Reviews

(Single-Player) Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game Review – Avengers Assemble! And Some Other People, Too…

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Designer: Devin Low
Publisher: Upper Deck Entertainment
RRP: £44.99
Players 1-4

Game was provided free of charge by UK distributor Esdevium Games

A while back I wrote an article where I talked about how tabletop games have seen a massive and impressive resurgence, which in turn has led to some truly stunning designer games that boast beautiful themes and fantastic mechanics. Introducing some of my friends to these types of game has been nothing short of a pleasure, and I’d love to see more videogame fans taking up dice. But the article brought one idea to my attention; a few Emails to me pointed out that while people were able to get friends together to play tabletop games it was usually only a few times a year, meaning those often expensive boxes full of dice, playing pieces cards and boards were sitting in a cupboard doing nothing. So what about tabletop games that you can play on your own, but also bring out and enjoy with friends? There’s a stigma surrounding the idea of playing a boardgame on your own, but its stupid. We gamers play with ourselves all the time. *cough*

Which brings us to this, Single-Player, a new series in which I’m going to check out games that can be played solo and with friends, with an emphasis on the solo experience. We begin with a card game from Upper Deck. In Marvel Legendary your goal is to assemble a team of various Marvel heroes who will hopefully work together well enough to do battle with one of four evil Masterminds intent on executing a devious Scheme. With over 500- cards and a fairly large board that marks out where everything goes this deck building game looks a little daunting and has quite a hefty setup time, but don’t worry because it’s worth it. A blast with friends this also works great as a solo game, making it a prime candidate for my first ever Solo Play feature. Plus, I’ve been reading Marvel comics since I was but a wee nipper, and this is essentially like a kit for creating your very own one-shot comic book. Don’t get me wrong, I read titles from DC, Boom, Dark Horse and others as well, but as a lad Spider-Man was my favorite superhero and thus Marvel has a strong nostalgic stake in my heart.

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We begin with the overall presentation and layout. The box itself is surprisingly huge for a card game and is adorned with some beautiful artwork. Open it up and you’ll find a playing board that clearly shows where every deck of cards is supposed to sit, and in the two top corners there’s small boxes of text that provide quick summaries of how to set the game up and how a player’s turn works, which is a nice touch since it saves you digging out the frankly quite boring looking rulebook. Speaking of slightly boring visuals the board itself isn’t exactly what you’d call visually interesting, but its plain design doesn’t detract from the beautiful, beautiful artwork on the cards, so the decision to keep the playing area simple is a sensible one. It’s all original art, too, drawn solely for this game. It’s just a shame that while each of the fifteen heroes has fourteen cards apiece with varying powers and stats, each card looks exactly the same as the last one. Still, the roster of Iron Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Gambit, Deadpool, Cyclops, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Emma Frost, Storm and Rogue are depicted wonderfully, as are the villains which spans the like of Sabertooth, Magneto, Loki, Mystique, Dock Ock, Green Goblin and many more. Inside the box you’ll find an inner plastic tray that has grooves to help store cards, plus vast amounts of empty space that can be used to contain all the cards from the game’s already considerable array of expansions. Before you can do anything, though, you’ll need to sort through all 500-cards and organize them into their respective piles, such as heroes, masterminds, villains, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, bystanders and more. That’s right, the cards don’t come pre-sorted, so you need to spend a bit of time patiently fixing that. Thankfully game does come with a pile of dividers to make organisation a bit easier.

To kick off the game you first need to pick from one of the four Masterminds to do battle with; Loki, Doctor Doom, Red Skull and Magneto are all available in the core game, each with their own strength level and special combat ability that activates when a Masterstrike card is drawn. Then choose one of the eight available Schemes which provide specific instructions that must be followed during setup throughout the rest of the game. The goal is to punch the Mastermind in the face four times to win, before he manages to execute his evil scheme, and in order to do that you’ll need to create a hero deck from the fifteen different heroes available, each of which has fourteen cards boasting different skills, prices and more. In a solo game you randomly pick three heroes and shuffle together their 42 cards to create the hero deck, from which you recruit allies to add to your deck and hopefully use to defeat the Mastermind. With that done you need to organise the villain deck, made up of a group of henchmen or villains as specified by the Mastermind card, plus some other types of card, such as bystanders who get captured by villains or Masterstrikes which bring the Mastermind down from his lofty perch for some close-quarters combat.  Once you’ve got that done you sort out the rest of the cards and place them on their respective places on the board. Setup time is a little lengthy, as is deconstruction time afterwards since you need to once again sort through played cards and get them back in the box.

