Runebound is a Fantasy Adventure game from FFG, and is the flagship product for a whole set of other titles, many of them better-known or more highly-rated: you might have heard of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Runewars Miniatures and Battlelore 2nd Edition. What is it about Runebound that gets its name on all the boxes? Let’s find out!
NB: I’ve not played Runebound 2nd Edition, so won’t be talking about it today. If you want to know how the versions compare, there are plenty of threads on Board Game Geek to read.
Runebound – What’s in the box?
Runebound packs a lot of content into a fairly standard-sized box. There is a large board, various decks of cards, Miniatures for the player-controlled heroes, and plenty of dice, tokens and runes.
Runebound is a Fantasy Flight Game, which is generally a byword for solid component quality, and this is no exception – the card-stock is good, the layout clear, and key information generally quick and easy to find. Runebound isn’t a miniatures game, but the Heroes look nice enough.
To me, the highlight of Runebound is the game-board itself: a large-scale map of the land of Terrinoth, it depicts the 4 key cities, various places of interest, and likely spots to go on an adventure.
One unusual feature of Runebound is the dice – the game comes with 5 blank plastic dice, and stickers to attach to the various faces: compared with the heat-sealed dice that you get in more recent FFG products like Destiny, this can feel a bit disappointing, but I found them functional enough, and my only complaint was that there weren’t more of them.
So, what are doing?
Each game of Runebound will see you play through a scenario – with 2 to choose from in the core box. The Scenario sets the ultimate goal for the scenario (generally “defeating the villain”), provides events which drive the game’s narrative, and adds cards to the adventure checks to give them a unique flavour.
Runebound gives you and your hero a great deal of freedom. By game end, you need to be ready to go win a very big fight, so you’ll need to make your hero more powerful, but how you get there is down to you.
On your turn you will have 3 actions, which can be used to move, adventure, rest, trade, train, or interact with specific cards that have come in to play. I’ll look at some of these in more detail in a moment, but I want to stress just how much I love the openness of Runebound – too many adventure games can feel formulaic, where you are forced into a single course of action (often “kill the nearest monster,”) and the sheer scope of Runebound is a great boon.
So is this not a fighting game then?
These are the Runes enemies will use against you
Unlike its cousin Descent, Runebound isn’t going to require you to go wading knee-deep in orcs every turn, but there’s still plenty of fighting to be done, and it happens in a really interesting and unusual way – through the casting of Runes!
Each hero in Runebound starts with a set of Runes, and each time you fight you will ‘cast’ the runes (shake them up and drop them randomly) to see which sides appear. You will then have a mixture of symbols showing Physical Damage, Magical Damage, Defence, x2 modifiers, Flips, Blanks and “Surges” which can be spent on activating special abilities.
There are also Runes for the various monsters you fight, which your opponents will cast. You then take it in turns to choose a single symbol showing on runes you control and resolve them: it’s a bit odd at first, but the more I play Runebound, the more I enjoy the strategy in the Runes. Strike quickly or take an extra turn to try to increase an attack? Re-cast your opponent’s powerful Rune or flip one of your own? When to trigger powerful unique abilities?
When both sides have spent all their Runes, a new round of combat starts, with each side re-casting everything they control. This continues until one party is defeated (has taken damage equal to its health).
Runes are symbols of magic in the Runebound Universe, and as one of the key elements of the setting, it seems only right that they should form such a big part of the game – it can take a bit of remembering (combat was definitely where I made the most rule errors in my first few games), but once you start to get a rhythm, it really starts to feel like you’re doing something unique here.
The Wandering Hero
Each hero in Runebound is distinct, represented by a card and miniature. Heroes have stats for Body, Mind and Spirit, which will impact their ability to learn new skills (see below) and unique abilities. Abilities can be powerful, and mastering their use is a crucial element in succeeding in Runebound.
Hawthorne with his starting Runes and a couple he’s added with equipment
Each character also has their own unique set of starting Runes, reflecting their focus on physical or magic damage, on evasion, defence or special abilities. They are all similarly weak to begin with, but again, it allows you to tailor your gameplay to personal preferences.
With 6 heroes in the Runebound core box, and more available in various expansions, it felt like they were offering a range of play-styles and even ignoring one altogether (Corbin’s “steal someone else’s gold” power didn’t fit our style), we still felt like we had plenty of choices.
So how do we get better?
You can only have 1 Weapon at a time, but the quality varies with cost
You’ll probably find your first few fights in Runebound difficult – you only have a small handful of Runes, and the monster you are confronting probably has more. Somehow, you need to re-balance the odds in your favour. The great thing about Runebound is the number of options you have for doing this.
