There is a duck in every game. You may not see it, but it's there.
“Holy #$%$! The Wraith just KO’d Legacy!”
Anyone who has read super hero comics since the 1980’s probably knows, or has at least heard about the rivalry between Batman and Superman. It’s the struggle of the common man against the Gods and of realism vs. idealism. Batman is us, a mere mortal, yet he is able to take down our own image of the all powerful being. When people argue that comics can be literature, you can point to these moments when the writing and art comes together to create a sublime reading experience. Writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Miller have created masterpieces in the comic form.
Sentinels of the Multiverse and Rook City, it’s first expansion, show the beinnings (or origins if you will) of a similar greatness. There are many rough edges to this game but there is also a touch of genius that reminds me of Magic: The Gathering, when it was first released. When Magic was new, nobody could have predicted what it would become and how good a system Richard Garfield had created. Now, many critique its design and shortcomings. But people still play it and keep coming back for more because there is a solid game to be had from the somewhat messy rules.
When I heard about Rook City, after the Kickstarter had already ended, I knew I had to get it because I needed to see what Greater than Games (>Games) had done with the Sentinels engine. I hoped it would be innovative and have an additive effect to the core Sentinels game, and not just be more of the same. For the most part Rook City does accomplish this, even though it could use some further refinement.
In production values, the game leaves a lot to be desired. When you compare this expansion to the gold standard of card game production, Thunderstone, it clearly comes up short. There is no box that can hold all the cards in an organized way, there are no dividers, the boxer is stronger than the Sentinels box but not reinforced, the cards have no linen finish (a personal pet peeve) and it cannot hold sleeved cards. I know >Games is a small publisher, but they are competing with the big boys and it matters. The font and font sizes match what you would want from a comic book but not what you need from a game that requires you to read a playing card from across the table. I like comic font, but I would like to be able to read my villain cards at a glance as well. Some compromise of form and function appears to be needed.
However, >Games has improved the card stock, and the new villains now scale better with more heroes, a major issue with the base game. Also, and I consider this very incremental, the art is a little more polished. Art is always an Eye of the Beholder thing, but this art is done by the same artist in the same style so I am commenting more on the technical than the aesthetic. It is definitely cartoon comic style (Think Cartoon Network “Justice League”), so if you are expecting the Silver Age look you may be disappointed.
The game is much more successful in other areas. The 2 heroes and 4 villains play very differently from their base game counterparts. The heroes are humans with no innate super powers so are heavily dependent on equipment cards to get the job done. Mr. Fixit is a 70’s Luke Cage crossed with Bullseye. Give him some equipment out of your garage and combine it with his martial art styles to produce a one man wrecking machine. Similarly Expatriate, AKA the Punisher, is heavily dependent on getting guns into play or she won’t do much for your team. Both manage to add new mechanics to the hero turn and both feel unique despite their similarities. For example, Mr. Fixit Only ever gets one tool and martial arts style out at a time. If you play a tool, the one in play comes back to your hand. Thus, after a few turns, he becomes the Swiss army character. You always have the right tool for the job, or at least a tool. Expatriate can have as many guns as she can get out into play and her power allows her to play an additional card. There is even a card called “Unload” that does just that, she effectively uses all her gun powers she has in play at once. She also has equipment that modifies her guns. The Hollow Points card is useless by itself, but it can be attached to one of her guns to increase its damage by 2 for one shot (then the Hollow Points card is discarded).
The villains are, for the most part are even more innovative than the heroes, perhaps because you get four of them. Two are swarm villains with minions that do battle directly with the heroes, and 2 are solo that take on the heroes by themselves. The Chairman is a “Kin Pin” like character that mobilizes a massive army of criminals you must wade through before taking on him or his second in command, The Operative. Plague Rat introduces a new infection mechanic that among other things breaks the no hero can attack another hero rule and led to the situation from which the quote at the beginning of this review was derived. He is a solitary villain that can deal extraordinary amounts of damage quickly.
Perhaps the most unique villain in the set is Spite. >Games really started to expand their design space. The Standard villain design includes a deck of cards that puts out minions to damage heroes, messes with their cards in play, or cause the villain to deal direct damage to the heroes. Spite’s villain deck has no minions and no real direct damage cards. Instead it is packed with victims and his five drug cards that do mess with the heroes. A game with Spite is broken up into to phases. During the initial phase, victim cards come out and there is a see-saw battle with the heroes trying to protect the victims vs. Spite destroying them. Once all of Spite’s drugs are in play (and they are indestructible so will stay out forever once played), it becomes more of a traditional tank the boss before he kills you battle. While many feel he is the easiest villain in the set, and I agree, he is the most interesting in my opinion.
The one villain I was disappointed with was, The Matriarch. She is reportedly the toughest villain in the game and I have seen nothing in my plays with her that invalidates that claim (and we have beaten her). Yet I also think she is the most boring to play against. All her tricks are recursive so you end up facing the same things over and over. She has bird cards that cause you to draw bird cards when they come out and she has a mask in play that causes you to draw a villain card if she does not draw a bird card. Then she has cards that bring birds from the Trash back into play and her mask back into play if it is destroyed. And she has cards that damage heroes who destroy her birds and destroys hero cards when he birds are destroyed. And it is so repetitive. I basically think of her as the spam villain and I’m talking the ugly spam email definition here. She is insanely tough, but is she compelling? When I look at her and then look at the chairman I think he accomplishes the same sense of fighting overwhelming odds without the tediousness I have encountered with the Matriarch.
While the new Heroes and villains demonstrate how large the game space is, I feel the two environments, Rook City and a factory, do not distinguish themselves well from those already available. The initial set appears more cohesive and thematic. It’s nice that they have art on the cards instead of monochromatic silhouettes, but there Is nothing earth shattering here. I’m not saying they are bad, but just not as unique feeling and are disappointing compared to the heroes and villains.
Detractors will tell you how Sentinels is very mathy and plays itself. There is also a good amount of fiddliness with life totals and modifiers from round to round. These are valid complaints about the game, with the possible exception of it playing itself. This can happen with bad draws but is generally not the case in my experience. But what I really think many of these detractors miss is that Sentinels and, by extension, Rook City have moments where the theme pops out of the game in full 3-D glory and gives you a big wet kiss. Batman (Wraith) KO’ing Superman (Legacy), Mr. Fixit killing a rampaging T-Rex with a tire Iron, Expatriate unloading on Spite with every gun she has to bring him to one life, fighting your way to the Chairman while his chump army keeps whittling you down at every turn, Ra making everyone immune to fire while red hot magma from a volcanic eruption proceeds to destroy the villain, and there are many more moments that just feel “right.” Nobody can take away my image of a dead T-Rex with a tire Iron sticking out of its eye. I would agree that some games will only have a few memorable theme-rich moments, but there are enough to show that spark of genius I was talking about earlier.
Overall, I think >Games has released an expansion that adds to their universe and demonstrates that there is plenty of design space remaining. There are still rough patches but many changes are already in the works for the second printing of the base game and for the second expansion. Is it perfect? No, and I think there is still some tightening of the rules to do as well as working on ways to reduce upkeep. Despite these imperfections Rook City is an example of how to do an expansion well and add value to the game, not just to a company’s bottom line.
This was a pleasant read. Thanks.