Full disclosure: A review copy of Dream Runners was provided by Luma Imports.
I did a weird thing this time and powered through a ton of photography, rather than explicitly going for reviews. That has its benefits and drawbacks. For one, it’s much easier for me to do my daily biking on my underdesk elliptical if I’m, you know, at my desk, but also it means that I have to hustle and write these reviews while the context of all these games is still rattling around in my brain. To that end, Dream Runners! It’s new from Ankama, and let’s see what it’s got going on!
In Dream Runners, you and other players have been having some weird dreams lately. You could see a therapist about it, but where’s the fun in that? So you decide to just get into your dreams yourselves and see if you can punch a few nightmares in the face. If they have faces. Kind of troubling to imagine they don’t, now that I think about it. Oh well! You’ll have to move quickly, because everything is happening at once and it’s all happening in real time! Will you be the first to vanquish all your nightmares and prove that even though you snooze, you may, in fact, win?
First thing to do is set up your Dream Cards:
Take two from each numbered stack and place them such that the 1s are on top of the 2s are on top of the 3s are on top of the 4s. Should have 8 total; you can put the rest back in the box. Give each player a player board, then give them the starting tiles (one tile of each shape with stars in the color corresponding to their player board):
Shuffle the rest of the tiles:
Set them on the main board, and then place the main board above the center of the play area:
Each player should place a scoring token in their color on the starting space on their player board’s Serenity Track (the green spot) and the other on the bottommost space on the Star Track:
Shuffle the chest tokens by type and stack them on their corresponding spots on the main board:
Last thing is the extra components. Place the Star Fragments in one or many piles near the play area:
Give each player two coins and make a pile out of the rest:
Finally, place the keys nearby:
You should be ready to start! Flip the top tile of each stack on the main board face-up.
During a game of Dream Runners, you work to fit dream segments together to match tiles, allowing you to collect rewards and potentially banish nightmares. As you do, you’ll gain Serenity, star fragments, coins, and keys, allowing you to potentially get new tiles and gain additional rewards. At the end of the game, a lot of this will become Dream Points, and the player with the most wins!
A game of Dream Runners is played over 8 rounds, with each round having four phases:
The start player flips the Dream Card face-up, and now players start building their segment arrangement in real-time. Your goal is to create a 3×3 grid of squares by arranging tiles, though your grid may be larger or smaller than that, depending on the tiles you have available and your personal choices. You do not have to use all of your tiles, when you’re arranging.
Once a player likes their arrangement, they can take and flip the timer, placing it in the empty hole at the top of their player board. That player may not change their segment arrangement after doing so, but in exchange they get a coin and they become the new start player. Once the sand timer runs out, everyone is done with this phase and moves onto the next one!
Now you resolve various effects, based on whether you banished nightmares or collected rewards:
- Coherence: For every square outside of the 3×3 requirement (and every square missing from a 3×3 arrangement), you lose one Serenity Point. Note that if you ever hit the bottom of the track, you’re eliminated from the game. So try not to do that.
- Banish: If your segment arrangement is such that the pink Banish Nightmare space corresponds to the same space on the Dream Card, you banish that nightmare and avoid its penalty. If you did not, you take the corresponding penalty. Usually it’s losing Serenity Points, but sometimes it can cost you tiles!
- Collect: You collect the rewards on the space corresponding to this reward spot in your segment arrangement. If you used your x2, collect twice as many. This can be star fragments, keys, Serenity Points, or coins, but it can also be chests (unlocked with keys), or a Converging Dream, where all players who collected that space divvy up the rewards. Note that x2 can still work for both of those: you just spend double the keys or you collect two times whatever you ended up with from the Converging Dream.
Note that for chests, every player gets the same rewards; you reveal a chest tile if anyone unlocked it and that’s the reward gained for opening a chest this round.
You can resolve components in any order, so you can choose the resolution order that is most advantageous to you!
Now, you can spend coins! Starting with the first player and continuing clockwise, each player may spend 4 coins once to buy a new tile (revealing the next tile in the stack) and / or spend any multiple of 3 coins to gain that many Serenity Points. Note that some tiles have Dream Points and / or coins depicted on them. If you buy a tile with a coin on it, you gain that coin, and if you have Dream Points on your tiles at the end of the game, you will gain extra Dream Points.
Prepare for Next Round
Remove the current Dream Card from the box and remove the Chest Token if it was revealed. Once everyone’s ready, reveal the next Dream Card and start again!
End of Game
The game ends after 8 rounds, and players total their scores:
- Star Track placement
- Serenity Track placement
- Dream Points on tiles
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not much to say on this one, honestly. This is one of those games where multiple players are playing independently, sure, but there’s little to no interaction between players during the actual game. There’s two minor exceptions: one around shared rewards, and another around tile purchasing. In the first case, players can gain rewards from a space that are shared between all players who earn that reward. That means if you go in on it yourself, it’s amazing, but usually everyone else will, too. This can lead to diminishing returns, but it’s not terribly worth strategizing around, since it’s so variable. Around tile purchasing, since players buy in player order based on who finished first, there’s a chance that a player may purchase a tile that you otherwise wanted to buy yourself. That’s … about it, though. With chests, there’s no interaction; all players who unlock a chest during a round gain the same rewards from that chest. With nightmares, no player interaction. With rewards, no player interaction. This means that functionally, there’s very few differences between playing at two and playing at four, beyond the game taking slightly longer as each player takes time to gather rewards and buy tiles. And that’s fine! It just means that I wouldn’t have much in the way of player count preferences for this one.
