforming or using a special skill. The rightmost dial is the modifier for that order, so a standard straight forward movement now becomes a charge with an arcing turn, or an attack can be bolstered with a bonus hit. The only limitation is that a modifiers color must match the main command, because obviously adding a charge modifier to a normal attack would be a waste of time. The exception to this rule are white icons which may be used in combination with any order.
There’s even stun tokens that can be spent to force a player to ignore the modifier, potentially screwing up their plans massively. You may be ordering your Pikemen to move to the right, for example, only for the opponent to spend the stun token the Pikement acquired earlier, forcing you to ignore the turn modifier and instead send the Pikemen marching straight forwards into an awkward situation.
Another thing to consider is that the command you give a unit dictates when it will be activated during the round, with each individual order displaying a number from 1-10. The higher the number the later a unit will activate during the round, so you might program a bunch of pikemen to go charging straight forward only to discover that the enemy unit chose a command that let’s them move a short distance very early in the turn, leaving your pikemen to go running past in embarrassing fashion before having to take a panic token, because failed charges always result in panic. More on that later. It’s a very smart system that constantly left me second-guessing what my opponent was going to do. Sure, it’s great to go for that attack that can be modifed with a bonus hit, but if has an initiative rating of 7 do I really want to risk the enemy going for a faster strike early in the round that could potentially decimate my remaining troops before I even get a chance to swing a blade?
Of course, it’s fair to say that some suspension of disbelief is required. FFG have been using systems like this for a while in their space combat games and in that setting it makes a tad more sense that something like a massive Imperial Stardestroyer could go lumbering straight past an enemy ship that moved out of the way. Here, when it’s a regiment of troops charging, it’s a bit harder to accept that none of them noticed the enemy regiment ambling out of the way. It’s almost a bit comical at times.
The dials also help differentiate the different troop types more. For each army in the box you’ve got four different troops with matching cards that list their attack and defense values as well as any special abilities. But to me it was the dials that really set them all apart. Take the human’s hulking Golem as a great example. This four-armed beast is capable of absorbing considerable punishment and has a few abilities that feed off the game’s magic system, whereby at the start of each round five tokens are tossed on to the table which represent the different types of magic available. The ability to go toe-to-toe with an entire formation of infantry comes at a cost, though, as there’s no way to perform a moving turn on the dials. Instead, the golem has to stride forwards and then rotate on the spot, making him tricky to move around the battlefield. In contrast the human’s other single-tray unit is nimble and even has a ranged attack with an initiative of just two, letting her strike incredibly early if she wants.
Engaging an enemy is as simple as crashing into it, at which point the attacker rotates his trays to sit flush with the opposing force. Combat is resolved via good old fashioned tossing of dice, but the game does avoid giving players handfuls of plastic to throw by introducing the threat level mechanic. Basically, you consult the attacking troops card and then roll the displayed die, usually two or three, and then count up the amount of hits. However, for each tray of models at the front of the formation the amount of damage a hit icon done is increased, thus two trays equals two damage per hit and three trays would equal three damage. There’s another twist, though, as each full rank of trays behind the front row grants a re-roll of the dice when attacking.
As much as I love this mechanic I did find myself wanting more freedom to actually use it. Like other games of this type building an army costs points, so you have a certain amount of points to work with and must put together your forces within that limit. You can’t, however, choose to field a regiment two trays wide but three trays deep, for example, and instead must pick from the preset formations where an extra rank at the rear means having to increase the width by, too.
The way combat gets resolved is pretty straightforward. Other than your hit icons you’ll also need to tally up any surge icons which will activate special abilities your troops may have. These can really turn the tide of a fight when used well. The skeletal archers can sometimes force a target to take a blight token, for example, while the Carrior Lancer can use surge icons to convert those blight tokens into mortal wounds, an icon that will deal a wound to the enemy regardless of defense.
Speaking of wounding the way damage is dealt is easy to understand and resolve. Each type of unit has a defense value and wound limit. If you have enough hits to equal or exceed the defense value then the target takes a wound, and once it takes enough it gets removed from the game. In the case of both armies main infantry they have a defense and wound value of just one, so every hit will remove a model from the rear, but these values can potentially be altered via upgrade cards or terrain. More on those later. Whenever a tray is depleted it gets removed, a potentially fiddly task as they actually slot together quite tightly, so you’ve got to sort of carefully extradite the troops from the field of battle before wrestling for a second with the trays.
