Back in July, we interviewed Relic Runners designer Matthew Dunstan and talked about the design of the game and the publication by Days of Wonder. Now the long wait is finally over, and the game is here in our hands! Matthew sure made the game sound interesting, but what happened when I got to the table? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: Days of Wonder is well-known for the special treatment when it comes to components, and Relic Runners is no exception. The game board is covered with large, thick temple tiles, and as you play the game your plastic explorer miniatures move around the board and
lay train tracks create paths that they can use for big moves later. When the temples have been fully explored (removed from the board), the shiniest components of all (literally), the relics, are placed on the board. The game comes with twenty of these in four different colors, and they are downright gorgeous. Apart from that, you’ve got player mats, plastic ration and tool tokens, and cardboard tokens for VPs and toolboxes. The individual pieces are gorgeous enough to warrant the $60 MSRP price tag.
I think the only thing I don’t like about the way the game looks is that when the game is done, it doesn’t have this beautiful “display” of the game’s events (like when you look a completed Ticket to Ride board) because things are being put on (paths) but also taken off (temples, relics). That’s just a sad side effect of the way the game works, though. Along with that, the only complaint about the actual make of the components is that the wells for the temple tiles are just a bit too shallow – I had to take one tile off of each stack and store it separately. Other than that, it’s a great insert, and I’m glad that they did NOT include a space for VP tokens like they have done for Small World, because those never stayed in place. Altogether, it’s truly a beautiful game.
Accessibility: The base idea of Relic Runners is the idea of an “emergent game,” meaning that the initial rules are simple and turns are quick, but what you are doing develops into powerful and crazy moves later on. (Dominion would be another good example of this.) These are my favorite kinds of games, because they are usually easy to teach and to get started, but a wonderful depth of strategy still “emerges.” In this case, all you do on your turn is make a move to another spot on the board, and then take an action, such as laying more paths, uncovering a temple to get a bonus, or grabbing a relic for some major points. The system is rather easy to explain and special effects from temple tiles can be explained as they appear. However, much like Dominion and its cousin Kingdom Builder, it’s hard to tell what a “good” move is in the first few turns, although here you can easily suggest that they get some paths laid down.
What I don’t like in games are a “little” rules that are mostly for game balance. Since they aren’t naturally connected to or enforced by the main mechanism, they’re easy to forget, and often frustrating (because they’re almost always restrictive, telling you that you cannot do something that you otherwise could). I’m talking about things like the one-building-of-each-type rules in 7 Wonders and The Castles of Burgundy, or the “can’t harvest a single bean” rule in Bohnanza. Unfortunately, Relic Runners has several of those: can’t have more than five rations, can’t have more than one ivory tile of the same level, can’t do an unfamiliar path in the middle of a move, and so on. It’s not deal-breaking or any more complex than, say, Settlers of Catan, but it does make the game a bit harder to play correctly. I wouldn’t surprised if most people’s first game involves a rules error (but probably only one).
Depth: Relic Runners definitely lives up to its idea of an “emergent game.” The first turns are quite simple, usually involving moving and laying paths, and then running back to base camp for more rations. However, it’s very easy to move a huge distance later on thanks to the previous-laid paths, and in fact there’s a bit of a race to dig up the ruins so that you can actually have tracks laid down. On top of that, there are points and abilities gained from the temples, which brings into play that classic struggle between cool abilities and actually gaining points so that you can win the game. Digging up the blue and ivory temples is an unknown (and you don’t know what you’ll reveal next at a purple temple either), so there’s a considerable random element there, but the top purple effects are known and you also know what you can do ahead of time with your tools. What I found was that despite the random elements, you need to go into the game both with a long-term plan and an ability to adapt it based on the moves of opponents or new tiles – the best of both strategy and tactics.
Theme: Through and through, I view Relic Runners as a classical Eurogame with a huge coat of paint. There are plenty of thematic idiosyncrasies, such as leaving behind the relic where you begin an expedition (picking up the one where you began makes more sense) or resetting the toolboxes (shouldn’t the stuff all be gone?). However, when I compare it to other European games like Thurn & Taxis or The Castles of Burgundy, I view it more as a game like those that has been given the special Days of Wonder component treatment. (Can you imagine if Days of Wonder had put out those games? They’re great, but so ugly…) That’s a much more satisfying (and probably more accurate) viewpoint than seeing it as an American game with a disconnected theme. (Yes, I know that author Matthew Dunstan is neither American nor European, but Australian.) I don’t think it’s fair to begrudge this game its thematic disconnects and not other games just because they’re more known or advertised as victory-point-chuggers that still have a “theme” on top.
Besides, the theme here still mostly makes sense – familiarity with trails, getting better tools, finding relics at the bottom of the temples, and so on. And in retrospect, it was actually quite a fun part of the experience for us to use our creative wit to justify the thematic disconnects. The toolboxes were actually leftover tools from recently deceased explorers (we’re racing against them too, but they’re dumb and also now dead; we’re the heroic ‘real’ explorers!). The relic you leave at the start of an expedition is some sort of key or puzzle that you have to hold in place to allow you to grab the one on the other side of the jungle, like in so many movies. Sometimes theme is what you make of it – but that’s a whole other article.
Fun: To continue an earlier comparison, I view the game play as a kind of as Kingdom Builder in reverse, in a way that draws a better parallel to Dominion. In Dominion, you have an emergent game where your purchases make you more and more powerful, but then buying VPs clogs you down. In Kingdom Builder and Relic Runners, you place pieces on the board and gain VPs and abilities from doing so until, basically, time runs out. However, placing a piece in Kingdom Builder imposes restrictions on future placements, while placing a path in Relic Runners increases your options instead of restricting them – more in line with Dominion. I think that the frustration for beginners in Kingdom Builder is a big reason why Dominion has had so much more success, and in that sense Relic Runners is the best of both worlds. Since Dominion and Kingdom Builder are two of my favorite games, you can probably guess how I feel about Relic Runners.
Although it can take a little while to get comfortable with the game, Relic Runners is beautiful, deep, and fun – making it easily the best game yet in Days of Wonder’s “Big Adventure” series.
4 out of 5