Back when Radlands launched on Kickstarter, I had already determined that Roxley’s other popular dueling game, Dice Throne, wasn’t for me. To be frank, dueling games aren’t exactly among my all-time favorite tabletop genres, and only the very cream of the crop seem to really excite me. So while I appreciated the psychedelic color palette and premium post-apocalyptic production that Damien Mammoliti, Manny Trembley and the Roxley team were bringing with this new offering, I had no intention of biting. That all changed when Dan Thurot (Space-Biff) published a glowing preview of this card game.
Dan’s overwhelming positivity about the style and substance of Radlands was enough to reel me in for a pledge, and this month was the moment of truth where I finally received my copy. As Roxley productions tend to go, Radlands was immediately impressive straight from the unboxing. The actual game fits into a compact box that includes a couple card decks and chunky water discs. The deluxe version of the game (only available directly from Roxley) is exponentially more remarkable with a stylish magnetic box, indestructible plastic cards, and premium water discs. I’m the type who frequently lacks restraint, so I of course opted for the deluxe version plus the player mats which require a larger, standard sized game box to hold the mats and small box.
While I have encountered my fair share of deluxe games with upgraded components and accessories that made me question their purpose and value, Radlands is not one of these games. It was immediately obvious that these fancier cards and tokens enhance the tactility and durability of the game, while the player mats supplement the flow and organization of your actions and pieces. That’s a great start when digging into a new game, but how is the actual design?
From the get-go, Radlands shows its mechanical polish and elegance within its compact rulebook and minimalist card text and iconography. Your turn consists of three simple steps:
- Advance and activate your event cards
- Replenish your water supply and draw a card to your hand
- Take any number of actions as much as you’d like
You always start with 3 water discs each turn, and these serve to both restrict and fuel your action economy. Most actions available to you cost water. Drawing an extra card costs two water. Playing a card costs 0-4 water, depending on the strength of that card. Activating card abilities requires water. Any post-apocalyptic world worth its salt makes water king. And as always, it’s a slippery thing, that water. You can’t stockpile water discs from one round to the next… it always resets to 3. The only trick you have up your sleeve is a permanent water tower that sits in your player area, where you can spend one water this turn to pick up the card now and spend that card later to earn yourself a fourth water token for a turn.
Yet, because gaining extra cards into your hand from a shared draw pile is tricky enough already, cards can serve another purpose that doesn’t cost you a single precious drop of H2O. Instead of paying to play a card into your area, you can simply discard it to use its junk effect. But ‘junk effect’ is a bit of an oxymoron, because these effects prove to be endlessly enticing and massively useful.
But what’s even the point of all this watery wheeling and dealing to play, activate, or junk cards? The explanation is simple, really. And nothing explains it better than the opening page of the Radlands rulebook:
You and another player represent competing tribes desperate for scarce resources in a battle to the death. Whoever eliminates all three of the enemy’s camps wins. And boy does it hurt to lose a camp.
Camps are powerful starting cards the function somewhat similarly to the draw deck of person and event cards. Each player will be dealt 6 camp cards from an excitingly diverse deck of 34, and you simultaneously select and reveal 3 to be your lineup. Each camp offers a mighty ability that comes with a cost. Stronger abilities cost more water to trigger each turn, while selecting better camp cards in general means that you’ll start the game with less person and event cards in your hand. It’s a tradeoff where you must decide whether to come out punching fast and early with a bigger hand of cards or hope to protect your camps long enough for their extra-useful effects to fully payoff.
As the battle begins, you’ll be placing people in front of your camps to protect them from harm; most attacks can only damage unprotected cards, or cards at the front of each column. When a card takes a hit, it is turned sideways, meaning it is one more hit away from being completely destroyed and its abilities cannot be used until the card is repaired. The unique thing about camps is that you can always use their ability, even when the card is damaged.
