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The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena Review


Quick Look: Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena

Designers: Jessey Wright and Sen-Foong Lim
Publisher: IDW Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2
Ages: 12+
Playing Time: 30-45 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

Review:

Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena board game by IDW Games, board game review by Benjamin Kocher; photo by Benjamin Kocher

It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. I also love a lot of sports many people know little about or haven’t even heard of. I’m a big Sydney Swans fan in the AFL (Australian football), I’ve played and reffed rugby, and I fancy the Leister Tigers (England) and my national team, Canada (obviously). I love ultimate Frisbee, and used to be a stadium announcer for a professional team (unfortunately that team only lasted one season, so…awkward). Heck, I was even on our city’s quidditch team for a time before I had to quit because my wife was about to have a baby.

So, when The Legend of Korra introduced pro-bending, I was so on board. I loved seeing the use of bending as a form of competitive entertainment, enthralled with the ingenuity of the fictional sport—along with the rules, play area, and all else associated with it. As a lover of all things fantasy and lesser-known sports, pro-bending would become a highlight of the series for me (even though the entire series was wonderful).

When I learned that IDW Games was producing a Legend of Korra board game, I didn’t care what the game was about—all I knew was that I needed it. I quickly discovered that the board game would be a 1 vs. 1 game about pro-bending, and my excitement grew from there. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d be able to capture the essence of pro-bending on the tabletop. It was hard to imagine the back-and-forth action of the sport as seen on TV being as tense and strategic on cardboard.

After playing it, I’m happy to report that yes, IDW Games’ The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena brings the intensity of pro-bending to the table in a solid strategy game with all the back-and-forth momentum of the real (yes, real) sport seen in the television show.

Two teams are included in the base game of The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena—the Future Industries Fire Ferrets, and the White Falls Wolfbats. Each character’s bending style (earth, water, and fire) is encapsulated in specific moves, some dealing loads of damage while others opt for a more mobile strategy. Each of the two teams even play to their advantages as they do in the show, with the Fire Ferrets playing legally as a team, counter-bending the opponents’ attacks, and the Wolfbats playing a tad dirty and hitting so hard as to stun the opposition, thus keeping them from engaging or retaliating.

Of course, taking the low ground (*cough* Wolfbats *cough*) runs the risk of being shown a yellow card. As in other sports (soccer, rugby, etc.), once a player receives two yellow cards (or fans, in the case of pro-benders), they are ejected from the game, and their team is forced to play a man down. But, as all players know far too well, it’s only illegal if the ref sees it. In The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, a penalty die with two yellow flag icons and four blank sides is rolled to determine if the ref saw the dirty move or not. If seen, that character takes a fan, and is less-likely to try a sketchy move again; after all, two yellow fans means ejection!

It’s that kind of detail that makes me oh-so-happy with this game. And it’s not just the Wolfbats that can get dinged for foul play; the Fire Ferrets are also able to use less-than-admirable abilities (if desired) to hopefully gain the advantage. With this kind of vicious rivalry, there’s no telling who will pull what trick out of the air (or fire, earth, and water, for that matter)!

In any sport, there’s obviously a huge disadvantage when one team has fewer players than the other. In pro-bending, that’s no exception. With your fire bender and water bender out of the action (it’s up to you, Bolin!), those elemental cards (i.e. fire and water attacks) are still in your deck, and still show up, even though your earth bender can’t use them. While useless as attacks, they can be used to increase your chi, which allows you to essentially buy more powerful attacks. Gaining chi is essential to winning, so even with two other teammates all washed up, there is a chance for the lone bender to win. Odds get slimmer as the game progresses, though, but it’s possible, it happens, and it’s wonderful.

Board Game Review Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena by IDW Games Image by Benjamin Kocher
With Mako knocked out, it's up to Bolin and Korra to vanquish the Wolfbats!

