The western film is stuck in an odd place. Far past its heyday in the 60s and 70s, the genre has struggled to connect with younger audiences in recent years. Yet there's still something intrinsic to the genre that connects with all the wandering souls and adventurous hearts. The explosive reception to both Red Dead Revolver and its sequel Red Dead Redemption are proof of that.
The Red Dead series' Grand Theft Auto-esque open exploration fits the genre superbly, allowing the player to forge their own gritty path through the desert—unless they want to forge that path on the PC, unfortunately. We don't know if we'll ever get a Red Dead on PC, but at least we finally have another compelling 'open world' Wild West experience to play—albeit one forged of cardboard and plastic instead of ones and zeros.
Western Legends is the first release from new kid on the block Kolossal Games (opens in new tab) and designer Hervé Lemaître. It tackles the challenge of presenting a sandbox adventure that avoids the shackles of scripted narrative or any semblance of a dictated path. It parallels the design goals of its primary influence, the superlative Merchants and Marauders—a standout pirate epic in the same genre. This can be a difficult type of analog game to develop: You must present a vivid and dynamic world that players can upend, yet also impose limitations so that it plays out coherently.
Players are historical legends of the period—hence the title—such as Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, and Doc Holliday. They're presented with a short paragraph about their background, an asymmetrical special ability, and a unique starting loadout.
Clever inclusions such as Holliday's consumption tying into his unique powers lend authority and creative appreciation to the historical perspective. There's a deliberate approach threaded throughout to achieve a reasonable sense of historicity while keeping things dramatic and full of action. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, but Western Legends manages it with grace.
While your starting background and equipment are rigid, your journey is not. From the opening gunshot you'll be travelling across bad country, fighting bandits, and seeking refuge in towns. Each turn you have three actions. The base options, moving about or engaging in a gunfight, are simple to grasp and immediately assimilated. Complexity arrives through the variety the board presents.
This freedom is most fully realized in the paired Marshall and Wanted tracks. Many of the actions include the option to progress down one of these paths, each offering boons while defining limitations. For instance, you can rustle up some cattle and deliver them to the train station, gaining a Marshall point for your trouble. Alternatively, you can steal those steers and take them to the opposing ranch causing your Wanted points to build.
This commitment to starkly contrasting ethics is a hallmark of the genre. Both paths offer in-game rewards such as fistfuls of cash and a healthy dose of Legendary Points—the all-important victory point equivalent. The incentive structure favors committing wholly to one path, pushing your warped moral view to its extremes and running hog wild, which plays out in satisfyingly dramatic fashion as it forces conflict and tension.
Player interaction is something adventure board games often struggle with. Push players into a head-to-head skirmish and one ends up dead, their chances of victory stunted and their momentum burned. Western Legends solves this issue by adopting a carefully crafted system of risk and reward, and making sure the risks are never too high.
You are fully encouraged to descend upon your opponents and rob them of their hard-earned cash. Or you can arrest them if they're living the criminal life, or even straight up duel in a mad dash for Legendary points. Losing such an encounter with a player stings, but you cannot be eliminated and typically receive concessions on defeat.
Dueling is risky, but those who give into their violent hearts can manage their odds through their poker hand. This deck of dual-use cards can be played for either a text effect, such as a bonus action of additional movement, or utilized during conflict resolution. Opponents compare their selections and the high card wins. Equipment and abilities can modify the results, but this simple system offers insight into your chances of success without removing that necessary element of drama.
Whether or not to use a high card is a tough decision. Maybe you really want to bury a slug into your pal's face, but were planning on saving that Ace for an upcoming round of poker at the saloon. That collision of dramatic action and simple yet tough decisions forms much of the underlying nuance in Western Legends.
In order to achieve this velocity while incentivizing player interaction, concessions must be made. This is most apparent in the oddly soft repercussions of violence. Accumulated wounds limit your poker hand size but will never cause you to give up the ghost. This diminishes the stakes and forms a ceiling on the dramatic tension, but the positive is that players won't be scrambling to avoid deadly interaction, and the encouragement to muck it up is a lot of fun at higher player counts.
This strength of scaling participants is buoyed by an adjustable goal. Standard play has the group competing for Legendary Points with the finale triggering at 20, a target which can be shifted depending on desired length. This works fantastically as the design space offers a fulfilling experience even when keeping the shootout to 60 minutes.
One unfortunate concession of the Legendary Point race is that any semblance of climax is faint. Players scramble to hit the bank or turn their cash over for points, but the lack of a final showdown is noticeable. Fortunately, the vivid journey over the previous hour will make up for the meandering conclusion and provide plenty of memories.
And those defining moments spread across your self-directed story are wonderful. The terrific feedback system continually shoves cards and wealth into your hands. Even failure, such as receiving a beat-down from the Sheriff or another player, has you drawing a poker card and hopping back atop the saddle.
Take for example the left for dead prospector: Beaten down and mugged on the previous turn, you recover your senses and play a just drawn sprint card to catch up with the ne’er-do-well who robbed you. Instead of reclaiming your stolen wares, you opt to arrest the bandit and slap down the final card in your hand: a 10 of diamonds. The smug outlaw burned his highest cards in the previous gunfight and throws up his arms in disgust.
Propelling this would-be novella is the sheer variety between sessions. In some plays you'll reach into the dark depths of your soul, cleaning out the bank and putting your boot to the neck of your opponents. In others you'll don the white hat and hunt outlaws beyond the far reaches of the canyon. In between that wide gulf is an area of gray that comfortably espouses gambling, prospecting, and frequent trips to the cabaret.
Western Legends is a treat for genre fans. It's the most effective and clever board game with a western theme, firmly wielding its six-shooters to deliver a tailored experience of highfalutin drama. It's currently available for pre-order from Kolossal Games (opens in new tab) with an expected ship date of September 1.