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The RuneScape board game is a charming, comic adventure into MMO nostalgia - hands-on preview

We slay a vampyre, encounter the Gnome Child and meet a Noob in RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg.

RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg board game box artwork
Image credit: Steamforged Games

I first played RuneScape almost 20 years ago, writing about the fantasy world of Gielinor, its inhabitants and amusing happenings in my middle school computer room under the watchful eye of my ever-supportive ICT teacher Mrs Coster for the school’s RuneScape magazine. Yes, it really was a thing.

While I later fell off the MMO, I still remember it fondly. Wandering through the starting town of Lumbridge, calling for trades in chat (using eye-catching text effects, if you were a true pro), spending hours collecting resources to craft into high-level gear and occasionally braving the player-versus-player deathmatches of the Wilderness.

RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg feels like a board game aimed at people like me. People who have fond memories of playing the MMO, whether their time with it was an intense burst during its early days or has remained a consistent comfort to return to over the decades - as Eurogamer’s Lottie wonderfully recalled on the game’s 20th anniversary.

The Kickstarter trailer for RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of ElvargWatch on YouTube

That sense of nostalgia is a deliberate one on the part of publisher Steamforged Games, which has combined elements of both RuneScape’s time-capsuled ‘Old School’ edition and its modernised current release in the upcoming board game.

The video games are open-world or sandbox experiences, and we want to transfer as much of that onto the tabletop as possible.

“The content we tried to focus on is the stuff that people like you and I would have been playing in our teens,” confirms product owner Jamie Perkins, who joined developer Fraser McFetridge to give me a virtual runthrough of RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg over Tabletopia ahead of the game’s Kickstarter campaign on May 31st.

The tabletop game takes place in the regions of Asgarnia and Misthalin, locations first introduced to the game way back in 2001 and used as a free-to-play starting area for new players. The regions and their landmarks are depicted on Shadow of Elvarg’s central board, which offers an expansive overview of the world similar to the zoomed-out fast-travel map of a video game.

RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg board game contents
RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg is broken into a series of campaigns, each lasting around three hours. (Don't worry, you can pause and resume.) | Image credit: Steamforged Games

The world board makes up the bulk of players’ time with Shadow of Elvarg, which is divided into two parts: free open-world exploration and questing, followed by a boss battle finale that plays out on a separate smaller board. Together, the two form a single ‘campaign’, estimated to last around three hours - albeit not necessary to tackle in a single sitting, as the box allows games to be saved and resumed.

Steamforged estimates that two of those hours will be spent roaming the world, levelling skills, completing side quests and collecting gear before players confront the big bad of their chosen storyline. The game’s core box will include four campaigns designed to be played in sequence, players' levels and acquired items carrying across between scenarios, with an extra three offered as expansions during its crowdfunding run.

“The video games - both Old School and RuneScape - are open-world or sandbox experiences, and we want to transfer as much of that onto the tabletop as possible,” Perkins says. “There's quite a lot of different things to do. So, to give the board game experience defined start and end points, we've taken some of the more iconic quests from the sort of early to mid-game of the video games and we've turned those into the campaigns for the board game.”

The board game's miniatures are based on outfits seen in the MMO, but don't have any bearing on players' options. Image: Steamforged

Roughly half of the campaigns in the game are based on adaptations of familiar plotlines and tasks seen in the video game, with Steamforged introducing several new plotlines, as well as adding extra elements to make the experience more tabletop-friendly or expanding the role of smaller characters in some cases.

“One of our other bosses in another campaign is called TzTok-Jad, or Jad for short,” Perkins gives as an example. “He doesn't actually have much of a campaign or storyline to him in the video games. He's like a boss at the end of an arena fight pit system. Whereas we've taken that quite popular boss and given him a narrative campaign.”

Runescape Kingdoms takes inspiration from both of the video games, but it is ultimately its own separate entity - it isn't a direct translation.

The board game’s team worked with RuneScape developer Jagex to ensure its original content was consistent with the video game’s existing lore.

