There have been a lot of dungeon crawlers over the last couple of years and I have dutifully, keenly, and optimistically played most of them. Gamers have made their choice from the big name(s), and occasionally from the smaller ones, but whichever they choose they tend to bang on about it. Personally, I have been disappointed overall, but then I am very fussy. At least none have been as bad as Descent. Or Talisman.
Joking aside, this is obviously a personal taste thing. Thousands seem happy with legacy cookie cutters, endless combat and plastic figures. My preference, often stated, is for games with minimal combat, strong narrative atmosphere, variety and speedy play. But mostly, I need to like the systems. For this reason Gloomhaven, Mage Knight, Brimstone, Pathfinder, City of Kings, Thunderstone Quest, Swords & Sorcery and the rest have left me cold, or perhaps tepid at best. I have successfully sought narrative relief in Arkham Horror (card and app versions), Middle-earth Journeys and Fallout. For quick, light, fun games, Escape the Dark Castle scratches the itch. I would play Runebound if I had four hours. Even the good ones are lacking… something.
But at last, sitting on my table, is the crawler game changer: Legends Untold by Inspiring Games. This is an excellent game, regardless of category. It is quick, engaging, huge fun and manages to build a narrative and suspense out of almost nothing. It is easily now my dungeon crawler of choice, and best I have ever played. I understand that you may disagree. In quiet moments I like to think this will be a huge success, and deservedly so.
As usual, I will start with incisive, telling analysis. I will fail in this, and quickly move on. Almost exactly like Terraforming Mars, it is hard to explain why this game is so good. There is nothing that one can highlight as the key mechanic, or the disruptive twist, or even really a different game structure. It is identifiably (very) similar to many old and current products. Much of the game is random. Or, perhaps, ‘random’. Sure, there are scenarios and seed numbers – how many rooms, monsters, obstacles, treasures etc – but after that there is not always even sequencing. Just card drawing. So, reluctantly for fear of swelling heads, this is probably just clever design. The work has clearly gone into balancing and combining the cards, developing the game over years not weeks (recent publishers take note), testing, building a background and feel, and offering an inbuilt and seamless scaling system for different numbers of players. I don’t indulge, but I reckon this would be a solo treat.
So how does a typical game run? You can almost guess. Seed the adventure deck as instructed. Choose a character each. Nominate a leader and a rearguard. Leave the start space and head into the next room. Most rooms have a choice of exits, a series of obstacles, search points and encounters – monsters, traps, events or otherwise. Some have a campsite for needed rest. Room after room are quickly negotiated until you have failed or succeeded in the scenario goal. On average, we have been encountering six to twelve rooms (all underground), and games run one to two hours.
A typical quest will see some combat, but this is pleasingly low key, and other skill or luck based tests hold sway. What combat there is scores because monsters are interesting and original without drifting to the tactical extremes of rival games, and they are just right in terms of danger and vulnerability. But the highlights are the skills test that present in several forms. Characters will use their limited skillset to tackle these challenges and because all the cards in a dungeon are similarly themed, a form of narrative is created. The rest of Ingredient X is the interactions between players, evocative settings, the bad decisions, the synchronicity of cards, the awful decisions and the general feel of exploring and pushing on into the darkness with half the party walking dead. It works. Trust me. It is a ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ deal.
Play can be quite tense, because of the pacing, time limit and that imminent death issue. It is even exciting at times. What it always delivers is fun. It relies on 3d6 rolls, so there is a hint of old school D&D flavour, bringing back those 1970’s memories. But also because awful rolls appear exactly when you don’t want them. Frankly, we have not laughed as much in a while. Tonight, while my troubadour partner rolled multiple 6s all night and took out enemies with his axe, my hopeless urchin kept rolling so badly that his javelins were causing blue on blue hits.
