Review – Rune Age

Rune AgeRune Age is Fantasy Flight’s maiden voyage into the deckbuilding genre. Set in Terrinoth (world of Descent and pretty much anything with the word “Rune” in the title), Rune Age brings a wide variety of new concepts to the genre, including heavy factionalized card pools, an intertwined multiple-resource system, and four distinctive gameplay modes running from cutthroat to fully cooperative. Rune Age retails for about $40.

What’s in the Box?

In addition to the rules, Rune Age comes with around 250 cards, about 40 damage tokens, and one specialty six-sided die. The rules were easy to understand, and were not plagued by any glaring omissions. Our group quite liked the card art.

Basic Gameplay

Like many deckbuilding games, Rune Age starts each player with a deck of basic cards and a variety of stacks of cards out of the table that the players will be able to buy and add to their own decks. The similarity ends there. There is a unique victory condition for each of the four scenarios, so this will be discussed below.

Rune Age has three interlocking resources – strength, gold, and influence. Units cost gold and generate strength. Cities and Strongholds are captured with military and generate influence. Gold costs influence and produces, well, gold. Additionally there are Neutral cards, which are purchased with influence but can be either units or tactics.

Each game each player has 10 cards available for purchase – four units in the private barracks (five of each, and only that player can buy them), three gold cards (in denominations of 1, 2, and 3), and three Neutral cards. In addition, each player can acquire Strongholds (an influence generator that is found in your private barracks) and Cities (influence generators that are in the public area). Cities and Strongholds do not go into decks, but remain in play once captured (Cities can be taken by other players; Strongholds cannot). Finally, each player has a home realm card that can take damage as the game goes on. The cards in a player’s private barracks are defined by his faction, and there are always five of each unit and 3 Strongholds. There are always n+1 Cities, where n is the number of players. Likewise, the size of the neutral card stacks is n+1. Which Neutral stacks are used is defined by the scenario. A player’s starting deck is three of his most basic unit, plus five 1-gold cards.

Finally, there is an event deck. An events phase occurs once every turn cycle – the top event is flipped up has some effect, which may be instantaneous and/or put the event card into play as an enemy to be defeated. Enemies are defeated in combat (see below), and often enter play as a Reward after they are defeated. The contents of the event deck are dictated by the scenario. In most scenarios, the nastier part of the event deck recycles.

A player can take an unlimited number of actions on his turns. The actions available are (1) an action from a card; (2) buying something with gold; (3) buying something with influence; or (4) starting a fight (including acquiring Cities/Strongholds). The first three are exactly what you might think. In combat, units are played from hand (sometimes triggering “when played” abilities). If the target is not controlled by a player (such as a City or a special scenario card) then the strength of the units is compared to a static number, and if the strength is high enough then the target is captured or destroyed. If the target is controlled by another player (either a City or home realm), then that player can play units from hand to buttress his defense. If the target is a City, and the attacker wins, then he takes the City. If the target is a home realm, and the attacker wins, then the home realm takes damage equal to how much the attacker won by (20 damage and you’re out of the game). Defeated units just go to the discard pile, but there are a number of effects that destroy units. These effects include attrition dice generated by enemies, which will destroy 0-2 units before checking to see whether what’s left still meets the strength target.

Unlike most deckbuilding games, in Rune Age a card that is destroyed goes back to its original deck, and is available for purchase again. Also unlike most deckbuilding games, each player refills his hand at the end of each players turn. On each player’s own turn, that player first discards his entire hand, although he may spend influence to keep some cards.

The Scenarios

Resurgence of the Dragonlords is the default Rune Age scenario (if you received a demo at a convention, it was this scenario) is combative and competitive, but not entirely cutthroat. The victory condition is to defeat a powerful Enemy – whoever musters the 18 strength (after that attrition die) wins. Players can fully attack and eliminate each other, but eliminating other players is not a win condition. Additionally, the event deck is mostly Enemies who do bad things if they stick around, and dealing with those is much easier if there are more players going after them. You can definitely lose this scenario by going after other players too much, and then finding yourself overwhelmed by the event deck.

Runewars is the fully cutthroat scenario, and you win by eliminating all of the other players. Additionally, each player gets one “dragon rune power” that gives that player a bonus or ability to use (when you eliminate a player, you seize that player’s power).

The Monument is still competitive, but the players’ ability to attack each other is greatly reduced. Each player gets an additional card for the private barracks – the Monument. Buy your Monument, and you win at the end of the turn cycle (so other players can potentially win on the same turn; tiebreaker is strength in your deck). The Monument costs 10 or 11 gold, depending on the faction. Players can attack each other’s Cities, but not the home realms, so players cannot be eliminated. The event deck is heavy on Enemies that do not impose penalties if they are not dealt with, but instead serve as gold generators by coming into play as Rewards.

Finally there is The Cataclysm, which is a fully cooperative scenario. The players must survive the event deck, which has three stages instead of the normal two (the event deck does not recycle). As you might expect, the events are generally going to pound on the players. If any player is eliminated, all players lose.

