If you’re into super-heroes and comics, no doubt you’ve played the “what if” game countless times. Among comic book fans, the arguments might be endless. What if Wolverine battled Spiderman? How far would Green Goblin get against Iron Man? What would it look like, even, if two villains went toe to toe, like Magneto and Loki? And the ultimate question of all: who’s the best? It’s Captain America, by the way (Meghan’s opinion varies on this – it is obviously Wolverine who is best, you canucklehead!).
Today we look at one arena in which you can settle those debates once and for all!
How it Plays
In Marvel Dice Masters, you assemble a team of characters – any combination of heroes, villains, or anti-heroes, and Captain America, of course – from the Marvel Comics universe and duel it out with another player’s team.
“Dice Masters” refers to the general dice-building, collectible gaming engine. “Marvel” simply identifies a certain set of cards and dice with that particular intellectual property. There have been two Marvel sets released so far – Avengers vs. X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, though characters in the sets are not limited solely to the Avengers and X-Men. Other sets exist based on the DC Comics universe and Yu-Gi-Oh. Age of Ultron will be a third Marvel set released in the spring. While the Dice Masters system is very similar across intellectual properties, we’ll discuss the game based only on the two current Marvel sets. It’s the only important one, anyway – it has Captain America.
Before jumping into how to play, you might like to know what you’re collecting. There are two components in the game: cards and dice. When you acquire a character – from either the starter set or in a booster pack – you get that character’s card and one corresponding die. Generally, a character has anywhere from 3-4 cards in a set which are all different versions of that hero or villain, each with a unique ability or trait. A character’s accompanying dice can be used with any of its card editions. In a game, you’re only allowed one version of a character on a team, which means sadly you cannot have a team of six Caps – but then that would just be way broken. Additionally, each character has a dice limit, generally a max of 4. So you only need to collect one card per character version, but at least 4-5 dice per character to ensure you’re able to assemble any team you’d like.
These dice are six-sided. When rolled, three sides provide energy, essentially the game’s currency. The other three sides are different levels of that character. Each face lists how much energy it requires to field that level, how much damage it inflicts, and its health. Meanwhile, the card specifies how much energy it costs to buy that character’s die, explains its powers during play, and displays a quick reference bar showing the 6 faces of its die.
When constructing your team, you’ll choose 6 characters – 5 plus Captain America, obviously – (or 8 total in tournament play) and place their cards in your play area. Then you assign 15 dice between your team (20 in tournament play), keeping in mind an individual character’s maximum dice limit. Placing those dice next to their corresponding character cards, they are available for purchase as you can afford them. You’ll also choose 2 action cards – as does your opponent, for a total of 4. Each action comes with 3 dice that either player may purchase during the game. These dice either provide 2 generic energy or allow you to activate the action card’s special ability.
You begin the game with 8 generic, white, sidekick dice. Four faces on these provide one energy each of the four main types: mask, fist, bolt, and shield. One face provides a “wild” energy, which can be used as any of the four main types. The final face is a general sidekick character – a weak, but free fighter. Throw all 8 of these dice in your dice bag and you’re ready to go.
On a turn, you’ll shake up your bag and draw and roll four dice. As you’ve probably quickly deduced, this means that you only draw those plain sidekick dice on your first two turns. If you’re not satisfied with your first roll, you may re-roll any number of dice once. After that, the result stands.
Then you must decide what to do with them. Obviously, your two options will either be energy to spend or characters to field (though with action dice, you may activate the corresponding ability as appropriate). Energy is used to buy character or action dice and/or to field characters. If you want to buy a character from your available team pool, you must expend the right amount of total energy from your roll to meet that die’s cost – plus at least one of those energy sources must match that of the character. For example, if you’d like to buy one of your Captain America dice (and who wouldn’t?), you must roll and spend at least one shield energy to match his energy type. The wild energy icon on the sidekick dice may substitute for any type, though the generic energy icon on action dice may not.
