Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. And, as for my biases, I'll just leave this here:

The Overview:

Box cover art. 

Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game is, in fact, a Marvel deck building game. It is a semi-cooperative deck building game set in the Marvel comics universe and hosts a number of familiar intellectual properties (hereafter referred to as "characters"). Players each takes the side of the heroes, building decks with hero characters to battle numerous villain characters who appear and ultimately try to defeat the villainous mastermind, whose tactics and win conditions alter based on the current scheme that he is employing.

The game is for 2-5 players and playing in less than an hour. There is also a solo-player variant for the game as well, which also plays in about the same amount of time. The number of players does not have a great impact on the game length, however, more players will generally cause the game to run a bit longer since there is more time in between moves for everyone to "toughen" up their decks for the endgame. It is a semi-cooperative game, meaning all of the players can lose together. However, if the Mastermind is defeated, then the players compare their scores to see who is the ultimate winner.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

The game's four Masterminds. 

The game is actually very simple and it familiarity of other recent deck building games helps with the learning and flow of the game. The game is most similar in design to Ascension and knowledge of that game will help understand the flow of the game.

Perhaps the most complicated part of the game is the set up. Each player begins with the same set of 12 cards, 8 S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents used for recruiting (purchasing) more cards and 4 S.H.I.E.L.D. Troopers which are used for weak basic attacks. Then, the players set up one Mastermind to go up against (currently four are present in the base game). A scheme is chosen for the Mastermind, which may dictate further set up rules and will give victory conditions for the Mastermind. I'll describe Schemes a little later in more detail.

The Villain Deck is then created. This will be the main deck of cards that the players will be attacking and contending against. The deck is created by adding Villain groups (which are moderate to high power bad guys who work for the Mastermind), Henchman groups (which are low level chumps and lackeys working for the Mastermind) and Bystanders (which are innocents that can be captured by the bad guys and rescued by the players). The number of these groups is based upon the number of players in the game. Finally, five Master Strike cards (which result in the Mastermind resolving his special attack) and a number of Scheme Twist cards (which result in a effect based off of the chosen Scheme being resolved) based on the Scheme's description. All of these are shuffled together to create a single Villain Deck that will be drawn from.

The Hero Deck is then formed. This will be the cards that are available for the players to purchase to add to their decks to increase their ability to purchase more cards and attack the villains. Five Heroes are chosen and the 14 card decks of each of these Heroes is shuffled together. Playing with 5 players, however, you add a sixth Hero deck and the solo-variant only uses three Hero decks. Once the cards are shuffled together, five cards are dealt out to the "HQ" section of the board. These cards are available for purchase by the players.

Finally, several other stacks of available cards are added to the board. S.H.I.E.L.D. Officers are always available for purchase. They increase the recruitment (buying) power of a player if they are in their hand and are an upgrade to the starting S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents. Wounds are left on the board and certain cards or effects may cause a player to add them to their deck. Wounds essentially just take up space in your hand, forcing you to go through more cards before you get more useful cards into your hand to play. And Bystanders are also placed on the board. While some are already present in the Villain deck, certain effects may require you to add a new one from this stack to somewhere on the board.

After all of that, you are ready to play.

A player's turn is simple and is broken into three steps.

1. Play the top card of the Villain Deck: The current player turns over the top card of the Villain deck. Depending on the type of card it is, it is then resolved.
*If it is a Villain group or Henchman group card: It enters the City, which is a five-space section of the board which tracks the available bad guys that can be fought by the players. If there is already a card in the first space, then it bumps over the existing card (or cards) along the track if it needs to make room for it. If a card slides off the fifth space along the track, then the villain "escapes". Certain cards have specific effects if they escape. However, the standard effect is that the players must discard one of the cards in the HQ every time a villain escapes. This cycles through the Hero Deck quicker, which can allow the villains to win, or at least stalemate. Also, some cards have an Ambush ability, which is resolved as soon as the card is added to the track. Others have special abilities if they are on a specific location along the City track or a special ability that is resolved if they escape off of the track.
*If it is a Bystander card: It is captured by a villain. It slides under the nearest Villain card along the City track and will move with this villain card if it is bumped forward along the track. If there are no Villains along the City track, then it is added to the Mastermind instead. If a Villain card "escapes" off of the end of the track with a bystander, then each player needs to discard a card. If a Villain with a Bystander under them is defeated by a player, they claim the Bystander for their victory points.
*If it is a Scheme Twist card: The player refers to the active Scheme card chosen in the set up of the game and plays the effects listed on the card. Scheme Twists represent the villain advancing his plot and usually pushes him closer to his win condition.
*If it is a Master Strike card: The player refers to the Mastermind card and resolves the Mastermind's special attack.

