19 December 2017

Legendary Encounters: Alien deck building game review

Some of my long term readers may recall my aversion to card based games, mainly due to some bad experiences with frustrating design and no player aids for visual reference. I've slowly been changing my opinion lately due to some very good games such as Imperial Settlers, Blood Bowl the cardgame, 7 wonders/7 Wonders duel etc.

As many other reviews this one too begin in our local gaming store in Malmö, with Caroline and me having money burning holes in our pockets and looking to get a fix with some new purchases. Browsing the games, referencing Boardgamegeek as we go, I picked up a large chest shaped box with an Alien egg artwork on it. Something immediately begged me to buy it, at the same time I had this conflicted feeling of it being a) quite expensive and b) a cardgame I knew nothing about.

The clerk at the store said it was a great game etc etc, it's hard for me to really put much value in the opinion of people trying to sell me a product - he was quite enthusiastic though. Weighing the box in my hands I mustered the willpower to place it on the counter and it ended up in our apartment. The conflicting feeling followed me home, I did not unbox the game until the next day. I actually thought of returning it for the entire evening after getting home something made me feel that it had been a mistake.

The day after, after having watched some playthrough videos - still not impressing me - I ultimately ended up breaking the box open and unpacked it. And thus ends the long winded story of me getting the game, and here begins the actual review.

As the name of the game suggests this game is an Alien themed deck building game. 

Starting with the latter, for those not familiar with the concept of deck building games. Each player picks a character they want to play as, this character can be a medic, soldiers, officer, android among other things. Each character has a health profile, a special rule and 1 special card that makes the choice stand out compared to the other characters. Each player then begins with a hand of standard cards of low point value and also low combat value. In this game you have combat cards "Grunts" and economy cards "Specialists". The basic concept of the game is that you purchase new cards to add to your player deck using economy cards and fight aliens using your combat cards.

At the beginning of the game you will be very weak and many cards in your deck will spam your combat and economy possibilities with their low values. But as the game progresses you will upgrade your deck and start to kick ass. At least until an Alien eats your face. Fear not it is more interesting than Dominion - although it uses the very same core idea for the game mechanics. You draft a number of cards from your hand each turn, play the cards you can, and discard the rest. You repeat until you have played through your entire deck, after which you shuffle all cards and form a new deck. Repeat until victory - or death - occurs.

The Alien theme in this game is actually 4 separate modules using completely separate story and hero cards representing each of the 4 Alien movies (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien resurrection).

You also have a bunch of cards that crossover, such as the core Grunt and Specialist cards, the damage deck and alien encounter deck. But the theme and flavor of each of the 4 Alien movies is very strong in each module as each is represented by objective cards, story cards, encounter cards and characters from each specific movie.

In the module representing the original Alien the 3 objective cards represent different parts of the movie. Objective 1 needs you to investigate an alien signal on the planet surface, during objective 2 all hell breaks loose and you need to weld shut air shafts on the Nostromo space ship, and the final objective forces you to manipulate the alien to end up in the room with the airlock to flush it out into space. 

The objective cards require you to either play a combo of cards from your hand to unlock something, or play through the encounter cards until you stumble upon something that you are looking for. Each movie module deck is also built from 3 parts, or acts if you like, and the story continously progress as you play the game. However, the objectives are fixed in place and must be finished in a specific order. This means that you must do your best to finish objective 1 while you still draw "Act 1" cards from the deck, otherwise the difficulty level increases to a critical level and the scenario will be lost.

In the Alien module, this could mean that while you are having a hard time welding shut the air shafts in order to complete the 2nd objective card the Alien final boss card can appear and make the situation extremely deadly and possibility of victory end with your brains on the badly lit walls of Nostromo.

How does this all come together then gameplay wise?

Sticking with Alien as the example in this review. You setup the game by picking a module. Then you create the encounter deck made up of cards forming 3 acts. You then place the objective cards in order, pick your starting character and you are ready to go.

For visual aid the game comes with a thick mousepad style gaming mat outlining all areas and steps of each turn. Describing them will make you understand the game a bit better.

At the very top you have "The complex", this is a number of rooms with different names. The rooms are used for various objectives and special abilities. Each player turn, a card is drawn from the alien deck and placed in the rightmost space of the complex. The cards are "pushed" left by adding new cards each turn. The cards begin face down, and the area holding a card needs to be scanned to reveal what kind of threat is lurking there. This is done by spending combat cards of comparable value to the combat value of a specific room. The closer to the left the cheaper cost of a scan, and vice versa.
Having scanned a room and revealed an Alien, the alien card stays (most of the time) face up, and can be killed by spending combat cards to match the combat value of the Alien.

