Marvel superheroes have become a pop culture phenomenon, rocketing skyward largely thanks to the MCU. We love a good hero who fights for justice and stands up for what’s right, and who can take a punch while knocking some scummy villain the full length of a football field.
It’s actually surprising that a game of this stature in Marvel’s name hasn’t been published up til now. Sure, we’ve had Heroclix all along, but that remains in its own corner of the hobby gaming market. A few smaller games have popped up here and there, but now we finally have a blockbuster tabletop game. Naturally, people are excited. But is this just a cash-in on a popular franchise guaranteed to sell thousands of copies, or is there something deeper to Marvel Champions?
How It Plays
Champions is a cooperative card game in which players take on the role of various Marvel superheroes to fight classic villains from the marvel universe. It’s also an LCG (Living Card Game), meaning player decks can be customized. New packs will be released on the regular featuring new heroes and villains, along with new cards to modify your existing decks.
In game, your goal is to defeat the main villain by knocking them down to 0 hit points. Meanwhile, the villain has some dastardly scheme up their sleeve. The villain wins by adding enough Threat to their main scheme. In the core set, villains (and some of their schemes) have multiple phases, so when the first phase is defeated/accomplished, the next phase begins until the final phase is completed. Later phases tend to make the villain more powerful and schemes add a twist or snag to bump up the tension.
Each player controls a hero, with an Identity card, a deck, an Obligation card, and a Nemesis set. The Obligation card is mixed into the villain deck, with an effect directly targeting that hero. The Nemesis features a minor villain directly tied to that hero, and may or may not come into play during the game.
The Identity card has both an Alter Ego and Hero form. During play, you can switch forms. The Hero side lets you unleash attacks and thwart the villain’s schemes, while the Alter Ego side is a retreat from battle allowing you to recuperate health but allowing the villain to pursue their scheme more effectively.
On a player’s turn, they can play cards from their hand, use any actions on cards in play, utilize basic actions for their hero and any allies in play, switch forms once, and ask other players to utilize any actions they have in play. Actions, in general, entail dealing damage, drawing cards, healing, thwarting schemes, and so forth. You can get upgrades or allies that stay in play, or events that are one-time-use.
The core mechanism that drives the game is that you must pay for any card you play with resources. Resources are gained primarily by discarding cards from your hand. While there are some resource-specific cards, most of the time you’ll need to decide which cards you aren’t going to play in order to pay for the cards you will play.
After each player has taken their turn, players refill their hand of cards and refresh all their exhausted cards. Then the villain takes their turn.
The villain will add Threat to their scheme, and then target each player with an attack. If the player is in Hero form, the villain will attempt to deal damage to the player. Heroes have a basic Defense action, or they can send an ally to absorb the attack, or another Hero can step in to take on the attack. However, if the player is in Alter Ego form, the villain will instead scheme, adding additional threat.
Finally, each player will face an Encounter card, which may deal damage, bring out minions, force someone to face their Obligation, add side schemes that complicate the situation, or possibly even bring a nemesis into play.
Finally, the first player token passes and a new round begins. Play continues until the heroes defeat the villain – or the villain completes his evil plan before the players can stop him!
The term “LCG,” not to mention the sheer variety of cards and stats on display, may be intimidating to many people who feel that such a game is too complex or rules-heavy for them. But truthfully, Marvel Champions is the LCG for everyone. It’s built to be accessible without significantly dumbing down the experience. Yes, your average player will have to learn more rules than your average family Eurogame, but after nailing down the basics, the game is focused, and most of the rules come in the form of printed card text.
Brief expository paragraph here – LCG, or Living Card Game, means players can customize their decks with different cards to fit their play style. While CCGs (Collectible Card Games) like Magic: the Gathering require you to buy randomized card packs and hope for the best, LCG packs have set contents, so you know what you’re getting with each box.
Right from opening the box, it’s clear that Marvel Champions is a game FFG wants you to get playing as quickly as possible. Two heroes – Captain Marvel and Spider-Man – as well as a Villain deck (Rhino) are shrink-wrapped with ready-to-play decks so you don’t even need to sort through any cards before you play the first time.
Inside the rulebook, you’ll also find first-time builds for the other three heroes. The only caveat is that there are five heroes and only four aspects (more on that later), so you can’t include both She-hulk and Iron Man using the exact basic builds. After a couple plays, it’s easy to shift Aspects around, so this is a very minor issue.
Each hero deck is filled with cards that just feel cool to play, and each offers up a bit of that hero’s flavor and style. Spider-Man can web up enemies and dodge attacks, is very resourceful, and has a few powerful hits. Captain Marvel charges up her photonic energy to constantly put enemies on blast (literally). Tony Stark needs to spend some time putting his suit together, but once he does he can unleash massive, widespread attacks. She-Hulk is powerful, but also relies on self-sacrifice – and with fewer hit points can unleash some devastating attacks. She’s also got some tricks up her sleeve in Alter-Ego form that allow her to thwart schemes even while recovering. Black Panther also has to get his tech into play, but can be more active while doing so. And when he finally unleashes the full power of Wakanda (“Wakanda Forever!”) he can massively impact the field with attacks, healing, and thwarting all at once.
While there are keywords to learn and icons to remember (keep that rules reference booklet handy), there are a ton of smart design decisions that make the gameplay fluid and fast-paced.
