This Unmatched: Battle of Legends review is looking at the first board game in what's become a series of expansions, and that holds a high place in our list of the best two-player board games.
The Unmatched series asks a simple, but appealingly silly question: in a match-up between legendary figures from around the world, who would win? This initial set is officially titled 'Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume 1', and pits King Arthur, Alice (of Wonderland fame), Sinbad (the sailer, not the comedian) and Medusa against each other.
Each player will pick one of these characters, with accompanying unique cards and powers, and you'll battle to victory over the small board.
The four characters in this first box offer a mouth-watering set of matchups with wide appeal, aided by a unique art style and some characterful plastic miniatures that are as good as anything you'll find in any of the best board games.
Unmatched: Battle of Legends review: Price and Who It’s For
This game is even more appealing when you consider the price: the tag of around £32/$40 seems a steal given the quality of what’s in the box.
You might also imagine that to support such a range of different characters, Unmatched would be too complex for younger gamers. But that’s not the case at all. It’s got a simple structure that players from about 10 upwards should be able to master. As a last-person-standing-wins game, however, play can’t help but be confrontational and aggressive, so it might not be for the whole family.
In addition, while the box lists a player count of 2-4, it’s best with two players only. When you add more, one or both sides have to play as a team, which crowds the board and doesn’t show the game at its best.
Unmatched: Battle of Legends review: How it plays
During your turn, you have two actions, with which you can do one of three things. You could move and draw a card from your character’s deck, or you could play an attack card, or play a scheme card. If you attack, both players choose a card in secret and then if the attacker’s card has a higher value, the defender takes the difference in damage.
What’s extraordinary about Unmatched is how much variety it carves out of this straightforward formula. Take Sinbad, for example. As you might expect he’s a sword fighter who needs to be adjacent to an opponent on the board to attack. His deck is full of “Voyage” attack cards which get a bonus for each other Voyage that's already been played and is in your discard pile. Each also has an after-combat ability, including “Voyage Home” which lets you add all the discarded ones to your hand.
Playing Sinbad well is an exercise in good timing and hand management. Indeed for all the characters, there’s a constant tension between drawing and playing cards: they’re separate actions, so you can’t do both. But contrast Sinbad’s slow ramp with Medusa. She can attack from distance, and has three supporting Harpy characters, so hers is a game of manoeuvring. She’s trying to box enemies in with her Harpies while she shoots from a safe distance.
Both other other characters are similarly well differentiated. Alice can change her size for offensive or defensive bonuses. King Arthur is a melee powerhouse who can discard cards to boost his attacks, while he’s supported by Merlin with ranged spells. Each has a unique playstyle to master, and each match-up, in turn, throws up new challenges. There’s a lot to explore here for such a simple game.
However you choose to play your hand, you’ll be challenged with constant trade-offs. In addition to balancing the drawing and playing of cards, many cards are keyed to a named piece, either Arthur or Merlin, say, so you must be flexible to get the most out of your hand. Others can be used as both attack or defence as you choose and managing these can be critical. Getting caught by an attack when you have no defensive cards left is painful.
Combat is exciting with both players choosing a card secretly. Many attack and defence cards also have post-combat effects and learning to anticipate these is a key part of strategy. Often they’re also designed to add to the thrills of the card selection. Medusa, for example, has a weak “Gaze of Stone” attack, but if it does manage to overcome the defence, it does massive extra damage.
While card draws add to the tension, the randomness can also be frustrating. There are occasional matches where you just can’t get the combos you need and your opponent will take you out, fast. That’s disappointing, but the fast setup and slick play make it easy to start over for a rematch.
Unmatched: Battle of Legends review: verdict
As a single box, it’s hard to fault Unmatched: Battle of Legends Volume 1. It’s well-priced, easy to learn, fun and full of interesting challenges – for all ages. And one exciting element is that it's just the start!
Unmatched is a series, and you can get additional sets that bring in new characters to play. There's everything from Jurassic Park to gothic literature covered in these expansions.
As you add these in, the limitations of Unmatched’s simple formula does begin to show through repetition. Alice plays a little bit like Dr Jekyll, and Medusa has a tiny crossover with Robin Hood. But that’s a minor complaint given Unmatched does so much with so little, and is only something that the people who get deep into the game will notice. Try this Volume 1 box, see how you like it, and build your collection from there… or don't! This is such good fun as a standalone buy, too.