I'm a big fan of fantasy role-playing style games; and so when I
heard about Runebound (Fantasy Flight Games, 2004 - Martin Wallace), I
was intrigued for several reasons. For one, it was designed by one of
my favorite game designers - Mr. Wallace, who has produced the
incredible Age of Steam, Liberte, and more. Also, Fantasy Flight
games are all about fantastic themes and components, so I had high
expectations. I didn't get around to getting it for various reasons,
so by the time I got Runebound, it was the Second Edition, newly
published in 2005.
After one game, I was hooked. I immediately wanted to play another
game and even had an enjoyable time playing a solo version. After
several plays, I pronounce the game extremely fun and look forward to
playing it again. I'm not sure I'll want to play the game again with
four or more players, but it's extremely fun with two or three, and
even playable with one. With various ways to upgrade each character,
and interesting, thematic events - Runebound has quickly become one of
my favorite games of this genre, and I'd be eager to play it often.
Each player chooses one of twelve character cards, each with a
different set of statistics. Characters have hit points, ranging from
four to six; stamina, ranging from two to four; Mind, Body, and Spirit
values, ranging from zero to five; Ranged, Melee, and Magic damage,
ranging from one to two; and a special ability or two. Each player
receives three gold, and the rest of the gold, along with piles of
wound, exhaustion, and experience counters, are placed in piles near
the board. On the board, adventure counters in colors blue, green,
red, and yellow, are placed in corresponding spots all over the board.
Piles of challenge cards (one for each adventure color) are shuffled
and placed by the board, as well as a "Market" deck. One card from
the market deck is placed face up in a card space that corresponds to
each city on the board. One player is chosen to go first, and then
play proceeds clockwise around the table.
On a player's turn, they will be moving a plastic piece that
corresponds to their character around the board - starting from a
central city, Tamalir. To move, a player rolls five movement dice
(unless they have any wounds or exhaustion - in which case they roll
four dice). Players may opt to roll fewer dice, removing one
exhaustion counter for each die not rolled. When moving, a player can
move their figure through different terrain hexes, as long as they use
a die that shows a matching terrain type. A player can use any die
face to move into a town or may elect not to throw any dice at all and
simply move one space in any direction.
If a player lands on a town, they enter the market phase. During
this phase, players draw the top market card and add it to the market
stack that corresponds to the town they are in. Players then may buy
any of the available items, or hire an ally, if they have enough
money. Players may also sell items back to the bank at half price or
may buy healing (discarding one wound for one gold). The different
items that can be bought have different abilities and help the hero do
better in adventures. A player can only carry two weapons and one
armor and may have only two allies. Any item/ally discarded or sold
is placed at the bottom of the market deck.
If a player lands on an adventure, they turn over the top card of the
corresponding adventure deck. If the card is an event, the event is
placed next to the board, and the corresponding actions occur. Events
show a number on them (from I to IV), and are discarded if they are
lower than the current event in play. Encounters are similar to
events, but only happen to the current player, who must accomplish a
task or test to win a reward, etc. After a player resolves an event
or encounter, they draw another card, until they get a challenge card.
Once players have defeated the challenge, they take the adventure
counter off the board and place it face up in front of them. Each
adventure counter is worth experience points from one to four. Some
adventure counters on the board (marked by sunburst spaces) are
replenished whenever an event card is drawn.
When facing a challenge, players must fight the enemy depicted on the
card. Some challenges require the player to make a test. A player,
when making a test, rolls two ten-sided dice and adds the
corresponding value on their card (body, mind, or spirit). They also
add the skill modifier if they have it (ex. Ronan of the Wild adds
two to climbing, hiding, and swimming tests). If a player rolls equal
or higher than the number on the card, they pass the test, and take
rewards / avoid penalties. The player then has the choice as to
whether or not they wish to escape combat. They do this by making an
escape test, using their mind skill vs. the mind value on the
challenge card. If they are successful, they move away, and the enemy
card is marked so that players know what space it's on. A failure to
escape results in the player losing one hit point, and combat
continuing (they can try to escape again, or simply start fighting.)
Fighting occurs in three combat rounds - ranged, melee, and magic - in
that order. A player must choose whether to defend or attack in each
phase, but they can only attack in one of the three phases. If a
player has an ally card, they can use the allies' stats and attack in
one additional round with that ally. In each phase, the player rolls
the two ten-sided dice and adds their combat value of that phase to
the roll. If they roll equal to or higher than the number on the
challenge card, nothing happens if they are defending. If attacking,
they deal hit points equal to the damage they do in that skill. If
they roll less than the number on the challenge card, they take the
damage shown on the enemy's card, whether attacking or defending.
Some enemies deal no damage in one or two of the phases. Hit points
are applied after each phase, and the battle occurs until the
challenge is defeated, the hero is "knocked out", or the hero runs
After defeating a challenge, the player discards the adventure card
and takes the reward mentioned on it - usually treasure, but sometimes
other things. Players also receive the adventure counter, worth
experience points. Once a player reaches a determined number of
experience points (determined by number of players) - they trade them
in for an experience counter, which adds two to a player's mind, body,
spirit, or stamina, or one to their hit points. If a player is
"knocked out", they discard all of their wounds and exhaustion, lose
their best item or ally, and go back to the nearest town.
