Marvel Heroes (Fantasy Flight Games, 2006 - Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello) easily topped my "Most anticipated games in 2006" list at the end of 2005. As the year went on, I was a bit concerned that the game would make the same list the following year, but it was fortunately released near the end of 2006. I've played some enjoyable superhero games, but I've been long searching for a game that truly brings to life the comic books. The designers had designed the truly great War of the Ring, so I had high hopes - especially after seeing pictures of the components; and opening the box was such a rush that I was eager to get the game to the table right away. I was prepared for the definitive superhero experience.
And while Marvel Heroes has a few flaws (some downtime and fairly complicated rules), I will say that it brings a comic book to life in a way that no other game I've played ever has. It's extremely fun to play in an immersive fashion; and while it requires a good length of time to play, it's the sort of game that players will recall in the form of a story rather than mechanics. It's expandable, contains a clever combat system, and has terrific artwork and components. Perhaps a bit complicated for younger children, teenagers and adults will find that Marvel comics have finally come to life on the game board.
Some comments on the gameâ€¦
1.) Components: The most striking part to the game is of course the twenty fully colored plastic figures included. The models, while certainly done on a mass scale, look very good; and some of them (the Thing in particular) are strikingly done. The game has a ton of other components, including cards, tokens, and dice - all of them well designed - although they do require a bit of setup time when playing the game. The game comes in a beautifully illustrated box with a plastic insert that holds the plastic figures firmly in place. I found that they were TOO firmly held and finally placed everything for each of the four teams in their own separate bag, to help facilitate setup. All the cards have terrific artwork on them - some of the best comic book artwork I've ever seen, and all of this helps evoke the game's immersive theme. Some have complained about the plain looking board, but I found it functional and helpful; and if it's slightly plain at all (the map of Manhattan), it's only because a variety of colorful pieces will be placed on it - the contrast is certainly striking. As usual, Fantasy Flight gives us a game chock full o' pieces, and you'll most likely need a pile of plastic bags to keep everything easily stored.
2.) Rules: The rulebook includes fifteen full color pages that are crammed with lots of rules, illustrations, and examples. I think they're fairly well formatted, yet I still had to read them thoroughly and with a demo game set up in front of me to understand them fully. Once I played the game, things made sense, but some features - such as fighting and super villains - caused me to refer to the rulebook several times during the game. I fear that a few kids may buy the game because of its cool theme and be overwhelmed by the rules - an example first turn may have been nice. The game isn't too difficult to explain, as long as one part is done at a time - otherwise it will simply overwhelm anyone playing it. I've seen some reviews that debunk the game simply on account of the rules, but they aren't much different from the complexity of War of the Ring or similar games.
3.) Theme: Honestly, though, if you aren't a fan of comic books, or at least enjoy the idea of superheroes, then stay away. Marvel Heroes is a great game simply because of the fact that the game really does emulate the comic book experience. When I'm using the Incredible Hulk, it feels completely different than when I bring in the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic. Many things are abstracted down to make the gameplay flow smoother, but everything - especially the fights - feel as if they are taking place panel by panel in an exciting comic book. Every major Marvel comic book event seems to have taken place in or around New York - and this has a good thematic feel to the game. Comic book readers will most likely LOVE this game, as will gamers who enjoy comics on the side.
4.) Scenarios: The game comes with a basic "Scenario" card in play, which simply requires players to reach fifteen victory points to win the game. However, nine other scenarios are included, which can possibly drastically change the game, or only change a few things about it. Many of the great Marvel storylines, such as Maximum Carnage, are included on these cards - and this adds a good bit of replayability to the game, as the same events can happen in each game with slightly different results. Headline cards are used within each game to show different crimes or events in the different districts; and again, this simply adds to the theme of the game.
5.) Teams: Four teams are included with the game - each going to one player. The teams are the Avengers (Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor), the Fantastic Four (Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Mr. Fantastic, and the Thing), the Marvel Knights (Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Elektra, and Spiderman), and the X-men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Wolverine). These are certainly some of the most popular heroes of the Marvel universe, and even non-comic fans will most likely recognize all of them. One of the major features of Marvel Heroes is that the teams are really quite different, yet (as far as I can tell) remarkably balanced. Each character has a KO level (number of wounds they can take), a Level (how easy it is to get them into play), troubleshooting ratings in "Danger", "Crime", and "Mystery", areas of crime that they are specialized in, special abilities that they can use in combat or as a supporting character, and different abilities in fighting. A lot of information is included on each character's card, and using them effectively together allows a team to do extremely well. For example, the Avengers have some of the most powerful characters (Hulk and Thor) but must be careful how they use them, as they are more difficult to get into play. The Marvel Knights, on the other hand, are easy to get onto the board, but have weaker characters that must use their wits to survive rather than brute strength. There is no team that I prefer, at least in terms of gameplay (in the comics - the Fantastic Four rock!), and I'd gladly play any of them. This gives the game more replayability, as it's fun to try it out with a different team each time.
