Runewars – First Impressions

If you’ve read my massive “Musings on fantasy wargames” post, and all the continual comment updates I make to that, you might have noticed I came across Runewars pretty early on in my wargames research – back in March 2019. But as per my comment at the time I only had a very mild interest in it, especially considering it had already been discontinued by the manufacturers before I’d even heard of it!

So you maybe be as surprised as I was about the fact, after 16 months of not being able to play any miniatures wargames physically with anyone else, that my first game out of the gate when I got the chance to play with real minis would be Runewars!

In the last year+ or so I have been playing mostly games of The 9th Age via digital systems like Tabletop Simulator (and one game on Warhall too), and even did a remote “play by messages” battle (links are to some of my youtube reports on these things if you’ve missed them!) – but this Runewars game all came about thanks to my friend Bart. He’d joined in on ordering a few miniatures from the fantastic MOM Miniatures with me (to save on postage to the UK together), and was dropping by to collect his purchases – and the timing happened to be just as the Covid lockdown rules were being relaxed in the UK – so with windows open and being careful to keep that tabletop-safe distance from each other, I decided I’d play a game with him too since we both had the time to. As Bart had been painting up his Runewars minis and I was intrigued to see them, and also to see a bit about how the game played – so it was all just a golden opportunity really to do this!

Bart’s lovely Runewars minis & board mat on display whilst we talked through the components and some of the rules pre game… Please ignore that tape measure, it won’t be needed in Runewars!

We were taking things very chill and catching up and chatting about all sorts whilst playing of course, so this was as far as you can get from a competitive or even a focussed game! We were playing the starter box “Learn to Play” battle (although we threw in a few of the Advanced rules where we wanted to), but we weren’t playing super exactly to the rules I suspect either. Bart had a pretty good grasp of the rules already, but did point out he was far from an expert on Runewars (having only played a few games with his kids previously!), so we weren’t worrying too much about getting everything 100%, it was more about getting a flavour of the game on this occasion.

Like I did with The 9th Age (well, the old Quickstarter at least!) and also Kings of War, I thought it would be good to write up a bit of a mini “battle report” and my first impressions really about the game. So here goes with that ramble! 😀

Components and minis were much nicer than I’d been led to believe! Maybe it was just Bart’s nice paint jobs & basing, but still, I was pretty impressed overall. Bart did mention that the plastic used for them did seem a bit cheaper & harder to trim and paint though than some higher quality minis. But still, the end result was good, especially his skeletons I thought – with some great contrasting purple with yellowish-brown shields & very matt bone effects vs super shiny armour (Bart uses mostly Army Painter paints he told me, I only have a few of theirs, but the results look plenty good enough to me!).

Bart mentioned a few times that he believes Runewars was intended as a bit of a “bridge game” between board games and tabletop wargames – and the more we played I could see exactly what he meant. I do think it succeeds at this, and you’ll see the reasons for this running through many of my later comments.

It’s absolutely 100% designed to use it’s all own components only. Even the measuring devices, dice, movement “arcs” – everything. You absolutely need these exact components (or develop a way to make your own) to play Runewars as is. Even though you can download the rules for free pdfs now, you can’t exactly do very much with them if you don’t own all the proprietary components needed to use them. Yup even the measuring “chunks” that you move units in are on their own separate movement tracks and wheeling arc movement templates etc. I do think this shows the “board game” style of thinking here, where you wouldn’t expect to have to bring additional components of your own to play a game normally. But for a miniatures wargame – especially one that’s now out of print, it’s rather unfortunate in some ways, making it very hard to play for a “normal” tabletop gamer who perhaps has some suitable miniatures but doesn’t have the game itself.

Runewars uses an activation and “orders” system for its core mechanic. This means you play out a simultaneous turn with your opponent where you give each unit a hidden Order at the start of the turn, which all activate at a specific ‘initiative’ value, based on that order on that unit’s own specific “command wheel”. Slightly confusingly in some cases, you can also give modifiers to these orders, which sometimes are a clear modifier – like the modifier to wheel in conjunction with a movement command – but are sometimes more like extra actions – like a charge modifier allowing a move and melee attack together.

