Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Brrrrrrrrrrrring! Rang out the alarm as Rhino crashed through the wall of the Midtown Bank building. The nefarious villain was all set to help himself to fat stacks of cash but our heroes were not about to let that happen.
Who will you use to put an end to the villainous Rhino, the devious Klaw or the despicable Ulton? Will it be She-Hulk, defender of law and order or Spiderman, local hero with plenty of responsibility? In Marvel Champions you choose the hero and take the fight to the villain in one of three scenarios playing as one of five unique heroes.
In the box you will find...
199 Player Cards
137 Encounter Cards
30 State Cards
4 Hero Dials
1 Villain Dial
As always with an FFG product it looks fantastic. There's unique art everywhere and it’s all very evocative and brings the theme to life. The dials in particular I’m happy with because I can see me using them for Sentinels of the Multiverse too!
In terms of content, there’s quite a lot in here. In keeping with Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror the card game, Marvel Champions ships with 3 base scenarios. Along with that come five small decks of cards that you can shuffle into the main scenario decks to change up how those scenarios play.
To counter these scenarios are 5 heroes, Iron Man, Spiderman, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and She Hulk. Each comes with a prebuilt decklist in the rules, although you will need to look through the cards and build those decks yourself. The game however only ships with enough cards to build 4 of these decks concurrently, which is largely fine as the game only supports 4 players.
So, 3 scenarios, 5 heroes, that's a total of 15 games before you’ve tried every combination. Well, sort of. Each hero can technically be built in four different ways, so you could say it’s actually 60 possible combinations, meaning it’s 1 game for every pound this game costs. That’s right, Marvel Champions has a hefty RRP of £59.99 and I’m not sure why. It has roughly 100 more cards than Lord of the Rings which has an RRP of £36.99 but that isn’t really enough to justify it being nearly twice as expensive.
In terms of learning and playing the game, Marvel Champions ships with two rulebooks, a learn to play guide and a rules reference. The learn to play uses two prebuilt decks and a prebuilt scenario deck that are preset in shrink wrap for you in the box, making it quite beginner friendly. The rules reference however I have found lacking during my plays. The LOTR rules reference reads like a heavy legal document but covers all major mechanics, timing issues and pretty much any questions I have about how cards interact in the game. Marvel Champions Rules Reference does not. For example, many cards reference “You”, such as “When you take damage” but the Rules Reference doesn’t define you. So, is this when your hero takes damage, or when your hero or allies take damage, or does it mean if you stub your toe against the table leg?
In an attempt to be more new player friendly FFG has attempted to simplify the rulebooks but unfortunately any card game like this, with some many moving parts and potential timing conflicts needs a more comprehensive ruleset to stop it becoming guesswork as to how cards are supposed to function.
A Quick Overview
In Marvel Champions players take on the role of a hero. Each player chooses one hero and takes the cards belonging to that hero. They can either use the prebuilt decks or they can build their own. Each deck consists of 15 hero cards and then between 25 and 35 other cards chosen from one of four aspects and/or neutral cards.
The aspect cards come from four spheres, Leadership is a more rounded approach but also with a heavy focus on allies, action advantage and aiding other players. Aggression is about punching stuff. Justice is about countering the machinations of the villain and Protection is about defending yourself or other heroes.
Once each player has a deck they choose a villain to fight. Each villain has a deck, into which the Standard cards are shuffled, this a small set of 7 cards that are always in the game. Along with this one modular encounter set is added, this can be random or you can follow the suggested set on the villain set up card.
Players then take turns playing cards to deal damage to the villain and remove threat from the scheme, until they defeat the villain. Most villains have two cards you must defeat, when you defeat stage one of a villain it reveals a second stage, resets his hitpoint and generally ups his stats or adds new abilities.
On their turn players can play any number of cards from their hand, paying their cost in the top corner by discarding other cards from their hand. They can also activate cards in play for their abilities by exhausting them, for example you can exhaust your hero to deal damage equal to its attack value. Players can also, once during their turn, change between Hero and Alter Ego form. For example Spiderman can become Peter Parker. The Alter Ego forms often have alternate abilities and are unable, in general, to affect the game state, i.e. attack or thwart.