Bystanders, Scheme Twists and Master Strike cards do not advance the cards along the City track.

2. Play cards from your hand: The current player then adds the Attack points and Recruit points for each of his cards to create an Attack Pool and a Recruit Pool. Many of the Hero cards that can be purchased have Superpowers which can activate to increase one or both of these pools, and most of the cards work off of icons on other cards. For example, Thor might be able to add his bonus, but only if another Strength icon was already played. While many of Captain America's abilities increase depending on the number of different types of Hero cards played.
*Recruiting a Hero: Each card in the HQ has a recruitment cost listed on the card. A player can spend their Recruitment Points to pay the cost of one or more of these cards. The card or cards are then placed in that player's discard pile. As soon as a card is purchased from the HQ, a new card from the Hero Deck is put out in its place.
*Fighting a Villain: If your Attack Pool is equal to or higher than a Villain on the City track, you can fight them. The Villain (and any Bystanders under their card) are added to your Victory Point pile. If the card had a "Fight" effect listed on it, it is then resolved. Any remainder left in your Attack Pool can then be used to fight another villain. Alternately, a player may decide to attack the Mastermind if his Attack Pool is equal to or greater than his strength. It is resolved in the same manner, but one of the four cards under the Mastermind card are taken and resolved and then put in the player's Victory Pile. If it is the fourth card under the Mastermind that is taken, then the Mastermind has been defeated and players tally their Victory Points.

3. Discard and draw up: The current player discards all of the cards from their hand--they cannot hold any cards for later rounds. The player then draws up to their hand limit (usually 6).

Play then continues with the next player.

Play ends when the last card under the Mastermind is defeated (the players win and each player tallies their victory points to see who is the ultimate winner), the Hero Deck runs out (the players and the Mastermind are considered to have a draw with neither side winning), or the conditions on the Scheme are met (in which case, the Mastermind wins and all of the players lose).

The Theme:

The Legacy Virus scheme does force decision points at purchasing certain cards. 

Legendary is a game that holds all of the right components to build great theme, but ultimately fails to really create any narrative. This isn't to say it is a bad game--it isn't. The game is very good. But the game doesn't fully tell a story--at least not from a player's perspective.

The first problem in theme is with recruiting heroes. I like the idea of playing your S.H.I.E.L.D. Operatives to recruit Heroes to engage the threats to the city. However, when I recruit Captain America, I am only recruiting one out of 14 Captain America cards. So there are 13 others that can be recruited by other players. So I never feel like I've build my team when I then see "my" teammates then played by the other players. The end result is that it feels like we are all playing essentially the same team, but when he shows up in my hand Cap is out recruiting and while he's in the player to my left's hand, he's throwing his shield around at baddies.

I also think that the City track is genius underused. I love the idea of bad guys beginning in the Sewer and moving up to the Bank, fleeing over the Rooftops and then through the Streets and the last chance to stop them is on the Bridge before they escape. It is genius and is ripe to set a narrative. However, too few of the cards use these actual locations in any meaningful way. Some Schemes make use of the locations, but it would be better if more of the Villain cards referenced the locations that they were in to make it "feel" like they were moving through the Bank, rather than just moving to the second space on the City track.

Now, what works well for theme are the Scheme cards. Or at least, they have the potential to bring in more theme and narrative. Each card sets up the Scheme Twist cards to have a different effect. Such as the "Midtown Bank Robbery" Scheme means that a Scheme Twist card will make any Villain in the Bank capture two Bystanders and the Mastermind winds if 8 Bystanders are carried away. The "Negative Zone Prison Break Out" Scheme, in contrast, causes the top 2 cards of the Villain Deck to be played if a Scheme Twist card is drawn and the Mastermind wins if 12 Villains escape. So, this offers variety in victory conditions and in some play, even if ultimately it does come down to just beating the Mastermind four times in a game.

Another point where theme is thought through well is with the effects of the cards--especially the Villains. Each of them play well and are thematic to their character. I have no complaints with the intent and use of the cards. It is, however, just that they are cards available to everyone. I would get the theme more if we were all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents trying to vie for a promotion by organizing the most efficient team to handle a crisis, but even that narrative falls apart when Thor's on each of our teams.

