As an avid board gamer, someone who revels in the social dynamics around a tabletop, which are all too rare in video games, I remain deeply confused by the popularity of minimally interactive board games. I understand how creating and managing a system can entertain someone, but playing a multiplayer game of solitaire seems to undermine the very nature and personality of board games. Worker placement games and deck building games are the two biggest genre offenders in this field, although outliers apply. For the most part, I forswear this style of game. However, the recently released and the unfortunately named Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game has salvaged many of the core ideas of the deck-building genre by crafting a thoroughly interactive multiplayer experience.
For those that may be board game illiterate, there are a few core systems in deck building games that define the genre and lend themselves towards poor multiplayer experiences in general. First, generally speaking, deck-building games start all players off on an even playing field with identical decks of cards. Players then use the cards in their hands to effect a central tableau of cards, either purchasing new cards to add to their deck or by removing cards from the game. As the game progresses, each player’s deck becomes a unique machine, watered down or strengthened by their decisions.
Dominion, an immensely popular deck building game whose success still confounds me, is easily one of the most widely known games in this genre. Like most games of its type, player interaction in Dominion is largely limited to “denial”, the strategy of acquiring or removing cards from a shared pile to deny them from other players. Besides this indirect way of screwing over friends, these games are largely solitary experiences.
The game that Legendary most closely resembles is Ascension, a deck building game that manages to crawl out from the rubbish heap of minimal interaction. Ascension adds a greater level of multiplayer interaction by letting players kill instead of purchase central cards, which in turn often trigger effects on other players. The result is a game that feels far more responsive to player decision than many of its competitors.
Legendary melds the repercussions of Ascension, the traditional strategy of deck-building and worker-placement games (what I like to call “systems management”), and the nail-biting tension of cooperative board games. An officially licensed Marvel game, players build their decks by purchasing cards from a shared pool of five different super-hero themed decks, very much in the vein of Dominion. The center tableau could be five unique cards that represent powers available to Rogue, Wolverine, Captain America, Storm, or one of the game’s initial fifteen superhero decks. Each hand of cards played represents a functioning team of superheroes fighting a group of villains.
Like Ascension, instead of purchasing, or “Recruiting”, heroes from the shared pile, they can defeat enemies in the tableau. These enemies come from a Villain pile, itself a combination of themed enemy decks, from Sentinels to Savage Land mutants. However, unlike Ascension, Legendary is a cooperative game at heart. While, yes, players can earn “Victory Points”, the level of cooperative or antagonistic behavior is largely player driven. In order to win at all, players must defeat the Mastermind, a special villain, such as Loki, with stronger stats than regular villains and also some unique abilities.
It is is the decision to take a cooperative approach to the game that makes all the difference. Players no longer act purely out of self interest in playing their own deck. Since player decisions affect the whole team, each player has an incentive to understand not just how their own deck works, but also how each ally’s deck system works, and how the entire team system functions as a whole as well. For example, many villains have special triggering features that affect the entire table. Thus, every player’s turn becomes an opportunity for collaborative strategizing and negotiation.
The lead designer on the game, Devin Low, was once the head developer of Magic: The Gathering, which may give you some sense of the variability within even the relatively simple mechanics of Legendary. Each Hero deck plays differently, allowing players to set up interesting combinations of cards that may help out individuals or the entire team. The Hulk deck, for example, often forces players to add Wound cards to their deck, which water down their effectiveness. Wolverine cards, on the other hand, allow players to use Logan’s mutant healing to remove wounds. In conjunction, they create a powerful and thematically consistent machine. Additionally, players can shape their own deck to overcome its shortcomings.
Additionally, Legendary includes various Scheme Twists, which augment the system of the game and change how decks can and should be built and how teams must interact to overcome a new mix of problem. The Breakout scheme, for example, forces players to draw more villain cards, bringing them closer to defeat. With this rule augmentation, defeating central cards becomes more important, forcing players to cooperate to strategically take out the ever growing pile of villains.
The scheme twists also add a fluid and well crafted difficulty curve. One scheme, for example, places special portals on the table that strengthen foes. As the game progresses, more portals appear, increasing the game’s difficulty somewhat in time with how quickly each player’s team of heroes improves. This too fosters strategic cooperation and helps diminish the punishing knowledge gap between veteran and new players to the game, something that plagues Dominion and many games like it.
In fact, Legendary’s accessibility is one of the best things about it. Unlike Race to the Galaxy or 7 Wonders, also variations on deck building games, Legendary’s symbols and mechanics are legible and make narrative sense. Team affiliation matters, for example, as some X-Men card abilities trigger when other X-Men cards have been played. Even the relative value of each card is subtly conveyed by the way the artwork breaks out of or entirely abandons its illustrated border. Additionally, the amount of systems is not outrageous, but their interaction creates a huge array of unique experiences.
Perhaps, above all else, the unique combinations of interactions make Legendary rise above the multiplayer-solitaire travesties in the deck building genre. They help players collaboratively tell a story. Each game tells a narrative about a motley crew of super-heroes, working together in unique ways, to take down a major Marvel villain and a variety of familiar henchmen. Walking away from such a tight, familiar, and narratively compelling cooperative experience is a rarity in game design and an absolute treat to play.