Disappointed. I wish there was another way to describe my reaction to this glossy, attractively-presented hand management game set in the oft-romanticized frontier era of American history. What we have in Legends of the American Frontier is a box full of great ideas that, for me, never quite came together.
In Legends of the American Frontier, each player will take on the persona of a, to quote the rules, frontiersman or pioneer woman. Over the course of the game, these characters will have their life stories molded by the experiences of the frontier, with each successful adventure (and even grand failure) permanently adding a chapter to their legend.
Jess: And that, right there, is a fantastic idea! I love the idea of building your character’s legend one card at a time, so that at the end of the game, you have a unique character’s journey, from how they were raised to how they spent their years to the legacy they leave behind. It’s awesome!
Josh: I agree! I don’t love games that actually force you to be spontaneously creative and tell a story off the cuff, but the fact that Legends of the American Frontier has all this emergent storytelling that is basically done for you works really well in my book!
Andrew: Appropriate, since you’re the only one of us who has actually, you know, written books. But yes, I wholeheartedly agree – the core concept behind the game is rock solid and I absolutely loved it. Where I had problems with Legends of the American Frontier was in the mechanics and execution.
The gameplay concept in Legends of the American Frontier is that players will participate in adventures across the American frontier, using their skills, luck, and ingenuity to overcome challenges and participate in big moments in the nation’s history. Mechanically, this means playing cards from their hand in order to hit target numbers to accomplish these goals. Each successful adventure becomes a line in your character’s story, and at the end of the game, it is these story lines which provide the lion’s share of victory points.
Legends of the American Frontier begins with each player participating in a draft for a handful of ‘upbringing’ cards. These cards will form the backbone of your character’s life story, and also will set their unique starting stats/resources. Every character possesses a unique trait, as well as 6 statistics (something that made the roleplayers among us sit up and take notice). These stats will get added to future attempts at adventures, and the upbringing draft ensures that no two characters will be the same.
Andrew: Right from the beginning, I loved that aspect of Legends of the American Frontier. The story thread born from these first cards form the seed around which you will build your character’s journey. Raised among the native tribes? You’ll be good at frontier skills. Joined the army as a teen? Undoubtedly hand with a musket. It’s all about the emergent storytelling, and that’s simply awesome.
Once the initial Upbringing stage is over, Legends of the American Frontier shifts into the Adventure stage, which defines the bulk of gameplay. Here, players will find themselves with the opportunity to attempt one of the three adventure cards currently on offer, as represented by the map board. Each turn, players can either go on an adventure or rest, which allows them to increase stats, draw cards, and purchase Reward cards, which provide several benefits.
Specifically, each adventure has a skill level requirement which is needed for players to succeed in that adventure. This could be a single skill, a combination of skills, or a choice between several. An important concept is that some adventures are Solo, while others are Group. Players compete for solo adventures (which, appropriately, only one person can win), but must work together to hit the (intimidatingly high) target values that define Group adventures.
Andrew: This part is really a ‘your mileage may vary’ aspect of the game – before players declare which adventure they are attempting for the turn (which everyone does simultaneously), it makes sense to discuss your plans – telling the table you want to do a group adventure might result in recruiting allies to your cause. If your group likes bargaining, strategizing, and possibly messing with each other this way, there’s fun to be had here, but it’ll be of your own creation.
Attempting an adventure works like this – you will play either a single card of value 5 or more, or any number of cards of value 1-4. In both cases, all cards must either be of the appropriate skill for that adventure, wild, or Lucky (which is always considered appropriate). You will then add any bonuses from the skill your character has (so someone good at fighting has an easier time with Fighting adventures).
The final element to attempting your adventure is drawing a random skill card from the deck. This card will be added to your effort, and if it is the appropriate skill, wild, or lucky, then another card is drawn. This process repeats, potentially giving mediocre efforts a tremendous boost, albeit completely at random.
Once those elements are added up – your cards, your skills, and the random draw, if you hit the target number for the adventure, you succeed! Rewards range from skill increases to resources to victory points.
Josh: The rules for group adventures are more or less identical, with everyone contributing skills and cards toward the effort. Success means dividing the reward, whereas failing gets everyone a kick in the teeth with those failure cards
Failing at an adventure is pretty abysmal. You will draw a card from one of the adventure-appropriate decks and live with the consequences.
Jess: Ok, so I really liked the idea of Legends of the American Frontier, and we’ve said that a bunch. But what I didn’t like was the gameplay itself – there weren’t any particularly interesting choices each turn; you either tried an adventure or didn’t, played a high card or some low cards, and then either succeeded or didn’t.
Josh: As I said, I liked the whole emergent storytelling through gameplay. What fell flat for me was the fact that the game seemed to strain at lower player counts, and for 3-4 players to be considered ‘low’ is a bit unreasonable, since it’s not like this is some light party game. Those group challenges have some incredibly high numbers, and hoping to get a good random draw to make up the difference between your cards and the difficulty is pretty weak.
Andrew: I agree. Legends of the American Frontier is plagued by tons of randomness that doesn’t add any interesting drama. Those little destiny wheels that get randomly added to adventures can sometimes tank a sure thing for no reason, and the whole random draw is nice when it works out, but you neither earn your victory nor your defeat if you flip a card over and it just doesn’t help enough. And yeah, the game groans at 4 and occasionally grinds to a halt at 3 – when the only adventures available are far in excess of what all players combined can accomplish, we all just sit there and bide our time as the adventures age off the board. But at the same time, it isn’t quick, so at 6, things tend to lag and people are constantly in conflict, making the game a slog.
The bottom line is that we really, truly wanted to like Legends of the American Frontier. For both the storytellers and non-storytellers, this was a game we could get excited about, as we explored the frontier and built our legends. The mechanisms, though, were rife with randomness that added nothing to the overall experience, and it was entirely possible for there to be a board state where either none of the adventures were reasonable to undertake (especially at 3-4 players), or when only one was worth doing, resulting in everyone competing for a single prize, and possibly drawing horrific failure cards if they didn’t succeed. It’s swingy and arbitrary at times, undercutting the most fun parts of its design.
So that’s where Legends of the American Frontier leaves us – disappointed for what it wasn’t, based on all the potential represented by what it was. The strangely high player count, the randomness, the challenge that did not adjust for different player groups, all lead us to the unfortunate conclusion that this one simply isn’t for us.
(Gameosity received a review copy of this title. We were not otherwise compensated.)