Once each player has activated it is the villain turn. The villain's turn begins by placing threat on the main scheme. This is the timer that runs the game. If the main scheme is completed the players lose the game. Players can thwart to remove threat from the scheme and the better you can control threat the easier the game will be. After this the Villain either attacks each hero in turn or schemes if they are in alter ego form. When a villain schemes he places additional threat on the main scheme. Finally each player reveals an encounter card from the deck, this could be minions, smaller villains that attack you or stop you attacking the main villain, treachery cards that have a detrimental effect on the game state or side schemes which often prevent you dealing with the main scheme.
After this play returns to the players and goes back and forth until the villain completes his scheme, defeats all the heroes or until the heroes defeat the villains final card.
I watched the FFG in-flight report safe in the knowledge that whatever new shiny stuff they announced I wasn’t going to buy anything, I already had everything I needed. Then they announced Marvel Champions. Marvel Legendary is my most played game of all time, I have seen every marvel film and tv series of the last decade, I like marvel, but I don’t need to have every marvel game out there. It’s designed by Nate French… Nate French who designed my second most played game of all time, Lord of the Rings the card game… that Nate French? At that point I knew I was sunk, I really didn’t need a new collectible game in my life, but I was powerless to stop myself.
Comparisons to LOTR
As mentioned, Lord of the Rings the card game is one of my most played games of all time. I own most everything for it and store it in two flight cases. I knew that Marvel Champions was going to use some of the mechanics from that game and I went into it expecting it to be a clone. It’s not, not really.
There are some mechanical differences to be sure. In LOTR you control multiple heroes, in MC you control one. In LOTR you generate resources and spend them over time, in MC you use cards in your hand to pay for other cards. In other ways it is similar, Attack, Thwart, Defence and Hit Points all have analogous stats in LOTR as do the four Aspects.
However the biggest change was in the way the game delivers story. Lord of the Rings tells a story as you advance through stages of a quest. Each stage in the quest presents a new puzzle you need to solve. Marvel Champions does not, in fact I would go as far as to say that Marvel Champions dispenses with story entirely. The game is solely about beating on a boss. The scheme deck, which is analogous to the quest deck in LOTR works in reverse. In LOTR you are pushing through trying to complete those stages and get through to the end. In MC you lose when that happens meaning you are fighting to keep the game state the same, rather than pushing forward to see what happens next.
For me this is where my initial disappointment stems from. The scheme part of the game felt incongruous to me. It felt like I was trying so hard to not have things change, to not have the game evolve and show me new things. It’s not a game of discovery, just one of preventing bad stuff from happening.
In Lord of the Rings at least half of the enjoyment of the game is working out the puzzle. Each scenario requires you to go away and build a deck that can handle the challenges the game will throw at you. Marvel Champions does not. Firstly, as I am proving with my series reviewing the various heroes in the game, you can beat all the currently released scenarios with any given hero, but secondly each scenario is largely the same, stop threat being placed while defeating the big bad.
So then where is the puzzle? Where is the fun? What stops this game getting old and played out? When I first picked up the game I played through each scenario and when I won I moved on, exactly as I would in Lord of the Rings, within a week I had completed all the content and was left wanting. However then lockdown happened and I was stuck inside and I decided to give Marvel Champions another go and had I not this review might have been quite a different beast.
You see, as it turns out, the puzzle of Marvel Champions is not completing the scenarios, it is the heroes. Each hero works very differently and each one requires a different style and thought process in how you approach each scenario. Playing Ms Marvel is a different experience to playing Captain America. Both are capable of defeating every scenario but both will do so in very different ways.
As I mentioned above there are 60 possible play combinations (more if played multiplayer) but at a certain point there are diminishing returns in those combinations. Beating Rhino with Black Panther is a different experience to doing it with Spiderman. But beating Rhino with Black Panther using the Justice Aspect versus Black Panther using the Aggression Aspect is definitely less varied.
