I didn’t know it would happen. Legends Untold was just another game with a generic name and generic premise. I wrote a press release about its Kickstarter campaign at Geek & Sundry and sort of mailed it in. News pieces are the worst.
The designer/publisher Kevin Young ended up sending me a copy of the game. Well, actually he sent me two copies since there are two standalone “novice sets” that each offer a similar experience with unique content. He probably wishes this article was being published at that big league site and not a dew-beater penny press. Sorry, Kevin.
But really, I didn’t know.
I didn’t know that Legends Untold would be such a unique and inspiring design. You could abut that statement with a qualifier of “for its small footprint” if you wish, but I don’t care. The bottom line is that this thing is stimulating.
It’s one of those “RPG in a box” games. That saying makes no sense by the way since role-playing games came in boxes before they didn’t. Regardless, this is a game that wants to recapture another’s experience. This allows it to tap into nostalgia and fuzzy emotions which cover up some of the warts and fissures.
Yes, this is a dungeon crawl and it feels like a blend of old and new schools. One thing which must be understood is that this is entirely about exploration. There is combat, equipment, leveling, et al. But that’s all secondary to flipping out a new room card and sticking your head into the doorway.
Exploration is one of my favorite aspects of tabletop thematic games. Revealing new people, places, and things is the very essence of mystery and suspense. It’s a hard thing to get right, especially in a dungeon crawler, and few designs adequately capture the immersion of a well-run D&D spelunking. Legends Untold is damn close.
It gets there due to commitment. This is a rather complex rule-set for the box size. There are layers of regulations and exceptions that feel as though they’re pushing everything a bit too far at times. Details exist for light sources, room and pathway illumination, sneaking, abstracted ranged and melee combat, surprise rolls, multi-use talent cards, three different types of encounter cards, barrier and obstacle cards, scenario special rules, and more. Whew. Sorry, let me collect my breath.
Messy is the term that comes to mind. It’s not an overly aggravating set of parameters on the whole, but you will need to refer to the rulebook and multiple player aids often enough during your first few plays. You will begin to question whether it’s really worth having all of these different types of cards and sub-systems.
The funny thing is that this nuance and level of complexity offers a rich experience you can’t find elsewhere. A comparable design is the Sadler brother’s Warhammer Quest Adventure Card Game (which later became Heroes of Terrinoth). That’s a more modern and streamlined affair following prevailing game design principles. It’s also a tedious and repetitive outing focused entirely on combat. Immersion is never achieved. The environment should be a living and breathing entity with personality – Legends Untold uniquely gets this.
Let’s have a go.
You’ve discovered a bleak underground lake spanning the length of the cavern. An event card has been pulled detailing flooding, a calamity common in the weeping cave set, and travel is slow eating up precious time. You forego resting this turn to lick your wounds and instead press forward and keep the momentum. Two exits exist, one is dark and one is bright.
“I’m a little banged up” remarks Ben. “I think we should head through the shadowy tunnel and keep our heads down in case we run into more goblins.”
Aaron speaks up, “The last time we avoided the light it resulted in a bombed scouting roll. Our carelessness lead to triggering a pit and dart trap. No way.”
Ben shakes his head and scowls, “Look, if we skip through the illuminated exit we will never make our surprise roll. Let’s just sneak through the dark entrance, you can take the rear-guard position and Jim can take point in case we hit a trap.”
“Wait, what?” blurts Jim.
If you extricated the discussions from the game a passerby would think you’re red boxing it up. Repeatedly you will debate these very specific challenges such as who goes first across the rope bridge or whether you should attempt to bribe or pummel the glowing sprite that’s intercepted your jaunt. All of this is due to a carefully presented level of detail.
The challenges you stumble across are myriad. They are full of personality and present an evolving set of circumstances that are unique to your encounter. While you may see that rickety rope bridge on a subsequent play, it offers a different feel in totality when it’s braced with a goblin shaman defending a massive idol as opposed to presenting a cross-roads unnaturally quiet and brimming with traps. Each disparate piece comes together, randomly, to build atmosphere.
There is combat, although it’s not terribly interesting. Every test in this game is a nifty dice roll of 3D6 with a bonus provided by a character stat. It approaches clever when you start considering exhausting your multi-use ability cards, but these aren’t quite enough. Violence usually revolves around several rounds of rolling dice and looking at a simple weapon chart. It’s not dull but it’s a momentary break in the wonderful bits of the game that mostly serves to reinforce the sense of danger.
I do love the damage system in that it’s attritional without feeling too much the grind. You instead flip your ability cards face-down which naturally weakens you over time. Enemies are much simpler and handled by small hit point pools of course.
Amid the details and sub-systems there’s quite a bit to like. I love that everything is grounded in the mundane. Characters are ordinary folk – blacksmiths, students, and fallen nobility – and they must make do with very ordinary weapons and abilities. This humble baseline helps boost the more weird and supernatural elements occasionally encountered. It also provides a masochistic pleasure of running a level one character with a sublime naivete. Again, nostalgia is strong.
The seemingly generic setting is even endearing, and not exactly generic. Your people have been driven from their lands by an encroaching army of Elves and now number only a few thousand. You are refugees, fleeing into the night and attempting to gain access to a fabled city of wonder and bounty. The only way in is through the sewers below or caves above (hence the two distinct core sets).
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. There is a political statement here that’s unavoidable. With the team behind the game located in the United Kingdom, it likely wasn’t intended, but it’s still sitting there and boldly staring you in the face. After all, an artist can’t decide or even control how their work will be interpreted, all they can do is create.
Those stinging issues of asylum form a significant focus during campaign play. The pressing nature of the game’s internal clock is there for a reason. As you wander through the weeping caves collecting scalps and treasure, your people are dying. You actually track population over the campaign with a nifty, and brutal, abstracted system. It’s the perfect weight and detail to complement the structure of scenarios. Every digit you lose is a needle to your flesh and a swig of guilt.
Cultural tethers here are myriad. The complex political issues provide a sense of relevance and modern. The whispers of Gary Gygax allow us to cling to worn covers and yellow pages and our younger selves. The board and card game mechanisms split the difference, waffling between obtuse and sleek with each roll of the die and flip of the card.
I am still intrigued after a half-dozen plays of the Weeping Caves set. This is entirely enabled due to the strong variety of content smashed into a tiny box. I do find myself craving a wider range of enemies particularly, but that’s mostly testament to the slightly bland nature of combat. The rest of it is all golden.
There’s plenty of loot, tons of non-combat encounters, a healthy amount of obstacles, and even a good spread of rooms. Over a typical 60-90 minute session you will only work through a randomized third of the content pool. Additionally, the timing and combination of encounters can alter the feel. Small touches such as rooms possessing traits that interact differently with events offers surprising synergies and twists throughout play. Discovering these unique nooks and crannies is every bit part of the exploration.
Legends Untold is a very enjoyable system that understands how to leverage its own strengths. It loses itself at times under the weight of its laws and mellow combat, but it rebounds strongly from those lows and offers a rewarding experience to those who can cope with the inequalities.