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Subject: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Lens rss

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Matt Shepherd
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I'm late reviewing this, so a lot of people have nailed down the basic aspects of the game already. And, in fact, there's so much to love, and so much to hate, about Marvel Heroes that it's been hard to wrap my head around it. Over a dozen plays later with some very smart fellow gamers, and there are still subtleties that are making themselves known (and flaws that become more glaringly apparent).

The Good/Bad/Ugly thing is overplayed, so let's try some different ways of breaking this game down. If you're reading this you're at least 10% comic geek, so let's look at Marvel Heroes through a Classic X-Men* Lens:

Cyclops: should be awesome. Turns out lame.

One of the neat strategy features of the game is how the heroes reduce "trouble." This basically maps onto how well a given hero can thematically "deal with" a situation (represented in the game as "headlines" your heroes deal with in different areas of New York) and resolve it before the fighting starts -- so Dr. Strange has a kickin' Mystic resolution (he is the Master of the Mystic Arts, after all) but so does Reed Richards (he kills magic with skepticism.) Thematically, it's pretty cool, but once you get the hang of how to use your trouble-reduction stats optimally, the game can become a question of the first player every round cherry-picking a high-point headline that results in no threat at all. Given the mechanic of "the lowest score player plays first," there's a balancing aspect to this, but the free awarding of victory points with no fightin' for usually two out of four players every turn gets a little weak.

So "Alien Assault in the Bowery!" often turns out to be "Hydro-Man knocking over a liquor store." Crisis management is a great concept, but it's a leeeetle too easy to exploit.

What should be a leading feature of the game turns out to be a lame duck -- just like Cyclops.

Iceman: fun, interesting, and not living up to his potential.
The villain cards are great. Heck, the whole villain system tickles me pink. The Nemesis element means that the person lagging in points at least gets a dynamic relationship with another player on the villain side, and everyone gets a chance to pitch in to thwart trouble-shooting heroes by adding their own villain cards as "secondary effects." The trouble cost mechanic for bringing villains onto the table is cool, except for the overabundant trouble-lowering powers of some hero/supporting hero combos (as mentioned above under Cyclops). The number of cards and dual use (triple, if you count discarding them to use villain and nemesis powers) create a nigh-infinite replayability...
...but after a few games, there's a certain sameness to a lot of them. Many villain cards are a lot of the same stats with different pictures, and the game often becomes about hoping to God your opponent doesn't have the Sentinel card in his bag of tricks...along with the trouble cost to bring it out.
And where are the match-ups? It might have lent another element of complexity to an already kind of fiddly game, but having an opportunity for each hero to have a "mega-rival" (Spider-Man/Green Goblin, Iron Man/Radioactive Man, Thor/Executioner, etc.) hiding in the deck would have been, well, cooool. Granted, Spider-Man, Thor, etc. have more "individual" villains than "team heroes" like Cyclops and the Invisible Woman, but it woulda been nice to have a few epic match-ups lurking in the deck.
Really neat, loads of fun, but never quite figuring out their full potential. Just like Bobby Drake.

Beast: looks kind of lame but turns out smart and interesting.
I'm generally lukewarm on dice games. But, for some reason, the combat dice in MH really work for me. Maybe it's because there are lots of ways to manipulate them through various hero powers (and a lot of people go on about the "broken" FF, but they burn through Hero cards like a house on fire and haven't won more often than any other team, in my experience), but this is one case where I feel like dice add excitement and tension to the game, rather than making it feel like a big ol' luckfest. There's also the fact that it's themed well, and you can direct the dice-rolling through red/orange/yellow attack choices and (middleweight) strategy.
The variety of ways you can manipulate the dice are interesting, too. Just when you think you've got a headline locked, the right combo of villain cards can deflate your strategy entirely.

Yes, it's absolutely a luck game in some respects, and that is driving some of the longbeard strategists absolutely nuts. But it's luck management that wins the day -- in some ways, MH reminds me strongly of Blood Bowl, in that a better strategy will win 75% of the time, but 25% of the time the dice just turn on you and you get smoked. But that's when being involved in the theme, and playing the villains with the same gusto as playing the hero, pulls this out of the fire. Plus your theme strength can actually alter the laws of probability -- but we'll see Marvel Girl about that.

I thought "dice game" would be the weak point here, but it actually turned out to be far more fascinating than I'd imagined it would be -- oh my stars and garters, just like Hank McCoy.