You don’t have to be a nerd like me to enjoy this game, either. My wife, who has unfortunately never seen an episode of The Last Airbender OR Legend of Korra, found The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena to be a fun, engaging game, even without knowing anything about the franchise. She’s also really good at it and beats me all the time, so I’m sure that doesn't deter her, either.

In the end, it’s a solid sports-themed game that is different than any sport you’ve ever seen. The mechanics are smooth, and it plays much how you would imagine it would after watching pro-bending on television (and if you haven’t, I recommend getting on that pronto). The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena is fast, fun, and all kinds of tense—the perfect feelings that one should feel while playing such a sport.

My Experience:
Each player controls a team of three characters. I thought that might be cumbersome and difficult to keep track of, but it wasn’t. In fact, it worked so well that I couldn’t see it being played any other way. (I guess that’s why they play test these things…) The rules were pretty straightforward, but there’s kind of a lot going on (which is fine), so we had to continually refer back to the rule book for the first couple of games. We caught on quickly, however, and it wasn’t long before the turns went quickly and our strategies evolved into something a bit more solid.

I got really into the games. Having Korra counter-bending the Wolfbats’ attacks while Bolin sets up some defense and Mako blasts the area with a powerful fire attack put me on their level: dodging elemental attacks, feeling the hit to the gut when my characters lose ground, and the feeling of overconfidence as I route my opponent backwards (only to be rebuffed and sent flying on the next turn).

Using my chi to purchase powerful attacks is a wonderful feeling. Before I can use the attack, though, my character(s) have to survive. It’s a fine balance between going all-out and biding time in the form of discarding cards in order to increase chi. As with all balancing acts, one false move can send you hurtling out of control, a victim of your own impatience.

When it all works out as planned, I can’t help but smile as I play my card and say, pointing to the miniature in front of me, “Do the thing!”

Zhu li, do the thing! The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena Board Game by IDW Games

Setup:

Fire Ferrets Team Board in Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena board game by IDW Games, photo by Benjamin Kocher
Come on, Fire Ferrets!

Each player picks a team and takes their board and the corresponding benders (i.e. Mako, Bolin, and Korra for the Fire Ferrets). Each player begins with a deck of each character's starting technique cards (those with a chi cost of zero) and separates all other technique cards in separate piles according to the character’s name (i.e. one pile for Mako’s cards, another for Bolin’s, etc.). Choose three advanced technique cards (with chi cost, but no border), as well as the signature technique card for each character on the team. These selected cards make up the strategy decks, and there are three strategy decks with four cards each, one for each character. 
One card from each of these three decks is placed face-up next to the deck to create the strategy row. Players can purchase these cards with chi throughout the game.

Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena Technique Cards, board game review by Benjamin Kocher at Everything Board Games. Photo by Benjamin Kocher
Technique cards available to purchase with chi.

Players determine which side of the element tokens to use (red fire or not-as-red fire?). They then place their three character miniatures at the front row of the arena, adjacent to the middle of the board. The first player starts the game with two chi, and the second player starts with three chi. Shuffle the beginning attack deck (with the cards costing zero chi), and each player draws three cards from their personal deck. 

Gameplay:

Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena from IDW Games Board Game Review by Benjamin Kocher. Photo by Benjamin Kocher
The Fire Ferrets are being pushed back! What will happen to our heroes?

Each turn, the active player starts by increasing their chi meter by one (to a maximum of eight) and plays all three cards from their hand, in whichever order they see fit. When one card is played, the action on the card is carried out to its fullest extent. Because each card corresponds with a certain character, each card played must be carried out from the position of the character named on the attack card. 

When carrying out attacks, players may opt to send their attack to a friendly region, either for an extra bit of defense or to ward off an enemy’s attack. Instead of placing a friendly element token on a space with an enemy token, both friendly and enemy element tokens cancel out. If there are no more element tokens remaining on that space, then any additional tokens that have yet to be added (or cancelled out) are added to that space. Friendly element tokens do not harm friendly characters (friendly fire is turned off).

