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Capes & Cowls: The Superhero Board Game» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Capes & Cowls -- A Truly Super Game rss

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Clarence Chambers
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OPENING THOUGHTS
I was first exposed to Capes & Cowls over a year ago, when my brother-in-law and I took part in a demo session at a crowded sci-fi convention. We had a blast trying out the game and have been hankering to get our hands on a copy of our own ever since. Sometimes games play differently depending on where and under what conditions they’re played, and I was eager to find out if a change of locale and circumstance would affect our perception of Capes & Cowls. Well, the game is finally ours (it’s about darn time), and I’m happy to report that we’re enjoying it even more in the relative privacy of home than we did in the chaos of the con.

One of the things I like most about the game, in fact, is its surprisingly intimate feel. That may seem like an odd trait to value in a biff-bam-boom kind of game, but it’s true just the same. While battle games like Heroscape and HeroClix have a sloppy, all-over-the-place nature that leads to permanently cluttered dinner tables, out-of-your-seat rambunctiousness, and possibly even divorce, Capes & Cowls -- with its deceptively compact battle board, streamlined mechanics, and turn-by-turn tension -- has a remarkable attention-focusing quality that keeps even my hyperactive ten-year-old nephew locked in must-defeat-the-grownups concentration for the full duration of a game. You could even play it in a quiet corner of your favorite coffee shop without attracting too many stares, provided you can resist the frequent urge to shout such things as “Halt, villain!” and “Take that, you dithering dolt!” But enough social science. On to the nitty-gritty.

Capes & Cowls, in essence, is an elegantly pared-down but exceptionally varied battle game. Easy to learn, highly portable, and filled to bursting with superhero goodness, it scores high marks in both the strategy and tactics departments yet involves just enough luck to spice things up a bit and increase the level of suspense. If pressed to give a ratio, I’d say the game is at least 80% skill versus no more than 20% luck. This means, thankfully, that your careful plans and well-executed maneuvers are much less likely to be totally obliterated by an unlucky roll of the die than they are in a game like Heroscape. It also means, of course, that a sharp, experienced player will probably always trounce a less experienced opponent. If this strikes you as a plus, you’re poopin’ in high cotton. If, however, you consider this a drawback, you can handicap the experienced player a bit by using the random-recruitment option, or maybe even by shorting his team a hero. That said, based on my experience with the game so far, even severely outmatched players always do plenty of damage before finally falling in defeat, which keeps the game fun for all, even for lookers-on.

COMPONENTS
Despite the comparatively small size of the game package (think cereal box), it contains an impressive array of goodies. As listed in the rule book, the components include the following: 32 Hero Character Cards, 45 Crew Character Cards, 77 Standup Figures, 24 Figure Bases, 35 Scene Features (10 Trees, 20 Walls, and 5 Rooftops), 12 Outdoor Objects (4 Cars, 4 Boulders, and 4 Mailboxes), 12 Indoor Objects (4 Contraptions, 4 Cabinets, and 4 Safes), 15 Items (5 Loots, 5 Devices, and 5 Bombs), 20 Rubble Tokens, 50 POWs (40 regular and 10 spider-marked), 2 Battle Dice, 1 Battleboard, 1 Round Tracker, 1 Rule Book, and 1 Adventure Book. Though of relatively modest production values, these vibrant but low-gloss components have a distinctive retro quality that effectively evokes the visual and tactile experience of reading a silver-age comic. Those with a sharp sense of smell might even catch a whiff of that rarefied four-color fragrance so sorely missing in latter-day comic books.

All the smaller components, I’m delighted to report, were sorted, bagged, and ready for immediate use. Along with the rule book and adventure book, they are neatly contained beneath a sturdy platform insert that sports a nifty piece of Wyrd City art and a bit of interesting flavor text that sets the tone of the game. The hero cards, crew cards, and battle dice (two regular six-siders -- one red, one blue) are snuggly housed in niches of their own.

The “figures” in Capes & Cowls are colorfully illustrated stand-ups consisting of front and rear views of the characters, with each character’s name on the bottom edge of his stand-up. While sculpted miniatures may be preferable for most character-oriented combat games, these vibrant, well-drawn figures are a hard-to-beat fit for the style and theme of Capes & Cowls. Their four-color two-dimensionality is just more, well, comic-bookish, giving the characters a fresh-from-the-panel feel that, for me, makes the game all the more fun to play, not to mention a heck of a lot easier to store and transport. And, speaking of ease, there’s no punching out, folding, and pasting involved. You just take the stand-up of your choice, stick it in a base of the appropriate color, and -- voila! -- instant figure!

