Hey, Bub! ‘Legendary: A Marvel DBG’ May Not Be the Best There Is At What It Does.
You want the quick and skinny on Legendary? Okay. Devin Low designed a great game, and Upper Deck came close to screwing it up.
Let’s start with Mr. Low’s design, because he made some excellent choices. I’m going to explain this game by setting it up, since one of the strengths of Legendary is its replay value. Because players have a lot of options to choose from, the mere act of setting up the game with their friends is entertaining.
The first thing we need is a Mastermind, or the main villain hiding behind his minions. Legendary’s base game gives us Red Skull, Magneto, Doctor Doom and Loki to choose from; all excellent choices. We’ll choose Doctor Doom for our game, flip the board open and put five Doctor Doom cards on his Mastermind square (by the way Upper Deck, I know I slammed you in the first paragraph, but I give credit where it’s due. Nice board. Many deck building games don’t bother to feature one, which is a shame. Upper Deck does bring a level of professionalism to their games, and this board is well designed with lots of colorful pictures.)
Our Mastermind needs to scheme a plot. So, we choose one of eight different Scheme Cards (we could choose a scheme at random, but I’m fond of The Secret Invasion of Shapeshifting Skrulls, so I’ll choose that) and put the Scheme on its space. Perhaps The Skrull have offered Doom the chance to rule Earth in their stead? I’m sure Doom plans to betray the Skrull Empire at some point after the world’s heroes have been pacified.
Our Mastermind, Scheme and number of players will help us build a villain deck (and again, kudos to Upper Deck for sneaking a quick reference on the board.) Doom always works with his Doombot Henchmen, so we set those cards aside. The Secret Invasion requires Skrulls, so we shuffle the Skrull Villain Cards with the Doombot Legion. Some bystanders are added to the deck, some Scheme Twists which are events specific to our scheme (in The Secret Invasion, whenever we reveal a Scheme Twist, the most expensive hero we can recruit at S.H.I.E.L.D Headquarters is revealed to be a Skrull agent who runs off into The Sewers), some Master Strikes (Because Doctor Doom is the mastermind of this invasion, the Master Strikes will be Doom’s special plot manipulation), and we need to add another villain group of our choice, so let’s toss in The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Shuffle all those cards to make the Villain Deck.
Now we assemble a group of five heroes from among fifteen different options. Again, you can either choose which heroes you play with, draft them among your friends or pick at random. Legendary, unfortunately, does not include a blank hero card for each hero, like Dominion does. But, there are websites that can create a random spread for you. I like this one here. Personally, I prefer to choose heroes at random. That’s because Legendary is a game where both the players and the board are trying to win. The player who has the most victory points at game’s end will be declared ultimate winner. But if too many Skrull agents (in this scenario) escape, then Doctor Doom wins, and the players lose. Players will often want to recruit ‘the best’ heroes to stop the scenario’s Mastermind from unleashing his ultimate death ray. But that often leads to boring games where we recruit the same heroes over and over. Smashing into Castle Doom with the power of Thor and Iron Man is fun… but so isn’t squeaking out a victory with the wise-cracking, star-spangled non-synergistic Spider-Man and Captain America combination.
Shuffle the Hero Deck (and since we’re running The Secret Invasion scheme, shuffle twelve random heroes into the villain deck as well, who act as shapeshifting Skrull taking the form of our heroes) and play. I don’t have the space to explain how a Deck Building Game works, but if you’re interested, you can listen to Myriad Game’s podcast for the Dominion base game. Legendary’s big addition is that when a player starts their turn, they flip over the top card of the Villain Deck. Most of the time, a villain, like Juggernaut will appear. Each new villain will push the chain of villains forward, through the Sewers to the Bank, on top of the Roofs, down the Street and across the Bridge. If the villain leaves the Bridge without fighting a hero, they escape New York. That’s generally not a good thing.
The gameplay is enchanting. It takes what we like about Deck Building Games and combines it with what we like about Marvel. A few reviewers have mentioned they would have liked to play one hero, or play a group of heroes while their friends play with other heroes, instead of everyone having a deck full of the same five heroes and S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents, but that would be a hard game to design. We all share the same card pool in a deck building game. You could design around that… but my impression is the end result would be a weaker game. I’m sure we could have included some bonus cards in the Hero Deck, though, like all the fun cards that pop up in the Villain Deck. But Legendary is already full of little details. Maybe it’s best if we leave room for growth so the expansions can pick up on that.
I should mention that there’s a solitaire mode. I played Legendary solitaire to teach myself the game. Then I played solitaire to make sure I understood the rules. Then I played a third game because the game is fun. If you can play a board game by yourself and be entertained, then that’s a good board game. Oh, also the box is a nice box, and there’s a molded tray and dividers inside to help sort your cards while leaving plenty of room for the expansions. Upper Deck did a very nice job with the box. So if I keep praising Upper Deck so much, why do I insist they almost screwed everything up?
