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Relic Runners - Seamlessly complex fun from Days of Wonder

Relic Runners Box
Relic Runners Box
Publisher (Days of Wonder)

Relic Runners

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Whenever possible, I try to avoid definitive declarations about a game's value. It's not really productive for an individual, me or anybody else, to state that a game is either 'good' or 'bad.' There are just too many variables related to an individual's taste in games (not to mention things like books, movies, food, or politics) to make outright declarations like that.

Trivial Pursuit is a case in point. There are individuals - about 90 ratings of "8" or higher, among 4663 ratings on BoardGameGeek - who think Trivial Pursuit is just the best game, evah. There are others, of course - 166 folks on The Geek rated it at "2" or lower - who are less enchanted. Personally, and emanating from the fact that I don't consider it to be a game at all, but a social exercise, tapping into your ability to recall trivial tidbits of information, I don't play. And don't get me started on the whole Monopoly thing.

That said, it should be noted that declarations of personal enjoyment with the experience of playing a given game are valid, in so far as it's understood that the declaration is subjective. You don't necessarily learn from reading a review whether a game is 'good' or 'bad.' You learn only that a given gamer either liked or didn't like playing the game. This can be useful information, which is why gamers go to BoardGameGeek, where they discover a range of likes and dislikes about any given game.

And with that said, we turn our attention to Relic Runners, from the one-game-a-year folks at Days of Wonder. I really, really like this game. The first 'really' is associated with its easy-to-grasp rule set, its ability to provoke deeper levels of strategic and tactical levels of thought, and its top quality components. The second 'really' stems from finishing second in a three-player, first experience with it and a tangible jolt of fun I got out of it.

Here's what you've got: a jungle-themed board, with a central base camp. Roads emanate from this base camp, leading to a variety of temples, bristling with prizes to be discovered by you and your opponents (or fellow explorers, depending on how you internalize the point). These 'prizes' translate into the ubiquitous victory points, the most of which, at game's end, will earn you a victory.

The process is something of a hybrid route-building, pick-up-and-deliver system, where you move around the board, laying down roads, which will eventually assist you in collecting some of those victory points you're looking for, while, at the same time, picking up surface and buried treasures at the three different kinds of temples (and single type of Ruin). It's the kind of game you could almost win by accident; keep moving around the board, collecting treasures, and with the assistance of a few acquired and explained enhancements to your endeavors, you'll be amassing victory points.

"Okay, I move here, and then over there, put down this road, pick this up, pick that up. Repeat. Oh, the game's over. . .Wow! I won."

I almost won the first game I played of it this way. I was two points off the winner (68-66), and knew from a quick post-game analysis that if I'd done a few things differently, I'd have pulled it off. This, in turn, led to thoughts of what I was going to do next time, which, from a game publisher's point of view is a good thing. A really, really good thing.

What's odd about this game is that in spite of all the movement and acquisition rules, not to mention exceptions to these rules, it has very strong 'gateway game' potential. There's something about its complexity that's seamless. You don't, to get started, need to know all the gory details. You'll acquire knowledge, treasures and victory points as you play, and if you've ever tried to entice a basic non-gamer into sitting down with a board, bits and rules, you know that getting it up and running quickly is essential to capturing and holding the newbie's attention. You can do that with this game, as long as you avoid the serious gamer's inclination to explain everything before the designated first player makes his or her first move. By rule, that first player is whoever in the group was the last to see a ruin or visit a shrine or temple.

