Okay, the full name of today’s game is actually Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. This medium weight cooperative deck builder for 1 to 5 players lets you team up with some of Earth’s mightiest heroes to defeat a mastermind and his lackeys.
Deck building games come in many different varieties, either letting you build a deck before the game from a pool of cards (rather like Magic the Gathering), or letting you build your deck during the game by ‘purchasing’ cards from a shared pool. The latter formula appears in many popular deck building games, like the DC Deck-Building Game, Star Realms, Harry Potter Hogwarts Battles, and of course, Legendary.
Most deck builders like Legendary come with a large pool of cards to use, which offers considerable replayability because you’re unlikely to see all the cards in any one game. Factor in expansions, and you’ll probably never have the same play experience twice. Marvel’s Legendary is by far the most played game in my board game collection.
How does it work?
Legendary is a bit different from most deck builders in that you only play with part of the deck for any given game. This allows them to expand the game without diluting mechanics, something that can be a problem with board game expansions.
The setup may seem overwhelming based on the length of my description here, but the hardest part is actually just choosing which heroes and villains you want to play with!
Each game, you’ll select one mastermind (a significant Marvel villain, like Loki, Magneto or Dr Doom) and a scheme that the mastermind is trying to complete. Each scheme has special rules that affect the difficulty of the game as well as any special loss conditions. A Legendary game usually ends when the heroes defeat the mastermind, or the main decks run out of cards, but some schemes may end the game early if a certain number of villains get loose or too many heroes are killed.
Once you have a mastermind and a scheme, you will create a villain deck with the mastermind’s preferred henchmen (e.g. Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants), some generic henchmen, and some more villains. There are also bystanders, who can be captured by villains, as well as master strikes, when the mastermind lashes out, usually to devastating effect, and scheme twists, which advance the scheme, which can have serious consequences for the players.
Next up, you’ll build the hero deck with some heroes (usually 5). The base game includes heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-man, Cyclops, and many more. The many expansions (there are currently more than 15 expansions of varying sizes) add heroes (and villains, and masterminds) from various comic themes and events like World War Hulk, Civil War and Secret Wars. You can mix and match sets at random, or choose heroes based around a theme, or choose those you think will be most suited to deal with the current mastermind and their scheme. You can even download an app like Legendary Randomizer, which will generate options for you.
Once you have hero and villain decks, each player gets a set of basic hero cards, and the other cards, like SHIELD agents, wounds and bystanders, are set up on the game board. Five heroes are drawn from the hero deck to form the HQ.
Play is fairly straightforward: on each player’s turn, a card from the villain deck is revealed and dealt with if it has any immediate effects. If it’s a normal villain, it enters the city via the sewers. As more villains enter the city on subsequent turns, the other villains will get closer to escaping the city. Escaped villains are always undesirable, but can have devastating consequences depending on the scheme or individual villain.
Once a villain card has been drawn, each player, on their turn, plays all the cards in their hand in the order of their choosing. Hero cards can provide recruit points, which are used to buy new heroes for your deck; attack, which is used to defeat villains in the city or the mastermind; and/or other special abilities, which are written on their cards. These can range from drawing extra cards, to adding extra recruit points if you played a certain type of card before that one, and dozens of other effects.
Building your deck so it’s effective against enemies and provides enough recruit points to expand it usually requires you to select cards that work well together. This often means coordinating with other players (since you are supposed to be cooperating to defeat the mastermind) so they don’t buy the cards you need. Eventually, your decks will become powerful enough that you can take on the mastermind and eventually defeat him (all masterminds must be fought at least 4 times.)
While defeating the mastermind before his scheme beats you (or the main decks run out) is the main goal of the game and requires the players to work together towards this goal, Legendary also allows for a single winner in terms of points. Each villain or mastermind you beat grants you points based on their difficulty, so the player who defeated the most villains usually ends up with the most points. Even if the mastermind defeats the players, you can still count up points if you really want to.
The game allows up to 5 players, though I’ve never tried the solo variant. Generally I can always find someone keen to play this game with me! The box suggests a playtime of 30-60 minutes, but that is extremely optimistic. The only time our games take less than an hour is when things have gone horribly wrong.
The theme and the popularity of the MCU makes the game quite accessible to just about anyone, though some of the expansions based on comic events that haven’t been turned into films (like Secret Wars) may have some players scratching their heads. Fortunately actually playing the game requires no special knowledge beyond what’s in the rulebook and on the cards.
Cooperative deck builders like Legendary generally become more difficult with more players, as new cards are drawn from the villain deck on each player’s turn. So in a game of 5 players, that’s 4 potentially bad effects between each of your turns, in which you’ll maybe add one new card to your deck and possibly defeat one villain in the city. This rarely makes for a fun experience, so we don’t often play with 5 players, and we use a house rule of no drawing from the villain deck for the first two rounds of the game. This has saved our sanity and our enjoyment of the game over the years. We also play with the final showdown option rule, which adds a fun finale to the game. This is one of my favourite aspects of casual board gaming: as long as everyone at the table agrees and is having fun, you can play your way.
Besides the original base game, Legendary has two other base games: Villains (which switches things around and turns the villains into the ‘heroes’) and Marvel Studios Phase 1 (which uses art from the films instead of the comics). In addition to the many Marvel-themed expansions, Legendary has several spinoffs in the form of Legendary Encounters, which is a more story-based variation on the game. Legendary Encounters comes in many different flavours, including Alien, Predator, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files.
A note on expansions
As I pointed out earlier, there are about 15 expansions for Marvel Legendary, and if you end up enjoying the game, it’s likely that you’ll want to get some expansions eventually. You can buy these based on your preference for the themes or characters included in any given expansion, or you might want to just get the ‘best’ expansions.
Marvel Legendary expansions come in two varieties: small boxes with about 100 cards each, and big boxes, which have 350+ cards. The newer expansions have introduced increasingly challenging masterminds, presumably to challenge veteran players. I can’t speak to all the expansions, but I’ll list the ones I have and enjoy below:
- Fantastic Four
- Dark City
- Paint the Town Red (Spider-friends)
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Civil War
- Tons of replayability.
- Play as your favourite Marvel heroes, and create your own crazy combinations of heroes and villains.
- Various expansions allow you to further customise your game.
- Cooperative fun with friends.
- Great introduction to deck building games.
- Set up and packing away takes a bit of time (less if your game box is organised).
- Sheer number of expansions and variations can be overwhelming (and potentially expensive).
- The huge number of cards means that if you like to sleeve your cards, it can get pretty expensive (totally worth it to protect your cards though!)
- Some of the card art (particularly in the original base game) and card designs are starting to look a bit dated.