11th Nov2019

‘Marvel Champions: The Card Game’ Review

by Matthew Smail

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Fans of Fantasy Flight Games will be extremely familiar with the concept of the Living Card Game, an idea that takes the deckbuilding and customisation aspects of a Trading Card Game, but rather than selling products to customers in random boosters or similar, Living Card Games are sold in preset packs or bundles, each of which contains a specific list of cards. Marvel Champions: The Card Game is the latest Living Card Game, and for some, it will no doubt be the most exciting.

The base game includes five hero decks and three villains, allowing from one to four players to tackle each villain with a wide variety of different configurations. Each villain has their own scheme and can be played in either an easier or a harder mode depending on the experience level of the players. Whilst the set contains a completely prebuilt deck for each of Spider-man and Captain Marvel, as well as one for the basic setup for Rhino, you’ll have to build the Iron Man, She-Hulk and Black Panther decks yourself, as well as the Klaw or Ultron villain decks.

One slight issue with the base set is that there aren’t enough cards in it to actually meet the requirements of all five of the basic hero decks that the game suggests. This is because each hero deck is made up of fifteen cards that are specific to that hero, plus at least one set of specific cards from a named group, such as Aggression or Justice. She-Hulk and Iron Man both require the Aggression cards, and if you wish to play with them side by side, you’ll need to substitute that set of cards for one of those not in play.

This is a slight digression however, because we mustn’t forget that all Living Card Games are fiddly in the same way as Trading Card Games are, and crucially, expansions are already on the way – with the first one featuring Captain America. My expectation is that it won’t be long before players will have a sufficient number of these basic cards to fulfil the needs of any combination of recommended decks, and it will be a matter of weeks before the internet is littered with customised deck brews that allow players to make the best mix of different sets to best effect.

The five heroes in the base set are pleasingly diverse and it’s nice to see a character like She-Hulk (who is quite often absent from games like this) take a starring role. If you cast your mind back to my review of Marvel: Legendary (which is a completely different system from a different publisher) you’ll recall that I wasn’t overly impressed with the villains on offer. The same is true for Marvel Champions: The Card Game, and again, I’ve no doubt that more interesting enemies will be made available via expansion packs.

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With deckbuilding and game setup (which is most certainly the fiddliest part of the game) done, gameplay can begin. The players will always control one or more heroes each, with the villain driven by the chosen scheme deck and a basic set of rules that will always be followed. Whilst learning the game is a little clunky, it won’t be long before players understand the basic flow and can rattle through turns quickly. Most of the actual gameplay is similar to that of other complex card games like Magic: The Gathering or one of the other Fantasy Flight LCG’s, should you have played them.

On their turn, a player will assess their hand of cards (which is determined by the hand limit of their hero) and decide what to do. They can switch form from the hero side of their character card to the alter ego (or vice versa) once, and if applicable, they can use an action on either side by exhausting the card (by turning it sideways.) Broadly speaking, the hero side may have a special ability and can usually attack the villain, or thwart their plans by taking scheme tokens off it. The alter ego side can usually only heal or use a printed action, but on the plus side, the villain will never attack an alter ego.

In addition to flipping their card and/or using an ability, thwart or attack, a player can also play any number of cards from their hand, as long as they can afford them. To purchase a card, the player will assess its cost and then discard cards that generate sufficient resources of the correct kind, as shown on their bottom left hand corner. Some cards also specifically produce energy when played, and can therefore also contribute to this spend. Some cards can be played as the result of any kind of resources being spent, whilst others need a specific resource – like energy.

Once the players have all had their turns, the villain will act. Firstly, they will scheme – usually involving the placement of a number of threat tokens onto their current scheme card. The number of tokens placed will be affected by how many heroes are playing, and usually if a scheme card reaches its threat limit, it will advance the game in a bad way for the heroes.

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Often, in the case of Rhino for example, it will mean that the villain has succeeded at their plot and the players lose. Once scheming is done, a card will be drawn from the villain deck, and it may be a minion, an attack or something else like a side plot that has to be defeated before the heroes can once again focus on the villain and their plan. One really nice feature of each hero deck is that every hero has both a nemesis villain and a personal agenda that may or may not appear. The personal agenda item is shuffled into the villain deck and might be drawn, whilst certain cards in each villain deck could trigger a nemesis encounter, introducing new cards.

I particularly enjoy the way that the different combinations of heroes, villains, schemes and villain decks come together to create different outcomes (which to be fair is exactly what I liked about Marvel: Legendary as well.) Whilst the possibility of a personal agenda or a nemesis is always present, you never know if it will turn up or who it will affect. Similarly, the villain decks themselves are filled with fun distractions and interesting surprises that twist the gameplay in interesting directions.

Each hero also plays in a very unique way. Iron Man, for example, is fairly weak at the beginning of the game, but a lot of his specific cards represent him building and improving his suit, adding permanent upgrades that make him more and more powerful when played. She-Hulk on the other hand has a very interesting mixture of cards that slow the villains progress and deal damage, making her feel very authentic. Spider-man is relatively poor on direct damage, but he has a lot of healing skills that help allies, and abilities that slow the villain and/or place effects on them. Captain Marvel is an absolute sledgehammer, and Black Panther is also very powerful on offence.

As is so often the case in FFG products these days, the rules are presented in two ways – firstly in a Quick Start Guide, which aims to get players into their first game as fast as possible, and then via a Rules Reference which is an aide for more advanced play. I really like this was of teaching a complex game like Marvel Champions, since such games require a fair bit of organic growth for players to become fully proficient at them, and practice makes perfect. It’s also nice to see such a straightforward description of the deckbuilding elements as the one in the back of the Quick Start Guide – this will be a great help to players who are new to this kind of game.

The actual component quality on offer here is good, and the box (very rarely for an FFG product) comes with a plastic insert that can be used to organise sleeved cards into decks. Of course, there are no sleeves included so if you don’t intend to sleeve your cards, this storage solution won’t help you. The quality of the artwork is good, with most cards featuring some of the classic artwork from the Marvel comics. Another thing that I didn’t like about Marvel: Legendary was the choice to use film stills rather than comic book art – perhaps I now know why. Either way, the comic book art is bright and colourful, and it suits the game to a tee.

I’m very excited about what Marvel Champions: The Card Game has to offer. The base game has a generous amount of content even if the villains are a bit second rate, but the inevitable string of expansions is already beginning to be laid out, and personally I can’t wait to expand my collection of cards. I expect a lot of support for this product in the next few years, and Marvel Champions could easily become a staple game for many groups, especially if cooperative play is your thing. Remember that there is no competitive mode, so if that’s a problem for you, it might be wise to try the game before you buy.

**** 4/5

Marvel Champions: The Card Game is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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