Once upon a time in the West were Legends of the American Frontier

, | Game reviews

There are two kinds of boardgamers in the world. When they play a card, one kind reads the name on a card before they read the card’s effects, and the other kind just reads the card’s effects. I have always been the first kind. Furthermore, I have always wanted my friends to be the first kind.

“Okay, so now my attack is +2,” one of my friend’s might announce as he slaps a card onto the table.

“What’s the card?” I’ll ask.

“It’s +2 to attack.”

“No, no, what’s it called?”

“Oh.” My friend looks down at the card, since it never occurred to him to read that part. He’ll tell me it’s called Heroic Attack, or Eldritch Blade, or Stimpak, or Unceasing Fury, or something. I realize it’s sometimes annoying that I ask this, but I believe games are better if you let them lead with as much theme as they want to provide. As I played Legends of the American Frontier, I first thought it was for people who read the names of cards. However, I’m not so sure anymore. They might actually be the ones it’s not for.

After the jump, Poor At Farming, Failed At Business, And Bewildered By Life In General?

People who don’t read the names on cards will probably dismiss Legends of the American Frontier as a capricious set collection game. If you’re not hooked into the theming, if you only care about the score at the bottom of the cards for being sheriff of a small town, escorting settlers out West, attending the inaugural ball, marrying your childhood sweetheart, or making a fortune in the slave trade, then Legends of the American Frontier will feel thin, random, and unsatisfying.

Legends designer Richard Launius is probably best known for Arkham Horror and you can tell. Arkham Horror disintegrates completely if you just read a card’s effects. Roll a die. On a five of six, lose a point of sanity. Next player’s turn. You have just stripped Arkham Horror down to pure mechanics. Now it’s rickety, desiccated, and bland as the cardboard on which it’s printed. Why are you playing? What should have happened is that you drew The Sinister Crypt. You opened a passageway into an underground mausoleum filled with green vapor and strangely shaped skulls. Roll a die. On a five or six, lose a point of sanity.

Arkham Horror is a solid concept if you let the theming lead. It’s a solid concept if you’re willing to imagine an underground mausoleum filled with green vapor and strangely shaped skulls, despite there being absolutely no rules-based support for it, despite there being no difference between The Sinister Crypt, The Mysterious Tome, and The Abandoned Asylum. Roll a die, on a five or six lose a point of sanity. It’s a solid concept if you don’t mind text-heavy theming built on a sagging framework of bone dry rules. The name on the card is the main attraction and it better be, because there’s not much else there.

Arkham Horror’s reliance on the names on cards is evident in Legends of the American Frontier, where you collect cards and line them up in a row. This is your legend. It consists of adventure cards, reward cards, mishap cards, hardship cards, upbringing cards. When the game is over, you tally up their total worth to determine your score. The set collection aspect comes from bonus points awarded to whomever has the most adventures and rewards in any given category. The endgame consists of decisions like whether to buy a Build A Large Southern Plantation wealth reward to offset another player’s wealth advantage or whether to buy a Nominated For President Of The United States fame reward to secure your fame lead. Do you attempt an Invent And Make Legendary A Large Knife frontier adventure you’re ill-suited to winning to try to keep the other player from getting it and pulling ahead in frontier adventures? Is it worth the risk of a randomly drawn Refused To Support Nuns, Haunted By The Loss Of Your Best Friend, or Paid To Get Brother Out Of Jail, Again mishap card?

In terms of Legends’ obvious affection for the time and place, the theming is beyond reproach. Such lovely artwork, such a delicious spread of period specific references, such appreciation for the trappings of the genre. Why is this Western theme so underrepresented? Why is it that you can’t swing a bag of tiles without hitting some damn thing about ancient Rome, but Western themes are as rare as jackalopes? Is it because Europeans love their boardgames, and their frontier days were ancient Rome? Or is it us? Do we not like Westerns so much anymore because we’re busy with licensed comic book properties? Are we embarrassed by what we did as a country? Are we not sure whether it’s offensive to call Native Americans Indians in a game? One of the best worker placement games you can play is Xavier George’s Carson City, which is sadly out of print. It has a vivid Western theme. One of the characters is a Chinese coolie. For the second edition, supposedly in response to complaints, the Chinese coolie was renamed the Chinese worker. No wonder it’s easier to make games about Ancient Rome. No one cares what you call a praetorian.

