12th Jul2017

‘Rune Wars’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Despite coming complete with a very big box full of shiny lovelies, Rune Wars: Miniatures Game (just Rune Wars from here on in) doesn’t quite have enough stuff in it to create huge, tabletop battles from the outset. Thankfully though, this game was clearly designed as a simplified, modular fantasy battle system with the specific aim of capitalising on the collapse of the aging Warhammer Fantasy Battle system. This means that like almost every Fantasy Flight Games product, Rune Wars is going to be all about expansions, customisation and accessibility.

It’s only fair then that I should attempt to cover not only what comes in the big box I’ve just mentioned, but also the system itself, how expandable it is and indeed, what expansions are already available. Rune Wars takes place in the fictional world of Terrinoth, which also happens to be the home of several Fantasy Flight Games such as Descent, among others. As a result, the designers have an increasingly rich source of inspiration for such expansions, and therefore the future of Rune Wars is all but assured for the foreseeable future. So without further ado, let’s begin.

Game Components and Rules

Regardless of the need for “more stuff” in order to make a proper battle, Rune Wars does cram an awful lot into the box. Players receive an unpainted army each – one of Waiqar undead and one of Daqan humans – compromising forty eight detailed miniatures. Of these figures, one on each side is a highly individual hero sculpt on a moulded base, whilst another one each are much larger models representing a formidable Rune Golem for the humans and a putrid and terrifying Carrion Lancer for the undead.

Each of these models includes a push-fit base that can be interlocked with others, and all the miniatures require a level of basic assembly, although it’s relatively straightforward. The quality of the sculpts is very high, with a good level of detail on every figure, and about three or four poses per unit. There’s no doubt that these minis look fantastic when painted, but contrary to what many others have stated, I didn’t find it an issue to play with them in their unpainted form. There are plenty of dynamic poses and threatening postures to entertain me.

Beyond that, there are three books – one Lore Book, one Quick Start Guide and a detailed rulebook including assembly instructions, all of which are well written. I’ll be honest in saying that I’m not interested in the lore, but had I picked this game up at age fourteen or fifteen? I would have been all over it. The Quick Start Guide is an excellent addition that helps players get straight into the thick of it, whilst the detailed rules do much more of the heavy lifting when it comes to “what happens if” type of situations.

Broadly speaking, the rules in Rune Wars are clear and easy to follow, with most of the central mechanics being fairly intuitive. That’s where some of the remaining components come to the fore, and whilst it clearly draws inspiration from Star Wars: X-Wing, Rune Wars is a game that is fairly unique in how it handles movement and orders. Players use a standing board with two wheels – one basic order and one modifier – on them, which must be programmed at the beginning of each turn. From there, as orders are called out, the players use chunky, custom movement templates to enact the orders given.

Gameplay Structure

This order system is where players form a crucial part of their strategy, because each order has an initiative, and the lower the initiative, the sooner that order is to be followed. This tends to mean that low initiative orders are less impactful, such as short turns or moves, whilst long charges often happen much later in the turn sequence. Players swap priority after every turn and whoever has priority counts order initiatives upwards from one until either player declares that they have one or more orders of that value to follow. In the case that both players have a number four order, for example, the player with priority would move first.

There are numerous tactical considerations when assigning orders, because all orders are programmed at the same time, and can’t be changed once the order countdown begins. So if, for example, you expected a unit of cavalry to undertake a long charge home into a unit of undead soldiers, but their more straightforward order to move to the side was enacted first, then your cavalry charge would fail, and your horsemen would receive a panic token for their trouble. Because of this, it’s important to understand not just how soon you can move a unit, but where everyone else will be when you do.

There are several kinds of combat in Rune Wars, and as an ex-Warhammer player, I was shocked at first when I realised how devastating each of them can be. In melee combat, units roll a specific number of dice depending on their offensive capability, and then the roll is modified by the width and depth of the unit. Wider units have a higher threat level, so any hits they roll are multiplied by the number of bases that they are wide, whilst for each rank of depth they have, one dice can be rerolled. In the core set, the largest unit is two by two trays, so if the player rolls two dice and achieves one hit, that hit becomes two due to threat, and the second die can be rerolled because of the extra rank of depth. Any further hits on this reroll are then doubled for threat again.

Ranged combat is similar, making the Waiqar Reanimate Archers a potent battlefield threat that can’t simply be ignored, and there are also several units with unique skills that can be used. The Carrion Lancer for example has the ability to spit vile substances that inflict blight tokens on their enemy, which in turn lead to further disadvantageous effects. The Rune Golem gains bonuses to either movement or combat depending on the outcome of a set of runes that are cast at the beginning of each turn. Similarly, the Waiqar player may regenerate some of his undead minions if the runes have been cast favourably for him.