Killing Aliens in the complex is relatively safe. However, as Aliens slide to the leftmost space, they are finally knocked down into the "Combat zone" space. Alien enemy cards in this space actively attack each active player at the end of his or her turn. Players will try their best to keep the combat zone Alien free as death will come swiftly if you let an Alien or two attacking you.

Alien attacks are resolved by drawing a card from the damage deck, where the damage range from a flesh wound, to actually knocking away several hit points in one go. Damage can be healed, but not easily, which makes all accumulated damage bad. Also, the events that occur as you play through the story cards for each movie can also cause damage each time you flip an alien "event card". In case you flip an event card you consult the current objective card as it describes what type of event happens and how to resolve it and the effects it brings.

At the very bottom of the mat you have an area called the "HQ". This is where new cards available for purchase appear, there are always 5 cards in this area and the space is replenished if you buy a card. You purchase new cards by spending your Specialists or other economy cards. The nice thing about this is that each movie comes with several different characters (all movies have Ellen Ripley) and they all have their own special abilities and can create synergy between cards in your collection as you play them. This makes it worth sticking to one character as much as possible.

Furthermore cards have synergy symbols on them, matching symbols can boost cards, let you draft more cards into your current hand, play additional cards from your deck and help out your fellow players on the upcoming turns. The gameplay really is well thought out and fun, and it does not feel like you just have 100 different cards that don't belong together, but instead have cards that feel like they represent specific characters from the movies very well.

The game is very fast played, and addictive. I think I've played at the very least 50 games either by myself or with Caroline. Each game can take about 15-60 minutes depending on your skill and luck. You will lose quite often in the beginning, the first scenario module of Alien I found to be extremely difficult and I would recommend to start with the Aliens module.

I cannot stress enough how well the cards represent the mood of the movies, with Alien being a desperate struggle to survive long enough to flush out the Alien, Aliens being very combat oriented, Alien 3 being low on combat cards to reflect the story of the movie and Alien 4 a mix of the previous three modules. That is some great design.

Everything is -almost- perfect
The game is very easy to learn, but god damn how you have to struggle to learn it by reading the rulebook - and even worse to sort the 600 cards that come in the box. The rulebook can be referenced "OK" when you know how to play the game but trust me, find a good video tutorial and save yourself time and trouble. 

Second, sorting the cards took me several hours! The cards come randomly shuffled together in packages, and while it is all clear to you when you have learned the game which cards belong together, the initial sorting process is a nightmare. The rulebook does a poor job explaining what the hell to do. I was required to browse Boardgamegeek to manage the sorting process,  which also helped me to make sure all cards were accounted for.

Also, do yourself a favor and purchase sleeves for all the cards! You will be shuffling them A LOT. Sleeved cards area easier to shuffle and will not wear and tear. I also purchased a wooden organizer insert specifically designed for this game. It cost me about 200 Swedish crowns (roughly 20£) but I think it was worth it as all the cards are by each category of card and by movie module. There is still a lot of space left in my insert for custom cards if I would like to create some. The game comes with filler blank cards that you can use to create your own aliens, scenarios or objectives. The game also allows you to mix all movies as you see fit to create your own crazy story - but I have kept it strictly to the plot of each movie as the modules are well thought out and balanced within themselves.

As this long review nears its end all I can say is that this game makes the rather mundane core idea of "deck building" very engaging, interesting, fun and the  gameplay itself is also fast, tight and very entertaining. I have played this game solo and with 2 players. I have read that if you play with more players it can get more difficult (the game is already very difficult) as you will not be able to upgrade your characters fast enough to counter the incoming Alien threat. Playing it solo however requires you to play at least 2 characters at a time since there is a lot of "support" mechanics involved in the game and in some scenarios you are required to get help from your fellow player(s).

Which brings me to my final point, facehuggers and alien player deck option. The game features facehuggers, and if you can't fight them off when they attack your character they will implant an alien in you which will hatch as a chestburster sooner rather than later. The game offers you to either kill that player outright and be done with that, OR, allow the killed player to respawn as an Alien springing from the chestburster. In which case you will get your own Alien player deck and actively work against the remaining human players. We have not tried the Alien player module, it does not appeal to me at this point - but I'm glad that we have that option included in the game.

Legendary Encounters: An Alien deck building game gets 8,5/10

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