Marvel Champions: the card game

It’s Marvel Champions week here on my blog, where I’m getting to grips with the massive influx of content for this game that came my way between my birthday and Christmas last year. I initially got into the game last summer, but was trying to do my best to take it slow, and learn how to play the game at my own pace. The last thing I wanted was to drown in content, and that feeling lasted at least a couple of months!

The way the game is distributed, however, made me change my mind, and I began to buy more stuff in order to increase my options when it came to deck-building for the game.

Tuesdays are my traditional game days, of course, where for years I would post a blog that highlighted one of my favourite games, and so on. Today, therefore, I think it might be a good idea to go through how the game works, as that will no doubt be a major help during the rest of this week’s blog posts!! When I last did a blog like this, it was after my very first play, and I was still trying to learn the rules. I’ve now played this game about thirty times, all told, so I’ve got a much better understanding of the rules!

So let’s take a look at how the game is played, once again! This may be a long post, now that I understand the game some more, but I think it’s important to go through due to the fact there is so much more Marvel Champions content coming up!

Marvel Champions

The object of the game is for players to work together to defeat the villain. There are usually two villain cards in play, one on top of the other, referred to as villain stages. If you’re playing the game in Standard mode (which I do), then you use stage one and stage two of the villain. For Expert mode, you start on stage two. When both villain stages have been defeated, the players win! However, the villain has a scheme deck, anywhere between one and three cards, which he or she is trying to advance by scheming. If a scheme card accumulates enough threat, it is advanced, and if the final scheme card is advanced, the villain wins. Alternatively, if the villain is able to deal enough damage to each hero that they are defeated, the villain also wins. 

In many ways, then, it’s quite a simple game, as the player objective is to basically deal enough damage over time to defeat the villain. However, the scheme cards need to be dealt with as well, so you can’t be punching every single turn. Furthermore, the villain has an encounter deck that is full of nefarious things, such as minion cards who will also either attack the heroes or scheme alongside the villain, or treachery cards that will wreak havoc with the heroes in all manner of ways. There are also side schemes, which can make the main scheme more difficult to deal with. So each round is definitely a delicate balancing act!

Each round is divided between the Player phase and the Villain phase. In the Player phase, you can switch form between your hero and alter-ego, which can have an impact on what cards you can play and interact with. You can play cards by paying their cost and putting them into play (in the case of ally, support or upgrade cards), or trigger the action on the card if it is an event card. Upgrades, allies and support cards may also have actions that you can trigger. You can also use your hero’s basic powers, such as attack and thwart, or your alter-ego’s recovery. (Heroes also have a basic defense, which comes into play when defending against an attack, but that will come later).

To pay the cost of a card, you need to discard cards to generate resources, or use the abilities of cards in play to generate them. For ally cards, a player can only have three in play, although of course there are cards which allow you to break rules like these. When generating resources from cards, you sometimes need to pay a specific type of resource to gain an effect, or you’ll gain a bonus effect for paying a specific type of resource. There are three types – mental (blue), physical (red), energy (yellow) and also wild (green), which are shown by the icons in the bottom-left corner of the card.

Dealing damage through attacks and attack actions is quite simply a case of either dialling down the villain dial, or placing damage tokens on minions. Thwarting a villain allows you to remove threat from a scheme in play, although some cards (mainly side schemes) have the Crisis icon, which forces you to deal with that scheme first. This, of course, can be devastating as it could allow the main scheme to accrue too much threat! To use your basic hero or alter-ego actions, you must exhaust the card, by turning it on its side. (You can still flip between hero and alter-ego while exhausted, and you can still trigger actions on cards including your hero/alter-ego while exhausted; you just can’t use the basic actions of thwart/attack/defense, or recovery).

Marvel Champions

Allies can also thwart and attack, but in the majority of cases they will take consequential damage for doing so. This means that an ally won’t be around forever to help you, and so you’ll often have to weigh up whether an ally is going to best serve you by thwarting or attacking, or as a meat shield to absorb the villain’s attacks. Again, to use allies, you must exhaust them. Other cards like supports or upgrades may also require you to exhaust them to get their benefits.

Once you’ve done everything you want to do, you can discard any cards left in your hand, then draw up to your hand size at the end of your turn. You then ready all cards in your play area, and take a deep breath before the Villain phase begins!

To begin, the main scheme will accrue threat as per the Acceleration Field, which shows how much threat (usually per player) it gains each round. This acts like a basic clock for the game, because if the players ended in their Hero form, the villain will attack them – potentially meaning a turn could pass without the scheme accruing threat. The main scheme has an Acceleration field, but there are also many cards (mainly side schemes) that have an Acceleration icon, which will add additional threat tokens to the main scheme.

