Thursday, January 31, 2008

Review: Marvel Heroes

This is a version of a review I posted on BGG some time ago.


I was looking forward to this game and was intrigued by what I had heard about it (that each player controlled their own group of superheroes and a supervillan as well that can attack the other players' teams). The game seemed to have been well received here at BGG so my hopes were high. I also collected comic books for a while when I was younger so there was some nostalgia for me coming into this game. I really wanted it to be good. Nevertheless, I found myself disappointed overall with this game.

Brief Overview of Game Play

Each player controls one of four possible groups of Superheroes (composed of four superheroes each):

The Avengers
The X-Men
The Marvel Knights
The Fantastic Four

The game takes place on a quasi-New York inner city map. The map is divided up into six districts and there are four subsections within each district. The flow of the game is divided up into a series of 5 rounds with 5 rotations of turns within each round. At the beginning of each round, there are a number of “Headlines” that come out for each district. Essentially these "headlines" represent combat scenarios in which you may encounter bad guys and have to fight them. These headlines are of several types (Mystery, Crime, Danger). There is also a certain skill listed underneath the main description (such as science, mystic, protection, etc.). The skills listed correspond to specific character skills that can be found on the character cards for the various superheroes that can be used in the game. There are also "plot points" that are used by each player to get their superheroes ready for action before each round begins.

On a player’s turn within a round, they can do things like move their superhero, give medical attention to a superhero, or begin "troubleshooting" a headline (which is really where most of the action is). Each headline has a certain "trouble" rating – which is essentially the number of dice you roll to determine, in broad terms, how many bad guys or extra problems there might be as part of fighting the headline. A superhero may move to an area and may fight the headline alone or they may have a "support" hero along with them. Each headline grants a number of victory points to the person who successfully defeats any villans involved in that headline.


Combat consists of a series of dice rolls that have to be processed through a series of modifiers present on the villan’s card, any modifying cards for the villan, and the superhero’s modifiers on the superhero’s card as well as any modifiers on the "supporting" hero’s card. There is some simultaneous decision revelation prior to combat but it is essentially a choice of which set of dice modifiers your character – be it villan or hero – will use in combat. And, here we come to the source of my disappointment. In essence, the game pretty much mostly just dice rolling in which the rolls have to be tediously processed through the various modifiers. When looked at from a larger view, all of the mechanics in the game - including the card drawing - strike me as simply serving as window dressing for the dice rolling.

The main aspect of the game that had intrigued me was the concept of controlling a supervillan as well as a set of superheroes. Herein, again, I was disappointed as the supervillan you control is not able to actively engage the superheroes. What I mean by this is that you cannot, for example, on your turn declare that Dr. Doom will now attack the Fantastic Four. Instead, you control Dr. Doom only after the Fantastic Four decide to go after a headline. In other words, you have to wait for the other player to initiate any combat and then, again, combat is simply a series of dice rolls being processed through a series of modifiers. There are other familiar "sub-villans" that can be played in the form of cards that can be drawn by the players during the course of the game (e.g. Venom, the Juggernaut, and Dr. Octopus among others). However, these cards are, again, simply a set of dice modifiers and, in that respect, I found combat to be an unfulfilling experience.

In general, the strategy of the game seems to pretty much be the same as it is with any dice-driven game: hedge your bets with the dice rolling by trying to stack modifiers (of whatever form) in your favor. Granted, there are various ways that this can be accomplished and there are also some resource management skills involved with how and when you use your plot points but, again, a game that is this dice driven does not tend to be my style of game. There have been dice driven games I have played in the past that I have liked but this was not one of them. I won the game of Marvel Heroes I played (all of us who played were new) but I didn’t attribute my win to any great acumen or strategic cunning. I just hedged my bets as best I could and hoped for the best.


With respect to the components, it’s been stated before that the map is lacking in its appearance. However, I don’t really dock any points from the game for that as the art work of the map seems to be presented with the intention of making it look "comicbooky" and, in that respect, the map works. I also liked the miniatures and the art design on the various character cards as well as art design for the rulebook. I also liked the plot points being small chips with speech windows in them (you know, the circles above the characters’ heads in a comic book where their dialogue is written). I also liked the quirky-ness of the "trouble" counter being a very "comicbooky" exclamation point. However, all of the components simply served to reinforce my disappointment that, behind the chrome, the game is pretty much just a "dicefest".

Game Length

In terms of time, the game I played took a little over 2 hours which was mostly due to the fact that we were all new to the game. I can see how, with players who have an understanding of the rules, it could move a lot faster. So, my perception is that the time factor can be alleviated by having experienced players. Each player is provided with a game summary that is serviceable in design. However, I can also see how a self-created player aide that simply integrates the various sections on the summary into one cohesive round outline would result in a more understandable aide for a new player.
Overall Impressions
I personally found that the choices being presented by the game were simply steps to set up the culminating modifier system for dice rolling in combat rather than being diverging paths leading toward several different methods of scoring or accumulating points. Because of this, I didn't find the choices very interesting to make. For example, with respect to which team member to send into an area, that choice revolved primarily around the possible sets of how many dice can be rolled for "attack", "defense", and "outwit". Again, that wasn't necessarily a very interesting choice for me. Now, if there were different kinds or sets of dice with different actions available depending on the character I'm using, then now we're talking. But if it's not which type, but rather, just how many of the same type of dice can be used depending on the character, that just isn't a choice I find very interesting to make.
I'm not saying that a game has to be really complex to be enjoyable. I'm also not saying that Marvel Heroes is a bad game or that all games have to have a "many paths to victory" element to them to be fun. What I am saying is that the choices in Marvel Heroes were not interesting enough to me to make the game fun enough to try again for me. I can see how the game would appeal to other people who derive more of a sense of satisfaction from wading through processes of arriving at the number of dice in a roll (along with any re-roll possibilities) but that person isn't me in this case.

Who will like this game

I suspect that the main group of people who will like Marvel Heroes are the same people who tend to like games where dice are the predominant driving force of action. This game will more than likely not appeal to casual gamers simply because of the amount of rules that go into processing the various modifiers for the dice rolls.

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