Hal Duncan and Ruth Veevers’ Cryptid had a lovely idea at its core. What if the world’s undusted corners are the habitat of the Loch Nessies and Bigfeet and every other unseen (but much reported) creature? While the game itself didn’t do much to sell the idea that you were documenting actual cryptids, it had cleverness in spades.
Cryptid: Urban Legends doubles down on the idea that you’re chasing a yet-to-be-catalogued creature. Unfortunately, that’s about all it does.
One of the appeals of Cryptid — the original — was its uncommon approach to player interaction. Everyone at the table took the role of a cryptid… hunter? Believer? Scientist? “Scientist” feels wrong. Regardless of title, since plaudits are thin on the ground in the field of cryptozoology, everyone was hoping to make a name for themselves and themselves alone. What followed was a surprisingly clever game of deduction and information leakage. You always had one eye on the clues your opponents were chasing, while also trying to mislead them with vague clues of your own.
Urban Legends doesn’t do that. Which, honestly, is perfectly fine, apart from the possibility that someone will stumble into it expecting a second treatment of similar material. Here, one player is the cryptid hunter and the other is the hunted cryptid. The former pursues the latter through the city. The latter, as you may have guessed, hopes to slip the net.
At one level, it’s easy to appreciate the game as a study in mechanisms. It’s asymmetrical, but neither side has its own rules. Players handle their own components, but both sets are identical. It functions like a hidden movement game, but nearly all information is visible right on the table. As oddities go, there’s some remote interest to be had in examining how Duncan and Veevers combined such a slender ruleset, so few components, and so many shared parallels between its sides to create a game of pursuit and evasion.
That interest never grows much past the “remote” stage.
In practice, both sides hope to move colored cubes along the interstices between city blocks. For the hunter, the goal is to narrow the cryptid’s options, which usually means shoving cubes into clumps or spreading them around until they’re useless. The cryptid’s role requires more finesse, requiring careful alignment of those cubes so that the next few city blocks border the same number or colors as the others. It’s difficult to visualize via text, both here and in the rulebook, but the effect is a constant vacillation, both between the players as they play cards to manipulate the cubes and between city blocks as the cryptid bounces back and forth.
Part of the difficulty in describing Urban Legends comes down to its abstract nature. The cryptid’s goal is to have its presence counters spread far apart once the net has widened to seven possible city blocks. The hunter wins if the cryptid is reduced to only one presence counter. Like I said, abstract.
But while it’s definitely abstract, its abstraction isn’t the core of its problem. The real issue is that it never crosses the barrier from fiddling with cubes to actively manipulating them. Most of the time, its strategy can be summed up as hoping to draw certain action cards while your opponent doesn’t. There are three possible actions, all simple in their own right. All, however, are so wide-open that they leave the board prone to disruption by accident. The result is a game that’s deliberate in pacing but haphazard in practice. More than once, our victor didn’t even realize they’d won. We literally couldn’t see the cryptid for the city.
I’ll put it this way. Abstract games don’t generally communicate via their setting, but they do communicate. Their native tongue is that of the legible board state. As something you can glance at and understand, sure, but also as something you can predict to some degree. A necessary part of that is how the game permits player action — how much the said action can disrupt, how far out it can be preempted or prevented, and so forth. Urban Legends isn’t interested in what makes an abstract game function, let alone function well. Its state is occasionally legible, but only as a snapshot, never as a web of possibilities. The web is too vast.
The “split” action is a prime example why. When you play a split card, you’re allowed to divide a stack of cubes into the two neighboring interstices. The only constraint is that each neighboring space must receive a cube. Other than that, the player can dictate nearly everything about the action: how many cubes move into each space, which colors move where, whether to make a clump that’s almost impossible for their rival to recover from. The solution is another of the game’s three action cards, its rarest and most precious, the “shuffle,” which allows a single cube to dash to the interstice over a row instead of one of the adjacent spaces. If you’re holding one at the right moment, you can spin an escape route or tear it to tatters, and there’s very little your opponent can do about it. And so we return to the luck of the draw in a game that cries out for careful planning.
The professional term is “loosey goosey.”
Which is a long way of saying that Urban Legends doesn’t live up to its predecessor. It’s neither as carefully plotted nor as cleverly realized. May this cryptid escape to the farthest corner and ne’er be sighted again.
A complimentary copy was provided.