Marvel Champions

The villain then activates against each player, depending on which form that player has ended their turn in. If the player is in Hero form, the villain attacks as stated; if they are in Alter-Ego form, the villain will scheme, placing more threat on the main scheme. To do either of these actions, the villain is dealt a face-down encounter card which is then revealed to check for boost icons on the bottom-right corner. Boost icons buff the villain’s main scheme or attack stat, so two boost icons deal +2 attack or threat. Sometimes a card will have a star icon instead of a boost icon – the star doesn’t buff the villain inherently, but will trigger an effect on the card itself that will then resolve.

If there are any minions in play engaged with a hero, they will also activate, either scheming or attacking as well, although they don’t get boost cards.

Heroes and allies can defend against villain and minion attacks – and if you choose not to, another player can also use their hero or allies to defend you. Allies can defend, and absorb all of the damage from a villain attack regardless of how much health they have, although some attacks may have Overkill, where excess damage rolls over onto the hero (or, indeed, to the villain if this is a hero attack against a minion!)

Marvel Champions

Finally, each player is then dealt an encounter card. Again, some cards (mainly side schemes) have a Hazard icon that forces an additional encounter card to be dealt to each player. These cards are then turned face up, and can either be minions who will engage the player to whom it was dealt; treachery cards which have a one-time effect then get discarded; attachments which go on the villain (and usually make things so much worse), and side schemes, which will come into play with threat on them, and generally make the heroes’ job that much more difficult. New minions dealt this way do not attack or scheme the turn in which they arrived, however.

There are also the player Obligation cards, which are shuffled into the encounter deck at the start of the game, and which can cause problems for the heroes by interrupting any plans being laid. You may also find that your Nemesis minion and side scheme gets shuffled into the encounter deck, causing further chaos for the heroes! That said, I think in all of my games up to now, I’ve only had to do this once, so it isn’t a very common occurrence.

At any rate, that is the end of the round, and the players then get to lick their wounds and fight back!

There’s a lot of text in this post, I know, but the game actually plays out really quickly once you get going with it. I think it’s interesting how straightforward it can be at times, but I suppose this speaks to how the designers have made a game that can appeal to the mass Marvel crowd while also having a depth that will bring gamers into the fold as well. While I enjoy the Marvel theme, and will quite happily sit through any of the movies and TV shows that are being put out there, I think it’s interesting that I enjoy this game more for its actual gameplay than for its theme. There are quite a few games that I will play because I like the theme more than anything else, but this one intrigues me because I’ve come to it as a game first and foremost, and not because I’m some kind of huge Marvel fan. That, however, has been where I’ve gone a bit wrong, as I had initially thought I would only pick and choose the heroes and expansions that I liked the sound of, from having watched the movies or whatever. But given that I like the actual game so much, I find that I want more of these packs because I want to build new and different decks, etc! They’ve definitely got me with this one!

It is a fairly quick game to get through, like I said, although some villains can stall you a bit as you try to deal with everything that’s going on. Klaw from the core set is a good example of this, where he has a number of side schemes in play which can dictate the flow of what you’re doing, as well as some pretty tough minions in his deck. To cap it all off, the second stage gives him a massive boost in hit points which means the game just goes on for a very long time as you try to make it through each round. There are other villains that have so much going on that it does feel like a proper gaming session, and not just a quick play-through that can last half an hour, or whatever. Unless of course, you just die really quickly!

The Learn to Play booklet is excellent, and really takes you through the game step-by-step. There is also a Rules Reference booklet that goes over the more complex stuff, but generally speaking you can play this game without your head stuck in these booklets after just a couple of games – I’m not being disparaging here, I think it’s amazing how the game has been so well-designed! Often, you’ll find a game can be so dense to work out what you’re trying to do, it can take hours to work through even a tutorial scenario, or whatever. Not so, here! 

A well-designed game is great, but the variety that has come out of having such a rich and varied universe to work within is definitely another plus point for this game. I think the way the game is structured around villain-scenarios is great, of course, and the addition of modular encounter sets to subtly change these villains is fantastic, but heroes and their decks is another excellent point. I’ll get more into this later in the week, but each hero comes with a small deck of around 15 cards that are their Hero cards. They then bulk out their deck to between 40 and 50 cards from one of the four Aspects, Justice, Leadership, Aggression and Protection. Any hero can be built in any Aspect, so you can play your favourites in a number of different ways. The Hero cards will dictate, to some extent, what you want to include in the wider deck, but it’s amazing how much replay variety you can get out of the game in this way.

All in all, it’s just so much fun to play, I can’t believe it took me so long before I actually bought and played it!