So the people cards act as both a buffer for your camps as well as momentum for your objective. While the draw pile contains a thrilling variety of characters and abilities, you quickly grow familiar with the cast and then learn how use them to your advantage or defend against them from your opponent. The event cards are equally useful and fearsome, but they rarely trigger immediately when played. Usually, an event card will take one, two, or even three rounds to trigger, where an opponent can scramble to brace themself for impact.
Once you start to strategically synergize your characters, camps, events, abilities, and junk effects together, Radlands becomes a kaleidoscopic harmony of back and forth blows. In a recent game, I constructed a combo that quickly irked my wife thanks to its devastating effects. I utilized both a sniper and a catapult to circumvent her defenses and blow up one of her camps in a single turn. It cost me a lot of water to pull off, thus I had to carefully construct and execute this strategy over multiple turns. I had both of these cards defended so well that I managed to blow up two of her camps in quick succession.
Immediately, Camille was protesting the unfairness of my combo. Yet I had put in the hard work to make it happen, so I gleefully basked in my glorious progress. My glee was short-lived. Camille had a massive hand of cards at the time, and she found the perfect opportunity to unleash a firehose of junk effects while triggering powerful card abilities of her own. Within minutes, I went from having three thriving camps protected by many characters to one limping camp protected by a single card. What just hit me?!?
With the tables quickly turned on me, I was suddenly facing down a huge army of her own with only one measly person in my area and a only a couple cards in hand to back him up. Yikes. Fortunately, I was not without hope, for one of the cards in my hand was none other than Famine. Famine is a delightfully brutal event card that wipes out all of both players’ character cards but one. Since I only had one character card out anyway, this was suddenly the perfect time for widespread starvation. Normally, once famine is played, it takes an entire round to trigger, meaning Camille would have had more than enough time to finish me off before losing her army. But it just so happened that one of the camps I had drafted, the only surviving camp in my tribe, was miraculously the Omen Clock. Spend 1 water to advance an event.
And just like that, I played the famine card, advanced it to immediate activation, and wiped out her army in an instant. The playing field was level once more. The remainder of our game was a desperate rush to deal the final blow, but Camille ultimately emerged victorious.
While many will point to the giants of dueling card games that inspired Radlands, such as Magic: The Gathering, and wonder what’s new here, I’ll keep pointing to that small, beautiful box that it comes in. Gorgeous production. Compact package. Tight gameplay. Tense experience. There’s no need to sell your soul to an immortal card game with an endless stream of new packs and cards and expansions that will scare off newcomers from it’s growing complexity as it consumes your money and home like a black hole. Besides, I’ve already got the board game hobby in general to do that for me. I don’t need a sub-genre of living card games to double the black hole hobbies in my life. Especially when Radlands gives me all the glorious excitement of dueling in a single, small box.
Current Rating: 9/10
Call me crazy, but my experience with Anno 1800 compares must closely to budgeting and accounting. It’s long and tedious, yet it somehow gives you a satisfying sensation at the end of it all. I just don’t know if my enjoyment from the economic engine building outweighs the feeling of work.
That aura of tedium hits you the moment you open the box to set up the game. Bland colors, icons, and illustrations are littered across endless piles of tiles that must be organized like a spreadsheet across the game board. Player aids come in the form of flimsy paper featuring a wall of text explaining the many actions you can take. The most appealing visuals in the game ironically come from the components you don’t even interact with while playing: the box face and the back of the game board.
Fortunately, once you get into the gameplay, you find that individual turn actions tend to be simple and quick. The complexity and analysis paralysis of Anno 1800 stems from the planning it takes to get a card in your hand played onto the table. That’s the aim of the game, to play out your hand of cards, as these will make up the bulk of your points. Plus, the first person to empty their hand triggers the end game and gets 7 bonus points. The problem is that often, playing a card from your hand feels like it is a thousand actions away.
