It's Clobberin' Time!
Superheroes have been the recipient of various board game and roleplaying game efforts over the years--some good, many awful, most of them completely forgettable.
One thing many of them share in common is the "Run downtown to beat up the bad guys!" syndrome. Think about it; in Heroclix, you have two sides setting up for battle, and they essentially rush out towards the middle and lock horns. Even the old TSR roleplaying treatment of Marvel mostly degenerated into this for us....a typical scenario was, "Doc Ock is downtown, robbing the bank! You heroes start here, and go get him!" The map was plopped down, tokens placed, heroes moved, toward the inevitable battle that awaited..and was, for all intents and purposes, THE entire game. The battle was all, and that's all there was.
When I found out about Marvel Heroes, of course I was naturally excited. What was even more exciting was that it was being developed by the same team that developed the phenomenal War of the Ring, easily one of my favorite games of all time and by far one of the best treatments of the Tolkien saga that has ever seen manufacture.
Admittedly, I was initially concerned when I first saw the board and read up on development of the title. The board was obviously abstract; and what do you mean this isn't a skirmish-level treatment of battles between my favorite superheroes?
Turns out, I needn't have worried. Once again, the team has nailed it--though it isn't a perfect game by any means, it is a solid, unique treatment of the superhero game and blends nicely the Ameritrash idea of gameplay with enough Euro elements to bring us a great entry into that growing buzzword of game development--"The Hybrid".
It's a well-known fact: I'm a bits whore. Not to the degree where I'll buy a game blindly for nice bits (if that were the case, I'd no doubt have a copy of Sid Meier's Civilization by now), but there is no denying that I prefer my games to have quality bits.
The game comes with twenty beautifully detailed figures. To be honest I was expecting the pre-painted figures to be this good but they are top-notch. They could use a bit more detailing, but that can be left up to the more enterprising painters among us--of which I am most definitely not one.
You also recieve some custom dice, a nice-sized board of Manhattan, tons of villian, hero, and story cards, and thick cardboard tiles for depicting wounds, trouble markers, and other needed game indicators.
I had read that the bases of the heroes are packed in the box a little snugly, and I will warn you that this is indeed true. It's not a big complaint--just be careful the very first time you remove them. If they prove cumbersome, you can simply bag 'em and put them back in the box--there is plenty of room to store them this way, so you never have to worry about that again.
All in all, the components are high-quality and exactly what you'd expect from Fantasy Flight Games.
Each player chooses from one of four of the most popular teams in the Marvel pantheon--The X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Mavel Knights. The game depicts not one battle between heroes and villians but rather a sort of "campaign", if you will, of heroes attempting to fight various crimes and deal with villains throughout the city. Using an action point system very much like many Euros, you attempt to maximize your actions to score the most points.
Certain heroes are better at dealing with some types of crimes than others, some heroes are better served in a Support role, and some are your obvious bruisers who will gladly go out and seek a fight.
Juggling your resources adds a nice level of strategy to the game, as you will not have enough points to always do what you want to do. On top of this, because you alternate actions with your opponent(s), you have to make sure that you don't get your desired scoring opportunities stolen from you.
Each turn, new "Headlines" are added to the board, and these correspond to the different areas of the board. Some are low-level crimes with low "Trouble Levels" but also have very low point rewards. Others are obviously major crimes (such as a poison cloud being unleashed on the city) and have much higher Trouble Levels.
Trouble Levels are the capital that the other players will have to use against you as you attempt to troubleshoot and score the various crimes. Each player has a separate hand of villain cards that they may play to stop your heroes from achieving their goals. This uses the familiar mechanic of other players playing the "bad guys" during your turn to slow you down rather than direct interference from the other heroes. I agree with this mechanic because while heroes do come to blows from time to time in the comics--most notably Captain America and Iron Man during Marvel's crossover "Civil War"--the focus should be on heroes versus villains, and it is here.
At any rate, villains cost Trouble points to play, so the higher the Trouble Level, the stronger the villian that might be played. Low-level guys like Bullseye cost a measly 1 point, but the heavy-hitters like Juggernaut are going to cost a lot more--but be capable of more damage.
Villains also serve dual purposes--each villain card has a secondary effect that can be used during battle to help the primary villain. Once the villains and his helper cards have been played, we get down to an old-fashioned Ameritrash dicefest, but with a nice twist. Each hero and villain have up to three color-coded powers that they can use during a round of combat. During combat, one player is considered to have the initiative, and will attack first. Hits are counted (and additional dice rolled based on whether you have "Boosting", a gameplay element covered better in the rules) and then the defender rolls to try to negate these hits. If the attack isn't blocked, the defender suffers a point of damage. If that character or villain has damage equal to his "KO" level, he is defeated--in the case of the villain, he is discarded and the heroes can continue Troubleshooting the headline; in the case of the hero, they are sent home wounded. If that was the last hero available to fight, the Troubleshooting action is a failure, and the villain is either discarded or may be added to the "Most Wanted" track if they have the appropriate icon, to show up later and cause more havoc for the heroes.
