Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lost Legends

Reactions to Lost Legends, Mike Elliot's latest attempt to repurpose an existing game (7 Wonders) as a dungeon-crawler, have been all over the map around here. One player thought it was the greatest game ever. Another called it broken. I think it's clearly neither of those things, but where it lies on the spectrum isn't immediately obvious. Like many of Elliot's games, it's conceptually terrific but can also feel precarious at times. Regardless, I quite like it.

Lost Legends is doing for 7 Wonders exactly the same thing that Thunderstone did for Dominion, bringing an abstract game to life by simultaneously melding it with D&D dungeon-crawling tropes and giving the gameplay more subtlety. 7 Wonders is a game I enjoyed for being good for large numbers of players and playing quickly and smoothly, before its obvious problems ran it down: too much front-loading and railroading, a needlessly complex proliferation of scoring mechanisms, and too little opportunity for players to play creatively or do interesting things. And despite all the nice art, it's really just a color-matching game without much, if anything, to say. By contrast, Lost Legends is an actual game design and not just a well-engineered arrangement of clever mechanical bits.

As everyone who has had even a passing encounter with D&D knows, if you're going to go into a dungeon and kill creatures and take their stuff, you need the right gear. Your trusty sword and shield and and the righteousness of your cause are not going to cut it. You need healing potions, the latest and greatest magical weaponry, magic armor, a cold iron sword if you think you might run into demons, some holy water and a flask or two of oil to throw at things, a wand of fireballs, a 10 foot pole, and so on (D&D is a game that is in no small part about shopping). After preparing yourself for contingencies ranging from the plausible to the outlandish, depending on your budget and sense of paranoia, you brave the dungeon and see what's actually down there and whether or not you can kill it to raise the cash to continue to feed the shopping frenzy.

Lost Legends nicely captures this American spirit of toolsy acquisitiveness. Your character is going to need equipment to succeed in the dungeon, but you only have so much cash, and there are a lot of things to be bought. Weapons come in three flavors (melee, ranged, and magic), and many monsters are resistant to one or more of them. Your character is also fragile, so you'll want some armor and healing. Or maybe you'd prefer to go a more all-out offense route, amassing  powerful spells and a big weapon to knock out your adversaries before they have a chance to strike you and hope you don't run into anything that your spells can't handle. The key, as is so often the case in good games of this sort, is in balance and managing risk. If you're going to skimp on defense, you want to make sure your offense is really strong and robust against a variety of creatures. Stronger defense lowers your risk of getting killed, but at the end of the day the game is about killing monsters and taking their stuff, not staying alive (as in D&D, "dead" is a condition that is just slightly more costly to remove than "severely wounded").

Having the right tools is the most important thing, but having skills does help also. Each character starts with two different skills, which make matching weapons more effective and give discounts against matching classes of cards. The dwarf will both pay less for the longsword, and be able to do more damage with it. However, additional skills can be fairly easily acquired, and these initial paths serve more as suggestions than strong strategic biases. Lost Legends finds a nice spot here too, with player positions being initially differentiated  enough to give everyone an initial shove in a different direction, but not so much that players are just pursuing their own unique path.

Once you've geared up and are ready to start killing monsters, we head to the dungeon. Mechanically, the process of killing monsters and scoring points for them is a bit creakier than the elegant and powerful drafting game. Players are dealt monsters from a deck which they have to individually fight, but if members of the party (i.e., other players) are unengaged because they have vanquished their opponents you can pass your monsters off to them, primarily if you can't handle their resistances or the damage they deal. Monsters come in four different classes (dragons, undead, animals, and humanoids) and you get points for getting 2 or 3 of a kind or one of each, plus another bonus for getting the most of a given kind. You also get experience points for killing anything, which will both improve your character stats (health and mana pool) and ultimately give you points if you get enough of them. There are rules for how you get new monsters, monsters that charge, passing monsters, trophies, and so on, that aren't complicated but are also not intuitive. They get the job done – they give you some control over which monsters you face while often forcing you to deal with whatever you get, add some risk to drawing blind, and make the choices about equipment pay off – but it's hard not to believe they couldn't have been done more cleanly.

Still, the combat does work in two key ways. Firstly, of course, it justifies all the drafting you just did. Choices about specialization vs. flexibility and power vs. defense will pay off (or not). The tactical game of when to deploy the single-use items in your arsenal is not deep, but there is enough there to engage. Secondly, Lost Legends has wisely discarded the tropes of D&D adventuring. In both classic and modern D&D, you have lots of combat designed to wear the party down rather than be an actual threat to their imaginary lives. Lost Legends gives you actual dangerous adversaries. Unwise drafting will, in fact, get you killed. Since Lost Legends is – as it should be – a game of risk, even good drafting will occasionally get you killed – as it should. Getting killed is not the end of the world, but is definitely an inconvenience and while you can still do well, it'll be very hard to come back to actually win unless it was a TPK (rare, but not impossible) or you got killed on the way out the door. In line with this, the game is only about an hour.

I liked Lost Legends. It has real stakes – draft well and you'll win, draft poorly and your character will get killed. It has a sense of risk – you do the best you can during drafting, but dungeon delving has occupational hazards and you can't mitigate them all. It separates the winners from the losers – while 7 Wonders will see scores separated by a point or two, Lost Legends spreads of 50-75% are not uncommon, and while sometimes this will be genuinely bad luck, usually it's much more about risks taken and gone bad or failing to achieve a good balance with your character's equipment. It gives you lots of interesting choices and the opportunity to try creative equipment mixes. Lost Legends certainly won't be for everyone, but if you have even a passing desire to kill some monsters and take their stuff, or wanted to like 7 Wonders but wished it had been better, you should check it out.