The Man in the Cardboard Mask – A Gascony’s Legacy Review

Gascony’s Legacy is all wrong. In the current climate these types of games come stuffed with minis. Not three or four, but a whole damn tray and even better if there’s a second underneath. Here there’s nary a mini in sight. To snub the prevailing ethos in such a manner is almost offensive.

That sense of outrageousness extends to its setting. This title fully embraces Alexandre Dumas’ vision of the King’s Musketeers exercising duty and honor in the 17th century. Yes, a dungeon crawler without elves, dwarves, or xenomorphs.

Lynnvander Studios does not answer to the laws of men.

That previous assertion was a lie: If you called this a dungeon crawler you’d be wrong, but your blunder would be understandable. While it has a few qualities of that ubiquitous genre, this is better described as a co-operative miniatures skirmish game – sans miniatures. Instead the named pro- and an-tagonists are identified by very normal very average standees. The scores of guards, wielding both musket and sword, are represented by tokens with an icon. They’re faceless both metaphorically and physically.

The tiles comprising the alleyways and interiors of romanticized France are also relatively non-descript and surprisingly sparse. The color pallet is pleasing but the illustrations themselves are decidedly mundane. If you saw this game spread out on the table you’d probably keep walking. Kiefer Sutherland wouldn’t blame you.

But that hubris would be a mistake.

Gascony’s Legacy is the best Three Musketeers game thus far conceived. Yeah, that competition is akin to a hot dog eating contest between the Blob and Mother Theresa. But none of that matters because this game is devious and interesting, regardless of its lack of siblings.

A single play is roughly 90 minutes, perhaps 60 if your group is scooting. You pick one of four included stories and each player selects a Musketeer or one of the literature’s peripheral characters such as the formidable Constance or majestic Queen Anne.

Each story is comprised of linked encounters, most being little skirmishes fought on a few adjoining tiles, and a few being dice-based skill tests or story decisions that offer rewards and penalties. The various outcomes tend to offer light branching within the story which heightens the narrative buy-in. There is not a lot of prose adorning the sinew connecting these encounters but there’s just enough to provide context and inform the overall plot.

This structure is the first novel quality of Gascony’s Legacy among a bushel. Let’s move to the action system.

Like much of this design, the cleverness here is understated. You get a standard move and attack on your turn, but you also get a more versatile action. You can use this action to swap which hand your sword is in – this actually matters but we’ll get to that in a second – activate one of your character’s special abilities, or interact with terrain. That last option is what I want to focus on.

One quality of these types of games that always perturbed me is how inert the environment is. If I’m somersaulting around a dungeon or flying through a busy street I want to feel immersed. I want to interact with the terrain. This is one of the main reasons I adored the unheard of Dragon Tides and the more prolific TMNT: Shadows of the Past.

Gascony’s Legacy shows an acute awareness in this regard.

You can roll barrels toward enemies, leap atop tables, spray your foe with burning coals from a brazier, you can even swing from a vibrant chandelier and cause it to come crashing down upon the heads below.

Here’s a story: D’Artagnan was caught, surrounded by the Cardinal’s guards and narrowly avoiding the rapier of the Comte de Rochefort. Even a blind layman could tell he was screwed. Then a crash was heard and trumpets blared. Porthos came galloping from a nearby balcony, sliding down a bright banner bearing the King’s coat of arms and leaping towards the candelabrum above. Through this feat of heroism he took out three foes and wounded Rochefort. It was bananas and cinematic.

That dynamism is not so subtle. What is understated about the action system is how generous it is. Most games would require you trade movement or your attack to interact with the terrain. Gascony’s Legacy offers you such opportunity as a freebie. This is often the best option for your generic action and it never feels costly. You mustn’t contemplate efficiency or weigh the damage output of rolling a barrel into a couple of buffoons as opposed to stabbing them in the face as you can do both. This game wants you to experience the joy of swashbuckling and adventure and it never hides the ball.

The next bit of genius is the weapon system. There’s a solid amount of equipment in this game. You acquire new options after taking out foes and looting their corpses. Each weapon has a specific pattern of adjacent squares it targets and this is specific to whether you wield it in your left or right hand. This places a surprisingly strong emphasis on tactical maneuvering for such a small and streamlined design. There are moments where you need to rotate or step just so – spending precious movement points – all to line up a multi-target strike with your broadsword.

