Deck building games are one of my favorite board game genres and Legendary has earned a spot as one of my favorites in this category. Find out why after the break.
I’m a huge fan of deck building games almost directly as a response to collectible card games. I like knowing that I can open a box, follow the directions, and then play with my friends knowing that the decisions we make and the random elements of the game will be the sum of our gaming experience. I despise games where players enter on unequal footing because one player can spend a lot of money to become incredibly powerful. Which is why I stopped playing Magic: The Gathering almost immediately after I started playing it. Years later I discovered Ascension, a deck building game designed by Magic champions, and it was exactly what I wanted: a self-contained game where you focus on the game session, not stockpiling weaponry before you get to the table.
On various visits to comic book and game stores, I had seen Legendary sitting on the shelves. But during one visit with my eldest son, during a rare weekend where he and I had free time, he fell in love with the box design and the fact that there were tons of expansions. I saw the reviews were positive and we bought it. After five gaming sessions with the title, I’m thrilled to declare it a total winner.
Setup: The only drawback to the game is the setup time. Because the game is so flexible and configurable, it takes a while to setup. When you first get the game there’s a good chunk of time just dividing the cards into the right piles. Every hero has 14 cards, every mastermind has 5, every villain group has 8, every henchmen group has 10. Once you divide all of those you still need to separate out your SHIELD cards (three types), plus cards for wounds, evil schemes, scheme twists, bystanders, and master strikes. The first division and placement is rough, but it certainly gets easier. Fortunately, the instruction manual has a step-by-step guide for your first game to take your through the process.
When you’re ready to set up a game you consult a simple chart on the board. The chart lets you know how to configure the villain deck based on how many players you have. You pick a mastermind (the base set has 4 masterminds with increasing difficulty: Red Skull requires 7 power to fight him, Magneto takes 8, Doctor Doom takes 9, and Loki requires 10) and then put the required type and number of villains and henchmen into the villain deck. You also select a scheme that the mastermind is trying to pull off–that scheme will add additional cards to the villain deck and also be used throughout the game.
Building your hero deck also depends on how many players you have–you start with 5 heroes in your deck but can add more. The base game contains 15 heroes so there are already numerous combinations and you’ll need several game sessions just to try out all the heroes. I appreciated having such a variety within the initial hero offerings–plenty of Avengers, plenty of X-Men, but also 4 female heroes which, while not at parity with the guys, is a much better percentage than most comic book titles.
The instruction manual recommends picking heroes at random but I’ve found it’s more fun to select your heroes based on how they work together or against a particular scheme. Perhaps that’s unfair–the Avengers don’t call a time out and ask the X-Men to take over in the middle of a fight. But on the other hand for big events there can be a lot more planning by the big teams and I like to think these games are closer to big events. With your hero and villain decks set and shuffled, plus some other base setup, you’re ready to play.
Game Play: Legendary’s game play happens over two main phases. First the villains get their turn. A card comes off the villain deck and enters the fray. Most of them are villain or henchmen card–they enter the city which has 5 progressive slots. As bad guys march through the city you need to take them down or they will knock out your heroes. Some other cards come out less frequently: bystanders can be taken hostage by the bad guys which need to be rescued, the mastermind can initiate a master strike which has different effects, and there can be a scheme twist that has different results based on the scheme being used by the mastermind. The bad guys have a few ways to win, so this constant progression of their plans make it an interesting battle for the good guys.
Once the villains have had their turn, then the player gets to go. Using a hand of six cards drawn from your deck you proceed to collect points used either towards recruiting additional heroes or using power to attack villains, henchmen, or the mastermind himself. The heroes ultimately win by taking down the mastermind which requires four attacks, but getting enough power to take him down without all the other bad guys and events defeating you can take some effort. After you play your cards and defeat bad guys (you get those cards in a victory pile) and recruit more heroes (they go into your discard pile) you end your turn by getting six more cards from your deck. If you don’t have enough cards you shuffle up your discard pile to get the requisite cards. This is typical for any deck building game–you’re building a more powerful deck as the game progresses.
Building a deck becomes a fascinating exercise. There is no doubt that some hero cards work well together, but it can also be helpful to specialize in a single hero. And all of your plans can be for naught if the cards aren’t on the board for you to recruit (there are always five cards from the hero deck available to recruit but with a deck of at least 70 hero cards it may not be the ones you need).
Game play continues until evil wins (they beat us one time in a particularly nasty scheme about a virus hitting the city and we had some heroes that unwittingly made victory almost impossible) or the mastermind is taken down.
While the players can all celebrate in their collaborative win, there is also an individual game. Villains and henchmen defeated during the session, as well as any of the four attacks on the mastermind, all earn individual victory points. Those points are tallied to declare a champion among the champions.
Flexibility: The game is incredibly flexible with every session being a unique experience. Other deck building games like Ascension have unique games, but they ultimately come down to a few potential outcomes along the lines of the two resources you gather (typically in the fighting or gathering areas). Legendary has a much more complicated decision tree based on the mastermind, the scheme they are trying to pull off, the villain deck, and your hero deck paired against them. While ultimately the heroes have enough power to take on almost any scenario, there can be a bad pairing or an unfortunate ordering of the decks that make victory challenging or impossible. But that’s the kind of randomness you want from a game. Or at least I do.
Discovering some of those fun combinations is also what makes the game so great. During one of our early sessions my son and I discovered that Black Widow, while initially not very powerful, becomes a Hulk-rivaling powerhouse once you combine her with someone like Spider-Man who can rescue bystanders (Black Widow has several cards that increases her fighting skill based on how many bystanders you’ve rescued). Any game that creates a combination where players are yelling “No, I want to play Black Widow this time!” has to be doing something right.
Add to all of this the numerous expansions (there are at least six, some of which are true expansions requiring a base set and others which are new base sets) and there is a lot of room to grow within the common rule set.
Score: If only because the setup time can be a bit of a bear, I’m giving Legendary an 8.5 out of 10 Hulk smashes.