Review: Marvel Champions: The Card Game

In the footsteps of other LCGs in the Fantasy Flight Games’ catalog notably, The Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror, a new cooperative card game has emerged, Marvel Champions: The Card Game. For 1-4 players, each person controls a hero and works together to defeat a dastardly supervillain. Pulling from the Marvel comics and using a tried and true formula similar to other FFG Living Card Games, this cooperative deck construction game has a lot going for it.

All players represent a particular hero, each one having hand size limit and cards specific to their comic character. The superhero character cards comprise of about half your typical deck. In addition players can tinker with their deck composition using cards from one aspect (essentially sets of cards that have a particular flavor of game mechanics), along with more generic use neutral cards.

Each hero gets their full turn, starting with the first player that’ll rotate each round, before passing to another player. The hero can play cards from their hand that either does a one time action, has some long term effect, or potentially be an ally remaining in play to help in thwarting the villain. Lastly, the player can use their hero to either attack the supervillain directly or try and address the villain’s scheme. After playing all of their cards along with committing the actions they want, they can discard as many cards as they’d like and draw up to their hand size. This is where the fun part of the game comes in as the player can also do a special once-per-turn action, flip their hero card to an alter ego (or vice versa).

Each hero persona has an alter ego form. In the non-hero form the player commonly has a larger hand size and can heal damage taken by the villain. While in hero form the player can be more proactive taking on the villain or stopping their plans, but can potentially leave themselves open to being attacked. In addition to this, in hero form the player will also have a limited hand size. So usually they need to have a pretty solid board state with cards in play to provide resources or allies to help take the fight to the villain.

After all the players have had their turn, the villain will act. Threat, a means to indicate a timer of sorts, is added to the main villain scheme. If the threat equals or exceeds the threshold for the villain’s scheme, the players lose. Then the villain will attack each player one by one, doing damage equal to the villain’s stat plus a potential variable amount based on cards drawn from an encounter deck that can ‘boost’ the damage. If a player ever takes enough damage to equal or exceed their hero’s health, they are out of the game. If all the players are eliminated, they all lose.

A hero can attempt to defend against an attack, reducing the damage they take. However this will exhaust them. You can only ready your hero and cards in play at the end of your turn. So essentially you’re giving up your next turn when defending against a villain attack. If a player is in their alter ego form the villain doesn’t attack them, but instead adds threat to the main villain scheme. This all leads to some really interesting choices aside from playing cards for the player.

Do you settle on being in your alter ego during the villain turn? This will ensure you can get a larger hand size to help out the following one, and even potentially heal up if needed. However main scheme will get even more threat piled onto it, ramping up the end game condition for losing. Or instead do you settle on having less cards to throw down next round, but the flexibility of either attacking the main villain or addressing the villain’s main scheme? Or maybe if in hero form, you block an incoming attack essentially shrugging off the damage (yet that also means limiting your actions on the next turn). Fun choices to noodle through while you are playing.

This all gets compounded even more so during the villain turn. After the main villain attacks (or adds threat to the main scheme if a player is in their alter ego form), each player draws a card from the encounter deck. Like Arkham Horror, the villain has a special deck to add complications to the scenario. This might mean adding more dire schemes players have to take on, or minion villains that attack the players during the villain phase, or even cards to hinder future attacks against the main villain. This layers on challenges for the players, ratcheting up the difficulty as the game moves on.

All the while the players are in a desperate fight against time. They have to inflict enough combined damage to essentially enrage the villain further, transforming the foe to another form (or stage). If there are no further stages for that villain the players win. This is the only way the players can win the game. While they can try to address the main villain scheme, they can never stop it completely. They have to balance between keeping the main scheme in check and also chip away at the villain’s health, hoping to eventually hit their enemy hard enough over time to vanquish them.

Actually playing cards from your hand is easy. Every card will have a cost to put into play, and in addition they provide resources of certain types indicated with symbols. To play a card, a player discards cards from their hand with enough resource icons to match the cost. Resources spent this way can be of any symbol type, but commonly you’ll get a bonus if a specific resource is used.

Players will eventually have upgrades, resource cards, and allies in play to help out from turn to turn, reducing the need to have a large hand size. But note that while a player can have ally heroes in play, they are temporary. There are limited means to heal damage allies take after stopping a villain’s attack. Also most allies sort of damage themselves when used to stop a villain or reduce the threat on a scheme, so effectively it puts a turn limit on their use.

The Good – There are some immense pros as a cooperative game. Unlike many other LCG games from FFG, this offers a fair amount of deck construction options just using the core set alone. The game is challenging, with options to make each villain more difficult. The game play is flexible enough with resource costs that you can usually do something during your turn, reducing the downtime. But typically the game forces you into some challenging situations and critical decision making. The art is colorful with simple icons and symbols, the components are thick cardstock, and the box roomy enough to hold a few more expansions.

The Bad – There really isn’t much story akin to what you’d get in the Arkham Horror LCG. The game is pretty much about beating down the villain and there isn’t any real progression of the villain master plan as the game progresses. So there isn’t some rich, story telling happening when you play or a longer campaign to look forward to, and instead it’s pretty much a drawn out fight against a villain. The game is deceptively simple and some keywords and card interactions are going to have you grabbing the rules every once in a while to ensure play is moving along as intended. While much of the art is top notch, some of it is a little disappointing, which is odd considering you have such a wealth of Marvel source material to draw from.

The Verdict – Marvel Champions is an immensely enjoyable coop card game. While there is some card jargon and mechanisms to work through, it’s far more approachable than other similar coop LCGs from Fantasy Flight Games. I love Arkham Horror, but it can be so daunting with terminology, task resolution, and restrictive player actions, that Marvel Champions is a downright refreshing take. But don’t think there isn’t a lot of play here. You are going to make some agonizing choices and will have that same roller coaster feeling from turn to turn, with highs getting great draws and a player board that just ‘clicks’ with efficiency, to abysmal lows as you suddenly draw a dire villain encounter card. Fun stuff.

Yes, there isn’t much story to the villains and their minions, but every villain deck can choose from a particular subset to make up the encounter deck. This allows you to tailor the difficulty even more and also offer some change ups to the opposition and challenges you’ll face stretching out that replay value even more. Aside from this are the heroes. You’ve got 5 hero choices for a 1-4 player game, and every hero can dip into different aspects to give their decks some changes to play style. Mind you deck construction is still hobbled some but there is a fair amount to play around with just using the core set (and quite a departure from previous LCG offerings from FFG).

Lastly, as a coop game Marvel Champions is just a solid experience. You really get that feeling of working together to stop a supervillain, and mechanisms of the rules encourage this type of cooperation. With difficult choices, plenty of variable replay, room to tinker with deck construction, and an entire universe of untapped superheroes and villains to draw from, you’ll find a wonderful card game here.