The Ladies of Andor
This last Christmas was probably my best haul yet in terms of excellent board games. Not only was I given Clash of Cultures, which has proven one of my favorite games in recent memory (and which I wrote about here), my darling mother also acquired Legends of Andor, a beautiful and exciting four-player cooperative adventure game from Michael Menzel and brought into the English-speaking world by Fantasy Flight Games. At first glance it might look like a generic fantasy, but below the jump I’ve compiled four reasons why it’s one of the cleverest and most surprising co-op games of 2012.
#1. It Teaches You As You Play
“Yeah right,” you’re probably thinking. Normally I’d agree. I remember reading a similar promise in the Space Alert manual, followed by an hour of pathetic fumbling — and not the fun type of pathetic fumbling that Space Alert is about — as I tried to explain the game to four bewildered fellow space-explorers. Out of all the games claiming to teach their abundant mechanics as we play, I don’t recall any living up to the boast.
So it’s a nice surprise that Legends of Andor does a pretty good job.
The idea is that you’re some heroes in a relatively generic fantasy country, and a horde of orc-alikes (though the artwork is nicely unique) are doing their darnedest to break into the castle, which means that in each of the game’s five scenarios you’ll be simultaneously trying to complete the quests that will give you victory and stemming the tide of incoming monsters, which gives it a bit of a tower defense feel since defeat comes the instant one too many enemy armies makes it to the castle gates. There are a lot of things to keep track of: marching armies to intercept, refreshing wells and merchants for healing and gearing up, allied heroes willing to help if you’ll just tell them where to point their spears, mysterious boons or hindrances hiding beneath the river-mist, and an ever-ticking clock of events that pushes you closer to defeat with every passing day and every defeated monster.
That clock probably needs some explaining. See, Legends of Andor would be broken without its imposed time limit. If it wasn’t there, you could probably just hang out at the castle gates and slay the unending hordes until you’re fat on experience and loot, and not only would that make the game painfully long, it would also be pretty darn uninteresting. So instead, every new day and every time you wipe out an enemy army, the event track advances, sometimes setting into motion new occurrences that could set you back even further than you were already behind. It’s a bit of an abstraction, sure, but it does a good job of simulating the idea that you’re combating a powerful enemy force that’s adapting to your every move, and the effect is that the game becomes a taut balancing act where any misstep might send the entire kingdom careening into the void. Kill too few enemies and the castle will be overrun; kill too many, and you won’t have enough time to complete your quest and shut down the mysterious forces of evil once and for all.
As daunting as that sounds, the game’s scenarios really do present a logical progression that teach you the rules as you play. The first scenario begins with your characters responding to the king’s call for heroes, and so begins by teaching you how to move about and interact with the countryside as you journey to the castle. Then a few monsters appear, letting you get the hang of the game’s combat. After a few more introductory steps, the game tasks you with delivering a critical message to some faraway allies — and just like that, all within one compelling scenario, you’ve learned most of the basics without ever having to spend two hours reading a rulebook. Each scenario adds upon that foundation bit by bit — buying items from merchants here, sidequests for power-boosting runestones there, until suddenly you’re playing with all these interlocking parts and you’re not lost in the slightest.
#2: The Art Nails It
Legends of Andor was built from the ground up by an artist, and it shows through in the design. While exploring the mists down at the river’s edge, you might encounter a witch selling a red potion, advertised as the most potent auto-win beverage in all the land. It seems a bit pricey until you realize it’s a two-use item, and upon quaffing it once, you flip the tile over to reveal the same glass bottle half-filled with crimson win-juice. The same goes for energizing wineskins, item-bearing messenger-hawks, or letting your shield take a beating without breaking — finally some heroes have figured out how to ration their supplies. Turn the monsters or heroes around for a view of their backside! Even the board is two-sided, showing different regions of Andor and allowing for wildly different scenarios.
