Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game




I reference the Alien movies in the blocks in italics, so there may be spoilers for movies that are over twenty years old if you want to skip over those parts. Some spoilers, such as Alien Resurrection was terrible, horrible movie, are more of warnings. But there may be some plot sensitive things in them as well.

Legendary Encounters: Alien is a cooperative deck-builder, where players must work together to complete different objectives based on the chosen scenario. There are four scenarios, one based on each of the four Alien movies, and while the base mechanisms do not change, the strategies and feel of each scenario changes and it mirrors the events of the movie it represents.

The game play is vaguely similar to Marvel Legendary which, despite using the same base system and mechanisms, manages to pull together much more theme and narrative than Marvel did.

Each character has an Avatar, which determines the player's health as well as a bonus card that is immediately added into their basic starter deck. Did I mention health? Yes. Players can die in this game. They can die and be eliminated from the game.

Like most deck-builders, players start with a deck of weak cards. The Legendary games use two currencies on their cards: Recruit and Attack. Recruit allows you to purchase cards from the Headquarters to add to your deck. Attack allows you to attack enemy cards.

Marvel Legendary also uses a two currency system and in that game I thought suffered for it. I did not think that the base game had a good enough balance of cost to attack cards, making decks more clogged and unwieldy than fun.

Legendary Encounters: Alien, however, fixes that problem. The two currency system works much better. The cards are better balanced to fit the dichotomy of currencies, but also the game incorporates a Coordinate mechanism. Some cards have a Coordinate ability on them. This means that another player can use the card on their turn to aid the active player, giving the active player the currencies on the coordinate card to use. This means that decks are more efficient as you can dominate currencies better with planning to aid or be aided when necessary.

At the start of each turn, a card is added to a track from the Hive Deck, sliding the others along the path. This is the Complex. Cards, however, are placed face down. Depending upon where they are along the track, Attack value must be spent to "scan" the card and flip it face up. A card can only be attacked if it is face up.

Not all cards are aliens, however. Some are Event, Hazard, or Objective cards. Events are resolved depending upon which Objective you are on. Hazards are resolved depending upon the scenario's chosen Location. And Objective cards are usually additional mechanisms that help set up the goals in the game.

If a card reaches the end of the Complex track, it moves down into the Combat Zone. At the end of a turn, cards in the Combat Zone attack. The current player has to draw a Strike Card for each attacking card in the Combat Zone. The Strike Cards have varying amount of damage and effects on them, but they are placed next to the player's Avatar card to calculate how much health the character has remaining.

Once an objective is completed, the next objective immediately replaces it. Once the third objective is completed, the players win.

I love Alien. If I were to list my top ten movies, Alien would most likely be on the list. The movie is a beautiful achievement in theme, tension, pacing, suspense, and horror. The characters in the movie have an authenticity and realism to them that you rarely find in modern movies. However, the crowning achievement is its tension.

Legendary Encounters: Alien does a remarkable job of carrying forward tension in the play. The scenarios are hard. They are seriously difficult and players often find themselves trying to figure out how to work together to resolve the current situation, let alone have any time to plan for an overall strategy. But because of the cooperative nature and the ability to Coordinate with certain cards, players can focus their decks to succeed at a certain type of role and play style.
However, that does not mean you should trust them. Adding to the tension is the fact that there may be a hidden traitor among the players. Someone may be secretly working for the Corporation who wants the Xenomorph to live and needs the other players to die to carry that out.

Each player is given a hidden agenda card at the start of the game. One Secrets Revealed card is added to the Hive Deck for each player. If the active player reveals a Secrets Revealed card on their turn, they can choose one player to reveal their agenda. They can choose themselves. The Agenda card reveals their allegiance, but it is also a useful card that is them added to the player's deck. There are ten Good Agenda cards and five Evil Agenda cards. At the start of the game, one random Evil Agenda card is mixed in with the ten Good Agenda cards and then each player is dealt one card. So there is a fair chance that no one will be working for the Corporation, but you cannot be certain. And even if you do reveal a player with an Evil Agenda, you care allowing them to place that card into their deck. Now, none of the Evil Agenda cards let you try to smother another player with mock-fellatio with a rolled up magazine, but they are still nasty and powerful.

