Monday, 18 June 2012

Beowulf: The Legend

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
þēocyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

Seamus Heaney - Beowulf.

So begins one of the great and epic stories of our species, one that is still in print today.  Beowulf: The Legend is a board game designed by Reiner Knizia and published in English by Esdevium and Fantasy Flight Games.  Knizia as a designer is well known for producing many mechanically sound games, but games which are shallow on theme.

Beowulf is a story of battles, struggle, danger, strength, heroism and death.  It is the tale of a valiant warrior, and yet a reflection on the game might find little to recommend it to those who hoped for a play-experience as storied and mighty.  

In Beowulf the players (between 2 and 5 of them) are companions of the great hero as he follows his wyrd from the legendary fight with Grendel to his ultimate demise slaying the dragon.  The game moves through episodes, some allowing the players to take risks in the hope of reward, and others where players bid against each other in order to get first pick of the bounties available.  

The bidding mechanisms make for a neat, light hearted and enjoyably quick game.  In many of the episodes there is a ‘push-your-luck’ element, allowing the potential for a player to add to their bid, but at the risk of being locked out of the struggle to better their rank when it comes to dividing the spoils.

I’ve only played the game as a two-player, but it played quickly, and was enjoyable throughout.  There are choices present, and some level of strategy can be employed, but there is luck as well in good measure.  I think that most games with a bidding mechanism become an ‘all or nothing’ gambit when played played by two.  Beowulf is no exception, but with ample opportunities to push your luck for more resources and episodes that allow you to choose from a variety of rewards, players in a two-player game can plan in advance to some extent.  Looking to consolidate a resource in order to be able to win a future bid they set their eye on.

All this talk of resources and bidding does little to evoke the theme of battling, monsters, companionship and heroism.  Nonetheless if you take the time to recognise the resources you are required to bid in specific episodes, parallels can easily be drawn.  Episodes match events from the tale of this great hero, and they are thematically integrated with the bidding system. Friendship cards will win you favour in the court of Hygelac, courage and fighting cards will see you better off in the battle with Grendel.  The theme is present, but it is a light dusting, a drizzling if you will, that, like a subtle seasoning, will add flavour now and then when a player takes the time to saviour an episode.  But which can be easily missed if you are not looking for it.

Beowulf Challenged by the Coast Guard.
By E. Paul. from Wikipedia.
All in all Beowulf is an enjoyable game, it’s light and easy to play, has some choices and a healthy dose of luck.  While the game-play may not be the deepest or most rewarding it is not so cumbersome a game as to be waylaid by this.  It seems like it will scale very well for all numbers of players, and it is lightly drizzled with a theme I rather like.  The best vote of confidence is that it will hit the table again.

Beowulf and the Dragon, by John Howe.
from Fantasy Flight Games: 


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