The Factions

Setting aside gold, four of the seven cards that a player can add to the deck in any given game of Rune Age are from his private barracks. Those cards, defined by the player’s faction, therefore have a substantial effect on exactly how one’s game will unfold. The players in my group who were more familiar with Terrinoth tell me that the factions in Rune Age feel like they do elsewhere (especially in Rune Wars). The four factions are:

The Daqan Lords: Or, as I call them, “The Knights,” are medieval human in flavor, and the units include footmen, knights, and a siege engine. The Daqan like to manipulate cards, and their four units either draw cards, or discard cards for an effect. For example, their base unit, the Footman, lets you look at the top card of your deck and put it into your hand if it is another Footman (if it isn’t, you can discard it or put it back).

The Latari Elves: The Elves specialize in influence. Their cheaper units generate it, and their expensive units need it for their abilities. The base unit, the Deepwood Archer, lets you make use of a city or stronghold an additional time. As their base unit does nothing right away, the Latari are slow-starting faction.

The Uthuk Y’llan: I tend to switch between calling these guys the Barbarians or the Demons, which seemed to confuse my fellow players, but they have both demons and barbarians, so I stand by my inconsistency. The Uthuk Y’llan specialize in wounding units (wounded units are destroyed after combat) – mostly wounding their own units for some positive effect. Their base unit is the Berserker, who triples his strength when wounded.

Waiqar the Undying: The Undead thrive in large numbers, and their effects can fetch more undead, or become more powerful from having many units around. When played, their base unit, Reanimate, bring another Reanimate from the discard pile into play. The Reanimate gives the Undead a big advantage in the early game, since you can buy one Reanimate, play one from your hand, and then bring back the guy you just bought to bring out one of your Strongholds. With two Reanimates and two gold in the opening hand, the Undead can acquire two Strongholds on the first turn, gaining a big influence lead.

Opinions/Judgment Calls

Rune Age takes the deckbuilding genre to new places – a stack of expansion boxes of Dominion, Thunderstone, and Nightfall on your shelf is no impediment to picking up Rune Age too. The factions and private cards, the co-dependent resources, the multiple scenarios – it emphasizes how the notion of deckbuilding is really about a resource-development curve that you can do many sorts of games with, and that the genre is not restricted to Dominion clones.

There are also a number of little tweaks that make Rune Age play differently. The small size of each of the card stacks means that each particular card really is a limited resource. The neutral cards, in particular, will go fast – you’re likely to get only one of whatever you wanted, and if you have three that means you’ve cut someone else out of it entirely. The fact that destroyed cards are then added back to these stacks makes destruction of cards a substantially different mechanic than in other deckbuilding games, and can introduce more tactical decisions – if your good card gets destroyed, can you just buy it back this turn, or will it stick around for your opponents to snatch? Those mechanics, along with the ability to destroy units in combat, also make your deck much more fluid than in the usual DBG – your deck does not just automatically get bigger and bigger as the game goes on, with the only reduction being stripping out the basic cards.

Rune Age also tends to involve more tactical decisions generally than many DBGs, starting with how it can actually matter what order you do things in. Rune Age isn’t the first DBG that lets you attack other players, but it’s the first DBG (that I’ve run across, at least) where there are repeated decisions to be made – you don’t just decide whether to attack, or who to attack, but then within the combat it actually matters what order you play your cards in (and in a way that might not be immediately obvious). And you aren’t required to pitch all of your cards each turn, adding another decision.

To me, Rune Age’s greatest strength is the variations in play – each player is a particular faction with particular cards, and each scenario is a unique experience. You figure four factions and four scenarios, that’s at least sixteen trips on the ride before you have to worry too much about things getting repetitive.

On the other hand, one of Rune Age’s weakness’s might be its lack of variation (no, wait, I’m not crazy, just stay with me for a second). Yes, there are four factions and four scenarios. But every time you play a particular combination, you always have the exact same cards available. You don’t have to be Elves, but every time you’re elves you’ve always got those same for units. You don’t have to play The Monument, but every time you do there will be the exact same Neutral cards. Yes, there’s the option to mix up exactly which Neutral cards you use, but many of the cards are only functional in one or two scenarios, and most of the scenarios you need certain cards to function (try beating Resurgence of the Dragonlords without the Demon to back up your private units!). It comes up more quickly than it might otherwise because you can play games pretty quickly.

So, you have lots of options, and yet somehow you don’t always feel like it. Maybe it lends itself to a lot of plays, but not quite as much to being played over and over and over again

There might also be a few balance issues. The Undead – and in particular Reanimate spamming – seem like they have too strong a start, able to grand their Strongholds and some Cities very quickly, and then use that influence to quickly grab a large portion of the best Neutral cards. And some players will get frustrated by the small number of Neutral cards in each stack, especially where they’re the player who didn’t get any copies of the one big unit or deck-thinner that was available. Except in The Monument, gold is weak – some of the 3 gold cards get bought after most of the Neutral cards are gone, but we never bought a single 2 gold card. You really hate those 1 gold cards, there are only limited ways to get them out of your deck, and because your deck doesn’t just bloat up, they gum up the works longer than you’d like (this can be deadly, if you end up with a grip of gold when you get attacked, which lets everyone know you’re vulnerable until your next turn).

If you’re a fan of DBGs, Rune Age will let you feed your hunger for more games in that genre, while actually giving you something really new. If you don’t like DBGs, you might actually like Rune Age anyway, since its structure (especially more tactical combat) take it well away from the “multiplayer solitaire” aspect that turns some players off from DBGs.

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