Stratego Legends

Avalon Hill/Hasbro, 1999, 2 players, ages 10 and up. I have to admit to having been pretty skeptical about this game at first, but after having played it I found it to be surprisingly entertaining. Although not without its problems (more on those later), this is a very respectable game. The original Stratego game has been around forever, but let's face it, anyone beyond their teen years still playing it might want to take a hard look at their educational system. Stratego Legends updates the old classic with a fantasy slant and wildly varied new strategies. Each set comes with 60 "collectable, tradable" playing pieces. Yes, obviously AH/Hasbro was trying to cash in on the CCG craze of the late 90s (as spawned by Magic: The Gathering), but we will forgive them that for the moment. There are 206 different playing pieces in the Stratego Legends universe, and although I can't verify this firsthand, I've read that it's fairly easy to collect a complete set if so desired.

In the original Stratego game you had three basic types of pieces- the flag (the item you need to capture from your enemy to win), bombs (that remain static until the other guy blunders into them: *BOOM*), and "men" (each with a number from 1 to 10 indicating its relative strength - in a fight, 2 kills 1, 3 kills 2 and so on). Stratego legends follows the same basic pattern: rather than a flag, each player has a castle. Instead of bombs there are "magic" pieces (different spells and effects that "go off" when another player attacks them). And instead of men numbered 1-10, the rest of the pieces consist of a menagerie of elves, spooks, wizards, dragons and whatnot. In addition to the traditional "power number" (again, 1-10), each piece also has some unique ability or power that may or may not make it more powerful in combat or allow it to help or otherwise affect other pieces (flight, pluses to strength, teleporting, ranged assult and so on).

Once you clear out a lot of the dead wood and open up some space on the board, this game really starts to get interesting. Using several pieces together synergistically can earn a player seemingly doomed sudden victory. Another element of the game affecting strategy is the playing surface. Each square represents a different terrain type and many of the pieces have special abilities keyed off of the type of terrain they are on (or are near to). The game comes with 4 different "battle boards", and there are 24 total in the Stratego Legends universe. Seriously, I guess these are supposed to be collectable as well (snicker). The game itself is very simple to pick up and start playing, and the rules are well organized and easy to follow. However, for some reason the rules have you set up your pieces randomly. I don't recall this being the case in the original Stratego and the next time I play I plan on going back to the "set them up with a strategy in mind" method.

The game pieces are pretty decent, but I do have a couple of serious complaints. First of all, their selection of colors leaves much to be desired. The different pieces are identified by foil stickers placed on plastic stands. This foil causes a funky color shift effect if the piece is not viewed head on. So, unless you're playing with your head laying on the table top, you're always having to pick up your pieces and eyeball them to see what color they are. And you need to know what color they are because the pieces' special abilities are delineated on three color coded reference sheets (a blue sheet for all the blue pieces, a red sheet for the red ones and so forth). Which gets me to my other rant about this game - having to continuously cross-reference between your pieces on the board and the look-up sheets to find out what this piece or that piece does gets to be a big pain in the rear end. To make matters worse, the reference sheets are two-sided, so you're forever flipping them back and forth. I suppose if you play this game often enough you would eventually just memorize what each piece does, but come on, who is really going to play this game that often? What they really should have done is printed up playing cards for each piece and then provided plastic stands to mount them in - print the pieces' special abilities right on the card and dispense with the durned reference sheets. But then, I guess it wouldn't be Stratego anymore so... I dunno. Anyway, yes, it has a few problems, but overall this is a fun game. I bet it would be really popular with younger (pre-teen) gamers (providing they could be pried away from their Nintendos).

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