There was a time when a board game mixed with a TV or movie license was an automatic red flag. Content to ride on the wave of popularity that comes with a license, these games were usually examples of lazy design or just a reimplementation of Monopoly. We could only hope for a future where great games and great movies weren't mortal enemies, when licensed games wouldn't just be soulless cash grabs. Well, the future has arrived! And if you're looking for a great game based on a beloved franchise, look no further than Legendary Encounters.
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thought video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
I have a confession to make. I've never seen an Alien™ movie. Not a one. I'm sure they're fine films (some of them at least), and I'd watch them if they were playing in front me, but my knowledge of Alien doesn't extend beyond, "Game over, man!" and, "Stay frosty". I have no particular affinity for the Alien franchise. So while I can't tell you how well this game compares to the movies, what I can tell you is that it stands on its own as a game because of its strong design and strong theme.
A Story that Stands on its Own
It might sound strange hearing that Legendary Encounters is a strong thematic experience from someone who has no familiarity with the movies, but the story telling in the game is its strongest feature. And what's most impressive is that the story telling comes through in a game that's relatively straightforward and easy to learn. Most games that I've encountered that present themselves as thematic experiences usually achieve their story telling through intricate and overwrought rule sets. Not so with Legendary Encounters.
Let's take a look at the Hive Deck as a prime example. Every turn, the player takes the top card of the Hive Deck and puts it into the Complex. Slowly the Complex will fill up and eventually the Hive cards will reach the Combat Zone where, appropriately, combat tends to happen. It's a simple process that moves the game forward, but also instills a sense of dread in the players as the Complex slowly, but steadily fills, enveloping you in a thick air of claustrophobia. And in a stroke of genius, the designers decided that these cards are added face down so you never now exactly what surrounding you. You might have a sense of the creatures that are skittering around the air ducts and abandoned medical labs, but only by expending valuable resources to scan these locations will you reveal the danger around you. Or maybe you just wait it out and hope that your ready for them when they reach the Combat Zone. Hopefully. It's such a simple thing that adds a whole lot to the entirety of the experience.
And then there are the actual scenarios themselves. The set up of the game involves mixing very specific decks of cards according to the scenario chosen. And while it's a bit of pain to get started, it allows the designers to craft unique experiences from game to game. What's really impressive is how the game manages to tell very different stories from scenario to scenario within the confines of the basic game structure. The first scenario, for example, has you searching for S.O.S. beacons which is accomplished whenever an S.O.S beacons is revealed from the Hive Deck. Another objective has you setting up turrets in different room in the Complex. This is done by paying recruitment points and having a room clear. It feels different and the the new actions introduced are written clearly on the cards as they are revealed so the learning curve is minimal. Clever stuff!
The Deck Building Fan's Conundrum
In the deck building world there are two main school's of design. There's the Dominion school. which has all the cards available for purchase from the start of the game and there's the Ascension school, which has a a limited flop of cards available to by purchased at any given time. I strongly favor the Dominion style deck builders primarily because I'm quite bad at the alternative. Not that I'm a great at deck building games in general, but I feel a bit more in control when I have all my options laid out before me. So why am I so infatuated with Legendary Encounters? Because it's a cooperative experience. I don't feel cheated when another player is able to buy a card that didn't show up on my turn. I'm relieved and excited! The specter of chance haunts us all equally and we have to overcome it with clever play and good planning.
And speaking of good planning, I think the cooperative nature of the game is pretty strong, primarily through the use of 'Coordinate' cards. These are cards that are able to played on another players turn and provide them with much needed assistance. Whoever plays the 'Coordinate' card gets to draw another card to replace it so it's basically a free card play. They mean you have to pay attention to what other people are doing on their turn to see if you can help out.
What's in the Box?
There's a lot included in the game. There are scenarios that cover all four movies, optional rules for a traitor that introduce player versus player combat, and even rules for a player to continue playing as a xenomorph if they've been killed by a facehugger. It's great that they're included, but I haven't felt the need to try them out yet. I've had plenty of fun just exploring the game as is and I feel like I still have plenty to learn and be entertained by. The surprises of the scenarios are lessened over time, but the strength of the game allows me to continue enjoying the game. And it is comforting to know that when things start feeling a little bland, I can introduce a variant to spice things up a little bit.
Legendary Encounters is far from perfect. Player elimination can strike early and leave someone waiting for far too long, the difficulty of the game does not adjust well with increased numbers of players and setup can be a bit of a drag. But I bear it happily because I've never felt tension in game like this before. Because I've never experienced story telling in a game like this before. And because I've never had as much fun being ravaged by perfect killing machines like this before.