Precision distances, perfect movement and exact arcs of sight etc did not seem as relevant as in other similar ranks & flanks games. There’s a bunch of things that combine for this – and I suspect it was a design goal of theirs. Due to the limited amount of commands you can give a unit, very precise movement is sometimes simply not available. Whether you like this change of focus or not depends a lot on your taste – I certainly found it somewhat refreshing to not have to worry about exact arcs of sight and being exactly 17.1″ away from an enemy unit etc for once. The game also uses very simple ‘touch for melee’ engagements that then causes a full align and slide – so once units connect it almost feels like you could be playing on a ‘grid’ map in some cases, as all the units are on the same scales of movement trays, which then determine your positioning to a great extent too.

At the end of our first turn.

We did manage to “break” the game due to this though! 😀 We got into a situation where the Learn to Play rules didn’t cover how it should work due to a unit not being able to slide into place for melee properly due to another interceding unit. Thankfully though this is covered in the full reference rules, albeit in perhaps not the clearest rules writing (it could really do with a LOT more visual examples of corner cases like this to be clear) – but it does go to show how difficult it is to write a “simpler” version of the rules for a ranks & flanks game, yet still cover all the wacky things that can occur on a complex tabletop battlefield, even with just a few units… which is of course my exact experience writing (& playtesting) rules for The 9th Age. That said, by the time the next version of T9A Essence of War is published (which should be in the next few weeks), I reckon we’re extremely water-tight on the rules there now. In contrast, even after delving a bit more into the full rules for Runewars though, there are still a few things I am left confused about – for example when a unit disengages from an enemy unit in melee, it has to move “directly away” from them – but I’m confused whether that has to be perpendicular movement or if any direction ‘away’ counts, plus there’s the whole murky issue of corner-clip engagements which will definitely occur in games of Runewars that I didn’t notice any mention of what their rules intent even is here. To be fair there may well be FAQs and such that cover these things – I haven’t researched that yet.

What was very strange at first to me with Runewars is that there are barely any obvious unit “stats”. There’s a defense and HP value, the indirect ‘stat’ of the number of models & tray bases you have for the unit, an ‘attack’ stat (but even that is obfuscated as a “number & type of dice you roll” value), special abilities on their cards, but what’s really not obvious at first, so much of a units abilities are ‘hidden’ behind their command wheels and what actions they can (or can’t!) take, and at what initiative they can do them. To understand a unit’s overall capabilities you need to combine information from all of these sources to get the full picture. I pointed out that the more common “stats sheet & special rules” way of displaying the capabilities of units in wargames (or even videogames or rpgs etc) was so ingrained in me since I was a kid, even from my earliest years playing with Transformer toys and using their “tech specs” and descriptions to determine how they played, that the way Runewars does it felt incredibly unnatural & confusing to me!

Tech spec from the first Transformer I ever had, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, back before they were even “officially” released in the UK! 😀 I LOVED these tech specs, & they were almost as precious to me as the toys themselves & I feel I can trace the root for my interest in miniatures wargames from these stats in fact!

However Bart made a good point that the way Runewars does things may be much more intuitive to some boardgamers, and also people that want to “just play” and do not want to “look at numbers”. However I found myself constantly referring to the ‘Action dial reference’ below, to be able to work out what choices I was really making relative to what my opponents units could be doing:

