While perusing board games at a local store recently, a box caught my eye. It stuck out to me for two reasons: first, the art on the cover was striking. Second, that art was of characters from one of my favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The game in question was called Unmatched. I’d never heard of it, but like I said, I liked the look of the thing, so I picked it up and checked it out. It was, apparently, a light tactical game in which players chose a character, assembled a deck, moved around on a small map, and fought each other. It sounded sort of neat, but, well… there’s only so much faith I’m going to put in little licensed board/card games, you know? There are far too many unpolished games that are just trying to cash in on a famous brand.
There were two things that made me wonder if this wasn’t a cut above the rest, however. The first was that, as noted, it looked beautiful–the box art was very eye-grabbing, and the back showed some neat little minis and gorgeously illustrated cards. The second was that, when I went to set the box back down, I saw another one behind it: also Unmatched, but not Buffy themed. This set instead featured characters from myth and legend: King Arthur, Medusa, Sinbad, and Alice (as in, the one who went to Wonderland). Then I noticed the smaller box alongside, which added some Jurassic Park characters to the same game.
Ah, so this wasn’t a quick cash-grab for Buffy fans after all. This was a legit game that happened to have a Buffy expansion. Interesting.
I didn’t pick it up right away, but when I got home I did a little research. As it turns out, Unmatched is a product of Restoration Games, a company that releases newer, better versions of discontinued board games from yesteryear. How cool is that? Unmatched is actually a spiffed-up version of a game called Star Wars: Epic Duels, only instead of focusing solely on Star Wars, it’s branching out into all kinds of fictional universes. Oh, and it’s partnering with movie poster aficionados Mondo to do so. No wonder the art is so good!
With my interest well and truly piqued, I went back out the next day and grabbed the Buffy set. This set is playable right out of the box–it doesn’t require the original set (the aforementioned mythology box) to play. It features four characters (Buffy, Spike, Willow, and Angel), each with their own mini, deck, and sidekick. Sidekicks are little helpers that you can control and fight with; they can help you wear an opponent down, and they generally have a few cards specific to them. Sidekicks are represented by small plastic tokens with a character’s face emblazoned on them. The box also contains a double-sided map: one side represents Sunnydale High School while the other features the popular Sunnydale club The Bronze.
Before I get into actual gameplay, I want to take a moment to talk about this box. Like, the actual, physical box that all of this comes in. It’s amazing.
That probably sounds weird, right? It’s just a box. But I’ve played a fair few board games in my day and I’ve never seen a box quite like this one. The container itself is a nice, thick, sturdy thing, but the insert is what’s really special. You know how bad board game inserts usually are, right? You’ve got a few big indents to store stuff in, maybe a long rectangular bit to hold cards. If the game includes minis and you’re very lucky, it might have spots molded for each unique mini. That’s about the best you can expect. Well, not so for Unmatched.
The first thing I noticed after I popped the lid off and removed the map board was that there were spots for each mini along the top. Nice, but not unheard of. Next, I saw that there were four wells to keep the four separate decks. Good! Much better than having a single larger well. Then, I saw that the four wells were labeled. Cool, but unnecessary, right? Wrong! See, some of these characters have little extras. Willow has a ‘Dark Willow’ token and Spike has three Shadow tokens. And when I pulled the decks out of their marked spots, what did I see? Beneath the slots for the cards were bespoke areas for each of these individual accoutrements–the well marked Willow had a spot to put the ‘Dark Willow’ token and the spot marked Spike had extra room for his Shadow tokens. Each slot also had room for the characters’ health trackers and the tracker for their sidekick. Oh, and beside each well as a smaller indentation that perfectly fit the sidekick tokens. The whole thing is just beautifully designed so that everything fits perfectly. It makes a wonderful first impression!
Okay, so, it looks nice; how does it feel to play? Well, let me put it this way–I don’t normally bother writing about games I don’t like.
