Action! (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
What is a living card game? Well, it's a constructible card game in which every set and all regularly released expansions contain the same cards. You start with a core set and expansion packs are released that you can add to the game as you see fit. The decks are customizable, but there is no chance of getting any random cards in your expansion packs like with Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh. The game is continually "refreshed" with new expansions and sets. There is often a lot of variety in these games, but it can be hard to keep up with the expansions. Examples of living/constructible card games that I have played are Marvel Legendary, Star Wars TCG, and Killer Bunnies and the Ultimate Odyssey. The idea of Marvel Champions is to play as a super hero and their alter-ego identity. You have to manage both aspects of your character, working with your allies to take down a super villain and their henchmen and foil their scheme. This is done by reducing the villain to zero hit points in each of their stages. The villain's goal is to complete the scheme by getting enough threat tokens on it before the heroes defeat him. The villain can also win by reducing all the heroes to zero hit points. This is a game for one to four players, and it's a cooperative game. That means that you work together with the other players to win. The villain is controlled by the game itself, which means that the villain's moves are dictated by the game rules and the cards drawn during that phase. Each round of play involves a player phase and then the villain's phase. The players take turns playing their cards and using actions. The available actions change depending upon the form the player is in. (Changing form is also an action, but can only be done once a turn.) If in hero form, the player can attack or thwart. Attacking does damage to a villain or minion. Thwarting removes threat from a scheme. If in alter-ego form, the player can heal damage on themselves. Players can also use any support, upgrade, or ally cards they have in play. In order to play cards, enough resources have to be generated by discarding cards from the player's hand.
So many tokens. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
Once all players have gone, the villain adds threat to the main scheme and then activates against each player in turn. What the villain does depends on if the player is in hero or alter-ego form. If the player is in hero form, the villain attacks. If the player is in their alter-ego form, the villain schemes, which adds more threat and brings them closer to completing their main scheme. After this, the player draws from the villain's encounter deck. The number of cards drawn can change, but starts out one per player. The encounter cards do various things. They could bring minions into play, add side schemes, or cause other effects that will change the game in negative ways for the players. A hero's nemesis can also enter the game from this deck. The game continues on this way until the hit points of all heroes or the villain reach zero or until the main scheme reaches its threat limit.That's the basics of the rules, but there's quite a bit more to it. The rule book is pretty thorough, and there are good videos online that teach the game. This is simply a brief overview.
I respect his philosophy on life. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
We only have the core set so far. The heroes that come with this set are Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, King T'Challa/Black Panther, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk. This set comes with three villains of increasing difficulty: The Rhino, Klaw, and Ultron. Each villain has multiple stages and their own schemes with different difficulty levels you can set them at. There are also different encounter cards that can be added to the encounter deck to increase the difficulty. The set comes with preconstructed starter decks, but the decks can be customized. The rule book has suggestions on how to do this, and the rules you must follow. (One hero per deck, between 40 and 50 cards, etc.) Each deck contains the identity cards that come with their set, and aspect cards. Aspects cards are leadership, aggression, protection, and justice. Only one aspect may be included in a deck. There are also basic (gray) cards, which can be included in any deck. A character-specific obligation card is shuffled into the villain deck. This card, when drawn, forces a hero into alter-ego form to deal with some sort of problem related to their alter-ego identity. As mentioned, each hero also has a nemesis that can be brought into play from the encounter deck.
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…” (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
The first game I played was solo. I love tabletop games that can be single player, although I don't have very many of them. Much of the time (in my experience anyway) solo tabletop gaming can be a bit unbalanced. There are some games that are better with two players, some that are better with more. (Battlestar Galactica is best with max players, I find. Alternately, Marvel Legendary seems to be more difficult at max players.) That said, I did have fun playing Marvel Champions solo. (I had more fun playing with Cocoashade, but that's always the case.) I, of course, played as Spider-Man. (Have I mentioned how much I love Spider-Man?) I managed to defeat the Rhino and win fairly easily, but I was playing the tutorial game.
I don’t really have a caption. Captain Marvel is kickass, though. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
The next night Cocoa and I played the tutorial and won fairly tidily using the preconstructed tutorial decks for Spider-Man and Captain Marvel. The Rhino didn't know what hit him! (Spoiler, it was Spidey. Spidey kicked him in the face repeatedly.)
I love the artwork on these cards. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
On our second night of play, Cocoa played as Black Panther and I tried Iron Man. We were no longer using tutorial decks, so I constructed the decks using the checklist in the book with no deviations. (I didn’t feel confident enough yet for deck building.) The strategies for these two characters were completely different and we could tell right away that there was a lot more for us to learn. Black Panther seems to rely on actions, using specific cards to trigger chains of effects. (The order these effects are activated is important.) Iron Man starts out weak, relying on his upgrades and armor enhancements to bring out his full power. We stayed with the Rhino since we still felt like we were beginners. Unfortunately, we lost twice in a row. Well, that's putting it lightly. Actually, we were soundly trounced. Twice.
DEAD. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
Humbled by our defeats, before our next play session, we watched some videos on YouTube and I looked up strategies on message boards. We wanted to know what we were doing wrong. The consensus seemed to be to spend the first part of the game managing the threat levels as you set up your board for the attack. A good tip I kept seeing was to never have all your heroes in alter-ego form at once, because then you run the risk of too much threat accumulating too quickly to remove it. (That was a mistake we made.) Defend often, using your allies when possible to absorb attacks as you play your upgrades. Then when everything is set up, attack the villain with everything you have.