My favorite detail is that you can play with any of the heroes as either gender. So while it’s entirely possible to adventure as a boring bro-club of Thorn the Warrior, Pasco the Archer, Liphardus the Wizard, and Kram the Dwarf, you could also be like my gaming group and play as Mairen, Chada, Eara, and, ahem, Bait (I’m sure that’s a compliment among dwarves): The Ladies of Andor, awesomest heroes in the land. Even better, for anyone who’s like me and is sick to death of women’s armor protecting basically her pelvis and the bottom half of her breasts, the heroines here are all wearing actual combat-ready clothing. That you might actually use for, you know, fighting.
At the risk of sounding like a prude, I really cannot say how cool I think that is. This is a game that lets you play with as many women characters as you want, and you can play with your younger children without prompting any awkward anatomical explanations.
#3: It’s Good at Making You Feel like a Genius
In our first game, the fate of the entire kingdom rested on two sets of shoulders: Chada the Archer, who was proficient at wiping out bands of monsters from afar with her longbow; and Bait the Dwarf, dreaded harvester of monster balls. Our mission had been straightforward until very recently (there’s not much room for error with “Kill everything attacking the castle”), when the king had announced that we needed help from our elven allies, so we needed to carry a letter to their big happy tree in the east.
Problem was, the enemy attacks weren’t slowing down just because we had somewhere to be. Oh, and the monsters would be looking for anyone carrying a message, and we wouldn’t be able to sneak past patrols while we carried it (note to self: in the future, no longer write our secret missives in magic ink that disappears unless continually entreated by bagpipes).
Chada (played by my wife, Somerset) and I (Bait) conferred over what to do, and it looked like there was absolutely no way to succeed — there are normally only two passages over the river, and one, the rope-bridge, had been burned down. The other route was swarming with monsters, which we couldn’t evade thanks to our magical wailing epistle.
Like a bus it hit us: as Bait, I could exert myself to for a full day and night to rush to the dwarven caverns on the other side of the stone bridge but in front of the monster horde. Then I could wait two full days until the monsters had passed, and proceed completely unhindered to the elven tree! In the meantime, Chada would kill just enough of our enemies that they wouldn’t be able to storm the castle, letting a few trickle past to be handled by the castle guards. It worked out exactly — had one more enemy broken through the fortress’s defenses, or had a single extra day dawned, or had I ran into more trouble as I passed through the mist into the forest, we would have lost.
Every time we’ve played Legends of Andor, we’ve come away from the table feeling like we just finished polishing our beautiful minds and now we can finally learn calculus. And making its players feel like absolute geniuses is what any good cooperative game should aim to accomplish.
#4: The Scenarios Aren’t Too Repetitive
Just as a good cooperative game should make its players feel brilliant, it should also do its best to not let them memorize a sure path to victory. One of my concerns with any game that claims to be story-driven is that once I’ve learned the story, is there anything else to get out of it? This was my main concern coming into Legends of Andor, and I’m relieved to report that the scenarios do a great job of mixing things up from game to game, even if the story itself remains the same.
For instance, the second scenario has a number of objectives that you must accomplish in order to win. First you must find a friendly witch, who will point you towards a magical healing herb you need for the king. Unfortunately, this witch is hiding in one of the misty regions bordering the river, so you’ll first need to divide your time between slaying monsters and searching the fog for her. Already, there are fifteen possible hiding spots, and many ways the scenario could play out. And when found, the witch points you to the location of the herb, which can be in one of three spots.
I’m not going to go through all the little ways the scenario randomized itself, creating a unique challenge, but there were a number of factors that kept the mission fresh — a fortress containing a particularly hardy skral (that’s what the big cat-like monsters are called), a sidequest to recover some scattered runestones for the extra power they could unlock, fleeing farmers willing to help defend the castle if you’ll escort them there, and hideous fast lizard-cats all made an appearance.
Anyway. If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, I’m now a big fan of Legends of Andor. If you’re looking for a satisfying and challenging cooperative adventure game, you could do a lot worse.