Designed by: Ben Cichoski, Daniel Mandel
Published by: Upperdeck
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
My love of Firefly is a very known thing. Somehow I’ve managed to stick various references to it into my work on this site, and I pepper conversations with qoutes from the show. But perhaps what amazes me most about the show is how it has continued to live on through various other mediums, from a pretty solid comic series to a Monopoly board to a dice game to a Firefly version of Fluxx to Firefly: The Board Game. Now Upperdeck have decided to jump on the Joss Whedon band-wagon with their Legendary series, which at this point has seemingly had every licence ever slapped onto it. Seriously, I have a Legendary Little Trouble in China-Town to review. Yes, it’s actually a thing, and the review will happen. Eventually. The point is that Firefly has become engrained in sci-fi culture, and so as a fan there’s quite a bit to choose from. Some of those things, like Firefly Monopoly, are a bit naff and not worth your time, though. Is this one of those things?
At the core of the game are the traditional Legendary mechanics; each turn you’ll draw some cards from your generic starting deck composed of Misbehave and Shiny cards that will grant points to attack with or points that can be used to recruit new characters from the bridge to add to your deck respectively. Using this each player will slowly build up their deck so that it’s similar, yet still unique. One player may opt to focus on getting some early drafting power built up so they can start acquiring the more powerful cards, while another player works on getting some basic attack cards into his/her deck to deal with threats. It’s the standard deck-building formula that has proven itself time and time again.
Things kick off with each player being given a character from the show in the form of an avatar card, each of which comes with abilities and penalties activated by talent and flaw cards, which we’ll get back to a bit later. All you really need to know is that during the game avatar’s can take damage. There will be four of the available nine avatars which get removed entirely and put back in the box, because these four randomly selected cards represent what characters will be making up the deck from which you’ll be recruiting new crew members to join your ranks. Since this is Firefly that means you’ll adding Mal, Kaylee, Jayne, Book, Inara, River, Simon, Wash and Zoe into your deck, each with their own respective theme when it comes to abilities. Simon, for example, tends to be able to help remove damage from other players, while Kaylee is good at looking after Serenity and Jayne packs some serious firepower. Some characters work better with others, but no matter what you’ll be able to bodge together something effective that also makes use of combo abilities, which is to say special abilities that trigger whenever you previously put a card with a specific icon. Veterans of the Legendary series will be very familiar with this mechanic, but I was a little surprised to see that it felt quite toned down here, playing a much less significant role. In the basic Marvel Legendary, for example, combos are a vital component of the game and building your deck around them was key to winning, so mid-way through a game you’ll almost constantly be triggering them, whereas here they’re put aside. It’s a shame because it feels like there’s a lot less emphasis on building a strong, synergetic deck here/
What’s strange is that the remaining avatars also get counted as main characters and are put to the side of the playing area, where they’ll be able to take damage throughout the course of the game. The reason for this is that there’s quite a lot of cards that trigger events based on what main characters are in play, so these side-characters are their for those cards. It’s a strange piece of design that seems to aim to thematically recreate the idea that Firefly was an ensemble show where every character was important in each episode, but it comes off as feeling clumsy and tacked on, and even with these characters hanging around there are still times where you flip over a card and it does absolutely nothing because each character it references have been removed to form the deck of heroes.
But while that piece of thematic design doesn’t quite click, the rest thankfully does with quite a few smart design choices that emulate the show in neat ways. It starts with the episode decks. Each game of Legendary Firefly you play will use three episode decks (There’s fifteen in total, making for five sets, although you can mix and match if you wish) marked A, b and C, each of which have their own objectives and themes based on their respective TV show counterparts. It’s these decks that give the game a lot of its flavor, introducing small tweaks and changes to the core mechanics which do a good job of evoking each individual episode while also keeping the gameplay interesting. You might be snatching cargo, dueling Atherton or fighting off the creepiness that is Jubal Early. All the while every enemy, ship and event remains true to the source material, so there’s Jayne’s inevitable betrayal during Ariel and Kaylee getting her pretty dress. Every episode comes with an objective card that tells you exactly what you need to do in order to beat it, but interestingly you only have to have to achieve the objectives in the final episode for you to win the game. So what, you might wonder, is the point in battling so hard to beat the first two episodes before hitting the finale? The answer is glorious credits. You see, in between episodes you’re given a brief intermission you can spend credits earned by completing objectives on healing up characters, fixing Serenity and purchasing ship upgrades that provide some powerful benefits. It’s therefore worth attempting to nail every objective and side-mission that pops up. Yes, there are side missions which get randomly mixed into the episodes for some extra flavour. There’s even a campaign a mode where damage and ship upgrades carry over and players will score points based on their performance.
Every player’s turn kicks off with a new card being taken from the episode deck and added to the rightmost space of the ‘verse, which is a series of five slots. If an existing card is in the way then that card gets shifted one space to the left, also shoving along any other cards. If any of these cards get pushed out of the ‘verse they enter the combat zone where they’ll be revealed to the players. Event cards are simply a case of doing whatever the text tells you to do, but enemy cards in the combat zone will strike player’s each turn, forcing them to draw a card from the strike deck that alongside doing damage could carry other negative effects. Should a player ever take damage equal to the value listed on their avatar they’re out of the game until someone else can find a way to heal one or more of their wounds.
Much more dangerous than measly folk with hammers and guns, though, are enemy ships, because in Legendary Firefly your own vessel, the Serenity, can be attacked as well. Whenever the Serenity gets struck by an enemy you have to draw a ship strike card and place it onto one of Serenity’s five slots. If there’s not an open slot then Serenity goes boom and it’s game over for everyone.
