From far over the sea's expanse has come a man of the Geats, a chief of warriors named Beowulf.
Translation by Dr. David Breeden
There are certain things in life that no matter what is done to them or how they are presented, they are simply not enjoyable. (Most green colored foods, insects, rap music, etc.) I was introduced to one of these distasteful entities when I first entered high school. Shortly after the first term began, I discovered that, though English is my native tongue, English classes were not my forte. This unpleasant experience was not alleviated when I moved on to college. Though very often students select classes based on a particular professor or the convenience of a given time period, when confronted with selecting yet another English class, I employed other criteria—elimination parameters. Certain words, names or phrases in the syllabus would "red flag" the class as a potential catastrophe. The specific list included (but was not limited to): Steinbeck, Faulkner, Chaucer, Hemingway, poetry (all forms but especially Haiku), anything from the 17th or 18th century, women authors (Ayn Rand being the sole exception), Iliad/Odyssey, Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Unfortunately this significantly challenged the resources of the English department and the few offerings that did not specifically include any of the forbidden words were anthologies such as "The Hero in Literature". Worse, I discovered that English professors can be deceitful and very often would include characters such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf as heroes and that these epic poems were written in Old English. Be assured that Old English has little in common with any of the vocabulary I am familiar with.
So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to play the new Fantasy Flight game Beowulf: The Legend. Based on the epic poem Beowulf, written sometime before the 10th century, the game was designed by Reiner Knizia. My enthusiasm did not increase when the person instructing us on the rules began by quoting the first line of the poem: "Lo, praise the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!" ...right. Beowulf is the oldest, surviving epic poem in the English language and only one, damaged copy remains (in the British Library of London). It is the tale of a warrior-king in the 6th century. It is a tale of honor, adventure, courage, triumph over evil and death. Beowulf, king of the Geats saves the Danes from Grendel, Grendel's mother, water dragons and concludes with a tremendous bout between Beowulf and a fire breathing dragon in which both parties perish.
There are sufficient references to religious tradition and philosophy that, when coupled with the inevitable "contrast and compare" to other epic poetry, any English professor should be able to massage several lecture periods out of the topic. This is a cornucopia of potential term papers. But what of the game?
On the surface, Beowulf: The Legend shares a commonality with Knizia's cooperative game Lord of the Rings. In Beowulf: The Legend, each player is one of Beowulf's companions as he travels through various episodes depicted in the epic poem. However, Beowulf: The Legend is not a cooperative game. Though players may not confront each other directly, each player is attempting to court Beowulf's favor and succeed him at the conclusion of the game (by scoring the most points). There are 36 episodes or encounters and twelve of these are major episodes in which players compete for various rewards. The balance are minor episodes that provide the players with additional cards, money, fame or special power cards.
The momentum of the game is driven by card play. There are four standard suits and a "wild" suit. Each episode identifies which suit(s) are active for play that round. Being strong in one suit does not guarantee victory as it may not be an active suit for a specific episode; one must plan in advance. There are two mechanics employed for resolving a major episode. The first is a blind bidding system seen in many games before. The second mechanic has not been employed in a game since the release of Taj Mahal in 2000. This alternate method for resolving a major episode is lifted directly from Taj Mahal and the selection of rewards was strongly influenced by that game. Both games have twelve points of contention, multiple card suits, special power cards, card play that is identical in most instances, a variety of rewards and multiple routes for victory. Rewards in the final episode of Beowulf: The Legend are determined by the number of icons on the cards in each player’s hand (similar to Taj Mahal's majority suit count).
It appears that Knizia used Taj Mahal as a base, tinkered with it, honed it into something more, something different. Taj Mahal had no form of wild card (Beowulf's helmet) or the ability to "risk". On most encounters a player may decide to risk—to draw two cards from the top of the deck hoping to add to the strength of his hand. Failing in the risk results in a scratch. This adds a nice touch of uncertainty to each of the confrontations. For example: in Taj Mahal a player holding only two cards could not beat a player that has played three face up cards even assuming that both of the held cards are identical. In Beowulf: The Legend, a player may risk and possibly draw enough icons to win!
Another addition to the Taj Mahal system is found in Beowulf: The Legend's advanced game. Treasure in the basic game is simply another method for scoring points. In the advanced game, additional episodes are included where treasure is used to bid or play for additional points or rewards; it creates a dual system. This increases the strategic considerations in the game without significantly increasing the complexity. Whether one enjoys the game or not, you must admire the flawless design. There is little doubt that some will bemoan the loss of simplicity, the purity of Taj Mahal however, Beowulf: The Legend is a well developed derivative. It is to Taj Mahal what Alhambra is to Stimmt So!—something derivative, something more.
Taj Mahal was fairly abstract with a convoluted theme. (Building rail stations or power plants would have been acceptable, but chains of palaces in India?) Beowulf: The Legend is strongly themed and this raises another issue, that of re-playability. Many games have been criticized for being unable to sustain interest after a few plays. This problem is not unique to episodic type games but this genre presents greater potential for diminishing game play as the episodes become familiar. Some companies/designers have opted for additional episodes in the form of published expansions (Runebound) while others encourage players to develop addition material (Doom, Descent). So does Beowulf: The Legend offer unlimited re-playability or is this a one-trick-pony that will require expansions? Short answer: this is a card game with a very strong theme. As with most card games, there is little probability that a game would repeat. Beowulf: The Legend is more Taj Mahal than Lord of the Rings.
I would be derelict if I failed to address the issue of scaling. The stated range is two to five players and technically this is accurate. Mechanically the game is playable with just two players however, the two-player game lacks soul—the choices are obvious and the game is dull. The three-player game is better and hints at the potential of the game. With four or five players the experience is exciting and tense—the game shines at this level. Taj Mahal was somewhat of an acquired taste; not everyone enjoyed the experience. Beowulf: The Legend is very similar in this respect; some will find this an extraordinary experience while others will loathe to play it twice.
Any of the Lord of the Rings games are playable without ever having read the novels or seen the films but the gaming experience is significantly enhanced by a familiarity with the subject matter. The same is valid of Beowulf: The Legend. The episodes follow the development of the adventure in the epic. (I cannot believe I am about to suggest this.) Therefore I would urge players to familiarize themselves with the poem in order to enjoy the complete experience; it is not necessary but preferable.
Note: Though I am certain it is possible to read Beowulf in the original Old English, I recommend a modern translation. Many are available on the internet and a printed version is only a few pages. (One excellent site is http://www.lone-star.net/literature/beowulf/) . If you are uncertain as to which version to tackle, I have provided a sample of the first line (quoted earlier in this article) in Old English:
Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum peodcyninga prym gerfunon.
- Dave Shapiro