You are an apprentice engaged in generally comradely combat with other players by summoning cute mythical creatures and using their powers to secure victory. If this sounds ever so slightly reminiscent of Pokemon, I am sure that the similarities are entirely coincidental and that no licences have been compromised to produce Legendary Creatures.
Legendary Creatures is a game designed by Eduardo Baraf and Christopher Hamm, with lively and attractive art by Lou Catanzaro and Sebastian Koziner. It is published by Pencil First Games. When it launched originally on Kickstarter in 2017, Legendary Creatures was described as a ‘deck and resource management game’. As players are juggling their creatures’ powers to generate various ‘orbs’ and other resources, there is certainly no shortage of resource management in this game. Game play also uses aspects of deck building but this constitutes a relatively minor element in Legendary Creatures. You will have the opportunity to recruit more powerful creature cards but this feels like an adjunct rather than a core element of the game play. For deck building game enthusiasts, however, Legendary Creatures provides for a novel variation to the norm. From your experience of other deck builders, you’ll be used to acquiring new cards but expect to have to drop these acquisitions into your discard pile so that they can only be deployed after a reshuffle. Not so in Legendary Creatures. In this game, the potentially more powerful cards that you acquire are put directly and immediately into play that turn. If you are a deck building game enthusiast, you may find this almost distressingly counterintuitive. Oddly, for those less steeped in deck builder tradition, it feels far and away the most natural way of using a freshly acquired card. Note, by the way, that title notwithstanding, Legendary Creatures is not part of Upper Deck’s Legendary series of deck building games.
Legendary Creature Comforts
As soon as you open the box for this game, you’ll appreciate that there’s an awful lot going on in Legendary Creatures. So much so that you may find some players are put off by the apparent complexity that seems to be at odds with the light and airy looking theme. Actually, once you get started and have played through what is likely to be a slowish first round where players are not entirely sure what they are doing or why, the game turns out to be easier and quicker to play than it might have appeared at first glance. It helps, too, that the rules are well illustrated and actually pretty clear.
You had best prepare new players for the fact, however, that there is rather a lot to take in when you initially set the game up. For starters, there are no less than seven playing boards, and that’s in addition to players’ individual boards. This is all perhaps less daunting when you realise that the multitude of boards mostly comprise separate scoring tracks; for example, four of the boards represent players’ progress in each of the different ‘elemental realms’ of ‘Sulfuria, Terr Andel, Mystral and Serenvana’. I guarantee that, in play, you will actually only ever refer to these by their more down to earth icons (fire, water, wind and earth) or their colours, never by the gobbledygook names in the rulebook. It is on elemental realm tracks that players will spend the magic and ‘orbs’ generated by their legendary creature cards in order to move their magical ‘familiars’ – the wooden creature icons that are the markers for showing players’ relative strengths in each of the elemental realms.
Use it or lose it
Legendary Creatures is played over nine rounds (three ‘days’, each divided into morning, afternoon and evening). Players draw a hand of four cards representing the eponymous legendary creatures from their initially identical decks of 12 cards and they simultaneously choose how they want to deploy them (positioning them face down) so that one is sent to join an ‘expedition’ and the others three form a line that, in effect, programmes the order in which they will be activated. The relative strength of each player’s first (leftmost) card determines player order.
Players each have an identical set of three spells that they can choose to call on to enhance their creatures’ effect or mirror the benefits won by other players. Note however that players can only use each of their spells once per game ‘day’, so they need to eke their use out. Players decide in turn order whether or not to cast spells, so your choice may well be influenced by what other players choose to do. Typically, spells get used less in the ‘morning’ but there’s bound to be a desperate ‘use it or lose it’ priority to cast and get the benefit of otherwise unused spells by the time you reach the ‘evening’ of each of the game’s days. Spells ‘refresh’ at the start of each new day. Players also each have a randomly allocated amulet of power. If, on their turn, they haven’t used their own amulet, they can decide to trade it with any other player and take that player’s amulet by giving that player one renown (victory point). You can find, in this way, that an amulet with a power that is especially useful that turn can make its way all round the table from one player to the next.
Individual creature cards are resolved by the player choosing to use them either for their magic (the value indicated on the top left corner of each card) or for one of their special abilities. A creature may have the ability to copy that of another creature but, when that occurs, players may only copy the power that has actually been activated.
At the end of each ‘day’ (after each three rounds), the expeditions are resolved. This is what becomes of the creature cards that, at the start of each round, were allocated to join an expedition. Along with any modifiers earned, the magic value of each player’s three expedition cards are totted up and compared to determine the order in which players choose a ‘landmark’ tile for its stated reward. The rewards are hardly game changing so this stage can feel a little anticlimactic to the extent that some players may consider it an unnecessary complication or frill.
Strategy and tactics
I said that the deck building mechanic was present but not core to the game. That’s true. Deck building (ie: sacrificing one of your legendary creatures by swapping it for another in the ‘vast expanse’) is really only one of several optional once per round actions available in this game. Indeed, it is possible for a player to win at Legendary Creatures without making any use whatsoever of the deck building element. On the other hand, if you are a deck building enthusiast, the way in which the ‘vast expanse’ cards are grouped means that you will be able to take the opportunity afforded by other players failing to take cards in order to accumulate multiple copies of the cards on offer.
There’s strategy too in working out how to get best advantage from the ‘elemental realm’ tracks. You will initially assume that each of these should be treated as a race, especially as renown tokens (victory points) are awarded for positions on the track. On the other hand, although reaching the podium positions on a track scores you a big advantage in points, it loses you the option to make use of that realm’s special ability or ‘gift of the realm’. That can mean much jockeying for position on the realm tracks with the excitement of players making the dash to seize the podium places only in the closing stages of the game.
Jockeying for position is probably the most accurate way of summarising the player interaction in Legendary Creatures. Players are mostly focused on maximising their own progress and position rather than doing down an opponent, but there are a few specific actions that have a ‘take that’ flavour to them; for example, the Foo Dog’s power freezes an elemental realm for a turn so that none of the familiars in that realm can be moved. It can be galling to be on the receiving end of that.
If you’re among the legions of fans of the Harry Potter franchise, then the theme of Legendary Creatures is sure to appeal. That said, this is a game that can be enjoyed regardless of theme: there’s a pleasure to be gained from finding the best ways to deploy your cards and develop resources even if you are the kind of soulless individual who might naturally dismiss the cutesy animal artwork and the fey ‘magic’. This is an enjoyable game that is worth persevering through that first out of the box shock of apparent complexity. It scores a magical 7/10.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.