The Good, the Bad and the Legendary
Marvel Legendary is a growing franchise – it started out with a core game, released in 2012, but only finding an official UK distributor in 2015. There have been several expansions to this game, as well a stand-alone “Legendary: Villains” line which offers the same experience from the other side. In recent times, the two lines seem to have converged like a pair of colliding alternate realities, with all ongoing expansions being for the Legendary line more generally.
At future points in time, I’m hoping to consider some of the individual boxes in more detail, but for today, I just want to provide an overview of the system as a whole.
In a game of Legendary, players need to recruit a selection of Marvel heroes to face an ongoing threat from scheming villains and ultimately topple a Mastermind figure such as Magneto, Loki or the Red Skull.
You begin the game with a deck of 8 SHIELD Agents and 4 Shield troopers, who each provide a single point of recruitment and combat respectively. Each turn begins with the players revealing a card from the villain deck: mostly this will be a villain who will enter the city, and need to be fought, but it could be an innocent bystander who gets captured by the villains, or a one-off event that will change things around. As more and more villains enter the city, they will push those who came before them across the board, until they escape the city altogether, which will can trigger unfortunate events. Once you have resolved the card revealed, you play cards from your hand, drawing extra cards or gaining bonuses where you can, then you use fight points from your cards to battle enemies, and buy points to buy heroes from the HQ. Finally, you discard any remaining cards, and draw a new hand of six ready for next turn.
In any given game, the hero deck, which stocks the HQ will contain 14 cards each for 5 different heroes. These cards will vary from a single copy of a rare card (typically high-cost and powerful), along with more numerous copies of more common versions: these hero cards tend to have higher fight or buy values, along with abilities that make it plausible for the players to fight anything more challenging than a weedy henchman. There are 15 different heroes in the Base game, most of whom are X-Men or Avengers, whilst the various expansions provide additional characters for various themes.
Heroes also have team affiliations (X-Men, Avengers etc) as well as colours: red representing “covert” yellow for “instinct” blue for “ranged” and so forth. Many heroes have abilities which only trigger, or trigger more powerfully if you have played a hero of a specified colour or affiliation already that turn, allowing you to generate synergies as you string together multiple heroes of the same kind.
Once you buy (recruit) a hero, it goes into your discard pile. When your deck runs out, you reshuffle your discard pile to create a new deck, so that the cards previously purchased are now available to you to use.
Players win when they defeat the Mastermind for a 4th time, and lose when the hero deck runs out, or the mastermind completes his “scheme” (a set of random plots which shape the scenario). Emptying the villain deck is technically a draw.
This game is really popular in our house, we had never heard of it 6 months ago, and we now have multiple boxes, and it is securely in our top three for most-played games. It’s also earned the rare and prestigious distinction of being one of the games that my wife has actively suggested we should get the next bit for.
That said, not everyone has been so universally impressed with the game as us, so I thought it was worth just giving a quick overview of some of the main streams of thought about this system.
Some people have criticised this game for its simplicity, complaining about the lack of decisions to make, but I don’t think this criticism holds up. There are typically 5 heroes available to buy on a turn, plus a generic SHIELD officer who acts like a powered-up version of the SHIELD agent (2 recruitment instead of 1).
With any given set of heroes, there will be some who are more powerful than others, and it may well be that there’s an obvious hero or two that everyone wants to buy. But, in a game with three or four players, if everyone tries to buy the same hero, nobody is going to get enough cards to generate the synergy they need – therefore it can be better for the group as a whole, and potentially even for yourself, to pursue a set of cards which look slightly sub-optimal, but which you know you have a better chance of being able to get plenty of. A perfectly executed version of the second-best strategy may-well be better than a bodged attempt at the “best strategy.”
Whose side are you on?
The question of whether everyone piles in after the same hero, or whether they diversify ties in well with the fact that Legendary is one of those incredibly rare beasts, a good “semi-co-op” game. If you defeat the Mastermind, you will be looking at who has contributed the most to the team’s success to determine the overall “winner” (defeated villains and masterminds, along with rescued passers-by, confer victory points) With this end-goal at stake, you don’t want to be doing nothing except clearing dross out of the way for others, as you’ll fall behind in the victory-point stakes – but equally, somebody had to take out that Doom Bot before the city is overrun with villains, and they all escape to catastrophic effect.
