Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Cool Games You Should Own: Marvel Champions

Now that we're completely caught up on everything and I have some down time thanks to Snowpocalypse Round Whatever It Is I'm Tired Of Counting, I wanted to get a little board game recommendations section going here on Cannot Get Your Ship Out, using the same acronym: Cool Games You Should Own (because I'm extra like that). John and I play a number of board games and while there's some overlap between the board gaming and minis gaming communities, I find I'm frequently the guy who recommends board games to Armada players I know and it seemed fun to make this more of a regular side feature for our readers. I want to underline and bold this will always be an Armada blog and that's our main project, but it's fun to play other games too. So let's dive in with a game we've been playing a lot lately: Marvel Champions.

The Avengers are the only thing stopping Thanos and Ultron from finally kissing. Who will win: Thantron stans or imaginary strong people in battle spanx?

At a glance
1-2 hours
Players: 1-4 (2-4 preferred; if playing 1 player I'd recommend going "two handed" and playing two different heroes)
MSRP: Core set $60, hero expansions $15, villain expansions $20, deluxe campaign expansions $40
constructed deck cooperative card game
Basic summary: Players construct a deck using a Marvel comics hero and team up with their friends against a villain trying to enact their master scheme.

What's an average turn look like?
Let me be clear: I'm not here to teach you how to play Marvel Champions. Reviews that work like a rulebook are extremely boring. I'm going to give you enough information to understand why it's fun, which we're getting to soon.

Each turn is broken into the hero phase (where you do stuff) and the villain phase (where the game/villain messes with you and tries to win). These keep repeating until either the heroes win or the villain wins. The heroes win when the villain is reduced to 0 hit points. Villains go through two stages - a weaker first stage and then a stronger second stage, and you need to punch your way through both. The villain wins when all heroes have been defeated (or in multiplayer games generally once it's clear that the defeat of one or two of the players dooms the team, which it typically does) or their master scheme has acquired enough threat points to trigger game over.

When it's your turn, you have a lot of options on what you want to do: your basic identity card gives you a lot of options and it's part of the fun so let's talk about that right now. Here's Tony Stonks as an example.

Invest in dogecoin, kids.
We see that Iron Man has a lot of options. He can exhaust his identity card to thwart for 2 (2 THW), which removes 2 threat points from any scheme in play (either the master scheme that ends the game or side schemes that show up and cause problems). He can also exhaust to deal 1 damage (1 ATK) to any enemy in play. It's not a lot, but it's something. In the villain phase he can exhaust to prevent 1 damage (1 DEF), but that will leave him exhausted during the next hero phase so that might not be a great idea. He can also flip his identity over (once per turn) to run back to Stark Tower as regular ol' Tony Stonks and exhaust to recover 3 hit points (3 REC). Tony also has an action (actions do not cause you to exhaust to use them, they're just the unit of "doing stuff" the game uses, like playing most events is an action) that allows him to burn through his deck a little faster and draw an additional card. There's nothing stopping you from combining these. So you could start the turn as Iron Man, exhaust to thwart for 2, use Iron Man's Arc Reactor (an upgrade that stays in play) to ready Iron Man, flip to Tony Stonks, use Futurist to draw one of your top 3 cards, play some other cards(hopefully more pieces of your armor) and then exhaust to recover for 3.

You'll also notice that hit points don't change between forms (it would get confusing), but hand size typically does. Usually you'll draw up to a higher hand size in alter-ego form, as you're taking a breather at home instead of being out in the field. Hero form is where you get work done, however.

Speaking of hand size and drawing cards, let's talk about playing cards from your hand, the other important part of the hero phase. You pay the resource cost of any card you want to play by discarding other cards from your hand. The example FFG gives us is...

Oh crap, they got Doctor Strange with the red laser eye filter. He's a meme now, it can't be helped.

So you naturally need to decide what is important right now vs. what isn't as important to power your card plays. Some cards (like the Genius card in the example) exist only as resources and have more than one resource on them. "Regular" cards like Swinging Web Kick or the Spider-Tracer have one resource icon on them. The downside to resource cards like Genius is that's all they do. They're great when you need a bunch of resources for playing cards, not so great when you get a hand of cheap cards or other resource cards where having a "real" card would've been better. The symbols provided by discarding cards (there are three different types, plus wild) usually don't matter - when they do, the card will tell you (usually it has an enhanced effect if you pay for it with only X type of resource or at least one of X type of resource).

Once heroes are done doing their things, the villain phase kicks in. I won't go into too much detail there but the short version is the villain attacks characters in hero form (who are actively fighting the villain), schemes (gets extra threat points on the master scheme) against characters taking a break in alter-ego form who aren't there to stop the villain, deals players cards with other complications that hinder them, and overall works on their master scheme (example below).

Rhino, being a big dumb villain, has a big dumb master scheme.
Some villains have several steps in their master scheme, some have just the one (like Rhino here, the designated "new player" villain), but every final master scheme ends with "the players lose." Above we see that The Break-In! gets one threat per player every villain phase just by existing. It can get more when Rhino schemes against players sitting out the current turn in alter-ego form and from some of the villain cards. Once it reaches 7 threat per player, game over. As a reminder: heroes can and should thwart threat off the main scheme. The threat clock can be turned back but it's one of the spinning plates in the game you need to keep an eye on.

Each villain is different just like each hero is different: their attributes are different (how strong they are when they attack or scheme against you), their special rules are different, their main scheme(s) is(/are) different, their deck of cards is different. And you can modify their deck too, just like you can with hero decks. Let's talk about that.

