Friday 20 April 2012

Review - Marvel Heroes

With the imminent release of Avengers Assemble here in the UK, what better way is there to start my spangly new blog than to dust off my old review for Marvel Heroes? Well, actually there are lots of better ways, most of them involving free cake and fireworks. But here's the review anyway, which first appeared on Sadly, this game is now out of production, but that's kind of the point of this blog in the first place.

Marvel Heroes
Published by Nexus
Designed by Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello
2 to 4 players, ages 12 to adult

Before I begin, a memory from my childhood... When I was very very young, I saved up my pocket money and I ordered a game called Space Crusade from a catalogue. I had saved for that game for a long time, and had spent many hours staring longingly at the little picture in the catalogue that showed all those lovely little plastic space marines and the various monsters they would fight in the stricken Hulks of outer space. When I finally had enough money to order it, I just couldn't wait for it to turn up. I was so excited, I spent all day at school hoping the game would have arrived by the time I got home. It seemed to take forever, but it really couldn't have been more than a few days; and then one Saturday morning the package arrived. Still in my pyjamas, I ripped open the box and... well, the game didn't quite live up to my excitement, but it was a lot of fun and I played it to death.

But what does this have to do with Marvel Heroes? Well, I'm getting older now. I'm married. I have a mortgage.

Yes, yes, but what has this got to do with Marvel Heroes? Okay, the point is simply, I spent a long time thinking about whether or not to buy this game, and when I finally put in the order I got that same sense of excited expectation I had got with Space Crusade. I was ringing up my wife on my lunch breaks just to see if it had turned up in the post while I was at work!! I felt like a big kid again. I hadn't been this excited waiting for Fury of Dracula to turn up. I hadn't been this excited waiting for Arkham Horror to turn up. I hadn't been this excited since Space Crusade.

And why was I so excited? I suppose there are two reasons. First up, it's Marvel. You know... MARVEL! Reason enough to be excited. But also, this was a game with toys. Just like Space Crusade had all those lovely marines and orks and dreadnoughts, Marvel Heroes has 20 hand-finished figures of super heroes and super villains. Hardly any of my other games boast toys like these - Arkham Horror (my favourite game) uses card tokens, Fury of Dracula has only five playing pieces (nice ones though), Blue Moon, Odin's Ravens, Dracula, LOTR: The Duel... mainly cards. The only things that come close to this level of "toyness" are my chess sets (I collect) and my Navia Dratp base set (which I class as a chess set anyway).

So when I finally got the game and I ripped open the box and saw all those plastic heroes, was I impressed? So impressed, actually, that I feel I should very briefly review the pieces before I talk about anything else...

Marvel Heroes - inside the box
Inside the Marvel Heroes box.

I am sure anybody reading this already knows that the game contains four teams of four heroes. In most cases, the heroes selected for each team are the obvious ones you would expect. I know my wife was disappointed that Gambit doesn't appear in the X-Men (he doesn't seem to have a card in the resources deck either, massive oversight!!!). Here are my opinions of each set of heroes and the four supervillains they face:

Fantastic Four: The centrepiece of this team is a big chunky sculpt of The Thing in full Clobberin' Time pose (note: none of the heroes are just standing around, they are all in dynamic "action" poses). This is one of the best sculpts, but is somewhat balanced out by the sculpts of the rest of the team. Human Torch is in a very unnatural-looking "flame on" pose, Invisible Woman is creating an energy field which is quite dull, and then you have Mr Fantastic... My oh my oh my. My wife nicknamed him Mr Tickle because he has been sculpted with stupid bendy arms. I know its his special power to be all bendy like this, but really, it just looks rubbish. Their opponent, Dr Doom, looks fantastic, except there is a very obvious join line where his cape was attached to his back.

Marvel Heroes - Fantastic Four
This is the best disco ever.

Avengers: Hulk stands out here, and not just because of his size. His stance makes him look like he has just taken a missile in the chest and is getting ready to SMASH the launcher of said missile. Captain America is deflecting projectiles with his shield. Thor is wielding his hammer, as one would expect. Iron Man has a very odd Centurions look about him (does anyone else remember that cartoon?). Red Skull, their nemesis, has that typical hands-on-hip evil villain look going on, but lets down what is otherwise the nicest set of figures.

Marvel Heroes - Avengers
"Haven't we got a movie to be in?"

Marvel Knights: Let down by Daredevil, who is sculpted in mid-run, but has been posed too dynamically. He looks like he is about to pass the baton in a relay race or something. Spiderman is web-slinging. Doctor Strange is levitating (sculpted so his cloak holds him aloft in case you thought you got a free anti-grav device in every game), and Elektra is wielding her sai blades. Kingpin is doing a classic fist-clenching "I will crush you" pose while leaning on his cane.

Marvel Heroes - Marvel Knights
Spiderman gets to hang out with characters from less successful movies.

Finally (phew), the X-Men: No surprises for guessing the team consists of Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm and Jean Grey. Seriously! What an obvious selection. Cyclops is probably the best sculpt of the lot, and certainly has the cleanest paint job. He is in energy blast pose. Jean Grey looks like she is concentrating her mental powers. Storm is posed so that you can imagine clouds and lightning swirling around. Wolverine is, of course, in brawling pose with claws exposed. Magneto is nicely done, but again has a very obvious join line on his cape.

Marvel Heroes - X-Men
What, no Rogue?

Okay, that's all the figures. The rest of the game is made up of cards, tokens, and a game board. Oh, and dice... The cards contain comic book art so are obviously beautiful. The tokens are tokens, they is what they is - functional and sturdy. The dice are plastic and have POW symbols all over them. And the board... the board is about as ugly as a board can possibly be.