Another aspect of combat is the morale system where you can “spend” any panic icons you rolled during the attack, plus any panic tokens that the defender has accumulated, to force them into drawing a number of cards from the morale deck equal to the amount of panic tokens spent. As the attacker you can then choose one of these cards that displays equal or less than the number of panic tokens you spent and resolve it. It sounds touch clumsy when written, and truthfully I think it could have been executed more smoothly, but the point is morale cards can have a number of effects on the battle, from the enemy simply recieving a panic token that can be spent to negate a modifier all the way up to an entire tray of models getting removed to simulate them running from the battlefield.
Something else that should be considered is that flanking grants a bonus die to all attacks, so it’s worth trying to get behind or to the side of your targets before moving in, which is naturally something that the human force’s cavalry excels at, because not only can they move quickly and inflict a lot of damage but they also force an enemy unit they hit while charging to take a panic token as well, so a flanking move combined with a successful charge can be devastating, exactly as it should be.
There is also terrain to consider. Whether or not the battle will have terrain depends on the scenario and terrain card combo you drew at the start, but the important thing is that terrain can grant bonuses such as extra defense from ranged or mellee attacks or even the ability to ignore line of sight when making a ranged attack.
Ranged attacks play out much the same way as standard melee assaults, except that a ranged unit doesn’t have to become engaged with an enemy and thus is allowed to freely move around whereas an engaged unit may only use a shift command to take a step backwards, a sometimes very smart tactic. Line of sight rules stop you from doing something like firing from behind a wall of reanimate infantry, but tracing line of sight is fairly generous as you can trace it from any point on the unit’s trays to any point on the enemy with absolutely no penalties – provided you can trace the line you can hit them with full force. If you opt to fire at an enemy currently engaged with another of your unit’s though, that unit of yours must take a morale test for friendly fire.
Finally, there are the rune tokens which get tossed onto the table at the start of each round. At the moment these mostly just effect the golem, although the Waiqar player does have his/her Reanimate infantry that can be brought back from the dead at the end of the round. The golem has a default slow movement with a bad iniative, but if the right runes are cast he can move much further than normal and earlier in the round, too. He also has another ability that can substantially boost his defense depending on the runes, turning him into even more of a tank that can take a beating. I just wish the core set had a few more units which made more interesting use of these runes like the golem does, even if the runes do add a hefty dollop of luck.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with the core game and played through a few of the scenarios given to you then you can begin to customize your army a tad. Now, the core game doesn’t contain enough miniatures for you to customize your army in that sense, with the only options available being to split your main infantry into two groups or keep them as chunky blocks, but there are a few upgrade cards that you can equip various troops with in order to bolster their abilities, like a terrifying banner that makes any enemy engaged with that regiment take a panic token at the end of each turn. Teasingly there are only a couple of upgrades you can use in the core, with quite a few of them being unusable until you get more miniatures. Still, there’s just enough of a taste here to make you want more….such is the danger of these games.
Perhaps the biggest thing going for Runewars right now is that it’s quite easy to get into, the straightforward rules and the fact that there’s really only the core set and some small additions available making it a far less daunting prospect than many other games of this type. With that said, it’s a strength that will fade over time as more and more miniatures become available and armies start to become bigger. It’s the very same reason convincing people to jump into Warhammer or even something like Star Wars: Armada can be a bit tricky as they feel they need to spend so much money to keep up with existing players, even if that isn’t true.
Once you get going it’s quite a bit of fun, and strategic play is rewarded. Like most other games of this ilk that I’ve played it feels like the core set is a light taster of what the game could be. Sure, flanking and taking advantage of terrain is fun, but it’s a mere tease of what fielding bigger armies with more varied troops could be like in the future. Likewise, the upgrade cards provide a sneak peak at the potential scope of the customization. Hopefully, each player will have a chance to field an army that isn’t quite like everyone else’s.
So, is it a good game? The answer, I think, is yes, albeit a safe and unsurprising one. If you’ve ever touched any of FFG’s prior war games like Star Wars: X-wing then you’re going to see a lot of familiar stuff here, from the dial system to the movement templates and the surge icons on the dice, which feel a bit out of place here. This creates the constant feeling that Runewars isn’t it’s own thing, that it’s struggling to form a personality of its own despite the chunky lore book that it comes packaged with. Despite this each battle I fought was a lot of fun, and it looked appealing enough that I was even able to coerce a few friends into playing with me, the very same friends who scream in terror whenever I mention playing most other games with miniatures and movement templates. If you’re looking for another miniature wargame to invest scary amounts of money into then Runewars is going to make you very happy. It’s fun to play, looks great and FFG are undoubtedly going to be strongly supporting it. With a company like them there is little risk of leaping in only to find it being abandoned shortly after. if you’re seeking the next amazing thing, though, or something different, then Runewars may be something of a letdown.
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