First of all, I’m pleased to finally be able to announce that there is an exclusive 3-chapter preview of my new books, PARTIALS, available on Facebook. Assuming you have a Facebook account, just “like” the page and you’ll get to read chapters 12, 13, and 14. They’re pretty cool. We’re getting closer and closer to the release of this thing, and I can’t even tell you how excited I am. It’s going to be huge and awesome and you’ll love it.
Now, on to the game review. A month or so ago I posted a review of Nightfall, one of my favorite deck building games. Rune Age is not yet, but has the potential to be, even better, and it does this by breaking some of the traditional rules of the genre. Why should you have to win the same way every time? Why should you only have one resource to buy new cards? Why can’t a deck-building game be directly confrontational? Why not indeed.
Rune Age is set in the world of Terrinoth, Fantasy Flight Games’ go-to setting for sword and sorcery-style fantasy; their other games Runewars, Runebound, and Descent are all set there as well, along with some others that I’m probably forgetting. The land is divided into four main factions–humans, elves, demons, and undead–and each player picks a faction which thus determines his or her starting card pool. The factions are one of the most interesting aspects of the game, because they’re carefully designed and play very differently from each other. Three of them are fairly well-balanced against each other, with no runaway leader, but the elves are a bit of a letdown, turning an interesting subtheme (the “get lots of influence” race) into an unfortunate disappointment (by the time the elves get their influence running, everyone has used their military to conquer a bunch of cities and has just as much or more influence anyway). I’m sure some more experienced player will hop into the comments and tell me how strong the elves are, but no one in my play group has ever been able to make them work. It’s a problem we hope gets fixed in the inevitable expansion.
In addition to your faction cards there are a bunch of neutral cards that any player can acquire for their deck, based on the scenario: cities you can conquer with military might, monsters and other neutral units you can recruit to your team, and of course extra gold to get access to the biggest and most powerful tactics. The scenarios are where it really gets interesting, because depending on which one you pick the entire flavor of the game can change drastically. The basic scenario is simple: you win by attacking a giant dragon, and thus have to craft your deck such that it can produce an enormous amount of power in a single turn; the first player to kill the monster wins. The scenarios come with a deck of event cards, and in this scenario they will either hurt or help you on your quest. Other scenarios are different: one asks you to build a monument, causing you to focus more on gold production than military, but the event deck is full of smaller monsters you can fight for extra treasure. One scenario is fully cooperative, pitting all the players together against a demonic invasion, and this one’s event deck is a brutal slap in the face–it takes a shocking amount of planning and coordination (and luck) to live through this one. Last of all is the full-on PvP scenario, which is just an outright war between the players. This is what really separates Rune Age from any other deck builder, because the player-vs-player combat system is tight and tense and incredibly tactical: you choose targets, you play cards back and forth, you go up and down, and finally one of you wins and actually takes something from the loser. In a multiplayer setting this takes on an added political tone as you try to form and break alliances. It’s loads of fun, and unlike any other deck-builder you’ve played.
That said, like I foreshadowed in the beginning, the game does have some problems. The Elves, for example, are grossly underpowered in comparison to the other factions. Worse yet, the factional nature of the card pool cuts down on the replayability a lot–in most games you play your deck will turn out more or less the same, because the eight card types available to you (four determined by your faction, and four by the scenario) will be identical. Far from the huge, varied card pool you get in something like Dominion or Nightfall, there are literally only sixteen combinations of cards possible in the entire game, and only four of those (the factions) really matter; playing the human nation in one scenario is essentially the same as playing them in any other. “This needs an expansion” is pretty much the rallying cry of the deck-building genre, but that has never applied more fully than it does with Rune Age.
So in short, the game engine itself is stunningly brilliant and very fun, but the card pool is shallow and you’ll be wanting more after just a few plays. Honestly, though, this is a great example of why I love games, because your “money to entertainment” ratio is still enormous. Think of “dinner and a movie” as the standard unit of entertainment value: that’s about three hours long, and costs about $20 per person (assuming you eat at a mid-range place and don’t go 3D). (And don’t get me started on the cost of a babysitter.) Four people can spend $80 total on three hours of entertainment with dinner and a movie, and for two of those hours they won’t even talk to each other, or they can spend $35 total on Rune Age and get ten or twelve hours of engaging, interactive entertainment spread out over several nights. When you look at it like that, you can’t afford NOT to buy a board game.