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I’ve always had a soft spot for Stratego. Although I rarely play the game anymore, it was the first game I ever played where I felt total control over whether I won or lost the game. My father bought it for me when I was about ten, I think, and I beat him soundly in our first game – only adding to my fascination of the game. I whooped up on all the neighborhood kids, thinking that I ruled the world, until an elderly gentleman soundly defeated me several times, putting me in my place. I still enjoy the game, but see more limitations on it as I get older – but will always remember it with a smile.
Therefore, when I was just exiting the CCG era of my life, I was extremely excited to see Stratego: Legends (Avalon Hill: Hasbro, 1999 – Craig Van Ness), a game that combined a collectable element with a board game. Not only did the game have a fantasy theme, but offered special abilities for the different pieces – something that reminded me of Cosmic Encounter – one of my favorite games. After playing the game, I really enjoyed it, but found that looking up the reference cards was a bit of a pain. The expansions for the game promised some replayability, but support quickly faded. I still play Stratego: Legends from time to time, but it just doesn’t have the same fun as it did the first couple times I played it.
Game play is similar to regular Stratego, with quite a few exceptions…
- The numbers have been changed, so that the higher number (usually) defeats a lower number. Now, frankly, I think that’s a good idea, but it still takes some getting used to.
- The board no longer has a river dividing the two armies, with entry points between them. Instead, there are only sixty-four spaces on the board, and each army can immediately attack the other army. Each square is now one of seven terrain types (plains, marsh, forest, mountains, desert, water, and town), and they affect how certain pieces attack, etc. Water spaces are impassable, and one is included on each board. (Four boards of sixteen squares each are shuffled to form the playing board for the game.)
- The armies are customizable. While the numbers for the pieces stay the same, each piece has different special options, which do a variety of things. However, each army has certain restrictions placed upon them when customizing. First of all, the armies must be either of the good or evil alignment. Each of these alignments is made up of three races – which really don’t affect game play much, except that they all share certain characteristics. Armies also cannot change the amount of pieces for each base number of the creatures. For example, you can only have 1 “10”, 1 “9”, and 3 “8”’s. Instead of bombs, the pieces are called “Magic”, and “Castles” replace flags.
- Setup for the armies is now random. I think this is to deter “undefeatable” setups and to better emulate the randomness of a CCG deck. All the pieces are shuffled face down and placed on the boards (which are also randomly setup). After setup, the players may make two switches, each involving two of their pieces.
- Special abilities are used on almost all pieces. Some of them involve terrain, giving them an innate ability (such as +1 on desert spaces). Others allow certain actions, like flying (moving over any number of pieces or water spaces orthogonally). Some pieces have a “Death Curse”, which goes into affect when they die (ex: “All pieces with Flying ability get +1”). Only one “Death Curse” can be in affect at a time, so new ones replace the current one in play. Other special abilities include: Slashing (moving diagonally like a bishop), Teleporting, Charging, etc. All these abilities are not printed on the pieces, but rather included on large reference cards included with the game.
All other rules of Stratego are in affect, and the first player to capture the other’s castle is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The components for this game are top-notch, with a few exceptions. The pieces are really nice, and the sticker sheets that are used to be put on the plastic playing pieces have some really good artwork on them. I really like that the plastic tray inside the box has the numbers of the pieces in each army – which really helps when customizing your forces. The pieces are designed like all good Stratego pieces, which do not allow viewing of the back unless you are looking directly at it. The boards are nice, although they do not fit together as well as I would like, even with a puzzle-type frame to hold them in place. Everything fits well in a very nicely designed box, with great artwork.
2.) Components, part 2: HOWEVER, and this is by far my biggest complaint about the game, are the reference sheets and pieces. There are six double-sided reference cards included with the base game (and two more come from the expansions). The only way to match the pieces with the reference sheets is to match color, picture, and number. The pieces have NO text or symbols on them, other than their base number. Unless one has a photographic memory, this means that the reference sheets will be used in every attack of the game. This can get frustrating and slightly annoying. You would think that they could have put something on the pieces, like a small winged symbol to stand for Flying, but there’s nothing. After several plays, I’m sure that players can get used to this – but it’s really annoying the first couple of times, and I’m sure will turn off some people.
3.) Rules: The rules are done nicely, although I still would have liked a small section explaining the differences between this game and regular Stratego – which would have helped veteran players. But they are clearly written in a large 12 page book – one that gives attention to some special abilities, explaining them further. I found that the game is simple to teach, but it takes new players a while to get used to all the special abilities. Fans of Magic the Gathering will feel right at home, however, and should pick up the game quite quickly.
4.) Collectable: This is an evil to some, a joy to others. I bought two copies of the game (got one really cheap – extremely so), and some of the expansions. I don’t have all the pieces, but every game comes with two complete armies, and I don’t see how any of the pieces are more powerful than others (except for the obvious – a “10” is invariably better than a “3”). The only thing that brings out the sheer power of armies is when they are combined in the best combos. And I really haven’t seen too many of these. Of course, I’m not going to play the game a hundred times to find out. Still, this game could be used as a portal for CCG and collectable miniature gamers, to bring them into the world of board gaming. Then again, since Hasbro hasn’t produced any more expansions, what’s the point?
5.) Strategy: As with many CCGs, the strategy is not so much in playing the game, but in building your army. (Which, if you only buy the basic game, isn’t much of an option.) Having your army randomly placed adds HUGE random factors to the game, and we usually play with a house rule that we set up our armies. This of course, could lead to abuse of the system, but we don’t play the game enough to run into that problem.
6.) Theme: The story is actually quite interesting, and I enjoyed reading the back story. It helps fit in with the theme, and the special abilities of each army do reflect a certain uniqueness.
7.) Expansions: There are two expansions for the game: Qua’ans Resurgence and Celestial Vengeance – both of which add a complete army. They are nice, but are unfortunately, the only expansions added.
8.) Fun Factor: The fun factor in this game is high, if and only if both players are familiar with the special abilities. Otherwise, too much time is spent looking them up on the reference cards. I enjoyed the game quite a bit, but found that this was too much of a distraction, so it doesn’t see much play nowadays.
So I really can’t promote this game, unless you are a huge Stratego fan or a Magic: The Gathering fan who is converting over to board games. Maybe somebody will figure out a way to get around using the reference forms, but I find them awkward and unwieldy. I like chaos in games, but this one may go just a little too overboard. Yet, at the same time, the quality in components and the idea of the game is very enticing! If you don’t mind the extra work in looking up abilities, this may be your cup of tea. I just doubt that most people want to put in that effort.