Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Three Comic Book Universes on the Table: Comparing Superhero Deckbuilders

Three Comic Book Universes on the Table: Comparing Superhero Deckbuilders

I may have mentioned a time or two that I am fond of superheroes, and have been a comic book geek since way back when.

Combine this with my gaming hobby, and that means of course that I am always down to try out a superhero game.

I actually own a Super Deck! starter pack. Super Deck! was one of the many CCGs published in the 1990s, trying to capitalize on the Magic craze, but Super Deck! was worse than most. Actually, it's probably a contender for Worst CCG Ever Made.

Super Deck!

Fortunately, the game industry has moved on. While CCGs still exist, there are also collectible dice games, cooperative games, and deckbuilders. Most of the latter are trying to capitalize on the popularity of Dominion, and as usual with copycats, the quality ranges from very good to horrible. But when you're dealing with big money licenses, you usually get something at least decent, and here's where I start.

For those who have never played a deckbuilder, the basic idea is that each player starts with a small deck (usually a dozen or so) of relatively weak cards, and by various mechanisms is able to add new cards to his deck. Selecting the right cards to get powerful combination effects, managing your hand in such a way that you don't wind up with worthless or unusable cards, trying to thin the weak and useless cards out of your deck, are all elements of a typical deckbuilder. This is very much like most CCGs, the difference being that you start with a fixed set of cards.

Marvel Legendary: In which we get two Wolverines but no Kitty Prydes

Marvel Legendary

Marvel Legendary is, you guessed it, a deckbuilder based on the Marvel Universe. At this time, there are five expansions (of which I own all but one), plus a companion game, Legendary: Villains, plus a game using the same engine but based on the Aliens franchise: Legendary Encounters. Supposedly these are all combinable, with some tweaking, so you could in theory have Wolverine and Dr. Doom teaming up with Ripley to defeat the Alien Queen and the Heralds of Galactus.

Sticking to Legendary, a game consists of a random (or semi-random) combination of heroes and villains, with a single Master Villain and a Scheme defining the unique conditions for the game. The players' decks consist of superheroes, each player drawing from the same hero deck. Every turn you can "recruit" new heroes and/or fight supervillains (which are drawn from the villains deck) while trying to build up cards powerful enough to fight the Master Villain. You start with mere S.H.I.E.L.D agents, but soon can acquire hero cards who have more recruiting ability, thus allowing you to recruit more powerful hero cards, which allow you to lay some serious smack down on the bad guys.

In a typical game, the hero deck has five different heroes (with five different cards for each hero), and your deck will work best if you try to concentrate on recruiting two or three of them.

So for example, a Legendary game might consist of Wolverine, Storm, Spider Man, the Hulk, and Mr. Fantastic trying to defeat Dr. Doom in his Scheme to Unleash the Legacy Virus, aided by Doombots, Hand Ninjas, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Sinister Six.

Marvel Legendary player mat

Thematically, the cards and the player mat do evoke the Marvel Universe, though actual game play often becomes an exercise in combo-optimization (but this is true of all deckbuilders). One can actually feel like you are "recruiting" Wolverine and the Hulk to go kick Dr. Doom's ass, while the Legacy Virus is constantly knocking heroes off the board. The combinations are variable but well-balanced; you start out slow but by the end game may well be able to dish out enough damage with one hand to knock out Galactus. Sometimes there isn't that much strategy involved, since you will buy the best hero card you can afford each turn, and the optimal order to play your hand is usually fairly easy to determine. There are a fair number of decisions to make, though.

Legendary is "semi-coop," meaning that players are in competition for the highest final victory point total (scored mostly by the number of villains you defeat), but you must collectively defeat the Master Villain before the Scheme ends the game, or else everybody loses.

The challenge level is variable, but I've played very few games in which the Master Villain won. Some Master Villains are harder to fight than others, and some Schemes are fairly easy to beat, while others impose a very challenging ticking clock for the players. Some combinations are brutal, while others are a bit silly. (If you generate your scenario completely randomly, you can theoretically wind up with Galactus and a Scheme to Rob the Mid-Town Bank...)

I've played a couple dozen games of Legendary and have not gotten tired of it yet. However, the expansions add dramatically to the variability and the challenge. The base game comes with Marvel's biggest heroes (the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider Man, and a few others), while the expansions add the Fantastic Four, Marvel Knights, Spider Friends, X-Factor, and others. Notably missing so far is Dr. Strange, and some of my personal favorites like Kitty Pryde, Dazzler, and Nova. There is also (as yet) no She-Hulk, or Captain Marvel. And yet there are two versions of Wolverine, which reminds me of the 90s when Wolverine was Marvel's most popular character and so he was guest-starring in every other series practically every month.

For game play and theme, Marvel Legendary scores very high. I will note that, in addition to the expense of collecting all those expansions, there are a lot of cards to sort out for each game, so the setup and breakdown time is considerable; it's not something you can casually whip out for a quick game.

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: In which you throw the kitchen sink at random villains

DC Comics Deck-Building Game

I tend to be biased in favor of Marvel over DC, but I still have fond memories of the Wolfman/Perez run of the New Teen Titans and John Byrne's Superman. (I also seem to be the only person I know who prefers Superman over Batman.)

So anyway, I finally got a chance to play the DC Comics Deck-Building Game recently.

The problems with this one start with the title. "DC Comics Deck-Building Game." Really. That is the name of the game. Could they possibly have come up with anything more generic and less exciting?

The same thing seems to be true of all DC licenses, from movies to card games: their marketing sucks.

Unlike Marvel Legendary, in the DC game, each player pick a single hero. Well, supposedly. What this means is you start with one DC hero card — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Cyborg, or even good old Aquaman.


