Western Legends by Hervé Lemaître and Kolossal Games is another big hit from 2018 that I’m only getting to in 2019, but I nonetheless feel very fortunate to have friends who were ready to play both of these games to kick off the year. Along with Dinosaur Island, this was at the top of my list and like Dinosaur Island, it did not disappoint. I was skeptical about a “sandbox” game like this one, but Western Legends is aces.
What’s a sandbox game?
In case you don’t know, this game is probably the one I’ll be using as the standard from now on. Up until now, there were some good examples like Xia and Merchants & Marauders. The basic concept is this, and it applies to Western Legends along with both of those games: You work on building up your reputation or victory points, but there are a bunch of ways to do it, and you’re very unrestricted as far as what you can do on your turn. There is some pick up and delivery you can do to earn money, and that will eventually get you there in terms of winning the game. However, there is always the option to fight or rob other players after they do the heavy lifting. You can spend time and money buying upgrades, or more directly pursue your victory conditions. I think while all of the sandbox games that I can think of have a lot of strategic elements, it’s more about the experience and the do-something-ability of the game. These games aren’t the most strategically oriented, in my opinion, but they are also some of the most fun.
Although this wouldn’t be a requirement for a sandbox game, all 3 of the games I mentioned also have a “good/evil” choice you get to make, basically you have to decide if you want to go to the dark side and become a pirate or criminal, which opens up some paths for you but closes off others, and changes up who your NPC enemies might be. It typically means you’re a going to be a more direct enemy of the players you’re playing with, but is also something you can change throughout the game, and sometimes the timing of those changes is key.
What I Liked About Western Legends
If you want to play a fun sandbox game, play Western Legends. I love the upgrades, but I especially love basing combat on poker cards. It’s highly thematic, yet at the same time, everyone knows the basics of poker well enough to play it. It goes quickly, but it can be tense. The theme and art by Roland MacDonald, and game play by Lemaître are all done well enough to take you back to the Old West. It’s a genre that everyone understands, and understands some of the inherent rules and actions one might take there. You can’t get mad at your buddy if he gets into a shootout with you and robs you, because hey, it’s the Old West, and this game feels like it.
What I Didn’t Like About Western Legends
There’s also kind of an inherent problem with all 3 of these sandbox games, and part of why I say they’re not necessarily the best for strategy: If someone decides to rob someone else, and pulls it off, it almost always puts that player at a big advantage. If he doesn’t pull it off, he can take himself completely out of the game. If the 2 players end up neutralizing each other over successive turns, they can take each other out of the game, which is what happened in our game. If you’re the player who wins the gun duel, that often leads to the second inherent problem, which is that if one player takes the lead, there’s little to stop the other 3 players from ganging up on him, resulting in a second place strategy where you let others take out the top guy. However, that’s better than the problem I’ve seen in some other games, where everyone is encouraged to eliminate a weak player. So that’s in a nutshell what goes on with sandbox games, but even with those drawbacks they’re one of my favorite genres of games.
What makes sandbox games great is their ability to transport you somewhere and deliver an experience, and Western Legends does that as well as any sandbox game I’ve played. You get into your western legend persona, add some fun upgrades, and make some things happen. All players are going to build their legends, and either play some serious poker, get into some serious gun fights, or most likely, both. Sound like fun to you, gambling with cards and lives in the Old West? If so, dive right in.
Theme and Components
The map really does a great job of setting up a “sandbox” to play in, and it’s something I’m definitely going to keep in mind for any sandbox game I might ever design. The map is only about 50 or so spaces in total, roughly 7×7, but they do a nice job of arranging it in a way that makes it feel like plenty of space with 2 towns, some mountains in between, and surrounded by a wilderness where the bandits can hide out or shoot it out. Although very different thematically, it reminded me of the Firefly game in the way it was able to have spaces of both dense civilization and empty wild in a fixed, fairly small board. There’s enough going on, without having too much packed in, just the right mix of town and wilderness.
As mentioned I also really love the way the upgrades are set up as a store, plus I love the poker cards. Finally, the game comes with high quality resin figures that just need a paint job to be outstanding.
Interesting mechanics and game play
In sandbox fashion, you get 3 actions and a lot of freedom: One obvious one is to move 3 spaces, but the way you really move more is by buying mounts that let you move 4, 5 or 6 spaces. Mount range from a mule (which can carry gold) or a mustang (which is the fastest) and you can even upgrade them so that they have proper names, like Hambone the Mule. The movement amounts work well on the 7×7 map size, where 3 is kinda slow but 6 is really flying. Another obvious action available is that when in a town, you can shop for upgrades like mounts, pistols, rifles, supplies, whiskey (healing), etc.
