Unmatched: Battle of Legends: A Game System Review

  • Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One
    • Plays: 50
  • Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot
    • Plays: 20
  • Unmatched: Cobble & Fog  
    • Plays: 13
  • Unmatched: Jurassic Park – InGen vs Raptors
    • Plays: 12
  • Unmatched: Bruce Lee
    • Plays: 8
  • Playtesting
    • Plays: 10

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… well, not really. The galaxy was actually my local Toys’R’Us (which is now pushing up business daisies) where I purchased Hasbro’s movie tie-in board game: Star Wars: Epic Duels. The year was 2002 and George Lucas was busy failing us in a variety of different ways.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not going to watch the Clone Wars TV series until I’ve seen the Clone Wars movie. I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.”

C-3PO: I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookiee win.

Epic Duels had a lot going for it in those days:

  • Painted miniatures of all the major Star Wars characters Episodes 1-2 and 4-6 (granted, they were pretty slapdash paint jobs, but they were better than anything I could do)
  • Individual combat decks for each character and his/her sidekicks that encouraged players to make similar choices to their characters… for example, Anakin’s deck gives the player lots of extra actions/attacks, while the Obi-Wan deck has a balance of movement, attack and defense
  • 4 different boards to fight on – including the Imperial Throne Room and the carbonite freezing chamber
  • The price point was $20 – and even with the cardboard game boards and cheaply painted minis, it was a good deal.

The game itself was pretty simple – teams of players went into mortal combat with each other. Each turn, the active player rolled the movement die (which might allow only one of their characters to move or possibly all of them) and then took two actions: they could play a card, draw a card, or discard two cards of a dead character to heal 1 point.

I played a lot of Epic Duels over the years – 45 times, according to my records on BGG. For a while back in 2002, it was our go-to game every Saturday night with a bunch of friends from the church I pastored. (I do not recommend 6 player free-for-alls… the decks are not balanced or designed for such nonsense.)

I’m the first to tell you that the game has not aged well – neither the quality of the minis or the problems with the design leave much to recommend it. We tried again last summer with a 2 vs 2 team match and actually called the game before it ended. (And if anyone is looking to trade/buy a lovingly used copy, mine is available.) Too many of the decks require a player to “turtle” for multiple turns to build up enough cards – which was exacerbated by drawing a card taking one of your two actions per turn. The sidekicks vary wildly in usefulness – which, while thematically correct (Chewie with a crossbow blaster is certainly more help than a couple of Episode 1 battle droids), is not very enjoyable from a play perspective. The simple square movement grid combined with the randomness of the movement die could frustrate even the best-laid plans.

At the same time, there were some wonderful ideas buried in the design – the individual decks tied to character and fighting style, the bluff/counter-bluff attack & defense system, and the fast-playing nature of each turn. Epic Duels felt “right”… until it didn’t, as other card-based fighting games innovated in new ways.

Padmé Amidala: Sometimes there are things no one can fix.

Fast forward 17 years and the good folks at Restoration Games enter the picture. Well, re-enter the picture, as designer Rob Daviau was part of the original design team on Epic Duels.

What Restoration dreamed up is a complete overhaul of the game… like you took your ’72 Ford Pinto into the shop and they sent back a Porsche 911. Both of them run on internal combustion engines, granted… but one has an annoying tendency to explode when it get rear-ended while the other is one of the finest pieces of automotive machinery ever designed.

Let’s start, as Padmé says, with the stuff that can’t be fixed. The Star Wars license is currently in the hands of other companies, so all hopes of having the Emperor & Jango Fett tag team against Anakin & Yoda are gone. (You can, of course, homebrew your own card decks and steal the minis from a copy of Epic Duels… and there are folks who’ve done just that over on BGG.)

The rest of the game, though, was ripe for improvement… and the team at Restoration Games made it happen.

Yoda: Always pass on what you have learned.

One of the blessings (and occasionally curses) of being in the hobby for a long time (my hobby gaming pre-dates the existence of AH’s Squad Leader and the hardcover D&D Players Handbook) is being able to see the lineage of game designs… for example, that the individual hex tiles of the isle of Catan appeared nearly a decade earlier in Kings & Things.

Seventeen years was enough time for a lot of really positive developments that show up in Unmatched…

The Board

The map system used in Unmatched is almost identical to the Pathfinder map system originally created for Tannhauser. (Tannhauser, for those of you who missed it, was an alt-history miniatures combat game in a world where WWI never ended and the various combatants are seeking arcane power – I once described it as “Hellboy, Harry Turtledove & Halo rolled into one.”) The Pathfinder system used color to denote which spaces had LOS (line of sight) to each other so you could quickly figure out whether or not ranged combat was possible. Spaces with multiple colors – usually “high ground” or “strategic positions” – enabled figures to have LOS to lots of spaces.

