Scoping out the Competition

Fantasy Flight Games picked up the license for Star War games a while ago, and it seems to have effectively given them a license to print money.  Their Star Wars X-Wing game has taken off and is now HUGE, reminding me of Wizkids back in the day.

This seems to have changed the company, from making some small games to being a powerhouse. Last year they gave up their license with Games Workshop, even though some of the game they did with them were quite successful.

You may ask why they gave up the license?  Well to compete against them of course.  At Adepticon this past year, every swag bag contained (in the very loosest sense, since the box was simply so big) a copy of the new RuneWars miniature game (which was some 2200 copies).  The game has now been officially released now, so I figured I might as well break open my copy and attempt to give it an honest review.

MSRP $99.99
Now I started playing miniature games with Warhammer Fantasy Battles 6th edition, and if you are a regular reader (I know there must be at least one or two out there) you know that I started playing Kings of War after I received my hardback rulebook from the first kickstarter (the very first kickstarter that Mantic ever did).  So I am a fan a rank & flank mass combat games - and this is the category that RuneWars is aiming for.  I have never played the X-Wing games, nor have I ever played RuneQuest or the Runewars board game (in which this game is set).

So, to get started are, of course, the miniatures (this is a miniature game after all).

The starter set includes undead and humans, though in the Runequest world they are the forces of Waiqar the Undying vs the Daqan Lords.  My very first thought there is simply "what is with all the q's" - making the names, to me, simply difficult to pronounce.  Each faction has two troop units, a big gribbly and a hero.

So we'll start with revenant legions of Waiqar the Undying (or the undead).  The simplest, base unit is the reanimates - the basic skeleton warriors.
One thing that initially impressed me was, for a starter set that is NOT hard plastic on sprues (being the newer plastic/resin mix that requires super glue - not like Restic or GW's finecast - but very similar to the new models that Mantic is doing for Deadzone) there is such a variety of models.  A great example are these undead warriors - there are four unique sculpts here - with four copies of each (for a total of 16).  I simply did not expect that in a box of 48 miniatures, there would be 18 different sculpts (I guess I was anticipating 8 - one sculpt per unit).

Reanimate sculpts
The quality of the miniatures is great - there was little to no cleanup required, and in general they assembled very easily.

Reanimate Archers

Of course saying that, I did have some issues with the archers.  The arms and bow for 3 of the sculpts are a single piece, and didn't always want to fit into the slots in the bodies.  While I was too lazy to actually go and microwave a cup of water, I assume from the feel of the material that this would have very quickly fixed this issue (and kept me from actually breaking one of the archer's arms trying to get it in place (though it easily was fixed with a bit of glue)).  Still there are four different archer sculpts (for a unit of only 8 models)
Reanimate Archer sculpts
Still, nice sculpts,  Of course writing this later (so I don't have more pictures as I think of them) makes me curious as to how the scale matches up against other models (specifically against Mantic skeletons - which I've already heard people asking about how these would work for Kings of War). They seem a bit larger scale though.

Carrion Lancer
My absolute favorite miniature in the box is the Carrion Lancer.  When I first opened the box in the hotel room at Adepticon, I already liked this model before I even put it together.  Now it may be my prejudices showing, but if I were an Undead player in Kings of War, this feels like a PERFECT model for a Revenat Kin on Undead Wyrm.  Yes, I know a wyrm is a dragon, but this still fits, and fits on a 50mm base easily.  Apparently in RuneWars you can actually take units of these (1, 3 or 6 I believe). 
Carrion Lancer from the rear
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks this is a great miniature, as I've already seen people asking to buy it on Facebook to use in Kings of War.
Ardus Ix'Erebus
The undead also get a hero, Ardus Ix'Erebus.  (Ok, enough of these weird spellings and hard to pronounce names already!)  An interesting idea with the heroes, they come on the 'normal' 25mm bases integrated into the sculpt, but also have these diorama bases to fit them into a tray.  This way they can be fielded solo, or as a unit upgrade.
Not sure I like the horns for an undead hero
Defending against the horde of the undead are the forces of the Daqan Lords.  These are basically the human troops, and the base unit here are spearmen.
I'm not a fan of human sculpts, and while there are again four sculpts for the unit of sixteen, they just seem overly bulky to me, with the full armor and large shields.

I guess I see spearmen as more base troops - they may be professional soldiers (as opposed to those that are drafted), but still aren't given the best equipment, which is reserved for the more elite warriors.  These sculpts feel more elite warrior to me personally.
Spearmen sculpts
The Oathsworn Cavalry are a elite knights, and have more of that feel to them  The sculpts seem to be more mounted versions of the spearmen (with swords) (and somewhat surprisingly, all left handed).
Oathsworn Cavalry
The unit of 4 cavalry has two sculpts
Then comes my second favorite model, the Rune Golem (ok, so I have a weakness for big gribblies).
Rune Golem
An interesting take on a big rock monster - with four arms and runes carved into him.  I like the appropriately over sized swords he is carrying.  He isn't big enough to come close to Mantic's huge Greater Earth Elemental / Greater Obsidian Golem, but could be an awesome unit leader for earth elementals.

straight on shot
Finally, the Daqan get a hero as well.
Kari Wraithstalker
You can actually easily pronounce her name, which is great.  This model was a bit trickier to fit together as you have to fit the weapons into a specific slot on the cloak that is non-obvious, but once you figure that out the rest fits into place.

