560 Days Later – A Reflection on Unmatched: Battle of Legends

I was impressed with Unmatched. I thought the character choices were interesting and varied, the ruleset was tight and fluid, and the product design was simply outstanding. What’s perhaps shocking is that I was never much of an Epic Duels fan, yet this release felt warm and comforting in ways I didn’t expect. It even appeared on my 2019 games of the year list, but the important question we’re going to answer today is whether it has maintained excellence.

It has certainly grown. Content has been plentiful with multiple sets finding their way to shelves. What’s stood out to me is the pace of this growth. Comparing this drip of material to the LCG model seems fitting, although I’d dare say Restoration Games has succeeded where Fantasy Flight has not.

Look, Android: Netrunner is one of my favorite games. Yet, despite my love for the design I dropped it completely a couple of years into the release schedule because it felt like I was drowning. At some point a subscription service to waterboarding loses its appeal.

Unmatched on the other hand has been dropping new sets roughly every four months. That pace simply feels right. It’s attainable and it allows those playing the game heavily to thoroughly explore each new title with care and depth.

Another positive aspect of this format is that each release is self-contained. They come with two or four miniatures, a full rules booklet, and a board for you to play on. In this way they expand the options at your disposal but they also could form a solid jumping off point for a newcomer. It’s inviting and never feels as though you’re being tethered to a heavy yoke because the material doesn’t meld with or extend existing characters. Each piece of content is isolated and modular, expanding the breadth of the overall system as opposed to individual elements.

The mechanical growth has also been pleasing. There’s little retread in terms of character abilities, which is frankly astounding. The way the Invisible Man can slip between fog tokens or Little Red Riding Hood manipulates the symbols in her basket feels entirely unique and effective in conveying overall concepts faithful to their source material. Every figure owns its abilities and it just feels right.

This distinct texture to each character goes a long way to alleviating a potential pitfall. I’ve likened the design to the fighting game genre, by that I mean Tekken or BlazBlue. Loading up one of those games and hitting the character selection screen can be downright paralyzing. Everyone blends together and specific moves or styles are opaque and out of reach. That’s not the case when you’re dealing with Sinbad or Medusa.

There is a deep sense of appreciation that emanates from the experience – both pieces and system. This comes across as though each of these characters was designed by an absolute enthusiast. The ability of the group to issue this many albums devoid of filler is a wonder.

The team also appears to have grown more adept over time, or at least received the confidence to play it a bit riskier. In every way Cobble & Fog is a more interesting and accomplished release than Volume I, for instance. It’s not even close. Yet the restraint shown has been quite surprising. The simplicity at the heart of the design has barely inflated, taking incremental adjustments here and there that feel experimental yet measured.

The physical beauty of the game has also matured. Taking a look at the various bits of the newest set, Little Red Riding Hood vs. Beowulf, will give an immediate jolt. I’m not simply talking about the cover or card illustrations, but the overall graphic design; take a gander at those card backs. This is just a beautiful experience all around.

All this unending praise comes with a bit of a pivot. Despite my adoration for Unmatched it still is surpassed in my eyes by several skirmish competitors. Warhammer Underworlds lands harder with more interesting card interactions and more zany asymmetry. Mythic Battles: Pantheon is limited in thematic scope, but it somehow feels more over-the-top and ridiculous in terms of synthesizing powerful abilities with gripping tactical agency.

The challenge with Unmatched is that the design goal of vicious streamlining places an upper ceiling on the game’s ability to subvert your expectations. A new character or ability has not come along and blown my mind or thrown me from my chair. Each addition has felt very clever and well realized, often providing a bevy of small surprises that I happily nod along to, but it has never truly upset my world. This is the force opposing its consistency and dedication to the design framework.

I also still think the simplification bears threads of blandness at the boundaries. The boards in particular stand out as the weakest element. The very player-friendly implementation of line of sight is grand, an aspect which plagues many a miniatures game, but it feels as though it overtakes all aspects of the surface. Take a look at the multitude of boards seemingly swollen with pie graphs of all sorts. It’s exceedingly difficult actually tying the surface to thematic context. This is not only because the illustrations are dominated by the multi-colored spaces but also because the scale is odd.

That decision to shrink the background proportions is likely fallout from maintaining a reduced requirement for table-space. The effect is worse on the smaller boards where surface area is limited, those found in the two faction sets such as Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot and InGen vs. Raptors. This lack of atmospheric context is disappointing because it forces a more abstract feeling upon the battle. The board completely fades away.

Now, there is a bit of promise in the most recent release. One of the maps in Little Red Riding Hood vs. Beowulf contains doors, providing some needed environmental interactivity. It’s a start. But we need much more of this. Much more.

I think we need to see the maps fully realized as a third participant in the skirmish. My thoughts go to the Sadler’s Street Masters which is probably a step too far for this game’s weight, but still conveys the overall concept which would enhance this game immensely. In order to retain simplicity, one side of the board could contain such a convention and the other could maintain the status quo.

It’s tough. This game steadily lands with force and I can’t help but appreciate how little confusion is inflicted. Every card and ability is readily grasped and virtually no rules referencing is needed. I can pick this up with many months between plays and we can be off and running in but a minute. That’s not an exaggeration, it just goes down smooth.

My daughter is almost to the age where we will be playing this regularly. That’s the ultimate appeal of this work. It’s taken in 15 minute doses and even a youngster can throw down. While I’d be surprised if Unmatched ever ends up among my most beloved titles, it’s the preeminent miniatures skirmish filler and it rules its roost. I may not be comfortable saying those three special words, but I’d totally offer a heart emoji if we were textin’.

 

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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  2 comments for “560 Days Later – A Reflection on Unmatched: Battle of Legends

  1. Ian Allen
    February 12, 2021 at 10:36 am

    Anonymous? Didn’t know I had to log in to WordPress or something to leave my name – lets try that again. Delete the other entry if you can.

    I like Unmatched for the simplicity of design that you mentioned. I play it with one of my daughters a lot. I do agree with your point about the boards needing more environmental interaction – that would add to the game experience once you have played it a time or two.

    I think you are pretty spot on here.

    I have replaced all my minis (even though they are good minis) with legos of course. I think it adds even more to the fun of the game.

    It won’t be long before your daughter is playing this with you as well!

    Like

    • February 12, 2021 at 10:54 am

      Man, I loved your BSG Lego set. I imagine your Unmatched stuff looks great.

      Like

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