Perhaps even more than budgeting and accounting, Anno 1800 is like navigating through a corn maze. Your hand of cards is the end of the maze, and the dozens of tile types mixed with various workers and actions are the many paths you can take. You’ll have to send your brain on detours, in circles, or to dead ends and back in order to find your way out of this economic field. Progress is frustrating yet fulfilling all at the same time. It’s like you start the game in a hole and the only way out is to dig yourself deeper.
You’ll need more worker cubes and better worker cubes if you want to thrive in this world. The problem is that each cube added to your board also comes with another card you’ll need to fulfill. While that should feel like a golden opportunity to earn more points and bonuses (which it is), it honestly feels more like a painful extension of the game length. This is one of those weird systems where the game length can vary widely depending on whether players rush the end or not. It seems like if the entire group were to get lost in this maze of engine building, then the ending would never come.
It certainly can be satisfying to have a lengthy game of growth and snowballing, but much of that is undercut here by copious luck of the draw. Your hand could have a combination of cards that align together neatly, or their requirements could be all over the place. Thankfully, you can trade with other players and borrow their tiles to get what you need. But in a 2-player game, there will be tiles that are never built and therefore cards that can never be played. There are of course ways to get around bad luck of the draw, but these detours come with a cost—mainly action efficiency. There’s further luck of the draw from cards and tiles that come out of other decks and provide end-game points or permanent bonuses. With the amount of freedom of choice and long-term planning that factors into Anno 1800, you’re not likely to see luck be the determining factor in the game, but it still feels disproportionately lucky for a 2+ hour game.
For a design with a player-driven tempo and crucial trading core, one would think that the player interaction should be strong here. Yet that is not the case. Trading is abstracted down to one player spending trade tokens to use another player’s tile, and that player getting a gold token for it. The gameplay here is mostly heads down and focused on reaching the next personal objective while occasionally borrowing stuff from others. The interaction here is a far cry from Wallace’s Age of Steam and Brass.
Although our final turns provided a nice climax of elation by activating card bonuses, achieving long-term goals, and emptying our hands, I’m not sure I want to trudge through this labyrinth of cardboard again.
Current Rating: 6/10
Stockpile: Epic Edition
Stockpile: Epic Edition is the first game I’ve played that features stock investments, manipulation, and insider information. It turned out to be precisely as engaging as I had hoped, yet I still have some reservations about the overall package.
The Epic Edition is a complete bundle of the base game and all of its expansions, so us newcomers were essentially thrown into the deep end of the pool here. But it turns out that this was for the best. While the expansions add significant time and supplemental mechanisms to the experience, they prove to make the session far more dynamic and interesting. You see, these expansions feel less like supplemental variety and more likely the core game realizing its full, evolved potential.
Without one expansion, in the 1st edition base game you have a vanilla game board with companies that all have the exact same value track. There are no high-risk investment opportunities or low-risk steady dividend options to weigh against each other. Likewise, the base game has no bonds. Bonds are an easy way to make money on your excess cash each round, and they quickly show their merit for players who have far more cash than they can possibly spend during each bidding phase. The Epic Edition also includes action cards, asymmetric player abilities, far more interesting forecast dice, and tempting commodities.
Essentially, the Epic Edition makes the standard edition look like an unfinished concept with a bland game board, an excess cash problem, and a flat playing experience. I’m sure it’s still somewhat of a pleasure to play thanks to the interesting concept at the heart of it all, but the base game seems like a downright crime now that I’ve tried the more interesting and thematic Epic Edition.
Of course, Stockpile isn’t the only game where fans would declare its expansions a must. A Feast for Odin and Viticulture are a couple other examples where the expansion makes the base game feel incomplete. The hardest part to swallow comes in the form of the value proposition (go figure) of Stockpile: Epic Edition. The complete bundle indeed does include two expansions, all promo cards, and all stretch goals unlocked from the game’s Kickstarter, but at the end of the day it’s still an hour-long game in a standard sized box with some cards, cardboard tokens, a few dice, a few wood pieces, and a game board. So how on earth this game comes out to having a $105 MSRP is beyond me. Perhaps the publisher uses a more expensive manufacturer, or they simply feel that the price is justified by the extra gameplay and design content provided. But as a potential customer who would consider picking up my own copy, I’m left baffled by the price tag. For merely $15 more, you could purchase the mammoth production of Oath from Leder Games.
