Spice It Up! An Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Vol 1 review

My ears twitch at the sound of a rustle just a few feet away behind me. Where is that blasted Jabberwocky when I need it? Out of the corner of my eye, I feel movement to my right. Bigfoot is back, and this time he packs a wallop, but in my small form, I somehow survive the blow. Stunned, yes, but I survived the onslaught. I turn as quick as I possibly can to hit him with a counter attack, a quicker turn than any human alive could perform, and yet….and yet, I’m still not quick enough to tag Bigfoot before he disappears into the woods again.

The hunt is on.

How long have gamers stared at each other across a piece of wood or cardboard, hearts beating loud as drums on a battlefield? How long have two friends engaged in a ballet dance of cascading movement, with seconds of rest, followed by a flurry of action.

I’ve played two player games for as long as I can remember. My dad’s dad taught him checkers, and he taught me and my brothers. The kids in my grade all learned chess at the same time and spent hours working badly on defensive strategies and opening gambits. 1994 was a sea change for me and my peers as Magic: The Gathering stormed through our little town, pulling us under, twisting, turning as we fought the surf to find our feet on the sandy ocean shore. I’ve gravitated more toward multi-play experiences of late, but I still love the thrill of finding a good two player game.

Restoration Games has a good reputation for bringing classic games back to life, infused — where needed — with new mechanics, updated art, and smoothed out gameplay. The game they revived back in 2019 was 2002’s Star Wars: Epic Duels, which I had never played. Some of the Krewe members have, and talked it up a lot.

Can Restoration Games do it again? Can they make a worthy successor? If you love two player games and don’t mind ramping up your adrenaline levels for thirty minutes, than let’s spice up your game nights with Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Vol. One.

Note: Restoration Games was kind enough to provide us with a copy of the base game for review. We played the base game’s physical copy numerous times in the Gumbo Krewe prior to the pandemic, and with our family since then. However, any reference to expansion content has been accomplished virtually as we are limited in our review plays during these trying times.

Unmatched: Battle of Legends is a miniatures dueling game. There are two twists: Restoration Games has a license with Mondo (the company that brings out lots of movie and IP merchandise tie-ins), so expect to see lots of crazy matched combinations in the base game and expansions. The second twist is that it is a card based battle game with no dice, but where luck does come into play a little bit in the card draws. Let’s see what’s inside the box.

PRESENTATION:

You are probably already familiar with Restoration Games and their attention to detail in production. Unmatched is another strong entry in their catalog, starting with the base game and its box. The cover art is gorgeous, tipping you off to what you will find inside. I’m no art historian, so I can’t even describe what the art style is, but it is impressive. The artwork and graphic design evoke the seriousness of the duel, and yet, at the same time, convey the outrageousness of pairing heroes from different genres, times, and places. There should be something ridiculous about Robin Hood fighting Medusa, but the artwork has a consistency that makes you think they really could inhabit the same weird timeline and space.

Let’s talk about the rest of the game components. Each box comes with at least one double sided map, and the base game comes with four characters: Alice in Wonderland, Medusa, King Arthur, and Sinbad. These are wonderfully inspired choices. Sure, King Arthur is the chalk choice, the “Reese’s Pieces” as Dan & Chris say on the Geek All Stars, and Medusa is not really that surprising. But who in their right mind shouted at the Restoration Games development meeting, “We gotta have Alice and Sinbad!” Clearly, a very bright individual did, because they work.

Each character is represented by a well-sculpted plastic miniature that screams at me to paint them, although to be honest, the wash that is included on the minis is well done and brings out lots of detail even without a paint job. (Sadly, I probably haven’t painted anything other than bedroom walls since a Snap-On Corvette in 1983). Each hero also has a sidekick(s), represented by cardboard tokens. I thought I’d be disappointed by that choice, but after playing the game, it was no problem to use the tokens and it keeps the game affordable. Each player also gets a deck unique to that character, and again, the art pops off each card. The names of the cards are all cool and thematic, and while there are plenty of unique cards and abilities, there’s just enough repetition to balance out the decks and give a player the foundation for card combos. We found that some of the combos were a little obtuse, while others were super obvious.

So, no surprise here, especially if you have read my thoughts on other Restoration Games output — this is a solid production with some A+ elements. It is a bargain at the MSRP, enough to where I am itching to bring in more sets and content as the design team publishes them to supplement the base game.

GAMEPLAY:

One of the beautiful things about taking older games and polishing the chrome is that in general the games have relatively simple, family friendly rules and mechanics. Unmatched fits the bill. The rule book is well written, and the rule set is streamlined as all get out.

Players will take turns doing just a few actions: Manuever (which consists of drawing a card first, and then, if you want to, moving all of your fighters — a/k/a your heroes and sidekicks) — up to the limit of their movement points; Scheme (playing cards for their effect); and Attack (uh, you know, “attack your opponent”). The timer in the game is simple — either you or your opponent’s hero will run out of life points. That can come from attacks that take the hero down to zero or even from the deck — if you have to draw a card and can’t (because there is no basic “shuffle” step) then you lose two points. By the time any player gets to the end of her deck, those two points will probably spell doom or be whistling it down for a ride.

