Beowulf: The Legend
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Beowulf: The Legend invites you to accompany the mighty hero as one of his brave comrades. Will you become the most renowned warrior and succeed Beowulf as king? Only the strongest will prevail!
At first, when I saw Beowulf: the Legend (Fantasy Flight Games, 2005 - Reiner Knizia), I immediately thought of Lord of the Rings, another game produced by Fantasy Flight. And even some initial readings of the rules and playings caused some folks to mention Lord of the Rings as well. Well, after playing the game, I can state with some certainty that is definitely not the case. I can see the confusion, since both games sport the incredible artwork of John Howe. Both games also use cards with symbols, but the similarities end there. Beowulf is more of an auction game, with players attempting to be the worthy successor to the great warrior.
I really enjoyed Beowulf - it's an auction game in which a player can look ahead to see exactly how they should be bidding. There's a decent amount of luck in the game, but a player who can adapt to the cards they draw and plan for upcoming events will do well. Knowing what auctions to win and when to press your luck will help a player to succeed. I thought the gameplay, while abstract to a degree (I mean come on - it's a Knizia!), fit the theme fairly well. I'll gladly play this one again!
On the board is a winding track with different events that Beowulf will encounter on his journeys. A Beowulf token is placed at the first spot, and the youngest player receives a red token to show that they are the start player. A pile of fame tokens (with various values of 1 to 7), a pile of treasure tokens (with values of one to five) a pile of "-2" misfortune tokens, a pile of scratch and wound tokens, and a pile of allegiance tokens (face down tiles that contain either treasure or fame tokens from "1" to "3" in value) are placed in piles near the board. Each player receives seven activity cards (two set, five random), with the rest shuffled to form a draw pile. Each activity card has one of six different symbols (ship - traveling, horn - friendship, fox - wit, fist - courage, axe - fighting, mask - Beowulf) and is a value of one or two. Beowulf cards are "wild" and can count as any type. Several special cards (amount determined by number of players) are placed near the board, as well as a pile of status markers equal to the number of players.
The game progresses by Beowulf moving from one
space ("episode") to the next. Episodes are
divided up into "Minor" and "Major", and different
results occur from each one.
- Opportunity (minor): There are five of these spots that allow players to discard cards with certain symbols in exchange for some type of reward (more cards, treasure, etc.)
- Risk (minor): There are five of these spaces on the board. When at one of these, each player decides whether to take the "risk" or not. Two symbols are shown on the space, and the player turns over the top two cards. If either or both cards match the symbols on the space, the player keeps the matching cards (Beowulf cards included) and discards the other, if any. If neither symbol matches, then the player discards both cards and takes one "scratch" token.
- Recovery (minor): In recovery, cards equal to twice the number of players are drawn from the activity deck and placed face up on the table. Starting with the start player, each player takes one card, with this occurring twice.
- Selection (minor): On these spaces players may take one treasure token worth "2", one fame token worth "2", or one face down alliance token; or they can draw two cards; or they can discard all their scratch tokens.
- Simultaneous play (major): On these spaces, a major event in Beowulf's life occurs. A symbol or symbols is shown and all players play as many cards facedown in front of them as they like (or are able to). Players simultaneously reveal their cards, and the player who has the most symbols that match those on the space takes the number 1 status marker, with the second most symbols taking the number 2, etc. All cards with matching symbols (and Beowulf symbols - which always match) are discarded, and cards with symbols that didn't match (which were played as bluffs) are taken back into players' hands. There are a certain amount of results available at each major episode, depending on the number of players. The player with the number "1" status marker places it on the space of the result they want and receive it, then the player with the number "2", etc. Players may be forced to take a result they don't want. The player with the #1 status marker then becomes the start player.
- Clockwise play (major): These spaces are handled exactly like the previous ones, except that players bid openly in a clockwise order. When it comes time for them to bid, players must play at least one card and meet or exceed the current bid. If a player cannot/will not do this, they discard all cards that they bid and take the highest available status marker. After everyone has received their status markers, the results occur in the same manner.
- Treasure: These spaces are only used in the advanced game. In these, players bid with gold just like in a clockwise play space for a certain reward.
The results on major episodes vary.
- Alliance tokens: Some results allow players to take one or two face down alliance chips.
- Gold/fame: Some results give a player an exact amount of gold or fame.
- Misfortune: These cause a player to take a "-2" tile.
- Special cards: These give a player a specific special card. The majority of the special cards are simply activity cards with three or four symbols on them (quite powerful), but some allow special effects - like refusing a scratch or wound.
- Scratch: These give a player a scratch token. Any player who receives three scratches immediately discards them and takes one wound.
- Wound: This gives the player a wound token, but also gives him two cards in compensation. One space, near the end of the game, gives a double wound!
- Heal wound: This allows a player to discard one wound token OR all their scratches.
