In tabletop gaming, one of the Holy Grails is a game experience that solves the problems or enhances the positives of an existing product while eliminating the major negatives. This is worth mentioning because Dungeons & Dragons, as popular as it is, has one major flaw. In order to enjoy it to its fullest, the game requires one player who gives up the mystery as a player and guides others as Dungeon Master. In other words, in a game of 5 people playing D&D, one is not playing the game, merely orchestrating drama for the other 4 player characters. A Holy Grail for some game designers is to replace the Dungeon Master and allow the game to direct itself with the same level of mystery and interactivity.
The next game for review is seeking that accomplishment. Publisher Inspiring Games has released Legends Untold which is a co-operative card-based adventure game. The box is small, but there’s quite a bit of content to digest inside. There are two novice (starter) sets. The one for this review is called The Great Sewers, referring to the setting of the adventure. The game plays up to 4 heroes and each session takes about 60-90 min. It’s best with as many heroes as players can muster.
Before explaining how the game works, it’s necessary to understand that in order to break down what a Dungeon Master does, it’s important to analyze each operation within D&D. A party of adventurers wandering through a dungeon (most often) has a marching order, fights monsters, chooses to camp at times, searches for treasure, and deals with a variety of obstacles. These categories of conflicts are exactly what Legends Untold seeks to replicate in a more procedural format.
Once players have selected some of the pre-built characters, acquired talents (in game abilities), and equipped themselves with a weapon, the adventure begins on one of the many location cards. These are large index card sized cards that lay out the party’s current situation and options.
As the party moves from one location card to the next, they have to check if they are being cautious or reckless. This will inform the chances for surprise and options available to characters should they encounter some dangers. Environmental and some event-based effects will also trigger each time the party arrives at a new location. Once a party completes the arrival effects or foes to fight, they have a chance to explore different icons on the Location card. Each of these could reward or imperil characters depending on the type.
At this point, it’s important to explain that the majority of actions in Legends Untold are procedural. In other words, the game requires that players track how much time is being spent on actions and events. To do so, the game uses turns that play out in an “if-then” format. For example, arriving at a new location requires that the party resolve an obstacle or foe. There is an operational sequence of card draws for each of these. Once complete, the party may investigate barriers or search zones. Finally, if the party chooses to rest, they follow another procedure.
This execution of different sequences of checks is similar to what a Dungeon Master would do for most situations. The difference is that all of the above are driven by icons and a mapped-out process for tracking time. When players encounter monsters, they break from the current process and then go into a combat sequence which is a series of engagement rounds of melee and/or ranged combat. Practically all dice rolls share the same mechanism of rolling 3 six-sided dice, adding any ability bonuses, and then checking the total against a chart on a card to see the outcome.
The “victory” condition for a session is provided by scenario cards which introduce why the characters are part of the action and what their end goal is. It can also introduce some ongoing effects and special cards to use. If the players manage to complete the victory condition, at the end of that turn, they call it a day and get ready for the next campaign adventure, which is the primary way Legends Untold is meant to be played.
If any game has managed to break down all the complexity and subtle mechanisms of a roleplaying game into a boxed format, few others succeed the way Legends Untold has. Now, that may seem like high praise, but there are some caveats and complex locks that need to be picked in order for that statement to really hit home. Legends Untold has its own flaws and those might not be the same ones that would-be purchasers are thinking of.
First, the procedural nature of play is embedded in the game flow. On BoardGameGeek, the publisher has produced a reference flowchart that helps guide players through the necessary steps of play. This flowchart is INCREDIBLY helpful in resolving the rules and flow of action. However, this flowchart is also eight pages long. This is not meant to be criticism because players need to understand the minute ways that the rules and icons interact. In addition to this, it’s also overwhelmingly useful to read the example playthrough that is included in the scenario book. This guides players just like an experienced Dungeon Master.
What readers should really take away from the above paragraph is that Legends Untold requires investment. The time and commitment to the game processes will help players get the most out of it and that is not a small hill to climb. Having one player (probably the person who purchased the game) play a solo run through of an introductory scenario is an absolute must before the game can really flow for others. Readers should imagine a group of players who had never played D&D sitting down to play with just the starter rules and they’ll get a glimpse of playing Legends Untold without preparation.
Now that there’s an understanding of what the game asks, the real criticism from this reviewer is what it delivers. Players seeking that thrill, drama, and mystery from D&D won’t find the same thing here. At least from the starting characters, players advance from indigent ne’er-do-wells to more experienced adventurers throughout the course of the campaign. However, players will need to bring their own roleplaying and storytelling, there’s very little to match what D&D does when paired with a Dungeon Master. It’s this lack of personal engagement that still makes Legends Untold rely on narrative embedded in cards, and unfortunately, there’s just not enough of that.
Legends Untold asks a lot of players. It asks for an up-front time investment and a commitment to a larger series of sessions to get the most out of it. To get to the best content, players will sit through many cycles of a huge flowchart of procedures just to make sure they’re playing all the rules correctly. After a while, much can be committed to memory, but that investment alone is enough to give pause. It is worth it in the long run, but buyers should know this is a “take it off the shelf and play till it’s done” kind of game.
Final Score: 3 stars – A flowchart-as-game process of playing Legends Untold whittles away at the storytelling within.
• Storytelling is a little light
• Requires large time investment unless using the flowchart
• Flowchart makes the experience less thematic