Constructing decks
Champions is a deck construction game, which means it is not a deck-builder game where everyone starts with the same or similar deck of cards and then during the game they add new cards that change the composition of their deck compared to the other players (like the classic Dominion, but also games like Clank, Star Realms, Thunderstone, and online versions like the excellent Slay the Spire). It is a game like Magic the Gathering and countless imitators where you have a pool of cards available to you before the game and you use that to construct a deck you then use to play the game.

That said, the typical booster pack and chase rare woes don't exist in Marvel Champions because it's a living card game. By which I mean you buy a hero or villain pack and you know exactly what cards you're getting and you get the maximum copies of each card that a deck can use (3, usually). You buy a pack and that's it - you don't need to buy it again ever unless you want enough extra cards to have the same cards in multiple decks (and even then... maybe you should proxy instead?). If you're not interested in the contents of the pack, you can just not buy it at all. FFG tends to release new content around once every month and a half or so. Even if you're a completionist, it works out to around $15 a month, give or take. Not much.

Anyways, the deck construction aspect makes the game a lot of fun - not only are there a lot of choices to be made in-game, but there are a lot of meaningful choices to be made pre-game as well when building a deck. To make a hero deck, you take your hero identity plus the 15 cards that must always be included in their deck and then you choose an aspect. Aspects are basically "suits" of cards and Marvel Champions has four of them. Each aspect has a different specialty:

  • Aggression: damage. Aggression is best at dealing damage to the villain but especially the minions they recruit to cause trouble for you.
  • Justice: threat removal. Justice offers lots of ways to thwart away threat points on both the main scheme and side schemes. Side schemes in particular can cause trouble as they modify the game rules a little but never in your favor and their effects last until all threat on them is removed.
  • Leadership: friends. All aspects offer allies that can help your hero for a little while, acting as short-lived extra hero identity cards, basically, but Leadership does it best. It also has some cards that can help the other players too.
  • Protection: preventing damage. Villain attacks can hurt and typically heroes can't stay in hero form for too long before needing to tap out to recover a bit. Protection lets you hold the line and not budge, and you can even help defend for other players or prevent the villain from doing some of their usual shenanigans.

When building your deck, you must construct a deck of 40 to 50 total cards (no more, no less). Your first 15 are spoken for. The remainder must come from some combination of the one aspect you chose earlier and the basic cards, which are for the most part nothing terribly impressive but can offer some economy assistance or help you shore up a weakness: the attack events in the basic cards are not very impressive, especially compared to Aggression attack events, but if you want some attack event options while running Protection, for example, it can be worth considering.

What's really fun about this approach is finding builds for different heroes that really work well with them. Some heroes don't lend themselves well to certain aspects at all (good luck finding a Justice Hulk deck worth anything, haha), but every hero will have at least two aspects they can do some work with and some very flexible heroes can make good use of all four (Captain America comes to mind immediately as a fun hero you can build in any direction). This means that even the same hero can play very differently and lean on different abilities depending on what aspect you pair them with. Furthermore, the card pool for each aspect is deep enough that it's not a matter of just using the same aspect cards with different heroes - the strengths and weaknesses of each hero's core 15 cards plus their identity abilities can make cards that aren't very good for one hero quite good with another, even if both heroes play very well using the same aspect. And when you factor in that you get more options with every hero pack, you can come back and reappraise a hero's deck or aspect suitability as new options are released. It's this fun cycle of constant tuning and reinvention.

The villains can also be tuned in a fashion. Expert mode gives you the option to face a more difficult version of the villain and each villain deck also recommends using at least one additional "encounter set." Encounter sets are a sub-theme, basically, and they add some more options and flavor to the villain deck. Is Rhino working with the Legions of Hydra? Or maybe he teamed up with Electro, who keeps showing up and causing trouble while you're trying to focus on Rhino? Or maybe someone keeps supplying Rhino with powerful cutting-edge weapons and armor he uses to upgrade himself? The combination possibilities are endless.

Why is this fun?
I like it for numerous reasons and it's gotten tons of play at my games days, with many of my friends (who also play Armada, including John) getting in on it as well. Some basic selling points are:

  • Lots of meaningful choices to be made every turn and when building decks.
  • Extremely high level of replayability with a huge number of options for both heroes and villains.
  • Many options for tuning difficulty to get just the right level of challenge and playtime for your group.
  • You get to be competitive (when building your hero decks to be as good as they can be) while also being cooperative (teaming up with your friends).
  • Living card game format makes the cost of playing a growing game very affordable and you can pick and choose which expansions you want.
  • Campaign modes available with the Rise of Red Skull deluxe expansion and Guardians of the Galaxy deluxe expansion coming soon.
  • Marvel heroes theme is fun for MCU and/or Marvel comics nerds. It's not a requirement to enjoy the game, though.

What should I buy?
I'd recommend starting with just the core set to get some introductory games under your belt. The core set comes with five heroes (Spider-Man, Black Panther, Iron Man, She-Hulk, and Captain Marvel), three villains (Rhino, Klaw, and Ultron), and a whole bunch of fundamental cards as well the standard FFG pile of cardboard tokens. For $60, it is hands-down the best FFG core set I have ever bought and you only need one. Once you've gotten used to the game, take a look at what cards come in different sets (I love Hall of Heroes for this) and decide what new heroes and/or villains you'd like to pick up and go from there.

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