In all fairness this version of Stockpile can only be bought directly from the publisher for a discounted price of $80. But even then, I’m still hesitant to bite. Sure, the interaction and experience provided by Stockpile: Epic Edition was splendid, although I’d prefer it to end a round or two earlier. And perhaps if it was the only option out there for me to scratch a stock market gaming itch, then the cost wouldn’t hurt so much. But Stockpile will very quickly have some serious market competition in the form of the $34 Bear Raid coming from publisher Board Game Tables and designer Ryan Courtney.
Time will tell if Bear Raid is able to hit the same sweet spot at a fraction of the price, but the current forecast shows that Stockpile: Epic Edition might be a surprisingly bad investment for a really good game.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
My relationship with hidden movement games is starting to feel like one of those inevitable “It’s not you… it’s me” sort of breakups.
I found Jaws to be charmingly thematic, yet aggressively tedious and long. Even though I got the most exciting job of being the fearsome great white shark, I was done with the game after one play.
I enjoyed Captain Sonar, but the game had far too many barriers for getting it to the table, and so that box was fired away like a torpedo from our collection as well.
I suppose the hidden movement game that’s had the best chance of really sticking the landing has been the small head-to-head card game, Fugitive, with its simple and slick bluffing. We first played it during the summer of 2020 where I gave the game a very positive rating. The only problem is… Fugitive has collected dust on my shelf ever since.
In other words, hidden movement games have consistently failed to capture my heart. I was hoping that Mind MGMT would be the one to break the mold. Especially considering that the critical connoisseur of hidden movement games, Space-Biff, declared this one to be his favorite of the bunch. While I agree that there is something special here, I just don’t currently have the fire to pursue it further.
Part of my ambivalence toward this genre is just how restrictive gameplay typically is for the hidden mover. I understand why it has to be this way, because if the hidden mover is not at least somewhat predictable then the seekers would have no chance of finding them. But when you’re left to spend most turns deciding which space out of three you should move into, and one of those spaces is the most obvious choice, then all of the excitement of the game depends entirely on your opponents and whether they are hot on your trail.
The core loop of Mind MGMT splits the turn structure between the hidden recruiter and the agents who are trying to capture them. The recruiter moves one space, then two of the four agents take their turn. The recruiter is trying to navigate into spaces where they are able to recruit more figures, once twelve are recruited they win the game. Agents can gather clues about where the recruiter has been (and when) as they to try to piece together their path and position, they win by figuring out the exact location of the recruiter and capturing them from that place.
Once you are past the initial training session, the strategy opens up a bit more for both teams where the recruiter can also move immortals each turn to help secretly protect them while openly making progress toward victory. Yet the agents can shakedown the immortals and try to guess and reduce the recruiter’s desired sites. The game also features a “Shift” system where the losing side of each game gets more goodies that can help them win the next session while altering the feel of the experience.
But as I said, if you are the recruiter in a particular session where the agents are floundering throughout, then you essentially spend an entire game snailing a path through the board until you reach an easy victory. Conversely, if the agents can catch on to your trail early, then things get much more interesting as you decide how to prioritize progress against survival.
I’ve yet to try the game as an agent, but it seems that the agent experience is more consistently engaging. For those who enjoy deduction games, you’ll basically be deducing the path and objective points of the recruiter in a race to catch them before the end of the last round or before they recruit all 12 figures. That said, my opponent who played as the agents seems to still prefer The Search for Planet X and Cryptid over Mind MGMT when it comes to deduction experiences.
