You Can Choose Your Family, But Not Your Friends
Having grown up in a culture that places about a hundred times more importance on genealogy than basically every other culture that has ever existed, I naturally shied away from Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, a game about tending your family tree in early 18th century France. It frankly sounded like the second-worst possible way to spend an evening, trumped only by the utter tediousness of a train game that doesn’t include the displacement of native tribes, the breaking of strikes with Pinkerton agents, or the abusing of migrant laborers.
Boy, was I wrong. About the genealogy one, that is, not the train games. Those still suck.
You Can Choose Your Family…
When I said Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy was about genealogy, I wasn’t teasing. Starting with a single male or female French aristocrat, gifted by virtue of birth with an income, a tidy stash of money, and a host of connections, Legacy is all about shaping four generations of your noble family to outmatch the other up-and-coming families of the age. Mostly you’ll do this by having kids and arranging marriages, though you might also undertake missions or start unbecoming (for an aristocrat) business ventures, build mansions, talk your friends into lending you money that of course you’ll never pay back, use the money to purchase titles or throw lavish parties, and hopefully expand your social circle until you’re well-known throughout the entire civilized world. Plus some unwashed Russians and Turks whose expedient friendship might outweigh their low status.
Crucially, it also contains all manner of hilarity and evocative theme, channeling all the folly, hubris, and peculiar science of the day (like lopping off one of your son’s testicles to turn him into a girl — this is not necessarily your average family-friendly genealogy game) with a sort of kindhearted empathy for the subject matter in spite of all those historical indiscretions. And it really can be quite funny once you get into the detached cynicism of it all.
Like when you marry your highborn grandson to Arianne the Courtesan because it doesn’t require an action (scandal!) and you really need her plush dowry so you can afford a banquet for your daughter. Then Arianne gives birth and dies thanks to a complication. Thank goodness! What a stroke of luck! Now you can marry your grandson to Isabella the Castilian Princess, a much worthier pairing, and one that will bring a whole set of new friends into the fold.
Or when you’re having a serious internal debate over whether to marry your daughter to Patrick the Stable Master, a horndog who can sire five children rather than the usual three, or Hans Heinrich the Brewer, whose special brew will work its magic on your friends and make it that much easier to beg money out of their wallets. You might have chosen Martin, Commander of the Royal Guards, but you decided against it. He brings a ton of income, some prestige, and exclusive rights to a title; but on the other hand, he looks like a jackass. You aren’t unsympathetic to your daughter’s future happiness, after all.
And those are just a few of the ways you can tailor your family, spitting out kids and selecting their mates and ensuring that each successive generation is stronger and more diverse than the last. There are moments of triumph and moments of tragedy — not unlike raising a real family, come to think of it — and it’s always thematically intriguing.
…But Not Your Friends…
It’s also a rather simple game, at least in terms of its broad strokes. The real meat is in hatching long-term plots — for instance, chaining together arranged marriages to Vera the Iconographer to whisk away an opposing family’s friend, Olga the Young Widow to appeal to Vera’s Russian sensibilities and work on a project together, and Maxim the Treasurer to forge a strong bond with the previous two for a bunch of honor points. Or deciding that you can afford to marry Sarah the Revolutionary, an American who will undoubtedly come to blows with your English family members.
But while those decisions can be tricky and lend themselves to both careful planning and enough flexibility to bend with the whims of fate, the framework itself is familiar, built around a low-key game of worker placement. You’ve got a personal board where you can take duplicate actions and a main board where players jockey to be the first to, say, hire the fertility doctor. It’s a neat system that produces a delightfully flippant answer to the worker placement oddities of other games. Why can’t my cavemen reproduce in their own huts? Why can’t my agents hire thugs pretty much anywhere? “They can,” answers Legacy. While it makes some sense that certain actions are limited — there are only so many mansions and titles to go around, after all (and apparently only one fertility doctor in all of Europe) — all the regular day-to-day nonsense, the socializing and the instructing your son and his scary wife (Ann, the Head of a Secret Society) to get busy, is internal, personal, and therefore nobody can impede your ability to carry it out.
It’s a nice system, more casual in its worker placement trappings than most of its peers, and it allows the family-building to take center stage while the actual placement of pawns takes on a crucial but definitely secondary role.
…Especially Not Your A-Hole Friends
Of course, there are other things going on too. While Legacy is mostly Eurogame-ish in the sense that you can’t often mess with other players, there are still ways to be a butt to your (real-life) loved ones for the sake of your (fake) loved ones. You can block actions, as I’ve already mentioned, and most of the time that will be the primary avenue for punkery. Everyone also has a secret patron who will grant secret honor bonuses if you meet their objectives by the end of the game. For instance, Cardinal de Fleury is a politician and wants you to have a huge hand of connections. Ben Franklin wants a diverse family, while John Paul Jones wants you to keep it French. Rousseau wants to see a bunch of different occupations, while John Law would like a whole lot of money.
If you’re especially clever, it’s possible to watch the board and figure out what your opponents are going for. Maybe you could intentionally ally your family with the right friends to block those goals, or at least make your opponent spend a bunch of time trying to repair whatever damage you cause them. Without ever becoming too overtly competitive, Legacy does provide avenues for the cunning.
Hell, it even has a solo mode. I haven’t tried it yet, but you can bet it’s skyrocketed to the top of my alone time to-do list.
And those are just a few of the many, many things that Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy gets right. It’s genealogy without the boring, family matters without the awkward uncle who keeps getting drunk and asking you to sit on his lap (well, maybe your family will have that uncle, but in this case it’s Giovanni the Fresco Painter, who is inherently cooler than Uncle Rob). It’s even worker placement without feeling as tediously worker placement-y as most of the members of that genre. All in all, it’s an entirely unexpected success, defiantly unique and pulling it off with more flair than “18th century French family tree simulator” had any right to.