As for the rest of the components in the box - there are three booklets - Learn to Play, Rules Reference and Lore Guide.  The Learn to Play book walks you through setting up and playing a game.  The rules reference is just that - a reference - broken out into encyclopedic entries for various rules.  The lore guide provides background for the four forces that are part of the initial RuneWars game (one seems to be elves, the other more evil humans).

The game also comes with a large amount of other components, counters, dice and cards.
Lots of components
In fact on first glance it seems a LOT of extra stuff, but once we tried the game it wasn't so bad.

There are reference cards for each unit.  One side is the actual rules, the other shows the point costs and formations available for the unit
Unit Card Front
The front has the name of the unit in the upper right.  The upper left is the defense and wounds for each model in the unit.  The defense is the number of hits it takes to cause a wound on a model, the wounds is the number or wounds to kill it.  So for something like base Reanimate Archers, one hit kills one model.

In the lower left is an icon for the type - either infantry, cavalry or siege.  The middle of the right side has any special rules and abilities, and at the bottom are the ranged and melee attack dice.
Unit Card Back
The back of the card shows point costs and available upgrades based on unit size.

One of the interesting aspect of the games is the unit trays.  Trays are how you build units - infantry trays hold 4 models, cavalry trays hold 2, and siege trays hold one.  All trays are the same size, and use an interlocking system to hold them together in units.
tray system
You remove individual models as you take casualties in a unit, but is is the trays that define size (a tray with one model in it works the same as one with four in it).  Once all the models in a tray have been removed, then the tray is removed from the unit.  (So to combat the reanimates, who rise from the dead at the end of each turn, you need to eliminate entire trays (as they can raise back models into empty slots in a tray)).

The trays are in interesting mechanic, though I almost see a need for a movement tray to hold your trays, as the puzzle connectors can easily come undone while trying to pick up and move a unit, or when you remove a tray.

When building an army, you buy units in specific formations, which are shown on the back of the cards.  Each size formation includes upgrade icons, these are the upgrade cards you can add to a unit (for a point cost, of course), one for each icon.  Thus larger units can take more upgrades.

The formations do have game effects as well.  Ranks are important, as they allow re-rolls when attacking with the unit.  If you have a least one full rank after the first, then you can re-roll all of your attack dice.  If you have a partial rank behind the first, then you can re-roll a single attack die.

In addition, the frontage of the unit determines it's threat value.  The threat value is the number of trays across the front of the unit (for shooting), or the number of trays in the front rank of the unit in contact with an enemy unit (including corner to corner) when engaged with the unit.

When I opened the box, I was concerned that there were only six dice included - how do you have large battles with so few dice? (I'm used to rolling handfuls of dice for large units). This is where threat comes in - as you multiply any hits you roll by your threat value - so an archer unit that is two trays wide has a threat value of 2 - it rolls 2 hits - so this becomes 4 hits on the target unit.  Each hit is then assigned to a model (starting in the last rank of trays) unit you assign enough to equal the defense of the unit, and this causes a wound (and once you accumulate the number of wounds listed on the card, the model is killed).  So of course you always want to eliminate an entire tray before moving on to the next when assigning damage.

The game is played in three phases - command, activation and end phase.  In the command phase, you assign each unit a command and a possible modifier in secret using the command dials.
Spearmen command dials
There are two pairs of reference cards included, but I did not find these to be big enough, and with both sides filled with symbols, you actually need four so all the symbols are more immediately available.  Of course that is just until you learn the symbols, which does start to happen pretty quickly.  (The rally symbol (green, with the white 3 on the left dial) took a while to identify, as both my son and I saw it as a helmet not a horn.

The modifier dial helps to change up the orders - but modifiers can only be applied to the same color (in the rules refered to as the stance) action (except for white, which can apply to any).  There is a letter for each color as well, so color blind people can still identify which modifiers go with which actions.

One note, I understand how rules often have to come up with unique terms because of copyright issues (a classic example is WoTC copyrighting the term 'tap' for turning a card sideways to indicate it has been used).  Personally I HATE this, and it sucks that our society forces it.  It can often make what should be simple much more complicated because you have to rename it.

The white number on the action dial is the initiative for that action.  It is interesting to see that you can take some of the same actions, but with different priorities to attempt to control when you do something.  A good example (for the spearmen) is they can attack at initiative 3 (but there are no yellow modifiers, and the white one doesn't do anything for them unless they have an appropriate unit upgrade to use it), or they can wait until later in the turn (initiative 7) to attack, but get an extra guaranteed hit in their attack.  Which seems better - as long as the unit doesn't have something else happen to it before it can use the action.

