- Second Edition -


Martin Wallace &
Darrel Hardy

Fantasy Flight Games
Heidelberger Spieleverlag




Having some experience with the design of fantasy games, FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES finally has decided to enter the well-trodden field of producing an adventure-boardgame based on swords and sorcery. In this area, the standard still is set by the old GAMES WORKSHOP classic Talisman, and although the game has found many more or less successful imitations over the years, none of its followers actually could reach the spirit or charm of Talisman. Now FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES in cooperation with the HEIDELBERGER SPIELEVERLAG has launched the german edition of Runebound, and with it comes a new challenge to the old patriach Talisman to share some of its undying fame.


Upon opening the box of Runebound the players find a beautifully illustrated playing map with hexagonal spaces and some additional spaces for putting cards, 12 character miniatures, lots of playing cards (Purchase, Adventure and Character cards), two 10-sided dice and some special movement dice, and various counters. To prepare for the game, each player receives a character card and places the corresponding playing miniature into a town located roughly at the center of the gameboard. As for the other playing cards, these cards are separated into Purchase and Adventure cards. Adventure cards exist of four different colours, and of each of these colours a different deck is randomly shuffled and placed close at hand. During the game, the colours of the Adventure cards will hint at the difficulty of each card, since green cards are easiest to solve whereas yellow and blue cards are more difficult and red cards are really hard to deal with. On the gameboard, the different kinds of Adventure cards are represented by coloured gems which will be distributed on given spaces of the gameboard. Thus, whenever a player enters such a space he may take a correspondingly coloured Adventure card. If he solves it, he takes the gem from the space and keeps it to symbolize that his character accordingly has gained experience. The Purchase cards (Items and Followers) on the other hand are mixed into a random pile from which one card is drawn and placed openly on the market-spaces of each of the eight cities on the gameboard (with the exception of the players` starting city). Finally, each player receives a starting purse of three gold and all other counters are placed close by. With these preparations done, the game may start…

Before giving an outline of a player turn, let me first introduce you some basic playing mechanisms which form the basis for most actions during the game. Each player Character, Follower or Enemy possesses three basic attributes. These attributes are Craft, Strength and Mental Power. In combat, Craft is used for ranged combat, Strength for close combat and Mental Power for magic combat. Also, during the game situations may arise where a player may have to take a "test" with one of these values, meaning that he has to roll two 10-sided-dice and add his attribute rating to see whether the added value has reached a certain total. Apart from these main attributes, characters also have Lives (Life Points) and Fatigue Points. The loss of one or more Lives implies that a character was wounded, whereas the taking of Fatigue Points means nothing as long as a character's maximum constitution has not been reached. Only if a character is forced to take more Fatigue Points than his maximum constitution, he is considered to be exhausted and looses a Life Point for each Fatigue Point of his maximum constitution.

As might be guessed, there are a lot of situations in the game where a player will have to fight a combat against an enemy. A combat is played in rounds and it is carried through until either the player or the enemy is defeated. Each round is subdivided into three phases, which are ranged combat, close combat and magical combat. To attack in a phase, the player must announce that he wants to attack and then roll the two 10-sided dice. He adds the value of his corresponding attribute to the dice-roll, and if the result is equal or higher than the enemy's corresponding attribute the player has scored a hit, causing the enemy to lose Life Points (the size of the damage depends on a character's damage rating, a score which is aligned to each of the player's attributes). However, a player only may attack in ONE of the combat phases, and thus - if the enemy does not have some combat restrictions - the player will have to DEFEND in the combat phases in which he did not attack. The defense is dealt with in exactly the same manner as the attack, with the difference that a player who has made a successful dice-roll just defends and does not cause any damage to the enemy. However, if the defense was not successful it will be the player who looses Lives according to the enemy's damage rating. In this manner the combat continues with both sides taking damage until either the enemy or the player's character is defeated.

Having sorted out the basic composition of character attributes and combat, let us now have a closer look at the overall playing mechanism. During the game, a story of a malicious necromancer will slowly unfold for the players, and it will be their task to try to thwart his plans to spread terror with the help of a fearsome Dragon Lord. To win, a player will either need to defeat the Dragon Lord in combat, or he will have to collect three Dragon Runes which he will receive by battling lesser Dragons. However, both the Dragon Lord and the lesser Dragons are only included in the deck of red Adventure cards, meaning that a player first will have to gather experience by fighting his way through the weaker decks of Adventure cards. Thus, as is good practice in fantasy adventure games, the players spend a lot of time travelling around, defeating enemies and gathering experience, followers, objects and gold to make their character stronger to win the final challenge.