If playing with Trick cards, a player may use a Trick card's ability after using an attack card for attack (not for chi; see below). The Trick card's elemental icon must match that of the active bender, and all conditions must be met (if any) on the card before the ability can be used. Some Trick cards are one-and-done, meaning you use it once, and it's removed from the game, never to be used again (during that match, of course). Other Trick cards have an icon with a yellow fan, signaling the player to roll the referee die after using that ability. These trick cards stay in play, but used too frequently may very well see that character fouling out. These cards add more luck to the game, which can be good or bad, depending on your preferences. I've found the luck of the roll to favor one player over the other, and I've also seen it favor neither. I guess it just depends on how the gods of luck are feeling that day.

Instead of playing an attack card to attack, it may be discarded in order to increase that player’s chi by one. Players may even opt to discard all three attack cards to gain three chi. Follow your heart.

At the end of a player’s turn, that player must check and see if any of their opponent’s element tokens are in the same space as any of their benders. If so, any benders in that space get knocked back one row for each element token in that space. If a bender gets knocked back past the last row on the arena, that character takes a dive, and is out of the game (sorry, no respawning).

If at least one row between both teams is empty (i.e. has no bender miniatures present), then the team who just did the knocking back advances one row. Note that this is the only way players may advance on the board. 

Bolin does his best to hold off the Wolfbats. Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena board game review by Benjamin Kocher. Game by IDW Games, photo by Benjamin Kocher
With just Bolin left for the Fire Ferrets, the Wolfbats are gaining ground and pressing the attack.

At the end of the active player’s turn, that player may spend any amount of chi to purchase new attack cards from the three decks that were placed off to the side during setup. As long as a player has the chi required, they may purchase as many cards as they like. All purchased cards go on top of the player’s main deck. 

Once the turn is over, flip the top card of any of your benders’ decks, covering the top card if there is one still available to purchase. If, at the end of a player’s turn, there are no more cards to flip over in this manner, the referee may call the game.

To see if the game is called or not, roll the die. If the result is a yellow fan, the ref calls the game, and a winner is named (due to having the most benders still in play, or having at least one of your benders on your opponent’s side of the play area). Of course, you could always go the traditional, more satisfying route and knock all three of your opponent’s benders into the water. BOOM.

Bolin fails to carry his team after Mako and Korra get knocked out. Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena from IDW Games board game review by Benjamin Kocher. Photo by Benjamin Kocher
Bolin gave it his all, but it wasn't enough to defeat the Wolfbats.


Theme and Mechanics:

The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena Board Game by IDW Games Fire Ferrets vs. Wolfbats (Not actual gameplay footage, obviously)

The theme, obviously, is based off The Legend of Korra, which is a fantasy setting with magic-wielding characters, or “benders” as they’re known in the series, who manipulate the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The main theme, however, is that of professional sports, as pro-bending is a sport within the series and is the main focus of this game.

The mechanics include deck-building, area control, and variable player power.

The deck-building mechanic is small in terms of what I’m used to in other deck-builders, but it's well done for this game. After every turn, players are able to use chi (which is gained through various means) to purchase new attack cards to add to their deck. These cards relate directly to the characters/team that player is playing with, so each player will have a separate set of cards from which to purchase.

The area control aspect comes in terms of knocking the other team’s characters back, and then moving your own characters forward if there’s an empty row between the two teams. Forcing the opposing characters back gives your team the advantage in that the opponent’s characters are closer to the edge of the playing field, which makes them easier to knock off.

Variable player power relates to the various characters on each team. Because each character has a distinct element they control throughout the game, their abilities coincide with those elements. Likewise, each team has a special ability that only they can use, which is key to building strategy. There are other Trick cards that allow certain benders to perform certain actions as well, which can be selected before the game starts.

