By Carl “CatLord” Rosa II, 11 April 2018
Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena is a tabletop board game by IDW Games. Legend of Korra (LoK) is a cartoon series that continues the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender from Nickelodeon. One of the gimmicks of the universe is that people have the ability to “bend” the elements of fire, water, earth, and air. Bending is the ability to manipulate one of these elements (The Avatar is the only person who has access to more than one – they can do all four) through martial arts, channeling emotions, and spiritual training. Due to a large scale military action from the Fire Nation two centuries prior, air benders in LoK are limited to one nuclear family, and the Avatar.
In the first season of LoK, there is a sport called “professional bending.” The sport consists of two teams on a large platform. Each team consists of three benders – one of each remaining element. The arena is split into two halves, each with three zones moving back from the center. Each team uses their bending to try and knock the other team off of their end of the arena. This can be done with a sudden haymaker, or by gradually knocking them into the zones behind them.
The version of the board game being reviewed is the “Deluxed Copy” provided as a Kickstarter pledge. This is the standard set plus an “expansion teams” pack. Included are:
- Arena Board
- 6 Teams (Standard set is 2) featuring:
- Three bender figurines (one for each element)
- Team record card/board
- 36 Technique Cards
- 3 Solo “Villian” Benders (Standard set includes none) featuring:
- One figurine
- Bender record card/board
- 12 Technique Cards
- 99 Trick Cards (Standard set includes 18) each card is included twice so both teams can use it
- 6 Yellow Fans
- 1 Referee Die
- 60 Reversable Elemental Tokens (Standard set includes 30), split evenly between the three elements
- 30 Plastic Elemental Tokens (Kickstarter bonus) split evenly between the three elements
- 6 Plastic Base Mounts, 2 of each color to represent which bender is which on each team
- 15 Hold Tokens (Standard set includes 12)
- 8 Daze tokens (Standard set includes 6)
- 2 Chi Markers
- 1 Momentum Token
The following are only in the Expansion Teams pack:
- 6 Combustion Tokens
- 8 Rally Tokens
- 10 Pressure Tokens
- 1 Spirit Bending Token
Choose your team wisely
The figurines have great sculpts, and arrive unpainted and unmarked. The cardboard/chip paper elemental tokens have some great cross platform use, and they could easily be used to mark spells in other games. The artwork is directly taken from the series, and the general theme of the cards follows this trend. The referee die is blank on four sides, with the referee fan on the other two. Lastly, the tokens could potentially find use but there is not a lot of solid versatility.
All of the benders included in the core set.
The game is designed for exactly two players. Each player uses either a team of three benders, or one of the solo benders. To start with, each team has a set of basic technique cards – indicated by a chi cost of zero, and a faint gray inner border. They draw a hand of three cards every round. They then take four cards for each bender – one signature technique (signified by a chi cost of 5 and a gold inner border), and three advanced techniques. These are then shuffled, and one card from each pile is revealed to create a stack next to it called a strategy row. They may then choose to add a trick, which is a one-time special use ability, to each bender.
Solo benders have four basic cards, and only draw a hand of two cards each turn. The strategy deck is one stack with two strategy rows. All three tricks go to the solo bender. Otherwise the gameplay works the same.
The Fire Ferrets and Wolfbats about to start a contest of champions.
At the start of the game, each player has 2 Chi. One player gets the first turn, but the other gets a third chi point in exchange. When starting a turn, a player immediately gains one chi. They then must use all of the cards in their hand in any order they want. To use a card, they can discard it for one chi, or play it to enact the effects shown. You must have the right bender in play to use a technique, and then you play through the effects in the order shown. Effects include things like blocking, moving, activating the team special ability, or putting elements into play (which can be both offensive and defensive). Movements only work side to side, and changing zones (the long axis of the board) requires hits to occur.
Placing elemental tokens, and the primary way to mitigate hits, is to use your own elemental tokens to cancel them out. This is referred to as “annihilating” tokens. You can bend into friendly spaces as long as they are in range of the technique, but cannot bend into your starting space without another special ability coming into play. This can force your opponents to waste techniques to cancel yours before even getting to you.
When all of your technique cards are played, you check your hits: for any space with your opponent’s elemental tokens, any benders in that space get knocked back one space. This means that poor planning and extraordinary luck could result in the game ending in one round. Just like the four move checkmate in chess, it requires a very specific setup, and simply knowing about it should be enough to stop it, except maybe when facing the solo benders who are intentionally more powerful.
Some techniques have a referee fan symbol, meaning that the bender in question has cheated in some way. Roll the referee die to see if the ref caught it. A fan result means taking one of the fan tokens and placing it on that bender’s portrait on the team card. The second fan token ‘fouls out’ that bender, removing them and their strategy deck from the game.
