Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy

My wife is my most common gaming partner. She is a part of all of my gaming groups and also my companion for two-player games and, now that my daughter is getting older, family game nights. Her tastes might be a little less deep-strategy and less occasional wargame than I would like, but I can't complain as she'll give almost anything a try. In fact, certain games that aren't normally in her wheelhouse I can get her to play by agreeing to certain caveats. For example, if I want Dune to hit the table, she must play the Bene Gesserits. Or, if I want to play a deeply strategic military conquest game, Napoleon must be in the game and she gets to play his factions. More often than not, however, when I look for a game, I look for one that would be a good fit for the two of us as well as our various gaming groups.

That being said, when I saw that Portal Games was releasing Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, I knew that it was a game she would like. Portal Games has a history of releasing a ton of games with great theme, but also with a great narrative arc.

Legacy is an odd combination of worker placement and card drafting game for 1-4 players where each player takes on the role of a matriarch or patriarch of a multiple generation family that you will build and develop during play. As head of your dynasty, you will be arranging marriages and pushing endeavors and titles onto your descendants in order to end with the most honor to have a lasting name amongst the French noble courts of the 18th century.

At the start of the game, each player gets a card at random for who they will play as the head of their lineage. Cards are double-sided and each has a male patriarch and a female matriarch, each offering a different set of starting advantages for the player. Players also begin with a hand of "Friends" that serve as both potential spouses and "currency" for other actions.

The game is played over the development of three generations and as you play through each generation, you get an increasing number of rounds to perform actions. On your turn you use one of your disks to take an action. There are actions that can be taken on the main board, which once taken are blocked for the remainder of the round, and actions that can be taken on your own player board, which can be taken multiple times and are not blocked.

The actions on the player boards can be taken multiple times and are unblockable:

Marry or Arrange a Marriage allows a player to play one of their Friends cards from their hand next to a single member of their family. If they are an adult of the generation you are playing, they immediately have a child. If it is a child, then the marriage is merely arranged. The card is played next to the child, but will not "activate" until the next generation is reached and the child reaches adulthood.

Have Children allows you to draw a child card and place it under any of the available couples eligible to have more children. Or, you could visit an urologist in order to have a child of the sex of your choice, but visiting such doctors is scandalously dishonorable and it will cost you one honor to do so (the victory point currency in the game).

Ask Friends for Money allows you to gain two coins. However, should you shamefully beg you could gain three coins at the cost of one Honor. You could even debase yourself woefully in your begging and gain four coins, but at the cost of one Honor and one Friend discarded from your hand.

Socialize allows you to gain more Friends from those laid out on the main board. You can take one Friend for free. Or you could host an expensive party and pay one coin for two Friends. Finally, you could host a lavish gala and pay two coins for three Friends.

The actions on the main board can only be taken once per round and, one taken, are blocked until the next round:

Acquire a Title and Contribute to Community both allow you to gain bonuses to a married couple, often increasing Income or Honor, but at the cost of coins upfront.

Hire a Fertility Doctor allows you to draw two children immediately for one of your eligible couples. However, it costs two coins to use the action and also costs one Friend, who snubs your actions as you try to quickly populate your family tree.

Buy a Mansion allows you to purchase a large estate for one of your family. Having the estate helps your family's prestige and increases your family's Honor. However, it is expensive at a cost of three coins and one Friend from jealousy of your fortune.

Initiate Venture lets one of your family find the means to gain money with investments, but it is hardly noble work. Each venture will increase your Income each round, but at the cost of one Honor and two friends who, understandably, turn their noses up to you for toiling for coins.

Undertake a Mission gives a player a chance to draw a Mission card, which the family can try to fulfill for bonus Honor at the end of the game. It costs a jealous Friend to take a Mission, but it might ultimately be worth it if your family can open a new art gallery or re-establish a mission in Thailand for the rewards.

Each round a player has only two pawns to use for actions. However, the benefits of bringing certain friends into your families can often give you more actions or at least more benefits. Marrying a male Friend into your family typically costs money, as you have to pay for your daughter or granddaughter's dowry and wedding. But males typically add Income and Prestige to your dynasty's name. Marrying a female friend into your family typically gives you money as you are paid her dowry. Bringing females into your family typically increases your social circles as they add more Friends to your hand.