“The board game is canonical to itself,” Perkins says. “You've got Old School RuneScape, and you have modern-day RuneScape. We're at a point now where both of those video games have diverged in terms of where they're going with their story arcs. Runescape Kingdoms takes inspiration from both of those video games, but it is ultimately its own separate entity; it isn't a direct translation of either one of them.”

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The demo I was given followed the classic Vampyre Slayer questline, as players discover a village terrorised by Count Draynor and collect a stake (plus hammer) and garlic before confronting the vampire in his castle. In a notable change from the video game quest, the board game’s campaign introduces a mini-boss in the form of a living tree that must be defeated to collect the wooden stake.

Individual turns move quickly, with players moving their character to an adjacent location before interacting with the matching event or encounter deck, which can be specific to the current quest, location or random events. Depending on the location, players can also collect resources and exchange their resources for experience points, with the option to visit shops and exchange gold for experience points in larger city spaces.

“When you draw an event card, it’s two things,” Perkins explains. “One, it's not geographically linked to anywhere on the game board at all. And two, it also represents some of the bigger, more iconic characters that can just pop up in RuneScape. So the Sandwich lady, the Evil Chicken; famous NPCs that have what they call quite a big roaming distance - they're not just limited to one area, you can find them anywhere in the world.”

A player character sheet from RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg board game
Characters gain experience simply by attempting skill tests, much like actual RuneScape - or Skyrim. | Image credit: Steamforged Games

While many of the cards reference specific characters, events and lore within the game’s universe, some break the fourth wall with knowing winks at the video game itself. Perkins reveals an encounter card with the Noob, an amusing stand-in for the brand new players found wandering starting areas in the MMO, that asks the character to “give coins for sword pls” to unlock a later card. Even Jagex mascot Bob the Cat can be discovered in one of Shadow of Elvarg’s expansion stories - although players will need the Amulet of Catspeak to translate the card’s dialogue of “meow meow meow”.

“There's a term we've used to describe the board game, which Jagex have really latched on to, which is: ‘Sometimes epic, often irreverent’,” says Perkins. “They really like that that's how we're treating the humour in the game because they feel it's exactly the same for them.”

There's a term we've used to describe the board game, which is: ‘Sometimes epic, often irreverent’.

An even more immediate nod to RuneScape’s charming comedy is the fan-favourite Gnome Child, which makes a surprise star appearance on the top of the board game’s vault card deck, from which players pull numbered cards as directed by encounters and events. The card is number 00, which Perkins and McFetridge confirmed is never drawn - leaving the NPC-turned-meme staring out at the players throughout every session.

“The entire time you play this there will never be another card that sits on top of there,” McFetridge laughs. “We may do some funny things in the future, where it's like 'Collect card 00 from the vault deck and replace it with card, like, 57' - and that's just another Gnome Child.”

An encounter with dragon big bad Elvarg serves as the finale of the four-campaign arc in the board game's core box. Image: Steamforged

Events can include simple branching decisions with different outcomes or set skill tests resolved by rolling a number of dice - determined by the character’s level in a given trait, such as thievery, defence or crafting - lending a light roleplaying feel to encounters.

Succeed or fail, the character gains a point of experience in the matching trait, making it worthwhile to have a go with a weaker skill rather than rely on the same approach. Three experience points and you gain a level in that skill.

Improving in skills as you use them will feel familiar to anyone who’s played RuneScape or Skyrim, and gives Shadow of Elvarg a pleasing sense of always moving forward even if you consistently fluff rolls. While the miniatures that represent each character are modelled after specific equipment sets in the video game, such as the bronze armour-clad knight or pointy-hatted wizard, all of the players begin the game with a blank slate to form as they see fit.

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The board game as a whole is kept breezy, with concepts central to RuneScape such as cooking and crafting present but simplified to avoid the game slowing down. Players can upgrade certain equipment cards on their turn by performing a crafting skill check and spending the required resources, while the benefits of food and cooking are streamlined into the option to spend any resource to gain experience in a matching trait on your current location.