The Modular Encounter sets which “change up the scenarios” don’t massively. They do add a way for you to face off against smaller villains like Masters of Evil or M.O.D.O.K while fighting the big bad, but as there are only between 5 and 7 cards per set it’s possible to not see them at all during a game. When they do come out they are fun and feel different but not enough for me to feel like it's a whole different scenario… It's the same scenario, but this time I ran into Tombstone instead of a Hydra Bomber.
So then I would say that the base game, realistically can be played 15 times without requiring additional content or £3 a play. That is a steep price tag in my opinion but obviously one I was willing to pay. Currently I have clocked up 70 plays of Marvel Champions although I know for certain that this would not have been the case if a) I wasn’t reviewing the heroes, b) I wasn’t in lockdown and c) I wasn’t playing solo.
There are currently 2 additional scenario packs available for the game, Green Goblin and The Wrecking Crew. I would recommend the former over the latter as it adds two scenarios as opposed to one, although the Wrecking Crew do provide a radically different scenario style. Coming down the pike though is a new big box expansion with 5 new and linked scenarios which might offer better value for money and hopefully bring more story into the game.
Marvel Champions offers a great solo experience. Many of the 300+ games I’ve played of LOTR were undertaken solo and it is a punishing experience as you try to manage all the aspects of a quest with a single deck. Marvel Champions is not that, each hero (with Thor being a notable exception at this point) is capable of handling all aspects of a scenario to a less or greater extent using their prebuilt deck list. With a little knowledge of the scenario and some deck building any hero is a viable option for any scenario. You won’t win every time but you’ll know it’s possible and want to try again.
Deck Building rules is something that FFG has toyed with in many of their LCG games. In LOTR it's incredibly open with just a no more than 3 copies of any card rule. While in other games like Netrunner or Conquest it was much more complicated.
Marvel Champions I feel hits on the magic balance of being simple and streamlined enough for beginners to try it, but offering enough depth for experienced players too. Every game of Marvel champions requires a deck of between 40 and 50 cards. This stops something I found tricky in LOTR, the kitchen sink approach, you would have a deck of 100 cards because everything “might come in handy”. This hard limit of 40-50 means you have a lean deck of stuff you need and it means you can learn how it functions very quickly too. And because you cycle your hand every turn you’re going to see every card in your deck over the course of your first game.
Each hero brings 15 cards to their deck, meaning you don’t even need to think about which ones to add, they are mandatory. After that it is a case of picking one of the four aspects. You can’t mix and match so once you pick you narrow your selection down to a much smaller card pool. Choosing your aspect is easy too, think about what you want your hero to do and choose an aspect that helps them accomplish that goal.
So now you need 25-35 cards from your chosen aspect. But you can also pick from some neutral cards. There are some no brainers in there, for example Energy, Genius and Strength are all 0 cost but generate 2 resources when played so why would you not have them. They are limited at 1 per deck too meaning you don’t need to think about if you need more of them.
Finally the only other rule is that unique cards (like allies) are limited to a single copy per deck, which again helps keep your deck lean and mean. Allies in game are also limited to 3 in play at any one time so over stuffing your deck with allies is a bad idea in general.
I feel like I’ve bashed on Marvel Champions throughout this review for being overpriced, too simplistic in parts and under explained in others and for providing limited replay value, but the truth of it is that when I want to play a game this is the one I’m currently reaching for.
Marvel Champions is a game that offers a unique playing experience with every hero. It has a design philosophy that is about engaging new players and keeping the game simple yet fun. It looks beautiful on the table and plays quickly. If you are looking to play a game in the Marvel Universe with diverse and interesting characters this is a great starting point and with at least two more years of content planned you’ll never be short of stories to play.
Marvel Champions is a cooperative expandable card game that offers a simpler more streamline play experience to Fantasy Flight’s other offerings such as Arkham Horror or Lord of the Rings, but at the expense of the story both of those games provide. At almost double the entry cost this one has less overall replayability and with at least two years of planned content it’s going to be an expensive money sink if you want to stay current and own everything.