Relic Runners was actually an impulse buy for me, something I rarely do anymore with board games. It was a Days of Wonder title (the worst of their titles I have played was a resounding “quite decent”) with an intriguing theme and what looked to be a pretty straightforward set of rules. When I picked it up from my FLGS, the only content on BGG for the game was a preview video which looked intriguing but made the game look quite simplistic… still, I had a bit of faith in DoW as a publisher, and doubted they would have taken a risk on a first-time designer without a good reason.
Got the game home and tore it open. First impressions were definitely positive; the game was gorgeous (of course) with big chunky tiles, a well laid out board, clear iconography, and the gorgeous plastic relics which brought to mind the lavish, extravagant bits of GameWright’s Forbidden Island/Desert. We sat down, played it, and as we neared the last few turns, the table fell quiet… now, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
You see, the board and pieces are colorful and friendly, and you might expect a hectic, risky-feeling experience like Incan Gold or The Adventurers which might bring to mind Indiana Jones films. There’s certainly a bit of risk taking, venturing into the unknown when you explore a new stack of tiles, but surprisingly the game had a much different feel; gears were whirring, teeth were grinding, networks spreading across the board, individual strategies appearing… The game felt much heavier than I’d expected, and I found myself looking many potential moves ahead, plotting how to efficiently traverse and reshape my network of trails.
The game is a very simple game, mechanically. On your turn, you essentially take two moves in either order: one along an unfamiliar path, and one along any number of your own trails. Wherever you end up, you can spend one ration pack to explore and take the top tile of the temple you’re standing on. Each tile may give you points, a one-shot ability, a new trail to place, or a new power to use throughout the game. You can’t block other players except by taking tiles they want. You can’t destroy what other players have built. Despite these barriers on interaction, the game still has teeth because of how the valuable relics hidden beneath the temples are scored. Once two of these candy-like relics are on the board, any player who moves from one relic to the other in a single turn gets to claim the relic from the spot where he ends up, scoring more points the longer his route was. This has an interesting interaction; whoever makes the second relic appear may be in a good position to claim the first, but they may inadvertently open up an excellent possibility for a player to grab that second relic by placing a third… I found myself thinking “I could go here, then make a relic appear there. but if I do that, I’ll be 2 moves away from actually collecting it. Dustin will be able to get it next move… okay, so I need Dustin to make the relic appear, and then I’ll be able to pick it up if I go over here… Oh, but I need to be over there when he makes it appear, so until he does that…”
And the paths to victory… there are a lot of them and they all seem equally valid. I’ve been talking about relics, which score you huge handfuls of points for building long networks, but maybe that’s not the best way to do things. Blue tiles have between 3-5 points per tile, and there’s no stressing over when to take them… well, except that taking the top tile reveals the lower tile, which is usually worth more. Okay. Well, there’s the toolbox tracks! Raising a toolbox to the top of one of the game’s adorable little tech trees will unlock you a big victory point bonus which can boost you ahead as much or more than a big relic grab. But maybe you’ll get locked away from toolbox tokens, and it’ll take you a while to work back up to that big score. Or, what if you claim white tiles and use the incremental bonuses to rack up a ton of chump-change points every turn? Or, what if you take as many rations as you can, hanging out in the wilderness while your opponents waste turns returning to base camp?
Don’t be fooled by the components and light-hearted theme. Underneath the shiny exterior, there’s a brain-burning puzzle, how can you most efficiently (and least efficiently, since long paths are rewarded) use your paths? But wait, does that mean that Relic Runners is a heavy, mathy game?
Well… no? And maybe sort of? But only sort of. It’s certainly not “arithmetic-y” except on the last few turns, puzzling out your most points… but you can plan very far ahead, and you’ll be rewarded for that. The mechanisms are simple, very simple, and the game is still relatively forgiving despite the mathy/puzzley bits. Getting stuck in the wilderness with no rations and no trails nearby can happen to players who haven’t started planning and are still exploring the game, but even so, the game won’t chew up and spit out newbies. There are ways of getting points everywhere, so even someone who is hopelessly stuck in the wilderness will manage to pick up enough to not get totally clobbered.
In short, it’s the kind of game I love. It rewards thought and planning but doesn’t disproportionately reward experience, and doesn’t take a few suffering-filled plays before a new player can start to see the depth. At the same time, it’s friendly and accessible, and pretty much anybody can pick it up with ease and not feel like they’re drowning in a morass of rules. It’s as rules-light as a game like Ticket to Ride, but allows an almost engine-building feel, letting you plan as far ahead as you want, and change your plans as new tiles and relics appear. The sole caveat is that, as light as the rules are, there are a few awkward exceptions. Only one ivory tile, only 5 rations, must stop in base camp, supply chest tokens eventually flip back over, and so on… On any given first play, I guarantee that one new player will miss one of these exceptions, and make some bad choices because of it… (and probably blame me, even though I definitely explained it and also they don’t even know me because they’re in YOUR gaming group) but there is usually a very eager second play immediately afterward, so it can’t really be all that bad.
This is an out-of-the-ballpark hit for me. I hope that, in true DoW fashion, the game expands and expands? But to some extent, I’m confused as to how it could, since the game is SO mechanically minimal… the map is an abstract collection of nodes, the tiles are mostly just values or extra actions… I’m sure they’ll come up with something, though, and I can’t wait to see it.