The concept of crossovers has always been appealing to people. Smash Brothers was a huge hit the moment it landed on the Nintendo 64, and the concept has carried the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008. The idea is relatively untouched within the board game sphere leaving Unmatched plenty of space to make a name for itself. Unmatched pulls characters from a variety of stories, mythologies, and media for an ultimate cage fight of what-if scenarios.
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Many characters are pulled from the public domain, such as Big Foot, Medusa, and Alice. Others are from licensed intellectual property including Marvel Characters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Ever wanted to see who would win between Bloody Mary, Achillies, Sherlock Holmes, and a pack of raptors? That’s a thing in Unmatched.
This is a review of the first Unmatched boxed set that was released. But for better or worse you can’t simply disconnect it from the rest of the product lineup. Battle of Legends Volume One includes four characters, Medusa, King Arthur, Alice, and Sinbad.
Unmatched itself, is a miniature head-to-head battle game played with cards, and every character has their own unique deck. The rules as written support 1 on 1, 2v2, and 2 against 1, with the third player controlling two characters.
|Gideon’s Bias||Unmatched Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Restoration Games|
|Number of Plays: 20+||Designer: Rob Daviau, Justin D.Jacobson|
|Player Counts Played: 2 & 4||Player Count: 2-4|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Hand Management, Miniature Combat|
|Fan of Weight: No||Weight: Light|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Enjoy it.||Price: $39.99|
The stars of the show are definitely the miniatures. They aren’t the most detailed minis relative to some other board games, but they are a step up from your average miniature. Each one is distinct and clearly portrays the character they represent. They are dark-washed too, which is nice.
The colorful game board stands out, and the cards themselves have a unique art style that makes the game easily identifiable. I particularly enjoy that every character’s deck has unique card backs as opposed to each of them just having the Unmatched Logo. It’s a small but pleasant detail.
Every hero in volume one has a side kick, or in the case of Medusa, several side kicks. These are represented by solid plastic chips. They don’t hold a candle to the miniatures but are still quite nice. Each hero and most sidekicks have a health spinner, and I want to shout out two things regarding them. First, is that like the card backs, each one has an aesthetic that matches the character. Secondly, they are well made, and believe it or not, that’s important.
I’ve played many board games with health dials that end up becoming loose very quickly, which causes the inner wheel to shift at the slightest bump or nudge. The ones included in Unmatched have remained tight, and I appreciate that.
The rules are very simple, the iconography is straightforward, and the game is quick to set up and put away. The box includes a nice insert that makes putting the game away completely painless. In a lot of ways, the component quality is Unmatched.
The Ultimate Showdown
The game board is double-sided, providing two possible arenas to battle in. The gameplay is pretty straightforward. You get two actions per turn. A Maneuver action has you drawing a card and moving your units up to their movement speed. The scheme action allows you to play a scheme card and attacking allows your hero or sidekicks to bring to the pain. Melee characters have to be adjacent to an enemy to attack, while ranged characters like Medusa can attack any enemy who occupies the same zone that she is in.
To attack, you have to choose a card to attack with. Some cards can only be used for attacking or defending while others may be used for either. Some cards are also restricted by who can use them. For example, some of King Arthurs’s cards can only be used by King Arthur, others can only be used by Merlin, while most can be used by either.
The attacker plays the chosen card face down, and the defender may play a card face down in defense. Compare the two values, and the defender takes any damage that went over the value of the card they chose. Abilities on the cards will activate, and that’s pretty much it.
Unmatched makes for an interesting combination of tactics and resource management. Each character’s deck only has 30 cards, and when it’s empty characters start taking extra damage every turn. Cards make up your ability to attack, defend and scheme, so you have to strike a careful balance between defending yourself and attempting to subvert the defenses of your enemy.
Simply throwing the highest numbers all the time is predictable and easily countered. There’s far more nuance involved in the combat system, and it drastically differs based on which characters are involved in the battle. Many times maneuverability and the careful use of side kicks are every bit as important as punching the enemy in the face.
At the same time, Unmatched is so simple to understand that I’d bet most people could pick it up within minutes. A game of tactical simplicity is a rare thing and one that has likely led to the game’s success.
Choose Your Character
The main attraction of Unmatched compared to other battle games is the multiverse of characters. Plenty of table talk with my gaming group has simply been us imagining the possibilities of the game’s future. Could we see, Batman versus Godzilla? Maybe, who knows? It’s all a licensing nightmare that makes me pity anyone involved. Regardless, it’s the concept that makes the game so enticing.
Volume One already has a nifty selection, Alice, Sinbad, King Arthur, and Medusa. It was the first box to release, so it’s slightly on the tame side. None of the four characters are so outlandishly different, from a thematic standpoint that they wouldn’t seem out of place in the same world.
However, Unmatched lives or dies on how it makes these characters feel, and for the most part, the game totally nails this, albeit with a few unfortunate downsides that I’ll get to later.
They all fall under the same combat system but each one feels unique. Alice swaps between being small and more defensive, and large with a higher attack. Her ally the Jabberwock is a heavy hitter that excels at hunting down heroes specifically.
Medusa keeps her distance, damaging characters for simply being in her zone while harrying them with a hoard of Harpies. King Arthur can boost his own attacks with additional cards while receiving heavy support from Merlin. Finally, Sinbad and his Porter become more maneuverable with every Voyage played, and every voyage grows more potent than the last.
Mastering Unmatched means mastering the unique play styles of every character, not just for when you play them, but for when you play against them. Each one has strengths and weaknesses to account for. Although I initially thought Medusa was too strong, I actually found that with more playtime the heroes were quite balanced between one another. An unbalanced hero could have easily broken the box, so I’m satisfied that’s not the case.