Play is simple and quick. Each player (the game can be played 1v1 or 2v2) selects a character. That character has an associated deck. Players place their characters on the map, shuffle their decks, and draw five cards, the begin taking alternating turns. On your turn, you must take two actions, and there are three action types: maneuvering, attacking, and scheming.
When you maneuver, you draw a card and then move up to your character’s movement speed. You must draw, but you don’t have to move (however, barring a few card effects, this is the only way to move). If your deck runs out of cards, you can still maneuver, but you take damage when you would normally draw.
When you attack, you play an attack card face down. Your opponent can choose to defend using one of their defense cards, if they have any in their hand. Both cards are played face down and then flipped simultaneously. Each has a value listed in the upper left-hand corner; if the attack’s value is higher, it deals an amount of damage equal to the difference between the two. If the defense card is higher, the defender takes no damage. Most cards will also have special effects which take place either immediately when the card is flipped, during combat, or after combat. If both cards have an effect within the same time period (for instance, if both cards have an effect marked ‘During Combat’), the defender’s effect activates first. It’s a simple sequence, which I honestly much prefer to more complex games like Magic: The Gathering.
Finally, there’s scheming, which is simple: you just play a scheme card–a card that doesn’t initiate combat, but has some other effect, such as “Draw three cards.”
In my first round, I played Angel, going up against my roommate’s Spike in the halls of Sunnydale High. Angel’s sidekick was Faith, while Spike’s was Drusilla. Both characters felt interesting to play; Angel was capable of dishing out massive attacks, buoyed by Faith’s ability to deal some direct damage without initiating combat. Spike’s playstyle, meanwhile, was more about positioning–my friend was always trying to surround me with Shadow tokens so that their cards would be more effective. In the end, I just barely managed to snatch out a win (though not fast enough to save Faith from Spike’s fangs, sadly).
I should note two things here. The first is that these rounds go pretty fast–I’d say it only ran fifteen to twenty minutes. The second is that both this round and the next one were very, very close.
We decided to give the other characters a try, and I grabbed Willow while my friend tried Buffy. We headed to The Bronze to duke it out. Willow immediately felt different than Angel; she has a transformation mechanic where taking damage converts her to Dark Willow and alters how most of her cards work, but staying close to her sidekick Tara can revert her to her regular form. Buffy, meanwhile, has two different sidekicks, which the player chooses between at the start of the match: Giles or Xander. My friend chose Giles for this round.
On top of the transformation gimmick, Willow also has something that no other characters in this box have: ranged attacks. Each map is divided into differently colored zones, and ranged characters can attack anyone in their zone (rather than just adjacent characters, as melee fighters are restricted to). This should have been a major boon to me; however, the highly mobile Buffy (who can move through opponents’ spaces, unlike most characters) managed to box me in. On top of that, I spent too much time in Dark Willow mode, which tends to force you to discard extra cards–I burned through my deck much quicker than my pal, and as a result, I succumbed to damage taken from drawing without a deck.
Both rounds were an absolute blast, and it was very cool to see how different each character felt. I’m not normally a very competitive person; I tend to prefer stuff like Arkham Horror, where everyone at the table is working together. However, this game moves quick and feels like it has just the right blend of tactics and luck of the draw. After losing as Willow, I quickly identified how I could’ve turned things around if I’d moved differently or risked less on Dark Willow spells… but at the same time, maybe Buffy would’ve had the right cards to counter that, too. Who can say? And besides, it’s hard to feel bitter about a loss when all it takes to try again is a quick reshuffle and another fifteen-minute round.
I’ve had a very good time with Unmatched so far. It’s got gorgeous art, quick, fun combat, and hands-down the best storage of any board game I’ve ever seen. It’s also got a variety of wacky sets–in addition to the ones I mentioned earlier, it’s got the likes of a Bruce Lee standalone deck, Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot, and more. Personally, I’m eyeing the Cobbles & Fog box that adds Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man. Oh, and I did mention that all of these are able to be mixed up together, right? The game’s big hook is that, if you buy the right sets, you can have Sherlock Holmes fight the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. What else do you need to know?