Being knocked out works differently, which is described in the next step. No bender can place their own elemental tokens into the same space twice in one turn.
After checking all hits, remove all of your opponent’s elemental tokens. Your opponent may then be eligible for a “line advance,” which happens when all of the remaining benders for a player are more than one zone away. The player that knocked the other team back gets to move all of their remaining benders to the furthest empty zone. The only way to regain lost ground is through a line advance, and a team in the other team’s zones wins when the game ends. Should a bender be knocked out of the arena, their strategy deck – but not row – is removed from the game. Their technique cards stay in the deck to be discarded for chi. After losing a bender, if it wasn’t your last, you get 3 chi.If it was your last, you lose the game. Should you grant the other team a line advance, you get a free turn immediately after resolving the current one because all of the elemental tokens are cleared with the repositioning. For those who were fans of the show, when a team was knocked back, the other team would be signaled to move forward and all bending would stop until the ref continued the match. It is represented here by having a fresh start in a new zone, the defending player gets the first move.
Once all checks are done, if you still have benders in the arena, you turn to your strategy deck. You may spend chi to buy the top card of any strategy row and put it on top of your deck. This can be done as long as you still have chi. Then, take the top card of any remaining strategy deck and place it face up on top of any strategy row. Buying the top technique in a row is the only way to get to the ones underneath. Should there be no remaining cards for strategy decks, roll the referee die. On a fan result, time is up for the match. The player deepest in opposing territory wins. If the two teams are still at the center, the number of benders left in play determines winner.
To conclude your turn, draw a new hand. If there aren’t enough cards in the deck, shuffle your discard pile. Before doing so you may remove one of the discarded techniques from the game. Where this is useful, is to either get rid of cards for benders you don’t have anymore or otherwise to make sure to leave only your stronger techniques in the running.
Pro-Bending Arena has some very strong push and pull mechanics. The same techniques that can attack can commonly be used defensively. Because movement is vital to playing the game, offensive maneuvers can be sidestepped if you stack too much into one space. Getting a free turn when you lose one of your benders allows you to even the score after losing a lot of power. Also, since you play the techniques you draw, it means that the same bender could go on a streak of three techniques. If it’s your only bender, you can still get the same number of attacks out there.
Due to the arena being tapered, even when the opponent is gaining ground, also it narrows the field of play (by reducing the ability to sidestep) for them unless they get knocked back to center.
As a fan of the series, the fact that this game didn’t resort to gimmicks and actually has a playable mechanic was a plus. It embraces the atmosphere of the show, even if it is a turn based sport.
Negatives come down to clutter and art design. Spaces have enough room for two benders to fit comfortably, but then you pile on the elemental tokens. Each bender can put tokens into a space – whether pre-empting a defense or enacting an attack. Stacks of thin tokens spread messily into spaces can be visual clutter and possibly run into each other. The elemental tokens are dual sided, with each side having a different color scheme. However, the earth tokens are the only ones that are easy to discern a visual color difference. The water and fire tokens have roughly the same shape and design, and their flip sides are only slightly different – a nightmare if you’re color blind. During test games, the other player and I agreed to use the plastic tokens (which were part of the Kickstarter) for defense and chip board for offense to keep track of what was supposed to annihilate or clear, although all of the plastic tokens were the same shape but different colors.
The inner borders of the techniques (the gray or gold) had little contrast compared to the background color of the card, once again making for trouble if you have a color blind player. I won’t deduct points because it’s easy to tell which cards these are by their cost, but it is always a consideration.
Finally, the figurines have great models, but they are hard to distinguish without close observation due to being unpainted. Thankfully the rule books include pictures of the teams, so with enough scrutiny you learn what figures go to which teams. At the very least it would have been useful to put character or team names on the bottom of the base. The base mounts offset some of the issue, because they clearly highlight which figure is which element on the team if you don’t paint them.
As for mechanical shortcomings, there is something to be said for slippery slopes. The extra turn is nice when you lose a bender, but if that extra turn doesn’t do something to turn the tide, you are fighting an uphill battle.
Gameplay in action
Overall this game is fun to play. There is a nice blend of strategy and luck, and both are necessary to win. The tokens are problematic, although they are not a mechanical concern. Gameplay brought to life the feel of the sport depicted in the show, which was rather exciting in itself. In the future I will be doing a review of the expansion “Amon’s Invasion”, which allows for solo play or two player co-op.
Legend of Korra Pro-Bending Arena earns 4.5 Buns. I wanted to give it the full five, but the clutter and color contrast added together takes that distinction away.