You have 3 legal ways you can make money. One is by picking up cattle and delivering it, the safest and least interesting. You can alternatively go into the hills and mine for gold ore. This can be very lucrative, but makes you a target for other characters who might want to steal your gold. In fact, I’d say mining is such a cheap way to earn VP that it sort of forces the action, you better rob the guy or he’s going to win the game. The third way to earn money is to play poker, but of course, you only make money if you win.
Then there are illegal ways to earn money, which include rustling the cattle or robbing another player by entering the same space they’re in to start a gun fight. Doing illegal things will move you along the Marshall track and put a reward on your head for other players to claim!
Any player can also go into a space occupied by one of a number of bandits who permanently occupy certain spaces from the start of the game and look to win that gun fight for glory, and for a lawful reputation. Gun fights use the same poker cards as playing poker.
The whole “poker cards” mechanism is very interesting and original, and it’s a great example of using cards in multiple ways. On one level, you’ve got classic playing cards. What’s interesting about this is that you use these both in poker, to make standard poker hands such as 3-of-a-kind, and you also use them in gun duels, where high card wins. Then, each card has a second purpose written out.
Some cards are more for gun duels, others more for poker, others are “reactions” that sometimes let you do things entirely outside of poker or fighting. With both poker games and gun duels being big events in this game, I found these poker cards to be a very interesting and solidly thematic way to resolve things. The action texts are also generally pretty clever, and result in some fun intrigue between players. A lot of actions allow you to pick up poker cards so managing your hand is something you need to do throughout the game. Ultimately, all the big conflicts this game are going to come down to playing poker cards, and I think it works super well. It’s thematic, and it’s more interesting than your standard dice and sort of the original card duel, with all others being based off of it.
Delivered in spades, thanks to the solid theme, the fun upgrades, and the fun characters. You’re going to the Old West and you’re going to do some legendary things. You could end up doing little more than mining and/or delivering cattle, but that’s sort of up to you. Even if you’re going the non-violence route, there’s always a high stakes poker game to be played.
Big time. The great characters, interesting upgrades, and multiple paths to victory open up a lot of possibilities. You could try to be the baddest outlaw and be a threat who moves around the board. You could deliver cattle, then rustle them at an opportune time. You can take on the bandits and build your legend that way. There would also be a variety of game types, some more pick up and deliver, while others would feature more gun fighting.
Game Design Notes
I’ve touched on most of the design things that I found interesting, but I especially like the map design — just big enough and crowded enough — and the poker cards concept and the way those cards are also used in combat. The way the upgrades are set up is really fun, too, with sort of a good-better-best model, but also upgrades with interesting names like an upgraded pistol called Widowmaker. It’s just really thoughtfully done in the way it brings the theme through everything, so well that I got fully immersed.
We’re pretty far into the game when Kit Carson, my character, strolled into Red Falls. Kit had already built up a reputation, mostly through mining, but had also been known to take out a bandit or two. As Kit, I had my endgame plan in mind, one that would require my next 2 turns, when I was unexpectedly invited to play poker by one of the other players. I realized that if I could win this poker game, I could achieve victory conditions on my very next turn instead of waiting 2, but would need to use my best cards to ensure such a victory, including the wild card (the “2”) that I’d been carrying all game. A single pair had won most of the poker games I had seen, but even a single wild card allows for flushes and full houses and that sort of thing. Would my best cards be enough?
A game like this only works if the ultimate conflicts are epic, and this game delivers. To the game’s credit, my heart raced when it was time to lay down our hands. My opponent showed his 2 pair, and I laid down my hand: 3 Kings, and a hush fell over the table. In any legit poker game, 3 Kings is a great hand, and it turned out to be the winning hand of the game. Next action, I turned in my money at the cabaret for enough Legend Points to end the game with my being in the first place position, but just for good measure and added points before final scoring, I used my last action to go out to fight a final bandit. I needed just one more poker card victory to put the game away, and I had a final Ace up my sleeve to secure it.
Western Legends drew me in until my heart raced from the action. I was that immersed in the setting, that immersed in my character and the legend he had built for himself. I play board games for this kind of feeling. I actually didn’t want to play it again that day because it was too much to ask me to get that immersed in another game that day (so we played Orléans for highly strategic but non-immersive fun).
Western Legends is the ultimate sandbox game.