Legacy of Yu and the Fallacy of Content

Shem Phillips’ Legacy of Yu has captured my attention. I’ve been playing a lot of it lately. It’s a stylish board game from Renegade that is unique in the designer’s oeuvre in that it’s only playable solitaire. It bears Sam Phillips handsome illustrations, and it looks like it’d fit right in with all of Shem’s other popular releases. You know, those sleek modern worker placement titles that include Architects of the West Kingdom and Shipwrights of the North Sea. There’s a lot of those games at this point.

Yu is certainly reflective of those titles. It includes elements of worker placement, deckbuilding, and resource management. It’s smooth and easy to fall into, despite offering a very stimulating set of problems to juggle. You play as Ancient Chinese legend Yu the Great, attempting to build a complex network of canals before the great flood. While under constant attack by barbarians. And trying to feed your starving people. As you’re attempting to build them homes and infrastructure.

It’s not a complex system at all, although it is one that’s strategically obtuse. There are many different vectors to pursue. You can tweak your deck, construct various buildings, acquire different skilled laborers, all while keeping up with the flood by laying canal ahead of its path. It feels as though you’re micromanaging a number of detailed jobs while vulgar bullies fire arrows into your ranks.

The primary sense of joy arises from the game’s ability to build you up and reinforce a sense of cleverness. Another Renegade title, Hadrian’s Wall, feels somewhat present as you spend many turns converting a resource into another into another. It’s not uncommon to discard cards for shells which you trade for rations that acquire new cards for your deck. Another turn you may spend workers to build the canal which rewards a clay that you can then spend to build a farm which is subsequently placed on an open space to give you another worker.

There’s an unwinding of gains that feels as though it compounds, imparting that sense of clever and giving a meat-fisted pat on the back. It can feel empowering as the line between victory and defeat appears extraordinarily large. That’s not actually the case, as once you attain some broad strategic competence everything shifts from nearly impossible to readily attainable.

This is my favorite of Shem’s titles that I’ve sampled. I find the resource puzzle to be more satisfying as a solitaire experience. The constant engagement dissipates some of the noise between player and the gameplay loop, a feature which benefits this style of Euro-game. It also has story.

Yeah, buddy. Story with a capital S. As in a book with words that form sentences and are used in paragraphs. Narrative snippets inform play and shake it up, both mid and post-game. The whole structure of Legacy of Yu is a campaign format where you play until you’ve either achieved seven wins or seven losses. It’s pretty neat actually and reasonably enhances the experience. Again, this wouldn’t work nearly as well as a multiplayer endeavor, but as a solo pursuit with 30-minute sessions, it sings.

But as much as I appreciate the scattered narrative passages and how they improve the holistic vision, they also introduce a problem.

If you talk to people who have played Yu – or maybe just stalk the requisite forums – you will find a pattern. A common refrain is that roughly everything the game has to offer is witnessed with a single playthrough of the campaign. Maybe some will argue that a second attempt is still worthwhile, but even so, most readily identify that this game’s lifespan is limited. The moment you crack the box and shuffle the cards, it has begun, and the “best by” date is imprinted.

Most are fine with this. It’s an affordable product and you will still extract a dozen or more sessions out of it. That’s a solid amount of play, particularly when you consider that it’s fully resettable and you can easily trade it away or sell it. Almost everyone agrees, however, that it’s not built to last.

There’s something going on here that is unsettling. Legacy of Yu is viewed as a content forward system. The additional mechanisms you unlock and campaign passages you read are viewed as an integral quality of the experience. The gameplay is measured by how long it takes you to expose this content, with termination being the natural conclusion once you’ve perused the bulk of it.

I can’t blame people for holding this perspective on the game. The campaign and faux legacy elements do come across as a driving force for continuation. They’re inspiring people to engage this game rapidly, playing through a campaign over the course of a week. The short playtime feeds into the naturally low barriers of solitaire gaming, affording the opportunity to complete the package with haste. But this is inflicting a warped view due to the compressed lifecycle.

This phenomenon is causing players to overlook the moment-to-moment gameplay, placing those self-evident processes subservient to the campaign aspects. A hierarchy is formed where unlocks and story rewards dwarf the actual systems you’re manipulating, and the viewpoint is altered permanently in service to this position.

It’s an odd thing. I think most of us have been there, though. Near the end of Tainted Grail, I was fatigued with the game’s systems and wanted to know what happens next in the story. But Legacy of Yu isn’t quite so story focused. In fact, you could view a solitary session of play identically to a game of Space Hulk: Death Angel or Friday. Those are two stellar titles to play by your lonesome. And they don’t have little accompanying novellas.

Imagine Death Angel, as is, with the addition of a narrative booklet. At certain points in the game – perhaps when you eliminate a particularly strong Genestealer or enter a specific location – you read a paragraph out loud and gain a resource or unlock a new card. The core gameplay loop would be otherwise unchanged in this hypothetical scenario.

Once you played several times and read all of the story passages, would the game effectively be exhausted? Many would probably say yes. Yet, I’ve played Space Hulk: Death Angel several dozen times. Without any prescribed narrative reinforcement. I may go play it again after writing this.

Let’s do the reverse. Imagine Legacy of Yu without the campaign. The game would suffer, surely. But you also wouldn’t likely play it 12 times in six days. You’d rattle off a couple of plays and put it away. Then you’d come back to it later. The time between will have sapped some of your learned acuity, and you would need to re-develop your skill. Then you’d put it away again. The longevity would be extended simply due to a more natural lifecycle of spacing out plays and a lack of system mastery. It’s how most of us have experienced Friday or Death Angel.

But not Yu. Because it has that little booklet. So we have to rush through it and exhaust it.

If you’ve read my last few articles this may sound repetitive, yet I can’t help but meditate on our need to constantly chase. To always be seeking something greater than our current state. This short-form campaign format directly interlocks with that uniquely human desire, but in doing so, it undermines the default state of its core systems.

This is something we consistently muddle up. When a game offers content exploration as a core feature, it causes us to reshape our perspective and alters how we engage it. This can lead to unending dissatisfaction. Often, there is too much content, so not finishing the damn thing leaves us hollow and ragged. It also may push us to play more frequently than we’d like, establishing fatigue and frustration. It keeps us focused on the horizon as opposed to our immediate surroundings. And most likely, the destination ultimately proves disappointing.

Legacy of Yu’s narrative is rather disjointed. Each passage is just a soft touch that sheds a little isolated light. There’s no vast interlinked story to be forgotten with a month between sessions. It’s just a neat detail. You don’t have to conquer it in a day.

Maybe we slow down. Maybe we recognize the experience it offers at any given moment instead of the one it offers next. Maybe then it can breathe, and it won’t expire shortly after the seal’s been broken.


A complimentary copy of Legacy of Yu was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi or supporting me on Patreon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: