Ridiculous in the right way: Unmatched: Battle of Legends

Ridiculous in the right way: Unmatched: Battle of Legends

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

The full name of this game is Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One. That last bit is important because there is more Unmatched coming. This first set allows us to answer important questions like: who would win in a fight between King Arthur and Sinbad? What if Alice ventured out of Wonderland to carve up Medusa? The matchups in this absurdist fight club are bonkers, and we’re only getting started.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Restoration Games is the noteworthy publisher that has brought us new editions of classic games like Fireball Island and Stop Thief! Those designs were given a few nips and tucks, a couple of injections of Botox, and a new wardrobe. They’re fresh, but they’re also grounded in the past, and they know how to put nostalgia to good use.

Unmatched is something a little different. It’s a re-working of 2002’s Star Wars: Epic Duels, sans license. Without the power of such a massive intellectual property behind the game, Restoration had to be bold, and it partnered with Mondo Games to create a zany melting pot of fictional matchups. The result should put a smile on the faces of even the dourest of curmudgeons. Just try to frown while playing an epic battle between the first expansion characters of Robin Hood and Big Foot in Sherwood Forest. It’s too ridiculous and too enjoyable.

But Unmatched isn’t Epic Duels. It uses the same concept of a primary fighter accompanied by a sidekick (as we see with wonderful duos like Alice paired with the Jabberwock, or Arthur with Merlin), but Unmatched has a completely different feel with its own unique tempo and mechanisms. The asymmetric decks powering each hero are more tightly designed, creating a breakneck pace for each 20-minute showdown.

While the game supports three and four player bouts, it clearly is optimized as a two-player affair that’s lean and vibrant— in stark contrast to the six-player slug-fests that dominated my Epic Duel outings.

This streamlining editorial hand can be felt in all facets of play. The new battlefield, while small, feels dynamic due to a constant push for movement. The clever restriction of drawing cards only by performing a move action—as well as linking several character abilities to maneuvering—really pushes the design into creative places. For a two-player game where you throw down attack and defense cards against a single opponent, Unmatched never feels like a mere grind to whittle away at their health.

Finding your main

I had many concerns before playing Unmatched. I already love several strong entries in this genre, and I wondered if Unmatched could find a place alongside contemporary titles such as Warhammer Underworlds or Mythic Battles: Pantheon.

Answer: I think it can. Unmatched is a unique offering that manages to pair a straightforward ruleset with legitimate depth. It’s simple enough that you can play with your 10-year old but engrossing enough to capture your gaming group’s extended interest.

There’s no deck construction here, and since each character’s abilities and cards are preset, the typical card game path of creation to competition is short-circuited. For instance, much of Warhammer Underworlds’ play occurs before the match even begins. Experimenting with new cards and combos is at the heart of the design. But Unmatched allows you to explore your small deck in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Rick and Morty. By your second play with Sinbad, you should fully understand how to harness his unique Voyage mechanism and pull off electric combos.

The asymmetry here is also gripping. Each fighter has personality and some character-specific mechanisms. Alice changes size, Medusa can turn foes to stone, Sinbad grows in strength as more voyage cards hit the discard pile, and King Arthur utilizes the Lady of the Lake and Excalibur to great effect. Each character offers much to explore with an economical rules weight.

Unlike its peers, this feels more like a fighting game. While other designs try to create a stripped-down version of a larger miniatures battle, Unmatched wants to give you the feel of Street Fighter or Marvel vs. Capcom. You pick a “main” and perfect your timing. All of those twists and tricks you hope to find in your deck actually materialize because you’re not tearing down your creation and rebuilding a new one after nearly every game.

This fighting-game format, however, is also  responsible for Unmatched’s weakest spots. There’s a strong focus on timing and counter-play here. Instead of deck creation, controlling the tempo and drawing out your opponent’s strongest moves at their least advantageous time is at the very heart of this design. This is captured succinctly with the “feint” card, which is quite the mixture of brilliant and awful. It works because it’s an elegant weapon to clash over tempo but it also stumbles because it can nullify some of the strongest moments in the game.

Imagine this: you just spent the past 10 minutes carefully nurturing your hand, building up a set of power moves that includes the shining Excalibur. You’ve baited your opponent into playing one of their own feints earlier; now is the time to strike. You place Excalibur face down on the table alongside a second card from your hand to boost the damage. Then you and your opponent both flip your cards—and the corners of your mouth drop.

The problem is that every deck has three feints. Their power to undo the most dramatic of plays is frustrating, and it feels like a net negative to the game’s momentum. It works, and the game still ultimately succeeds, but a more judicious use of feint cards might have injected more vigor into the experience.

The pre-constructed nature of the decks also provides an occasional feeling that the game is actually playing you. Card draw is incredibly important, and the lack of a proper mulligan rule is a bit shocking. The abbreviated play time obscures this weakness somewhat, though.

Some players will also take issue with the sidekicks, which are presented as round plastic discs instead of full-blown miniatures. I threw side-eye at this concept initially, but it didn’t take me long at all to embrace the idea. The hero is mechanically divided from the sidekick, and this difference in presentation focuses the spotlight appropriately.

Watch out, Medusa! King Arthur's right behind you...

Enlarge / Watch out, Medusa! King Arthur’s right behind you…

The entire package is visually stunning, with some of the most effective artwork ever placed on cardboard. Even the abstracted spaces that obscure most of the board fit the overall aesthetic. (Of course, they also perfectly convey line of sight, as they’re lifted straight from Fantasy Flight’s now defunct Tannhauser miniatures board game.)

Unmatched may not have the extended life of the malleable Warhammer Underworlds or the explosive drama of Mythic Battles, but it’s a smooth game that should have wide appeal. It’s not overly random yet it’s still dramatic. It’s simple yet it doesn’t sacrifice all personality.

If you give this game a shot, you may find yourself blinking at how quickly the first match is over. So you play again, and soon “just one more” becomes your maxim. Later you will blink once more as you look at your watch and wonder where the night went in such a hurry.

Review: Horrified is a terrific family-friendly monster-themed board game

Review: Horrified is a terrific family-friendly monster-themed board game

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Some folks use “family game” as a pejorative. Not me. For one thing, I happen to like my family. More importantly, as a player and critic of board games, it is my holy duty to introduce as many games as possible to my family. In the cardboard eschaton, all games shall be family games, because families will play anything and everything together.

With that very important disclaimer out of the way, it’s now time to announce that Prospero Hall’s Horrified is my favorite family game of the year.

Better than Pandemic?

Let me rag on a game that I happen to respect for a minute.

My hang-up with the popular co-op disease-fighting game Pandemic is that it’s always making things harder for its players. To some degree, that’s a surefire formula for a cooperative game, and Pandemic should know; it set the standard for the genre. Every turn you can fix one problem, maybe two, but three new problems spill onto the board. Before long, the game board can look like an overwhelming pile of disease cubes.

But Horrified takes that formula by the neck and gives it a good wringing. The result feels familiar—but the game rewards its players rather than constantly punishing them. In Horrified, you’re the cure, not merely the treatment.

Welcome to the world’s most unfortunate town

Imagine living in a town that’s already hemorrhaging citizens to Dracula when the Creature from the Black Lagoon wades up and starts snacking on picnickers. Also, the Invisible Man is peeping on everybody’s significant other, Frankenstein’s Monster keeps strangling bystanders, the Wolf Man has been fetching femurs that are still attached to their owners, and the Mummy is smashing records for biggest box office flops.

That’s Horrified in a nutshell. Two or three classic monsters are all terrorizing your town at the same time, and it’s your task to defeat, seal away, or cure them before they murder too many of your neighbors. It’s a bad, bad place to live—but at least houses are affordable.

The turn-by-turn procedure here will be familiar to anyone who’s played a cooperative game in the vein of Pandemic. Everyone has their own character, complete with some minor power that defines how they play, like teleporting to a friend’s location or gathering objects from afar. With only a handful of actions, you move about town, collecting items and ushering bystanders safely to their destinations. The danger is that nearby monsters might activate in between each player’s turn. Rather than being inevitable, these appearances are governed by a separate deck. Sometimes a monster will remain stationary, dormant but dangerous. Other times it will sprint across multiple spaces to maul somebody—or even spring special abilities on you.

These monsters are what make Horrified special. They’re each billed as unique, with their own behaviors and means of defeat. In practice, though, some of their traits are closer than they ought to be; expect to see plenty of goals that require you to spend matching items in the monster’s space. But for every disappointing objective, there are two made of sterner stuff. In the midst of gathering items and fleeing from the shadows, you might take a detour to hunt through the swamp to solve a hieroglyphic puzzle at the museum or to prevent Frankenstein’s Monster from reuniting with his Bride, at least until you’ve prepared the perfect first date. The real test is when these challenges are combined. Breaking all of Dracula’s coffins isn’t hard, but braving those hidden vampire lairs while you’re being robbed blind by the Invisible Man and staying far away from the Wolf Man? That’s when things get interesting.

A campy horror yarn for the whole family

The appeal of Horrified is that it’s every bit as easy to explain to newcomers as what I’ve written above. Easier, really. Among experienced players, it might even seem too simple, with only a handful of actions to select from. But everything about it, from its crisp interface to the transparency of its board state, is designed to lure in the unsuspecting.

Consider how campy it is. Rather than shooting for horror, it’s “scary” the way a bad throwback movie is scary, with unconvincing rubber body suits and stilted acting by performers who plainly believe they’re cut out for Broadway instead of this moving picture fad. The colors are bright, and the monster miniatures are posed with exaggerated goofiness. But it’s a trick. Twenty minutes later, you’re sweating the proximity of the Creature to some pedestrians and wondering if you can return those scrolls to the museum in time.

In other words, this game is entirely possible to lose. All those deaths gradually add up, whether they are your own or those of the cardboard townsfolk cowering on the table. Lose too many people and the monsters win. But each loss feels more immediate than a disease cube could ever be. That masticated villager wasn’t a statistic; he was Fritz the Hunchback, at home in the tower but trying to reach the institute for safety. I didn’t quite grasp this until my sister smacked the table in frustration when we lost a villager we’d been guiding across town. By giving those cardboard cutouts a name and a goal, Prospero Hall has made them a little bit more human. Our brains are weird like that.

Not that I should be surprised. Prospero Hall has been doing some great work these past few years, including the board game adaptation of Jaws from earlier this year, and each release only grows more assured and more personal. Horrified continues that tradition. It’s the sort of game you can take to dinner with your extended family. Better yet, it’s one of those rare games everyone will be able to dig into.