Players can opt to scan cards in the ‘verse rather than waiting for them to enter the combat zone, which is how most objectives are going to get completed as you’ll want to quickly hunt for specific enemies or items. To scan a slot you just need to pay the amount of attack points listed below it, at which point the card is flipped over. If you’re lucky then it’ll be something you need to complete the current objectives, but if you’re unlucky it might have a nasty reveal effect or just make your job much harder. You might have to hunt down and defeat Patience, for example, but instead end up scanning a space and revealing a couple of her goons which have the irritating effect of stopping you going after her until they’re defeated. Had you not bothered to scan you wouldn’t have flipped them over, but then again without scanning you wouldn’t find Patience until she hit the combat zone, so…hmm.
Lying at the bottom of each episode deck is one of three inevitable cards that act like timers. Their positioning naturally means they’ll always be the last card to enter the ‘verse, and their different color ensures that you’ll know exactly when they hit the field. These special cards can’t be scanned like others, instead only being flipped over when they hit the combat zone. Should an inevitable card strike each player once before the objectives have been completed then the episode is over. As you might expect the arrival of the inevitable card creates a nice, tense countdown. I just wish there was a few more of them for variety’s sake.
It’s a simple system, but it’s oh so effective. The slow, steady march of cards toward the combat zone creates a great sense of tension. You’re always working to just about keep ahead of the game, or you’re almost always playing catch up. Those moments when you manage to finally clear some space and gain a turn or two of respite are all the sweeter because of it.
When it comes to combating enemies in the ‘verse or in the combat zone you simply spend attack points equal to the value printed on the card and then toss the target in the discard pile. Of course special abilities and things can play into this, such as some enemies being defeatable by spending recruit points instead or even some foes that have much more thematic skills. Atherton, for example, can’t be defeated by a player unless he’s already struck them at least once.
Talent and flaw cards represent yet another nice reflection of the show, highlighting how Whedon’s characters feel incredibly human thanks to their obvious weaknesses and strengths. You start with a single talent card in your deck, but acquire more throughout the course of the game. Whenever you play a talent you can immediately draw a new card to replace it, since by itself it doesn’t do anything. Where talents get interesting is you can choose to toss them out of the game in order to activate an avatar’s special ability. Wash can scan any space in the ‘verse at no cost, Mal lets two other players draw a bonus card, Kaylee fixes the ship and Jayne bolsters fighting ability for the turn. Flaws, however, embody the fact that the entire crew of Serenity were damaged people. Whenever one pops up it has to be played, thereby triggering the unavoidable Flaw effect listed on your Avatar card. Jayne gets all other players hurt, while Book’s shady past brings an already defeated enemy back into the ‘verse, and Mal’s antagonistic nature means another episode card gets immediately drawn and put into play. Once the effect is resolved the flaw card gets removed from play. A lot of episode cards make good use of talent and flaw cards. Two of Jubal Early’s cards in Objects in Space, for example, won’t strike but will instead force players to take a new flaw card every turn.
Another fun mechanic that manages to emulate the show is the ability to coordinate with other players. Doing this you can take a card from your hand and let someone else play a virtual copy of it on their turn, adding its fighting or recruiting points to their own pool, while you draw a new card to replace the used one. In this way people can recruit the most powerful cards or bring down the tougher enemies. Plus it gives players something to do while they wait for their turn to come around again, while increasing the sense of co-operation. Speaking of which Legendary Firefly isn’t lacking in the co-operation department. Since you can immediately draw a new hand of six cards after discarding your prior hand it’s easy to chat with other players and plan out who is going to do what.
If there’s one thing I don’t like about the gameplay it’s the deck of Monty cards. In previous Legendary games there would be a stack of generic cards that could be purchased for very little and that provided a few recruiting points. In Marvel Legendary it was a deck of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents. In this way players could bolster their decks in the early game with some extra recruiting power. In Legendary Encounters Firefly Agents become a character called Monty, but for some Upperdeck have opted to reduce the amount of these cards available from a sizable deck to just five. It definitely slows the early pace of the game down unless you get lucky with a run of inexpensive characters to recruit.
The artwork has proven to be a controversial topic on the message boards, and it’s easy to see why. To be very frank, it’s crap. Not all of it, mind you. The avatar cards look okay and there’s some other cards that manage to somewhat capture the likeness of the Firefly crew, but the rest of it is simply horrible. There are numerous examples of characters that look almost nothing like their TV counterparts, of horrible compositions and weird expressions. Multiple artists have been used, which just serves to hurt the game further as you have jarring shifts in style all over the place. The rest of the production value, though, is solid. The cardstock isn’t the greatest but it’s also perfectly acceptable, and there’s plenty of foam inserts and dividers included. I also really like the rolled up foam playing surface because it grips the table well, and it’s really easy to pick up cards from.
Overall I was left feeling rather impressed with how Upperdeck handled the match of the Legendary series and Joss Whedon’s much beloved Firefly. Despite being a card game it did a surprisingly strong job of reflecting the show within its mechanics. There’s a couple of mistakes along the way, but that didn’t stop me enjoying every playthrough. It’s not the most strategically deep game, after all anything involving a myriad of decks is going to be subject to a lot of luck, yet it still feels like each choice you make carries weight. Most of all I love that the game manages to maintain a sense of pressure throughout. Every victory usually came just as the Inevitable card was in the ‘Verse and getting close to the combat zone, bringing with it a feeling of mild panic. Is any of this going to be enough to sway you if you aren’t a fan of the Legendary series already? Not really. The changes and tweaks don’t touch the very core of the game, and so those who don’t enjoy the system won’t find anything to change their mind here. Unless, of course, you happen to be a big fan of Firefly. That may just be enough to convince you to pick this one up. On the flipside if you’re a fan of deck-builders then this one is very much worth checking out, and the Firefly license only enhances the experience. Unless you hate Firefly. In which, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater, at least according to Shepard Book.