Rob: Today, Gameosity is going on a bug hunt in Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game from Ben Cichoski and Danny Mandel, and publisher Upper Deck. This cooperative deck builder is easily one of our favorite games, featuring an obnoxiously awkward title and quite possibly the most thematic card-driven gameplay any of us have had our hands on. For serious.
Upper Deck’s Legendary series definitely has its fair share of fans, but even so it seemed a bit odd for them to tweak a system used for a superhero game into something meant to fit the Alien film franchise. I mean really, a Marvel to Xenomorph transition just doesn’t seem like something that should work.
Andrew: Oh but it does work. Like a facehugger looking to get lucky, the game’s design manages to ram the Alien goodness into a shockingly playable card game, with so much tense atmosphere your chest is likely to burst with excitement!…and aliens.
Andrew: Too much?
Rob: No, actually I was just kind of disappointed you beat me to the punch.
Rob: But you’re totally right. Legendary Encounters – because I refuse to call it by its ridiculous full name – is kind of remarkable in how well it works using an altered form of the Legendary system.
Andrew: Have you ever actually played a game of Legendary before?
Rob: Well, no, but I’ve watched a few videos and there are definitely some key differences.
Andrew: Aside from the facehuggers and crushing, oppressive atmosphere, you mean?
Rob: Right. There’s more to it than that.
Legendary Encounters is a deck builder at its core, and as such it’s uses a few mechanics that genre fans will already be familiar with. Some cards generate a form of income that is then used to purchase new cards from a central offering. Other cards generate combat, which is used to attack enemies (among other things, which we’ll get into later). Spent cards go into a personal discard pile, and are eventually reshuffled back into your deck for you to use on subsequent turns.
However, there are key differences that really set it apart from most other deck builders out there. For starters, players select (or are randomly given) special classes to play, each of which comes with their own personal card with varying abilities to add to your starting deck. That little difference makes for clever synergies, as players figure out how to best use each other’s strengths against the alien threat. The Strike Deck is also interesting as a way to randomize the damage that players will receive throughout the game. Basically, every enemy in the Combat Zone (we’ll also get to that in a minute) forces a player to draw a Strike at the end of their turn. Some do no damage, some do a little, and some do a lot. Some can’t be healed, either.
Andrew: Oh man, drawing strikes is always so tense.
Rob: Tell me about it. Even one strike could kill a player if they’re unlucky, what with those Double Strike cards.
Andrew: I really hate those things. But I also like the fact that you could catch a break and end up taking very little damage, or even none at all.
Rob: Of course it gets worse the more overwhelmed you get.
Andrew: And it is so easy to get overwhelmed…
Another interesting (and perhaps our favorite) twist is the use of the Encounter deck and the Complex. The Encounter deck is full of enemies, event triggers, hazards, as well as the occasional not-terrible thing, like an ally or somesuch. The thing is, at the beginning of every player’s turn a card is taken off the top of the Encounter deck and added, face-down, to the Complex. The Complex is made up of five rooms, each of which gets progressively closer to the Combat Zone. So as turns pass these mysterious cards will start to get closer and closer, and you won’t know what they are until they reach the Combat Zone and are within striking distance. If the revealed card is an event or hazard, it triggers and bad stuff happens. If it’s an enemy, they hang out and attack everybody until they’re dealt with.
But all is not lost. Each room in the Complex can be scanned using a specified amount of combat generated from your cards, so you can see what’s coming before it’s too late. Of course if you reveal anything that isn’t an enemy you’ll still have to deal with it, but at least it gives you the chance to take out a nasty Xenomorph before it gets too close.
Rob: I think the whole Complex and scanning thing is probably my favorite part about Legendary Encounters. It does a fantastic job of emulating the whole Motion Tracker mechanic from the first two movies. The way cards advance, one room at a time and face-down, gives the unmistakable sense that you are being stalked and adds a lot of well-needed tension to the experience.
Andrew: It’s a fantastic example of game mechanics backing up the theme. It also calls for smart player strategy, since it lets you potentially deal with enemies early. Plus it usually gives you something to do with any ineffective amounts of combat you may have on your turn.
Rob: That’s a good point. I very rarely have a turn in this game where I feel like I didn’t accomplish something – even if it’s just putting off the inevitable for one more turn.
Andrew: The way it works in conjunction with the various objectives is great, too. I really love those moments where we’re frantically scanning the Complex for things like sentry turrets, since without them we can’t win. Of course, most of the time we are finding hideous aliens, but that’s just how it goes.
Every game in Legendary Encounters uses a scenario made up of three parts, each of which is meant to evoke one of the four main Alien films: Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection. There are also location cards for key areas in each film: the Nostromo, Hadley’s Hope, etc. It’s possible to mix and match the different scenario sections with other locations (and even character cards), but for the sake of this review we’re just going to be talking about the standard scenarios that adhere to each film.
In short, they’re amazing.
