Review by Martin Griffiths
Beowulf: the Legend is Reiner Knizia's lost classic, languishing outside the BoardGameGeek top 1000 due to mismatched expectations. Coming in a big Fantasy Flight box and with high fantasy artwork from John Howe, many were expecting a more Ameritrash implementation of the source material.
But if you know Knizia, you know that's not the way he rolls. At first it may seem ludicrous that he turned an epic poem into an auction game, but if you give the game a chance you start to see the theme seeping through in more subtle ways.
So, how does it play? The players represent Beowulf's companions on his epic quest, competing to gain the most fame and become Beowulf's successor on his death. The unusual L-shaped board depicts a linear track through the various episodes of the poem, explained in more detail inside the rulebook. Most of these 'episodes' give a chance for the players to demonstrate their prowess at various skills, aiming to collect the best rewards and avoid nasty penalties.
The core of the game is a deck of cards in five suits representing the skills of courage (Fists), fighting (Axes), travelling (Ships), wit (Foxes), and friendship (Drinking Horns). Each episode has five possible rewards/penalties (reduced if you don't have the full five players) and tells you which skills are needed to win them.
Some episodes are resolved by a simultaneous blind bid of cards with matching symbols, while others use a poker-style raise/pass bidding system, with the first to pass getting last pick of the rewards. The tension of this system is reminiscent of another Knizia great, ‘Taj Mahal’.
Added to this is a fun push-your-luck element. Before playing cards from your hand, you can choose to take a 'risk' by flipping two cards from the deck. If either card matches the suits in demand, you get to keep them, but if neither match, you're out of the bidding immediately, which can be calamitous. Some have criticised the risks for being too luck-based, but I find it more a question of knowing when it's safe to take a risk and when you really can't afford the downside.
So what are the rewards and penalties the players are vying for? Rewards include straight-up victory points, money and special power cards for use in subsequent rounds of bidding. Penalties come in the form of 'scratches' and 'wounds', which will count against you if you aren't able to heal them before the end of the game.
In between the major bidding episodes, there are other opportunities to replenish your cards and convert between the various resources, plus yet more auctions in which you can bid the money you've acquired on further rewards.
It's a game about picking your battles and pushing your luck, and that's where we get back to the theme of the bravado and one-upmanship of Beowulf's company. The tension of the bidding and the drama of the risks make for lots of laughs and curses along the way.
The game plays in an hour or so and is at its best with the full five players, but works fine with three or four too. Don't miss out on this one because of the poor BGG rating; in my opinion, it's Knizia's best game of the last decade.
Boardgameguru has Beowulf : The Legend on special offer at £7.99. We will also add a free copy to any order over £100.