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Top Of The Table – Western Legends

by Matt Miller on Nov 02, 2018 at 03:38 PM

Sandbox video games are one of the most popular styles of play for a good reason. By engendering player freedom, and encouraging a variety of activities, players feel tremendous agency over the unfolding story and action. That same sandbox approach has sometimes proven challenging to implement well in the tabletop gaming world, especially since board games almost always involve multiple players who must all be able to move through the same dynamic open world – a notoriously challenging problem to solve, in both tabletop and video game spheres. Luckily, there are more than a few standout successes in the board gaming world, and the recently released Western Legends stands tall among them. Tapping into the thrill of Old West shootouts, cattle wrangling, outlaw hunting, bank robberies, and more, Western Legends is as close as I’ve encountered to a definitive cowboy-themed board game. Whether you’re riding a high from the recent release of Red Dead Redemption 2, or you’re just a lifelong fan of the genre, Western Legends nails the fantasy.

In every game session, players control a familiar face from western mythology; figures like Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp, and Bloody Knife fill the roster, and each has their own special abilities and equipment they bring to the start of the game. Your character sets out across a fictional stretch of mesas, creeks, and mining towns, filled with opportunities for adventure. Rather than a specific end game goal, each of the two to six players in the game is simply trying to garner “legendary points (LP),” acquired through a wide array of activities and exploits. Whether you commit a bank heist, prospect for gold, revel at the cabaret, or confront a bandit on the open range, everything feeds your goal of acquiring LP or the money that will help you along your path to legend.

Western Legends features a ton of beautiful components, including physical "gold" nuggets, and a cardboard standee representing the goods for sale at the general store

At its core, Western Legends plays on the push and pull between law and outlaw that is at the heart of so many western stories. Are you working with the marshals to bring down bandits, save the innocent, and establish order? Or have you become a wanted man or woman through theft and murder? Both paths are viable, and are monitored on the board through dedicated tracks. The Wanted track offers a quick and dirty path to LP, with regularly accruing points for each new infamous action undertaken. The Marshal track is a slower path to fame, with many of the points for your good deeds not showing up right away, or even until the end of the game. However, the great thing about the process is how balanced and fun it is to take either path. Subsequent replays feel fresher and more exciting, since many of the choices you might make are different depending on your approach to the law. The game even supports dramatic flips partway through the game. Maybe you’re sick of being the buttoned-up marshal, and one day you decide to rob the bank. Welcome to the Wanted track!

The Wanted/Marshal tracks also set up a wonderful dynamic for player-versus-player competition. While there are plenty of non-player bandits to chase across the board, you can also hunt each other in pursuit of justice. In turn, that means every gaming group can customize the degree of direct competition and player conflict they prefer, simply through their choice of how to play.

The unpainted minis look good, and you get to choose which one represents your character in each game session

Whether in a duel with another player or attempting to elude the NPC sheriff, Western Legends features a perfectly in-theme mechanic for conflict resolution. The game comes with a customized set of poker cards, with the general system in place that the highest card wins in a fight. But in addition to showing a numerical value or a face card, all the cards also feature bonus actions that can factor into an interaction. Sometimes, these are reactions to pull out in the midst of a fight, like the Bulletproof Jack card, that cancels any wounds you might otherwise have suffered in a shootout. At other points, the poker cards in your hand can be played to enhance actions on your turn, like the Saddle Up card that lets you move to any town space on the board. Regardless, the poker cards lend a fun flavor to the unfolding game, as you look around the table and everyone is carefully studying their cards, just as if you were all in a saloon at the card table. Get wounded, and the size of your card hand shrinks, reflecting the way your injuries limit your options. Incidentally, the game even features the option to head into town and actually play and bet in poker games to win more cash.

One of the reasons that Western Legends works so well is the wealth of options available on each turn. The board is scattered with icons depicting your activity choices. Heal up at the doctor’s office. Wrangle cattle to the rail station. Visit the general store to buy a new rifle. Rob another player you encounter on the road between towns. And on top of the turn-to-turn actions, at any time there are also story cards that come into play as designated events occur. For instance, after a certain number of Wanted or Marshal points are accrued by anyone, you might attract the attention of the Burrow Gang, who sweep down off the mesa, and must be fought off by outlaws and lawmen alike. Whether it’s a story card or a chosen activity, any given exchange is relatively straightforward; it’s the array of potential situations that keeps the game exciting from turn to turn.

The large board allows freeform movement and helpfully tracks each player's progress as an outlaw or lawman

That same advantage leads to about the only thing that can hold up the fun in Western Legends – keeping track of what to do in each situation. The game offers a handy player reference aid, but there’s a lot to keep track of. In some other games, players may be used to ignoring that kind of player aid card; that’s a bad idea in this case. Panning for gold requires that you roll a special set of dice, and then know or reference what each result means. Fighting a bank guard is just a little bit different from fighting the sheriff. And what exactly is the difference between robbing another player and dueling them? To counter this, make sure to spend a few minutes before the game having every player look at their player aid sheet, and knowing where to look for different pieces of info. The game will flow far better.

In addition, take advantage of the customizable game length option to cater to your group, which sets how many LP trigger the end game. I found that a short game for a mid-sized group could be completed in under two hours, an average-length (my preference) between two and three hours, and a long game could easily stretch past three. Choose wisely based on your group make-up, and how late in the evening you start your session.

Behind the clever mechanics and action interplay implemented by designer Hervé Lemaître, Western Legends also stands out for its evocative illustrations by Roland Macdonald. The earth-toned colors and figure art recalls Old West photography and catalog illustrations of the period, and helps the whole game feel cohesive and era-specific.

Macdonald's illustrations add vibrant flavor to the already theme-driven mechanics

I’ve played several board games that focus on specific elements of the cowboy experience, from the train robberies of Colt Express and the cattle herding of Great Western Trail, to the dexterity-based shootouts of the raucous Flick ‘em Up. But no game I’ve encountered has taken such a broad and sweeping approach to the Old West fantasy as Western Legends. By letting players wander freely across the map in any direction, and take up any part of the cowboy experience they’re excited about, play feels remarkably open-ended and flexible. Add in the morality component, and Western Legends emerges as a gaming experience of dynamic choices and sudden reversals, in which emergent storytelling between players takes center stage. And beyond its engaging theme, Western Legends is a potent example of how open-world multiplayer sandboxes can not only work, but capitalize on the presence of other acting players.

2018 has been a standout year for great tabletop games. Click into the Top of the Table hub from the banner below, and check out some of the recent games we’ve featured. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to help you find the right board, card, miniature, or role-playing game for your friends and family.