You’ve read their comics, seen their movies, daydreamed about them, and maybe even dressed up as them. Now, you can assume the powers of Marvel’s greatest and lesser known world defending crime fighters. The twist is that you have to fight each other – must be inspired by Marvel’s Civil War?! Do you have what it takes to don masks, capes, high-tech weaponry, and genetic-altering phenomena? Find out with the new Marvel trading card game, Super Hero Squad.
How it Works
Super Hero Squad is a streamlined collectible card game. To play, you’ll need to build a 40-card deck from amongst your collection of favorite characters and/or combinations (or buy a pre-made theme deck) and then sit down against an opponent with her own deck. Draw 4 cards as your starting hand and flip a coin to determine first player. Your goal is to play cards in alternating rounds that inflict damage to your adversary, which is represented by discarding cards. The first combatant to run out of cards loses.
At the beginning of your turn, you flip a coin to see if the ‘Power Level’ increases. The power level determines how strong your attacks can be and starts the game at Level 1. It raises one increment for every heads flipped in subsequent rounds. After flipping the power level coin, you draw a card. Then you may attack. Each card has a power level rating (shown at the top left corner). Your attacking card must have a rating equal to or less than the current power level. The card also indicates how much damage it inflicts (shown at middle left) and your opponent must discard that number of cards from her deck.
However, there are two ways she can minimize the damage, called ‘Blocking.’ Both of these methods involve another game element called ‘Factors.’ Every card is identified with one of six factors (animal, strength, elemental, energy, tech, or speed). In addition to its own factor, each card also has the ability to block the attack of another kind of factor, which is indicated by a shield icon (shown at the lower left corner). If you have a card in your hand whose shield icon matches the attacking card’s factor, then you may play it to block your opponent’s attack. Both your blocking card and the attacking card are discarded and the attack is considered to have only inflicted only 1 damage, instead of its normal amount. If you do not have a card in your hand with which to block – or if you simply want to hang on to it for later – then you must start discarding from your deck. But as you reveal and discard cards (equal to the damage inflicted), you may get lucky and turn over a card whose shield icon matches the attacker’s factor. In that case, you block any further hits and may stop discarding. So for example, let’s say that an attack against you inflicts 6 points of damage. You start discarding from your deck one at a time. When you flip over the fourth card, you see that its shield icon matches the enemy’s factor. The attack is now blocked and you take no further damage! Instead of the full 6 hits, you’ve instead only suffered four.
In addition to these basic attacks and blocks, there are two other elements that enhance Super Hero Squad’s tactical nuance: special abilities and ‘Keepers.’ Many cards have a special ability when played as an attack which gives you a bonus or twists the rules in your favor. Some abilities allow you to play a second attack card, subject still to the current power level. This allows for some fun, interesting, and potentially deadly chaining attacks. Other abilities might let you look in your deck, draw a card, or ‘Heal’ by recovering cards from your discard pile. There are two catches to these abilities. One, they typically require you to inflict a certain amount of damage before you can apply them. Most of the time, you only need to inflict 2 hits, though sometimes more are needed. If your attack is blocked on the first hit, you cannot use your special ability. Also, that unique power is a one-time result. The attack card is discarded as normal as soon as your effect is resolved.
Keepers, on the other hand, provide ongoing special abilities. A keeper is played and its attack resolved normally. If it inflicts at least 2 points of damage, you may keep it in front of you for use in later turns – just follow the card’s instructions for when and how its abilities are implemented. If your opponent blocks your keeper’s attack on the first hit, the keeper ‘Misfires,’ is discarded like normal, and its ability ignored. If a keeper is ever blocked in subsequent rounds on the first hit, it misfires then, as well. You can have up to 6 keepers in play and there are a few cards that provide a defense or even counter-offensive against your opponent’s keepers.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben’s ominous advice to Peter Parker is apropos here. With the granting of such a tremendous and profitable license, has Upper Deck been faithful to the popular and well-loved Marvel franchise? Thematically and mechanically speaking, the answer is a resounding, “yes!” In regards to the overall marketing and game models, I have some reservations.
Super Hero Squad is simple and fast. While adults (especially Marvel fans) will enjoy it, this title really is geared toward kids, indeed presenting a very nice intro to the CCG genre. The deck size is smaller than most CCGs, the rules are very basic, many cards do not have text to fiddle with, and table clutter is kept to a minimum. Cards and keepers with special instructions are clear, and their powers add a welcome aspect of strategic depth while not overly-cumbersome to execute. On the whole it is a clean, smooth, and streamlined design.