The Mastermind might seem like the headlining act that the rest of the show is built around, but in reality everything comes down to the Scheme which acts as the game’s engine, driving it forward by providing the scenario, or story from a more thematic standpoint, and the conditions for your loss, as well as the unique gameplay mechanics that you’ll encounter along the way. Alongside the Scheme itself are plain Scheme Twist cards that are added to the villain deck, and when drawn these activate special effects listed on the Scheme Card. There’s some interesting Schemes to play through, such as the Midtown Bank Robbery. In this one a total of twelve bystanders are added into the villain deck, bystanders being hapless victims that when drawn get “captured” by a villain on the city track, and eight Twists. Villains become more powerful for each hostage they’re holding in this scenario and whenever a Twist card is drawn any villain in the Bank space of the city track immediately grabs two bystander’s from the bystander deck rather than the villain deck, gaining them an extra two attack power. Furthermore another villain card must be drawn and played immediately. The player loses if eight bystanders can carried away by escaping villains. In another Scheme Skrull Shapeshifters invade, and thus you have to add heroes to the villain deck as well who when beaten will join the player’s cause. In Superhero Civil War the player loses whenever the hero deck runs out of cards, with the catch being that every drawn Twist card will KO every hero in the HQ zone, a major blow considering that portion of the board is always occupied by five heroes.

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The problem with both the Schemes and the Masterminds is that they’re just too easy to beat, even when playing entirely on your own. I rarely had any tension from feeling like I was on the brink of loss, instead most of the time it was a rather relaxed game unless a serious run of bad luck resulted in a pile of Scheme Twists being drawn in rapid succession. There is one exception to this rule; a Scheme where a virus is unleashed upon the city. The idea is that instead of having a huge stack of wound cards this scheme brings that number down to just six when playing solo, and when those run out you lose the game. Scheme Twists give you a wound when they’re drawn, but the scheme becomes even more challenging when you add Loki as the Mastermind, because he has the highest attack power and quite a few of his villains can wound you if you don’t reveal a certain type of card. This is the only scenario in the game that actually made me feel like I was fighting to win, and on quite a number of occasions it beat me. It’s the exception to the rule, though. The rest of the time I usually stomped the Mastermind into the ground with minimal effort.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty stuff, eh? You begin with a deck of twelve cards composed of basic S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents and S.H.I.E.L.D. Troopers. At the start of your turn you must first flip over the top card of the villain deck, and if it’s a enemy place it on the first slot of the city track while resolving any Ambush effect listed. If there’s already a villain occupying the first slot then that villain gets moved ahead a space, which in turn bumps along any other baddies. Should they get too far along the city track they’ll be classed as having escaped after managing to rampage through the buildings and innocent people of New York, and you’ll typically suffer a penalty for allowing it to happen, perhaps being forced to knock a few hero cards out of the game. It’s in your best interest to not only battle the Mastermind, then, but also the super villains and henchmen that he has brought along, otherwise you’ll quickly find your ability to fight the Mastermind severely weakened. Quite a few Scheme cards also include loss conditions if too many villains successfully escape the city, too.

Once you’ve gotten that out of the way drawn six cards from your deck and begin the process of recruiting heroes to your cause and punching bad guys in the face, both of which can be done in the same turn. Each card has either a number showing attack points or recruit points, so you look at the six cards in your hand and mentally work out how much of each you’ve got available before playing them. To recruit a new hero you simply look down toward the HQ section of the playing board where you’ve already set out the top five cards from the hero deck. At the bottom right of each hero card is another number showing the price of that hero, so if you’ve got enough recruit points you simply pick the card up, replace it with another one from the top of the hero deck, and then add it to your discard pile. Yes, I said discard pile. You see at the end of each turn you place all your played and unplayed cards onto the discard pile and draw a completely new hand of six cards ready for your next turn. Once your deck finally runs out you shuffle the discard pile and then use it to form your new deck, thus recruited heroes aren’t immediately brought into play but rather you’re forced to wait until you draw them, which later in the game with a larger deck in play could take a while. You’re free to recruit as many heroes in a turn as you can afford, or you can take a S.H.I.E.L.D. Officer from the nearby deck instead of grabbing a hero, who are always available and provide two recruit points. It’s tempting to just grab your favorite heroes from the HQ and rock those, but the absolute most important thing in Legendary is building a harmonious deck where the heroes work together to maximise their own powers. Iron Man, for example, tends to feature abilities that let you draw more cards, especially if you’ve played a hero previously with a tech symbol, while Captain America gains power for every different colored hero card you have in your hand and in play. You need to consider the heroes in play and the style of deck you want to build.

Thus we arrive at the idea of combos. Hero cards have different skills, many of which are quite simple, like drawing another card as soon as it’s played. Others, however, are more complex. Hero cards have symbols on the top left of them that indicate certain things, like how Hawkeye is an Avenger or a how once version of Deadpool is tech based. Many powers and abilities are activated only when you’ve played a card with a specific icon earlier in the turn. A Hulk card, for example, might gain strength if you’ve played a card with the strength symbol earlier in the turn. Sometimes these effects can only be activated once, and other times they can be activated for each instance of the symbol, thus by plonking down a certain card at the end of your turn you could potentially gain a massive increase in power or recruiting points. This is why it’s good to try to build a deck with synergy so you can activate as many of these abilities as possible, creating potentially devastating combos. It’s usually best to stick to one or two heroes, although it’s possible to mix more together if you’ve got a good eye for it.