MODES OF PLAY
The game boasts three modes of play -- Basic, Standard, and Adventure -- and several interesting variants. The Basic game is really just an introductory, learning mode. While OK in its own right, especially for the younger folk, it allows for only 2 or 3 heroes on a team and is played without scene features and objects. This makes for shorter, less variable games with fewer turn-by-turn options, but it seems about right for teaching the game to newbies who are slower on the draw than common.

The real game, as far as I’m concerned, starts with the Standard mode, which is played in the same fashion as the Basic mode but with scene features, objects, and as many as 5 heroes to a team. I was surprised at how big a difference this minor modification makes in the overall appeal of the game. It’s really pretty amazing how full and varied a battle experience can be had with just a quartet of combatants and a few select props, and its one of the things that places this game on my list of current favorites.

After using the scene features and objects to set up the battle board in any way you wish, players take turns recruiting heroes until each has placed a full team in his own starting zone. Once this is accomplished, you’re ready to start bustin’ heads.

The Adventure mode is a different critter entirely, but every bit as fun as the Standard mode. Though the same in fundamental gameplay, it differs dramatically in setup, situation, and objective. In this mode, players choose an adventure from the adventure book, then follow the concise map-and-text directions to set the adventure in motion. Adventures, basically, are self-contained, two-player scenarios with specialized rules and victory conditions. There are 16 adventures to choose from (all of them, happily, replayable), and while each adventure is self-contained, playing them in sequence reveals a loose but definite story arc.

Speaking of stories, I love the brief intros that set the stage for each adventure. Super and sweet and delightfully overblown, they immediately put you in that larger-than-life mindset that the game is all about. The titles alone -- “Cornered by the Freedom Patrol,” “Trapped in the Tomb of Doom,” etc. -- are enough to make you want to get into a costume of your own and go out looking for trouble. Even better, though, are the bite-size character bios at the back of the adventure book. Listed under the heading “Wyrd City Roll Call,” these over-the-top gems cover every hero and crew included in the game and are especially fun to read out loud, preferably in a voice best suited for an old-time radio serial. Be warned, though; some of these bios are far from G-rated. Not that there’s anything truly objectionable about them (at least not to my mind), but a few character origins have a decidedly supernatural, violent, or sexual bent that may make some players (or their less open-minded parents) a wee bit uncomfortable.

In addition to the Basic, Standard, and Adventure modes, the rules include three or four recruitment alternatives and the following game variants: 3-Player Free-for-All, 4-Player Free-for-All, 4-Player Doubles, and Solitary Overlord. While the solitary variant is a bit of a joke (just playing the game by yourself, with no real difference in rules), the other variants are every bit as fun as the Standard and Adventure modes. I’m especially fond of the Free-for-Alls, which employ a nifty mechanic for keeping otherwise eliminated players involved in the action of the game.

GAME DURATION
All game modes and variants last for a predetermined number of rounds, up to a maximum of 10. These rounds are tracked by moving a transparent chip along the appropriately named “Round Track,” which is part of the Battle Board itself. This built-in timing principle adds tremendous tension (the good kind) to the game and increases the urgency of a player’s every turn.

The real-time duration of the game, according to the official info, is an hour. For most players this will probably be about right. In my own sessions, however, which are filled with lots of role-playing and smack talking, a game usually clocks in at right around an hour and a half.

MECHANICS
Structurally speaking, Capes & Cowls is an unusual but effective blend of mechanics. Though basically a game of brawling miniatures, its game board -- coded with numbers and colors -- gives it a slightly abstract, faintly chesslike aspect. Surprisingly, though, this quality doesn’t detract in the least from the heroes-in-action feel of the game. Like the gears and cogs behind the face of a well-made watch, it keeps the thing atickin’ but does nothing to mar the desired aesthetics of the theme. In fact, now that I give it a good hard think, it may be the very element that makes Capes & Cowls such a refreshingly simple but strategically challenging simulation of superhero combat.

Another essential ingredient in the odd but potent cocktail of the Capes & Cowls system (and what I consider to be the heart and soul of the game) is an aspect usually associated with CCGs (collectible card games). This element is represented in the form of character cards. Each character, whether a hero or part of a crew, is summed up with impressive economy on one of these cards, complete with stats, great little character portraits, and the CCG-like element of special powers that riff on, bend, or break the core rules of the game in thematic and ingenious ways.

While members of a particular crew are identical to each other, no two heroes have a single power in common. This refreshing one-of-a-kindness brings great variety to the game and makes for highly distinctive heroes that are all fun to play. Though some of the characters seem superior to others in a head-to-head throwdown, all have certain strengths that make them uniquely useful in a variety of in-game situations. And no matter what character your opponent recruits, there always seem to be plenty of viable counter-recruitment options.