So, in Unmatched, tracing LOS simply means “am I standing on the same color space as the player I want to attack?” Which, in turn, allows the focus of the game to be on the actual card vs card combat rather than figuring out if you can even “see” the other character.

The Miniatures

I love me some pre-painted miniatures… because I absolutely stink as a painter. But the minis in Epic Duels were not… epic.

Let me rephrase that – when they look like I could do a better job of painting your minis, you need to find a new method of getting them painted. (Yes, I know that the MSRP for Epic Duels was $20 – and that many of you picked it up on clearance for $5 – but they’re still sloppy paint jobs.)

Unmatched uses much more detailed miniatures and gives them a nice wash that makes them pop – which is great for those of us who are never going to deface high-quality minis with our lack of artistic skills.

The “sidekicks” are plastic discs – whether we’re talking about Bigfoot’s buddy the Jackalope or Medusa’s harpies. This has caused some consternation amongst old-school Epic Duels players who think every character should have a miniature. (Aside for non-English speakers: “consternation” is the nice way to say “griping”.) While I would love to have more minis (remember, I’m the guy with a full Heroscape collection in multiple rolling bins in his garage), there’s actually a solid gameplay reason for making the key hero stand out – it is the elimination of the key hero that signals the end of the game. This makes teaching non-gamers that much easier when the components reinforce the importance of a piece.

The Hit Trackers

In Epic Duels, the hit trackers were thin cardboard chits on an even thinner cardstock character sheet. Restoration Games added dials for each character with more than a single hit point – which includes some of the sidekick characters. Attractive and functional – a winning combination. (You make your own “sounds like someone I’d like to date” joke here… but I’ve been happily married for 30 years and I’m not going there.)

The Inserts

Box inserts can sometimes be a pain – but the design of the Unmatched inserts is really sweet. (I can quibble with a couple of the inserts with how they left out a notch to make getting cards out easier, but that’s small potatoes compared to the high quality of the rest of the trays.)

Shmi Skywalker: You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.

The really important changes, though, are in the design of the game…

Improved Movement

Epic Duels used a custom movement die which gave either an amount of movement points for a single character or allowed all the characters to move. While this was simple and easy to understand, it combined with certain deck designs to lead to turtling – if you could stay far enough away from melee-oriented characters, you could simply sit & rack up cards.

In Unmatched, drawing a card is a part of taking a Movement action (see Improved Turn Order below)… and a Movement action means all the members of your team can move. Movement points are set by team – so the Raptors are faster (3 movement points) than, say, King Arthur (2 movement points).

In addition, each card has a Boost value on it. Discard a card when taking a movement action and you can add its Boost value to your team’s movement points.

Improved Turn Order

A player in Epic Duels had two actions to do the following three things:

  • Draw a card
  • Discard a dead character card to heal another character 1 point
  • Play a card (attack or use a special card)

In Unmatched, players still have two actions… but a different menu of choices:

  • Movement (which consists of drawing a card and then moving any or all of your team members)
  • Playing a Special Card
  • Attacking another player

Healing is built into many of the decks… and dead character cards can be used to boost movement (as well as attacks for some characters).

Hand Management

Hand size is limited to 7 cards at the end of your turn, down from 10 cards in Epic Duels.

More importantly, running out your deck of 30 cards is a bad idea – every time you need to draw a card and cannot do so, your main character takes 2 damage. With over 50 plays, I’ve only seen this happen once… but it definitely impacts strategy and tactics. Some decks run through cards quickly (I’m looking at you, King Arthur & Bruce Lee), making folks playing those decks watch their card consumption carefully.

This also helps immensely with the turtling problem and creates a built-in game “timer”.

Tighter Boards

In addition to using the LOS system from Tannhauser, the Restoration team shrunk the board size to tighten up matches and movement. It isn’t down to “knife fight in a phone booth” level… but there are few good places to hide for an extended length of time.

In the later Unmatched maps, they are starting to play with new innovations, including secret passages (Baskerville Manor) and one-way movement arrows (the Raptor Paddock).

Innate Powers

Each character/team starts with an innate power that is both a thematic element and a part of shaping their deck and playing style. Paying attention to these powers (which are on a player aid card along with the movement allowance for your team) is key.

