A great dungeoncrawler with a diversity problem.
Legends Untold, a new card-based adventure game from Inspiring Games available across two "novice" sets and a handful of booster packs, may not seem like the stuff legends are made of but it is quite a compelling design. Unlike other games in its genre, it doesn't abstract away or completely eliminate some of the fussier elements of dungeon-crawling and I've appreciated the greater attention to detail as well as the richer gameplay it precipitates. This is a game where old school concepts like marching order matter, and where your pathway through the dungeon might be influenced by how much light - or how much risk - is in the next tunnel. Moving boldly might find you inadvertently triggering booby traps, but creeping through the shadows you could catch a monster by surprise - it all depends on a scouting roll.
There are quite a lot of pieces I like throughout this design. I especially like how a character's skill card is actually a collection of three situationally useful and thematically related abilities. And none of these skills are things like "Two Handed Weapons" or "Master Thaumaturgy" because the characters are all just plain folks taking up whatever meager arms they have and heading into the Weeping Caves or the Great Sewers. Combat results are varied and provide lots of tactical grist, and success in challenges such as natural hazards is measured in degrees rather than absolutes- it's a 3D6 with modifiers based system, which allows for a range of possibilities in each roll.
These details imparts a stronger than usual sense of narrative. I love how the main encounter deck includes the monsters as well as the loot and booby traps, so that when you draw treasures they become your spoils if you defeat the monster guarding them. I like that there are considerations for camping, exploration, and points of interest in the caves as well as terrain effects that play off some of the cards. It all feels quite comprehensive, which is not something usually said about this kind of game.
Despite some thoughtful and sometimes innovative touches, much of the game is fairly standard card-based dungeoneering that goes all the way back to Sorceror's Cave. Flip a card, see what's in the room, deal with what's in the room, take treasure. But what I think this game does different is that it gets grittier. The low fantasy setting is part of that equation, and it includes a "cinematic" campaign that has you doing interesting things like tracking the population of your settlement as you run missions for your people. I like that these are not traditional fantasy hero types and you are fighting with crude weapons. But what I like more is the other part of the grittiness equation, that this game is rife with strategic decisions and tough tactical choices.
Everything from that aforementioned marching order to deciding which paths to take to determining when to expend a skill is a tough choice in this game. It's usually a given which character should attempt a skill check (the one with the most dice in the skill, of course) but you've got to consider the possibility of failure or the result of a not-so-great success. Each combat, from the lowest goblin up through the tougher boss-level monsters, is potentially deadly and requires careful thought and of course good die rolls. Exhausting a skill at the wrong time might find the party on the back foot in the next room when there's not a campsite, or you might arrogantly think you've got a challenge roll in hand when you ought to have used an ability to ensure a success.
Yet the game isn't necessarily more "thinky" or "heavy" than the Warhammer Adventure Card Game, for example, and it remains fairly accessible despite more rules and considerations than its peers. It can still be quite capricious and dice-heavy, so those looking for something closer to a Mage Knight kind of experience might be less enthused. But as far as games in this class go, I think this is one of the more interesting recent ones and I've enjoyed working through some of the varied scenarios. It's an excellent solitaire game and it also plays exceptionally well with two.
As far as the packaging of the game into mutliple SKUs goes, I think it's fine. I found myself slightly preferring the Weeping Caves set and its campaign, but both are complete games that provide a mostly similar experience. The boosters are probably best reserved for those who really want to dig into this system, offering additional characters (an Alchemist and a Druid, both of which toe the line of the "just plain folks" concept) and an add-on treasure pack.
Now, I have a lot of praise for this game and I think this is definitely a worthwhile design. However, I would be remiss to not mention something that I felt was particularly egregious about Legends Untold. To be clear up front, I do not believe based on what I have read and analyzed for myself that Inspiring Games is in any way acting out of maliciousness or with a political agenda. But there is not one single non-white person in this game. Out of ten characters, every single one is as white as can be. In a time when such great strides have been made by publishers and designers to make sure that we are all represented and present in the gaming worlds we temporarily inhabit, it strikes me as awkward that there is no effort made here to represent other cultures or races in the game. I mean, it's 2019.
I'm going to play devil's advocate here a bit though. If you read the lore and understand that the concept is that this all based specifically on a kind of quasi-historical Northern European concept, and the people in the game are kinda-sorta Saxons and the story does not really seem to call for some kind of kinda-sorta non-Europeans, although they could be present in the fluff. But there again, if elves, goblins and giant spiders are being hand-waved into this "fact-based" setting, why can’t a player choose to be a non-white human? It would be different if the game were strictly historical but it is still squarely fantasy.
The problem is that white people often don't understand why this is a problem, or worse, they don't notice it because it doesn't affect them- this is white privelege. This is exactly the kind of latent white supremacy that is such a problem across all media and culture today, and it's unfortunate that I'm thinking about this while playing this otherwise excellent game. If I show this game to my black family members, for example, it's going to feel kind of weird that it's all white faces on those cards and I'm not sure I want to put a game in front of them where they aren't represented at all without a specific historical rationale.
Is this a terminal issue? That is inevitably up to the individual. What I can give you to go on is that the game is very good, but I am a white male and therefore via white privelege I am represented in the game. For others, the game simply does not make its diversity check. This is isn't the first good game with a diversity problem, but hopefully it will be among the last and hopefully Inspiring Games will see fit to broaden their game world so that all players feel welcome and represented.