Marvel Girl: overlooked, underrated, and the most powerful person in the room.
Theme. Themitty theme theme theme. Marvel Heroes is drenched in theme, and as a comics nerd from infancy (the first thing I remember reading is a Spider-Man comic my grandfather bought me when I was in the hospital, aged 3 and a half), I can't get enough of the lavish dedication to theme. Aside from the abovementioned omission of "classic match-ups" among the villain cards, the designers have gone overboard on loading every single hero and Nemesis with special powers and attributes that make each team unique, balanced (YMMV), and, well, themey. The Avengers are heavy hitters but slow and prone to getting pounded by gigantic plots (represented by the Hulk and Thor being big ol' bashers, and the Red Skull's arsenal of henchmen); the Marvel Knights are lower-powered except for Dr. Strange, and don't have much synergy at all; the X-Men are sort of a grab bag, and the Fantastic Four, the first family of comics, work best in synch (especially the Reed-and-Sue husband-and-wife duo). There are a few things that are sort of shoehorned in, like some of the Support abilities, but a lot of attention's been paid to making sure every character has powers and abilities that are at least a passing representation of what they 'do' in the comics.

There seem to be some charges levied that the theme is "tacked on," and I honestly don't understand how you can get that impression. There are lots of gloss elements, like unnecessary text on the Headline cards and Story cards, but the fundamental parts of the game -- travel around New York, use Attack, Defense and Outwit scores to fight super-villains, find allies to help you or intervene in combat, scheme and plot to foil the heroes... impromptu team-ups... unlikely villain alliances... dramatic changes of fortune... this is so Classic Marvel it's scary.

And theme can actually warp the laws of probability to suit you. Your odds of taking on Thor with just the Mole Man and whomping him go up 300% if, instead of saying "this battle makes no logical sense! Why, this game is a travesty!" you squint your eyes, shake your invisible walking stick, and screech, in your best Peter Lorre/Dame Edna impression, "The sewers of New York are a long way from Asgard, Thunder God! Quake, Thor, for now you face... my MOLOIDS!"

You'll roll better dice. Seriously. Try it. Or you'll be so busy having a good time you won't mind when you crap out and Thor kicks your heinie.

Theme. Often forgotten due to some legitimate gripes about balance and mechanics. Overlooked yet awesomely powerful. Like our dear Jean Grey.

Angel: pretty. Pretty superfluous.

Cyclops: Devastating optic blasts from his eyes. Iceman: control over moisture and cold. Marvel Girl: incredible psychic gifts. Beast: brilliance, super-strength and incredible agility. And Angel: a guy that... well, he's kind of like a, uh, man-seagull cross.

Oh, Warren. You look good, but what do you do?

Oh, Story Cards. You're attractive, but what's the point?

One of the things about MH that I just don't get is story cards. For a game that has a tendency to be a bit fiddly (I don't find it so, but I remember my first play was a bit of a frazzle), the Story Cards are a Fiddle Too Far in many ways. Their own game element with their own set of rules that don't effect the main game in any significant way at all, they could just be, well, dropped without ceremony from the ... okay, that's not really fair. They DO play a role in the game. But to rephrase, had they been left out of the game altogether, I doubt their absence would have been felt.

Story cards are little tidbits about the teams that move along a track at the side of the board. You can mess with them in a few ways, and when a card "falls off," the appropriate team snags it and gets a victory point (the essential scoring system for the game). You can also "cash them in" to buy team power-ups. But victory points are also available by resolving headlines, and power-ups are available for defeating nemeses, so there's not much point to the story cards there; you also draw a Hero Card when you mess around with the Story Track, but, well, who cares?

And it's bits like this that can mire MH down for somebody that doesn't throw themselves into it. There's a great theme in here, and a rrreally fun mechanic, but then there is, well, stuff tossed in to make the game busier. Things that look good and obstensibly serve a purpose, but when you're done you're left wondering what exactly it adds to the mix.

Y'know, like Warren Worthington. Our Angel. Except Warren had loads of cash, and the Story Cards haven't bought me lunch even once.

Professor X: Is YOU.

Man, you want to love those kids, your students, your charges. But the Blob is rampaging around in the back yard unchecked, and Scott and Jean are at the soda shop listening to beatnik poetry and Hank is somewhere with a chemistry set, Bobby is lost in the basement and Warren is wearing that damn sweater vest again...

Like Professor X to those crazy kid X-Men, players may feel a weird blend of deep, abiding love for this game -- combined with the overwhelming urge to give it a good smack upside the head every once in a while.

