In case you haven’t noticed, Polish publishers Portal have been doing some pretty interesting board games over the past several years, reaching back to the widely beloved Neuroshima Hex on through last year’s smash Robinson Crusoe. For the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at two of their most recent issues. First up is Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, a worker placement game with a surprisingly compelling thematic conceit.The first thing you see when you open a box of Legacy is a prop letter “handwritten” by the titular Duke de Crecy. A low-ranking French noblemen circa 1729, he laments his station in life and stress to the reader/player the importance of securing a strong familial legacy. It’s a charming an unexpected touch that draws you right into the game’s concept, which is essentially to build a family tree starting from a first generation patriarch and matriarch and grow it through three successive generations. When you’re done, your family member cards actually make a family tree right there on your table.
It’s a neat concept, and over the course of the game the story of your family will inevitably include marriages and children and shifting fortunes. You might assign an important title to someone or use some of the family’s money to fund a business venture or contribute to the community. You will fulfill goals imparted by wealthy patrons. A wife (and child) might die in childbirth. Your family members will move in social circles to attract valuable friends whom you might have to call on for the occasional financial assistance. But friends are fickle, and doing unbecoming things like visiting a fertility doctor or borrowing too much money might run them off. The goal is to have the most prestige points, which are converted from honor points at the end of a generation and these are generated chiefly through children and various titles, investments and other thematic material that bestows an abstracted sense of wealth and social standing to the family.
Overall, Legacy interests me because it is dealing with the development of a family instead of a nation, empire or other large social organization. It’s easy to shrug at some of the mechanics as standard economic engine fare with a thicker-than-usual coat of narrative, but the concept is that you are building your family’s vitality and wealth. I think the theme mostly works well with the mechanics of managing currencies and increasing a family’s overall potential to earn by leveraging long-term strategies and synergies.
However, it is effectively an evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) worker placement game and it all runs aground somewhat due to its fairly routine gameplay. I found that for all of my interest in finding partners for my family members that would benefit the bloodline, drawing children and hoping to not run into a complication card and working out effective combinations to maximize card effects that many of the issues common to the worker placement genre are present. Interaction is limited, with occasional card effects allowing some intrigue but by and large the friction is of the “I put my pawn there so you can’t” variety. You might have a promising friend card snatched out of the draft before you can add it to your hand and there are a few card effects that generate some friction, but there’s not much room for players to interfere with each other.
This all means that there is an inherent gaminess to the proceedings- why can’t two families start a business in one turn? Why is there an overcomplicated scheme wherein “honor” and “prestige” are different measures of success and one converts to the other? There’s a disconnect between the rich, appealing thematic material and the actual gameplay, but we’ve seen that a billion times in the Eurogames class. It’s not a deal-breaker, because Legacy is still a very good worker placement game with quite a lot of depth. A major strategic element of the game is in leveraging each friend/possible spouse’s nationality, occupation and card effect to the best effect. Over the course of the game, the matrix of characteristics can grow complex and if you’re familiar with the 75 (!) completely unique friend cards then you’ve got a long-term advantage- you’ll know what the combinations and pathways are to develop the most effective and wealthy families. So there definitely is an appealing density and room for exploring different approaches to victory. The question is if Legacy will be played enough by you and your group to develop that level of familiarity to get to the higher levels of play that I think this game promises.
But if your group isn’t on board, there is a very interesting solitaire option in addition to just playing the game with one player for a high score challenge. It’s called the “Testament” variant, and in it you represent the last of a familial line and you are effectively playing the game in reverse in a kind of genealogical exercise to find out who your ancestors were, how they lived and what they did. There’s a special deck of cards for this variant that guide you with goals in “researching” the family. The solitaire game is actually somewhat more interesting than the standard multiplayer game- if only because it smooths over some of the standard faults of the worker placement genre and lets you focus on strategies to meet your objectives.
Legacy is the kind of game that I am intensely interested in because it is pursuing a unique theme and using game mechanics to describe something uncommon in the medium. I’m willing to overlook some of the issues I have with it (including the fact that I feel like the game is too long with more than three players) to experience it, but it also seems like a game that for my part will have a fairly short but bright table life. I’ll also be interested in what the designer brings us in the future.