First of all, it’s great that you can just use all your abilities on your turn. You don’t have to worry about action limits – just how to pay. It’s a simple but common mechanic to pay to play cards using other cards in your hand, which automatically adds a level of player choice. What’s worth saving? What will you sacrifice in order to play the card you want to play? Most of the cards feel great to play, so it’s always tough to give up one. It also encourages you to learn your deck so you know if you have more copies of a card, or if something pairs really well with something else you haven’t drawn yet. Some cards are better than others, but they cost more – so do you spend your whole hand to play one mighty card, or stick to a variety? The right answer isn’t always the same. These decisions are fairly simple to learn, mechanically speaking, but create interesting moments for the players that make them feel like their choices matter and they have an impact on the game.
Also, since you refill your hand at the end of the round, you don’t have to worry about holding back cards. Play everything you can! Use every ability! There’s always something you can do on your turn, even if you’ve just taken a massive hit from the villain.
What really impressed me here is the slick and well-designed Villain phase. Rather than a tedious upkeep phase, it’s broken down into several clean steps, divided among the players to keep it from being a slog. Also the way it is formatted helps pare down the rules and clear up what could be convoluted sections of the game. The order of operations makes it clear when and where certain effects are resolved. It’s also pretty easy to look at the table and see where the biggest problem areas lie, helping you to focus your turns.
The framework for the villain is quite simple – he either adds threat to the scheme or deals damage. Yet even with only these two possibilities, there are myriad effects that make each game its own little story. Side schemes, minions, status cards – all these things come into play without complex rules, yet still affect how your game plays out.
Let’s not forget about the Alter Ego/Hero forms. This mechanism is just brilliant, adding loads of flavor as well as strategy. Thematically, it gives the game a naturally broader scope – you’re not just playing a one-off fight scene. The villain has a long-term plan you must thwart, and while you definitely need to confront them superhero style, you’re also going to need to hide in your alter-ego form to recuperate, build up your abilities, and otherwise prepare for the fight. Of course, the longer you hide, the more scheming the villain can do unhindered. No small part of the game requires you learning to balance forms to keep the villain at bay. Just like a real superhero!
From my experience, the game scales pretty well. Playing solo doesn’t require you to deal with multiple hero decks. Villain hit points, Scheme breaking points, and threat added is all based on the number of players. Villain attacks and encounter cards happen to each player, so this naturally scales as well. I think playing with 4 is the toughest for a few reasons. Certain effects, like Stunning the villain, don’t last as long, relatively speaking, and you burn through the villain deck much faster. Every time the villain deck empties, you add an acceleration token to the scheme, which causes it to gain threat faster. The counter-balance is that, with a variety of heroes and abilities, your team is able to work together, chain abilities off each other, and tackle a wider range of threats each round. It does require communication and coordination, which can take a few plays to learn. I do love that you can ask other players to use their own Actions on their turn, which keeps players engaged when it’s not their turn and allows you to better coordinate abilities when it makes sense to resolve them in a particular order.
Perhaps most importantly, the game creates dramatic moments. In one game, Rhino was one threat away from finishing his scheme. It was then that Black Panther showed up (we decided story-wise that he finally felt the threat was big enough to emerge from Wakanda and do something about it), unleashed several Wakanda Forever! cards which chain all his Black Panther tech together. Destroyed a couple minions, healed other heroes, brought the threat back down. The rest of us rallied together, cleaned up a significant amount of threat, and the next round were able to beat Rhino’s HP down to zero for the win. It was a huge climax, a near-defeat that turned into an epic victory. Good times.
In regards to the deckbuilding aspect… what you get in the core set allows very minimal customization. Just a taste of what’s (hopefully) to come. The most obvious thing you can play around with is the different aspects; just use the pre-built aspect set and mix with a different hero. With 5 heroes and 4 aspects (Justice, Aggression, Protection, Leadership), you can try 20 different combinations and see how things play out.
There are a few extra cards for each Aspect – mostly additional copies of cards that are used – to allow for some simple customization. Add one card you like here, remove another there. Nothing huge.
Clearly this core set is designed to get people playing, to encourage them to try heroes out with different aspects, to get a sense of how different cards can work together without putting a full load of deckbuilding on them right away. This will be a disappointment for LCG players looking to make custom builds immediately, but a steady stream of new packs is only months away.
I am curious how the deckbuilding will ultimately play out. In a competitive LCG, you’re pitting your own custom builds against that of another player, so tweaking and adjusting for the maximum possible effectiveness makes sense. In a cooperative LCG, there’s less of a moving target. Customization would seem, to me, more based on player preference than building the best deck. After all, if you can beat a villain with a given deck, does it matter if you can make that deck even better? If you can’t beat a villain, is there a particular combination of cards that works best, and if so how much “personalization” is there really? I have no experience with this – I never played the Lord of the Rings or Arkham co-op LCGs, so perhaps players experienced with that sort of thing would have more intelligent things to say. I’m curious how it will turn out.
Time will tell as new scenarios, heroes, villains, and cards are released. As far as the core set goes, you’ve got a fully playable game right out of the box. It’s a complete game that requires no deckbuilding to get a significant number of plays out of it, so even if you only care about the Marvel aspect and not the LCG, this game could be for you.
As for me, I’ve been able to play this LCG more than any LCG I’ve dipped my toes into, after only a few weeks. Since it’s cooperative and has a recognizable theme, it’s easy to get people to play. I’m having a grand old time playing with my wife and friends and simply experimenting with the different heroes.
A satisfying experience in its own right, I look forward to seeing what future scenarios, heroes, and deckbuilding choices bring.
iSlaytheDragon was provided a review copy of Marvel Champions by Fantasy Flight Games.