- Don’t get too emotionally attached to that 3×3 perfect grid. I think this is pretty significant part of the game, being honest. There’s a lot of aesthetic value in making a perfect 3×3 grid, but that doesn’t always solve your immediate problem. It’s a trade-off, frankly. Sometimes, going slightly out of bounds or not making a full grid lets you use tiles that will end up letting you gain more rewards and avoid nightmares. New players tend to stick to the grid, because, frankly, the rules do encourage you to make a 3×3 grid, but you don’t necessarily need to feel encumbered by such restrictions. Honestly, after round 1 in my last game, I never made a perfect 3×3 again. I took some hits on the Synergy Track, but it ended up being worth it (and usually is, to play your x2 bonus every round). It’s a particularly nuanced strategy, so unless you explicitly tell new players about it they may not pick it up until their next game.
- You’ll definitely want to buy a few new tiles. It’s not that you can’t win with your starting tiles, but … you probably can’t? They’re pretty sparse, in terms of rewards and nightmare-blocking spaces. Buying new tiles gives you access to just, frankly, better tiles. They don’t have that x2 bonus that you can get from your starting tiles, but they do have adjacent bonuses or nightmare-warding spots, which can be pretty helpful. Some will even earn you points at the end of the game, just for buying them. Getting the right tiles early will also lead to improved returns, as you’ll have more tiles with more rewards and blockers on them. Should let you potentially ward off the worst nightmares towards the end of the game.
- Don’t exclusively buy tiles of one type, especially large ones. By type, here, I mean shape, primarily, but also you do want to do a good job mixing up what’s on your tiles. If you take only tiles that let you collect rewards, once you hit the later game you’ll have no way to ward off the really heavy-hitting nightmares. If you only take tiles that block nightmares, you’ll struggle to gain enough money to buy new tiles and late-game rewards. You kind of need a good mix. Shape-wise, it’s just going to make your life a lot worse if you only have the L-shaped tiles in your supply. While it’s a lot of expense for one space, the 1×1 tile is a great way to add flexibility to your grid without adding additional blank tiles.
- The key thing here is that you can essentially spend Synergy Points to get the rewards you want, but absolutely make sure you don’t drop too far down. You will straight-up lose the game if you drop to the bottom of the Synergy Track. You can essentially bet against it to get some short-term bonuses, but keep an eye on it. Also, you do lose a fair number of end-game points if you spend all of them on just fixing weird problems with your grid. The major difficulty of the game, I think, is balancing when you want to spend Synergy Points for short term gains against your long-term need to stay up decently high on the Synergy Track.
- Additionally, attempting to block every possible Nightmare just means that you’ll likely end up getting fewer rewards. Like I said, you can only get so many useful tiles, since you can only buy one per round. If you focus exclusively on blocking Nightmares, you’ll likely end up missing out on Keys or Star Fragments that might actually help you gain more points (or even more Synergy) in the long term. Instead, try to pick which Nightmare will hurt you the least and go after that one. There are a few that will only drop you one Synergy Point; much better to get hit by that than one that drops you four or a Nightmare that destroys one of your unused tiles, right?
- You only get one coin if you are the first player to flip the timer, but keep in mind you also get first pick of the tiles, so that may be worth the rush. There’s something to be said for moving fast if you want the tiles; the extra coin is mostly just there to give you a bit of an incentive relative to other players without aggressively tilting the scales in your favor. Honestly, it’s probably the smallest thing that the game can possibly give you. If there’s a tile that you particularly want, it’s worth hustling to get first pick.
- Try to organize your star fragments such that you can turn in sets of four; it really adds up! You can often get your pick of star fragments, if you choose the right reward spots. If you plan ahead, that can really work out for you! Every set you get after a certain point is worth 10 extra end-game points, which is huge.
- Similarly, unlocking a chest can be super helpful; make sure you have enough keys if you go for one! Chests can, in particular, give you a bunch of money, but they’re also generally useful for getting star fragments and bonus Synergy. In the final round, you’re more likely to spend coins on Synergy Points than additional tiles, anyways, so money is a major problem-solver.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I appreciate the strategy of this game. I think it challenged me more than I’d normally like to admit, partially because I spent my entire first game just strictly adhering to making a 3×3 grid with seemingly reckless abandon. Having some rounds to let that strategy sink in is a lot of fun, and it kind of … emerges, for players. That’s cool! Even if it does mean that it might be best to let a group of new players all play this together, rather than mixing experience levels for your first game. Games where it takes a few rounds (or a learning game) to “get” can be cool (and I like how this one works), but an experience gap may make this challenging.