The personality imbued upon each weapon is also tremendous. There are special effects in addition to the patterns so lugging around a polearm feels much different than a short sword or pistol. Attacks are carried out with dice which adds a touch of drama. There are ways to manipulate the results and the game does a solid job of attaining a degree of mitigation without shunning chaos. The battlefield certainly feels hectic and energetic to great effect.

The enemies are controlled by a simple priority system. On the surface it appears drab and lifeless, but again, trust in Lynnvander. The killer feature here is that after you attack an enemy all of the foes still standing in your weapon arc react. This isn’t equitable to something like Gloomhaven’s retaliate, instead it’s an unpredictable maneuver drawn from a deck. Sometimes enemies will move altering the shape of the battlefield and sometimes they will counter with a riposte or disarm. There are several such outcomes and always a hint of danger lurking at the edge of each thrust.

Named antagonists, the movers and shakers such as Cardinal Richelieu, boast their own set of cards which randomize their active behavior as well as personalized reactions. This makes for particularly gripping encounters at the climax of a scenario which push the system to its utmost.

This game is a treat, but I need be careful not to appear overly giddy. One of the more undercooked elements is the theme. I’m not talking about the setting, rather the themes of Dumas’ work are only lightly engaged. The exclusive mechanism that touches upon a deeper theme is with the shared dice “All For One!” mechanism which provides a small pool of bonus actions. Some discussion and shared tactical consideration is fostered, but the themes of loyalty and brotherhood are only barely addressed in comparison to stronger thematic works such as the supportive dice system in Kevin Wilson’s TMNT: Shadows of the Past series.

That slightly undercooked quality in tackling the deeper thematic element is paralleled in the game’s presentation. While its component modesty and smaller space requirement are an asset from a particular perspective, one could justifiably criticize the game for being too meek physically. I must admit that in an idyllic state Gascony’s Legacy would actually benefit from an over the top presentation. Dynamically posed miniatures and plastic terrain would serve as marionettes for the lively and fluid combat mechanisms to manipulate.

There is also a sense of flimsiness in the scenarios which synergizes undesirably with the meager demeanor. Despite much appreciated variety in the story design with some interesting tactical challenges, there are a couple of encounters that feel a bit off. This is displayed most prominently in the stealth adventures which require you avoid guards when possible. The nature of this type of sub-system is intriguing and there are moments where the infiltration mechanism pays off, but often it feels contrived and not fully realized.

That undesirable quality is also partially substantiated by the claustrophobic nature of the maps. Most setups are comprised of only a handful of tiles which combines unattractively with the small scale to feel rather stuffy. It doesn’t hinder the action too much, but it sits like a foreign lump at the back of the brain.

Some effort is given to inject a sense of expansiveness with the optional 3D terrain supplement, but it simply doesn’t work all too well. Some of the pieces are attractive in practice, such as the portcullis and wagon, but the bulk are a little too awkward and obtrusive visually. The barrels for instance aren’t round and no trickery will provide a visual illusion as such. Most of it also clashes heavily with the 2D enemy tokens which actually breaks immersion as opposed to supporting it. All of this measures up poorly to some of the really impressive objects we’ve seen in titles such as Descent: Legends of the Dark. It’s much better when a game realizes what it is as opposed to reaching for something it isn’t.

A mention of Descent brings up an interesting line of thought. Playing both of these games in such close proximity really pushed my creative spirit to each extreme, causing a prolonged re-evaluation of what I seek from this hobby. I’ve come to reconcile my thoughts and land upon a position that both of these types of things can co-exist peacefully.

I really do enjoy the theatrical $140 app-infused 3D behemoth with a very composed and artistic whole. But I also have experienced a simply wonderful time with this more modest under-funded tactical game that will likely never grab wider attention. These types of designs that stand in the shadows and run along the gutter can offer a great amount of creative ambition that outstrips their physical profile.

I can also heartily commend this game as a solo endeavor. The mechanisms all hold and fielding two characters is trivial. I do enjoy the shared discussions that take place as each conflict is a tactical puzzle, but I would not hesitate to play through either the core stories or the wonderful expansion scenarios as a single participant. In fact, the optional campaign rules where you carry gear and health forward over multiple sessions feels particularly valuable for solitaire play.

Gascony’s Legacy was a surprise. While this doesn’t quite attain the heights of Lynnvander’s magnum opus – Terminator Genisys: Rise of the Resistance – it’s in the same zip code. Very few games tackle swashbuckling adventure and even fewer attempt something truly novel. I’m not sure there is enough here to wow the post-Kickstarter consumer expecting leather seats and a cup holder, but there’s certainly enough here to capture my heart and enrapture my mind in unexpected ways.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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