6.) Villains: What would a superhero game be without super villains! Each team has an archenemy, which is played by one of the other players. The enemies are Magneto, Kingpin, Red Skull, and Dr. Doom. This gives the game an unusual twist, as players play both the villainous side (to stop their opponents), and a team of heroes. The super villains are also diverse, having specialties and powers - Dr. Doom is extremely powerful in his own right, while Red Skull calls on the power of henchmen to help him.
7.) Sidekicks and Henchmen: The game concentrates mostly on the sixteen heroes and four villains, but many of the smaller heroes and evil folk are included in the game via cards. Players can get "allies" to join their team, such as Hawkeye, Rogue, Nightcrawler, and May Parker. A plethora of henchmen are included, from Rhino and Toad to Mysterio and Omega Red. Allies add special abilities to the heroes - rather than making an actual appearance, but this is explained away in the theme and helps streamline the game. Henchmen are more involved, as they tend to show up and be annoying whenever a hero attempts to complete a mission. Players try to play henchmen and special abilities to stop others; and if they get lucky, use their master villain themselves. All of this means that each game has a distinct feel, especially as some villains who win battles may escape and show up again - that annoying Juggernaut caused mass havoc in my last game. A reoccurring villain helps add a bit of story to the game and, again, adds variety.
8.) Players: The game handles from two to four players; and while it offers a satisfactory game for two, the length is of such that I feel like it's best with four players. Be warned, however, that a four-player game is fairly long (upwards of four hours), and sometimes a player has little to do - especially if they are neither the hero nor villain in a challenge. Still, the game has a storybook quality that will keep most people interesting, and fights have a definite conclusion - meaning that they will not last forever.
9.) Fighting: The combat system is a bit complicated for me to explain here, but suffice it to say that I find it one of the more enjoyable features of the game. Each hero has three special powers, with a different color and special abilities. For example, Iron Man has these three abilities:
- Repulsor Blast: Red, Attack 4, Defense 3, Outwit 1
- Uni-Beam: Orange, Attack 2, Defense 4, Outwit 2
- Flight: Yellow, Attack 2, Defense 3, Outwit 3
At the beginning of combat, players secretly choose one of their three colors to use that round. The player with initiative (which is a BIG deal) attacks first, rolling dice equal to their attack value against the defense value of their opponent. If they roll more hits, they take away one hit point from the opponent. Otherwise, the opponent uses their attack value against the defense value. If both players are still standing, they roll their outwit values against each other, and the player with the lower result takes one hit. This ensures at least one hit per round and keeps combat quick and entertaining. Special abilities of henchmen and allies are also used, as are those of possible supporting heroes. Each special ability of a hero is interesting, and the right one to use often depends on the villains they are fighting. Combat can be drug out if players hem and haw when making decisions, but if played correctly is a quick and fun thing.
10.) Strategy: Other than combat, the game offers a lot of strategic options for players each turn. Players have only so many actions they can take, and sending a strong hero to take care of a crime can use up a lot of them; so they have to also resort to using the media and special abilities to get ahead of the opponents. I certainly think that a player who has played before has a rather large jump on their opponents, as an error in the first round could possibly put someone behind, struggling to recover for the remainder of the game. For this reason, the super villains are useful, as they allow a player to hinder those in the lead. Each team must be played differently, and some are possibly easier than others - like the X-men and Fantastic Four. While a great deal of luck is in the game - mostly as a result of rolling the dice, the player who best uses their special abilities will likely win - and I found that this aspect of the game is quite enjoyable.
11.) Fun Factor: There a lot of aspects to the game that I haven't covered, such as how headline cards work, or how a player is attempting to complete their villain's master plan, or how one player can be the arch nemesis, etc. Suffice it to say that there is a LOT of game included in the box, and it's quite a bit of fun to play. I will say this with the caveat that much of the fun comes from the strategy; but those who do not enjoy the theme of superheroes will probably find themselves floundering, as enjoyment of the theme plays a large role in enjoyment of the game.
12.) Expansions: Anyone who knows me realizes that I love expansions, how they can add spice and enjoyment to a game. Marvel Heroes is easily set up for more expansions in the future - from adding new superhero teams to a new map, to more villains and allies, to new events and headlines. I think that there's plenty of variety in the game as it is, but I wouldn't mind more.
13.) Comparisons: There aren't many other superhero board games available on the market (not counting the collectible card games), and this is really the only one that totally evokes the theme of the comic book. I enjoy Heroes Incorporated, and it possibly is a better, quicker game; but it simply doesn't have the soul of Marvel Heroes. Of course, it's quicker and easier to play, but sometimes I'm looking for the story, not the mechanics.
All in all, I'll give Marvel Heroes a good recommendation. Because of its length and higher complexity, it's not a game I want to play all the time; but the comic theme is tremendous, and each game is a wonderful experience. Comic book fans who are also gamers shouldn't hesitate - buy the game now! Those who remotely enjoy the genre will find the mechanics intuitive and fun, while those who think the whole subject is geeky should stay away. I've always wondered if one could condense the attack of the Brood into a board game? Marvel Heroes has done it.
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for Marvel Heroes