A player's turn is divided into five phases. These phases have to be dealt with in chronological order, with the exception that some phases only happen if certain conditions are met. The first phase of each turn is the Refreshment Phase. In this phase the player checks his objects whether any of his objects can be re-activated. To understand this, you must know that the game generally features three kinds of objects: lasting objects, one-use objects and activation objects. An activation object only may be used once per turn, and it is in this phase when a player checks whether he has used such an object his previous turn (and turned the card over), so that he is now allowed to re-activate the card so that he may use it again.

Next comes the Voyage Phase. Here a player may roll five movement dice (or four if either his character or any of his Followers have lost Life Points or gained Fatigue Points). These movement dice do not display numbers but instead symbols for each of the seven different kinds of landscapes available in the game, and thus a player must look that he uses the symbols rolled in a way which takes him closer to his destination. When moving, a player may move freely through spaces containing gems or occupied by other characters, and it will only be on the space where a player ends his movement where he has to check for the presence either of a character or a gem. If any should be present, an encounter takes place which will be dealt with in the next phase. However, instead of making a full move a player may volunteer to roll less movement dice than allowed, and for each dice rolled les he may heal one Fatigue Point either of his character or one of his Followers.

As indicated, the Encounter Phase only will take place if a player is on a space containing either a gem or another character. If the space contains a gem, the player now may decide whether he wants to have an adventure. If he does, he now has to draw an Adventure card coloured corresponding to the colour of the gem. He turns the drawn card over and checks whether it is either an event, an encounter or a challenge. An event card changes the global conditions of play by altering some rules, and it stays in play until it has been replaced by another event card. However, to see whether an event really comes into play, the player first has to check the event ranking number printed on the card. Events have a ranking from one to three, and an active event card only can be replaced with cards featuring either an equal or higher rank number. The cards with the higher numbers are included in the more difficult decks of Adventure cards, so that they usually will come into play in a later stage of the game. In general, the event cards serve to develop the general playing corresponding to the development of the background story of the Necromancer, and the more the story progresses the more the conditions for the players deteriorate. Another kind of card which can be drawn is the encounter with some kind of personality, and here a character usually has to make an test with one of his attributes to see how the encountered personality reacts, a player may gain benefits from an encounter, but he may likewise be punished for failing the attribute test.

Both encounters and events have in common that - after the card has been dealt with - the player is forced to drawn another Adventure card, so that in the end a player always has to face a challenge. Here a combat will take place using the rules outlined above, but let me get a bit deeper into the combat system at this point. Apart from the three different combat phases of ranged, close and magical combat a full round of combat also features an escape phase. In this phase the player may take a Craft-test, and if he is successful he may flee from the combat, possibly avoiding a confrontation against a monster which is still too strong. However, if a character flees, the monster card is NOT discarded, but instead it is assigned a marker which is placed on the gameboard at exactly the space where the challenge took place. If later another character should enter that space again, he will not have to draw a new Adventure card but instead has to face the older card which is considered to have stayed at that place. Also interesting for combat is the role of Followers. Followers feature exactly the same attributes as player characters, and a player may use his followers to attack in combat phases in which his character DOES NOT attack. So, for example, if a character with a high Strength rating is accompanied by a Follower with a high Craft rating, the Follower may attack in the ranged combat phase whereas the character himself may attack in the close combat phase. Since a character may have up to two Followers, a player effectively may attack in all three combat phases. However, if the character or a Follower looses the combat test, consequently the character or the Follower must loose Lives corresponding to the enemy's damage rating. If a Follower's Lives are reduced to zero, that Follower is killed. A character on the other hand cannot be killed, but instead he looses all his Gold, his most valuable item or Follower and is sent back to the closest city.

If the player has met another player's character he may either chose to trade Items, Followers and Gold with that player or he may also opt to attack. If a combat takes place, the players in turn become attacker and defender, and the combat continues until either one side is defeated or flees. In either case, the winner of the combat is entitled to take all Gold, an Item or a Follower or an Experience marker from the looser.

The next phase is the City Phase, and as might be guessed this phase only takes place if a character presently is in a City. Upon the beginning of this phase the player draws a card from the purchase deck and adds it to the market cards for that particular City. Then the player may check through the whole market deck of the City, and he may purchase any card(s) he desires - provided he can afford to pay the correct price in Gold. Since there exist certain restrictions concerning the number of weapons and armour a character can carry, a player also may decide to sell some items at a City, and these cards are added to the market deck of that city with the player receiving half the purchase value of the card sold in Gold. Additionally, a player also may decide to visit the city's healer, and here he may heal lost Lives or Fatigue Points of his character or Followers for a price one Gold per Live or one Gold for all Fatigue Points.

