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Relic Runners

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Days of Wonder, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 40-80 minutes, $60)

relicrunners1Intrepid explorers, delving into the mysteries of ancient ruins and temples to recover valuable artifacts, are the roles facing players in Relic Runers, the latest release from Days of Wonder, designed by Matthew Dunstan.

Relic Runners comes in the typical Days of Wonder big square box which, also typical of DoW games, includes lots of high quality components: large mounted board, thick temple and ruin tiles, a bunch of toolbox and Victory Point tokens, five sets of plastic explorers in different colors (with matching toolboxes and pathways), rations pieces, sculptured relics and more!

Each player begins with a play mat (to help organize his equipment and found treasures), an explorer of his chosen color placed at the center of the board (at base camp), a matching set of pathway and toolbox pieces (with one toolbox placed at the bottom of a three column area for tracking what tools are available for use) and 3 rations.

The board, once set up, is a semi-symmetrical display of temples and ruins linked by unexplored trails. Three ruin tiles are stacked in specified locations with three-tiered temples placed on their spaces. (Ruins spaces are noted as such but temple spaces may be occupied by purple, blue or ivory temples randomly placed with identical colors situated not too close together.) Also found along the pathways are toolbox tiles which will come in handy.

A player’s turn is divided into two parts: movement and exploration.

Movement consists of travelling along an “unexplored” trail and an “explored trail” in any order you wish. As you travel these trails, you may pass “toolbox tokens”. When passing them, they are flipped and you, as a reward, get to “fill” you toolbox, moving your box up one slot in your choice of any of the three available columns. (One committed to a column, though, you stay there. No shifting between columns allowed.) Unexplored paths are just that, paths that the player has yet to traverse and “claim”. Paths are explored by exploring a ruin.

Landing on a ruin space allows a player to spend a ration, remove one of the green ruin tiles and then place ONE of his pathway pieces on ANY adjacent path. (For this and all purposes, water and land paths are treated the same). By continually exploring ruins, a player should strive to create a linked pathway of his colored pieces as such a network, as will we see, will prove a valuable source of Victory Points.

Temples are explored in a similar fashion, landing on their space, spending a ration and then collecting the top tile there. Blue temples are good for Victory Points (from 2 to 5 each). Ivory temples grant special abilities to players (such as scoring for pathways placed on the board or for rations held at game’s end). Purple temples offer varied bonuses but are unique in that the top tiles of each are FACE UP for all to see so that players know which boons await them (such as another toolbox or the ability to move placed pathways to aid in constructing your network) for claiming those particular temple tiers. When a tile is collected from a purple temple, the NEXT tile below is also turned face up (and so on). Once ALL tiles on a space (be they temple or ruin) have been claimed, the matching colored relic immediately appears – and relics are a big source for Victory Points.

relicrunners3Relics come in four varieties, color coded to match the colors of the three types of temples as well as the green ruin tiles. The appearance of a relic indicates the impending possibility of collecting one – but not the one you think. There have to be at least TWO of the same color relics on the board for any of them to be collected and collecting them is where those linked pathways are essential.

To collect a relic, a player must start his turn on a space with a relic. But the relic available for capture must be a different, MATCHING relic, that the player must be able to reach on that turn. Capturing a relic can be worth 5 Victory Points at the end of the game (the first of each colored relic collected will be worth 5 VPs, multiples of the same type of relic are not worth anything – unless you have a special tile from a temple that gives you something special or you use one of your tools to score extra VPs for them). But you grab a whole bunch of additional VPs if the route you travel to get to that second relic is paved with your pathway pieces for each of them you move along gives you 2 more VPs. So a network of 5 pathway pieces of your color leading to that coveted relic will earn you a sizeable bonus of 10 VPs!

Play continues until a specified total number of relics (based on the number of players) are collected. When a player has collected the final relic, all other players get one last turn. During their last chance turn, additional relics may be collected. Once the last player has completed that final turn, Victory Points, from collected relics, collected temple tiles and previous “relic runs” are totaled. High scorer wins!

