Thursday, July 3, 2014

More than heroes

Superheroes seem to spend most of their time fighting, whether it's fighting with their arch-villains or each other. It is no surprise then that most superhero games tend to be player vs. player combat games such as Heroclix or the Vs. System trading card game. There appears to be little room for nuance in the world of superhero gaming, which is unfortunate because some of the best stories ever told can be found in the pages of superhero comic books.

The Marvel Heroes Strategy Board Game is something of an anomaly. Originally published in Italy, it was brought to the English language game market in 2006, when Heroclix was at the height of its popularity. Under other circumstances, Marvel Heroes might have received more attention for its 20 fully painted plastic miniatures of characters such as the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine, but Heroclix had flooded the market with little plastic superheroes, so Marvel Heroes got lost in the shuffle and wound up having a very short shelf life, with the publisher unable to justify the high cost of the Marvel Comics license.

It is unfortunate that the two games couldn't coexist, because they couldn't be more different from one another. Marvel Heroes offers a welcome break from the relentless battles of Heroclix, with story-based game play focused on mission solving, and  players only tangentially in opposition to one another. Each player assumes control of a team of heroes, either the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, or Marvel Knights (a collection of the normally solitary heroes Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra and Dr. Strange). Players also control the arch-nemesis of one of their opponents, either the Kingpin, the Red Skull, Magneto or Dr. Doom.

The game combines resource allocation with a healthy measure of superhero combat. Players must spend their plot points to ready their heroes and play cards representing allies and other resources, and then send their heroes into New York City to tackle Headline cards that represent incidents such as bank robberies, earthquakes and kidnapped scientists. During each headline the player must fight a villain played by their opponent, and at certain times they must face their arch-nemesis directly.

It gets past the problem of "who gets to play the heroes" by having each player play as their own team of heroes as well as the arch-villain of their opponent, and so combines the best aspects of "race to the finish" type games and head to head battle games. Players are given plenty of strategic decisions to make during the game, as certain heroes are better suited to go after certain headline cards, and many have combat or support abilities that can help or not depending on what is happening in the game. And with your opponent actively controlling your arch-nemesis as well as the minor villains you face, it never feels like you're just up against a random assortment of cards. Different scenario cards offer variant win conditions to keep the game fresh and replayable.

Marvel Heroes reminds us that, while epic battles are fun to watch, it is the stories that make superheroes interesting.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A game with a lot of strategic and narrative depth, that scratches the superhero itch while offering a lot more than just a mindless slugfest.

Date played: May 10, 2014

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