Learning the Game:

The game is very easy to learn. The actual gameplay itself is really simple and the set up is really the most complicated part of the game.

There are a few things in the game, however, that could have been a bit clearer in order to help early plays. For example, using the term "color" heroes, instead of Hero Class, as it can cause confusion over the borderless hero cards as to what "color" they are. Also, a game that has to clarify what "Your Heroes" and "Heroes You Have" means in the rulebook probably should realize that there might be some clarity issues with the wording of a few of their cards.

However, that being said, the game is easy for non-gamers and younger gamers to pick up with little difficulties.

The Components:

The board is very efficient and the Cityscape track is genius.

The artwork in the game is beautiful, if unfortunately repetitive over 14 cards of different powers for each hero. 

An example of a villain group card. 

The artwork for the game is beautiful. Each of the character cards have well-drawn pictures of the characters on them and the only complaint that I have with the artwork is that the same picture is used for every card. Again, it doesn't detract from the gameplay at all, but it does represent a missed opportunity to build theme. For example, purchasing Captain America's "Perfect Teamwork" attack card has the same illustration as his "Avengers Assemble" recruit card. Granted, it's paying for more artwork, but I would have loved to see the "Diving Block" card have Cap diving and blocking with his shield, which his attack card showing him throwing his shield and his recruit card showing him trying to sell war bonds. Instead, the only differential of the card effects at a glance are from the color borders.

However, that is not to say that I am disappointed in the quality of the artwork I am not at all. It is beautiful and stylistic.

The cardstock is a little thin and wears at the sides easily, though there a lot of cards for those who want to go the sleeving route. However, the stock isn't that bad and less obsessive players should have no real problem with the bit of wear the cards will likely receive.

The board is very functional and the only issue that I have with it is that the City track is just a busy for a background (it should be faded back a bit more) and the cards, especially Bystander cards underneath of other cards, tend to blend into the busy background with a quick glance. But this is really a very minor complaint on what is an otherwise incredible functional board. Many card games would forgo the board and let you set up your areas on your own, but I think the board helps contain ease and flow of the game.

The biggest complaint that I have with the components, however, is a lack of randomizer cards. This is almost standard in deckbuilder games now as it makes for ease of choosing random heroes, villains and henchmen.

Playing the Game:

Game play is simple and it is easily picked up and learned, especially if you are familiar with Ascension. Strategies are somewhat dictated by the Scheme in play, however, most games are still essentially just a race to bash the Mastermind four times.

As with many deckbuilders, the game finds itself with a slow creep in power at first and then suddenly players hit a turn where they are able to do 14 damage in a single turn and the game has a sudden fevered pitch to its conclusion. I know that there are players out there who do not like this. However, it is the nature of deckbuilders.

I would also suggest playing with the "Final Showdown" variant. Basically, after the fourth Mastermind card is defeated, the Heroes each pit off against the Mastermind one last time with the victor getting the actual Mastermind top card to add to their Victory Pile. Basically, everyone plays one last hand, though in this battle, recruitment points count toward attack. Whoever has the highest total gets the last card. Since the person who just beat the fourth Mastermind has to draw a new hand, it means that a very lucky stack of cards is likely to be countered by this variant. Also, it gives recruit heavy decks a chance to still be competitive. It's just my opinion, but I think it adds just a bit more balance to the end game competitiveness since everyone has a chance for one last card and turn order isn't a factor.


The game plays from 2-5 players (not including the solo rules), but each of the Schemes has a sweet spot. On the whole, the fewer the players, the easier the game will be. For example, both players will have had a chance to go through their entire starting deck and will be drawing up their stronger recruited cards before the first villain can make it to the fifth space on the City track. However, in a five player game, each player will only have gone through one hand (of two) from their starting deck by the time a villain could reach the fifth space on the City track. More Bystanders in the five player game slow the progress of villains, but there is definitely a noticeable difference. So fewer players will allow the players to prepare their decks better before the City track is a threat.

A few cards (such as Rogue's) are more powerful with more players, but ultimately that isn't an issue because anyone has the option of buying that card.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She isn't quite the comic book geek that I am, but she's still involved in geekdom and has more than a superficial knowledge of most comic book characters. That being said, she likes the game, but isn't in awe of it. She, like me, likes theme in game, but more than that, likes narrative in a game. Unfortunately, the game is missing narrative. I think I have more appreciation to play the game and enjoy the game's mechanics while looking at pictures of the superhero characters I really like than she does. It isn't to say that she doesn't like the game; she would likely play it whenever I suggested it, but I do not think it will ever be one that she would suggest herself.


