Lewis Carroll was wrong. It wasn’t the vorpal sword that slew the Jabberwock but Excalibur, wielded by King Arthur. It was his polished shield that reflected Medusa’s stony gaze so he could behead her. And when that head was safely bagged, he high-fived his friend Sinbad and the two of them walked into the sunset.
Such variety is the promise of Unmatched: a board game system open enough to accommodate any myth from any culture or age of the world. The core Battle of Legends, Volume One set includes King Arthur, Sinbad, Medusa and Alice from Wonderland, while trailered expansions range from Sherlock Holmes to Jurassic Park. That kind of untrammelled breadth will have some crowing with glee and others running for the hills. Either way, it's an impressive evolution for a system that started life as the franchise-specific Star Wars: Epic Duels almost 20 years ago. Even more impressive is that Unmatched nails its promise of an all-star battle royale with a near-weightless tissue of rules.
On your turn, you get two actions from a choice of three. First, draw a card and move. Second, play a scheme card, which is a high-impact event. Third, play a facedown attack card on an adjacent figure if it's a melee attack or one in a space of the same colour for a ranged attack. Your target can respond with a defend card if they want. There’s no moving through enemy characters and you win by eliminating their hero. That's it.
So what's doing the heavy lifting to bring the game to life? The cards. Two of the actions spend cards while only one draws them. Most attack and defence cards are dual-purpose, so you can use them for either. Managing the cards in your hand becomes a critical component of strategy. It's all about teasing your way through the unseen terror of your opponent's hand, hoping to land a killer blow when they're out of defence. Or are they? Neither of you will know until it's too late.
The blow and counterblow of combat add narrative to the cardplay. Particularly in the case of Wonderland’s Alice, whose cards are all named after quotes from Carroll’s books. Considerable creativity has gone into making fights as high-stakes and interesting as possible. Medusa has a Gaze of Stone card that can inflict massive damage if played against a weak defence. Sinbad's attacks are ‘voyage’ cards that start out weak and get better the more voyages are in his discard pile. King Arthur can attack with two cards at once, losing the second effect.
That power makes Arthur a melee monster. The other three characters are also well-differentiated by their powers and card decks. Each has a clear playstyle with strengths and weaknesses. Sinbad is a card-drawing engine who can snowball if not kept in check. Alice can change size with buffs that make an impressive impact, small for defence and big for offence. Medusa is dangerous at range and has three sidekick minions compared to one for all the others.
Learning to use Medusa's three harpies well highlights the final pillar that supports the simple rules: the board. It's double-sided, each with a point-to-point map. They're not the most engaging things to look at but are functional marvels. The colour-coding makes ranged combat a doddle. Each includes critical pathways and choke points that make movement rich with tactical potential. A clever player can use their sidekick as a shield, or a blocker to box their foe into a corner.
All these aspects of the board game's design interweave into a compelling experience. While it lacks long-term strategy, you can plan ahead using board position and cards to set traps. Executing or falling into one makes for those satisfying moments where players nod in appreciation at each other. Pushing so much out of the rules and onto the cards makes the game fast and easy to learn. Who cares if it can feel a little light or random? Rack it up and play again.
Although the boards are messy, everything else looks great. The miniatures have been ink washed to bring out detail. Cards and rules are lavish with characterful art. Choosing which board and figures to play with, though, shows a weakness in Unmatched's armour. While the designers claim lots of testing has gone into overall balance, it doesn't feel that extends to individual match-ups. Some characters play better against particular opponents or on particular boards. Melee-heavy characters like Sinbad and Alice aren’t as fun played head-to-head.
When you start throwing in the potential for expansions spanning everything from Bruce Lee and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Bigfoot and a T-Rex, it feels a bit of a see-saw. The diversity in the base Battle of Legends set works well, but it's hard to see Unmatched's simple framework stretching to its limitless premise. There is only so much you can do with cardboard before Robin Hood starts feeling a bit like Medusa.
These, though, are criticisms of Unmatched as a wider gaming system, not as a single board game in a box. In that light, it's hard to fault. It does so much with so little that it's worth playing as a lesson in minimalist game design. The fact it also happens to be tight with thrilling tactical play and counterplay is just a bonus.