Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

New Game Weekend: Legendary

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I’ve been a Marvel Comics collector and fan since the 1970s, but my gaming experience with my favorite super heroes has always been a less than satisfying experience. TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game never really played like the feel of a comic book back in the 1980s, and my brief experience with the Heroclix system in the past few years has also left me flat even with some great looking toys. And so, I was thrilled when I recently got into Legendary, a game that finally placed me directly in the midst of the wide Marvel Universe of heroes and villains.

Legendary Expansions

Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red and Guardians of The Galaxy expansions

Released by collectibles giant Upper Deck in 2012, Legendary is a deck-building card game in which players take on the roles of super heroes doing battle with super villains in a near endless combination of scenarios and team-ups. Legendary is gloriously illustrated with all-original artwork with a hefty base game box containing heroes and foes primarily drawn from the Avengers, X-Men and Spider Man storylines. Additional expansion sets pull players into the cosmic worlds of the Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the streets of New York populated by Daredevil, Elektra, Black Cat and Spider Woman.

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Sample X-Men and Spider Man cards

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Sample Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy cards

Each hero is presented in a series of 14 cards of progressively higher value and ability. Team affiliations are depicted with small icons and values for recruiting other heroes and attacks are found at the bottom of the card. Special abilities and bonuses through interaction with other cards are listed along with colorful flavor text under the hero’s illustration. And so, each hero’s range of abilities is represented over the set of cards, allowing each character to grow in strength and use different powers or abilities throughout the game.

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Sample Mastermind, Henchmen and Villain cards

Evil doers in Legendary are divided into three categories. Mastermind cards depict the powerful, lead villian like Doctor Doom, Magneto or Galactus within a given game and are represented with a stack of five cards. Henchmen are a group of identical cards of lower level bad guys such as Doombots and Hand Ninjas with limited abilities. Villain cards feature characters from teams of arch enemies from groups like the Sinister Six, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Hydra or Skrulls, each with varying abilities, effects and strength. Like the super hero cards, Villains, Masterminds

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The Legendary game board

A game of Legendary is played on two levels. The players work collaboratively as a group of heroes to beat the game itself represented by the villains. If the players collectively win the game, points are tallied with each player based on the number of villains each player has defeated. The player with the most points wins. The mix of individual competition and teamwork is just one of the ways Legendary really feels like a comic book story as super heroes team up to achieve a unified goal while also performing heroic feats as individuals.

Legendary begins with the selection of a Scheme (ie scenario) which gives the conditions of victory for the heroes and villains. A Mastermind is chosen to represent the lead baddie in the game, and then Henchmen and Villain cards are selected. A Villain deck is created by shuffling in all Villains and Henchmen along with Scheme cards and Masterstrike cards which allow for attacks by the Mastermind. Depending on the number of players, a set of Hero cards are also shuffled together into a Hero deck. Choosing the mix of Heroes and Villains are sometimes dictated by the Scheme, can be done randomly or may be done by making specific selections. Part of the fun of Legendary is in the combinations of cards used to create the numerous combinations of Hero and Villain decks

Each player is given a starter deck of identical twelve S.H.I.E.L.D. Hero cards and all other decks are placed on the Legendary game board. Six cards are drawn by each player from their shuffled starter decks. Five Hero cards are drawn from the top and laid out face up in the S.H.I.E.L.D “HQ” area and made available in turn to each player to “recruit” into their deck each turn based on recruitment points on their six cards in hand. Players may also play cards from their hand to fight Villains drawn each turn from the Villain deck and placed face up in the “City” area on the board. As each new Villain is turned up, other Villains shift down the City row and may be fought be players playing attack points on their available hand of cards. Played Hero cards also contain a variety of abilities, often used in combination with other cards to greater effect. Hero abilities can allow for extra cards to be drawn or discarded, stronger attacks, automatic defeat of Villains, extra recruitment value and numerous other special effects. Defeated Villains provide positive and negative effects on players and are then scored in a victory point pile for each player. Villains who move down the City track escape, causing negative impacts to the players. Scheme cards drawn from the Villain deck likewise cause bad things to happen. At the end of a player’s turn, a new hand is drawn back to six cards and play passes to the next player.

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One of my many recent games of Legendary

Legendary thus plays over a variety of turns as more Heroes are recruited into a player’s available deck, Masterminds and Villains are defeated, Bystanders are rescued and progress is made in defeating the Scheme before the bad guys win. Hero cards from the same or aligned teams combine to powerful effect, and certain Villain and Hero cards also interact in different ways. Getting the right number and combination of hero cards moving through a deck is key as the game progresses.

There are so many things I love about Legendary. Primarily, the game just “feels” like a comic book. Teams, like the Fantastic Four, X-Men or Avengers, work best together, combining skills and abilities to powerful effect against Villains. Individual Hero abilities each play with the superpowers known from the comic book canon. For example, Rogue from the X-Men is able to siphon abilities off other Heroes and Hulk rages and sometimes causes damage to Villains and Heroes alike.

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The big Dark City expansion for Legendary

I got into Legendary in a big way over the 2014 holiday season with the base game and Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red, Guardians of The Galaxy and Dark City expansions. With hundreds of Mastermind, Villain, Henchmen, Hero and Scheme cards available, each game plays in a nearly endless variety. With the modern Marvel Universe dating back to 1961 and re-invigorated with a constant flow of hit blockbuster movies since 2000, Legendary draws richly on the complex intersecting storylines from a half century of comic book popular culture.

Legendary has started me off in 2015 with a new game favorite and one my entire family has enjoyed playing together. As a lifelong fan and gamer, Legendary has finally given me the chance to team up with my favorite heroes from the Marvel Universe.