There is no such energy-matching constraint involved with fielding a character. If you roll a character face on any dice, you may simply expend a number of energy from that same roll to meet its fielding cost. Fielding costs vary depending from character to character and also upon the particular level rolled. In any event, fielded characters go into the…Field. All energy expended for purchases and any unfielded characters, plus any new dice that you just purchased, go into your Used Pile. Unused energy may remain in your Reserve Pool until further use or at the start of your next turn, when it’s discarded if not used. The Used Pile goes back in your bag when its empty.
After purchasing dice and fielding characters you may then attack. There are no energy costs associated with attacks. You simply choose which characters (sidekicks included) to move from your Field into the Attack Zone. Then your opponent can assign characters from her Field to block your attackers, because any unblocked attacks deal damage directly to the player. Otherwise, blocked attackers may only deal damage to and/or knock out the characters defending against them. Any character who’s hit points matches or exceeds its opposing character’s health, knock out that hero or villain. Superfluous hit points do nothing further, so a weak character can effectively neutralize a stronger one from dealing direct player damage – at least for a turn. Attackers and blockers inflict damage both ways, simultaneously, so a blocker can actually knock out its attacker, while still remaining in play.
During the Action phase, either player can spend reserve energy, if available, to use Global abilities, as appropriate. Some characters make global abilities available for a cost, and either player has access to them, regardless of whether or not its associated character is on your team or even in play at the moment. They are simply static abilities always available.
At the end of the attack, knocked out characters go into the Prep Area. At the start of your next turn, you’ll add any dice from your Prep Area to the 4 dice you draw from your bag, and roll them all together. Characters that were engaged, but not knocked out, return to the Field. Any character that was able to go through unblocked and deal its damage directly to the player winds up in the Used Pile after its assault.
As soon as one player has dealt 15 direct damage to the other (20 in a tournament game), you may finally settle the matter of who is better than whom. Hint: It’s still the First Avenger.
Do You Need a Hero?
I promised myself never to get into a collectible gaming system. When my boys were into Pokémon, I pathetically tried to keep up. But the sets changed so fast, I quickly got frustrated with the entire concept. I just couldn’t sink the money into it in order to have cool, dynamic and competitive decks. Finally it dawned on me that all we really needed to casually enjoy the game were maybe a dozen theme decks, or so, perhaps even less. By the time I figured that out, my boys were no longer into the game. Figures. And while you can always invest in any CCG with that philosophy in mind, there’s just something about the psychology in “collecting ‘em all.” It’s a lure, a temptation, a Siren’s call leading gamers to shipwreck upon the shores of store counters.
So I washed my hands of them. Not too long ago, though, I begrudgingly talked myself into delving into the living card game format – just one. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Card Game. While you can still invest many pennies in all of the expansions and add-on packs, at least you know that what you’re purchasing is complete and you’ve knowledge of the precise cost to exact such completeness. I was content. Then WizKids had to go and do this. It’s Marvel. Oh, why did it have to be Marvel?! I can’t get enough of the Avengers. I’m a huge Captain America fan. And my boys are in to the universe, as well.
So, here I am. Thankfully, if you can avoid the “gotta collect ‘em all” impulse, you don’t need to jeopardize your kid’s college fund to enjoy Dice Masters. For the price of the starter set and one gravity feed box of booster packs, you’ll have more than enough to realize the system’s best potential and ensure a long shelf life. Granted, you won’t have every version of every character and it’s still no mean chunk of change. However, you will have at least a couple of versions of every character, plus at least one super rare card, and enough dice per character to make any of them a worthy addition to your team. Plus, people have been known to spend the same amount of money on just one or two miniatures for some other gaming system. So…?
One of the main reasons you really don’t need to collect them all is because the super rare cards are not the “be all, end all” in Dice Masters. And that’s refreshing! The first two Marvel sets have four super rares apiece. They’re very nice cards, to be sure, but they’re not so powerful that any team without one is uncompetitive. There are plenty of common cards that are just as nice and, depending on the individual player’s opinion, even better. And there are numerous ways to counter those rare cards with the more common character versions below.
