Runebound: Are Those Dragon Scales In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To Play?

Runebound BoxIn my estimation, much of what we seek as game enthusiasts is escapism, and because of that, I appreciate games that give me the ability to experience things that are not viable in life. Adventure games, especially those in the realm of the “fantasy genre” are a great example of the type of game that lets you step out of yourself for a couple of hours and live life through the eyes of a character that cannot exist in real life. The problem with this genre, sadly, is that there are a sea of really mediocre games out there, and very few that are both fun and accessible enough to get people to want to play it with you. Runebound 2nd Edition, from Fantasy Flight Games, is one of my favorite games in this category, although it has some major issues which, I believe, hurt it substantially.

Runebound is a game which has one to four players running around a giant map, attempting to buff themselves up and defeat three big, bad Dragon Lords who are causing all kinds of drama in the generic, and ultimately, boring universe of Terrinoth. During the travels of these characters, they’ll find allies and weapons of varying levels of awesome, mostly purchased in towns, and will need to beat up on some very unique bad guys who will try to stop you. Yes, it’s about as generic as you can get, and it’s not very novel in setting or theme, but it does some things that make it really intriguing, and more importantly, fun.

Runebound BoardThe components of the game are very top-shelf, with a great selection of very detailed plastic figures to represent your avatar on the board, each accompanied by a character card that defines what special powers your character has and its vital statistics. On top of that, there’s a great many cards in the game, all with very decent art, which represent encounters, items, allies, and enemies. The very large board itself is also very well illustrated and has a great functionality to it because it provides spaces for the cards right on it. In addition to all that, there’s about a million tokens that represent everything from money and damage to stat upgrade points and stamina. Finally, there’s many D10 dice for combat, and five custom D6 dice for movement. All in all, it’s a top notch production from a company that understands all too well that “bits matter”.

Runebound DiceLet’s talk about the things that I feel make Runebound unique and fun before getting to the things I kind of hate. The first thing I really love about the game is the way it handles movement. Sure, it’s a roll and move, but it has five custom dice which depict a terrain type and you can then spend each die to move to a terrain of that type. If you rolled pure shit, you can simply move one space in any direction. It sounds gamey, and it kind of is, but I view it as abstracting perils that are found on faces not rolled; if you didn’t roll a forest face on any die, that’s because the Dragon Lords’ patrols are hunting you in the forests, making it too perilous to travel in them.Yes, it’s rationalization, but it works to help suspend disbelief, which is the point of these games.

On the board there’s little, colored tokens that you put on the board initially, and replenish at times, and these represent events and encounters. If you end your turn on a space bearing one, you draw from one of the three decks that match the color of the token, with green being simpler, less dangerous tasks and the red ones being the most dangerous but most lucrative. The tokens are kept by players upon successful completion of the challenge, which provide experience points that can be exchanged for statistic upgrades, which is a smart mechanic. The cards are sometimes monsters or random NPC encounters, but occasionally are persistent effect cards which stay in play, affecting everyone until the next effect card is drawn, which replaces it. This gives a lot of variety to the game, but I will caution you that there aren’t a huge amount of these cards and you will likely see them all if you’ve played it three times or so. It’s worth mentioning that when the effect cards are played, you also immediately replenish all of the tokens of that color on the board, so it’s a bittersweet feeling when an effect card comes into play.

The one thing that stands out as a very smart design choice is that everything in the game is expandable. There’s probably 50 small and large expansions in the game, some of which are “more of the same” that add content and replay value, and others which drastically change the game’s core mechanics or goals. For example, there’s several big box expansions which literally change the entire game’s goal; each represents a different region in the Terrinoth universe, and provides a map overlay which goes right onto the original board, giving you a completely different experience. On the flipside, there’s a great many card expansions, which are not much more than a tuck box and some rules, but even they vary greatly in what they do.

First, there’s the “more of the same” decks which you shuffle into the existing decks, or you can tune them to create a custom setup. Many just add new enemies, or new weapons and allies. On the flipside, there’s “adventure decks” which replace the standard encounter decks and provide you a totally different “mission”, so to speak, changing the entire scenario from killing the Dragon Lords to solving a crisis, or uncovering a conspiracy. This isn’t all that novel, really, since D&D modules did this 30 years ago, but what is novel is that they essentially transform a board game in real, relevant ways for about $15.00 MSRP. The last kind of decks are “Character Decks” which really kind of change your character from “generic but unique fantasy dude” into a much richer, deeper character, which includes powerful spells and abilities, but also, with weaknesses. It’s a bad ass system, and its flexibility is rivaled only by Arkham Horror.

The combat system is pretty cool, too. The way it works is that you have three “phases” of combat, or really, three consecutive rolls. There’s melee, ranged, and magic combat, but you only get to choose one of the phases to attack on, while defending against the rest. Your character card tells you what your “bogey” for success is, and you simply roll and add that number against the opponent’s value, more or less. If you have picked up allies on the way, Fellowship-style, you can have them attack on additional phases, so it really does affect your character far more than just buffing yourself. You can also assign damage to them if you are in dire straits or simply ain’t got time to bleed.  I’m the first to admit that this isn’t the best combat system, but it is decent, quick, and really can be nail-bitingly tense.

