Marvel Champions: The Card Game | Designers: Michael Boggs, Nate French, Caleb Grace | Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games | Category: Cooperative, Living Card Game | Players: 1-4 | Year: 2019
Marvel Champions: The Card Game is the latest addition to Fantasy Flight’s roster of “Living Card Games” — these being gaming systems which are supported by fixed expansions rather than random booster packs. The Marvel Champions license joins the publisher’s other successful LCGs that include names such as Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings.
Fantasy Flight Games had been without the Marvel license for a good many years, but this new deal is a dream come true for comic book fans, especially when you consider the sheer number of popular heroes and villains that FFG have the opportunity to translate into cardboard form.
Marvel Champions shares its DNA with those aforementioned LCGs. This too is a cooperative card game where players select a Hero and aspect before doing battle with a scheming Villain. Players commit cards to the table, whether they be Upgrades or Events or supporting characters like Allies, to help them defeat minions and schemes, whilst ultimately trying to bring down the main villain of a chosen scenario.
Inside this premier set players will find everything they need to get started. All of the basic cards, tokens and rules are included of course, and in a rare touch of consideration (as far as FFG are usually concerned anyway), there’s a plastic insert in the box to help you manage the base contents with lots of room to spare should you wish to expand your collection.
This review is being written 1 year after this set was released and I can confirm that Marvel Champions has become a promising product line (the numerous delays notwithstanding) with lots of good expansion material already available. For the moment though, I want to focus on what you get from this core set only.
Inside you’ll get access to 5 heroes from the current Marvel Champions pool. Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Black Panther, Spider-Man and She-Hulk represent the hero side, with Rhino, Klaw and Ultron acting as your starting villains. With 5 encounter modules and plenty of aspect cards to round out the experience, players will have lots to tinker with.
Whilst the actual game is a substantial back and forth battle between hero and villain, much of the fun in LCGs is had beforehand during deck-building. Marvel Champions marks new territory for FFG here, being that this is their first LCG that includes a full playset of every available core card. Up to 4 players can jump into a cooperative session, build a deck using a unique aspect set, and start playing without anyone needing to make a second or third purchase. This is excellent, obviously, and it makes it much easier to bring other players into the fold.
Having said that, you shouldn’t go into this core set expecting a deep deck-building experience. That potential of Marvel Champions is kept slightly in check by the fixed Hero cards that ensures roughly a third of the cards you’ll use in your deck are always preselected for you. That might sound alarming for seasoned card gamers, but this design is sneakily good at presenting malleable archetypes whilst at the same time easing the burden on novice card gamers, or those who simply don’t enjoy the deck-building side of LCGs in general.
The core customisation here comes from these aspects that I keep mentioning. An aspect pool exists for Aggression, Justice, Leadership and Protection, with each one offering a range of cards that suit a particular theme. Aggression excels at dealing damage, Justice helps Heroes thwart schemes, whereas Leadership buffs Allies and Protection offers healing.
Your typical Protection/Spider-Man deck will look very different to a Justice/Spider-Man deck for instance, and each set of hero-specific cards will feature their own innate strengths, weaknesses and synergies that make selecting an aspect perhaps the most important decision you’ll make in any game.
Whilst there are enough cards in here to allow for some customization, you’ll really need to buy a few expansions before the decks stop building themselves. For most of your early games this won’t be a problem, but for fans who are eyeing Marvel Champions primarily as a solo experience, it’s worth noting that the Protection aspect is a pretty weak option if this core set is all you have to build decks with.
It helps that the run of Heroes featured in this core set all feel unique and satisfying in their own right. Iron Man fans will adore the theme of building his suit every game for instance, and there’s a lot of that theme spared for the Villains too, whether it be found in Rhino’s straight up onslaught or Ultron’s never-ending swarm of drone minions.
Whilst the core set is fairly light on Villains (and on story for that matter), the difficulty of these scenarios is well considered. Rhino takes position as a tutorial Villain of sorts, whilst Klaw and Ultron both leverage fiendish tactics that only get more severe if players choose to play in Expert mode.
Expert mode is a very elegant difficulty boost that adds a few basic Encounter cards to the Villain’s arsenal whilst also padding their stats and schemes with bonus modifiers and abilities. Especially in the case of Ultron, this can actually make for a wildly different experience and it only gets better when you factor in the modular Encounter sets that will help you fine-tune the difficulty of scenarios even further.
If there is a major criticism to be had with the game in general, then it concerns the player scaling. A full session of 4 players is going to take a very long time to complete compared to the same setup with fewer players. With more players comes more abilities, more Actions and more Encounter cards to be resolved every round, so you can expect those extra processes to take time.
A thinly explored element of the game’s cooperative design is the ability to strategically request actions from your fellow players. Because Marvel Champions is a game about efficiency, you’ll want to squeeze as much value out of everyone’s turns as possible, but doing this requires a lot of chatter that will soak up minutes at the table. It’s the reason why I typically enjoy the game with a maximum of two players because the overall session length and difficulty feels smoother at that count.
It’s also worth mentioning that the balance for true solo (1 Hero vs 1 Villain) very much favours the Villain, with certain Hero/aspect combinations feeling unsuitable without expansion content at the ready. For those who find the game too easy, there exists a “Heroic” setting that came as part of a rulebook update, but the leap in difficulty from Expert to Heroic is gigantic and not very fun, so it doesn’t feel like it was properly tested, unfortunately.
An LCG thrives on expansion content, so for those who delve into this core set and end up enjoying themselves, there is plenty more to buy right now including multiple Hero and Scenario packs and even a deluxe expansion featuring the villainous Hydra faction.
Despite the delays that have plagued the product line since launch, the Marvel Champions core set still carries Fantasy Flight’s signature aura of quality and is a solid, complete package for fans of the license.