Which comes first?
There is also strategy to the order in which you play your cards. As noted above, cards have two basic types of ability: a base ability which triggers whenever they are played, and a chained ability, which only triggers if you have already played a card of a certain type – either a matching affiliation (X-Man, Avenger), or a particular type of hero (Tech, Ranged, Melee). Given that it’s quite possible that you’ll have two cards in hand which both want to be played second, you need to balance the order in which you play these. Likewise various cards allow you to draw another card, look at the top card of your deck and draw it if it meets a particular requirement, or reveal/discard the top card of your deck for a specific effect. Again, the sequence in which you play these can be vital, sometimes due to careful calculation, and at other times based on remembering the ratios in your deck / guesswork.
When the first box came out, it attracted a surprising amount of criticism for its art. Each of the 14 cards for a hero had the same art-work, and you had to distinguish between them by the borders, card-text and icons.
I didn’t have a problem with this- If I’m buying a card, or playing it, I’m going to read it, even if that’s just skim-reading, to check what it does. We play this game pretty often, but haven’t got anywhere near memorising the cards yet.
Others complained- they wanted unique art for each card, in order to provide more diversity.
The designers listened, and after the first box, all characters came with unique art for each of their different versions. Some people were very happy with this – others complained that the art was of inferior quality: whether this is a reflection of the difficulty of finding one piece of good art versus five, a financial issue, or just people complaining because they like complaining, I couldn’t say.
As I’ve said above, I didn’t find the cards having art all the same a problem – it didn’t make life particularly difficult when playing the game, but it did make it easier when clearing up! One big issue with this game, is the amount of set-up / set-down time involved – having to pull all the heroes and villains for the various decks at the start, then having to separate them all out again afterwards takes a significant amount of time, and being able to rapidly split the heroes into piles with identical art made life easier: the new arrangement isn’t a deal-breaker, but I certainly don’t think I’d call it an “upgrade.”
Probably the greatest feature of this game for us, is that It’s one of the best thematically I’ve played in a while – it has a strong comic-book feel to it: At the outset, the players are frantically trying to stave off the threat, and need to concentrate all their efforts on the common good, to take out villains, and prevent the scheme being realised. However, as players build their deck, thinning out the number of generic SHIELD agents, and calling in the services of Wolverine, Captain America, or whichever heroes are in that particular game, the power-curve starts to accelerate to the point where you can take decisions more based on your own benefit than the desperate need to stave off disaster. This can get particularly interesting when you are playing as the villains, many of whom have abilities to actively mess with other players.
With any game, it won’t take long for a group to emerge who find the game too easy, and Legendary is no exception. The original box, it must be said, pitches difficulty a lot lower than some of the later sets, particularly in terms of the Masterminds, who often have fight values which are no higher than some of the larger villains.
Despite this, there are several factors which correct for this, not least being the fact that the core rulebook comes with a number of different suggestions for how you can customise the difficulty of the game by making minor tweaks to the rules.
Aside from the game’s designers giving players the tools to adjust the difficult themselves, pretty-much all of the boxes after the first have taken the game in a more challenging direction, with villains typically having higher stats and nastier effects, whilst the Masterminds can, at times, become enormous, or just plain irritating.
When considering the question of difficulty, it’s also worth thinking a bit about how this game scales. In your first two turns, you will almost always be playing purely with the grey starter heroes. In a 2-player game, that allows the villain deck to churn out 5 cards before you’ve got a decent chance to get set up, and you need to hope for a freebie like a passer-by, or a small henchman villain that you can take out to stop things overrunning.
In a 4-player game however, it will probably be the start of turn 9 before the first player has the chance to draw a hero they have bought. It’s also much more likely that effects which target all players will have reduced their hands before cards can be played: the bigger the group, the greater the chance that you will be overwhelmed before you can ever get going.
As a last thought, I just want to mention the oh-so-irritating “4 and 2” hand. With 8 1-buy cards and 4 1-fight cards, in your starting deck, it is remarkable just how often your opening hand (and therefore your second-turn hand) as well, has 2 fight, which is typically insufficient to topple anything, and 4 buy, which keeps the more powerful 5 and 6 costs out of reach until at least turn 3. This, presumably is just a sign that you cannot shuffle properly. And that the cards hate you.