Ironically, I still find that my favorite hidden movement style game is one where the hidden thing never actually moves. I’m referring to Treasure Island, where Long John Silver marks an X on their secret map and spends the entire game manipulating the pirates away from the treasure. Rather than focus the entire experience in on dead simple deducible movement, it elects to focus on the bluffing, double bluffing, clue giving, and pirate greed of the players at the table.
It’ll probably have to stay a pirate’s life for me. But for those who are bigger fans of the hidden movement genre, I’d say you really can’t go wrong with Mind MGMT.
Current Rating: 6/10
Quantum has long been on my wishlist of games to acquire and play, but I’ll be honest, I had given up on any hope of that happening. This one has been out of print for nearly a decade, and the resell market is withholding their copies for anything beneath $100 plus shipping.
I figured my best shot of playing Quantum would be if I miraculously came across another gamer who owned it and invited me to play. That is until I found myself at a board game sellers market in Mesa, Arizona, merely a few Saturdays ago where there it sat atop a pile of used games for sale. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and better yet, the game was selling for only $50. It was the fastest I ever snatched up a game for sale. It turns out, this copy had never even been played before—the deck was still in shrink-wrap. You win some, and you lose some, but this time… I won some alright.
When I finally gathered a group of 4 around the table, I was brimming with excitement for the chance to play this critically acclaimed unicorn relic. Quantum is a design that manages to do a whole lot with merely a handful of chunky D6 dice and some planet tiles numbered 8, 9, or 10. Each die represents a ship, and it’s current value designates the type of ship: it’s combat power, movement capabilities, and special ability. Lower numbers are larger ships that move slower but hit harder. Higher numbers are easy to take out, but these smaller ships are effective at getting around quickly.
You get three actions on your turn which can range from moving and attacking to rerolling your dice, but one of the most important actions is to construct a quantum cube on a planet. You see, Quantum is a quick, punchy racing game where the first player to put out all 5 of their cubes wins the game. You’ll have to bring multiple ships in orbit to different planets to take the construct action. If a planet displays the number 9, that means that your dice must orbit the planet and their values must sum up to exactly 9 for you to construct a quantum cube there.
The game starts out with plenty of options for players to surround planets. The problem is that the construct action eats up 2 of your 3 action points, so most turns see you setting yourself up to place a cube next turn and hoping your orbiting ships survive an entire round in the meantime. But alas, Quantum is meant to be an aggressive game, so it’s rare to have a player display a huge target on their back and not see any opponent take the shot.
If one player has an obvious lead with more cubes out than the rest, that’s the equivalent of putting a self-imposed bounty on their head for their neighboring hunters. Yet even if you’re lagging behind in dead last, your ships are never safe from bullying. Quantum encourages players to bully each other with multiple incentives:
- To keep the leader from winning
- To increase your dominance level and decrease others’ dominance levels by winning battles—once your dominance level reaches 6, you automatically place out a cube anywhere on the board, then reset your level to 1
- To prevent a planet-orbiting player from placing a cube on their next turn
- To make space around a planet’s orbit for your own ships
With all of these great reasons to go after an enemy ship, it can be easy for one player to incidentally become the group’s punching bag where they find themself in an endless cycle of getting their ships back out onto the board and losing all their progress between turns. I saw that happen to an opponent in our first game, and it didn’t seem like they had the most thrilling experience as a result, but the beauty of Quantum is that this game is filler-length, so the hopeless plays don’t last forever.
One of my favorite aspects of this game is the combos you can execute from ship abilities and advance cards. By placing out cubes or taking the research action, you can earn yourself powerful cards that either grant a one-time effect or recurring benefits. I acquired one card that let me reroll dice any time I rolled them (for combat or reconfiguring ships), and another that earned me a fourth ship to add to my fleet. These cards are literal game changers, and one even allowed a player to snatch victory from my grasp. The winner had a card that let him increase his dominance by two instead of one every time he won an attack, plus he earned another card the instantly bumped his dominance up two more, so he managed to place two cubes in the same turn by both constructing and attacking for a blindside victory. It was a most impressive combo that alluded to the depth that lurks beneath Quantum’s simple premise.
