25th Jun2021

‘X-Men: Mutant Insurrection’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

For reasons that I can’t explain, I tend to shy away from cooperative board games. The likes of Pandemic (especially Pandemic Legacy), Arkham Horror: Final Hour and Horrified always seem to go down well when we play them here, but I think my family thrives on the competitive nature of direct confrontation. Regardless, when we get the chance to review a new cooperative game, we all seem to rise to the challenge. Where Fantasy Flight Games newest cooperative game, X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, is concerned, the IP and generous amount of content was more than enough to whet the appetite nicely.

X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is apparently based on an older FFG game in the Elder Sign series, and in both games, the players lead a team of characters against an increasingly challenging series of somewhat randomised encounters, in the context of a wider plot. Where Elder Sign was based on the somewhat overused Lovecraft universe, X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is obviously based on the comic book world that shares the same name. Notably then, fans of the X-Men (comics in particular) will see characters and artwork that they are very familiar with, and this is one of those occasions where I think the thematic universe actually enhances the appeal.

This is not least because X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is extremely generous with its characters and plotlines, giving the players sixteen heroes to choose from, and eight different multi-part scenarios to play through. I should mention that even though these characters are represented by standees rather than miniatures, that actually works better for me, because it both keeps the cost down and also ensures that the artwork is consistent across cards, tokens and standees alike. In addition to the characters and plot cards, there are also threat cards, mutant cards, a load of mission cards and a handful of villains, as well as twelve custom dice. Overall, X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is a generous and attractive package.

Obviously, where it really matters is on the table, and despite being exclusively cooperative (and quite good solo) X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is a solid, enjoyable experience that just falls at a couple of hurdles. On the positive side, the setup is relatively simple and straightforward, meaning that despite a lot of individual decks and pieces, it becomes second nature after just a few plays. Perhaps the most exciting bit here is in assembling the (entirely superfluous) model of the X-Men’s famous Blackbird airplane, although it does fit neatly into the box after the initial build.

On a more serious note, choosing a good mix of characters is really key in X-Men: Mutant Insurrection because of the different abilities and dice that come with each. Wolverine, for example, rolls numerous red dice, a couple of blues and no yellow, whilst Phoenix is pretty much the opposite. This is because red dice indicate raw strength, whilst blue demonstrate a mutants adaptability and special skills. Yellow dice are linked to psychic powers and as we all know, Wolverine is much more of a direct-action kind of guy, where Phoenix often tends to use her mental powers.

Each X-Men character has both a basic card (showing four dice and one ability) and an assist card (showing two dice and an ability.) When undertaking missions, a core theme in X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is the ability to assist another character at the same location by handing over your assist card – which then temporarily replaces the assist card of the other character. In this way, and to continue the example above, Wolverine could assist Phoenix by covering her assist card with his own, so that when she rolls her “normal” dice, she will add Wolverines two “assist” dice (and the ability printed on his card) which would likely mean she rolls more physical (red die) effects than she otherwise would.

This concept of bonding between characters is continued, literally, by the inclusion of a bond deck. I really love this idea, and it’s something that I haven’t seen before in any game. Effectively, as a reward or a punishment, a player may end up being given a bond card. If positive, this player will draw a card from the bottom of the deck randomly. This card will be placed with their character, and they will then search the deck for the matching card to give to one other character. So, for example, if Love is drawn by Wolverine and he wants to bond with Phoenix, he will give her the other Love card. In this way, both characters will gain a benefit when working together on missions.

On the downside, bonds can be broken as the result of a failed mission, indicating a degradation of trust between two characters. In the example above, if either Wolverine or Phoenix had to break a bond, they would flip their cards onto the opposite side, revealing a negative bond, and forcing the players to work around some effect such as not being able to share assist cards, or possibly not even being able to go on the same mission. This is quite bad as it swings two players from a positive benefit to a negative one. On other occasions, if a player has no bond, then when instructed to break a bond, they will simply draw a bond card and play it for its negative side – degrading their “neutral” starting state to a negative one, which is still quite punishing.