This adds a LOT of strategy on the tabletop.  Some units are very restricted in what orders they can be given.  For example a Rune Golem only has five possible actions, while several units have a full 8.

Movement is accomplished using Movement Templates instead of rulers.
Straight movement
movement w/ curve
I see both good and bad things with this.  Good, it really helps those people that seem to be completely incapable of actually moving models in a straight line.  Everyone has seen it (and hopefully not done it) where you move a unit forward and it ends up 2" to the left of where it should. The straight movement template helps with that.

The curved movement - that is a bit more interesting.  When you think of the Star Wars: X-Wing game, it really makes sense, as you have angular momentum to worry about, and you just can't turn on a dime and head in another direction.  Space ships need to curve to turn.  But for 'medieval' era units on a battlefield?  Maybe cavalry should be restricted due to the speed - but infantry?  They should be much more maneuverable than these templates allow.  Single models even more so, they should not have a problem being able to angle around.

This actually came up in our game, when I had charged the Rune Golem into the flank of Ardus Ix'Erebus (and rolled crap on the attack, not getting through his defense).  My spearmen had a big juicy flank there right in front of Ardus Ix'Erebus where he could see them and easily charge them - but because of the movement rules could not.  That was very frustrating for my son. His only options were to use a reform order to face the golem (and get another attack before he could attack it), or to use a shift order to get out of the combat (but no be able to charge the spearmen using it - and if he collided with them he would get ANOTHER panic (to go with the one for leaving combat).    This was a little too reminiscent of Warhammer 8th edition (a rule set neither of us has any desire to go back to after the clean rules of Kings of War).

Combat itself was fairly straightforward, though it took a bit to realize how flanks and ranks benefit a unit.  Monsters and single heroes really seem handicapped here, as they have neither ranks nor more than a single tray.  This may not be a bad thing, as it simply focuses on units instead - making a big block much more threatening than a single monster (no matter how cool the skeleton on the giant worm is).

There are several tokens for conditions in the game - Inspiration (good), blight, Immobilize, Panic and Stun all being bad.  There are also variable magical energy tokens (five two sided tokens) that are randomized each round - with three symbols on them that can help some units.

Getting past the "Learn to play" phase, there are deployment and objective cards to change up the game, as well as unit upgrades.  I do like how terrain is defined as well as how each deployment card indicates how much terrain (currently maxed out at 4 pieces, most likely due to the fact the starter set comes with 4 pieces of two sided cardboard terrain).

The book includes a small section on the hobby aspect of the game; collecting, modelling and painting miniatures and terrain.

They have also made the rules available to download off their website here (bottom of the page under Rules).  The web site also has links to new expansion products to be released (including a Carrion Lancers expansion - which has a duplicate of the model in the starter and a second, new sculpt). The announced expansions include:

  • Game Dice Pack
  • Game Essentials Pack
  • Grassy Field Playmat\
  • Oathsworn Cavalry Unit Expansion
  • Daqan Infangry Command Upgrade Expansion
  • Lord Hawthorne Hero Expansion
  • Rune Golems Unit expansion
  • Spearmen Unit Expansion
  • Ankaur Maro Hero Expansion
  • Reanimates Unit Expansion
  • Carrion Lancers Unit Expansion
  • Reanimate Archers Unit Expansion
  • Waiqar Infantry Command Upgrade Expansion
  • Latari Elves Army Expansion

So what do I like?

  • Carrion Lancer model
  • possible second Carrion Lancer model
  • Rune Golem
  • initiative system
  • deployment / terrain cards
And what don't I like?
  • movement (especially the turning)
  • the possibility of having a big pile of dead models off to the side of the table
  • locked in to their models in their trays

Out of the gate, it has the 'standard' weakness of not much available.  With only two factions, and only three units and two heroes per faction there is not yet enough variety (though X-Wing managed it with only 3 factions).  It does not pre-define the armies, so they can easily continue to add units to any faction.  Of course doing this can easily lead to serious power creep in the game as well.

If you are one of the many people that seem to love the X-Wing game, then this may work perfectly as an introduction to ranked tabletop miniatures.  For me it just doesn't have the appeal to pull any of my time away from all that I have to work on for Kings of War (except for wanting more of the Carrion Lancers - and I don't even have a non-demo undead army DAMMIT.  I really don't need Fantasy Flight to start going Wyrd on me (I managed to NOT buy their special at Gencon last year though I so wanted it (such cool miniatures)).  I don't need more minis I will never paint or even use.)

The bigger question I have is where it will be in say two years.  FF seems to have become a giant in the industry overnight - that in itself can result in a huge gravitational pull to their other games - and with organized play already in the works, it just needs a critical mass to become a possible contender.

Because it is all fun and games . . .