Like Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy (one of my favorite games), Quantum is also a space-faring 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate), yet it crams this experience into an impressively small, short, and streamlined package. While the production is showing its age (the art is stale but the graphic design is still perfectly functional), and picked-on players won’t always have the best of times, it’s still a worthy addition to my collection. I’m not sure the game quite lived up to my mile-high anticipation, yet I still enjoyed it as a very slick and clever tactical game.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Siege of Runedar
It was a long wait, my friends, but The Siege of Runedar finally arrived on my doorstep nearly two weeks ago. It’s not available in the US yet (it could be many months before we see it hit US retailers, if publisher Ludonova’s other games are anything to go by). I had to order my copy straight from the heart of Spain, but fortunately the box has both Spanish and English components. Immediately upon opening the box, Siege of Runedar starts showing off the tricks up its sleeve.
The box insert is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Rather than existing to simply hold components, there is not one inch of this insert that was designed as a storage space. Instead, the corners of the insert rise far above the edges of the box rim and are shaped to be fortress towers. Beside these towers are three walls and a channel referred to as the “Tunnel.” The towers, walls, and tunnel surround the heart of the fortress containing five sections: The Carpenter’s for working wood, the Foundry for working metal, the Tannery for working leather, the Central Chamber which holds your gold, and the Tunnel Entrance Courtyard where you’ll be digging through rubble to escape to victory. The box also comes with large cardboard punch outs and plenty of double-sided tape to decorate the floors of these sections and the wall of the Courtyard. Wherever you open your copy of Runedar, be sure to have a pair of scissors ready for the tape.
The rest of the production is more standard board gaming components—wood tokens, standees, several decks, combat dice, and so on. As I’ve come to expect from Ludonova, it’s a solid package with excellent art—this time by Andrew Bosley (Everdell, Tapestry). But the rad insert is only the first twist that Siege of Runedar brings to gaming table! Designer, Reiner Knizia, has a few design tricks up his sleeve that he shows off in this his second deck-building game (the first being Quest for El Dorado). More on that later…
Runedar is a challenging cooperative game that reminds me of Ghost Stories / Last Bastion in a lot of ways. Each player controls their own figure which they move around to unique spaces in the central play area to perform different actions. One of the core objectives is to survive and fight off enemies that are constantly appearing and advancing in on your valuables from four different directions. In-between rolling dice to ward off enemies, you’ll be working to progress and improve your abilities and preparations. All the while, the game chips away at your chances of survival as it ramps up in tension and difficulty. Speaking of difficulty, even the “normal” mode presents a real challenge where you are far more likely to lose than win… especially in your early plays of the game.
Well now that I’ve made The Siege of Runedar and Ghost Stories sound like the exact same game, let’s talk about how they differ. Survival is secondary in the Siege of Runedar. You’ll of course lose if you don’t survive, but you’ll only win if you dig through the mountain tunnel and escape with some amount of gold before it’s all snatched up by the orcs. As I mentioned, Runedar is a deck-builder, but it does deck-building in a way that I’ve never encountered in other games. Of course, players start out with same personal deck of 12 cards, with two of these cards being ‘junk cards’ in the form of Orcs. But then things get really interesting from there.
You’ll start the game by shuffling your deck and immediately placing two cards unseen into your face down discard pile. From there you’ll draw five cards, play them on your first turn, and then draw the remaining five cards to play on your second turn. Then you’ll do it all over again: shuffle your deck of twelve, put two cards into your discard pile, play two hands using the remaining 10 cards. So with each cycle of your deck, there will always be two cards that don’t make it to your hand. This instantly brings a fascinating twist to the deck-building formula. You always hope that one or both of your orc cards end up in the discard pile where you won’t have to deal with them on this cycle. Furthermore, you can have a hunch for what cards remain in your draw pile, but you can never be sure.