Battle of Legends
It’s surprising just how well the combat in Unmatched manages to be. I had low expectations for a small, lightweight deathmatch, but it’s pretty tactical while remaining fast-paced and easy to play. It’s rare for a game to go over 20 minutes.
A lot of the fun comes from the asymmetry between characters. Both when playing as them and against them. I like that I have to plan when to use my Voyages as Sinbad, there are only a few of them, so whiffing any of them can hurt.
The decision-making on when to be large or small as Alice is satisfying. Baiting out an opponent’s defenses to nail them with Medusa’s Gaze of Stone feels awesome. Meanwhile, King Arthur has a much stronger connection with Merlin than the others characters have with their side kicks, and it once again makes him feel unique.
A ton of card abilities hinge on winning or losing any given combat. Every game of Unmatched is a balance of give and take, risk versus reward, and whatever mind games you conjure against the other players.
All of its mechanisms shine that much brighter when you play a team game of 2 versus 2. The involved teamwork amplifies the game’s strong points, and really showcases its tactical potential.
Those Unfortunate Downsides
The heaping of praise I’ve poured out for the game can only be matched by the unfortunate number of things I’m going to criticize. I ended up investing even more playtime for this review than a light game usually warrants, just because I was so conflicted on where I stood on it.
First, the game makes some oddball sacrifices when it comes to relating any kind of thematic context to its mechanisms. There are awkward moments where Medusa can shoot halfway across the map, but not two spaces over because of how zones are restricted. Worst yet, half the cards have flowery nonsense titles that don’t convey what they are doing. Sinbad is a great example of this.
What sort of attack am I making with Toil and Danger or By Fortune and Fate? Mechanically speaking his Voyages are awesome, thematically, they make no sense. Did I leave the fight to go on a Voyage? Are we fighting on the Voyage? Did Sinbad have amnesia and is slowly recalling his experiences from past voyages as the fight progressed?
One of my biggest pet peeves is a game that doesn’t relate to the setting or theme it’s conveying through gameplay, and Unmatched borders pure abstraction very closely. It’s a miracle that the characters still manage to retain feeling like the heroes they represent, in spite of how little the cards do to help that.
Try as I might, I also don’t really enjoy Unmatched at two players. A lot of the tactical possibilities fade away, and while there’s definitely still room for nuance and strategy, it often feels stilted. I felt like the game boiled down to trading numbers until someone died. This was especially true in cases where two melee characters would move up to each other and just kind of stay there, the whole game.
To contradict my earlier points about the characters being distinct, they do share a few cards. Every character has copies of Feint and Regroup, while many also have copies of Momentus Shift. Each deck only has 30 cards, so they take up a decent chunk of it, and it’s unfortunate that they don’t feature unique spins on them for each character.
It can impact the strategy too. For example, no matter who you’re facing, you know you have to bait out a few Feint cards to land your most powerful abilities, and that makes some aspects unfortunately predictable.
The Anatomy of a Lifestyle Game
Finally, there’s the fact that Unmatched is an unrepentant investment game, not a one-time deal, despite the fact every box is standalone. Most of the fun and replay value comes from the different characters. If you get bored of one, play some others and then come back to the first one when it feels fresh again.
The character’s decks never change, and the game is lightweight. Mashing the same four characters against each other gets old quicker than I would like for the game’s price point. The only way to relieve it is to invest in more sets, and it’s a big chunk of change to have access to a large roster of characters.
Most board games receive expansions, but any that seem to require an expansion, as opposed to being optional, rightly receive criticism. While it’s true that no one put me in a headlock and demanded that I buy more Unmatched sets, it certainly feels required, and that’s by design.
The thing is, I’m not sure the game’s lightweight nature can truly justify that investment, not when the large wad of cash that multiple sets would take could be dropped on another game that would offer longevity right out of the box.
My comments are bound to ruffle some feathers so let me clarify. I’m not saying Unmatched is overpriced. I’m saying the experience it offers may not be worthwhile compared to other games on the shelf. I’ve bought multiple sets, members of my group have bought others, and we always end up going with a different game on game night. I think it’s a case where we all want Unmatched to be more than it truly is.
You can add sets to get Unmatched to the right level of a variety or spend the same amount on a game that already has it. There’s not really a correct answer there. It’s a rhetorical question to think about when considering what’s right for your table.
For myself, I love expansions, but I like buying them because I want them and because I want more of something I love. I don’t want to feel the need to buy them in order to make my first purchase worthwhile, and I definitely feel that way with Unmatched.
Unmatched is a conflicting game, literally and figuratively. It does a lot of things well, and there’s quite a bit I love about it. But I also feel like I want to love it more than I actually do. It would be several hundred dollars to get the game to the level of variety that would make me happy, and as someone who prefers heavy games, to begin with, it’s hard to justify.
The combat system is great, the characters are unique, and it’s simple to learn, easy to teach, and quick to hit the table. But it’s also a thematic failure, and with two players it’s serviceable but hardly noteworthy. Four players are where the game truly shines, but it also burns through its lack of variety twice as fast, as every included character is involved in every match.
In the end, I can truly see why Unmatched is so popular. I may even review other sets on my shelf based purely on what the characters offer. But I also see why Unmatched isn’t as popular with folks like me. The thing is, that’s okay. No game appeals to everyone, and it shouldn’t try to either.
- Great component quality and art style
- Each of the four characters feels unique
- Surprising tactical depth
- Easy to learn
- Fast playtime
- Easy to set up and put away
- Many cards are shared between characters, diluting their uniqueness
- Most cards don’t make thematic sense
- The game isn’t as fun for two players
- Just four characters and lightweight gameplay make the game repetitive and relatively quick.