Last week, I started down the road of a brand new game, finally picking up a box of Marvel Champions. It’s almost three years old now, and has up until very recently just passed me by! After musing on it for a couple of days though, I decided that it was going to be worthwhile to pick up a copy – especially as my wife and I have recently been catching up with Phase Four of all the Marvel stuff on Disney+.
I’d decided that I was going to treat this as much as I could as a blind-buy, making no prior effort to learn how it plays or read up on any of the rules, instead going old-school and actually reading the rule book to learn how it plays. Novel, huh?
So, I excitedly picked up the core set (and £30 worth of sleeves), and set about learning the ropes.
The game plays a little bit like Lord of the Rings LCG, in that you’re playing against an encounter deck. I mean, you’re technically playing against a villain, who can attack your chosen hero, but the bulk of gameplay interactions seem to come from the encounter deck rather than anything else. The villain is trying to both complete his scheme and eliminate the heroes, while the heroes are trying to defeat the villain and stall his scheme. The core set comes with five heroes and three villains. This is, of course, a living card game, so there are a whole host of cards in the box to bulk this out.
Let’s start with the heroes. There are four spheres (I think they call them Aspects) from which you can choose to play, and each one has a significant bunch of cards here to support that. Each hero comes with fifteen signature cards, which to some extent will dictate the archetype that hero is leaning into, although heroes don’t seem to be tied in to any one Aspect. I have no real idea about how the deck building for Marvel Champions works just yet, because I’m trying to get to grips with how the game plays! But I believe you need to pick all of your cards from one of the four, and can’t mix. I’ll get to this in a future blog, when I have become more familiar with the game…
The villain is represented by a couple of cards, it seems, and similar to Marvel Legendary, you need to fight your way through a couple of iterations of the villain before you win. The villain has a scheme that he is trying to achieve, which seems to be somewhat similar to the quest deck in LotR (though if the scheme deck is completed, the heroes lose here). There is then the encounter deck, which is made up of sub-decks, again very similar to LotR. Here, though, it is less prescriptive, and I think you can choose what sub-decks to include alongside the villain’s main deck. I like this idea a lot, as I’ve read that further expansions have brought more and more of these sub-decks, which can change up how any villain plays.
The game round is actually really quite straightforward. You play cards and take actions, then the villain schemes and you draw encounter cards. During the hero phase, you play cards, discarding other cards to pay their cost. I must admit, I struggled with this early on because I didn’t want to discard those cards!! I also made a fairly silly mistake by discarding two of Spider-Man’s web-kick attack cards to play a third copy – the card deals 8 damage to the villain, so it’s pretty good!! Ah well. You can also take actions like attacking, or trying to thwart the villain’s scheme, by removing tokens from it. Hero cards are double-sided, with their alter-ego on the back. The side you end on will determine what the villain does when he activates.
In the villain phase, the villain will start off by adding a token to his scheme, providing a bit of a clock situation. Then, depending on whether you’re in your hero or alter-ego form, he will either attack or scheme. Attacking will deal damage, surprisingly, while scheming adds more tokens to the scheme. After that, you draw an encounter card and deal with that – either a minion, an attachment, a treachery or a side-scheme. Very LotR-like.
Side schemes don’t contribute their own threat level to the main scheme, in the way that Arkham Horror LCG counts the doom out on the table as a whole. That was a bit of a learning point for me during my first game, as I was a little worried that I was about to lose between the two schemes in play. However, side schemes here serve to basically annoy you, collecting threat each round but also contributing problems to you, such as drawing extra encounter cards or adding more threat to the main scheme. They’ll be in play until the heroes are able to thwart those as well, reducing them to 0 threat.
My first game was quite a surprise for me, as I was learning the ropes and whatnot. I think the first round had a bit of “is that it?!” to it, as I followed the rulebook to work out what I can do etc. I think it’s one of these games where you need to play it a lot with zero expectations of winning, as you try to get a grip on how your deck works and so on. Trying to evaluate cards for their utility – should I discard x to pay for y? – without really knowing what the game is about is always going to be fraught with analysis paralysis. But that’s okay, because you need to learn just what is going on, what is in your deck, and what you can do as a player. That’s going to take time, but hopefully I’ll be able to play it more and see just what it’s all about.
The other thing, of course, is that I was playing true solo, using Spider-Man against Rhino. There are going to be deficiencies when using just one deck, as you can’t cover every aspect of the game by yourself. I just don’t want to confuse the issue by trying to control two heroes just yet, and I want to get at least a basic understanding of the game before introducing it to Jemma.
The game did seem to be fairly quick to play as well – even my first game, where I was constantly back-and-to between my cards and the rulebook, only took about an hour. It seems like it is designed to be fairly light, fairly no-nonsense, yet still with enough tactical depth that you can really enjoy it as a game. It doesn’t play itself, of course, and you have a lot that you can do, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of game that will take you a whole day to play. Not even a whole evening, really. Which I guess speaks to the fact it seems to be wanting to attract Marvel fans as well as card game fans.
In terms of learning the game by myself, though, it’s been a very interesting experience to go back to learning something by reading through the rulebook, and playing along step-by-step. I think I was strongly reminded of my first game with Rune Age, all those years ago, where I had followed the set-up instructions and it was time for my turn to begin, and I just sat there, not knowing what I’m supposed to do! Game rulebooks have improved since then, of course, and while there can be a lot of bumph to get through, designers are becoming clearer with how the course of a round is explained. I particularly like the fact that FFG have adopted as standard the two-book format of learn to play guides followed by rules references, so that the first book gives you everything you need to actually get going, but then the latter is there to explain some aspects, interactions, or complex cases as they come up.
I was surprised that I’ve been able to learn how to play this purely from reading the rulebook, which I realise is a fairly stupid thing to say because that’s the point of the rulebook, but still! So often these days, we seem to rely on watching videos on YouTube and someone else telling us how to play, someone else telling us how to build a deck and what the best ways of playing a game are. I have really enjoyed going old school on this, and learning to play from the rulebook, and learning how a deck works by actually playing it. It’s been a nice kind of bubble-game, almost, one that I’ve been able to get on with in my own time, and it’s been wonderful as a result!
Overall, I think I’m a very happy sausage with this game.