Each hero has one starting power. The Flash gets to draw extra cards, Superman gets a power bonus when using multiple superpowers, and so on. So far, so good — that much is thematic.

However, the common deck that everyone "buys" from consists of an undifferentiated mix of superpowers belonging to all heroes in play, equipment, additional heroes, and supervillains. So for example, as Superman, you can wind up with the Batmobile, Kid Flash, Harley Quinn, and Marine Telepathy in your deck. In theory, trying to purchase all the Superman powers that come up would make for a more thematic (and efficient) deck, but in practice, this seemed difficult to do. (In our game, the player with The Flash did manage to pick up most of the Flash/Kid Flash cards, which meant his deck was cycling at... well, super-speed.) The idea is supposedly that, as in the Marvel game, you are "recruiting" other heroes to join you, but this doesn't explain why you add supervillains to your deck.


Batman is punchy.

Instead of a single Master Villain to fight, there is a stack of them, and they are basically just more expensive cards that you can buy like any other. Each one does something nasty when he or she first appears, but after that you just add them to your deck when you have enough power. The game ends when the master villain deck is empty, and everyone counts victory points (more expensive cards are generally worth more points, with a few cards granting special ways to add bonus points) to determine the winner.

Whereas playing Legendary does evoke some of the feeling of playing a team of superheroes trying to defeat a supervillain and his minions, the DC Deck-Building Game evokes the feeling of trying to buy random cards with pictures of DC characters on them to accumulate the most victory points in the end. Being non-cooperative, there is more opportunity to screw with other players' decks, which is a mechanic I personally dislike in games; it makes it harder to plan your next turn, and thus to my mind, more random and luck-based.

I was glad I got to play someone else's copy of this game, as now I won't have to buy it myself.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: In which you kind of need an app for that

Sentinels of the Multiverse

Sentinels of the Multiverse is an independent game, unconnected to any existing superhero franchise. It has all the good and bad features of independent comics: it's fresh, original, fun, and a little unpolished, with art that is... well, if not exactly up to Marvel and DC standards, captures the four-color vibe very effectively.

There are already a ton of expansions available, but I've only played with the base set so far.

Sentinels is a fully cooperative game; all the players are working together to defeat the villain, and you either win together or lose together. There are four starting supervillains to choose from, helpfully ranked according to difficulty. The base game also comes with ten heroes. The designers have actually written up fairly detailed "origin" stories for all of them, making you feel like you are actually entering into an established superhero universe.

Unlike the Marvel and DC games, in Sentinels each hero has a unique deck, so everyone is drawing only from their own set of cards. This makes the theme much stronger, as all of Ra's cards are fire powers, Tachyon's cards all relate to her super-speed, Bunker gets a bunch of equipment cards and "modes," and so on.

Each round, players go around the table, each chooses one card to play and one power to use. Their objective is to defeat the villain by damaging him, knocking his health down to zero, at which point the villain card is flipped over, usually to a berserk or a diminished form which has to be defeated again.

Then comes the Environment phase, in which a card is drawn from the Environment deck. Usually this is something bad, an effect that will persist until the heroes do something to end it, either by destroying the card, discarding cards from their hand, or something else. Then comes the villain's turn, in which a card is drawn from the villain deck (each villain having his own deck, like the heroes). This is always something bad: either the villain acquires a minion, or a device, or a new power, and usually it involves doing damage to the heroes and/or making him harder to defeat.


Ra is my favorite damage-dealer so far.

As a superhero-themed game, it works wonderfully. I love Sentinels of the Multiverse. It comes the closest of all three games to feeling like you are a team of superheroes battling a master villain, with defeat always imminent. Some of the villains are especially brutal if they get the right combination of cards, so defeating them feels like an actual accomplishment. There are constant choices to be made — attack the main villain, or knock out the runaway monorail that's doing damage to the heroes every turn? Take out a minion while you can, or use a power to buff your defenses or heal before the next Environmental hazard knocks you down to zero health?

Like all cooperative games, there is a slight danger of an "alpha player" taking over and telling everyone else what to do. What may be a bigger problem for some players is that as powers, environmental effects, and villain tactics accumulate, the game requires an awful lot of bookkeeping. Although lots of "+1 Damage Dealt" and "Immune to Damage" counters and so on are provided, the mid to late game slows down as each player must carefully tally up all cumulative bonuses and penalties to figure out how much damage he can actually inflict on any given target. Since there are different types of damage and every hero and minion and villain may take more or less damage from different effects, the game is, again, quite good at simulating unique power effects, but it's no surprise that many players use an app to track numbers during play.

Rating the games: Which one is best?

Although I like Marvel Legendary very much, and it does have the most polished game mechanics, for sheer fun and superhero action Sentinels of the Multiverse is my favorite.

Legendary would probably be my pick if I had to choose one game to teach new players, especially if they are not familiar with deckbuilders (or if they love the Marvel movies). On the other hand, Sentinels is going to appeal more to true genre geeks, especially the sort who have played the Champions RPG or similar games.

Legendary and Sentinels both play very well in solitaire mode, and are almost as much fun in two-player mode as they are with three or four players. I've played Legendary with up to five players, and while it works, it starts to become a much longer and slower game.

The DC Deck-Building Game, alas, just doesn't make the cut for me in any respect. In fairness, I have only played it once, but that was enough to convince me I had no desire to get a copy for myself. It's not a terrible game, so if someone else brought it to the table, I would be willing to play it again, but it's not as fun as the other games, and of the three, it does the poorest job of capturing a theme or exciting interest in "playing your heroes."
Tags: games, reviews, superheroes

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