I have the unpopular opinion that the second movie isn't that good. It's fine for action schlock, but it took away what the first movie created. The "perfect organism" introduced in the first movie--the perfect killer--is routinely shot to pieces and scores of them get mowed down from gunfire. Also, it is a handful of marines against a thousand xenomorphs. Given that ratio, the marines would have difficulty against a thousand colonists. The point that they are a "perfect organism" is moot. And, yes, I get the Viet Nam allegory, but the movie is just popcorn team action.

Legendary Encounters: Alien has its share of action. You can eliminate the enemy cards in the Complex before they reach the Combat Zone. It is how to remove them before you have to worry about having to draw strikes and taking damage. However, scanning costs Attack. And you may hit a point where you just cannot stop the tide quick enough.

As cards drop into the Combat Zone, you really do feel like you are surrounded. You do your best to work together to try to take out as many of the enemy as you can, but sometimes there are just too many of them. Even in these death moments, it feels right. It feels like you are being swarmed and overwhelmed. If I'm going to die, I at least want to die thematically, and Legendary Encounters: Alien lets me go out with style.

But because of the cooperative nature, you do not have to have your deck do everything. Instead, you help one another out. Cards have symbols on them to signify the "class" that they are in. Some cards trigger bonus effects if other cards with the matching symbol are played first. This means that you can specialize and help the group better in that way. I've actually played a successful game where I was the "support" character, aiding other players with Recruit points to help them get better, more aggressive decks. In turn, they helped me by Coordinating with me on my turn to kill anything that threatened me. Legendary Encounters: Alien is definitely a game of strategic cooperation and I really appreciate that.

I also have the even less popular opinion that the third movie is actually pretty good. Sure, it undoes the previous movie's ending, but it takes the premise back to the original and we have a perfect hunter stalking the heroes. But the movie demonstrates Ripley as a strong female character, having her strength stand out even when surrounded by double Y chromosome men--double men. The crucifixion pose at the end is a little over done, but it ends with her cradling the burster--and she ends with a motherly, feminine pose. But really, the movie is about death. And accepting death. Ripley realizes that she will die and tried to commit suicide by alien. The prisoners know that the Corporation will kill them, but they decide to go out fighting with dignity instead of submitting. And Ripley's final act is her acceptance. Death is inevitable. What matters is how you will face it.

There is player elimination in Legendary Encounters: Alien. That may ruffle a few feathers, but that threat is what carries the theme. This isn't a nice game where if one player is out, everyone stops and starts again. No. Death is a threat. And it may cause you to act selfishly on your turn. Or it may cause you to act heroically.

But there are other things that can happen. One of the threats that can appear in the game are Facehuggers. When one is revealed on a player's turn, they immediately place it before them. If it is not killed by the end of the next player's turn, then the player removes the Facehugger card and places a Chestburster card into their discard pile.

That Chestburster card will get shuffled into their deck once their deck runs out. Once that Chestburster card is drawn that player dies. They are dead. Get rid of their Avatar and that's it.

Almost.

You see, if you die from a Chestburster, you reenter the game as an Alien player. You draw an Alien Avatar and you get a new special deck of Alien cards. Now on your turn you play against the other players. You try to take them down and once there is an Alien player, things get REALLY difficult for the others.

But if a player gets a Chestburster in their discard, you get to see what people are made of.

Does the player with the Chestburster try their damnedest to help the other win before it is over for them? Or does he give in and not help? They will soon be an Alien and fighting against them anyway.

But the other players have options as well. Do you let the other player help as much as they can before the inevitable and they turn against you? Or do you attack and kill them before the Chestburster appears? See, you can attack other players in the game. You can try to kill a Company stooge with an Evil Agenda, but you can also turn against your friend sitting next to you whose only crime was not being able to kill a Facehugger quick enough.

Death can be inevitable in this game. And it is amazing to see how people face it.