I think that this game will likely draw comparisons to two other current games: Ascension and Sentinels of the Multiverse.

The comparisons to Ascension are very apt. Most deckbuilders are working off of a familiar mechanic and adding to it. Legendary was very influenced by Ascension. However, what Legendary does is separate your purchase cards and villain cards. And the City track really is a stroke of genius, just currently under-used (expansions may hopefully take full advantage of the villain visiting locations while escaping narrative). Ascension has a couple of expansions that have fleshed out the original game and I think that it has some advantages for that. However, I think that if you are comparing vanilla games, Legendary has it beat. Still, Ascension really lacks in theme and narrative as well. I really enjoy the game because I find the mechanics of it fun (though I prefer playing it on iOS). However, given the choice between the two, I would probably play Legendary over Ascension. This is likely because of the appeal of playing with familiar comic book characters, but it makes for an overall more enjoyable time at the table.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is one of my guilty pleasures. The game has a bunch of flaws to it, but I don't care, I love the hell out of it and it is a lot of fun despite its warts. Being a superhero card game, there will be comparisons. Sentinels is not a deckbuilder. Each hero has their preset deck of cards and you play against a villain with a preset deck of cards. So the mechanics of the game are very different. However, the superhero theme will draw comparisons. I think overall Sentinels carries a better narrative--you are playing one hero with your teammates fully cooperating to defeat the bad guys. In Legendary, you might let a villain go to screw over another player (a hero) for points. Plus you are all playing Hulk, so the narrative theme suffers. However, Legendary has familiar and known characters. Legendary is also a much more refined and elegant game. My wife will definitely prefer Sentinels over Legendary, but for me, it will depend on how the mood sets me. The games are different enough that they each satisfy a different craving.

The Pros:

*Captain America is in it.
*Other, less important, but known characters from the Marvel Universe are also in the game.
*The card effects fit the theme of the characters they are representing (such as Storm has advantages when fighting on open spaces in the City track and Rogue being able to temporarily steal other player's powers).
*The City track is a genius design to potentially build a narrative about villains escaping the city.
*Lots of variety and combinations.
*Schemes change the lose conditions and can change the strategies of the players.
*Great artwork and very functional board.
*There is a lot in the game box.
*The game reeks of potential from expansions, but is still very solid in and of itself.

The Cons:

*Theme is there, but the game is sorely missing any form of narrative.
*Superheroes represented offer variety, but the many of their cards are simply offering a bonus to attack or recruit, making them feel less dynamic and more of just mechanics on a card. Individual decks feel more theme-centric (such as Hulk getting wounds and getting angry and then casing massive damage), however, since you do not play a specific hero deck and anyone can buy these cards, the theme and variety is lost to mechanic functionality of your deck.
*City track is under-used to establish narrative. There is much more potential in it than what appears in the base game.
*Scheme cards offer variety, however, the game essentially still ends up being a race to beat up the Mastermind.
*There are some minor problems with scaling for players. Fewer players means a quicker opportunity to ready their decks before the City track becomes a threat.
*No randomizer cards to help determine set up.
*A little terminology/symbology vagueness in the card text ("Each different color hero").
*Gambit's inclusion in the game means that on occasion, I may be forced to include him in our set up and have to deal with the X-Men's big "trying too hard to be cool and liked" character in our games.


The Marvel Universe is a very popular property and any attempt at a game to include the characters could have been a quick, easy money grab with the license. Legendary, however, delivers a solid, fun and mechanically sound game with the license. Most of my complaints are merely just in that despite solid mechanics, the game is still a little abstract in that it doesn't present a fully comprehensive story. I love theme, but really, I love narrative more. It is a game with expansions in mind, but, unlike the track that some publishers take (*ahem* Fantasy Flight), the game delivered doesn't feel like things were intentionally taken out of it to be made into expansions later, but rather it is a solid game in and of itself. I believe that Legendary is an excellent game that will be improved by expansions if they add to the potential that is already there in the game. I would have ultimately preferred a game where the narrative was that I was Captain America helping Spiderman to defeat Doctor Doom. Instead I have a game where me and the other players are all Captain America and Spiderman sometimes screwing each other over on our way to defeat Doctor Doom. But at the end of the day, I'm still playing a solid game that involves many of my favorite comic book characters.


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