I'm here to tell you about what I think is the best game released in 2014. We will call this column the “GAME OF THE YEAR 2014” column, to get that idea across. A good idea, I think. Anyway – this was a game I played very late in 2014, but it made a huge first impression on me. And then I played it again, in a different way, and I was BLOWN CLEAN OUT OF MY BOOTS. At this point, there is no doubt in my mind – this is the best new game I played in 2014. And that game's name?
Legendary Encounters' full name is “LEGENDARY ENCOUNTERS: AN ALIEN DECK-BUILDING GAME”. What a mouthful! They really should have had the confidence to call it THE ALIEN UNIVERSE: THE GAME or something, because this is a cocky, swaggering beast of a game. Not a beast to play – it isn't complicated at all. You can teach this game quite easily. But it's a beast of story – capturing the feel of the Alien films not just in tone but in little snapshots of gameplay that reflect some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history. And it does all this through cards. Hundreds of them, sure, but still – just cards.
The Legendary game system isn't one I'm familiar with. I haven't played the Marvel Deckbuilding game, but I've heard a lot of good things about it – and this game is based on that system. In fact, you can mix the games to an extent, sending superheroes in to do battle with the Aliens, but I think that would just undo all the great work Encounters does in delivering an accurate Alien experience. Let me explain how it works.
The game comes with a beautiful play mat, made from the type of material you find in mouse mats. You roll this thing out and then start to stack sets of cards in the appropriate places. There is an Objective stack, telling you which goals you have to complete and the order you have to complete them. There is the Hive deck, where the story is told through encounters with various cards. The Character deck is a bank of cards that you can buy throughout the game, adding powerful character abilities to your own personal deck of cards. Your own deck, from which you draw six cards every turn, is all you can count on to defeat the Alien.
The game is co-operative, as any great Alien game should be. It's you and your friends against the Alien. You each choose an Avatar of some kind (Commander, Mercenary, Medic,Synthetic) and put its unique power card into your deck. Every card in your deck has a Recruit Points value and/or an Attack Strength value. When you play out cards featuring Recruit Points, you can buy new character cards from the Character Deck. These newly bought cards go into your discard pile and will come into your hand later. By playing Attack cards you can start dealing with the Aliens as they flood into the Complex.
The Complex is a row of card positions near the top of the playmat. Cards come off the Hive deck and move into the complex face down, moving from the air vents into the labs and closer, ever closer to your face. You have no idea what these cards are until you scan the rooms the cards are in. You need to spend Attack Points to scan the cards, and at the start of the game it's unlikely that you'll have enough cards in hand to scan more than one room. It's only when you scan the cards that you can actually attack whatever the card shows. Scanning cards also lets you seek out the cards that will let you meet your objective. For example, when you're playing the Aliens scenario, you need to find the sentry guns before you can start to set them up in empty Complex rooms. YES, YOU CAN SET UP THE FUCKING SENTRY GUNS OUT OF ALIENS. Sorry.
When cards travel right through the Complex, they reach the Combat Zone, and that's where the Aliens can start attacking the players. Every time a player's turn ends with an Alien in the Combat Zone, that player has to draw a card from the Strike deck. These are essentially wounds – but wounds of differing strengths, and wounds that tell a story. You might draw a strike that only causes a flesh wound that takes 1 health point from you. Or you might draw a strike that injures your hand – and actually injures your hand of cards, losing you two of your cards in your next turn. Or maybe your strike will cause a spray of acid blood that not only hurts you but also forces the player to your left to draw a strike card. It's very cool. You know you're getting hurt, but you're never sure exactly how.
The game is all about those objectives. To win, you have to complete three objectives from your chosen scenario. The Hive and Character decks are always specifically tailored to each scenario, making sure that the film you're playing out feels just right. When you play through Alien, your first objective is to trace the distress signal. You do this by scanning and searching through the Hive cards in the complex for the SOS beacons, but you're probably going to uncover a load of eggs. Oh, those eggs. You know what eggs mean in Alien, right?
Facehuggers. Facehuggers can appear at any point in the game. Sometimes they're randomly seeded into the Hive deck, no matter what scenario you're playing. And if you find one? IT JUMPS ON YOUR FACE. And then all the players can try to kill it. And if they can't? You put a CHESTBURSTER into your discard pile. Which means that once you've gone through your deck and need to shuffle them all up again, you could draw that Chestburster at any time. A ticking time bomb in your deck and your body. It's a magnificent feature of the game.
Back to those objectives – consider the Aliens scenario. You're in Hadley's Hope, and you need to kill a number of infected colonists. You know - “Kill meeeee...” All that good stuff. But you hit a Hazard card and all the lights go out. Every room you'd already scanned goes black. The cards are turned face down, shuffled, placed back into the complex. You don't know where anything is. Horrifying. And then you hit an Event card that means all the players have to fling away characters with attack values. Why? Because for that round you can't fire a weapon. Remember? Like in the film? What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?
Meanwhile, every turn, the Aliens flood forward.
When I first played the game, I was playing through Alien. It was slow-paced and creepy. We were uncovering eggs and dealing with facehuggers. We were hunting the Alien through the Nostromo. It was spot-on.
The second time I played, going through the Aliens scenario this time, it was entirely different. It was an onslaught. Aliens were coming from everywhere, attacking constantly. There was barely a moment to gather your thoughts. It was pure survival.
I've yet to play the Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection scenarios. There's no real rush. This game has nailed the feel of Alien and Aliens with a simple and elegant card game, and that's going to be enough to keep me occupied for quite some time. There are variants too. You can choose to have dead players become Alien players (with their own vicious playing decks), ramping up the difficulty hugely. You can play with a secret traitor at the table, a player that represents the sinister company, working to make the other players fail. There is a huge amount of game in this box.
The game's art is beautiful. It's all illustrated, no screen-grabs from the film here. And the artwork is gruesome too. One particular Strike card, one you never want to draw, has the Alien's horrid second mouth hammering straight through its victim's skull in a spray of blood and bone. Oh, ya dancer.
One negative before I stop. This game is a pig to organise. When you open the box, there's a shitload of cards and no real information on how best to organise them. It took me some hours to sort them all out. So this isn't a game for people new to board games, I don't think. Although – I think players new to board games will enjoy it just fine. Just don't ask them to set the game up or pull it down. They will start spewing milk like a synthetic.
GAME OF THE YEAR 2014
Games like Splendor and Sons of Anarchy and One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Tragedy Looper ran it close, but there is something so rich and impressive about Encounters that just sets it apart. Depending on scenario, the game can be intimate and thinky, or wild and brutal. You will scan for Aliens and find harmless cats that will lick your wounds clean. You will meet Carter Burke, that bastard from the Company, and he will put all your character cards in peril. You might find the power loader, and maybe then you'll have a chance of taking down that Alien Queen.
Legendary Encounters is Alien in a box. I love it. It's my Game of the Year 2014. Check it out, and soon.