When the Professor gets it in his head to get something done, by God it gets done. Action Chuck rolling into battle, wheelchair a'humming, it's awe-inspiring. And if you decide that you're going to give this game a chance and really play it up, with theme a-go-go and all guns blazing, it's a blast. But Analytical Charles has a tendency to sit and brood and overanalyze, too, and it's always sad when at the end of the day Charles is in his study at twilight, looking over charts and figures and wondering what the future holds. Action Chuck rocks out and lives for the moment. Analytical Charles agonizes and weighs and calculates, and misses out on a good time.

There's lots to love in Marvel Heroes. There's also lots to, well, not-love. But it's one of the cleanest-cut examples I've ever seen of "you get out of it what you put into it." Right up there with Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula, it's not a game for the analysts and the hardcore strategists; it's a game for comic-loving goofballs who like a middleweight strategy game with a strong random element and theme out the yin-yang.

Whether or not you enjoy it is, well, up to you. Some people just can't get into it, and that's cool. I'm lucky enough to play with a bunch of people who throw caution (and dignity) to the wind and really have fun with the game, weird goofy over-the-top fun that you just can't get from Settlers or Runebound or... well, most other games, really.

So if you're Action Chuck, you owe it to yourself to wrestle the rulebook into submission and go to town. If you're Brooding Charles, you might want to give this one a miss and focus on something a little more Cerebro.

Er, cerebral.

Sorry.


*pre Giant-Size, pre-Uncanny. Original five plus ol' baldy. If you ask "where's Wolverine?" you have to stay after class.


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John G
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Re: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Len
Nice review. Glad you're having fun with this game. I've seen others feel the same way. We've tried and tried and just can't get it to feel fun. Very fiddly and totally agree with the trouble reduction mechanism.
 
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Andrew Lotz
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This is the best review I've ever read on this site. Your attention to the other aspects of the game (the professor X analogy reminding us that good old enthusiasm for a game makes it fun) is grand and well handled.

Thanks for the time you spent.

Cheers,

Andrew
 
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Mr T.
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May 2018 be all you dreamed it would be and be all that you dreamed...
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Re: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Len
Great Review and excellent analysis.

The following -

There's lots to love in Marvel Heroes. There's also lots to, well, not-love. But it's one of the cleanest-cut examples I've ever seen of "you get out of it what you put into it." Right up there with Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula, it's not a game for the analysts and the hardcore strategists; it's a game for comic-loving goofballs who like a middleweight strategy game with a strong random element and theme out the yin-yang.

- is very well put, Some in our club love it for this reason and others hated it for the points you make.

Great Writing!
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marty hagenhouew
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excellent review, you've captured everything you need to know about this game, my kids loved the comparisons with the x-men and even my 11yr old got it!
we're the action chucks and we get a hell of a lot out of this game! well done!!!
 
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Arthur
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Re: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Len
Awesome review! I'm interested in this game now.
 
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John So-And-So
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You and the Cap'n make it hap'n
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WHERE'S WOLVERINE!?




Just kidding. Excellent review that comes to a conclusion I can wholeheartedly agree with. I'm one of those 'long-bearded strategists' you speak of... and I would love to hate this game, because there's lots for my type to hate about it.

But dammit, I think it's Marvel-ous, if you let it be.
 
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Dave
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Already beaten to it, but this is probably the best review I've read on this site as well.
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Ray
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Re: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Len
I love this review too, but to a point I disagree with:
MattShepherd wrote:
...it's not a game for the analysts and the hardcore strategists; it's a game for comic-loving goofballs who like a middleweight strategy game with a strong random element and theme out the yin-yang.

What I'm enjoying most is tearing apart the numbers scenario by scenario. Many others players do too: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/147170 . It doesn't mean I always win (as fun and luck are the basis) but I can be both -- very analytical and have fun with this game.
 
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michael dorazio
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Great review. Great writing.
 
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Stephen Schaefer
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Re: Chuck vs. Charles: Marvel Heroes Through A Classic X-Len
An excellent comparative model. I salute you, sir.

And the application is spot-on. The villains turn out to be "samey" and seldom a match for the heroes. The story cards are about 98% useless as an integrated element. And yet you look at this game, and all the cool things it at least tries to do, and the awesome bits and theme, and there's just something endearing about it that keeps you playing.

Here's hoping they make an expansion that helps this game realize its potential.
 
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Through The Ages
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Oh, Story Cards. laugh

Great review. Thanks.
 
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