If looking at that feels a bit graphics heavy for someone who’s more of a “numbers person”, you’d be right too, trying to understand Runewars did feel like I was drowning in icons at first! It actually made more sense to me too seeing them all lined up on that reference sheet, whereas in-game you are normally looking at at limited set of these on a specific units ‘command wheel’ and selecting what you want a unit to do. I kept having to cross reference what the icons actually meant, as many of them were very ambiguous and confusing to me at first, especially given the same icon could appear in different colours, or in black & white, which could mean different things too. Sometimes the different colouration even caused a reversing of the ‘contrast’ for the icon, so it became like a psychological eye test for which “image” you saw first – the worst case being the ‘Rally’ action which either looked obviously like the intended “horn blowing” icon, but instead I would see it as some kind of Celtic axe-head icon, when the contrast was reversed – it took Bart explaining it to me before I even realised I was looking at the same image, just in different colour shading! Despite trying to understand the rules as we went, I still managed to take nonsensical action & modifier combinations a few times during the game – obviously we weren’t playing super strict or competitively anyway so Bart let me change them – but it still gives an example of how this system was rather confusing for my brain at least. Others may well find it easier to deal with this though – but the overall feeling I got from the game was that whilst the “first order” level of understanding of the game of ‘how do I even do stuff and choose stuff’ was likely aided (at least for some people) from this style of rules and icons and orders etc, someone trying to jump to the “second order” level of understanding of the game – “so what are my opponents options and how can I predict my choices will interact with theirs, and how will this advantage or disadvantage each of us in the game” – was perhaps having their life made a lot MORE difficult from all of the obfuscation of things behind all these order wheels, icons, dice etc.

On the same point really, the unique dice used in the game are also confusing to me. Bart gave me a rough idea that blue-red-white was the order of ‘quality’ of the attack, but as each dice had a different number of sides to it, and had various different results that could occur (not only damage, but morale checks and other things can be triggered by these various attack dice), and then you factor in multiplications of damage based on unit size, re-rolls due to abilities and ranks – I definitely have no idea how to make ‘good’ decisions or understand what these dice really mean without carefully studying them and knowing what the odds of each thing are on each die. This is a LOT more difficult for me, being used to other games, than “these guys have 10 attacks hitting on 3s” or something where I can immediately parse the odds and relatively strengths of things. Adding to this is that the Runewars dice have, yup, a ton MORE unique icons to understand what they mean in addition to all the order & modifier icons… Oh and the magic system uses energy tokens with, you guessed it, yet more icons to interpret!

The panic / morale system is similarly very opaque to try to understand. There are quite a few rules that result in a unit gaining a “panic token” which initially sounds quite bad – but when you realise that only certain attack dice results will actually trigger panic checks – which means they got that result instead of potentially more damage, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. A panic check results in one (or sometimes more?) cards being drawn from a separate panic deck of cards, and then that result can only actually trigger if the unit even has enough panic tokens on it… so you can imagine here that, once again, without understanding the odds of the attack dice and knowing what cards of what values and effects even exist in the panic deck – you have no real idea what consequence or ‘risk’ you are taking if you choose an action you know may well result in a unit gaining a panic token. I must admit this system all felt rather over-engineered for the effects it actually has on the game – but perhaps it comes into it’s own far more in larger “full scale” games of Runewars.

Turn 2 – as battle was joined and casualties already started to mount for the Human faction, but they would turn this around later on.

The Learn to Play forces seemed surprisingly unbalanced given it’s pre-defined armies. Maybe we should have followed their exact deployment to help – or maybe we were playing other things wrong – but when I chose to play the “Human” faction (due to my dislike of the way Undead work in the majority of wargaming systems), Bart told me he thought they were the stronger faction, and that one of my hero models in particular would feel “OP” – and his predictions were completely right!

Runewars is a little bit too keen on using tokens too. Given it was sold like a board game and everything comes in one box with all their own components they can easily do this of course, but some things feel like they didn’t stop to consider whether they should… There were the magic energy and panic tokens I mentioned earlier, wound tokens for multi-HP models, and also blight tokens, inspiration tokens and a bunch more things we didn’t even get to. The problem with this of course comes when you have multiple units moving around the table with multiple sets of associated tokens with them – suddenly all their nice conveniences with the custom movement trays are now spoiled by having to keep track of, and move all of the tokens along with the unit too. Conversely though, I really liked the way damage was represented on larger units. Single models worked much like WFB style equivalents and were removed when they ran out of HP, but normal units would take damage by removing single models and then eventually trays – but multiple trays are combined to make up a “full unit” – so in this way you visually see a unit get depleted and indeed, some of it’s in game value also depreciates as it loses soldiers. Given we’re playing a miniatures game I always like it when games take advantage of the fact we have these ‘pieces’ in play, and I found this way of representing damage to be really good and far more satisfying than, for example, Kings of War’s entire large units “popping” at once. The way a 4-tray unit gradually gets whittled down to less models and eventually less trays in Runewars is actually almost exactly the way I said I wished KoW worked in fact, if they’d instead based everything around a standardised “Troop” size the way Runewars bases everything around it’s standard tray size.

