Dale Yu: Essen Preview – Relic Runners (Days of Wonder)

Relic Runners

  • Designer: Matthew Dunstan
  • Publisher: Days of Wonder
  • Players: 5
  • Time: 60 min
  • Ages: 10+

 Times Played: 3 (with preview copy provided by Days of Wonder)


 As soon as I heard about the newest Days of Wonder release, Relic Runners, I was immediately interested in the game.  I have always felt that DoW produces a top quality game, and they definitely take their time in choosing their games.  Having spoken with Mark Kaufman (the VP of Sales and Marketing for DoW) over the years, I definitely get the sense that Days of Wonder is quite comfortable waiting for the right game to come along.  If that means that they miss an Essen or GenCon, that’s no big deal…  This strategy seems to have worked well for them – many of their releases are veritable franchises now: Ticket To Ride, Memoir 44, Small World, etc.

 Their newest game comes from a relative unknown, Matthew Dunstan.  As far as I can tell, this is his first professionally published game – from my crack research through the Boardgamegeek database.  However, this relative lack of experience has not prevented Mr. Dunstan from designing a quality middleweight game that has gone over quite well here.

The game is played on a jungle map on the board.  Scattered on the board are 12 different temple sites and 8 ruin sites.  There is a basecamp located in the center of the board, and pathways that connect all the temples, ruins and the basecamp together.  Some of the pathways are rivers, and there is a toolbox token placed next to each of these waterways.  Each player has an individual board where they keep their supplies as well as keep track of their advances on three different toolbox charts.


The board in setup

The board in setup

There is a bit to setup… First, each of the temples are made up of three pieces, all of the same color.  There are three different colors of temples: blue, purple and ivory – and each color has a different sort of ability associated with it. Your randomly draw pieces to create the three-piece temples, making sure to have 4 of each of the three colors of temple on the board.  In the first game, there is a map in the rules which shows a beginner setup, but the rules tell you that you can later play with a fully random setup.   After the temples, you have to set up the ruins, but this is a bit simpler as each ruin tile is identical, and each ruin site gets a stack of 3 ruin tiles.

If you are playing the basic game, you’re almost ready to start.  Flip over the top tile of each purple temple, pick a start player and go!  If you are playing the advanced version, each player has a special power indicated on their player board which gives an asymmetric start to the game.

Turns are fairly simple – on your turn, you first MUST move your character.  Once movement is complete, then you MAY explore on the space you end your movement on.

Moving is a two part affair.  You may either start or end your movement across an unfamiliar trail – this is a trail that does not have one of your plastic pathway pieces on it.  You may also move along as many contiguous familiar trails (those WITH your pathway pieces on them) on your turn.  You may not move through Base Camp though – once you move there, your movement ends for that particular turn.  If you move along a water pathway, you will pass by Toolbox tokens.  If they have not yet been flipped over, you flip over the Toolbox token as you use the pathway – and you might pass multiple tokens on a single move… Each token you flip over will help you on the Toolbox Table found on your player mat (more on this later).

Wherever you end your move, you have the option to explore.  In order to explore, you must use up one of your rations.  Players start the game with 3 Ration tokens, and this supply can be replenished whenever you stop in the Base Camp space in the center of the board.  If you are at a space on the board which has at least one temple or ruin cardboard chit there, you may spend the ration token to pick up the topmost tile on that space.

If you are in Base Camp, you do not need to spend a Ration. Instead, you take 3 Rations from the supply and add them to your player mat.  There is a maximum of 5 Rations that you are allowed to hold.

If you are in a Ruin space, you spend a ration and discard the top Ruin tile.  You then take one of your Pathway pieces from the supply and place it on any trail segment that is adjacent to this Ruin.  Any particular trail can have Pathways from multiple players.  This is the primary way that you will be able to place your Pathways on the board, and given the movement rules, you will want to try to string together your Pathways to allow you to move far across the board on a single turn.

If you are in a Temple space, you spend a Ration and take the topmost tile from that Temple, and then depending on what type of tile it is, you do the appropriate action.