Now, a lot of people say the board is pointless (the figures too), but I am going to put a little aside here before getting back to the review to give my opinions on that matter.

The board DOES have a purpose. It allows you to easily track EVERYTHING in the game. It shows you who is where in the city, how many heroes they have supporting them (maximum two, so it is important to know), the status of all the heroes that are in play (ready or supporting), and how many victory points each team has. Furthermore (and this is important in a game that involves so many different types of cards) the board has spaces for all the different card decks (and spaces for the discard piles as well). This keeps everything neat and tidy, and you aren't left with loads of cards scattered all over the table. Could you play without the board? Sure. Would I personally want to? Hell no.

And the figures... The figures have a purpose too. They track the status and location of every team member. You need to know this information, so you need a way of monitoring it. Yes, you could use card chits or something, but by using the figures you can tell instantly who is doing what without having to lean all over the board squinting at little card tokens. In a game that can potentially have four teams of four heroes (plus villains) moving around the place, it is really important to be able to quickly see what is going on, and the figures allow you to do this. Also, of course, figures are much easier to handle than card tokens.

Enough about that, back to the review:

I'll try and sum the game up in a few lines. I'm not going to cover rules here, I've already jabbered for quite some time as it is, and this review would turn into a real essay if I started recapping all the rules too.

Basically, groups of heroes attempt to solve crimes by sending the best hero for the job. Got some fighting to do? Send Hulk. Someone needs to be rescued? Send Captain America. Makes perfect sense - if solving the crime involves a lot of scientific research, you want Tony Stark on the case, not Hulk smashing things with his head.

Heroes can play ally cards to strengthen their team, their opponents can play villain cards to oppose them. Occasionally the super villain will come out to play and things get ugly. Solve the crime and you win some victory points. Get enough victory points and you win the game.

There are also a few other game elements to add diversity, such as story cards. Story cards reflect, well... newspaper stories. There are always four cards in play. Every turn a new card is drawn, and the oldest card is removed from play. On your turn, you can advance the track, and the card removed is given to the team the card relates to and that team gets a victory point. Gain three story cards and you get a new power up for your team.

That's pretty much it.

This game is complicated, but not necessarily because there is a lot to do. The complication generally arises when new people playing do not necessarily know what the best thing to do is. For example, on her turn, my wife knows she needs to go and solve a crime and she does this by moving a ready hero (plus support if required) to that location. That's the rule - nice and simple. The complication arises, because she doesn't necessarily know which hero to send, which hero to support, which additional allies to play, what that special super power means, when that ability happens, what it means if someone else is stood over there... The difficulty is not knowing what to do, it is knowing how best to do it.

A lot of people say the rulebook is a nightmare to use. I don't think it's that bad, but it could be better. The problem is that the rulebook tries to deal with each element of the game one at at time. So, the rulebook tells you all about troubleshooting before talking about combat. BUT combat is an element of troubleshooting! This means you get the situation where, in the troubleshooting section it says: "resolve combat using the combat rules, if you win do this, if your opponent wins do that." Note how what happens when the combat is finished is discussed in the troubleshooting section and not in the combat section. If you go to the combat section to find out what to do with your hero who has just been knocked out, you won't find your answer (and neither will you find a note directing you to the troubleshooting section where the answer hides).

I think it would have been easier to discuss each element of the rules in the sequence you would encounter them when playing, so I have written up my own crib sheet where the combat rules are actually embedded into the troubleshooting section (because you only do combat in the troubleshooting phase of the game anyway).

Marvel Heroes
Of course, all the Marvel Heroes art is gorgeous.

I am sure anybody reading this review who doesn't own the game is probably getting pretty confused right now with all this talk of troubleshooting phases, etc. so I will hurry along to the bit where I say if I liked the game or not.

Well, much like when I opened up that copy of Space Crusade all those years ago, my excitement definitely outweighed how good I think the game actually is. Don't get me wrong, I think the game is great (after a few plays). The figures are great, the artwork on the cards is great, the way you play cards to boost your team or hinder your opponent is great. The game is a lot of fun, and anyone who likes Marvel is going to get a kick out of it. BUT it's a little fiddly, and new players will not play with a lot of strategy because they will not understand what a lot of their cards mean. It's never going to be the first game I pull out of the cupboard to play, and I wouldn't dream of trying to get non-gamers to give it a go (tried this once with Arkham Horror, put them all off for life).

Basically, it is a resource management game with some added dice rolling. (By the way, there isn't quite as much dice rolling as you would think. Combat is resolved with dice, but the number of dice you can roll at any point is capped at eight, so you will never get that situation where you are rolling 40 dice and trying to remember what you scored.)

What this game is NOT, is a superhero smack down. It's much more abstract than something like Heroclix, and each hero only has a few special abilities, which often have quite abstract effects.

Here's an example of a special ability in Marvel Heroes: You can move Hulk into support (basically meaning he cannot solve a crime this turn). Then, as an action, you can perform the special ability RAMPAGE where you move him to recovery (meaning he is no longer supporting), draw two resource cards, and then remove the two oldest story cards from the board. Pretty abstract, but if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Hulk goes on a rampage, smashing up the city. All the newspapers report on Hulk's rampage, and any other stories they were thinking of printing get dropped. Kind of makes sense, but you have to think about it.

So, to sum up (at last). If you like resource management and card management games, enjoy Marvel, like games with a lot of player interaction, and have the patience to wade through the rules, then this game could be for you. If this sounds like your idea of hell, then it's probably wise you stay clear.

I rated this game an eight out of ten for now. It will not get played too often in my house, but whenever it does, I think I will have a good time.

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