COMPLEXITY
The game, despite its high level of strategic and tactical challenge, is extremely easy to grasp. Granted, I had the benefit of playing it first in a demo, but that was over a year ago, and I’ve been known to forget important game rules in less than a couple of weeks. For me, the trickiest aspect of the game to get a handle on was how targeting is affected by scene features and objects. But even this, once I got the hang of it, seemed obvious and straightforward (sometimes I’m just a doofus). And any questions that arose in my first few sessions were easily answered by a quick glance at the rule book, which is clearly written and filled with bunches of helpful illustrations.

CONCLUSION
If you’re looking for a quick, compact, yet highly competitive superhero battle game that offers tons of flavor and lots of varied characters to choose from, you can’t do better than Capes & Cowls. All things considered, it’s just about the best little set-em-up-and-duke-it-out quickie I’ve ever come across, and I expect it to be hitting ye olde gaming table for a long time to come.


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Flying Arrow
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Thanks for the review - I'm looking forward to trying it.
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Bill Colyer
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Umm,so how does it actually work? Good job describing the feel of the game; I'm interested in the technical nitty-gritty of how you play it.
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Paul Bryant
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
blacksoilbill wrote:
Umm,so how does it actually work? Good job describing the feel of the game; I'm interested in the technical nitty-gritty of how you play it.


Ditto
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Carla Harper
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Wonderful review, Elvisx! Personal and very well written. It's a nice change of pace from the grocery-list approach. Between the game description and the various discussions on this page, I've had my fill of nut-and-bolts stuff. All I want now is the game in my eager little hands.

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Daniel Val
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Nice review!

Where can I buy this game? Somewhere online?
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Michael Denman
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Elvisx wrote:
Another essential ingredient in the odd but potent cocktail of the Capes & Cowls system (and what I consider to be the heart and soul of the game) is an aspect usually associated with CCGs (collectible card games). This element is represented in the form of character cards. Each character, whether a hero or part of a crew, is summed up with impressive economy on one of these cards, complete with stats, great little character portraits, and the CCG-like element of special powers that riff on, bend, or break the core rules of the game in thematic and ingenious ways.


??? You associate this with CCGs? This sounds absolutely no different than Cosmic Encounter or any other of a hundred games where each player has a special ability. Maybe you just haven't described this part fully, but I see NO connection to CCGs.
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Ronald Estes
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Great stuff! Your review brought back to mind a lot of things I'd nearly forgotten about the game. Now I'm jonesin' all the more to get my copy in hand.
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John Ward
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Trump wrote:
Elvisx wrote:
Another essential ingredient in the odd but potent cocktail of the Capes & Cowls system (and what I consider to be the heart and soul of the game) is an aspect usually associated with CCGs (collectible card games). This element is represented in the form of character cards. Each character, whether a hero or part of a crew, is summed up with impressive economy on one of these cards, complete with stats, great little character portraits, and the CCG-like element of special powers that riff on, bend, or break the core rules of the game in thematic and ingenious ways.


??? You associate this with CCGs? This sounds absolutely no different than Cosmic Encounter or any other of a hundred games where each player has a special ability. Maybe you just haven't described this part fully, but I see NO connection to CCGs.


I was thinking Heroscape, especially since he references it in the review. "[cards with]...special powers that riff on, bend, or break the core rules..."
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Michael Denman
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
leprejuan wrote:
I was thinking Heroscape, especially since he references it in the review. "[cards with]...special powers that riff on, bend, or break the core rules..."


Sure, you can name many games like that. I was trying to go way back though because it better demonstrates how old the idea is.
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Ronald Estes
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
As Mr. Presley clearly points out, it's the game's combination of elements that makes it unusual, in particular its quirky but effective battle board.
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Carla Harper
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Re: CAPES & COWLS -- A TRULY SUPER GAME
Wyldeirishman wrote:
Care to provide some examples, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity?


You sound like the guy who complains about the peepshow down the street but drops in every Saturday night...just to keep an eye on things.goo

Edited on 05-12-07:
My above comment was made in response to Wyldeirishman's intimation (since deleted) that Capes & Cowls is a perilously sexy game , but one that he, in order to satisfy his curiosity, would nonetheless love to learn more about.
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Clarence Chambers
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She-Wolf wrote:
Wyldeirishman wrote:
Care to provide some examples, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity?


You sound like the guy who complains about the peepshow down the street but drops in every Saturday night...just to keep an eye on things.goo



laugh I've known a few guys like that myself. Amusing, yes, but a little sad too.
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Michael Denman
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Eh, you have to keep in mind that the primary audience of comics are teenage boys. I'd agree that the cheesecake is a bit out of hand in the industry, but I really doubt this game presents any images or ideas that a person couldn't get just from reading Spider-Man every month.
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gordon seahorn
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Nice review. I got the game around Christmas time too, and have played it at least two or three times a week since then.
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