Saturday, November 12, 2005

Review: Beowulf - The Legend

Beowulf - The Legend is a game by Reiner Knizia for 2-5 players. Recently released by Fantasy Flight Games, it features lovely artwork by master illustrator John Howe, who is also known for having done all of the art for Fantasy Flight's many Lord of the Rings themed games. The game plays in about an hour.

I'll get the obvious comparison over with right at the start: think of Knizia's
Lord of the Rings with player competition. There. I've said it. Is it a fair statement? Well, yes and no. Read on.


I absolutely adore the square large box format. We've seen a lot of games packaged this way recently: Ticket to Ride, Memoir 44, Niagara, Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot and now Beowulf, just to name a few. The large square box (12 x 12 x 3) leaves plenty of room for a nice insert, lots of juicy bits, and a large board. In Beowulf's case, the box is filled with cards, markers, tokens, a nifty figure of Beowulf, and a very nice L-shaped linen-finished board. The illustrations are all fantastic, as is to be expected when John Howe is behind the brush. The cards are decent stock (similar to cards in other recent Fantasy Flight titles) and nicely illustrated. Opening the box and setting everything up is a very satisfying experience.


The rules are printed on a nice full-size full-color eight page glossy booklet. In typical Knizia fashion, they are reasonably short and very complete. The game doesn't take long to learn and I didn't have any questions that weren't answered by the rules or the examples provided.


The object in Beowulf is to acquire fame and fortune (victory points) as a member of Beowulf's entourage, so that upon Beowulf's inevitable death, you will be the one chosen to succeed him to his throne.

The game is played on a timeline of events in Beowulf's life. The timeline winds its way across the L-shaped board and the Beowulf figure moves from event to event. At each stop players make choices and things happen. Most of the time, what happens is an auction. At each major event there is a set of "rewards" (one for each player) up for auction. I say "rewards" in quotes because sometimes the rewards are actually bad: such as having to take a scratch or a wound. Players bid with the cards in their hands to determine the order in which they will get to choose their reward. Each card bears one or more symbols. There are five symbols in the game representing traveling, friendship, wit, courage, and fighting. There is also a sixth symbol: Beowulf, which acts as a joker.

There are two types of auctions in the game. There's a blind auction where players play a set number of cards face down and then simultaneously reveal them. And there's a round the table auction where players take turns adding cards from their hand to their bid in an attempt to match or exceed the number of symbols previously bid. If a player can't play a card or match the bid then he's out and he takes the highest available selection order token (and thus will probably be forced to choose the least attractive reward).

In spite of all that bidding, Beowulf is really very much a press-your-luck style of game. At each round of bidding, and several other times in the game, players may take a "risk". A player who elects to take a risk turns over the two top cards from the deck. If either of the cards matches one of the symbols that player needs then he gets to keep the matching cards (or add them to his bid if it's during an auction). But if neither of the cards matches then he must take a scratch and he's out of the auction. This risk mechanic is so powerful that players will almost always feel compelled to use it, and that's where the press-your-luck element comes in. At every auction players must decide whether to play it safe by playing cards from their hand, take a risk (with the potential to add many symbols to their bid), or just bow out of the auction and settle for whatever reward is left to them by the time they get to choose.

Scratches by themselves are no big deal. They don't count against your score at the end of the game and they're relatively easy to heal. However, three scratches makes a wound and that's an entirely different matter. At the end of the game, if you have no wounds you get five bonus points (winning scores are typically in the low thirties). If you have one or two wounds, you're score is unchanged. But if you have three or more wounds, each wound counts five points against your score! If you end the game with three wounds or more you're pretty much guaranteed to have lost badly. And unlike scratches, wounds are not easy to heal. There are only a few events on the board where players can heal a wound.


I don't believe that there has ever before been a game about Beowulf. I certainly can't remember any. So right there, this game is something very unique. Still, Reiner Knizia isn't exactly known for doing games with great theme so it should probably come as little surprise that, while there is a lot of theme in the flavor text, the game itself doesn't do much to reinforce that theme. Each event on the board is an episode from Beowulf's life and it's clearly marked as such, but in terms of game mechanics, each event is really just a decision point or an auction. While the symbols on the cards are thematic in nature, I don’t think anyone really thinks "I'm fighting the dragon here"; they're more likely to be thinking "I need to get two more axes or fists or I'm out of the auction".

The superb artwork, on the other hand, does do a lot to reinforce the theme. And one touch that I found particularly satisfying is that on the final page of the rules there is a summary of the Legend of Beowulf that gives a brief summary for every event in the game. For those who choose to read the summary and pay attention to the events on the board, this can definitely strengthen the theme.

The Lord of the Rings Comparison

As I mentioned earlier, this game has been described as a competitive Lord of the Rings. Is that really a fair statement? Well sort of. Like Lord of the Rings, this game is episodic in nature. You move from one event in Beowulf's life to another, taking risks along the way. Also like Lord of the Rings, there are cards with symbols that are played to drive the story. And finally, like Lord of the Rings, looking ahead in the timeline to see what's coming up is extremely important. If you know what's coming up and can plan for it you are at a huge advantage. And of course, this game is designed by Knizia, illustrated by John Howe, and published by Fantasy Flight so the comparisons are inevitable and, to a large degree, justified.

There are some major differences as well. Unlike Lord of the Rings, this game is played on a single board and players are collecting treasure and victory points along the way. And of course, players are directly competing with one another, there is no namby-pamby cooperation here, we're talking blood-thirsty, knuckle-bearing competition. I don't recall Frodo and Sam ever angrily auctioning off the Lambas bread. Do you?


Beowulf has only two minor limitations: first, the game mechanics don't really do much to immerse players in the theme; and second, the press-your-luck nature of the risk mechanic leads to a somewhat luck-heavy game. Neither of these issues bothered me significantly.

On the positive side: Beowulf is a thoroughly engaging game that keeps all players completely involved and occupied for the full hour of its length. It's easy to learn but it's filled with difficult and well balanced decisions. Although it may appear to be a bit luck heavy, the choices that a player makes throughout the game definitely mitigate the luck. Sure, a player could win by taking all the risks and simply getting lucky, but it's not very likely to happen. Far more often, the winner will be the player who knows how to plan ahead, when to take the risks and when to play it safe. Strike that balance and you've got the best chance of coming out the victor.

Beowulf is an extremely attractive game. It's easy to teach and loaded with interesting choices. I loved the game. In fact, I think I'll go ask my family if they want to play again!


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