Forging Your Own American Legend
Settle in, because I’ve got one whopper of a tale to tell. I recently played the latest game from hit-or-miss-or-miss-or-miss designer Richard Launius, a doozy that goes by the name of Legends of the American Frontier. How was it? That’s not the important part. We’ll get to that when the time’s right. For now, I’d rather tell you about cheerful Jedediah, the whistlin’ preacher-man who wasn’t ever much good at anything other than stumblin’ right along, no matter how rocky the trail.
Jedediah Stone — the last name’s my invention, but it sounded about right — was raised up as proper as they come. His family crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a big boat when he was just a boy, their passage secured with money that wasn’t theirs to spend, and they worked for years afterwards to pay off the debt. Jedediah’s father said they were blessed to do it, for this was a land of plenty, a holy place, where a man could put his faith in whatever he pleased. That stuck with Jedediah, even when he wrassled a (baby) bear as a youngster, even when he was put into a dull-as-dull apprenticeship surveying roads in Virginia to help pay off the last of his family’s indenturement, even when he went astray in his adolescence and found a taste for strong drink. No matter where he went or what he got up to, his father’s words stuck in his ears like amber sap on the fingers.
That’s probably why he left for the frontier, though he never claimed to have put much thought into the decision. Packed his bags, headed west, and started preaching the white man’s Jesus to the Indians on the Great Plains. If there was any connection between his spiritual calling and the scalping he barely survived one evening, he always denied it.
Years later, Jedediah’s experience in frontier living took him even farther from civilization, helping an expedition map the border between the westward-expanding United States and Canada. He set off on his own for a while, seeking God in the wilderness so people said, and he was gone so long that everyone who’d known him took him for dead. When he returned a changed man, he founded a faith of his own, eventually building a grand temple on the same plains where once he’d preached and been scalped.
But that’s not why you know the name Jedediah Stone. You know his name because it was he who wrote the famous anthem, “Though The Knife Has Scraped My Brow, Stille I Love Thee America.” It was just some whistling ditty he made up on the spot back in his wandering days, and today it’s all we remember him by.
What’s so powerful about Legends of the American Frontier is that it generates these tremendous tales of frontier spirit, accomplishments high or dirty, men and women whose hands were harder than stones for all the rough living they endured, and deeds so mighty that they sound make-believe. From its simple opening, which has everyone at the table draft a handful of cards to represent their character’s upbringing, all the way to its final moments when everyone gets a shot at reciting their pioneer’s life story, it manages breathtaking feats of storytelling.
On a personal note, as someone who is a descendant of Mormon pioneers and grew up hearing their tales, it was thrilling to see that Launius understood the more spiritual elements of American frontier life. This is a setting that celebrates the feats of not only hardy frontiersmen (and frontierswomen), intellectual giants, and cunning capitalists, but also those who viewed the world around them through the lens of providence. One of the characters even appears as a darker-haired carbon copy of Alvin Gittins’ famous portrait of Joseph Smith, complete with high collar and loose handful of papers.
While one could certainly make an argument against any game that so wholeheartedly celebrates the actions of those who conquered the American frontier, one of the things that sets Legends of the American Frontier apart is its boundless optimism. Certainly, this is a game where your character can campaign against Indian renegades, trade molasses for rum and slaves, or undertake other questionable activities. And yet, the game is content to judge its players on the breadth and mettle of their story rather than the finer ethical points of it. This is a tale where only interesting (and generally chipper) things happen to you, because, well, you’re weaving the tale of a legend, and if they’d been entirely horrible people then they wouldn’t be legends and thus their story wouldn’t be worth telling, would it?
Much of this is reflected in the way Legends of the American Frontier handles failure. A game about frontier life wouldn’t be worth much more than a tin of stale beans without the possibility of failure and the promise of succeeding in spite of it, and this is one place where the game shines its brightest. For one thing, you can expect to fail early and often. Adventures can be tricky to finish, and often come down to mere dumb luck. More on that later, but for now the important thing is that whenever you mess up, the game makes sure to penalize you in interesting ways. Rather than simply losing resources or turns — though those things do tend to happen — your character is suffering frostbite, having their expedition wander off course, or being booed off stage because of their heavy immigrant accent. Crucially, some failures are opportunities in disguise, making your character tougher for their tribulations. Sink, swim, or float, this is a game that knows how to make someone’s triumphs and downturns interesting.
You might have noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned how the game itself works, and there’s a reason for that. While its strengths are found in its celebration of the hardy and the brave, its unexpected sensitivity and charm, and of course in its rip-roaring sense of adventure, its weaknesses lie in nearly everything else. Most of the game, for example, revolves around choosing whether to pursue an adventure or take some time off to rest, and all adventures are resolved with a card-laying minigame that’s about as wretched as a mass grave of skunks. Your character’s personal skill in whatever’s being tested can matter, though only in a vaguely marginal way when compared to a random draw of cards that may or (more likely) may not pay off. Resting gives you the option of managing your hand of skill cards, but this amounts to less than trying to fill your canteen by waving it around in the air, rarely letting you get your hands on anything particularly useful. The proceedings get a bit more interesting on group adventures, where multiple players pitch in to accomplish something that a single frontiersman couldn’t manage, but even here a simple pair of dice with a few skill modifiers would have been preferable to this lurching monstrosity of a system.
The other big problem is that the game is burdened with so many little systems, resources, modifiers, and decks, that it quickly results in an unsightly clutter that tends to drag on and on. Your options are to either play with heads down until everyone reveals their story at the end — an unfortunately solitary experience — or tell your story as you play, in which case the game’s boasted 90-minute playtime is a homespun tall tale of its own. You may as well spit halfway to the moon as finish Legends of the American Frontier in that amount of time. In my experience, three hours is closer to the mark.
It’s unfortunate that Legends of the American Frontier couldn’t find a better way to let a table of friends tell each other some stories about facing down the unknown and coming out the other side a living legend. This game looks great — no, scratch that, it looks incredible, with some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen — and it results in some truly wonderful stories. But whether the clunky mechanics that stand between the players and their tall tales are worth the fuss is going to be one hell of a hard question to answer.