In terms of gameplay, I’ve mentioned missions and plots a few times, and these form the main basis of the game. In short, the aim of each game is to see a set of plot cards through to their conclusion, by completing the objectives shown on each and then following any success or failure instructions. In addition to the plot cards, players will always have a number of continent decks in play (depending on player count) which will spawn side missions of their own. Across all face up missions (on continents, plots and elsewhere) a number of exclamation marks will show – these represent threat – and at the end of every player round, the threat level will increase by the number of exclamation marks.

Success, failure and threat are all important concepts in X-Men: Mutant Insurrection. Firstly, let’s talk about missions. Up to three characters can deploy to one mission and in doing so, they will certainly have a better chance of completing it in “one go.” This matters, because the success or failure criteria of a mission will only trigger if the players attempt that mission – in all cases I saw, a mission would simply “sit there” if no one attempted it. Each mission is made up of two to four lines of objectives – each of which will have up to three icons on it that must be matched by dice rolls. A character attempting a mission can complete one objective but not the rest, but you cannot partially complete an objective – any dice that would be partly spent in this way are simply lost.

The key thing here when attempting missions is that if Wolverine were to complete one or two objectives (lines) on a mission, but not the last one, and there were no other hero there, then that mission would immediately trigger a fail condition. If, however, Phoenix (or any other character) were also on that mission, then they could also attempt it – and they would only need to complete any objectives Wolverine had left behind. In many, many cases, a mission simply cannot be completed by one character in one go – so teamwork becomes absolutely necessary.

The problem, of course, with doubling up on every mission and never spreading your team to some of the missions that are easier to complete (but still risky) is that the number of exclamation marks adds up – and the threat level rises faster. This is a problem, because as threat moves from green to amber to red, the severity of each threat card increases. Sentinels can be added to existing missions (adding another objective and damaging characters) or in some cases, a villain may appear. This does lead to one of X-Men: Mutant Insurrection‘s problems. When the going is good, the game is a little too easy, but when the going is less favourable, things spiral out of control very quickly.

Exploring this in a bit more detail, I think part of the problem is down to randomness, which does seem to be a bit of a problem with the cooperative and solo genre. If you take Pandemic, for example, the same issue is present. If outbreaks trigger in the worst place for you repeatedly, you’re very likely going to lose, and it’s the same for the threat cards in X-Men: Mutant Insurrection. If you happen to draw a threat card that increases threat and asks you to draw another, perhaps this time from the next deck up, and then that flips two missions that also add exclamation marks (which will increase threat after the next round) you’re going to be in trouble really quickly.

Thankfully, the characters powers that I mentioned earlier do a lot to mitigate the luck of the dice, in most cases. If you do end up sending two X-Men to one mission, chances are you have at least a sixty or seventy percent chance of completing it – perhaps higher – thanks to the dice mitigation of their abilities. To further help the players, some missions offer mutant cards as rewards – these add a permanent, beneficial card to that character, in the form of a new character (usually a less popular entry in the universe.) Characters can also train, giving them tokens to spend in addition to dice.

This combination of risk (reducing thread) and reward (monster and bond cards or training tokens) drives the players to complete side missions as well as focussing on the plot. Many plot missions introduce unique new rules and features that require some building up to – in summary, you will want some positive bonds, supporting mutants and training tokens in place before you tackle them. At the end of every plot is a showdown – a neat feature where three or four cards are placed side by side, each of them a mission in its own right mechanically, but thematically part of one epic scene with continuous artwork that spans the cards.

Despite the weirdness that can come from the difficulty (or lack of) in X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, I really enjoy this game. There are so many different character combinations to choose from, and the use of the mutant and bond cards tells a story within the wider plot. With eight specific plots and about 25 missions spread across the continents, there’s also a lot of fresh content for players to try the game two or three times over a series of a week or two. The theme, assuming you like or are at least “OK with” the X-Men, is really good, and the artwork is consistent and well implemented. X-Men: Mutant Insurrection isn’t a must-have classic, but it’s a solid and different cooperative or solo game that tells a great story every time you play.

***½  3.5/5

X-Men: Mutant Insurrection 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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