Artwork and Components:

Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena board game review by Benjamin Kocher. Photo by Benjamin Kocher

The art is everything you’d expect to see from a game with the Legend of Korra intellectual property (IP). It’s beautiful. The arena looks just as it should, and the artwork looks like it came from the show, as well. The art is pretty basic in terms of pictures and whatnot, but you don’t need much on the cards (and too much imagery would be, well, too much), and what is on the cards is thematic and appropriate. It’s great.

The components are good quality—everything from the miniatures to the cards and tokens.

One thing I found a bit lackluster were the colors of the element tokens. They are double-sided, and therefore good for either player to use; all they need to do is flip it to their side to indicate they control that token. The colors on each side of the tokens, however, look a bit too similar, making it a tad difficult to distinguish between who’s in control of what. Because the colors are subtly different, I’ve taken to putting one of each token on my side of the board with my chosen colors face-up, so as to have a reference when figuring out which tokens are mine. It’s not a big issue at all, but it is something that had me confused the first time I brought it out.

The Good:
  • Mechanics feel great
  • Lots of gameplay in the box
  • Legend of Korra. Duh.
  • The infamous Yellow Fan of Ref
  • Optional Trick cards to add to the games
  • The chance to say, “Do the thing!” at any given moment
The Bad:

Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena board game review

The elemental tokens are double sided, so players simply flip the token to match their chosen “color” of element. However, some are so similar (at least to my eyes) that it’s a wee bit difficult to tell at times if an elemental token is mine or my opponent’s. As mentioned, it’s not a big deal, and have found a workaround that works for us. I suppose the fire tokens are the most difficult to distinguish between, but we've had issues with all three elements.

The rule book references the wrong page at times, but after a bit of detective work, I was able to find the correct page on my own. A bit annoying (especially when we were trying to reference something while playing), but not a deal breaker by any means. Still, a bit of professional proofreading could have solved that issue in a snap.


Playing with the Trick cards adds an element of luck.These can be a double-edged sword, as there are times when luck seems to favor one person over the other (when it comes to rolling the referee die), which can completely change a game. Personally, I like these trick cards, as they can make the game more intense and brutal, and adding that luck element comes with some calculated risks. Of course, there are other Trick cards that don't involve the die, so even if you don't like to rely on dice, there is another option there.

Final Thoughts:

Gameplay in Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena by IDW Games. Review and photo by Benjamin Kocher at Everything Board Games

I was excited to play this game simply because of its name. Like I said, I’m a huge fan of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, and I get all kinds of excited about intellectual properties that I obsess over enjoy. It can be disappointing when our favorite series publishes a game, and that game turns out to be absolute rubbish. Fortunately, that’s not the case with The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena. The mechanics are smooth, the teams are balanced, and the optional trick cards (give him a yellow fan, ref! ARE YOU BLIND!?) make this game something that will keep returning to my table again and again and again. I really like it, and not just because of the series it represents. It’s a wonderful game, and it satisfies an itch I didn’t know I’d been scratching at.

There’s also an expansion to the game, Amon’s Invasion. I haven’t played it myself, but it looks solid, so while I can't speak on its behalf right now (gotta play it first), I must say the added solo and cooperative variants look quite intriguing. It's definitely something I'll need to check out.

Players Who Like:

The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena is a 1 vs. 1 strategic battle, so if you like games along those lines, check this one out as well. If you like BattleCON (and other 1 vs. 1 fighting/strategy games), sports-themed games, or even just the Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra IPs, this game will be right at home on your game shelf.

Check out The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena on:

                     




Benjamin Kocher - Editor and Reviewer

Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He's a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego's Copyediting Extension program. He's a freelance writer and editor, and covers everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Kocherb, and read his board game-inspired fiction at BenjaminKocher.com.

See Benjamin's reviews HERE.
The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena Review The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena Review Reviewed by Benjamin Kocher on February 25, 2019 Rating: 5

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