  • Blue temple tiles always have victory points on them.  You keep these tiles face down and place them on your player mat.  At the end of the game, you will reveal the tiles and score those
  • Purple temple tiles are always face up – the topmost tile of every Purple temple is always visible to all players.  These tiles all give an immediate bonus or ability such as immediately teleporting to base camp, or immediately picking up 2 rations (without having to go to base camp), or allowing you to move one of your previously placed pathway pieces onto any other trail space on the board.
  • Ivory temple tiles give you some special ability.  The top pieces all give you a permanent bonus that is in effect as long as you keep that tile.  For example, one of them lets you score 1VP each time you place a Pathway.  The middle Ivory pieces each give a one-time special action – such as “When placing a Pathway, place it anywhere on the board, not necessarily adjacent to your current location.”  The bottom Ivory pieces each give some sort of end-game bonus – “At game end, collect 1 point for each Pathway you have on the board”.  Since these Ivory tiles have some powerful effects on them, you may only keep one of each size in this color.  If you collect a second of the same size, you must discard one (so that you only have one special ability of that size) – though you do get a 2VP bonus for discarding that Ivory tile.  Note that the 2VP bonus only applies to the Ivory tiles!


OK, let me get back to the toolboxes for awhile.  In the center of your player board, you’ll see the three pronged Toolbox chart.  These three tracks each have a different focus, and the actions/bonuses associated with each column get progressively better as you move up any particular column:

  • ·         The Machete column helps you explore and resupply
  • ·         The Compass column helps you move through the jungle
  • ·         The Shovel column gives you bonus points or actions

At the start of the game, each player has one Toolbox which starts at the bottom of the tracks (it is not yet on any specific track).  Then, as you move on the board, for each Toolbox token you flip over, you are able to move your Toolbox token up one of the columns.   Each Toolbox token remains used until ALL of the tokens on the board have been flipped over.  When this happens, they are all turned back over to their unused side.

Note that once a Toolbox is on a particular column, it remains on that column until it is used.  Once used, it goes back to the very bottom and can start up any column with the next Toolbox token.  You can take advantage of a Toolbox action on your turn – though you are limited to only one Toolbox action per turn regardless of how many Toolboxes you have on the chart.   The action that you take is the one found directly underneath your toolbox token.

Well, that’s almost all the rules… and I haven’t mentioned a thing about Relics nor Running yet!  Let me tell you this final component of the rules – The Relic Run.  Whenever a player explores the final tile in a Temple or Ruin space, a Relic is immediately placed on that spot – the Relic matches the color of the tile which was just removed from the space.  A Relic Run can happen as soon as there are two Relics of the same color on the board.  A player must start his turn on the same space as one of those relics and then follow the standard movement rules to end his turn on the space of the OTHER relic of the same color.  He then takes the Relic from the space he ended his movement and places it on his player board.  Additionally, he scores 2VP for each trail that he moved over on the Relic Run.


The game continues until a set number of Relics have been collected from the board.  There is a chart for this which is printed directly on the board: In a 4-player game, the game enters the final round after the 9th Relic has been collected.  The player who collects the 9th relic does not get another turn.  Each other player gets one more turn to try to score points.  After this final round, players total up their points.

  • Any Vps scored in play (from toolbox actions, Relic Runs, temple tiles, etc)
  • 5 VP for each different COLOR Relic that you have collected
  • VPs for the Blue Temple tiles collected
  • VP from endgame bonuses on the Ivory temple tiles

The player with the most points wins.  If there is a tie, the player with the most Relics wins.

My thoughts on the game

I have played the game three times over the past week, and this sort of game is right in my wheelhouse.  There is enough going on in the game to keep me interested throughout the entire game, and it packs it all into a 45 minute time span.  Each of the three games has felt a little different as the board layout – both the arrangement of the colored temples as well as the actual tiles within each temple – change with the setup.  Also, the different special abilities which cause a slightly asymmetrical start might lead you to different strategies.

The game moves along quickly.  Early on, turns are short because there aren’t many pathways on the board – players make short movements and then explore.  In the three games that I’ve played, I haven’t yet found any strategy that seems to dominate.  Some players (Karen) have done really well by mainly exploring Ruins and placing their Pathways early and often.  Others (myself) have done well trying to get the special actions/bonuses on the ivory tiles early so that they can be used as much as possible during the game.