Play continues until the final major episode (the Death of Beowulf) occurs. All players then total up their points. If they have no wound tokens, they get five points; if they have three or more wounds, they lose five points for each wound. Players also add up all their fame and treasure tokens (in the advanced game they only add up fame), subtracting any misfortune tiles that they might have. The player with the most points is Beowulf's successor and the winner!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: As with all Fantasy Flight Games, the components are tremendous. The board is an odd shape - actually only being three quarters of a board - in an "L" shape, held together with a large shield piece in the middle. I'm not sure why the board is like that - the extra 1/4 can be used to store the piles of tokens, I suppose. The artwork on the game box (which is large and square), the board, and the rulebook is absolutely stunning. John Howe is one of my favorite game artists, and he certainly brings the legend of Beowulf to life with his illustrations. All of the tokens in the game are very easy to distinguish from each other, and have a good, chunky feel to them. The wound counters are much larger than the scratch counters, giving a much more negative effect to those who receive them. The cards, which are good quality, are easy to distinguish from each other thanks to symbols placed throughout them. The plastic Beowulf figure, which is simply in the game to mark what episode is occurring, is a nice touch. One of my players painted mine, and he makes a nice centerpiece to the game. The status markers are round wooden discs with gold printing and look really flashy. The game looks extremely nice when set up on the table and will certainly attract onlookers if they are passing by.
2.) Rules: The rulebook, which is large and square just like the box, is seven full colored pages (with more great illustrations). I found the rules layout - especially the very detailed examples, easy to read. There's even a bit of thematic explanation for each episode - telling in short form the story of Beowulf, which is nice for the uninitiated. The game takes a little bit to explain to new players, but adults and teenagers seem to understand it just fine. I've found it's helpful to explain only the next five or so episodes - enough for players to look ahead, but not so much as to overwhelm them.
3.) Advanced Rules: I must say that I don't think I'll ever again play with the basic rules. Having gold used for auctions rather than having it equal to fame makes the game much more strategic. Instead of me hoarding gold towards the end, now I must strategize as to which auction I'll spend it on - so that I can get greater rewards later on. There's another game variant mentioned in the rules in which players who get three or more wounds basically "die" and score no points at the end of the game. I don't see the point, really. A player who has three wounds is already going to be hurting badly from -15 points, and not getting the bonus five points for having no wounds. So why kick him out of the game? It seems a bit mean-spirited.
4.) Auctions: The heart of the game is the auctions from the two different types of major episodes. I enjoy both of them, although the clockwise auctions seem to have a bigger effect on game play (probably because they generally have better rewards and more annoying negative effects). Players have to know when to drop out of an auction, taking a lesser reward or a penalty, and when to stay in and play many cards. Yes, players often have their choices dictated to them by the cards they draw, but they can still affect the auction by bluffing and forcing others to play cards. The gold auctions are the most tricky, because the second place winner in most of them gets nothing, so the second place player often gets shafted. They've used up most of their gold and have nothing to show for it, and now they won't do so well in the following auction.
5.) Foreknowledge: With the major episodes in Beowulf being about auctions, I still don't necessarily consider it an auction game. Rather I think of it as a game in which players must consider their resources and look ahead. The players who respond best to other players' actions and plan ahead for the future will do the best. Players can see along the entire path and plan to save their cards for certain auctions, etc. This might cause some doubt for replayability, and indeed I'm not sure that the game will be one that you can play scores of times each year; but I don't see that it will become an issue. The game follows a certain track, but the cards a player draws and the actions of other players mean that they cannot play the exact same way each time.
6.) Risk: The risk spaces are quite interesting. Should a player take the free cards and risk taking a scratch. At first, the question seems easy, and it may seem that players who draw the cards are luckier than those who don't. Later on in the game, when players have two scratches, and the possibility of a wound looms high, they may take a different view on the matter. The selection space also gives players a similar choice, and I've seen that the player who makes the best choices on these squares win the game (me not one of them!)
7.) Fun Factor: I really enjoyed the game of Beowulf. The mechanics, while some might consider them to have the theme "pasted on", certainly match the theme for me, and the multiple options players have really enhance the game. I like the auctions quite a bit, but my favorite part of the game is how players can plan ahead. The game definitely has an ending point, and players can see what's coming up. The ending of the game is usually in doubt all the way through, and scores are fairly close in the games I've played. It certainly helps that the components are top notch!
So in short, Beowulf is not like any other game I've played. The auctions might seem familiar, the artwork is reminiscent of other games, the card mechanics seem a bit familiar; but the end result is a new, original game. It works with the theme, has an excellent way of allowing players to plan ahead, and is a fascinating way to spend an hour or so. Beowulf is a good middleweight game that rewards good strategy, and players who know how to deal with what they've been dealt.
"Real men play board games"
A surprisingly quick-playing game with a variety of tough decisions and a completely pasted-on theme that somehow works. Great for two. A "lite", competitive version of Lord of the Rings in some ways.
The only serious fault is the rules, which are too chatty (and therefore hard to learn confidently, or refer to to resolve questions) and make the game seem more complex than it is.