Saturday, February 14, 2015

Legendary Encounters

Deck building games were a massively popular genre for a while among my friends. I say "genre", but really, it was just a single example. Dominion was hugely popular for many months, and several of my friends picked up one or both of the base sets, along with keeping up to date with the expansions. But as with many things in life, other interests bloomed as deck building grew stale. The last set I played from Dominion was Prosperity, and despite owning a copy of Dominion and the Seaside expansion, I hadn't played it or any other deck building game in the three and a half years I lived in Canada.

Until the start of November last.

While visiting my friend Karen in California for her wedding, her and her then soon-to-be husband Sean pulled out Dominion while we were hanging out the evening before the wedding. As soon as we opened the box, I was hit with a wash of memories; Sinead destroying us with Cutpurse and Pirate Ships; Aidan running massive, complex, deck-milling combos with Throne Room; that first time Gar brought it over, and I dismissed it because I wasn't in to Magic or that kind of game.

Before the evening was over, I was hooked back into the deck building games, and I wanted something new.

Legendary Encounters is a 1-5 player co-op deck builder from Upper Deck. Players take on the roles of Technician, Marine, Scientist or Synthetic, among others, and recruit characters into their decks to battle the alien xenomorph and complete Objectives.

Yes. You read that correctly. You battle the H.R. Giger designed, bane of Ripley's existence, sleek, silent, terrifying creature with acid blood from the Alien series of movies. And it is awesome!

Let's just get that out of the way right off the bat. This game is fantastic! I've played it twice solo and a bunch of times in multiplayer, and every game was thrilling, terrifying, nail-biting stuff. The theme is put to great use, as you really start to feel like the aliens are everywhere, creeping through the Complex, an unseen, unknown threat that is still right in front of you the whole time! It's in the room, man! It's in the room!!

Players can choose to play with set Objectives and Characters that represent a specific one of the four movies, or mix and match for an unexpected combination, like Dallas and Bishop battling the alien Clone. So far, I've only played the Alien and Aliens presets, so I haven't tried the random mix yet. Presets definintely feel like the movies they're inspired by, with characters, events and threats popping up that are familiar to fans.

A players personal deck starts with some basic cards, and buy, or recruit, new characters into their deck from a shared HQ of five face-up choices out of the Barracks Deck. The Barracks Deck is made up of four smaller decks, each representing a single character from a particular movie, so the Aliens version would have Bishop, Hudson, Hicks and Lieutenant Ripley. There are four Ripleys in the core set, one for each movie; Warrant Officer, Lieutenant, Sister and No. 8. The instructions book even suggests that you might find it fun to play a game with a Barracks full of Ripley's! I'm totally up for that!

The Hive deck represents the aliens in the base. Similar to the Barracks, the Hive is made up of smaller decks, this time each one related to an Objective in the current game. Again, each of the movies has its own set of three Objectives that are built around key scenes or events in the movies. Unlike the Barracks Deck, I'm not going to give an example of what's in the Objectives deck, or the related Hive deck, and I'll explain why in a moment.

Each turn a card from the Hive deck is placed facedown on the rightmost space in The Complex. If there is already a card in that space, it gets moved along the Complex to the left, opening up a space for the new card. All cards in the Complex travel in this fashion. Should five cards already be in the Complex, then the leftmost card drops down into the Combat Zone when a new card is added. If it's still facedown at that point, it now flips to reveal what it is.

Character cards in your hand provide abilities, but also Recruit Points and Attack Points. Recruit Points are spend to purchase new characters from the HQ. Attack Points can be used to scan rooms in The Complex. When you scan a room, you flip the Hive card there, and it can then be attacked on this turn if you have enough remaining Attack, or a future turn.

The players win if they complete all three Objectives and lose if they all get killed.

Legendary Encounters is a great game to play solo or with friends. My first two games were solo, something I rarely do, but I wanted to learn the rules ahead of teaching others. I actually really enjoyed playing it by myself. It works well, though I don't have a lot of solo play experience to compare it too. My other games included three and four player ones, and all those were great! In the first multiplayer game, one of our players got facehugged early on, and ended up with a chestbuster. That promptly killed him, so we broke out the Alien Player deck and let him have a go at that. It was vicious. He destroyed us. He was terrifyingly powerful, and we struggled to stay alive for as long as possible, by it was a futile effort.

Although it plays mostly as a full co-op game, Legendary Encounters also allows for an Ash-inspired hidden traitor mechanic, where one of the players might be working for the Company. Fittingly, when we tried this, the player playing the Synthetic turned out to be a traitor! He won, but just barely. It was an exciting game right up to the last players final action.

The best feature of this game so far is in the Hive Deck. During set-up, aliens from an additional Drone Deck are added to each of the mini Objective Decks, one for each player, so in our 4-player games, we had four extra aliens in each of the three mini decks, for a total of 12 additional threats! The Drone Deck has all sorts of monsters within, and the Hive is already filled with terror. Which brings me back to something I touched on briefly earlier.


Don't read through the cards when you open the game for the first time. Don't look at them while you're setting up the game for play. Don't rob yourself of that thrill. It really is something else, something unlike anything I've ever experienced in a board game before. It's an amazing feeling when you flip a Hive card in the Complex and find something utterly new, or uncover something with no explaination of how you can deal with it, so it just sits there, slowly crawling along The Complex towards the Combat Zone. You have to trust in the game that you're not utterly screwed. Or maybe you are, and that's fine. Maybe you've been playing the game like a board game, where Characters are just resource cards to be used and discarded, and suddenly Legendary Encounters makes you pay for your hubris. Amazing!

Everything about Legendary Encounters is polished. The machanics are clean and clear, while allowing for exciting combos from both players and the Hive. The art is good overall, though noticably shifts from flat, comic book styled cards to something much more detailed and better painted, like a comic book cover piece. Card layouts are clear, apart from the affiliation logos, which I feel could have done with being made just 50-75% larger. The box is huge, leaving loads of space for expansions, and includes foam blocks to fill that space and stop cards from falling around. They also included divider cards for clearly separating all the mini decks that make up the game, which is much appreciated.

And then, finally, there's the play mat. I'm not gonna lie, one of the top reasons I picked this up was for the playmat. I had heard good things about the game, but the play mat pushed me over the edge. It is gorgeous! It's designed to be in the center of the table, laying out all the various decks, discards and locations. More games need to take this path over a board where possible. I do love my playmats.

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