Fine-Tuned Decks

I won’t go into detail about deck construction – but suffice it to say that the Restoration team honed these deck designs down tightly. Each deck feels and plays differently – tactics that work well with Bigfoot are ill-advised if you’re playing Sindbad or Robin Hood.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, the folks at Geektopia Games have some great writing and resources on deck structure… including an Unmatched Maker. And, let me warn you, this is a Marianas Trench-level deeper dive – but worth your time if that’s something that interests you.

Greef Carga: Let’s make the baby do the magic hand thing. Come on, baby. Do the magic hand thing.

I’m not sure what the above quote has to do with a section on the various Unmatched boxes you can purchase… but it makes me laugh every time, so I used it anyway. Sue me.

Unmatched: Battle of Legends Volume One

The first box released includes four heroes and a double-sided map large enough for 2 vs 2 battles. Along with Robin Hood vs Bigfoot, this is probably the version I’d suggest to players who are new to Unmatched and/or Epic Duels. King Arthur is the most difficult to play well… but all four heroes have unique decks and fighting styles.

Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot

This box has two heroes and a double-sided map aimed at 1 vs 1 matches. These two characters are probably the easiest heroes for newbies to learn with… but there are plenty of tricks in their decks as well. If you are curious but don’t want to spend too much, this is an excellent introduction to the game system.

Unmatched: Bruce Lee

No map in the box… but you do get to play Bruce Lee, which is either an invitation to run roughshod over your opponent or get pummeled into next week. (We had a Bruce vs the Raptors battle that lasted 5 minutes with the clever girls tearing him apart.) Bruce is a lot of fun but he’s better for experienced players.

Unmatched: Ingen vs Raptors

This is the first of three promised Jurassic Park boxes – it has Muldoon and the Ingen hunters against three Raptors. Muldoon’s trap ability combines with his ranged attack to make him a potent opponent and one that is relatively easy to learn how to play. The Raptors are tougher to learn, but on maps with lots of connections can use their pack attack to wreak havoc. The two player map in this box is single-sided.

Unmatched: Cobble & Fog

The second box of four heroes (with a double-sided map large enough for 2 vs 2 play) has a wide array of characters associated with London. Sherlock Holmes (and his sidekick, Dr. Watson) require the most experience with the game system to play well – there are specific cards in his deck which work substantially better if you have knowledge of your opponent’s deck composition. Dracula is the easiest to play, with the other three heroes requiring more finesse.

Yoda: Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

There is a whole lot of Unmatched stuff in the publication/development pipeline. Later this year (2020) will see the release of Unmatched: Buffy and as-yet-unrevealed 2 character box. 2021 will see the remainder of the Jurassic Park releases and a new Battle of Legends box.

Restoration Games is playtesting characters beyond that point as well – including their Unmatched Design Contest which will be the basis for an upcoming four character box.

Kuiil: I have spoken.

By this point, you’re probably not surprised that I’m a huge fan of the Unmatched game system and recommend it highly to anyone… nor will you be taken aback that my oldest son acquired his own full set of Unmatched to take to college with him.

Here’s the big picture… a 1 vs 1 game takes 15-25 minutes; 2 vs 2 usually runs 30-45 minutes. There are currently 13 different characters to choose from, each with their own well-balanced deck design. There are 7 different maps currently available that offer a variety of challenges. The art design is very cool and the game is well-playtested. And… it is one of the best fighting games I’ve played. 

And I’m looking forward to taking on my younger son tonight!

Note: While I did not receive review copies of any of the Unmatched boxes, my boys & I are playtesters for Unmatched (which involves printing your own cards & maps).

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson: What Mark said. I’m a huge fan of Unmatched, have bought every set published to date, and don’t expect that to change going forward. The way that every character’s deck is unique and feels like that character, the exciting and tense gameplay, the difficult decisions you make every game (and then second-guess if you lose), the fact that the artwork and graphic design combine in absolute perfection, the wonderful sculpts used to create the plastic minis… it’s easy to gush about Unmatched.

Ratings From Other Opinionated Gamers

I love it!: Mark Jackson, Erik Arneson

I like it:

Neutral:

Not for me:

Editor’s Note:  in the US, the game is distributed by Restoration Games, and in other parts of the world, it is distributed by IELLO

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 44 as he did at age 14
This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Unmatched: Battle of Legends: A Game System Review

  1. Juan says:

    I CANT FIND THE REVIEW! Please dont tell me you expect people to read! We do enough of that when commenting! Wheres the video review???

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Juan, most of the OG writers are, shall we say, a *seasoned* bunch, so our technical skills may not be the best. Besides, given our advanced ages, trust me, you do NOT want to see any of us on your computer screen. I’m afraid that you’ll just have to be satisfied with our peerless prose! :-)

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