Popular Culture spreads far and wide these days, and carries no stigma. No longer do we need to shamefully hide our nerdy habits. The days of carrying our comics home in brown paper bag and reading in secret are long gone. Now it's cool to read comic books, and fashionable to enjoy superhero movies. The cool kids are doing cosplay.
It's even acceptable for adults to play games. Table-top games. Like "Marvel Champions" from FFG.
Here is Captain America, narrowly defeating Red Skull at the conclusion of the "Rise of Red Skull" campaign.
There have been many "Marvel-themed" table-top games created over the years. Many used counters moving on a board. Some used figurine on a table-top, like Heroclix (2002) and the recent "Marvel: Crisis Protocol" (2019). There have been several different role-playing games too. And of course, several attempts at card-based games too.
Now, I actually own several of those earlier attempts at Marvel card games. I collect them in completeness, because that is the way my obsessive compulsive disorder works. I have a couple-thousand cards from the original Marvel Overpower (1995), and plenty of cards from Marvel Recharge (2001), and Marvel VS. System (2004).
But those games are dead. History.
Marvel Champions is here now, and it is far superior to all of those earlier efforts, for two good reasons:
Firstly, it is quite clearly the best Marvel card-game every produced. I can vouch for that personally, but you don't have to take my word for it. The BoardGameGeek ratings (BGG is the gold-standard in such matters) are quite clear.
Overpower (1995) [Rating 5.7] was ground-breaking at the time, but while it was attractive and thematically interesting, its game-play didn't quite live up to its initial promise. Recharge (2001) [Rating 3.6] was one of the laziest and most amateur attempts at game design that I have seen in quite some time. The VS. System (2004) [Rating 6.8] was clearly a step in the right direction, with a professional design team that finally produced something playable.
But Marvel Champions (2019) [Rating 8.2] moves into a whole new realm. It is currently rated #37 out of the 131,500 entries on BoardGameGeek, and #6 out of the 32,000 card games in the database.
It is the first Marvel game of any shape, form, or size that I actually play rather than just collect. I play regularly with my kids, and also play with other adults. I have made my own "decks" and have played through the campaigns. This is a very good game indeed.
It is a good game not just in terms of the game mechanics, but also in terms of the variability. You can mix-and-match heroes and villains, and get a different experience every time. Sure, you've done "Leadership Hawkeye solo vs. Green Goblin Risky Business." But have you done "Justice Groot and Agression Rocket Racoon vs. Drang and the Badoon Brotherhood?"
Perhaps the most excellent aspect of the game design is that the villain mechanics match the villain personality. Rhino winds up a big charge and hits hard for 8 points of damage. If you're not prepared, he'll KO you. Red Skull schemes and schemes, forcing the heroes to struggle to keep up with crisis after crisis. Ultron will flood you with half a dozen tiny drone minions that will pick away at you, distracting you while he works towards his victory over all mankind.
Similarly, the heroes are thematic and unique. Hawkeye has a quiver and an arrow for every occasion. She Hulk hits harder the more damage she takes. Quicksilver can move in a flurry of actions per turn. Spider-Man has his web-shooters and his back-flips, and when he gets beaten up he heads home to be patched up by Aunt May.
The basic box set comes with five heroes and three villain scenarios. Many other heroes and villains have been added since as individual expansions. There are also three boxed campaign expansions to play through – each with two new heroes and five villain scenarios. Plenty of alternatives.
And did I mention that it is a co-operative game not player vs. player? Perfect for playing with your kids. Or you can play solo on a quiet evening. It plays great over Zoom as well. One person manages the villain(s) and points their camera down at the table so that your fellow heroes can see what's going on. Everybody else just manages their own hero.
Enough already. It's a great game. No argument. Solo, two-player, or three/four-handed.
But before I wrap up, I want to talk about the second point. Specifically, the fact that Marvel Champions is a game. It is not an OCD-driven, addictive gambling experience with a game pasted on top.
You see, there was one awful, destructive, nauseating feature that ruined all of those earlier Marvel card games – every single one of them.
They were CCGs, or "Collectible Card Games". That means that you couldn't just go out and buy all of the cards and play the game. No, you could buy "starter packs" with a few cards. But then if you wanted to own the rest of the set, you had to go out and buy "booster packs" which contained random cards.
To make things worse, the best cards were the rarest cards. So you would need to spend literally thousands of dollars if you wanted to actually play your favorite "cool" character, or if you wanted to have the best chance of winning. Each booster pack of 8 or 10 cards is like a lottery ticket. After 500 packs you might finally have all 200 the of rare "foil" cards with the +10 bonus – or you might not. But the card company will have all of your rent money. And you will have 4,000 worthless, duplicate, low-grade cards that just get thrown in the bin.
Nowadays we call that "pay to win."
Marvel Champions is different, thank goodness. It is what is called an LCG – a "Living Card Game".
That means that they do keep extending the game, adding new heroes and new villains. But there's no random element involved. When the Green Goblin villain expansion is released, you go to the shop and pay your $20 and you get the Green Goblin expansion. All of it. End of story. No gambling. No cynical, deliberate waste.
Footnote: "Marvel: Crisis Protocol" is clearly a great game too. But I can't paint to save my life, and so I've never gotten into games based on miniature figures.