08 May 2019
Card Fight at the O.K. Corral
Most western board games lack the sweeping scope of the epic genre. You can duel in Bang!, rob trains in Colt Express and herd cattle in Great Western Trail – but rarely has a single game attempted to paint the entire canvas of life in the Wild West.
Stepping in through those swinging saloon doors with its spurs jangling and a cocktail stick stuck firmly between its teeth is Western Legends, a sandbox take on being a rootin’-tootin’ cowpoke that ambitiously tries to widen the lens to cover everything from prospecting for gold to reveling at the local cabaret.
Its kitchen sink approach to gunslinging adventures is given a dependable throughline by the legendary points that players score, and which are awarded for almost every notable action in the game. Win a game of poker, get LP. Sell gold nuggets at the bank, get LP. Defeat a rival in a duel, get LP. It’s a tidy way of letting a player who wants to avoid combat completely and spend their time amassing money to upgrade items (more LP) or completing their character’s specific goals (you guessed it: LP) stay neck-and-neck with an anarchic outlaw robbing other players of their nuggets, cash and cattle.
Adding to the feeling of open-world freedom are the wanted and marshal tracks, which layer in an aspect of morality and reward (or punishment) to players’ exploits. Players that indulge in bank heists and cattle rustling can earn regular LP each turn while wanted by the law, but risk being arrested by the sheriff or ‘good’ players, losing some of their fortune, LP and possibly giving an upper hand to their opponents. Staying on the straight and narrow by arresting outlaws, dispatching bandits and wrangling cattle, meanwhile, awards bonus LP at the end of the game, making it more of a long-term commitment but a path that can swing the final standings. The more immediate gains of being a fugitive – and the risk-reward feeling of being constantly on the run it brings – versus the slower burn and delayed gratification of the marshal gives the game a satisfying level of variety, interaction and player impact on the world without saddling it with convoluted rules.
Western Legends is so keen to push the edges of its world horizontally that it often avoids the opportunity to dig a little deeper into each separate part, leaving it a little shallow under the impressively broad surface. While the universal nature of LP means you can hypothetically focus on a single part of the game, the simple nature of each action – roll two dice to prospect, collect then deliver a token to herd cattle, play poker just with the three-card flop and so on – means you’ll likely find yourself sampling a little bit of each portion rather than feasting on just one, to avoid becoming bored if nothing else. While the player characters that populate its world are a diverse wild bunch of real-life heroes and villains, they too feel a little underserved by a few random story cards that offer only licks of generic flavour and individual goals that are simply additional ways to score LP rather than anything especially character-driven or narrative-focused.
Fortunately, this all feels like a missed opportunity rather than a critical flaw; the lightness of the rules means things move swiftly and everyone has the opportunity to see everything, making the experience an enjoyable western romp rather than a heavy simulation of the real-life drudgery of prospecting or cattle herding. There’s plenty of opportunity for a spot of roleplaying your particular spin on Jesse James or Bass Reeves, too – though that’ll depend on whom you’re playing with.
Western Legends succeeds because it’s willing to sacrifice a bit of depth for the straightforward fun of galloping around the Wild West, taking in the breadth – if not the depth – of its expansive world. It’s a hugely entertaining way to spend an hour or two in the company of cowpokes; just don’t look too hard, otherwise you’ll notice that the bullets are blanks and that breathtaking sunset is little more than a painted screen.
PLAY IT? – YES
Western Legends is a massively fun romp through the Wild West that chucks almost every cliché you can think of into a single box to serve up a shallow but satisfying feast of cowpoke exploits.
Designer: Hervé Lemaître
Artist: Roland Macdonald
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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