After each round of combat, there is an Outwit roll. This roll will inflict an additional point of damage for the loser, and the winner will gain initiative for the next round of combat. So the power you choose for a combat round will be dependant on whether you have the initiative, the strength of the attack you anticipate, and if you expect the round to progress to the Outwit roll (and if that roll is important for you to win).
For example, Thing has an attack that lets you roll 5 dice (a very large attack) but only 2 dice on defense and 1 on Outwit; this is when you expect your opponent to have a glass jaw and go down after this hit. However, he has another attack that is low attack and defense (2 dice each) but a strong Outwit roll of 4 dice. Sometimes the choices are obvious, other times you will need to choose which of your options actually suits you best for this round of combat.
There are other elements to the gameplay going on. One is the "Story Deck", a nice little side item that can allow you to score points by manipulating it. This is an attempt to bring in story-based elements to the game, such as Sue giving birth to Franklin (she is QUITE the trooper to be out there battling up until her very delivery!), but mostly this part of the game is quite abstract. It gives you a little "Oh, cool!" part of the game when something happens that involves your team, but the end result is the same--1 VP. You can also trade these story cards in for Team Power-Ups, giving your team permanent benefits for the rest of the game.
The last part I haven't really talked about are the Mastermind villains, also a very cool part of the game. Each team has a fabled nemesis--for example, Magneto for the X-Men and Dr. Doom for the Fantastic Four. One of your opponents will have control of your team's nemesis. Certain headlines have an icon on them indicating that there is potentially Mastermind involvement in the crime, and if you troubleshoot these headlines you will have to suffer addtional meddling from that Mastermind, including added points for playing villains and even battling the Mastermind themselves in combat. These Masterminds have their own "Master Plan" cards that they can try to play, and if they're successful, they become all the more dangerous.
Though the heroes can evade combat with their nemesis, by doing so they become all the more stronger, and the final Master Plan card each may Mastermind may play will dock the hero player a whopping five points--a *huge* sum when the base scenario only involves playing to 15!
There are other elements that add Marvel flavor, including Ally cards that can tag along to help the teams, and Hero cards that can be played for thematic or dramatic effect. Also, taking a page from the best of Euros, the game has some catch-up to the leader gameplay mechanics, including making the Mastermind of the current point leader into something called the "Archnemesis", allowing that Mastermind to interfere in crimes whether there's a Mastermind Icon or not!
Marvel Heroes hasn't been as warmly received as I expected. There have been a lot of criticisms as to its abstract nature, and more than one player was disappointed to find out that it wasn't a tactical fighting game between heroes and villains. I think this was a wise--and refreshing--decision, as making another game like that would've put it in the same camp as Heroclix and Hasbro's upcoming Marvel Heroscape game, which cover that exact same ground.
As far as abstraction, I think a level of that is necessary, given that the game is trying to capture a larger scale while keeping playing time reasonable. The game is meant to comprise several issues of a comic, with each "Headline" making up one or two issues of that comic, and the Mastermind's involvement being a larger story arc.
Some felt that the "play to 15" element was bland, reducing the game to a scoring exercise with superhero window-dressing. To some degree, that is true; however, the game ships with several scenario cards that change the victory conditions to some that are more thematic (in "The House of M" scenario, each team will have to deal with Magneto himself in a more powerful form during the endgame, and victory will be decided by who defeats him.) This keeps the game fresh, as you will have to play the game differently based on the specifications of the scenario.
I think the dice-based combat system also keeps the game firmly tied to its Ameritrashy combat roots--you simply cannot have superhero battles without chucking dice! Plus, choosing your powers during each round adds decisions and flavor to each battle.
There is no denying that the Euro influence is showing here, but I think in all the best ways. Juggling heroes, action points, and other resources gives you that "the heroes can't be everywhere at once" feeling, just like the comics. The abstraction of movement is more the result of 'pulling back' from the action, and I think that's acceptable given the scope of the game and what it's trying to accomplish.
The Verdict: Marvel Heroes is a find Euro/AT hybrid featuring some of comic's finest. The production value is high, the gameplay fast (a game should finish in less than two hours), and it scales well from 2-4 players.
I think that the abstraction level is high in some regards, and I cannot disagree that the game could've used with a tad less of it. The Story Track, despite its coolness, is really just additional fluff that you will be "gaming" in order to score points off of rather than feeling like its depicting actual events in the Marvel universe.
It also sits in an uncomfortable spot for a hybrid. The theme is going to be seen as "kiddie" or "geeky", the dice are going to turn off Euro gamers (though I think they are implemented very well in this game), and the abstraction is going to bother theme hounds.
Could it be better? Yeah, I think there are spots where the game stands for a bit of room for improvement, but my overall view of the game is that it's an excellent, fresh take on the superhero boardgame. Marco, Francesco, and Roberto have delivered a strong sophmore effort--a tall order after their incredible first breakthrough offering--and I look forward to seeing more of what these guys do in the future.
It's obvious that they're on to something in terms of developing strong hybrids, that's for sure. Thumbs up for "Marvel Heroes".