IDW Games has officially unveiled its The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena board game, which pits teams of benders in a fight for survival. It doesn’t come out until February 2018, but I’ve had a chance to play an early copy. After many hours of rulebook studying, trial and error, and eventual triumph against my beleaguered husband, I can tell you the game is a blessing for Avatar fans... but might be an ordeal for everyone else.
Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a piece of art. It’s widely considered one of the finest animated shows out there, managing to bridge the gap between family-friendly entertainment and complex, mature storytelling. The Legend of Korra may not be as widely acclaimed, but it’s beloved among many Avatar fans, especially for how well it expanded the show’s world, including the addition of the sport of pro-bending.
In the first season of The Legend of Korra, the titular Avatar took up pro-bending, which is a competitive version of Avatar’s main form of combat. Bending is the manipulation of natural elements like air, water, fire, and earth, with each element’s bending style based on a different form of martial arts. Both Avatar and Korra portrayed bending meticulously, with the slightest hand gesture, foot placement, or emotional state affecting how the character would perform their moves.
Accordingly, pro-bending is surprisingly complex for a made-up sport, rivaling Quidditch with its sheer number of regulations (the Avatar wiki has a detailed breakdown). As a result, Pro-Bending Arena might be one of the most complicated tabletop games I’ve ever played.
The two-player arena game has each player control a team of benders, tasked with knocking the other off the board. This is accomplished with turn-based combat where benders use their unique abilities (taking the form of cards) to attack, dodge, and defend. That doesn’t even begin to go into specialty moves purchased with Chi, bonus attacks like Hold or Stun, or penalties for violating referee rules. And don’t even get me started on Advanced Techniques or Stack Building.
The amount of knowledge required to play the game is sizable, but for Avatar fans (like myself), it helps make the game beautifully immersive. The creators put a lot of love into how they portray bending, and it shows. Much like actual bending, in the game Earthbenders are the best blockers, Firebenders cast the sharpest projectiles, and Waterbenders have more fluidity. Plus, the individual moves, as portrayed through cards, are well thought out. It’s easy to envision characters performing them in the show—like Korra’s “Flash Flood” move, which starts with a large water attack that then moves sideways across most of the board. The game does a great job of feeling like a pro-bending match as seen on the show
That said, this is very specific game that may not appeal to people who haven’t seen either of the shows. Korra fans, of course, are well aware of pro-bending, and those who’ve only seen Avatar are still familiar with what bending looks and feels like, but newcomers might feel like they’re entering Trigonometry without having taken Algebra I. My husband, a board game enthusiast who’s never watched either of the shows (despite my insisting he do otherwise), had a really hard time following along with Pro-Bending Arena, and I sturdily kicked his ass. That’s not to say non-show fans can’t play the game, but they’ll likely be at a disadvantage.
The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena clearly has an audience—it’s already more than quadrupled its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. But the board game demographic and Avatar show audience have a clear intersection in the Venn diagram of fandom, and outsiders will have to play catch-up in order for the game to make sense. Hey, maybe this will be the kick in the pants that people like my husband need to finally check out one of the best animated shows in television history. But otherwise, you might want to keep the game on standby until a fellow bender comes along.