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Opting to punch an enemy is equally easy stuff; you count up your total attack points, accounting for any bonuses along the way, and then pick out a target. Provided you’ve got a total attack power equal to or greater than that listed on the enemy card you win. Villains often have special “fight” effects that activate when you do battle, though, such as forcing you to reveal a card with a specific symbol, and if you’re unable to do so you might have to take a Wound. Wounds are cards with no abilities, recruit points or attack power that get added to your deck, thus drawing even one leaves you with a weaker hand. Attacking the Mastermind directly works in the same. If you successfully defeat the Mastermind in combat you must then randomly draw one of his four Mastermind Tactics cards that are kept beneath the Mastermind. Counter-intuitively these cards usually reward you rather than penalize you. Redskull’s Hydra Conspiracy tactic card, for example, let’s you draw two cards and then draw another card for each Hydra villain currently sitting in your victory pile. The game is already too easy to beat, and being rewarded for beating up the Mastermind feels like too much of a soft-touch.

Speaking of the victory there’s a high-score element running through the game. Whenever you defeat a villain, rescue a bystander or claim one of a Mastermind’s Tactics card you plonk it into your victory pile and then add up the total at the end of the game, thus you can always play to beat your own score. When other players are involved there’s a surprising competitive element to the game, because while you all lose together there can only be one true winner. There’s even a Final Showdown stage which plays out like this; going around the table, starting with the personal who dealt the final blow, everybody adds up the total recruit points and attack strength in their hand, and whoever has the highest total claims the Mastermind card itself and adds it to their victory pile. This competitive element certainly makes having a few players in the game more interesting. It’s a fun addition, and in the best matches it can result in a mixture of mild distrust and grudging co-operation where everyone wants to win together, but they want to be the one that really wins.

If you’re reading this and wondering if there’s much in the strategy then fear not; there isn’t. The ease at which most scenarios can be beaten and the fact that the game doesn’t change very much during play means you have little reason to adjust strategy mid-game or have to reconsider your plan. They might be called Scheme Twists but in reality they don’t offer much of a twist at all. The biggest decisions come down to whether you should use your attack points to strike the Mastermind directly in order to move one step closer to overall victory, or perhaps use those same points to deal with a villain or two. At the same time this design is understandable; you can’t try to ask a player to radically shift strategy during the late game because they have no way of altering the composition of their deck, and trying to add new heroes with new abilities into the mix will end in disaster. It’s the nature of the beast, thus if you’re looking for a strategic experience where you’ve really got to be on your toes this isn’t it, rather it’s a more relaxing game, one that’s great for having an hour or two of chilled gaming.

So before we wrap this up by talking about how it all works as a solo experience, what is it like with friends? A whole lot of fun, to put it simply. The competitive edge that scoring brings works very well, but I do wish there was more of a co-operative element to the game. It can feel like everyone is really just doing their own thing, as there is no way to interact with other players other than thinking about who is going to attack what villain, since it might make sense for one player to do it over another depending on card abilities. Unsurprisingly it’s best when you’ve got a group of Marvel lovers together who are willing to sink into the theme and enjoy vying for their favorite characters. It’s not a strongly thematic game, but with some imagination you can quickly piece together a crazy story based on the Scheme your playing.

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With one player the competitive scoring vanishes and with it the one shred of urgency the game has, leaving its place a very relaxed, chilled play session. Interestingly the game’s first big-box expansion titled Dark City is said to fix two of my complaints; Aside from doubling the size of the game it brings a whole new roster of heroes whose card’s all feature individual artwork. More importantly Dark City is supposed to be far, far harder, boasting difficult Schemes and Masterminds. However, Dark City isn’t a standalone expansion and it costs just as much as the base game, so that’s a pretty expensive option to fix the problems that Marvel Legendary does have. However, regardless of these problems Legendary really is a great solo game, perfect for those evenings where you don’t want to delve into something complex and strategic, but rather want to enjoy something a little more subdued and quiet, preferably while making stupid noises to replicate the epic battles unfolding in your imagination. Yes, I did that. No, I’m not ashamed.

What really impresses me about Legendary is just how well it actually works with any number of players, from just me looking to kick back for an hour or two all the way up to five people swigging cider and arguing about whose cooler; Wolverine or Deadpool. There’s already a wealth of small expansions and some bigger ones available, so there’s a lot more heroes and stuff to play with if you enjoy it, too. I wish there was maybe a bit more depth to it and that the co-operative element was stronger for when you do have friends round, but  all done and said Marvel Legendary is a great deck building game that earns a hearty recommendation from me.

Reco

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