It is just a plain fact that Alien Resurrection is shit. Absolute shit. Now, I love Firefly as much as the next person and some of my favorite teevee has been Buffy episodes, but I want everyone to realize that whenever we praise Joss Whedon and put him on a pedestal, he was the one who wrote Alien Resurrection. I don't care how awesome the Avengers is, we cannot blindly forget that Alien Resurrection exists. For every interesting character quirk in the Serenity's crew in Firefly, you see that Alien Resurrection was the breeding ground for it. Tough guy with a girl's name? Government/Corporation created person for military application? Good natured mechanic whose outlook has saved them from becoming as jaded as the others? Yeah. They are all there. Alien Resurrection is a good, hard look at how shitty things can be.

Legendary Encounters: Alien isn't all good. There are some problems with it.

First of all, the game's scalability isn't perfect. It isn't bad, but there are a few problems with it. With just two, both players will have gone through their starting deck and hitting their purchased cards before anything can reach the Combat Zone. With five players, everyone will still be on their starting decks when that happens. Fortunately, the Hive Deck is crafted so that weaker cards are on top, but with a lot of players, the early game is more of a focus of luck and a Facehugger before people have crafted their decks means an early Alien player, who will run over the other players.

For the most part, the rules are well done, but they do suffer from the lack of a formal glossary.

The cards have beautiful (if sometimes gruesome) unique artwork, but they scuff easily. Our first game wasn't even completed yet and I already saw white wear along the edge of some of the cards. And the cards get handled a lot in the game. I'm not a fan of sleeved cards, but I fear that I will have to sleeve them to protect them.

And while the Corporation Traitor is a great, thematic mechanism in the game, there is little subtlety in playing it. Any player is free to examine any other player's discard pile at any time, which means that there is no way to be covert about your actions. You cannot lie and say that you do not have a card when anyone can immediately check your discard pile after your turn.

The box size is also remarkably large and, after everything is sorted, contains a notable amount of air in it.

Finally, there are two things that set this apart from most other deckbuilders that require constant vigilance. When I add a card to the Complex from the Hive Deck, my instinct is to flip them over. However, they are placed face down. And your hand is not five cards like every other deckbuilder in existence, but instead, it is six cards. These aren't flaws with the game, but just damned hard to adjust to in the beginning.

My wife does not like the Alien movies. I didn't know that before I married her and I'd like to think that wouldn't have changed my mind. I've shown her the movies several times now and her ambivalence toward them is so great that she immediately forgets everything about them once she has seen them. Every witty reference that I've made to the movies, or every time I've responded to her with a salute and said "Aye-firmative" and every time we've seen someone get pissed and I say, "I guess she don't like the cornbread either", I am met with blank, non-reference-getting eyes. Her ability to forget these movies is so great that when she drew the Synthetic Human Avatar card in one game, she remarked, "Wait. There are robots in this?"

Despite my wife's dislike of the Alien movies, she likes this game. She likes the strategy and coordination as we work together cooperatively to complete the objectives. Even removed from the theme and narrative that the game does so well, she still enjoys playing the game for the strategy and the solid mechanisms. Poor theme or narrative kills a game for my wife, but she likes the game even though she has no interest (and barely any recollection) of the movies at all.

The game works best with three players, though it is still a fine enough game with two for us to play it together during the evenings.

I'm not a big solo gamer, but I've played Legendary Encounters: Alien solo to see what it was like and I really enjoyed it. I've played it solo a number of times now. Scaling works well solo in all but the last Scenario since there is a repeating Strike mechanism that is just too difficult to absorb with one player.

That said, there is scalability to make the game more or less difficult by adding more or fewer drones into the Hive Deck. This really can help adjust the pacing and difficulty, but it still will not make the game any easier for five players getting through their initial decks before having to confront enemies.

Legendary Encounters: Alien is an amazing game. I haven't wanted to play and replay a game as often as this one in a long while. The different scenarios are varied enough to feel different enough to keep them fresh. I haven't gotten to mixing the crew cards yet, but eventually I may put Captain Dallas in Hadley's Hope with Corporal Hicks to see how things work out. I haven't even begun to explore the variations and possibilities fully yet and I am still eager and excited with each play.

I admire this game. I admire its purity. It's a keeper... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. It is the perfect game.

3 comments:

  1. This game makes me wish Upper Deck made a Cthulu Mythos expansion for Legendary Encounters.

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    1. That would be amazing. Now you have me considering making 600+ paste ups to try something like this...

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  2. You are mistaken on some of the hidden agenda dynamics

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