This element of mystery to your cycling deck means that you’ll frequently be making decisions based on potential risks and opportunities that are constantly hiding within your draw pile. Aside from this unpredictability, your deck is fairly easy to track because it will always contain exactly twelve cards. Any time you gain a new card into your deck, it must go straight into your hand where it immediately replaces another unused card. This is a brilliant mechanism, because you are instantly gratified by being able to use a powerful card in the same turn you gained it, but it also means you have to decide which other card in your hand to get rid of forever (and you can never get rid of orc cards).
Each card can be spent on only one action: movement, working materials, close or long-range combat, and digging at the tunnel. A side-board displays up to 5 available cards that any player can contribute resources to by working at the various sites. Once a card has all the necessary resources, it is ready for any player to claim at any time on their turn. And here lies the first cooperative element of Runedar. Typically in deck-builders, you’ll use your own hand of cards to instantly buy more cards for your own deck. Here, the effort requires the help of all players and often takes several turns of contributions before anyone can upgrade their deck. So I suppose one player could hog all the best cards for themself and enjoy a deck built on the blood, sweat, and tears of their teammates, but that’s a recipe ripe for failure. It’s far more likely that players will be happy to help a teammate acquire a juicy card, especially because it feels good to churn out these resources onto the hungry card market.
Speaking of the hungry card market, even the mechanism that refills this market is clever. The central space of the fortress, the Chamber containing your gold, is an important place to end your turn occasionally, as that is the only way you can refill or flush out cards in the market. When you add more cards to the market, you’ll have to decide which of three draw piles to pull from: Yellow, Grey, and Red (Good, Better, and Best). In our first play of the game, I found myself drawn to the Red deck early, tempted by it’s powerful possibilities. Like the One Ring of power, my wife tried to talk me down from its poisonous promises, but I could not resist its pull. Undoubtedly too soon in the game, I began to refill our market with one or two Red cards, some Grey cards, and not enough Yellow cards. The problem is that the better cards demand far more resources before you can claim them, and resources are hard to scrounge up when you deck is mostly made up of measly starting cards. I’m sure that somewhere in Germany, Reiner’s designer senses were tingling and he was chuckling at my foolish greed. But the mere fact that he lets you decide how greedy to be—to have to find the right pace of card progression—means that Runedar provides another layer of experience and progression over the course of repeat plays.
It’s likely (and I think it wise) that players diversify and specialize their own decks into a more narrowed range of action options. The reason for this is that movement is inefficient; it eats up one, two, or sometimes three cards of your five-card hand if you want to do multiple things in multiple places. If you can loosely divide up areas of the board between players, then your turns can really get cooking. Of course, the good doctor can’t simply allow players to get too comfortable, so he throws a wrench into things with the deck of 50 siege cards.
Any time you start your turn with one or both orc cards in your hand, the first thing you have to do is play those cards by drawing and resolving a siege card for each. These siege cards are events such as adding one or more orc figures to the space outside a specific wall, advancing orcs inward (first on top of the wall, then into the fortress, and finally into your Central Chamber where they each steal one gold before instantly vanishing), or activating the catapult or siege tower.
These siege cards slowly get more brutal as the game marches on, so it’s essential for players to be prepared with upgraded decks of weapons and tools. That’s especially true because there are plenty of different ways to instantly lose the game such as running out of gold or getting hit by too many catapults. But rather than instantly blindsiding you with the effects of an event, the game usually allows players a little time to anticipate and put out these fires before they do real damage.