In this first portion of the game, there is a lot of planning going on – where you are setting up your pathways, moving on the Toolbox chart, getting Ivory tiles for special abilities, etc.  Once the Relics start popping up though, the game quickly changes focus.  Given the 5 VPs for each different color of Relic you collect PLUS the 2VP per segment traveled, making a Relic Run can be a big contributor to your final score.

There is a bit of timing involved in setting one up.  Players should be careful as to which temples or ruins they explore.  The player who takes the final tile at a spot has an advantage for a possible Relic Run because they will start their next turn on the space with that Relic.  However, they do not get to try their Relic Run until the next turn… which means that someone else could swoop in and use that newly discovered relic on a Run of their own!

When I first read the rules, I thought that this would devolve into a game of Chicken where none of the players would explore places for fear of setting up another player for a Relic Run.  However, in practice, this simply hasn’t happened.  The board is so small that even if the current board setup discourages you from making a particular move (as it would set up someone else), there is generally something else that you will be able to do which is still useful for yourself.  Also, after being burned a few times by people springing toolbox actions on me that I didn’t expect – such as moving two pathways onto different spaces – I’ve learned to simply just try to look out for myself and not worry so much about what other players MIGHT be able to do. (I know that not every game will want to take that same attitude towards the game – but for a middleweight 45 minute game – that’s the approach that I like to take).

I like the idea of the asymmetrical starting positions, but I’ll admit that I wish these were on tiles rather than printed on the player boards.  I don’t know about other groups, but I know that color choices are pretty fixed in our group.  Thus, I’m pretty much going to always get the yellow special ability when I play this game because I pretty much always play yellow.   Yes… it will be easy enough to randomly deal out the player mats at the start of the game, take the special ability found on whichever one you got and then switch to our preferred colors…

Overall, Relic Runners has been well received by my gaming group and my family.  Both have enjoyed it and have asked to play it again.  The basic rules are easily picked up and most players should feel comfortable within the first third of their first game.  The strategies of setting up your pathways and figuring out the timing of the Relic Runs is not as easy, however, and it may take a game or two for younger/novice gamers to get the hang of that.

That being said, it should be approachable to all sort of gamers because there are so many different ways to score points.  In a recent game, I was pretty competitive with my boys by trying to score points mainly through the blue temple tiles.  I only collected one Relic (and this was because it just fell into my lap) – and I was pleased to see that this strategy was viable.

The components are what you would expect from Days of Wonder.  The tiles are all thick and sturdy and the die cuts are clean and complete. Artwork is done by Julien Delval, who does many of the DoW titles, and I always have been a big fan of his art.  (He also did a number of cards for Dominion which I greatly admire…)  The relics themselves are pretty impressive – especially the Crystal Skulls.

Provisional early rating: I like it.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

Times  played: 4 with a review copy from Days of Wonders

I’m always thrilled about new Days of Wonder’s releases. Really few of DoW’s games didn’t shocked me and most I really liked! So I was really curious about this new title and the new designer, Matthew Dunstan.

I red a lot about the game in the weeks before getting my copy and I rush to open and play it as soon as it hit my mail box.

First of all the usual thumb up for the game’s component. The illustrations and the materials are, as always, top-level. The relics miniatures are not really needed for game playability but are an impressive add-on and also the the paths and toolbox plastic counters are great. In the box also a lot of solid cardboard tokens for temples and ruins and the nice explorer cards.

I played the game both with casual players and with expert players and here my impressions.

The rules are quite simple but I needed to go through two times to be sure everything was clear. It is a simple game, concerning the rules, but there are a lot of little things to know about and to take in account and how to play it is far to be immediate. Where are your points in the end really coming from ? What you have to do during the different phase of the game.

I don’t go really through all the details of the rules since Dale is already doing it.

Concerning the casual-gamers audience I think Relics Runners is a bit too much complicated, if you was looking something like Ticket to Ride. It is not really too much but you need at least 1-2 games to have an idea of what really is happening. Teaching the game you have to mark which are the ways to introduce pathways on the map and how to move because it is a central part. You have also to well explain the need to think in advance how to build routes from temples of the same type or between ruins preparing for the relics rush. Finally you have to look in the rules what some symbols on the temples really are. Probably without an expert guide the first plays could be not easy but it is not a difficult game.

