Design by Matthew Dunstan
Published by Days of Wonder
2 – 5 Players, 1 – 1 ½ hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Days of Wonder achieved fame by publishing lavishly produced games that were renowned for their beautiful, high quality components and solidness of design. Ticket to Ride has become an international hit, winning numerous industry awards and making its way into mainstream stores. Small World, the revision of Phillip Keyaerts’ Vinci, also became a smash hit, transferring the game’s setting to a fantasy world that allowed for a seemingly endless variety of creatures and power combinations. Memoir ’44 and Battle Lore took Richard Borg’s Battle Cry system to new settings, allowing players to recreate historical and fantasy battles with stunning and highly detailed miniatures. Gamers everywhere came to associate Days of Wonder with top quality productions.
I must admit, however, that over the past few years I have been disappointed with their offerings. While the quality of the production has not diminished, the games themselves have been lighter and far less strategic than I tend to prefer. They certainly appear to be aiming more at the family market rather than dedicated gamers. I cannot argue with that marketing strategy, but as a gamer, I cannot help but be downhearted.
Relic Runners is their latest release and it nudges a bit closer to the realm of “gamer’s games”, a development with which I am pleased. In Relic Runners, players assume the role of archaeologists exploring the jungle in search of long-forgotten temples and fabulous relics. Players will later embark upon expeditions to claim precious relics—sacred toads, crystal skulls, blue birds of paradise and grimacing jujus. The most successful explorer will achieve fantastic wealth and fame.
Each player begins with an assortment of pathways and toolboxes, the latter being used to track one’s progress on the three paths on their explorer chart. The board depicts 20 temple and ruin sites, all connected by trails, either via land or river. There are three levels to each temple, and explorers will remove those levels as they uncover the lost shrines. Once a temple is completely explored—meaning the final level has been removed—it is replaced with a relic of the matching color. The game makes a transition at this point as players scurry to complete long, winding expeditions in order to claim these relics.
A player’s turn consists of moving and possibly exploring.
Move. Explorers move along the pre-printed trails. The explorer may move along one unexplored trail segment. In addition, he may begin or extend his move by moving along any continuous chain of pathways of his own color. This chain can occur before or after moving along the unexplored path, but not both. Thus there is a strong incentive to place pathway markers, thereby making movement easier and allowing the player to cover great distances in one move.
If a player passes one or more face-up toolboxes when moving along the pathways, he inverts those tiles and may progress one or more of his toolboxes on his explorer chart. On his turn the player may elect to remove one of the toolboxes and use the ability to gain the benefits depicted on the space where it was located. These benefits include gaining food rations, placing pathways, earning victory points and more. Carefully maneuvering your markers on this chart can prove quite useful at critical junctures during the game. Once all of the toolboxes on the board are inverted, they are reset so players can continue to enjoy their benefits.
Explore. After moving, the player may opt to explore the temple or ruin where his explorer is located. To do this, he must discard a food ration pack. Players begin with five ration packs and can gain more by returning to the base camp. Additionally some temple levels award ration packs and more can be gained by progressing on the explorer chart.
The eight ruin locations allow the player to place a pathway on an adjacent trail. These pathways not only allow the player to move further, they are essential in making connections between the temple relics. More on this in a bit.
When exploring a temple, the player takes the top temple level. Some give immediate benefits (victory points, rations, pathways, etc.) while others (the ivory temples) grant end-of-game victory points based on the conditions listed. Players may only hold one ivory temple level during the game, but they do earn two victory points when they are forced to discard any previously acquired ivory tiles. The top tile on purple temples is always face-up, so players can assess whether or not they desire to acquire those tiles.
As mentioned, once the final level of a temple is explored, a shrine is uncovered and a relic of the matching color is placed. These relics are, as should be expected from Days of Wonder, quite impressive. It is at this point the game makes a transition as players begin concentrating on completing expeditions between matching relics in order to acquire one of them. In order to complete an expedition, a player must begin on a relic and end his move on a matching relic, following normal movement rules. The player then collects the relic where his move ends and earns points equal to twice the number of trails he traversed. So, it is wise to construct long connected pathways during the course of the game so they can be used to complete lengthy expeditions during this phase of the game. Indeed, this should be the major goal for a player during the first part of the game.
The game ends once a set number of relics have been collected (nine in a 4-player game). Players tally their victory points from temple tiles, coins, bonuses and relics, scoring five points for each different colored relic they possess. The player with the most points is victorious and achieves fame among archaeologists around the world.