Legends of the American Frontier isn’t shy about Native Americans or even slavery. One of the adventure cards is Ship Molasses For Rum And Slaves. One of the characters is a freed slave who can’t take any capitalism skill points at the beginning of the game. His special ability is that he earns free happiness whenever he goes on an adventure. Is anyone going to be offended at that? Would that sort of thing make it as far as a second edition? Who knows.

The board in Legends of the American Frontier is mostly just a formality (although I really like how it adds a touch of peril and uncertainty the farther west you go). The real action takes place on your character board, in your hand of cards, and along the row of cards that represent your legend. Your character is not your legend. Your legend is what you’ve done, not who you are. Who you are is a character board with a set of six skills. But this is a strangely truncated part of the design, as if something here was sawn off at the knee to fit it into the box. Although skills are treated as significant rewards, they have minimal impact on the game. When you attempt an adventure, which is the main activity, you rely on a card from your hand, a random and open-ended card draw, and your skill. You skill will almost always be the lowest contributing factor, which implies that adventures in the Old West were largely a matter of luck. Harriet Tubman organizing the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom? Luck. Negotiating peace with the Indians? Luck. Assisting Ben Franklin in the invention of bifocals? Luck. Building a railroad out into the West? Luck. Striking gold in California? Luck. Okay, that last one makes sense.

But overall, the persistent elements of your character are a minor part of his or her success. This goes against everything I’ve learned playing RPGs, so I came up with a variant. I never come up with variants. As a matter of policy, I believe in leaving game design to game designers. But I hit on a great idea for how to make character skills more meaningful. It ended up being a terrible idea and I might have soured my friends on Legends of the American Frontier for the foreseeable future. But the point is that even a guy like me who believes in trusting designers couldn’t resist trying to fix a hole in this design. Anyway, I’m back to skills not mattering very much. It’s not my job to try to fix whatever issues I have with Launius’ design.

But here’s where the game starts to fall apart even for those of us who read the name of a card. Especially for those of us who read the name of a card. Your legend, consisting of the cards you earn during the course of the game, are a timeline of your deeds. Fought the terrible fire that almost destroyed New Orleans. Led the rescue party to Donner Pass to save the starving settlers. Put down Apache uprising. Each of these adventures draws on different types of skills. But since card draws are the primary determinant of your skill during an adventure, since your actual skill is such a small part of the picture, there’s no rhyme or reason to the way these adventures line up underneath your character board. There’s no distinction between a character who made his mark back east among the gentrified folks with adventures like attending the inaugural ball, establishing the New York Stock Exchange, and starting a new political party, or the rugged frontiersman who set out into the wild for adventures like blazing a trail for the Mormon migration, building a trading post on the Natchez Trail, and hunting buffalo with the Pawnee. My considerable six in Capitalism does very little to make me more likely to secure a capitalism adventure than someone with a modest two in Capitalism. Furthermore, the guy who established the New York Stock Exchange is just as likely as anyone else to hunt buffalo with the Pawnee or build a trading post on the Natchez Trail. Because it all comes down to card draws, every character is a jack of all trades, master of any as much as any other.

This does a bit of thematic violence to a game that really needs to get by on theme. There’s no sense of building a character when the game world is just a mishmash of thematic elements chucked into a pot and stirred and ladled out with an unceremonious plop. If the game doesn’t care much about the theming on the cards, why should the players? Why would they read the text on their legend? Why not just skip past all that and go straight to the tally of your score? +3, +2, +4, +1, +1, +2, +1. Your character, whose skills were already of little consequence and whose feats were determined by what cards you drew, is a 14.

Launius’ heart is in the right place and his emphasis on narrative is admirable. Even inspiring. It’s exciting when a designer is so unabashed about making games that tell stories, about relying so heavily on handwritten narrative patches instead of some licensing boondoggle (alas, Fantasy Flight) or a Euro obsession with elegance (pretty much everyone except Fantasy Flight). As seat-of-the-pants luck-of-the-draw randomized folklore, Legends of the American Frontier is a fine time with a deft touch. How many games have a card called Poor At Farming, Failed At Business, And Bewildered By Life In General? But are you the type of player who reads the name on a card before you play it because you care about how these narrative patches come into being, about how they come together, about the picture they resolve? Are you the type of player to whom theme matters? Because I’m not convinced this is a game that supports the stories it wants to tell. Legends of the American Frontier might provide lovely narrative scenery, but it all gets lost in the harsh wilderness of game design.

  • Legends of the American Frontier

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Seat-of-the-pants luck-of-the-draw randomized folklore with a vividly realized Western theme and an obvious affection for the genre. That unfortunately falls apart in terms of both narrative and mechanics.
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