A Shallow Bowl of Spaghetti
Ah, the Western. I’ve waxed eloquent about it before. It’s easy to do, really. Picture sunsets and six irons at the same time, imagine breaking a horse while breaking ore, and utter silly swears like “goldarn” and “skinny as a sack of deer horns.” For such an iconic genre, there are hardly any games set in the Old West. Fewer good ones.
Western Legends hopes to make up for that deficit. All of it, in fact. How? Well, none other than by featuring a dozen dusty-trails tales rolled into one. And the biggest surprise of all is that it does a decent job of it.
Okay, let’s start with a question. If you were a cowboy — not a modern cowboy, but an Old West cowboy with a heavy silver pistol on your hip and a penchant for spitting chaw and getting into a ruckus — how would you earn your name? Prospecting gold, maybe? Driving cattle? Shooting ne’er-do-wells and letting God sort the good from the ugly? Hunting those who shot the wrong fellas and forcing them to pay their debts to society?
The main attraction of Western Legends is that you can do pretty much whatever you like. It’s a sandbox game set somewhere that contains actual grit, and it’s happy to let you amble wherever your boots, or your mule or stallion or whatnot, will bear you. Want to earn your fortune playing cards, then spend it all at the local whorehouse? Sure. Do that. Become the most syphilitic oldster the West ever knew. The rules will call the place a “cabaret,” but every cowpoke knows what goes on within those dens of ill repute. The fun stuff, that’s what.
The beauty of the whole thing is that it’s about as straightforward as castrating a calf — which, for those who’ve sidestepped that pleasure, is as simple as utilizing a soapy dishrag, a rubber band, and a — well, never mind that. Each turn permits three actions, and from there you’ll blow where you listeth. Most of the time there are only a few options to choose from, like moving, picking a fight, or using a card action. Everything else is tied to the land. When in town, you can shop at the store or play poker or have the town doctor fix you up. The countryside boasts activities like wrangling or rustling cattle — it depends on where you drive them, basically — shooting bandits, or prospecting for gold.
Of course, not every activity is equally worthy of your sweat. The goal is to shape yourself into the biggest damn legend the West ever saw, pitching the whole thing as a race to accumulate special legend points. Nearly everything awards these in one way or another, including selling gold nuggets and spending fistfuls of cash at the cabaret. The difference, however, lies in how quickly you can make a name for yourself, and what risks you’re willing to take on the way.
Consider, for example, the difference between prospecting and poker. Prospecting sends you out of town, where you’ll toil through multiple actions rolling dice. Sometimes you’ll find a nugget; other times, nothing. But the rate of return is high enough that it’s a simple task to pitch camp near a promising spot, spend a turn or two testing your fortunes, and then hightailing it back to the bank.
Poker, on the other hand, is more risky. While at one of the game’s two saloons, you ante some cash, invite everybody in town to join in on the fun, and then deal out a bunch of cards. The same hand you’ve been cultivating for actions and duels provides your cards. If you win, you take a massive pot and some fame; lose, and you, um, lose.
The difference between these two routes to Old West stardom reveal a lot about how Western Legends hopes its players will behave. You see, the easier option is the prospecting. With enough patience, you will prosper, with nary a dried-up vein or creek in sight. If anything, it’s a matter of patience. Would you rather pan for gold, or travel the countryside? Not that every action that sends you galloping into the sunset is necessarily more exciting. Wrangling cattle is pretty much a game of fetch and deliver. Not unusual for some sandbox games, except here there aren’t any variable goods or drop-off destinations in sight — and in fact, if you’re looking for the variability of something like Xia: Legends of a Drift System or Merchants & Marauders, the sun will bleach your hide ivory before you get your wish.
But hold your horses, because what I’m getting at is that Western Legends doesn’t aim to emulate those other games. Sure, at times its lawless frontier lacks bite. Individual sources of income, both for cash and legendary-ness, are easy to come by. Every turn opens with some free cards and cash somehow squirreling their way into your saddlebags. How? No idea. Maybe an allowance from your folks back East? Returns on some railroad stocks? A bequeathing from a rich old widow?
Doesn’t matter. Because instead of hiding threats behind every passing tumbleweed, Western Legends does everything it can to ensure that every last cowpoke is always gunning for each other.
I mentioned cards. Maybe now is a good time to talk about those.
Poker cards are everything, or near enough that you’ll miss them when they’re spent. Extra actions, the ability to push the neutral sheriff in the direction of a rival, your firepower in gunfights and your hand in a winner-takes-all game of poker — nearly every trick or reversal of fortune, it’s probably because you were holding one hell of a hole card. And they inform nearly every aspect of the design. Somebody’s strutting around with a full wallet? She’s probably holding something that’ll let her escape a robbery intact. Somebody else is on the run? Chances are, they’ll be drawing cards next turn.
Best of all, duels are handled with a single card from each player. Sometimes there’s more to it, like a card that cancels the fight and forces another try, but in most cases a gunfight is as simple as both participants playing a card, resolving some text, and then one side wins. Quick, dirty, and your performance is based on preparation rather than the roll of the dice.
Good thing, too, because players are encouraged to harass each other regularly. Not only is it necessary to pester anyone closing in on the finish line, but you’re also rewarded handsomely for picking a role and sticking to it. Wanted players will rustle cattle, rob banks, and earn fame apace with their notoriety. Become infamous enough and you can pretty much just hide on the fringes. Your reputation will take care of winning for you.
The downside is that getting caught will reset your place on the wanted track. That’s where marshals come in. These guys don’t earn points at the same regular intervals as bandits, but following the straight and narrow affords plenty of opportunities to shine — while affording more stability than riding roughshod over societal norms.
This is where Western Legends comes into its own. Its countryside is far safer than the usual backwater, but it does everything in its power to set everyone at each other’s throats. At its best, the contest to crown yourself King of the Wild Frontier is a close one, replete with duels and chases and robberies and poker games.
Not that it’s always at its best. A number of quibbles keep Western Legends just shy of spinning a legend of its own. Take the story cards, for example. These spill out narrative rewards for undertaking certain actions, but their outcomes are generally underwhelming, and accomplishing them pigeonholes your cowpokes and desperadoes into behaving a particular way. Meanwhile, herding cattle is a diversion you perform while heading somewhere worthwhile (historically accurate), the store’s meager handful of guns and mounts make for slim pickings, and there’s an entire desolate corner of the map that’s liable to go unvisited.
Perhaps worst of all, it isn’t long before each play begins to resemble the one before. There’s a lot to do, but every action is similarly superficial, providing breadth at the expense of depth. In one sense that’s a hallmark of the sandbox genre. But without the variable trade locations of Merchants & Marauders, the unfolding stellar cartography of Xia, or even the wildly divergent casts of Firefly, it all but demands that everybody constantly prey upon each other to prevent somebody from circling between the mine, bank, and cabaret all day.
With a sharp-eyed wild bunch, however, there’s a lot to recommend Western Legends. A single turn can see you bounding between a shootout and a poker game, hunting down a foe in the wilds, or trying to figure out how to make cattle profitable. When its lawmen and criminals start tussling, the whole thing begs for a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Its lack of differentiation prevents it from establishing its own legend, but it’s still good for the occasional visit — and possibly the finest Western ever put to cardboard.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I live in the actual Wild West, where every donated dollar can feed my family beans and biscuits for a day. And I love me some biscuits.)