Each scenario actually feels like the movie it’s been derived from. The Nostromo is all about ineffective weapons, a ship that just doesn’t seem big enough, and an almost invincible monster that’s stalking everyone incessantly. Hadley’s Hope, on the other hand, is much more focused on combat and co-operating with other players in an attempt to overcome the odds. Of course the Xenos are also much more aggressive and can overwhelm your little team with alarming ease.
Rob: Dude. Seriously. This game.
Andrew: I know.
Rob: No, I mean we’ve only tried like two scenarios, and we didn’t make it very far in Hadley’s Hope.
Andrew: Right. That was the game where we lasted like three or four rounds before everybody died.
Rob: Yep. And what we didn’t get to see is how things change up in the last third, once the Queen shows up. She actually captures characters and forces players to essentially mount a rescue mission into the hive so that they can get everyone out of there before they try to kill her. It’s insane.
Andrew: More like fantastic, from the sound of it.
Rob: Well it’s that, too.
But even then, Legendary Encounters still has more to offer. In addition to all the highly thematic scenarios, the option to customize your adventure, multiple character classes, and so on, there are also two optional modes we’ve yet to mention.
The first lets players select a secret objective at the start of the game. Most of them are harmless enough, but one might just be orders handed down from The Company. If a player ends up working for The Company, their goal is a little different from everyone else’s: rather than try to complete the final objective, it’s their job to be the last player left alive in order to secure a Xenomorph specimen and take it back to the higher ups for study.
The second mode allows a player killed by a chestburster (oh you’d better believe those are in here) to begin playing as a Xenomorph. So rather than being eliminated, they simply grab a special Alien deck and start attacking everyone else. Combine that with the traitor variant and things can get quite chaotic.
Andrew: So where do we stand on-
Rob: Love it!
Andy: -on Legendary Encounters? Okay then.
Rob: Sorry, but it’s just such a great game!
Andrew: No argument here. It’s incredibly thematic, and we’re both big suckers for theme.
Rob: Boy howdy.
Andrew: It’s not just the theme, of course. Some of they game’s mechanics are as fascinating as they are entertaining. It’s a very cleverly-designed game, on top of being highly thematic and challenging.
Rob: And for those of you who are like me, and always have an eye out for stuff you can play solo, Legendary Encounters absolutely has you covered. It’s great solo. Heck it’s actually a little easier to play solo. A little easier.
Andrew: Okay, we’ve been gushing about this game for a while now. To be fair, I do think the difficulty level will put some players off (even though it’s entirely thematically appropriate and awesome). Also, for as much as I enjoy the game, I have to say it’s not something I want to play repeatedly – once every few game nights is more than enough glorious xenomorphic death for me. But that’s just me. Is there anything you don’t like about it?
Rob: Two things, actually.
Andrew: That’s two more than I was expecting. Be still my currently un-chestbursted heart.
Rob: First, it takes a while to setup and put back in the box. At least it does if you want to keep everything organized. I suppose you could save time by just keeping all the different character cards shuffled together, but if you plan on running custom scenarios that’ll actually make setup even more of a pain.
Andrew: Interesting. I can see what you mean, though. There are an awful lot of cards you need to sift through to set up the Encounter deck, among other things. And separating everything out again at the end of the game looked kind of annoying.
Rob: Indeed it is. I’m not sure how you could really avoid this particular headache, though.
Andrew: Fair enough. What was the second thing?
Rob: The unboxing.
Andrew: Come again?
Rob: When you first open up Legendary Encounters it’s basically a big jumble of unmarked decks and hundreds of cards that all have the exact same back. It’s not organized in the slightest, and it’s something of a chore to get everything sorted.
Andrew: It can’t be that bad, can it?
Rob: Don’t get me wrong, I tend to enjoy the ceremony of prepping a newly unboxed game for the first time, but it’s kind of ridiculous here. The various wrapped decks don’t seem to have any sort of order to them, and the identifying marks are these super-tiny bits of text at the bottom of each card.
Andrew: Oh. Ick.
Rob: Even that wouldn’t be so bad if so many of the cards weren’t so similar. For example, there are quite a few facehugger cards, but some go in the Hatchery deck, a few go in the Hive deck, a couple go in specific scenario decks, and I think there’s even one in the Strike deck. But aside from the tiny text at the bottom they all look exactly the same.
Rob It took me something like two hours to count and sort everything.
Andrew: That’s… Wow.
Rob: Yeah… But aside from that it’s an absolutely fantastic game that I think everybody who enjoys theme, deck builders, or Alien should definitely check out.
Andrew: No argument here. When the worst thing you can come up with about a game is that it takes a while to unbox, that’s pretty compelling. We talk a lot about ‘theme penetration’ in games-
Andrew: Obligatory, thanks. But yeah, this game is, to me, one of the finest examples of the theme being expressed in the mechanics of the game. Between the scenario-driven deck setup, customization options, and the magical playmat that is the Complex, Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game really has a tremendous amount to – you know, who the hell thought that name was ok?
Rob: Man, that name is dumb.
If you can get past its ridiculous name and centuries-long unboxing, we think Legendary etcetera alien blah blah stuff will be incredibly worthwhile and it really is one of our favorite games. You can pick up your copy right here!