- The real-time elements are fun, especially since being first isn’t enormously rewarding. I like the need to race other players in a game; it’s almost always a nice competitive type of player interaction, but the stakes are pretty low. This means that you can have all the fun of racing, but without any of the … intensity? Dream Runners isn’t a particularly highly-interactive game, so this allows for some player interaction as you race to be first but not in a way that … particularly, long-term matters. At least, not for being first. Forcing other players to hustle once you are first is pretty fun, though! It’s a nice challenge.
- The grid restrictions are also pretty interesting. I really like how you have to plan around your tiles and figure out how you can both score points and prevent heavy losses.
- The players’ relative placement to the grid means that even playing as the same player color game-to-game can be a pretty big shift, depending on where you’re sitting. This is nice, especially since I tend to prefer the same player color every game. As a result, I can have a pretty unique experience even with the same cards as long as I change table positions. I suppose I could just rotate my grid, but, honestly, I’d rather just play relative to my current orientation. Adding in the varied cards though means that it should be pretty different game-to-game, I’d say.
- The art is very consistent with the theme — super ethereal and colorful. I do like it! It’s a weird aesthetic and not my personal cup of tea in that sense, but I like the colors a lot. It feels very much like what would correspond to a dream. My dreams aren’t nearly this bright and colorful, unfortunately, but it’s pleasant! Makes for a good premise for a game.
- Very little downtime between rounds. There’s a lot happening, but the between-round work isn’t that involved. Everything players need to do is fairly limited and can mostly happen independently, save for tile purchases. Theoretically, even in a four-player game, most players won’t be buying tiles from the exact same stack every round, so you could probably do that at the same time. I wouldn’t recommend it, but live your best life.
- It’s not really a problem with the game, but as with most tile-laying games where the specific orientation matters, you’ll see some players get frustrated that they can’t flip their tile orientations. This is more of a “feels bad” than anything else, but it does happen a lot in this type of game. I think NMBR 9 is probably the worst example of this feeling bad, though. Here, it’s mostly not being able to place your x2 exactly where you want it without getting slammed by nightmares.
- There’s a technical form of player elimination, but it’s mostly there to prevent players from sliding too far down the Serenity Track. I do hate player elimination, but I’m less bothered than usual. It’s essentially a deterrent, though I’d hate to be a player who actually get eliminated as a result. It’s probably about as fair as telling a player they get negative points or something that functionally eliminates them, anyways. At least this is honest.
- The random benefits of the chests can really help or hurt you. It’s worth showing players what’s in each type of chest, at least picking randomly, so they have a rough sense of what’s available. It can just be a bit frustrating if you get star fragments that you already have a bunch of. One player getting synergy points in one round and you just getting money in the next can be a bit annoying, as well.
- Short sand timers are hard to estimate. It’s a decently minor gripe, but if you’re not super paying attention, the time can run out on the sand timer pretty quickly. It’s worth keeping an eye on, but I have a soft anti-preference for sand timers. Generally, my fix for sand timers is “when a player notices that the sand timer has run out, they count down from 5”. It’s a bit more fault-tolerant than just a hard stop.
- Make sure that players are familiar with the symbols on special enemies before you start playing; some of the enemy abilities are pretty rough! This is mostly going to be a problem for new players, especially if they don’t have all the enemy symbols down. One in particular lowers your Synergy Points by the number of reward collecting symbols in your grid, which means that you can very easily take 5+ Synergy Point damage if you’re not aware of it, and it’s a symbol that isn’t immediately obvious. That can be a frustrating combination.
- It would have helped if the “share this space with everyone who earned the reward” spaces were marked with a symbol, rather than just being highlighted. This is partially user error, and I get that, but it’s very easy to assume that the spaces are highlighted because they appear to be more valuable than other spaces, not because you’re supposed to split them equally with the other qualifying players. Given the game’s use of icons for other things, it’s odd that this didn’t have a similar icon.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Dream Runners is a lot of fun! Mechanically, real-time and tile-laying are two of my like, Gold-Tier (I should make a mechanics tier list), so having them combined is always good, for me. I loved it in Nine Tiles / Nine Tiles Panic and I’m really enjoying it here, as well. What makes Dream Runners interesting is that you now have to balance the competing priorities of Getting Rewards and Banishing Nightmares, all while shifting your tiles around to get an optimal configuration. It’s possible to get into really good shape (I had a player successfully take every reward and banish every nightmare in the final round), but you may also just be doing the best you can with what you have available, and that works too! I like how frantic and frenetic real-time games are. It’s a good amount of energy, and though that kind of thematically clashes with the serenity of sleeping and dreaming, Dream Runners is still an interesting experience. I would say that the emphasis on smallish icons can be a bit annoying, just because players may not know what they’re getting into until they’re on the clock, but telling them “assume any icons you don’t recognize are worse than ones you do” usually gets them out of the hole with nightmares. I would like a bit more player interaction beyond sharing certain rewards; that almost feels like a punishment for having additional players, which is odd. Beyond that, though, I think Dream Runners is a solid little title! It’s got some fun variability, great art, and snappy gameplay, which is usually enough for me. If you’re looking for some fun real-time tile manipulation, or you just enjoy ethereal artwork in your games, you might enjoy Dream Runners as well!