First off, Unmatched was produced in a partnership between Mondo and Restoration Games. Mondo is, of course, a part of Alamo Drafthouse along with this website. I am reviewing it anyway.
Once upon a time, there was a game called Star Wars: Epic Duels in which players marched iconic Star Wars characters (and their minions) across a board game grid to beat the shit out of each other using cards that offered defense, attacks and special abilities. I have no idea if this game was any good, but I must admit it looks cool and I wouldn’t mind trying it out.
Restoration Games (whose motto is “Every Game Deserves Another Turn”) has teamed with Mondo to offer the next best thing: Unmatched. If you’ve been reading these reviews all year, you can probably anticipate why I like this game so much: it’s a two-player battle game featuring thematically rich and exciting characters, great artwork and cool mini-figures. I’m going to stick mostly to the base set for this review - Medusa, King Arthur, Sinbad, and Alice - but two expansions are already out: one featuring Robin Hood and Bigfoot, another with Bruce Lee. More are promised on the way.
The core goal of Unmatched is to see any character fight any other character while retaining a perfect balance between the two. It seems implausible, and after over a dozen games, it still feels ultimately untested. I’ve played a lot, but have many more plays ahead of me before I’ve tried every character against every character to find out. You’re not really playing any of these characters correctly until you’re playing them a second time.
Experience is key to Unmatched. When you first play it, you grab whatever hero appeals to you most. But each comes with its own play methodology that simply must be learned through playing. I don’t want to use the word "gimmick" but as you play the game more and understand how these Legends function, your approach to this or that fight will dramatically change because they each have a “thing” that they do. You’re not just learning how to defeat one in particular but how to avoid getting your ass kicked specifically by that character as well. Eventually you learn to take Sinbad out as quickly as possible, for instance, as he gets dramatically more powerful over time. If you’re playing King Arthur, you should probably focus on his minion, Merlin, before chipping away at the main man’s health. Conversely, if you are playing as Sinbad: bide your time, run around a bit. If you’re King Arthur, save up cards and lean on Merlin so when you do get in there, you can do some real damage to already hurt foes.
The more you understand these characters, the more you approach matchups as strategic setups. Which is why the promise of continued expansions is so exciting. You’re not just getting beautiful Bruce Lee cards and a mini-figure, you’re getting a warrior who challenges all the other characters in unique ways (my guy can chain attacks, so if he gets ahold of you midway through the game, you are in for a long beating).
I found Unmatched had a lot in common with the first game I reviewed here, Raptor. Both are two player games featuring beautiful mini-figures stalking across a board, but both also come down to dueling cards more than anything. Unmatched just takes the balanced asymmetric fight between humans and dinosaurs and blows it up to include a host of additional characters who are equally balanced and more interesting.
The game is pretty simple to set up. Shuffle your cards, put your figures on the board, draw your starting hand. When it’s your turn, you must do two actions, of which you have three choices: draw a card and move, do a special card (called “Scheme”), or attack. Your attacks function as a card duel; whoever ends up with the higher card wins. If the attacker wins, the loser sheds health points dictated by the difference between the two cards. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. Cards have a bunch of effects, which is where the REAL duel occurs.
All of the heroes in the base set have minions that can run around making things difficult. Medusa has three Harpies, for instance, that have only one hit point each but can still ruin your character’s day if one gets lucky. King Arthur, on the other hand, has the more robust Merlin, who is almost a hero character in and of himself. You’ll have to choose how, when and if you want to deal with these pesky rascals and doing so adds a lot to the game’s overall strategy. Each deck of cards comes with attacks, schemes and defenses these sidekicks require to be effective and may not necessarily have when the times comes for them to shine. Or maybe they do and you’re just fucked.
That’s okay though because Unmatched is all about playing again and again. I once sat next to a Robin Hood/Bigfoot fight that inexplicably lasted almost an hour, but for the most part Unmatched games are on the quick side, encouraging you to regroup and try again, or maybe pick a different character altogether. It doesn’t take long for you to have that crucial first experience with all four base characters. Once you get to that point, it’s time to pinpoint the deeper strategies of each, which is where the real fun begins.
Crucially, I find I do not have a favorite character. I suspect I never will, though Bruce Lee is close. While I do wish I could just hunker down and really get to know one or two of them, my difficulty choosing one above the others speaks to the game’s premium on balance, which is impressive but also robs you of falling totally in love with any one of them. I come to define them by their limitations just as much as their strengths. They all look amazing though, and a ton of care went not only into the card artwork but the thematic writing as well. You definitely feel the coolness intended when King Arthur gets his hands on Excalibur, for instance, or when you use Medusa’s absolutely devastating “Gaze of Stone” card. Alice’s wild size-changing mechanic can hurt you just as much as help you, and basically no one can stand up to a leveled-up Sinbad.
While it’s super fun to get a complex game going with a group of people, my heart will always be with fun two-player games because of their increased simplicity and personal stakes. It’s also way easier to find one person to play with you than four. And while I adore games like Jaipur and 7 Wonders Duel, my heart also longs for fun violence. And then, of course, there is that part of me that wants to know what would happen if Bruce Lee fought Bigfoot. Unmatched offers all this, with more on the way. I can’t wait for more.