Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Epic adventure!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite board games was TSR's Dungeon!, a great little dungeon crawl game that I'm certain was intended to be a gateway to Dungeons & Dragons. It fell firmly into a category of adventure board game that I don't think has a formal name, but can be described as "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens," while usually playing as one of several different characters with different game abilities.

My affection for this sort of game certainly led me to the second edition of Talisman a few years later, and any number of similar games since then such as Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory. But out of all of these, I think Fantasy Flight's Runebound comes the closest to approximating that sense of epic wandering, monster-slaying and treasure-gathering I got from playing Dungeon! as a youngster (with Talisman coming in a close second).

In Runebound, players assume the roles of characters roaming the colorful, Tolkienesque land of Terrinoth, facing dangers of increasing complexity and gathering weapons and magic items in order to strengthen themselves so that they can, hopefully, defeat the evil Dragon Lord Margath and win the game.

The game has basically two components to it. The first is the board, which is marked off with a hexagonal grid featuring a variety of terrain such as mountains, hills, grasslands, rivers, forests and roads. To move players roll five movement dice printed with different symbols matching the terrain types; each die determines what type of space can be moved into, to the player's first challenge each turn is to navigate a route to wherever he wants to move using the symbols he has rolled on the dice. It can make for some strategic decision making as you often may need to detour along a river rather than making a beeline for the nearest city to spend your loot.

The second element of the game is encountering monsters. Scattered throughout the board are adventure jewels, tokens representing encounters of increasing difficulty depending on the color of the jewel. Green encounters are fairly easy, while red are the most difficult, usually representing the colossal dragons that have returned to the land in the game's storyline.  Each time you land on an adventure jewel, you draw from the corresponding encounter deck, usually facing off against some kind of monster that must be fought.

Combat is divided into three phases: ranged, melee and magic, the catch being that normally your character can only attack during one of these phases, where the monsters can often attack in two or all three. Combat in each phase is resolved by rolling dice, with the winner inflicting damage on the loser until either the monster or the player's character is defeated.

Defeated encounters usually reward the player with gold, which can be spent in town spaces to purchase weapons, armor and equipment and hire allies, in order to make their characters more formidable in battle.
Additionally, characters earn experience points, and this is where Runebound differs from many adventure games. Players can spend their experience points to increase their character's combat abilities, thus strengthening them so that they will be more able to fight the much stronger monsters at the higher encounter levels and eventually working their way up to the red encounters which will win them the game.

There are numerous expansions that add everything from new boards representing different parts of Terrinoth, to new sets of encounter cards that replace the Dragon Lord story with tales of wandering cults or hoards of rampaging giants. It makes for an epic game with a tremendous amount of replay value, while at the same time being simple enough to just pick up and play whenever the mood strikes us.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great epic adventure game.

Fantasy Flight jumped on the deck building game bandwagon made popular by the success of Dominion with Rune Age, a card game set in the same world as Runebound. Players each control one of the kingdoms of Terrinoth, either men, elves, necromancers or bloodthirsty barbarians, and attempt to build up their kingdoms with an eye towards accomplishing one of four scenario goals chosen at the start of play.

But where Runebound offers a well-developed world brimming with adventure, Rune Age seems kind of bland and impersonal. It may be due to the relative simplicity of the game; each of the four game scenarios only uses a handful of different cards, so deck building options are minimal and games tend to be pretty short, definitely not epics worthy of the world of Runebound.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Not a terrible game, and it features some nice artwork on the cards, but there are a lot of much more interesting deck building games out there.

Date played: July 4, 2014

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