Now, let’s move on to what many of the Circus Freaks hate, because there’s a lot of it out there. First, this game is unabashedly multi-player solitaire. I actually bought four sets of the movement dice and a bunch of D10s for the game so that everyone could be playing at the same time, because there is virtually no player interaction in this game. Like Talisman, this is a “race to the finish” kind of game. Yes, you can attack other players, but you can’t form parties, can’t really trade items, and the fact that other players are even on the board is really treated more as a coincidence than anything else. This is such a missed opportunity, because they could’ve gone Dungeon Run and had temporary alliances and shared treasures, but no, you pretty much are on your own in Runebound. What this means is that there’s no substantial narrative to speak of, and there’s nothing interesting about watching another player’s turn. You’d think that it would be an important thing to have a strong narrative in an adventure game, but in Runebound, it simply doesn’t exist in earnest, which is disappointing. All that said, if you’re a person who enjoys solo games, this is a great choice because no matter how many players you’re playing with, it’s always a solo game, and from that perspective, it’s actually a really good one.

The next thing that really irritates me is that the game is that in “vanilla” Runebound, the game doesn’t have any real time pressure, so if you’re playing with people that play in the same style of trying to transform from squires to super-humans through repetitive grinding of the encounter tokens, the game can take forever. I’ve literally played a two-day campaign with my wife, where we played six hours each day during the weekend evenings. This is the largest flaw in the design, I believe, because without time pressure, you literally have no reason to end your adventure on a timeline. The way my wife plays, she just keeps buffing her character with weapons and items, despite the fact that she is powerful enough to kill the Dragon Lords without even rolling.

This, really, is endemic to most adventure games, but with Runebound, it’s up front and in your face. Some expansions change this profoundly, and so I play those more often, but if you were to go out and buy Runebound with no expansions, be cognizant that you really are in a race to win, so don’t fuck about, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough; just get powerful enough to win, then go win. I guess, really, that’s what I take away from Runebound the most: the narrative really is in the personal growth of your character, and the game itself is really just an outlet for you to create your character’s story, not the game’s story which your character is merely a participant in. The Cataclysm and The Seven Scions are my two favorite expansions because they truncate the game in such a way that you really start having diminishing returns on your grinding the longer you take to accomplish the main goal.

In the end, it’s still a very fun, very rich, but also flawed game design whose rewards come not so much from the story itself, but by the way you play. I love the fact that it’s modular and very flexible in how you can tune the decks to your own tastes, but I don’t love the fact that out of the box, without any expansions, it can get really old, really fast. The fact that most expansions are long out of print and egregiously expensive on the secondary market makes me a little uncomfortable recommending it very highly, but I will say that it’s my second-favorite adventure game after Prophecy, and a close second, although I was once very cold on Talisman and now rate it as one of the best adventure games ever designed. I think it’s really a matter of taste, and I’d really look at this game and the two aforementioned games to decide which one to get, if you were limiting yourself to just one. I like the game a great deal, despite its flaws, and I think it makes Mage Knight look really shitty in comparison, but that said, it’s not a game for everyone.

Why The Dragon Lords Are Worthy Of Worship:
– Truly outstanding components and art make this a joy to behold
– Tight, simple mechanics and few “rule exceptions” make this accessible
– The huge catalog of expansions make this the most flexible system I know of
– The ability to tune your decks makes this very customizable
– Short turns keep things moving along briskly

Why This Game Was Ru’ned:
– Very weak narrative doesn’t provide you much of a story
– There is no player interaction of any kind, for the most part
– The game has no pressure, so it can skew very long
– It can be a money pit, trust me on this, I’ve done the research

Overall:

I like this game a lot, but I’m not sure that I love it. Yes, it’s basically a solo game that happens to have other players playing at the same time, but if you like solo games, this is a really good choice. In short, if you like games with lots of player interaction, this is not the game for you. This is a really well-designed game with tons of expansions and tons of ways to play, though, so if you’re looking for a solid adventure game that rewards grinding and has no real pressure to finish the game, this is a great choice for you. Some of the Circus Freaks love it, my wife being first in the list, while myself and others are interested in it with varying degrees of excitement. It’s certainly a good game, and with some expansions it becomes an almost-great one, but I’m just not sure that I’d rather play this over Talisman or Prophecy.

Rating:
3.75/5 Stars

Learn more about Runebound here at this fan-site, because FFG recently took it off their website:
http://www.mkgames.info/free-downloads/runebound-2nd-edition
…and at the above link, if you scroll down, there’s a great list of the game’s expansions.

And here’s the Wiki page, for what it’s worth:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runebound
…and this link has a really nice little synopsis of what the expansions deliver.

And finally, here’s the original page, captured by the Wayback Machine:
http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075336/http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=23&enmi=Runebound

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