A couple of times in the game we found a unit getting “one-shotted” and removed from the board with them barely getting to act (and not even attack back). Whilst this only happened with single model “units” I did feel it is a shame that this system (like KoW) lends itself to the possibility of this, as I feel it’s a nasty “feels bad” thing, especially for a new player, and it’s something that is nicely usually avoided in systems like The 9th Age, where units at least always get to fight back in the majority of melee combats. I wondered aloud if, at a high skill meta (if such a thing even exists for Runewars?) that the game could end up revolving somewhat around causing/preventing such ‘insta-kills’ on units, in much the same way high level Kings of War can from what I have seen & read about that game. It seemed like the larger units were much more resilient and interesting to play though than the single models in Runewars – so this ‘problem’ may just be the result of playing with the scaled down “Learn to Play” out of the box armies only. I did like the way that single model ‘heroes’ and such didn’t get buckets of rules exceptions though, and literally played just like “a small unit” for the most part. (One of the pitfalls of T9A, and even KoW for me, are their rules for single models – I almost would rather be rid of them entirely in both of those games and instead focus on the much more interesting unit-based combat really!).

A 3rd party Runewars movement tray next to an official one

Similar to the game components, due to being on their own proprietary movement trays and the models being their own specific scale (it feels like about 32mm to me) it means that using the minis from Runewars in other “ranks & flanks” games – and vice-versa bringing in other minis to this system, is, whilst not impossible, actually sadly a bit tricky. I could guess that the ’round base’ slots in the trays might have been a concession to ‘converting’ the use of their miniatures to/from other games. But I am not sure what their intention was there – and with all but a handful of my fantasy miniature collection on square bases, it doesn’t do anything for me anyway. Their movement trays though are far more interesting, but also weird. The standard basic tray size is approximately 62.5mm square, so once you get to a 2×2 tray size unit, it actually DOES match up with a 5×5 25mm based unit tray size from another game almost exactly… but as you can imagine this still leads to only VERY limited conversion possibilities with any other game that I know of. If you really wanted to get into Runewars, especially with alternatively scaled or based miniatures, you would probably need to get hold of 3rd-party ‘conversion’ trays, which as pictured above, do exist. Whilst I thought the official plastic trays were a really cool innovation in terms of moving units around the board etc and dealing with damage to larger units, Bart did demonstrate the downsides of their design to me too – when you have to “snap off” a tray from a unit in combat on the board, it’s pretty clunky indeed sadly. Bart explained that some Runewars players have replaced the ‘interlocking grooves’ design with instead flat edges and magnets – which would indeed work much better. So whilst these movement trays are rather flawed overall I still appreciate the attempt at innovation at least, and in fact, you may recall something along these lines is exactly what I have predicted GW’s “The Old World” game will do too (whenever that eventually crawls out of the GW design toilet! 😉 )

Like with my other first impressions of game systems linked earlier, this may well sound overly negative, however that’s just due to the nature of critique really and I don’t mean to say it was all bad at all. Whilst I feel like Runewars is an especially strange beast of a game with so many weird decisions in it’s design (which no doubt all contributed to it’s untimely demise as a commercial product), I still had a really fun evening gaming and chatting with Bart. So whilst I’m sure it will certainly only ever remain an occasional “curiosity” game for me (it doesn’t even HAVE an Orcs & Goblins faction for a start – so you can imagine that’s an instant failure for a fantasy wargame setting in my mind!) I am nevertheless quite keen to figure it out more and play a few more games of it, even more ‘for real’ as it were, to really see how it functions.

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