I have written before about Level Zero syndrome. Briefly, if I am going to commit hours to a crawl character (be it fantasy, SF or post-apoc) then I want to start at Level One. I want to be the tough local hero, the only gnome druid in the village, the budding master mage. I want something. A staff? I’ll settle for a staff. Or a familiar. I do not want to start as a farmhand with a nicked scythe, a knife and a fanny pack. In that challenging way life has, Legends Untold gives me exactly the latter. I have a lumpy stick that I found under a tree. My clothes are tatty. I could die very quickly. I don’t even have a name. This is very much Monty Python’s view of peasant stock. And do you know what, I loved it. I simply did not care that I was a low skill farmhand and having survived the mission I got… wait for it…. a slightly better stick. Legends Untold cannot refer to the starter set, unless the legend concerns pustules, matted hair and muddy boots.
The artwork is very well done. As in, some of the best I’ve seen. Even so, it contributes to the downtrodden feel. The eight human stars are superbly rendered, instantly selling their character. You can play male or female. The wider game art, especially the goblins, displays originality and a refined, slightly leftfield, style. The clothing, weapons and abstemious loot all reflect the Level Zero approach. If you get some armour, it will be shoddy, second hand leather armour. This is not your mithril armour with prismatic helmet option. This is not your usual magic sword rack. Everything is the opposite of the Marks & Spencer adverts.
As much as I like the game, it is not perfect. Let’s just say that being close to, dare I say loving, a game means I scrutinise more closely and find faults. Like relationships. Or bikes. The rules are almost there but finding specifics (Fire is elusive) can be slow. There are mechanisms I would change. I would simplify here and there – alert status would go, for one. There are too many traps. There are way too many tiny icons. Combat is interesting but the game style might benefit from limited rounds or one roll resolution. Just personal preference. We are still talking 9/10.
I am left in that haze of enthusiasm promoted by an excellent, flavoursome, open ended, stand out game. Trust me, this doesn’t happen very often. Once every two years, if I am very lucky. So, I want more stuff. I want the next expansion even though I still have 80% of the Novice sets to play. I want characters. Monsters. Maps. Tests. I want there to be magic items that excite. I want – da da dahhh! – outside locations and new settings. I want these things badly. Like, tomorrow. We know that the next box has things of interest. It will doubtless handle higher character levels and more personas. Good. The slight concern here is that there is little detectable buzz. There is not much happening at BGG – no user content that I can find. There is no website or email feeding me pure temptation. Today, literally, there was a hint of a forthcoming KS campaign.
Having had a lie down, I will pitch some forecasts. Short term, we will play this a lot. It will easily make ten plays (modern classic) and I would let it go to twenty, which has seriously not happened since the last century. I feel, as a grizzled old gamer, that we will soon become bored with the same rooms and monsters. As with many similar games, we will get to know the cards that one really should not know about. I can fix this, but copyrights would be infringed, so I can only fix it for me. So I suggest more small expansion packs as soon as possible please. In the medium term, we need the next boxed expansion to be able to progress, then the next one soon after. This is ideally like those D&D adventures for Levels 5 to 7. Or advanced Janet & John books. Longer term… this one could run and run. Endless options, basically. The only realistic limit will be terminal ennui at designer level.
Finally, after a lot of uncharacteristic gushing, the closer. This game is fantastic value. Unbelievably so. As in, I don’t know how they did it, pricing gun error, and would you like to consult on my games… In a hobby where even a light card game can cost you £30+, Legends Untold can be had for £17. One Novice (starter) set has an awful lot of stuff and gaming value. It is enough. Both starter sets combined, for there are two, confer a Christmas Morning feel. And you have still spent less than my monthly water bill. The booster expansions are not such good value, but hey. They need to keep the lights on at Inspiring Games.
Legends Untold is my favourite game of 2019 so far. In a year that has already provided U-Boot, New California, Outer Rim, Res Arcana and SpaceCorp, this is no mean feat. I love this hobby, but I love it even more when a small, new company does something this good. Try this excellent game. Support the venture. Send me a thank you letter.