Written by Josh Bailey
When Marvel Champions was first announced at Gen Con 2019, I was a little skeptical. I intended to wait and see and maybe get a core set after trying it out elsewhere. Fast forward a few weeks and I have everything on preorder. So what changed? If you find yourself in the same frame of my mind I was in and you aren’t sure if this game is worth your time, I’d like to share with you what swayed me to preorder and also reiterate the things that I’m still unsure about. But first, a little background so you understand where I’m coming from.
I’m a 90’s kid. I never got into reading comics so my exposure to the superhero genre was limited to mostly video games and television. One of the two Putt Putt Golf locations in my hometown had the arcade cabinet “Captain America and The Avengers” with Vision, Hawkeye, Captain America, and Iron Man. I didn’t learn until much later when I tried out a video game port of the original VS System CCG that the Avengers were more than just those four characters. As for television, Fox Kids dominated my Saturday mornings so I was all about Batman, Spider-Man, and, of course, the X-Men.
All of that is just to say that, despite all of the other areas in which my geek-cred runs deep, outside of X-Men I really only learned about Marvel properties through the MCU. Only one of the heroes included in the core set was one I felt a connection to, so the theme was mildly interesting to me but nothing I’d been waiting for my whole life. I was already playing Star Wars: Destiny and the Lord of the Rings LCG which are properties I care much more about. Compared to those games and Arkham Horror LCG (a game I sometimes play but don’t own), it seemed like Marvel Champions had some shortcomings that those games did better. If you asked me right after Gen Con, these are the reasons I would have given you for why I was staying away:
(Author’s note: I have not played this game at all yet, including on TTS. I don’t/can’t play these games digitally so what follows is purely speculation having not gotten my hands on the game. That’s kind of the point.)
REASONS TO WORRY:
Shallow Card Pool
LOTR LCG is my favorite game because of the wealth of deckbuilding options that are present due to being in production for eight years. That depth is not going to be a feature of Marvel Champions for at least one year or, more likely, two years. It could be a while before it feels like your deck archetype goes beyond your hero/aspect combination. Deckbuilding for some time might just be “pick a hero and the best 25+ cards of your chosen aspect and basic cards”. Having played Android: Netrunner during its infancy and owning only the LOTR core set for some time, I have an idea about how limited deck building is going to feel for a while. For the first year I think I’m mostly going to be playing this once or twice per month in multiplayer settings because I don’t see enough to keep drawing me back to play solo. Not when LOTR exists.
Less Thematically Engrossing
This point is more speculative than the rest. From watching playthroughs and reading previews and the like, my sense of the game is that it is not as interested in narrative structure as Arkham or Lord of the Rings. I recognize this as a choice and not an error, but for some people, this may be an important consideration. To exaggerate and oversimplify, it seems like the heroes and villains exist in a location-less void just punching each other. Arkham and LOTR feel much more like they are events that are happening in a specific place. This is difficult to put into words but it’s like the difference between 16-bit fighting games and RPG video games of the same era: both have encounters where the outside world comes to a stop until the fight is resolved, but in between fights/encounters the fighting game shows maybe a quick animation and a title screen while the RPG attempts to fill out the whole world.
Transitioning between levels: flying by plane “off-camera” vs literally walking through dangerous environments on foot
To put it in context of the actual game, my concern is that villains and schemes may not feel differentiated enough such that every new villain will just fit into one of three to five archetypes but with slightly different stats. I want to know that disarming a bomb, stopping a runaway train, destroying a Sentinel factory, or protecting the secret formula will all feel different from each other.
Easy Mode Deck Building
This is partially related to the shallow card pool, but the aspect system worries me. All of the previous LCGs that I’ve played, Netrunner, LOTR, and Arkham, have a faction/aspect/”color” system for deck building, but Marvel Champions is the least flexible of all of them. Pick one aspect and only one aspect to include in your deck along with neutrals. I believe this was a conscious choice to make the game less focused on deck building and some may appreciate that, but as I’ve already said that’s one of my primary sources of enjoyment of LCGs. Coupled with the initially shallow card pool, I may not make much use of my Marvelcdb.com login for quite some time as it just doesn’t interest me.
Now that I’ve gotten all those concerns off of my chest, I do think there are reasons to believe that all of those worries will eventually go away or be proved wrong. As to the card pool, obviously, that will just be solved by the mere passage of time. Eventually there may even be loads of interesting deckbuilding options within single aspects, but I just think it will take longer to get there than if we had an out-of-aspect allowance. I also have tons of faith in the designers to prove me dead wrong on the theme issue. I have been very happy with how many different ways Caleb Grace has put the LOTR system to use to create very different scenarios and can definitely see that progression from the early releases to the most recent expansions. Arkham, of course, felt like a further step forward in theme and storytelling. I expect all of that experience to feed into this game and eventually give players some pretty great surprises. There are even planned releases called Campaign Boxes that we don’t even have all the details for yet.
So even early on, all of my concerns came with an understanding that they would either go away or could easily be proven wrong. I’ll close with what I came to see as the strengths of the game that made me want to go ahead and preorder and start being a part of this newly-forming community.
REASONS TO BE EXCITED:
I was originally skeptical of this game having a place in my gaming life because I am so deeply into the Lord of the Rings LCG and also Star Wars: Destiny. It seemed like anything this game did, one of those two would do better for me. The last time I was skeptical about a game like that was the Arkham Horror LCG, and I held out until it felt like it was too late to jump in. Now I know many people that play Arkham and I wish I had been in on it with them from the start. Luckily I can borrow decks and play Arkham occasionally, but I can’t help feeling like I missed out. Due to the license, it feels like Marvel could take off even more and I don’t want to miss out again.
The Distribution Model
Now I will completely contradict the previous point and yet still count both as a positive. Like I alluded to above, I don’t really want to get into Arkham on my own at this point because of the narrative, campaign-style of the game making it feel like if I’m going to play with my friends then I’m going to have to buy it all. Marvel’s new model of expansions as pre-built decks seems to be the perfect answer in that I could hold off on buying a core set until they finally put out a Nightcrawler deck or X-Men big box, then bamf in with my friends who have been playing since release and not really feel like I’m missing out. This honestly may be the perfect wait-and-see expandable game assuming you’re not a completionist and you can stomach the idea of having to wait a bit on expansion reprints once you finally buy-in. So, why am I not waiting then? Well LOTR LCG is going on a break in the near future, I’ve recently decided to stop playing Destiny, and I’ve got to give FFG my money somehow. So here we are.
The Design Team
Given my love for LOTR LCG, I am extremely interested in a new product by Caleb Grace and Nate French. I also used to play Android: Netrunner and, though I quit before Michael Boggs came on board, I’ve only heard good things about his work. I am hopeful that this game will take all of that previous experience and create the best LCG product so far.
The Marvel Universe
Like I said I’m not really a comics-guy, but nearly everyone these days knows Marvel and it’s an in-road I can see utilizing with many friends who are not currently tabletop gamers. There are plenty of people that don’t want to hear me go on about the differences between Silvans and Noldor (and how even that dichotomy is a simplification…), but if we start talking Wakanda and Ultron then they may be interested enough to give this game a shot.
So there you have it. I hope I have done a fair enough job of expressing my initial concerns, how I think those concerns will be answered, and what the primary strengths of this game are so that those who are on the fence can make a better decision one way or the other. Thank you for reading.