The characters themselves are unique, and it is fun discovering the best strategies for each. King Arthur has super powerful attacks, and has Merlin there to pitch in with powerful magic spells. Alice has a wicked vorpal blade that looks cool as heck in miniature form, and can use her ability to transform sizes (from big to small) to confuse the opponent with stronger attacks or slippery defense, in addition to The Jabberwocky’s help. Medusa is wicked, with multiple attacks coming from her harpies until she is ready to fix you with her (long-range) steely and game ending gaze. Finally, there is Sinbad, perhaps the trickiest one to play as a player has to be patient for the long game to win as he gets stronger and stronger the more he roams through adventures found in his deck.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

I’ll say it right off the bat — for gamers uninterested in card playing, person-to-person duel games, there’s not much about Unmatched that will change their mind. If your game group does not love the thrill of chasing down an opponent into a corner of the board and delivering that final winning blow, here’s my recommendation: get authorization from Angelo at CHRONOS to jump back in time about five minutes and tell yourself to skip past this review. (Oh yeah, and my apologies for the double memories.)

But for everyone else, I think Unmatched has to be in consideration for a must have in anyone’s collection, and at this point, we have to discuss the elephant in the room. It is time to do a quick comparison of Unmatched to other dueling systems we have played recently, namely, FunkoVerse and Warhammer Underworlds.

Sure, I like the silliness of FunkoVerse a tiny bit better, but that’s only because of the funky plastic heads and the IPs that are in that game already. I don’t see myself getting rid of either system, first because the partnership between Restoration Games and Mondo guarantees that we will get plenty of cool and eclectic IP battles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer versus Robin Hood, or Dracula versus the raptors from Jurassic Park, and second, because they just feel different.

As for the other minis dueling game that I play, Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire, any gamer is going to find that system a lot more top heavy but a ton deeper, too. Warhammer Underworlds not only throws in dice combat, more variability in terms of set up, and tons more minis and powers, but you also have the external deck building elements that come into play. I can easily see a person having both in their collection, because they are really geared for subtly different audiences. Plus, since one of the Gumbo Krewe members collects everything for Shadespire, it is an easy call for me to keep Unmatched instead.

So why is Unmatched so much fun? I think it comes down to a number of factors, and if you track with any of them, then this game may be for you. I like the fact that the game is strategic like Chess, but has the random element of the deck to balance out skill versus luck. Sure, better players will win more often, but a good player can still be competitive with a good pull in the deck draw. I love the way it looks on the table too. The board folds out, the characters hop into battle stance, and the artwork on the cards makes passers-by take notice of the thematic elements of the game.

Finally, in every dueling game, I want pulse pounding excitement to build throughout the game. Unmatched gives me that — it starts with a slow dance as the players put the heroes into position and survey the hand that they are dealt. Then, the action gets furious as the first blows are traded. There is inevitably a short break, a little bit of cooling off, as the hand size shrinks due to each player emptying their hands. Once each player reloads and gets the fighters into position, the end game comes quickly, and there have been so many games where it came down to “just one more turn”.

Heck, that might be the best referral I can give for Unmatched. I predict on good authority that it will quickly become one of those “I just needed one more turn” and “let’s play again” games in your collection.

How much replayability is there if there are just four characters in the main box and small decks? Well, skipping over the fact that Restoration Games is absolutely supporting the game with new content, the four decks in the box are enough to give players plenty of choices right out of the gate.

For instance, at first I loved playing as Alice, trying to figure out the best strategies for playing her “now I’m big, now I’m small” deck. But I also had to take into account what the sidekick does to support her, and how the other player’s hero matches up to Alice’s strengths and weaknesses. The next time I played Alice, I knew her a little better, but now I was facing a different opponent, with different strengths and weaknesses compared to Alice’s. Back to school I went!

Out of the new content I have played as (or against), Robin Hood has stood out for me so far. I love his combination of ranged abilities, dancing after every attack, and deck manipulation, which are all balanced by his lower hit count.

I just love the fact that each deck that I’ve encountered brings with it a unique twist to the gameplay. If you are expecting the first set of expansions to add rules to the base game, you will be disappointed, but you shouldn’t. The game is so finely tuned and polished that any expansion rules might tip the delicate balance. Let’s let the decks bring out the new challenges and tweaks instead, at least for now.

CONCLUSION:

If I had played Unmatched more in 2019, it might have made my top ten games of the year, although putting two skirmish games in the top ten would have been weird for me. Don’t make me pick a favorite yet, I’ll wait until we re-do our top ten mid-year like we usually do.

I’ve played Unmatched a lot during the pandemic with my family, with the game group (virtually) and with my nephews across the US via discord connection. We never play it once — it is almost always a back-to-back or back-to-back-to-back thing.

Kudos to Restoration Games for spiffing up an older, beloved game, and pumping in excitement with the new characters and artwork. Playing Unmatched has been one of the absolute highlights of this god-forsaken pandemic, and I am looking forward to digging into more content.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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