My high school friends would have gone nuts for RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg. They were obsessed with the MMO back then and spent a lot of our computing lessons chasing a cool hat instead of programming Excel spreadsheets, so would have leapt at the opportunity to try this tabletop version by Steamforged.
The trouble is, things have changed since then. These days, RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg faces an uphill battle. Chunky adventure board games with an immersive world and dozens of components aren’t the rarity they once were, especially after Gloomhaven took the industry by storm a few years ago. What makes this one stand out?
After going hands-on ahead of the game’s Kickstarter campaign (opens in new tab), I got my answer. And you know what? I’m impressed. While it’ll appeal to RuneScape players first and foremost, Shadow of Elvarg has a strong identity as a beginner-friendly alternative to its rivals. Rather than an overabundance of options and complex sub-rules, it keeps things simple. That makes it a good fit for fans both current and lapsed who haven’t dipped into board games for adults before.
Nostalgia in a box
If you want it in broad-strokes, RuneScape Kingdoms adapts the MMO’s earlier stages. Following iconic quest-lines that will be familiar to anyone that’s ever set foot in Gielinor, it allows you to cross swords with classic bosses from vampire Count Draynor to the dragon Elvarg herself. Players can also tackle side-quests ripped straight from the video game (alongside a few new ones, created with the blessing of RuneScape’s dev team) or wander the open world in search of adventure.
However, this creates something of a problem. Namely, Shadow of Elvarg has two masters to serve. For starters, it must appeal to old-school devotees of classic RuneScape. Yet it’s also got to feel like home for those who prefer RuneScape’s newest iteration. Considering the difference in style between both, that’s a tough balance to strike. In order to get around this, the team opted for a middle-of-the-road style that blends both aesthetics together. As an example, Count Draynor’s miniature has his original outfit but adds the beard of the later version. In much the same way, the game’s card art captures the essence of each one in a wonderfully retro fashion.
That’s RuneScape Kingdoms in a nutshell; it’s nostalgia in a box. As with Steamforged’s back-catalogue (including the Horizon Zero Dawn board game), it’s clear that a tremendous amount of love has gone into Shadow of Elvarg. Although some may be wary after the issues experienced by the studio’s Dark Souls tabletop RPG, I have no concerns at all with this product – the attention to detail is immediately obvious, and it’s focused on making the most authentic experience possible.
That isn’t to say you need to be a die-hard follower of the MMO to enjoy RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg, though. I’ve never played the video game but still enjoyed my preview enough that I’m looking forward to more. A lot of that’s thanks to how accessible it is. While this is a step above your easy-to-understand classic board games, I was able to pick it up quickly. And because I’m a clattering idiot, that bodes well for the rest of you.
Steamforged announced that it was also working on a RuneScape tabletop RPG, and this should arrive at some point later in 2022.
I was particularly enamoured with its resource-gathering loop. Each area on the board (which is reminiscent of Pandemic World of Warcraft, as it so happens) carries an item you can collect when visiting that region, and these are traded in to help your character level up. It’s a satisfying but simple procedure that drew me in, and you’ll quickly become invested in your hero after putting your stamp on them.
Especially because you aren’t limited to class. Things are more fluid in RuneScape: Kingdoms, and you can develop your adventurer as you see fit. Need a tank in your group one week? Plough points into their strength. Require a spell-caster for the next session? That’s OK too. You aren’t locked into one progression system, allowing you to play in any way you fancy.
Still, it’s wise not to get too distracted. Even though you can embark upon as many side-quests as you want (including encounters with the infamous Sandwich Lady or Evil Chicken), ignoring your primary mission for too long may have increasingly dire consequences.
While Shadow of Elvarg recreates beloved storylines from the MMO, Steamforged felt that they were a little too localised – they didn’t affect the world around them. To get around this and provide an impetus for engaging with the adventure, an ‘Escalation Track’ was introduced. Failing a task or ignoring your main objective will cause it to increase over time, and when it reaches a boiling point, you’ll have to draw a new campaign mechanic that adds complications. As an example, the blood-sucking Count Draynor might start roaming further afield if you leave him unattended, and more dangerous cards will be shuffled into the event deck to represent his meddling. Basically, you’re free to do whatever you’d like in RuneScape Kingdoms – but defeating the boss is going to become more difficult if you put them off indefinitely. Long-term, your party will be thrown into the final battle regardless of whether you’re ready or not. It’s a mechanic pulled straight from Steamforged’s Resident Evil 3 board game, so I’m pleased to see it back.
When this fight-to-the-death encounter begins, the action moves to a separate board with its own mechanics and twists. As well as using initiative like the best tabletop RPGs, it has multiple phases with different boss behaviour. What’s more, it emphasises positioning like Steamforged’s Monster Hunter World board game does. Fail to coordinate or move tactically and you’ll soon know about it.
Still, boss battles aren’t just about hitting them with a dirty great sword until they fall over. All skills will come in handy, and there are some abilities – like Sleight of Hand that allows thieves to swap their turn with another player – that rely on unconventional focuses. Is your character big into crafting? Don’t worry, they’ll be able to help in a significant, meaningful way.
No matter how you take the boss down, you can then use the experience you’ve gained to improve your hero in preparation for the next session. This isn’t a complex process, and even though the missions themselves have a difficulty curve the further you go, they seem more standalone than something like Descent: Legends of the Dark. In other words, it’s easier to dip in and out of.
I’ve got a good feeling about RuneScape Kingdoms as a result. It’s not as complex as Gloomhaven but still has enough meat on the bone to give you something you can chew on. In fact, I’m now excited about its potential where before I wasn’t moved either way. That’s probably the highest praise I can give; suffice to say, it’s got its claws into me. Who knows… maybe Shadow of Elvarg will finally show me what my friends loved about RuneScape all those years ago.
For more tabletop recommendations, don’t forget to check in with these cooperative board games or the top board games for 2 players. It’s worth having a look at the best Dungeons and Dragons books as well if you’re in the mood for adventure.