The placement of roads is key to success in this game. There are 40 pathways on the board and each player will be able to place 10 roads. In a five-player game, of course, this isn't likely to happen, although it is possible for one player to opt out of placing all 10 of their roads, thereby providing another player in a five-player game the opportunity to do so. Since, as long as they do so on their own roads, players can travel all over the board with a single move, these roads provide critical mobility. On your turn, you can (but are not required to) move twice; once, along a single pathway connecting two adjacent spaces that do not contain a road, and once, along as many pathways as you can, that contain your road(s). You cannot move along pathways occupied by an opponent's road(s). In addition, the length of your roads, along connected pathways, will offer you the opportunity to collect increasing numbers of victory points when you opt to embark on what's known as a 'relic run;' a later-game option in which you move from the location of a discovered relic to the location of another discovered relic of the same color, collecting two victory points for every road you use along the way; your own or empty pathways. This can add up significantly, to a total of 22 victory points (10 traveling on your own roads and the single pathway you move along without a road), and if you manage to make more than one 'relic run' in a game, so much the better. So know, going in, that you'll want to be placing as many connected roads as you can, preferably all 10 in your available supply of them.

The ruins, temples and shrines, which occupy the 20 spaces on the board, are critical, as well. There are 60 of these sturdy cardboard ruins and temples (shrines are the empty board space, left when all the ruins and temples have been collected from these spaces; when this happens, an appropriately colored relic is placed on the space, which sets up the 'relic run' option for later). These temples and ruins are placed on the board at the start of the game. Each type of temple (ivory, blue and purple) gets four spaces on the board; three temples of each color are stacked in a specific first, second and third order in those spaces (acquisition of 'lower' temples offers higher rewards). There are eight 'ruin' spaces, each of which holds three identical 'ruin' tokens. There is a specific placement scheme recommended for first-time play which dictates that at least one of every kind of temple be placed in the four quadrants of the board (five spaces in each quadrant), although you can randomize or deliberately select a setup of your choosing; put all purple temples in one quadrant, all ivory in another and blue in a third, for example (this particular example would have a way of reducing the number of points you could collect from 'relic runs,' so therefore, not recommended).

Exploration of ruin space (to which you have travelled on your turn) is what allows you to place roads; one in any direction, adjacent to your current (ruin) location.

Exploration of temples provides a feast of riches, but with the exception of purple temples, you won't know what you're going to get until you get there and find it. The top tile in each set of purple temples can be seen at all times.

Blue temples offer victory points, period, which you place on your personal board to tally up at the end of the game. Ivory and purple temples offer different kinds of rewards depending on the level you are exploring; get the ivory temple at the top of a stack at a given location and you'll be granted any of six different bonuses at game's end. Level two ivory temples offer single-use only bonuses (the opportunity to look at hidden treasures at any temple you visit, for example), while level three ivory temples offer permanent-effect bonuses, like "every time you place a road (Pathway), immediately collect one victory point." Purple temples have similar levels of reward.

You have to pay to explore; one ration for each exploration. You can replenish your supply of rations, up to a maximum of five by returning to base camp (and immediately ending your turn). There are a few temple-related bonus options that'll help you with this.

There is also a set of toolboxes on your personal board, laid out in a Toolbox Progression Table, which will offer you the opportunity to, for example, take two ration packs from base camp (in the Machete progression), move pathways you've placed to a different place (Compass progression), or double victory points you score during your turn (Shovel progression). You advance your potential options on this table when you travel a path that passes a Toolbox token, but once used, you have to start the progressions over.

You can 'see' already that the complications are mounting, and I've barely scraped the surface of all the things you'll get to know about this game as you play. All you need to know, really, is that the process is easy to understand and execute and that in a kind of thematically appropriate way, the exploration is a lot of fun.

With about 600 ratings, to date, Relic Runners has a 6.85 average on BoardGameGeek. Among the 159 folks who commented, nobody rated it at 10, though nobody rated it below 3, either. You'll find the usual array of positive and negative feedback on it, which should be tempered by awareness of the 'tough crowd' community of gamers who bother to rate games. It was a nominee for the 2013 Best Family Game Golden Geek Award.

Me?

I liked it. I really, really liked it.

Relic Runners, designed by Matthew Dunstan can be played by 2-5 players (three would appear to be the game's sweet spot). It can be played in a little over an hour and is recommended for ages 10 and up with some suggestions that it could be handled by younger players. Suggested retail price ranges from a $40 low to a $60 high.