Game components in Relic Runners are nicely done. Thick tiles are a tactile treat and the use of different sizes and shapes for the three temple tiers make set up easy. (Also, since not all temple tiles are in play each game, there is a nice variability built into the action as well.) The quality and “look” of the relics, in particular, are delightfully bizarre and capture the ambiance of unknown treasures.

relicrunners2There are decisions to be made regarding the use of rations and “base camp”. Rations, while not worth Victory Points (although a tile may award you VPs for them at game’s end), are vital since they are required for ruin and temple exploration. Players are limited to holding no more than 5 rations at a time and, generally, can only replenish their supply by going back to base camp where they can load up 3. Base camp also serves as an “obstacle” of sorts as players are not allowed to pass through that central area. This makes collecting relics from one side of the board to the other that much more challenging. The game mechanism of unexplored/explored movement encourages pathway placement and the “relic runs” which give the game its name provide a satisfying reward for positioning your pieces just right. And the game does have an arc, coming to a rapid conclusion once temples have been explored, relics appear and pathways travelled. That being said, there are a few jarring aspects to the game.

Rules are fairly straightforward with enough illustrations to help ease the learning curve but a few aspects of play are not clearly covered. Take the toolbox. Toolboxes can be used in different ways based on the column a toolbox is placed. When toolbox tokens are passed, a player MUST move his toolbox up the column. But what if a lesser tool is more useful to a player? Can a lesser tool be used? The rules do not say. What if an advance is not possible because you are already on the top tier of a column? Is there some sort of compensation? The rules do not say. What may be even more puzzling is the apparent disconnect between mechanism and theme as you need to suspend disbelief regarding a few of the game mechanisms as they fly in the face of logic. For example:

When you explore a ruin, you get to place an explored trail marker. Fine – but NOT necessarily on the path you’ve taken to get there. You can place your “explored” pathway on ANY adjacent trail, whether traveled or not. Some tiles (and tools) allow you to MOVE explored pathways to other positions! (Good for fleshing out your growing network of trails but how would you do that in real life?) Collecting relics is even stranger. When you unearth a relic, you do NOT claim that relic. Instead, you are only able to claim a matching relic at a DIFFERENT location. Stranger still, in claiming said relic, you would think it would be in your best interests as an explorer (in terms of time, energy and supplies) to get to that second relic via the shortest route possible. Not so. In the game, the longer the route, using explored trails, the MORE points you score! These paradoxes might have been avoided by putting the game in a future-space setting or in a fantasy realm where “super science” or “magic” could explain away such inconsistencies. Things like this can bother gamers who are married to theme and find logical inconsistencies between the two disturbing. With Relic Runners, a “go with the flow” attitude is essential.

A nice touch to the game is the two-sided player play mats. Not only does one side give a special advantage to a particular player (adding another variable to keep the game fresh) but also displays male and female characters, thereby encouraging both sexes to feel comfortable in exploring the mysteries of the jungle. In trying to attract a more general audience, Days of Wonder has once again employed “cartoony” artwork to make the game seem more user friendly. And the game IS user friendly. Trails cannot be blocked off, for example, so all players may place a pathway piece along a trail if they feel it will be useful. You need not run out of tools either. Once all 10 tool tokens on the board have been flipped, the tokens are reset, once again available to help fill the toolboxes of players. But Relic Runners is a step up from a typical gateway game in that there is more going on than meets the eye. Managing toolboxes (while you may have up to three toolboxes in play, you may only use ONE each turn) as well as constructing viable – and high scoring – pathways to set up those exciting “relic runs” are the keys to victory and a juggling act that those new to this type of gaming might find more challenging than expected.

Trying to discover what’s on the other side of the hill or on the next planet or inside ancient temples is an irresistible theme and one that has been used to great effect in many games. Relic Runners settles into that niche as players seek out a host of benefits from ancient temples as well as unearthed relics in a game that also encourages, of all things, network building (reminiscent of train games such as Age of Steam). Relic Runners is a curious mix of theme, game mechanisms and components. This is, surely, an unusual combination. But if this amalgam of theme and mechanics, buoyed by the outstanding graphic production of Days of Wonder, piques your interest, then you should most definitely give Relic Runners a try.


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