As one would expect with Days of Wonder, the components are stunning, especially the 20 relics. There is a lot of pretty plastic and sturdy cardboard. It is a first class production. The game itself is good, although not as strategic as some of the company’s earlier offerings. There is a considerable amount of planning that must be done, as players lay pathways in preparation for the relic-running in the later stages of the game. Players must resist the temptation to simply concentrate on uncovering temples, as properly arranging pathways is critical to ultimate success. Still, those temple tiles can be useful, so grabbing them when and where possible should not be overlooked.
Designer Matthew Dunstan wrote about his design and development of Relic Runners in Counter magazine. In it, he stated that one of his goals was to design a game that would undergo a transition, giving the second half of the game a different feel. That feature is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game. Proper planning and timing is required to capitalize on this transition, as not only must an interlocking network of pathways be constructed, but players must be in position to make the expeditions before their opponents can capture the valuable relics. The decisions to be made are not always terribly taxing, but can still be challenging.
Relic Runners is a fun, challenging game that has more to offer than the more recent Days of Wonder titles, but is not quite as deep or strategic as their glory games. It is easy enough to learn for families, but yet has enough planning and choices to keep gamers interested. I’m not sure it will have as much longevity as Small World or Ticket to Ride, but it is different enough to warrant repeated plays.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry (1 play): I need more than one game to explore this one, as there is definitely some depth. However, in my one game, I was the fourth player in a 4-player game and I really felt like I was squeezed out of the opportunity to build a sufficient number of pathways, which made for a frustrating game. No doubt, with experience that problem would either be avoided or mitigated against, but I was surprised that it was an issue in a DoW game. I’m not sure this will ever be a real favorite, as it’s very abstract, but it deserves another try. At this point, though, my one game left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.
Mary P (2 plays): The first time I played, it was with 4 players. I have to agree with Larry – the board was really crowded and it wasn’t my type of game. With 2 players I enjoyed the game much much more. I would like to try it with 3 at some point but I don’t think I’ll play it again with 4. I like roaming around the board picking up stuff from the temples. There is a lot of planning in the game: rations (you don’t want to be caught in some far off corner without any!), explored path locations, tools (they can really help you in a pinch), and collecting relics (timing is important too). The artwork and components are top notch; it’s a beautiful game.
Tom Rosen (3 plays): I was very pleasantly surprised by this new Days of Wonder game. I always want to try the new Days of Wonder game each year, but had mostly written them off after Cargo Noir, Mystery Express, and Colosseum. I figured that they just made pretty games that weren’t for me, but Relic Runners was much more interesting and involved than I was expecting. I’ve only played it three times, but am happy to have picked up a copy of the game. I don’t even tend to like pick-up-and-deliver games (like Bombay), but this one was more focused on route building and action efficiency aspects. It didn’t hurt that the components were gorgeous, but I was ready to see through them to a shallow and pointless game, which was not the case. On the other hand, I wonder if this game may ultimately be caught in a strange middle ground between being a bit too fiddly and involved for the Ticket to Ride crowd, but not meaty enough to hold the interest of frequent gamers. Only time will tell, but hopefully it continues to be as fun as those first few plays.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it): W. Eric Martin, Mary P, Tom Rosen, Nate Beeler, Dale Yu, Rick Thornquist, Liga, Mark Jackson
2 (Neutral): Greg J. Schloesser, John P, Larry, Doug Garrett
1 (Not for me): Patrick Korner
I played in those same games with Mary, and I have the opposite opinion: I much preferred the game with 4. Why? Well …
Despite all the pretty bits, this is clearly a pretty abstract pick-up-and-deliver game (a genre that I quite enjoy). Unlike most pure abstracts, there is a random setup and a lot of hidden information, — both of which fit the exploration theme very well. But I don’t tend to like purely abstract games! A 2-player game is pretty close to that. Once the initial setup is done (especially if you go with a purely random setup, rather than drying to divide the colors evenly amongst the quadrants) it seems to me that a large part of the game is strategic: study the board, figure out the best pattern of routes to lay depending on which strategy you choose (e.g., longest paths for relic runs), and go for it; the other (second) player can’t really interfere with you very much. What pushed the 4-player game up for me was that, with so much going on between my turns, the game became much more tactical. I like tactical! Long-term plans being harder to make, you end up taking advantage of the board position each turn (although still within the framework of whatever your overall goals are).
For me, a 3- or 4-player game is probably going to be more fun than the very abstract-feeling 2-player game. I don’t recall if being later in turn order was a big handicap (I think I was 4th in my first game) — it doesn’t seem as if it should be, since being later allows you to get better temple tiles and potentially first crack at a relic run — but I’d be happy to try it again.