A lot of that results from the design’s team orientation. Some cards pack a wallop in their own right, but so many character effects and powerful abilities depend on who else that hero or villain is teamed up with – or even who’s across the field. That’s the true beauty of the design. You only use 6 or 8 characters a game. And during a game, they’re all available to acquire in your dice pool, assuming you roll the energy to buy them. You don’t have to wait to pull something you want randomly from a deck, or for some other card that lets you search your deck, or discard something for good after it’s used. There is a nice cyclical churn to the game.
It also means there are thousands of combinations to experiment with, possibly hundreds of thousands; I don’t know, I’m not a statistician. In fact, I’ll go even bolder and declare the options are infinite. The point is you have an enormous sandbox to play in and dozens of strategies with which to approach it. You can go for brute strength, cards that maximize blocking, abilities that draw more dice out, traits that let you re-roll dice, cards that mess with your opponent’s dice, combos that get the most out of the action cards, powers that spin up your characters’ levels, and even abilities that rely on the lowly sidekicks. Mixing and matching characters that synergize is both rewarding and tremendous fun. You can build a team based on maximizing talents, solidifying thematic correctness, or just because you always wanted to see Hulk and Dr. Doom be pals. Captain America leading a group of villains? Sacrilege, I know! But possible.
Having said that, the sets certainly have their fair share of undesirables. Though that’s a common issue with any collectible model. There are weak characters. There are some that really only work well when teamed up with certain others. Still some are expensive enough that it’s difficult to justify including them – being quite likely you may never be able to deploy them in time to make a difference. Thankfully, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Much of the satisfaction is in the trial and error figuring out what works for you and what sinks you.
I’ve waxed gloriously about Marvel Dice Masters. And while I’m content with over-looking its flaws, it does have some doozies. Indeed, many gamers can’t look past them. It’s not very thematic, for one. Beyond the fact that teams often consist of incongruous characters fighting alongside each other; heroes fight other heroes, villains ally with good guys, and sometimes a character will battle itself like some bizarre Mirror Universe. The game can also be very random and swingy. It’s dice-based, after all. Unlucky draws and bad rolls have undone many a fight. However, most people expect as much given the design’s nature and the randomness is not overly egregious because the game plays fast. So theme and luck are easy issues to forgive.
Not so easily excused are rules ambiguity and lack of official support. In regards to the former, there are so many different powers, abilities, and special aspects that many are difficult to interpret. Especially when different abilities interact with and affect each other. Questions about timing, location, and ongoing effects are quite common and may start an argument or two. And the rule book is a confusing mess, though the second set saw an improvement. Another short-coming is organized play and official support, or lack thereof. WizKids has sponsored some official tournaments, but only in a handful of large cities, and other grassroots movements are simply not materializing on a wide scale. A lot of that has to do with the production and supply difficulties that the first set experienced. Indeed at this point, good luck finding a starter set or even boosters for Avengers vs. X-Men. On top of that, it seems like WizKids’ shotgun approach in stamping 4 different IPs on the system – nearly simultaneously now – is only harming each one individually.
So can I recommend Dice Masters to you, my brother and sister in gaming? Well, no matter how much of a blast the game is and despite the design’s enormous potential, I waffle on making a hard recommendation. That’s solely due to the collectible model, one that I don’t agree with and even detest, no matter how much I realize that statement contradicts pretty much this whole review! This title was in our Game of the Year discussion, that’s how good I think it is. Yet the drawbacks of the collectible aspect nixed it from contention fairly early on.
So while I may think you need to go out and get this game right away, I’m nonetheless sensitive to the fact it may not make fiscal sense. If you have plenty of discretionary income, then by all means. If your budget is more discerning, then I would suggest sticking only to the IP in which you’re most interested. If you have difficulty curbing collecting impulses, then you may want to stay clear.