From the short scripted turns I was led through, RuneScape’s sense of freedom is fairly well realised in the board game.

From the short scripted turns I was led through, RuneScape’s sense of freedom is fairly well realised in the board game. Players are free to pursue side quests collected during their travels by visiting specified spots and resolving the necessary card, but can also focus on the central quest and its objectives if they prefer to mainline things. (A recommended level in specific traits provides guidance on when to face the boss, but can be ignored for a tougher challenge or shorter game.)

An escalation track provides a gentle timer and direction in the background - it will eventually force players into the final battle, but at a leisurely pace - that gradually ramps up the stakes with new enemies and events, while still leaving room to poke around and discover the many knowing winks to RuneScape history.

An event card and die from RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg board game
Event cards can offer fixed outcomes, player decisions or skill tests. | Image credit: Steamforged Games

It’s this sense of open-ended discovery and easy-going adventure that sit at the heart of the board game, leading players through with the promise of another drop of nostalgia and rewarding veering off the main path. Almost all of the board game’s side quests are drawn directly from the video game, referencing quests such as Gertrude’s Cat, Witch's Potion and Goblin Diplomacy, and aim to provide plenty of reason for players to explore away from the central quest of each campaign.

Players can carry an unrestricted inventory of equipment and gear with them in the open world, before locking down a specific gear set for the final boss confrontation. The designers said the deliberate freedom of carrying multiple bits of armour, tools and weapons is intended to evoke the ability to swap out equipment on the fly in the MMO, stopping players from having to awkwardly manage their inventory. The players can also freely trade resources and equipment between characters on the same space - no endless text chat messages required.

RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg board game all-in Kickstarter pledge contents
Shadow of Elvarg's expansions will include additional campaigns and content drawn from the video game. | Image credit: Steamforged Games

Once players do decide to confront the campaign’s boss, Shadow of Elvarg transforms into another board game entirely. The board used to track each campaign’s main quest flips over to provide a three-by-three arena, potentially littered with terrain and environmental effects, with players and the boss engaging in a more direct battle.

Boss encounters play out like a simplified evolution of the phase-based, boss deck-driven system seen in Steamforged’s Dark Souls and Monster Hunter board games. Bosses begin the battle with a set deck of ability cards that alternate with the players’ own actions, allowing the group to plan ahead around the upcoming attacks. Once a certain point is reached, the boss progresses to an ‘enraged’ state. In the case of Count Draynor, retreating to his central coffin to recover health - which required a crafting skill test to wrench open - and summoning skeleton enemies from the piles of bones scattered around the arena.

The RuneScape board game is first and foremost a love letter to the video game’s long history and expansive world.

“We have mechanics like this in most of our boss fights to make sure that they're not just doing the same experience all the way through,” Perkins says.

“In other boss fights, it's the boss behaviours that [change],” McFetridge adds. “In other cases, it's a combination of both. There definitely is one fight - which I won't spoil - that the behaviour deck completely swaps out for a different one when the enrage goes. Sometimes they give alternate win conditions to the fight. There's both each boss fight; the only consistent thing is that the bosses all enrage.”

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The players share a combined pool of health points during the final boss fight, adjusted to reflect any damage or deaths suffered during the exploration phase. If characters hit zero health, they lose a piece of equipment to Death, who makes a cameo from his appearance in the video games and can be chased down to recover any lost gear.

“The [board] game is designed to help you fail forwards, but sometimes give you a bit of a speed bump when things go wrong,” Perkins says.

From my brief time with Shadow of Elvarg, I was left with the impression that the RuneScape board game is first and foremost a love letter to the video game’s long history and expansive world. It’s an often charming, often funny adventure into a universe that’s provided 20 years of fond memories for so many players - myself included.

With both its tone and its gameplay kept light, RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg is a comfortably nostalgic way for fans to once again set foot into the world of Gielinor with friends. For me at least, it did leave me tempted to take a trip back to Lumbridge - for old times’ sake.

RuneScape Kingdoms: Shadow of Elvarg launches on Kickstarter on May 31st.

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