An obvious way of improving your hero’s combat prowess is with equipment – weapons, armour, and other items can all give your hero a boost to their stats, and an extra rune to cast in combat.
You can buy equipment in a city – at any time, there are 3 pieces of equipment displayed in the market, and for an action, you can draw a 4th before choosing 1 to buy or to discard.
Of course, to buy things you need money, and money in Runebound can be gained in various ways. By Adventuring, or by trading – pick up goods in the cities and ferry them to shrines and fortresses. This is a very simple element, but one I really liked – it’s great to have a non-combat way to kit out your character, even if they’ll probably need to fight at the end of the game.
Is it Adventure time yet? Yes!
At the start of the game, place an adventure gem on each space with a matching symbol. When you Adventure there, it is flipped face-down, showing that non-one else can go there until the gems are refreshed
Ultimately, for all the options that are available to you in the wilds of Terrinoth, you will eventually want to go on an adventure (well, lots of Adventures). To do this, you have to make your way to a map space containing an “adventure gem,” then use 2 actions to draw the top card of the corresponding deck.
There are 3 types of adventure: combat, social and exploration, with the decks being about 2/3 generic cards, and 1/3 that are shuffled in based on the current scenario and most of the time the adventure will match the deck.
A Combat adventure is the most straightforward – generally it will be an enemy, you will fight it, and if you win, you get a reward (probably a bit of money), and you get to keep the card. Social adventures are mostly encounters that tend to test you in more diverse ways, and an Exploration Adventure will often require you to go to a specific location on the map, then take further actions to complete it.
This was one area of Runebound that felt a bit unbalanced to me: if you can power your character up a little bit in combat, so that they can win most of their fights, a combat adventure will give you a trophy and a reward for only 2 actions. An Exploration Adventure though will take a minimum of 3 actions (2 to draw the card, and one to fulfil the requirement), and require you to travel somewhere, which could be on the other side of the board, without offering rewards that are noticeably better.
Skills, Training, and Exertion
With 2 Body, Elder Mok could learn both of the Red skills, but he can only have 1 Mind (yellow)
At the start of a game of Runebound, your hero gets a set of skill cards and you can use an action on any of your turns to “train” (draw new cards equal to your hand-size, then discard back to hand-limit) to replenish these, or simply improve the selection. Various game-mechanics will offer you the chance to “exert” (discard a card from hand) to improve your chances in some task, or you can try to learn the skills in order to enhance your character.
The skills you can learn are linked to your hero’s Attributes. This is nice thematically, as a warrior can have lots of physical skills, where a wizard might be limited to one, while boasting a wider selection of will-based skills.
To learn a skill you need to have it in hand, and then you need to pay an appropriate number of Adventure Trophies – some skills will specify some or all of these trophies need to be of a certain type, and provide a benefit that matches (Combat Trophies required for martial upgrades) whilst others are generic, and can be paid with any colour. In a typical game of Runebound you will have may skills in hand, but never learn more than half-a-dozen or so, so careful selection is a key tactical decision. There’s a great range of ways you can enhance your character, giving you loads of choice, and making Runebound great to play over and over.
It Is Time – The Reckoning
Most scenarios in Runebound (certainly the ones in the base game) will end with a big fight – a Dragon making his way to Tamalir, or a Necromancer getting ready to blight the land with living death. Your hero, suitably powered up by now, needs to pick their moment to engage them in a fight for the survival of Terrinoth.
The final showdown will be done in much the same way as fighting anything else in Runebound, except that the boss enemy tends to have their own extra rune, along with a nastier set of abilities.
Although Runebound is generally a Player vs Environment game, with little direct conflict beyond a race to be the first to secure victory, the very end is one point where things can fall a little flat – if both heroes are racing to intercept that dragon, and the first one to arrive succeeds at the first attempt, it would be easy for the other player to feel like they spent 2 hours gearing up for nothing. Of course, they could just be kicking themselves for not gambling on coming a turn sooner and beating their fellow-hero to it.
Overall, I think that Runebound is a great game that offers a lot of scope for different approaches in play-style, and holds up well against newer adventure games like Gloom of Kilforth. With a new expansion just released that allows the game to be played in a fully cooperative / solo format (review coming soon!), I hope that we’ll start to see some slightly different end-game situations, but the game as it stands is still a great way to pass a few hours, even if the climax doesn’t always match the build-up.
7.5/10 hoping for more with the expansion.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.