For kids, that are usually better in tactical than in strategical games, the need to think in advance can be a problem but, as Dale says, it is possible to be competitive also with simple strategies like rushing for the blue temples.

The turn are quick and also with a slow thinker the game flows well. After few turns it is clear what the different temples are offering: points in the blue ones, abilities/tweaks in the white ones, possibility to deploy pathways in the ruins. The purple temples are offering differents things but are the only one with no hidden informations, so it is not a problem.

What is really difficult for casual gamers is to plan an efficient winning strategy that incorporates a good management of toolbox and associated powers/abilities.

Toolbox abilities have a central part in the mechanic of the game that involve also the use of rivers with the associated toolbox counters. Two steps in the Shovel path are enough to have the possibility to add a pathways in the map for free but two steps in the Machete route are worth two rations that can help you in setting routes away from the camp. Compass can be sometimes the easiest way to place pathways in particular area of the maps, especially in the central part of the game when ruins are used to be already explored.

Concerning expert-gamers the game has really a lot to offers. From my first games it seems there is a lot to think about and many different strategy to test, something gamers are used to love. There is also a lot of interaction: not really a direct one (you can’t change what other players are doing) but the resources on the map are few and the fight for ruins, temples and relics tighten.

There is a winning strategy ? Actually I’m not be able to find it after few games. There is something you have absolutely to do to be competitive ? Not really but of course having pathways on the map can help.

The possibility to change the map set-up, the different ability in the purple temples, the starting abilities of the different colors can be a guarantee of replaybility and that is what gamers are looking for,


So, is it Relic Runners a good product ? For me yes. I have played it more than 3 times and I still want to play it, and that is a good point. I’m not sure about the target this game is really looking for: it can works well with casual-gamers but can’t be enough one-two sessions to be confident with it and this can be an obstacle; on the other side theme and materials are so nice and mild that can hide under a fancy dress to expert gamers what the game really is, a good and well designed strategic game.

Mark Jackson: Both Dale & Liga have done a great job of describing Relic Runners & it’s various charms… so I’ll spend my time emphasizing the things that impressed me:

  • the ability to vary the game in a number of ways: extra temple tiles (and powers), starting powers for each player, changing the map set-up…

  • …and yet, the number of special powers & options are not so numerous that they are overwhelming. (There’s a tipping point that goes from “cool, haven’t seen that combination before” to “I can’t remember – and no longer care – what that power is”… and the Days of Wonder gang has clearly stayed on the positive side of that spectrum with Relic Runners

  • there’s just something really nice about chunky tiles – in fact, the whole game has lovely production values

  • the game clips along nicely – even with games

  • it scales surprisingly well – and different numbers of players lead to different styles of play (which is a plus)

  • the endgame condition (X number of relics claimed correlated to Y number of players) is clear – and makes it possible to plan for late game moves

Relic Runners – for me, mind you – has some common feel with another favorite game of mine: Wolfgang Kramer’s Goldland. Both are “tromp through the wilderness finding stuff” games on the surface that are actually very clever tactical puzzles once you dig into the design. Even more than Goldland, however, Relic Runners requires you to react to the play & plans of other players (especially when playing with 4-5 players).

Once again, our 4 position rating system here on the OG betrays me, as I’d actually place this one somewhere between Love & Like… Like point five or Like & a half?! (I’ll be publishing my own full review on my personal blog in the upcoming weeks – and like Dale, I received a review copy of the game from Days of Wonder.)


  • I love it!:
  • I like it.: Mark Jackson, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Dale Yu
  • Neutral
  • Not for me

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu: Essen Preview – Relic Runners (Days of Wonder)

  1. Stefan Ebner says:

    Thanks for the review, now even more looking forward playing it at essen :)

  2. ianthecool says:

    Thanks for the review. I probably wont buy, but if someone else does, I’ll be interested to play. Sort of the same as Cargo Noir in that respect.

  3. Marcel says:

    Actually, Mark’s remark about Goldland is a good warning for me not to blind-buy this game. I like Goldland a lot, but I find I rarely play it. And since the size of my game collection is reaching a physical limit (storage capacity), I don’t really need two games that scratch the same itch.
    That said, I will give the game a try if I get the chance, because it looks like Days of Wonder have produced yet another excellent family game.

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