It’s not easy being green. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
In this attempt I went back to my trusty Spider-Man in all his face-kicking glory, while Cocoa tried out She-Hulk. I again did no customization of our decks, not wanting to throw off the balance. I'll tell you straight away that this play through went much more smoothly.
Yikes. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
This time we played more defensively, building up our upgrades and allies for the attack. We were both careful with hand management. Keeping the threat down on the scheme made all the difference. We hit the Rhino as we could, and when I managed to draw two Swinging Web Kick cards, his first form fell. After this, the Rhino transformed into his final form and a side scheme came out. It was game on! In this second phase we had enough resources, upgrades, and allies to properly wail on the Rhino. He fell for the second time under another Swinging Web Kick and a She-Hulk Gamma Slam. We were under no danger of losing with our new strategies and always-solid team work.
I often scream “Three exclamation points” when I’m upset. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
So that's our experience so far. The difficulty level at first made it hard for us to fully enjoy, but we're getting the hang of it. (I suspect we may have gotten some rules mixed up on our wretched second play.) I intend to invite my brothers over and try a four player game. It's possible the game is better balanced for more than two players. We'll see. I also want to try the other heroes and villains. Now some thoughts about the heroes and strategy. Iron Man, as mentioned, is dependent on his upgrades and tech to get stronger. I felt crippled by his limitations at first, but as the game went on, I grew to appreciate his upgrade mechanic. In hero form he starts with a hand size of 1 (+1 for each tech upgrade he has in play.) For some reason he also has a defense of 1. (WTF?! He's wearing armor, people!) Black Panther is very combo-driven. Many of his cards require a specific Event card called Wakanda Forever. Luckily there are five in the deck. He also has retaliation damage, which means every time he's attacked, he hits back. Spider-Man has the highest defense of the base heroes, at 3. He also has a very handy card called Backflip that allows you to avoid all damage from one attack. Use this strategically and it keeps you safe. A good strategy is to use your allies as shields. (I know, I know. Heroic, right?) The allies usually have recoil damage from attacking or thwarting, so they don’t stay alive forever anyway. Using them to take hefty damage from a villain keeps your hero safe.
I can do this, I just don’t wanna. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
I can't really compare this game to any others that I have played. There are a lot of familiar mechanics, but Marvel Champions pieces them together in an interesting way that makes it pretty unique. Marvel Legendary is a game where you assemble a team of Marvel super heroes and fight villains and henchmen, but that game is a deck-building card game. (I'm sure I'll do a post about that one eventually. We play it quite often.) A deck-building card game allows you to "buy" cards from a pool and create your deck as the game goes on. The fact that this game uses a preconstructed deck makes it more like Yu-Gi-Oh or Star Wars Destiny, but in those games you battle the other player, not an NPC villain. I'm sure there are other games like this one, but I haven't had experience with them. (Not yet anyway.) Aside from the difficulty, this is a fun game. The challenge keeps us coming back to it. The hero/alter-ego mechanic is interesting and adds a level of balance to the game. There's plenty of variety and chance, but enough strategy to keep the chance aspect under control. Each hero has their own strengths and weaknesses, changing the game play. This gives good replay value and a lot of opportunity for experimentation. It was easier to learn than some games (*cough* Battlestar...) but the first few turns were a bit uncertain as we learned the phases. The game does a good job simulating the balance between super heroes and their alter-egos. Is it better to turn back to your alter-ego form to heal and run the risk of the scheme advancing? Is it better to go all out attacking or remove threat from the scheme? Discarding cards to generate resources is an often-used mechanic, but it's a solid choice for this game. Sometimes the choices are difficult-- you find yourself having to burn good cards in order to generate the resources to bring out upgrades or allies.
Ooooh, sinister. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
One complaint I have is in the customization area. Building the decks was pretty confusing at first. There are starter deck lists for the preconstructed hero decks that come in the set. But there are five heroes and only four aspects. Which means two heroes would have to share their aspects. (The rule book recommends that Iron Man and She-Hulk both use aggression when playing their starter decks.) With a $60 price tag, I'd think they'd give you all the cards you need to play all five heroes without deconstructing and reconstructing their decks. (So this would mean two sets of aggression cards. Or a fifth aspect.) I don't like pulling apart decks to create new ones. I prefer to pull the game off the shelf and play, only tweaking the decks as I get new cards or when inspiration hits. This may get better as more sets are added to our collection. Or it may get worse... I haven't done the research into the expansions yet to see if new heroes come with all the cards they need, or if they require the aspect and basic cards from the core set. Also there are only four sets of basic cards in the core set. More heroes would require more basics or borrowing from other decks. Cocoa and I will continue to play, testing out each character and challenging ourselves to defeat each villain, gradually upping the difficulty as we go. With each expansion that comes out, there will be more heroes, villains, and cards to use to customize the decks. This gives the game a lot of future potential, keeping it fresh and challenging.
Hey look, it’s Norman and Kamala. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)
All in all, I give Marvel Champions a four out of five stars, with the possibility of a higher score after we customize our decks and expand the game. The lost star is from the learning curve in deck customization, not being provided enough aspect and basic cards for the price, and the difficulty for beginners. I hope you enjoyed my first tabletop game review. If you have any games you'd like to see featured here, let me know. I do take requests, and I'm always looking for new games for us to play! Until next time, keep up the treasure hunting.
RIP Aunt May, sacrificed for her sweet, sweet resources. (Credit: Marvel, Fantasy Flight)