The most obvious problem with Legendary is that it’s more expensive than every other Deck Building Game published so far. I don’t normally talk about how much games cost on this blog. I figure a good game is worth the money. But Legendary’s price tag bothers a lot of other gamers, which will make them not buy the game. It bothers these gamers because, ultimately, this game consists of 500 cards, a board, a bit of molded plastic, a fifteen sheet paper rule book and a cardboard box. The game’s MSRP was set at $60, then, before the game was shipped out, Upper Deck increased the cost based on market testing to $70 retail in local game stores. It gets worse. Since this game is chase, you might want to sleeve those cards. Finding replacements for bent cards will be a hassle. New sleeves cost about five dollars for fifty, and this game comes with 500 cards, so… yeah. High costs means less buyers of Legendary means less people playing Legendary which limits Legendary’s ability to build on its brand.
I’m sympathetic to Upper Deck. I know they want to make money while they hawk another company’s intellectual property. A share of the profit of every game sold must be sent to Marvel and to the artists who drew the card art. It’s unfortunate that Upper Deck felt their game needed to be a product instead of a console. Companies like Nintendo don’t make money off the Wii. Those consoles are priced for a small margin, but that’s okay. If you have a Wii, you will buy games for that Wii. That’s where Nintendo Co. makes the majority of their money – from their games and downloadable content. Using this model, Upper Deck could have sold their game on the cheap, practically dominating the current Deck Building Game market with a similar or cheaper priced superior product, then recouped their money when the game gained notoriety, selling 50 card expansions quarterly for $25. Would we, the customers, have benefited from this exchange? If it worked? Absolutely. More people would play Legendary because the base game would be cheaper, which would mean that more resources and playtesting would occur, which would make those 50 card expansion a better product. But, I admit, I’m not a brand reviewer, I’m a game reviewer. This sounds like a great idea in my head, but I couldn’t tell you if my idea is practical. I’m not wrong about Legendary’s high cost strangling the player base, though. That’s been the most common complaint I’ve heard about the game so far.
The game’s real failing, however, is in the artwork. Oh, the art itself is great. Very Marvel Comics. I have no problem with the ten artists involved in the project. It’s the fact that Upper Deck decided it wasn’t important enough a detail to have different pieces of art for different hero cards.
At first glance, this is annoying (when I showed this game to Jeff from the Myriad Games Podcast, it was the first thing he noticed and complained about, even before the rules of the game were explained to him.) But, fine. The guys at Upper Deck saved some money and didn’t commission eight pieces of art for each of fifteen heroes. How much harm could that do? Have you ever played Magic: the Gathering? I’m going to show you one old Magic card…
…for all you old-timer Magic players and one more modern Magic card…
…for those who started playing maybe three years ago. Now, I know that many of you aren’t tournament players, so I can’t guarantee you know these two cards. But if you’ve played extensively, either with Force of Will or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or you’ve played extensively in an environment that includes either of these cards, you know what these cards do by looking at the artwork. The artwork is shorthand for everything printed on the card. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is packed with words, but you don’t need to read them when your opponent casts Jace. All you need to know is that you will lose the game if you don’t counter it with the artwork for Force of Will that is in your hand.
Card artwork isn’t just something pretty that sells your product, it’s a quick visual cue that allows you to forgo reading all your cards every time you play a game. Even Uno knows this: ‘Draw Two’ isn’t a picture of the Uno logo with a text box that reads “When you play this card, the next person in queue draws two cards”. It’s a giant letter ‘D’. It looks different from Reverse or Six. Every Spider-Man card in Legendary looks like every other Spider-Man card, both in your hand, and in the Headquarters where we all recruit heroes from. In a four player game, there’s a 75% chance the cards in HQ will be oriented away from you (and thus be difficult to read) and that is super-frustrating.
And it’s double frustrating because hero cards have combinations that chain off of other cards that include that hero. When you buy a Black Widow card and a different Black Widow card flips into HQ, you’re more likely to buy that other Black Widow card because it probably works well with the Black Widow card you previously bought, and you don’t want to read what the other cards do. That’s a reasonable attitude to take in your first game, but I’ve watched players act this way in their tenth game as well. It’s human nature. Sometimes you don’t care, and you assume the other Black Widow card is the best card for your deck right now because it’s the highest cost card you can buy and you can’t remember what the 5-cost Iron Man card does, and don’t want to pick it up and read it. Decision making crumbles after that point, and Legendary spirals into the same zone of mental stimulation that drives a game of Candy Land.
Does the price tag and redundant artwork make Legendary a bad game? Of course not. But those gaffes stick in your craw. If the price tag and artwork weren’t a problem, I could say “If you like Marvel Comics or if you like Deck Building Games, you should pick this game up.” Instead, I need to exchange that ‘or’ for an ‘and’. You have to like Marvel Comics and Deck Building Games to pick up Legendary, otherwise it might not be worth the money. For those of us who are okay with paying more and are willing to be positive, Legendary is an excellent game. Upper Deck has a number of expansions planned out and I’m looking forward to playing them. I hope enough people pick this game up so that good expansions keep coming. There’s a lot of buzz on this game, so it might happen. I sure hope Upper Deck learns from this release and pays for individual artwork for each Hero card with different text. Wouldn’t that be nice?