The two mechanics which really set Super Hero Squad apart from other CCGs are damage resolution and blocking. Both are intriguing, presenting positive and negative points. The element of discarding to represent damage makes for a quick game with a simplistic tracking system – no coins, dice, or tokens required. At the same time, though, it can prove counter-productive to your careful deck-building strategy, since many times you must discard good cards out of your draw pile – thus, out of the game – without ever having access to them for play. You can’t always depend on a pair working together like planned, because one may be taken out as damage. Now, you can have up to 4 copies of the same card, which helps increase the odds of drawing them to play as intended. However, the damage model will still frustrate your most meticulous deck designing to some degree. You can also include cards that let you retrieve one or more from the discard pile; of course, provided they haven’t been cycled through as damage, either. Considering the rate at which cards potentially fly into the discard pile, there are relatively fewer ways to access them as compared to other CCGs. While that aids in the game’s brevity, it may chagrin the more diligent strategist.
The blocking mechanic is your one defense against loosing prime cards to the discard pile in vain. However, it often boils down to luck as to whether or not you have the correct blocking icon in hand or are able to turn one up in the draw pile before sustaining full damage. And let me tell you, it really stinks flipping over the matching icon with the last hit! However, the mechanic always gives you a chance at staving off disaster and countering big attacks. Of course, the reverse holds true, as well, so be prepared to have your well-planned, chained attacks deflected, dodged, or diminished with just a mere turn of your opponent’s wrist.
With perhaps one exception, Super Hero Squad is also thematically engaging. While not exhaustive of the Marvel world, the game still includes both major and minor heroes. The art and text creatively and humorously allude to familiar sayings, props, powers, and other tropes from the comics that we lovingly associate with the colorful characters. Special abilities and keepers are also thematically applied as to be appropriate with the characters, and most are properly associated with related cards. The Avengers characters interrelate with each other as far as chaining attacks and retrieving cards. The correlation works similarly with the X-Men and the Fantastic 4, so that themed decks are thankfully possible. You can even make strong concentrations based on individual, iconic heroes like Spidey or Wolverine, as there looks to be plenty of cards to be successful. The lone thematic diversion is the artwork style, which is decidedly on the cute and child-like side, rather than that of the comics.
You can also play a virtual implementation of the trading card game at Marvel’s online presence, HeroUp.com. You do not need the physical cards to play online, nor do you need to join the web site to play the tabletop version. The online card game is actually only a small part of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (or MMORPG). In addition to the card game, you can explore, fight baddies, undertake missions, play arcade-style games, and chat with other community members. It is kid-friendly and kid-safe and basic membership is free. However like most similar sites, you must pay for a premium account to enjoy more and greater benefits. Essentially you start with only a couple of heroes from which to choose, a few items, and a small collection of cards. You have to earn experience points and gold to buy more cards and unlock better characters or equipment. Overall, the web site is immersive, creative, colorful, and intuitive, with lots of stuff to do.
Having said all that, it is my opinion that the whole CCG model was the wrong choice for Super Hero Squad. Instead, I think it would be better suited as a Living Card Game in which decks are sold as complete and ready-to-play. For a kids-oriented game, it just isn’t worth sinking lots of money into dozens of booster packs in order to amass a large enough pool of random cards from which to build a winning deck. The art and science of cultivated deck-building is largely lost on gaming kids, anyway. Besides, Pokémon is already entrenched as the genre’s bridge between kids and Dads, plus it lends itself to a great deal more refined and sophisticated deck construction. As is, I would mostly recommend buying the Super Hero Squad starter set (which includes 2 decks) and then one or more of the themed decks that are now available. If you want to spend the time online to advance far enough (and it can take a while), you can always try your hand there at deck-building, without spending a ton of money. If Upper Deck continues to release new sets (there are currently about 300 cards), then perhaps it would elevate its depth and complexity, which might make it worth the cost to boost your collection. Unfortunately, that would also compromise the title’s greatest strength: its streamlined accessibility.
Many elements endemic to the CCG genre are present here, writ simple. The core system and game mechanics are straight-forward, with smooth rules and very little table clutter to confuse play. There is a bit of depth to entice adults; but no question, the game is geared toward children. Therefore, Super Hero Squad’s lasting power is questionable as the concept and value of buying a large collection of cards from which to construct sophisticated decks will be lost on the target audience. However, if one forgoes the extensive “collecting” part of the game and instead utilizes the starter set and theme decks in conjunction with online play, Super Hero Squad is an enjoyable romp and fun introduction to a large, sociable, challenging, and lucrative field in the hobby.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Upper Deck Entertainment for providing a review copy of Super Hero Squad.