For me personally, I’m all about Marvel. I won’t bother with the DC, Yu-Gi-Oh, or Dungeons and Dragons sets. I could care less with those IPs. But with Marvel, I’m in – just not all in. I don’t need every card and five of every single die. I’ve no access to any local organized play, anyway, so I’m more than content with the endless casual fun and strategy afforded by the starter set and a gravity feed of boosters. That’s right; I’ve successfully resisted the Siren’s call. Although. I can’t wait for Age of Ultron…
Magnificent Marvel or Noticeably Normal
Marvel Dice Masters is a dice building game that combines “push your luck” elements and “risk reward balancing”, with sensible and streamlined attack mechanics. Games move at a Quicksilver pace, and never overstay their welcome; you can finish a game in 25 minutes or less. Because games are so quick, you can spend time working on your strategy and team building in order to rain (Dr.) Doom upon your enemies.
The game features a ton of characters, and each of them has several versions with different abilities. The possibilities and combinations are endless. Complaints have actually been made regarding this, since you can have any character you want on your team. Some have said that this breaks the theme of the game. Who would expect to have Green Goblin team up with the X-men?
Yet I find that this affords you the opportunity to role play. You can make up stories of why your team was put together. Perhaps some sort of mind control comes into play or a dastardly plot that requires heroes and villains to band together against a common enemy. You can even role-play yourself as a character straight out of the Marvel universe. This way you are putting together a team with a purpose, rather than being some benevolent overlord randomly summoning super heroes and villains to fight for you. It can make the game a lot more interesting and allows you to immerse yourself in the theme rather than ignoring it.
Despite the luck and random elements, this game offers layers of depth and strategy. You never know which dice you will draw, and then as you roll them you are faced with many decisions. Every choice influences the outcome of the game, and you have to determine what your best course of action will be. You need to consider which dice to re-roll, which to keep, whose die to buy, which to field, who is going to attack and who will defend. You also need to watch your opponent’s field and think about how they will defend against your attack and how that will affect your long term plans. Actions and global actions need to be taken into account which may be taken advantage of by either side. The sheer amount of choice you have is Fantastic (Four) and goes to show you just how deep the game can be.
Some may be turned off by the collectible aspect of this game. However, compared to some collectible games, Marvel Dice Masters is relatively reasonably priced. The starter set will only cost you around fifteen dollars and the booster packs are a dollar for two dice and two cards. It does fall into the trap that the more money you spend, the better your team will be. You just need to gauge how far you want to take the game and how much you want to spend. However, the base game alone can still give you a fun experience, so unless you are planning on playing competitively, it can be all you need to enjoy what the game has to offer!
As far as components go, this game has very little to it. You have your dice, cards, the paper dice bag and the rules. You can get a play mat, but it’s unnecessary to play the game. If you have read my Quarriors! Review you know that I have issues with WizKids and their die quality, and Marvel Dice Masters is no exception. A lot of the number of dice had smudged paint or no paint at all on them, and some of the colors were inconsistent. I really wasn’t surprised by this, as it is the low quality that I have come to expect from WizKids. The only other negative thing I have to say about the components is that the rules aren’t easy to follow. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation, and I found that my opponent and I often interpreted certain rules in different ways. The rules FAQs are a must when you just get started, but once you know the game it is intuitive and easily taught.
The dice bag that comes with the base set is surprisingly durable, which I was shocked about. I thought after a few plays it would have fallen apart, but it is still going strong. The only problem I have with it is the size; once you start getting more and more dice, it becomes more cumbersome.
Card-wise, I have no complaints. The artwork is beautiful and colorful and I had no issues reading or interpreting what was listed on each card. They can get a bit bent when they come in the booster packs, though.
Marvel Dice Masters is a fun, quick and strategic game. The amount of decision-making involved, as well as the role playing I throw into it, makes it an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience. Enjoy the game for what it offers you and don’t let the fact that it is collectible ruin that; you get a lot of bang for your buck!