The rules encourage you to communicate the problems and capabilities of your upcoming turn based on your hand as you work together to survive. Yet the fact that each card provides multiple different action options means that quarterbacking is much more difficult for alpha gamers when they can only see their own hand. So far, I find that Runedar strikes a perfect balance of cooperation, teamwork, and interaction. The high level of interaction is especially impressive here, as that is commonly something that is naturally minimized by your standard deck-building game.
I’ve spoken about a lot of the fascinating nuance to this design, yet there is still so much more I haven’t covered. Such as the mercenary cards, where you can spend two of your precious gold to instantly activate a one-time effect that will bail you out of trouble or boost your chances of success (the game comes with five mercenary cards, but I would say that the five extra promo cards that bring your total up to ten are essential additions to this game—even if you have to make your own—simply because they are awesome). These mercenary cards are relentlessly enticing, but if you aren’t careful with your spending then you might simply accelerate your defeat as the gold supply dries up. The combat dice add a nice element of drama as well where some rolls result in painful failures while others surprise you with glorious successes; and you can even play multiple weapon cards together to increase the number of dice rolled. The most mundane yet important action of the game, digging debris from the tunnel, is sprinkled with exciting moments of goblins emerging from the mountain and demanding bribes or death like obnoxious trick or treaters that interrupt you from your work. The trolls ride into your fortress on siege towers and likewise block your escape path while the catapults hit spaces on your card market and obliterate the beautiful tools and weapons you’ve been working so hard to acquire. Your dwarf can stand atop the tower and snipe enemies on or outside the walls, and while it requires a lot of movement from your cards to get to the top of a tower (dwarves have short legs, you know), your crossbow is your only defense against an incoming siege tower or catapult.
There is certainly an active presence of drama-infused luck to this design, and the gameplay is minimalist in a lot of characteristically Knizian ways, but as most Knizias go, there is so much juicy nuance to it all! I don’t love many cooperative games (too many are bloated and fiddly or lacking in tension, challenge, and replayability), but so far I love The Siege of Runedar. I really do.
Currently, the main thing I wish was different about this game is the game length… or I at least wish the game length was adjustable. As is, this epic game is well suited for a long, lively cooperative event. The game box may say 60-90 minutes, but so far we’ve been easily exceeding 2 hours. I’ve seen some comments from other early players who also feel that the game can drag a bit. I would love to see a variant where you don’t have to dig through all five blocks of tunnel rubble, or where you skip past the first 20% of the game, but that type of adjustment is far easier said than done. There are too many elements to this design—the quantities of siege cards and gold and rubble and troll tiles and catapult cards and market board spaces—that are all perfectly balanced for anyone besides Knizia himself to reliably shorten the playtime.
The other aspect that is likely to frustrate some folks is that fickle Lady Luck and the amount of sway she has on your success. While our first play had plenty of great rolls and draws, and we lost with only a few chunks of rubble left to clear, our second play was unbelievably brutal. In play two, nearly every combat attempt was one epic fail after another, and those pesky orc cards just wouldn’t leave us alone—we couldn’t discard them to save our lives. It was like our dwarves where hopelessly drunk and wildly swinging their axes around with the handle end out. And when they tried to aim at anything with their crossbows, their unkempt hair fell down over their eyes and they blindly launched an arrow careening into outer space. All the while orcs were relentlessly streaming in from every direction. That’s how uncannily bad the dice rolls and hand draws were for us.
My hope is that we eventually see an expansion from Reiner that brings further excitement to Runedar, accelerates the action, and maybe even helps mitigate the occasionally horrible luck. The mercenary cards (including the promo cards) are certainly a brilliant addition that do exactly this, but I’d love to see this thrilling romp expand and evolve even further. Regardless, I think we’ll be enjoying many more plays of The Siege of Runedar as we keep trying to scrap our way to our first “normal mode” victory. That’s plenty challenging on its own, and there are still two harder modes on top of that! I want to meet the human who beats Epic Mode so I can shake their hand in awe before accusing them of filthy lies and cheating.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.