This article was originally published in 2018 for Old Grizzled Gamers. However, that website no longer exists so I’m putting it here instead.
In a world where nine out of ten games are essentially the same, the smallest difference can feel radical. The landscape of digital CCGs is brimming with Hearthstone-alikes and Magic the Gathering wannabes. It is a strange world we live in when that one game that stands out does so by copying something else entirely. Runewards is a shameless clone of Gwent, however, by copying something that isn’t Hearthstone it at least succeeds in feeling somewhat refreshing.
Exactly like Gwent, Runewards sees players placing units, casting spells, and trying to be the person with the highest number at the end of the round. On your turn, you can play only one card. This means that you get one choice per turn and must make it count. Initially, you will be selecting from a hand of ten cards, but as the play moves forward this will steadily dwindle. Play moves between players until both have passed. At this point, the player with the highest score wins the round. The first player to two wins is the overall winner.
So far, so Gwent. Much like the aforementioned game, when playing a unit, you place it into one of three territories: strength, agility, or intelligence (in this case). Spells do whatever they say, but are usually things like reducing enemy strength, removing a unit, or buffing your army. They can be powerful, and shift the balance of the game, but they will not lead to victory by themselves. You need units to put points on the board. This makes striking the right balance in deck building important.
However, since this is a free to play game building a deck isn’t straightforward. As you play, you unlock cards and booster packs in the traditional CCG fashion. Runewards follow the same rule as others of its ilk – rare cards are better cards. This means that if you want a competitive deck, you will need to spend some of that hard-earnt real-world money. The alternative a slow grind to grow your collection. This is far slower, and not really an option if you want to dive right into playing competitively. However, it is the norm for these kinds of games, so it seems to have become a traditional practice.
If you don’t want to spend money, then you can play your way through a single-player story mode. You will need to complete a certain amount of this to unlock multiplayer anyway. After each match, you will gain gold or unlock cards which is nice. However, if you want a competitive deck it will take a long time following this method.
The story in Runewards makes no sense. It reaches Yu-Gi-Oh levels of ludonarrative dissonance as every encounter resolves by Runewards. Do you want some information? Need directions? Want to save someone from their captors? If you win at Runewards, then all of this and so much more happens. While it is ridiculous, it is also fine. The story is there merely as a series of single-player challenges. Unless you miss battling the AI in The Witcher 3, then you won’t spend a lot of time in this area of the game anyway. Unless, of course, you are determined never to spend a penny of buying cards.
This brings us back to the multiplayer. The game could have a more active community, but with things like Gwent and other popular CCGs, it is understandable that Runewards hasn’t garnered much attention. Much like other card games of its business model, Runewards suffers from the same gameplay issues as things like Hearthstone. You need to pay to do well.
In the current landscape of digital CCGs, most people are off enjoying the bright colours, instant gratification, and mediocre gameplay. Runewards provides a similar experience, albeit without the Hearthstone set dressing.
Firstly, Runewards is not a bad game, merely uninteresting. Almost every card in your decks does something special and cool, radically changing the battlefield every single turn. This might at first sound like an interesting back and forth, like a duel. If you take the time to peak beneath the veil, then you will see that in reality, the flash is hiding a lack of strategy. If the game state is barely recognisable turn to turn, then what is the point having a long-term strategy? Instead of planning your moves in a chess-like fashion, you play your one card, stop, and wait for your opponent to do the same, and then play another card. Can you see why this is an issue?
Great, amazing competitive games have you planning and thinking all the time. You constantly consider what you are going to do next and watch with an unblinking gaze as your opponent takes their turn. You never stop playing the game. The problem with Runewards is that you stop. After you play a card, you stop and wait. This makes the game feel stilted. While you never wait for long, it is the stop and starts that ruins the game. You can continue to plan on your opponent’s turn, but it won’t matter. While some might say that learning the card pool and always anticipating your opponent falls under the banner of ‘git good’, they are wrong.
In a clever game, you don’t need to know what cards your opponent has you just need to know how to execute your own plan. CCGs are about adapting and reacting as much as they are about creating an executing a strategy. Runewards, along with many of its contemporaries, focus exclusively on reacting. Therefore, they will eventually leave you feeling dissatisfied.
When every ability does something spectacular and changes the game in crazy ways, isn’t that the same as them all doing nothing? If everything is the same, it doesn’t matter which level of same-ness it has, it is still the same. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Runewards. It is just following suit with other popular digital CCGs. The problem lies in what people want from a CGG. Do you want a shallow experience with instant gratification through flashy spells, impressive numbers, and a myriad of fantastical abilities? Or do you think a game could be better if it was more reserved, considered and when something spectacular happens, you would feel its weight?
Before wrapping up, it feels necessary to explain that while Runewards is massively derivative, it copies a game that takes large inspiration from a physical card/board game. Gwent is extremely similar to Condottiere. It takes some of the fantastic ideas in the game and proceeds to ruin them. Much like Runewards and Gwent, players place numbered units in front of them trying to end with the highest number. However, they are also vying for control of provinces on a board. There are the winter and spring cards from Gwent which help or hinder troops. Condottiere can include more than two players which adds some fantastic political opportunities as you try to pit friends off against each other. Players all start with the same number of cards from a shared deck and only draw up once everyone has run out of troops to play. This makes every card choice carry so much more weight. Condottiere understood that powerful units needed to be a rarity by asking you, “Should you use your strongest unit now, or wait for a later battle?”. Gwent, and Runewards by extension, distil the core of this game and then add a lot of fluff. This ruins the experience. Condottiere’s tension is lost, leaving players with a far inferior experience.
Runewards isn’t a bad game, it is a game of its generation. It wows you with flash and spectacle while trying to hide the fact that it is not an interesting game. Will you enjoy playing it? If you like Gwent and want more, then sure. If you are looking for a deep, rewarding card game, then no.
Thanks for reading. If you would like some more recent video game reviews why not check out my article on Space Hulk: Tactics. Alternatively, for a physical card game read my review of Machi Koro and it’s various expansions.
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