However, what makes expanding your family interesting is the occupations, nationalities and special benefits of certain Friends. Francisco the Sculptor, for example, gives you two additional Honor for every other Spanish family member you have when he joins your family. Elena the Art Collector gives you one Honor for every Artist in your family. Charles the King's Emissary gives you two bonus Income if you have at least two other British family members, while Sarah the American Revolutionary costs you one Honor for every British family member you have.

So playing Friends from your hand becomes a delicate game of hand management and deciding when to play them. You might have a wonderfully useful male Friend who would greatly benefit your family, but none of your children have had daughters. It may require a visit to the urologist, despite the Honor cost. Or you may hold back on playing a card until you have more Spaniards in your family to maximize its benefit. There is a surprising amount of strategy in the management of your hand of Friends, though it will not likely be realized until after your first game how much synergy is possible with work.

But the game isn't just about strategy. You are telling a story as you lay cards into your family tree. At the end of the game, I'm looking at four generations of a family tree, but there is a rich and wonderful story told there. I start to feel protective of these cards laid out as if they really were my family and, as a testament to the game's narrative, I have found myself making suboptimal plays at times because of the story told.

When you draw a card from the deck for a child being born, it is to see if it is male or female. But there are also complication cards. Complications means either the child or the mother died during birth. It is a potentially sensitive subject, but it was very much a reality of the 18th century.

In one game, my granddaughter married someone and, upon their marriage, I drew for them to have a child. It was a complication, so the child was lost. During the next round, I hired a fertility doctor for them, hoping to end up with two children for the family. I drew two more complication cards. Now, it was our first game, so I had missed a rule where you can only be affected by one complication card per generation. So in our play, she lost both her children. I felt so bad for her. My next action was to initiate a venture for them, so they had a job and could feel like they had a purpose. It was a suboptimal play, but I felt for my granddaughter.

I've had my son in a game marry a... well, rather haggard looking wife for the benefits she brought the family. Then, when she died in childbirth, I allowed my son to marry the pretty courtesan to make up for it and as a thanks for "taking one for the team".

I cannot help but feel attached to these simple little stories that are told.

I set out every game to play to win, but the little stories and little vignettes are so enthralling to me that I am easily distracted and play for a favored son or granddaughter.  My wife also enjoys this game and this style of storytelling with our families.

This would have been more than enough to capture her fancy and make her love the game. However, she then came across one card, Patrick the Stable Master. Most couples are limited to only having three children. However, Patrick can have up to five children. He costs the family one Honor to bring in a lowly stable master, but he earns them an income. But his primary benefit is being able to have up to five children.

For my wife, we took a great game that she enjoyed and added a horny stable boy to it. This is, without a doubt, the icing on any cake for her.

It surprises me how much narrative is there in a game where the mechanisms are worker placement and card drafting and management, but it is there. The family tree tells a story and it is remarkably enjoyable to me to look over it at the end of a game. But there is more than that. There is strategy and depth here as well.

My criticisms of the game are mild and few. Coins are represented by cards in the game, which is a little cumbersome. Cardboard coins would have been better. But annoyingly there are few coin cards and players are constantly trading in their cards for higher currency cards as stacks run out.

There is fair criticism that there is little player interaction. Even for a worker placement game, there is minimal blocking since everyone has their own player board of actions and it is just the actions on the main board that are shared.

The artwork in the game is absolutely gorgeous, with each of the Friends cards holding a unique portrait. At times the artwork seems a little disconnected. Some pieces are beautifully worked portraits while others are more caricatures. But ultimately, the art works. The caricature style helps to soften the "realism" of complications at birth and the loss of a mother or child by ensuring that the art doesn't bring it into too serious of a realm.

There is also an interesting solo play variant in the rules, where the player builds his family tree backwards to try to discover his lineage in order to see if you are related to an old aristocrat who just died with no one able to claim heir to his fortune.

I love this game. It is strategic and deep, though the narrative makes it feel light enough that it is not a brain burner. The name might be a little daunting for some players, as the game's art is bright and often fun in contrast to the very serious sounding title. I will admire my family for a few moments at the end of each game and we end up talking about our generations and how they turned out. I have a feeling that the serious title, dry cover art and a misunderstanding of how well and fun the theme really is will make this a looked over game, which is a great pity. But if anyone out there wants to convince their wife to play, just tell them that there are horny stable boys in it. If they are anything like my wife, they will be sold.

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