Red, Cardboard, Deadly, and What the hell does this piece do?
Kosmos is actually one of my favorite companies to buy games from at the moment. Always has been. Many moons ago, in the dark ages of gaming, they were producing the gorgeous abstract long box games that are practically art pieces with striking functional rules. Often pretty unusual and niche games that the other German mass market publishers would not touch.
Like Settlers of Catan. Seriously. Teuber had a massive amount of trouble initially selling it, as it was deemed too complex.
Kosmos is one of the companies still producing slightly niche games that are just a little too complex for family games, and just a bit too random and capricious for the Euro crowd.
Basically, they are the only company making classic German games. The kind that got me looking into the whole German thing all those years ago. So I tend to pay a lot of attention to the stuff they release, not all of which makes it to the US. (The Godfather is REALLY good. Ditto for Anno 1703. And I rather like Tintenblut.)
- Anyway, we have Legend of Andor. It is a game which is:
- Not by an established designer
- Epic Fantasy Theme
- The best game of 2012 that doesn't involve beating up Canadians or whose title isn't inspired by a Roger Corman movie (obligatory plug)
Fantasy. Dragons. Dwarves. Trolls. Something called Gor that look suspiciously like Orcs. Dark Lords. The level of innovation in this area is absolutely staggering. Curiously, every attempt to do a really fleshed out new fantasy realm or innovative fictional reality tends to come off as forced.
Like maybe we should just jump up and down on the cold, lifeless corpse of epic fantasy, declare it dead, and find some real themes.
So basically, post-Tolkein fantasy world. There is just a hint of fairy tale-like stuff going on in the borders.
These have some decent fantasy art (the designer is an artist), and GORGEOUS boards. The actual materials are all cardboard punch outs and generic D6 dice. Then there are all of the bits, a standup fort, a piece together dragon, a bunch of tiles. Decks of cards that even as of writing this, I have no idea what they do.
No plastic bits, so I don't have to agonize over painting them. Instead, Andor is going for the stand up figure look. And there are a LOT of monsters. After having played about half of the missions, I don't want to know why there are so many monsters.
You get two "rulebooks". One of them is a 4 page Quick Start which is mostly big pictures and descriptions of about 1/4 of the components. This also tells you how to set up and shows you the bits on your character sheet. The second rulebook is for reference only: just pictures of the components, and some rules reference sections for some of the finer details.
That's correct, THERE IS NO RULEBOOK THAT TELLS YOU HOW TO PLAY THE GAME. This is good and bad. Keep reading.
You sit down, set up the game, and turn over the top card of this pre-stacked Legends Deck. It teaches you how to move, and how time and action tracking works. Gradually new rules (Combat, experience) are introduced over the course of the first basic...it is a freaking tutorial level. The idea is totally pulled from videogames. It mostly works pretty well, but it is a bit tricky to actually learn the rules, making one or two crucial missteps MUCH more likely to happen.
On the plus side, that sense of exploration is stronger in Andor than ANY game I've played in awhile. Later missions bring in completely new mechanics, often by surprise in the middle of a mission. Playing through the first 3 missions, we have yet to "see" the second underground board on the back of the main board. Or the dragon, or the Secret Lake deck, or...
That sense of the unknown is easily the great draw here, and the game pulls that off well.
Kind of basic. You have a Thebes-like movement and action system. After 7 actions from the party, night falls, you get an event and the monsters advance on the castle. You can buy items from the merchant, search fog spaces to uncover more random events and get tweaks.
Character experience is just strength and Willpower. Strength is simply a point bonus for combat, Willpower is a combination of hit points, but also affects how many dice you get in combat (Highest matters.) Characters also have a special power. Items are important as well, and the shops carry 8 or so different items.
Combat is to roll your dice, take the highest and add your strength. Opponent does the same. Loser takes the difference in Willpower Damage. Oh, and if monsters roll doubles, they get to add their die rolls together.
This Game is Unfair:
The other thing the game does well is that it hates you with a blazing intensity. That first mission starts out nice, but rapidly devolves into a slightly tricky logistics problem. After that, it gets harder. The key twist that makes the game so nasty is that it throws three or four things at you all at once:
1. You have to protect the castle from monsters.
2. You have to locate something.
3. You may have to visit a place.
4. You may have to kill a boss.
All at once. Before time runs out. Oh, and every time you kill a monster, it advances the clock and you get some treasure.
That last bit is the thematic weak spot. The game designer waves it off as "killing off his minions draws the attention of the Dark Lord", but it is still annoying and makes me go all squinty and say "Really?" a lot.
Thematically annoying, anyway. As a co-op game mechanic, it is both brilliant and maddening. It makes every single move and combat important, and it keeps the game pretty short (60-90 minutes). It also kind of feels like walking on a tightrope.
Over a shark tank.
That is a about to turn into a razor blade at any second.
In the dark.
It isn't a game for new players jumping in to the hard missions. You have to seriously learn its language of knowing to attack very few monsters and plan ahead. It also helps it to work as a co-op game as the actual number of tasks and things going on are just a little too much for one player to track and puzzle through. It takes more brains. Still a little bit hard for a new player to work out why everyone else is telling them that "if you kill that Gor, we lose."
There are 6 missions (the last is an online PDF). Missions 1 isn't replayable. Too easy. Mission 2 is good for a couple of times, as you will die on your first outing, and the whole get back up on the tightrope a couple of times feel only lasts a bit.
Mission 3 is pretty random, and a decent game in itself. You get 1 of 4 dark lords, and 4 of 8 tasks distributed randomly, along with a sizeable event deck (of which you will see 6 or 7 of the 50 cards each game) and monster spawn/event tiles which randomize things pretty well. Mission 3 is as good of a game as Middle Earth Quest, and has a decent amount of variability going for it.
4 and 5 use the back part of the board, and a whole bunch of new components. I THINK mission 6 is a randomized affair on the second board. ..And we get an expansion in the fall. Assuming that we haven't stormed Kosmos demanding more before that happens.
Yeah, ok, it breaks down a bit thematically (but is easier for me to justify than Knizias Lord of the Rings), and is one of the best co-ops around. It is actually a pretty simple set of rules, but the overall structure gives the designer enough room to throw absolutely anything at you.
It also is puzzle-like, as you really have to struggle to get anywhere, and the missions seem massively daunting.
In some ways Andor also reminds me of Mansions of Madness. The time clock and everything. Instead of the 3 mission variants, the designer here went with either pretty linear missions or a very random mission setup. The end result is a game that has some of the feel, but less sloppy on the rules and interactions, and a LOT more refined and developed.
Again: simple, clever, capricious. Go Kosmos.