Gameplay Experience

As a result of all these systems Rune Wars actually features quite a lot of complex possibilities, but when you are actually playing it, they become second nature. The intuitive nature of the order stands and the simple to use movement templates map things out nicely for even novice players. If I have any criticism of how Rune Wars manages to make things so simple, it is only that as a result it lacks a little flexibility. For example, I didn’t like that my hero characters were restricted to moving like the larger units, because it felt a little unrealistic, but allowing them to run amok among the static, immobile ranks of the enemy would have been much worse, so it’s understandable.

Movement overall is well done, and the inclusion of simple templates makes things exceptionally easy to manage. The only real issues arise when dealing with terrain and obstructions, and reading the rules verbatim, there are situations where the restrictive movement system feels a bit unnatural. Clipping the corner of terrain can stop a charge and options to reform, move sideways and so on often feel like wasted turns and again, can feel a bit unnatural.

What I particularly like, is that when two standard units clash (for example Daqan Spearmen vs Waiqar Reanimates) the carnage tends to be quite impressive, thanks to the lack of a defence roll and the low armour value. In such a conflict, the first round of combat will often see four or five models cleft asunder. Such impactful combat feels awesome and yet, because these core set units contain eight to sixteen miniatures, they have a good chance of giving some back in the next round. Even the Rune Golem and the Carrion Lancer rarely survive more than two rounds of combat, and the heroes are the same.

Panic, blight and other effects also introduce interesting and well balanced features. When playing Warhammer, many players accept that routing is a foregone conclusion in some units, whilst others are (literally) unbreakable. That level of simulated realism can lead to huge variance in the experience, with whole armies retreating prematurely in some games and two unbreakable units clashing in tiresome slugfests in others. These factors, right now, simply don’t exist in Rune Wars because of how panic is handled, and the game is more forgiving and often, more fun as a result.

The player inflicting panic on an enemy unit may draw cards from the panic deck to the value of the number of panic tokens inflicted (for example two.) Each panic effect has a value of one, two or three, and that player may inflict one of these effects (up to the value of the tokens spent) on the panicking unit. This can cause them to turn and run in the worst case, but more often it does something less consequential. Panic tokens can be removed by rallying, which is simply given as an order at the beginning of a turn, whilst if a player rallies a unit that has no panic, it gains a boon token.

There are several systems and features in Rune Wars that I haven’t covered here, but needless to say they work almost universally well. To give a quick fire description of them, some dice deliver critical hits that enable instant damage regardless of armour, some do accuracy damage which enables upgraded units and embedded heroes to be targeted and there are features like specific battlefield objectives to consider. There are surges, boons and banes, and each of them affects gameplay in subtle ways, but all of this is handled well thanks to the combination of unit cards, order stands and common and largely memorable iconography.

Upgrades and Expansion

The Rune Wars core set features two armies as I’ve described here, but each of these only amounts to about one hundred points based on the in game rating system. A proper battle requires around two hundred points, and at that level, it is possible to use some of the more interesting formations shown on each of the unit cards to really ramp up the threat level and reroll potential. You can even embed heroes and large models like the Carrion Lancer or Rune Golem into units of normal infantry, with various effects. Most units can also be upgraded with enhancements that provide further benefits, and as a result can be worth the points investment.

On the subject of investment, Fantasy Flight Games has already released an additional army for Rune Wars (the Latari Elves) and there is another one in the pipeline (the Uthuk Y’llan.) Each of these races can be purchased as a starter pack including an army of about one hundred points that can go straight into battle with the Daqan and Waiqar. All three released armies (and I’ve no doubt the Uthuk Y’llan will follow suit) can be added to with more units from the core set and starter boxes, and there are several expansions that can only be bought separately. For example, some of the upgrades that can be bought for in-game points include command units, and these must also be bought separately. There are loads of other bits and bobs too, such as more dice, play mats and that sort of thing.

In all honesty, I doubt I’ll be investing in a vast amount of Rune Wars expansions, although I might buy one each of the new army starter sets and ally them with my existing good/evil armies to create a larger battle with more variety. With that said, these expansions are not prohibitively expensive, and as an ex-Warhammer player, I can certainly say that based on some quick calculations, you’d have to go absolutely bonkers to invest as much in Rune Wars as you could do elsewhere.


I’ve never had a friend come round and felt that it would be appropriate to try and coax them into playing Warhammer, but that’s not a problem I have with Rune Wars. It may not deliver tabletop fantasy battles with quite the finesse of its veteran rival, but it is definitely the better boxed game, and it is much more appealing to new players. The order system has a tactile feeling and the combat is visceral enough to be exciting even when you’re losing. The way panic, boons, banes, surges and other features subtly influence the gameplay without creating a huge overhead of rules is fantastic, and I really think that Rune Wars is a game that anyone can play. The components are of a really high standard, and whilst you do need to expand the core set to fight a proper battle, the smaller, skirmish battle still works quite well and shouldn’t be completely dismissed.

**** 4/5

You can buy Rune Wars online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.



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