Play continues until one player defeats the "High Lord Margath"
(which is one of the red challenge cards), or collects three Dragon
Runes (defeating three other red challenge cards). That player then
wins the game!
There are a lot of other little rules that I didn't mention. Rules
such as the way weapons and allies affect combat, combat between
heroes, etc. Most of them are rather intuitive and can be picked up
during the game.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: There are piles of tiles in the game, of various
types and sizes. Fortunately, all of them are double sided, are
different colors and designs and generally are easy to sort. I did
have to put them all in plastic bags, to keep them from getting into a
big mess in the box, which has a plastic insert that is basically
useless except to hold the cards. The plastic figures of the heroes,
which are just begging to be painted, look great and match the poses
on the cards exactly. Speaking of which, the artwork for the game,
done by a team of artists, is really exceptional. It's very thematic,
and the monsters especially are very menacing and look rather
threatening. The cards are of good quality and fit well on the spaces
on the board. The board is very beautiful, and the terrain is put to
good use. The movement dice are six-sided dice with symbols on them
to match each terrain type. My only problem with them was that the
symbols are in black and white, and the symbols for forest and
mountains looked awfully similar, and for us were a bit difficult to
tell apart. I colored on the trees with a green marker; but because
the sticker on the die was laminated, it rubbed right off. I might
find another way to color the dice, though, just to make them easier
to distinguish. Besides this minor quibble, though, the components
were excellent, fitting in a large square box.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is twelve pages of full-colored rules with a
LOT of information on them, including terms, definitions, and
diagrams. There is one example of a complete combat round with a
challenge, which helps explain the combat much better than the rules
can. I found that the game takes a while to explain, especially
combat, but all in all, it's very intuitive, especially to those
who've played role playing games before. The only thing that people
have problems understanding, I found, was the fact that they can only
attack in one phase. Once that's down, allies and weapons just work
3.) Difficulty: I think it's really neat how the game scales the
difficulty. At first, the green challenges seem rather hard, and
players struggle to defeat even the most basic of monsters. Soon,
however, a player slowly accumulates experience and weapons, and they
advance onto the yellow monsters, etc. The red monsters are hideously
difficult, and only a warrior who is completely decked out with decent
allies has a chance at them. Defeating the final enemy is VERY
satisfying - it's not as hard as the final enemy in Return of the
Heroes, but the buildup is better than that game. When you beat the
final enemy, you've finished a long, satisfying journey.
4.) Downtime and Interaction: The two biggest complaints that are
leveled against Runebound are that there is too much player downtime,
and that the players don't interact. To the second problem, I say who
cares; the lack of player interaction makes the game more enjoyable
for me. Player vs. Player combat only hurts both players involved and
seems pretty pointless. If I want to play a game where I can attack
other players, I'll play a different game. As to downtime, it can be
a bit of a problem, especially with more than four players.
Personally, I enjoy watching others play on their turns and seeing how
their "story" unfolds. The downtime in the game doesn't come from
players dawdling on their turns, trying to decide what to do next, but
rather from extended combat situations. And these I find exciting to
watch, but I do realize that mileage may vary.
5.) Combat: I enjoy the combat system; it allows a player to make
meaningful choices, while at the same time adding a healthy dose of
luck. Should I attack with the skill in which the enemy is weakest or
the one in which I deal the most damage? Should my ally attack,
giving me a chance to hit the enemy an extra time, but at the same
time possibly killing the ally. For me, I found the allies good
"speed bumps", cheap friends that I could throw to the enemy as a bone
while I hit them again.
6.) Experience: Gaining experience is critical to a player succeeding
in the game. Having a "+9" in melee combat is much better than a "+3"
and will certainly give a player confidence. Should a player take hit
points, combat bonuses, or exhaustion bonuses? Either way, players
start with a customized character, and slowly make them even more
customized, which allows a player to try the game again in a different
7.) Items and Allies: Some of the items are extremely powerful,
although fairly expensive. If a player can save up and get a powerful
item early, it can make their life easier for a while. For me, "Touch
of Death" became a very friendly card in one game, and I feared dying
- not because of the loss of gold, but because I didn't want to lose
this powerful item. There are a TON of items and allies included with
the game, and I doubt a player could get the same configuration on a
character in two different games.
8.) Expansions: If a player DID want more variety to the game (and I
could see the monsters getting old after a while), there are several
small expansions (which add different types of cards) and at least one
large expansion - the Island of Dread, which will keep the
replayability of the game going for a long while. Make no mistake, I
am perfectly content with the base system, but I enjoy it so much that
I would love to play these expansions and add to the experience.
9.) Fun Factor: For me, the fun of Runebound was taking a weak hero
and making them more powerful, using experience, items and allies.
It's more about the journey than the destination, to use an old
cliché. The game evokes so much theme through the flavor text, the
use of weapons and allies, that I just have a blast every time I play.
Except for Twilight Imperium, I think that Runebound is my current
favorite of the Fantasy Flight big box line. I enjoy fantasy
roleplaying games, and this one is just an excellent one that keeps me
thinking about it long after the game is over. A game like this,
where you transform into a hero who saves the land from the
Dragonlords and gain cool weapons and friends along the way is one
that I am always willing to play. Players seeking a confrontational
game in which they can constantly effect what their neighbor does may
be disappointed, but those seeking an RPG experience in a board game
will likely have a good time.
"Real men play board games"