Jan 14, 2015

[Games] Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game

When popular franchises try to get into the tabletop gaming world, the results can be pretty mixed. More often than not they simply reskin an existing game using elements from their mythos like what we've seen with the ridiculous number of Monopoly variants out there and gems like Star Trek Catan, a reskin of Settlers of Catan. Some of these games end up making a lot of sense. Others just end up being weird additions to your collection, but hey collectibles are cool!

I never expected to see an Aliens-related game, especially given how invested they seem to be in the video game market. But here we have a card game in the Legendary line of games and it's actually a pretty good game. Sure, it's generally another example of a franchise adopting an existing game system. But more importantly, it's a pretty great game that really capture the feel of the Alien movies.

Synopsis: Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game is precisely that. This cooperative deck building game for 1-5 players was designed by Ben Cichoski and Danny Mandel for Upper Deck Entertainment. And yes, these are generally the same Upper Deck guys who have been making sports trading cards all these years.

In the game, players each take on a particular mission role that fits into the classic character types that we've seen in the different Alien movies like the Mercenary or the Synthetic. Each player gets a unique card specific to that role and a generic deck of 7 Specialists (for Recruiting cards) and Grunts (for Scanning rooms and dealing with alien threats). You start each turn with 6 cards from your deck and you continually cycle your discard pile once you run out of cards to draw.

The game allows you to play through decks designed to capture the feel of the different Alien movies. Thus each movie scenario involves key characters from that same movie and their affiliated cards to be part of the game. So when you play through the scenario corresponding to the first movie, you get character cards associated with folks like Ripley and Dallas while the Aliens scenario brings in characters like Hicks and Hudson.

The game is divided into three main phases linked to the three objectives that you and your fellow players will try to achieve. These objectives are again tied to the  movie scenario that you're playing through so the first movie cards have you trying to respond to the mysterious SOS signal while the second movie cards include an objective to setup the sentry guns.

Play order is simple enough. First a new card from the Hive deck is added to the rightmost location in the complex and all other cards that are dislodged are pushed left. These cards are played face-down so you don't know if they're threats or objective cards. Then you can play as many cards as you want to either Recruit characters from HQ using the associated Recruit cost written on the cards as a guide or you can use your Attack Points to either Scan rooms (thus flipping over the card in that part of the Complex) or attack revealed threats (assuming you have enough points to kill it outright). Then you discard your entire hand and draw a new one.

The game comes with a nice play mat that pretty much defines all the different parts of the game and provide a clear place to put everything that you'll need. It's made of the type of foam that we see on mouse pads but of course the actual paint quality makes things look a little faded. But it's pretty functional and clearly defines what you need to do. The cards, somewhat annoyingly so, come out of the box in a mixed up assortment that isn't easy to immediately figure out, especially if you've never played any of the Legendary deck building games. Plus regardless of which deck they belong to, they all have the same color card back, which makes things even more confusing. Beyond that, they're nicely thick cards of good quality and the illustrations nicely capture different parts of the movie. It's interesting to note that they had to resort to illustrations and not photo stills from the movies.

The game is pretty challenging since you're unable to attack the Aliens in the complex unless you Scan them or they're already attacking you in the Combat Zone. But typically scanning triggers different card abilities as well, so it's a bit of a risk to do so. While you can always hope to find the cards related to your current objective, there's just as much of a chance that you'll find Event cards that usually make things worse or Hazard cards that further reduce your chances of winning. Humans were never meant to face off with these xenomorphs it seems.

It's pretty amazing how the different movie-based scenarios really feel drastically different in terms of play. Playing through the first movie means that you don't have a lot of weapons or attacks at your disposal and you need to find a way to survive against some pretty scary threats. The second movie cards feel rather empowering as you mow dow alien after alien, but members of your team have a pretty big chance of getting kidnapped and cocooned as well. This is consistent across the four different movie scenario decks (no Prometheus for those who are counting) and makes for great gameplay. So far I think we've had the hardest time with the first movie because man, that perfect organism. Then again, each deck has it own challenges and the diversity of play is pretty fulfilling.

This is one of those games were losing doesn't necessarily feel as bad since you probably gave it your all until the very last moment. One of the more clever elements of the game is how Facehuggers can appear in pretty much any deck. When you get a Facehugger, you have your turn and the next player's turn to kill it before it becomes a Chestburster in your deck. And so you wait for that random card to come up and once it does you're immediately dead. As sad as player elimination is, it still feels amazingly right in terms of the mood the game tries to create, and that's pretty awesome.

Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game is a pretty fulfilling card game and a great homage to the Alien movies. It'll take you a while before you master the nuances of the game design and even more so the quirks of each movie scenario, which is all part of the fun. So the game rates 4.5 surprise Facehuggers out of a possible 5.

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