The final phase of a player's turn is the Experience Phase, and in this phase a player is allowed to exchange gems from encounters for experience markers. The gems have different values depending on the colour of the gem, but once a player has collected gems of a certain value (depending on the number of participating players) he may chose to discard them and take an experience marker for his character instead. These experience markers either increase one of the character's attributes by two, or increase a character's maximum constitution by two or his maximum Life Points by one. Thus, a character gets stronger and stronger, but it must be observed that each time a player increases his character's Lives by one he looses the possibility to still encounter Adventure cards of one colour. Thus, a player may increase his character's Lives by a maximum of three additional Lives, but in that case the character only may encounter red Adventure cards for the rest of the game.

The rules do not stop here but this outline of a player's turn should be more than sufficient to give you a proper impression of the game and its mechanics. Taking turns, the game continues until one of the players was able to slay either the Dragon Lord or three lesser Dragons, all of which being Adventure cards from the red pile of Adventure cards. There also exist a few variant rules offering a somewhat faster gameplay, details on Item-classes, more dangers on journeys in difficult terrain etc. However, much more interesting now is the question how the game can be evaluated, keeping in mind the looming shadow of the dignified overlord Talisman. As it is good practice with most fantasy boardgames, elements like combat and travels and random events recur in similar forms in many games without actually reproducing the rules from another game on a one-to-one base. Here Runebound is no maverick, but instead provides a solid and well working set out rules which include all the traditional ingredients of a good fantasy boardgame. However, what makes Runebound stand out from the broad mass of games is a number of nice, neat twists in its rules and design which give the players the illusion of a considerable playing depth.

Very important here is the fact that the game tries to follow a general background story. In the end, the game of course is won by the first player who succeeds in performing the ultimate objective - the killing of the Dragon Lord. But on the way to reach the objective authors Martin Wallace and Darrel Hardy have found two features for the game mechanics which give the players some impression of the story progressing during play. On the one hand we have the coloured decks of Adventure cards, and by introducing these decks of increasing difficulty the authors succeeded both in introducing some basic strategic options for the players and in eliminating one major flaw of Talisman - the absolute randomized game engine which may considerably hinder a player if he has bad luck in the first rounds of the game. Even the composition of the four coloured decks reflects the background story, since (among other cards) the green deck contains henchmen of the Necromancer, the yellow deck the Necromancer and closer allies, the blue deck some first appearances of Dragons and the red deck the Dragon Lord and the lesser Dragons. Standing in close connection with the coloured decks, Runebound also features the event cards which may cause global alterations to some rules in the game, simulating the slow but unstoppable unfolding of the story. Taking these aspects together, there is a tangible coherence in the game which definitely contributes to the playing fun, and although the players have no real control on the development of the story and the (unavoidable) rising of the Dragons the game develops a playing atmosphere which many other games lack. The card driven engine including the story element also makes it rather easy to expand or change the game. All needed is one of the already offered additional sets of cards which takes up a different background story, and instantly the players will have a brand-new challenge to solve.

Another interesting feature are the combat rules. Here the game leaves the often repeated, traditional roll-and-hit scheme by introducing a somewhat more complex combat design with different combat phases. A player will have to develop his character in a way not only to deal considerable damage in the phase he choses to attack, but also to live through the other phases where usually the monster has good chances to strike a character with lower attributes. Since the game usually is not long enough to develop a character with well balanced characteristics, the player will have to look for Items and Followers which will be most suitable for covering up the weaknesses of his character.

Some other aspects of the game are less palpable but actually a matter of taste which some players may like while others won't. So, for example, the characters in the game cannot die but just loose Gold and an Item/Follower. This does not throw a player back so far that he may not still have a chance to win the game, and thus provides a bit more balance in the game and also serves to shorten playing time. Another point is the fact that the drawing of an Adventure Card in its ultimate result always leads to a combat. Both events and encounters are dealt with and then force the player to draw just another card, so that an adventure always must end with a challenge.

To sum it up, to my taste Runebound has succeeded in securing for itself a place with the better and more popular fantasy boardgames. The game couples some traditional rule elements with some new twists and presents everything with a vivid, fitting graphical design, thus taking the players rather fast-paced through the unfolding adventure. To some extend, the game actually reflects the strategy which stands behind most of FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES' homebrewed products, since the game offers ample opportunities for expansions and is based on an easy-to-learn set of rules which is varied and considerably expanded by the playing cards. Asking for possible improvements, the only element which I would have favoured to be shaped even more is the unfolding of the background story. As indicated, the game draws a good deal of its playing fun from the well-integrated story, but it would have been even more interesting if the players would have some degree of control over the development of the story. Although this would have been quite a challenge for the designers themselves, it would have been the logical conclusion of the efforts made in Runebound and would have established the game as being a milestone in terms of adventure boardgames…

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Copyright © 2006 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany