Welcome to our review of Fantasy Flight Games, Marvel Champions! Do you love Marvel Comics or the MCU? Have you ever wanted to take on the role of a superhero battling villains in an epic showdown? Then, this game is for you. Players in this 1-4 player game become superheroes and alter egos to take down the villains and their schemes. If you are a fan of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, you’ll immediately recognize many similarities between these two games. Before we get into this review, we have a disclaimer.
Detective Hawk Games purchased our copy of Marvel Champions at retail, and our supplier did not provide us a copy for review purposes. This review is purely because we’ve been interested in this game for a while, and we had to check it out!
Game Overview – Marvel Champions
In Marvel Champions, players take on a superhero’s persona and alter ego to take down a supervillain and their minions. This game is an LCG or Living Card Game, meaning that Fantasy Flight will continue to release new heroes and scenarios that are all backward compatible with the core set. For this review, we are looking at just the core box, which has everything you need to start! The core game comes with Spiderman, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Iron Man, and Black Panther as the heroes you can play. The villains are Rhino, Klaw, and Ultron.
The game comes with a Learn-to-Play guide and a Rules Reference. The Learn to Play guide walks players through how to set up a two-player game featuring Captain Marvel and Spiderman facing off against Rhino, so that’s what we’ll discuss here. The game’s goal is to defeat Rhino and bring his hit points down to zero not only once but several times. At the same time as the superheroes are doing this, the villain is trying to complete their scheme. In the case of Rhino, that’s “The Break In” scheme. Skillfully playing cards can attack the villain, thwart his scheme and ultimately defeat them.
As we’ve come to expect from Fantasy Flight Games, the components are all high-quality. Marvel Champions has cards, tokens, and player dials that look awesome and are styled after the marvel comic books. All the designs use the comic book dot printing style. The cards are color-coded, which helps identify which cards are eligible in specific situations. They also are labeled with their type. The artwork brings us back to childhood when we first got into the comics. The token types (damage, threat, and uses) are all uniquely shaped and have their color schemes. At first, when we opened the box, we were like, “Why do we need damage tokens when we have damage dials” Well, the allies and minions need the damage tokens. If you are a fan of Arkham Horror LCG, these replace the heart tokens there. This game has no resource tokens; instead, the amount is on the card. Placing the resources on the card allows the game designers to have different types of resources and not just a single type. Again if you’ve played Arkham, the doom tokens added to the agenda deck equate to the threat tokens added to the Scheme deck. The last component to mention is the dials. These consist of two dials with a black snap in each center. We don’t know if it was our copy of the game, but the center holes on the dials weren’t quite the right size, so we had to force the black snap-in, and it took a while to get them assembled. Not a major complaint, but a small problem we saw with it.
Marvel Champions is pretty easy to set up, especially the first game. The game comes with Spiderman, Captain Marvel, and Rhino decks presorted so that you can start the game immediately. If you are playing any of the other characters, you will need to assemble those decks independently. Two characters, She-Hulk and Iron Man, can not be played together using their starting deck setup provided in the learn-to-play guide. They share the same Aggression aspect cards. If you do want to play these together, we recommend using the Justice cards for She-Hulk. Before players shuffle their decks, they remove the obligation card and the scheme cards and set those aside. Then they shuffle their decks. Then for the villain, they remove the villain and scheme cards and assemble them into separate stacks. Finally, the players create token pools for the damage, threat, and use tokens. Now you are ready to play!
This game, as mentioned above, is reminiscent of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. If you aren’t familiar with that game, please feel free to read our review. The terms are different here, the villain deck replaces the Act deck, and the Scheme deck replaces the Agenda deck, for instance.
Marvel Champions uses the player’s decks (one for each superhero) called the player decks and the enemy’s encounter deck. The villain and the heroes have dials to track their hits, and each has a card(s) showing information about their stats. The villain will usually have multiple cards in their villain deck that the players must defeat to win the game. These are labeled with I, II, III (1,2,3) and are stacked in that order. They also have a scheme deck that has the same numbering. In the case of Rhino, there is only one scheme card. This setup is all similar to Arkham. The main difference between the two is that players move locations and investigate in Arkham. That element is not present in this core game.
Players start Marvel Champions with their superhero active, and the player card turned to the superhero side. At the bottom of each hero card is the “hand limit.” The player draws cards into their hand to that limit. On their turn, the player has a few different actions they can take. They can “Change Form,” “Play a card,” “Use a card” (distinguishable from play a card action), “Use an Ally,” “Trigger an Action”: on a card in play or “Ask” another player to trigger an action. Except for “Change Form,” these can all be done as many times as the player wants as long as they meet the requirements to perform the action. We found the “change form” action to be critical to the game. It affects how your hero deals with the villain phase, as you’ll see in a moment.
To play a card from their hand, a player must be able to pay its cost. The cost is a number shown in the upper left of the card. On the lower left of most player cards are other symbols. These are the resources for the card (Mental, Physical, Energy, or Wild). Cards will have one or more of these symbols. To play a card, a player must discard other cards from their hand whose resources add up to the cost for the card they want to play. So, for example, if Spiderman wanted to play the “Swinging Web Kick” card, he would have to discard other cards whose resources added up to 3 (the cost of the swinging web kick).
In most cases, the type of resources discarded doesn’t matter; however, some cards specify the type of resource needed. It’s interesting to see this mechanic here in this card game. We recently reviewed Azul Queen’s Garden, which had a similar mechanic for being able to place a tile. We felt it made that game more difficult, but here it seems like it works better overall.
Once played, a card is either immediately applied and discarded or put face up in front of the player for use later. To use these cards, the player follows the instructions on the card, which will either damage the villain or thwart the villain’s scheme. That’s another point, the villain is trying to add threat tokens to their scheme, and should the number of tokens equal the number on the scheme card, the players lose the game. Another thing we liked about this game was the flavor copy made you feel like you were in the middle of your own marvel comic. Do I do a backflip to defend? Or do I defeat a minion and pull them into an interrogation room to remove a threat token?
Players can also use the hero or an ally to attack, thwart or defend against the villain or its minions. These actions are the core of Marvel Champions. When they attack, the number of hits minus the number of the villain’s “defense value” gets deducted from the villain’s hit dial. This action represents the act of fighting and the enemy blocking some of that attack. The hero can instead choose to thwart the scheme and remove the number of threat tokens from the villain’s scheme card. In either case, the hero becomes exhausted. To represent this, players turn their hero card 90 degrees. Defending happens during the villain’s phase and also results in exhausting the card, but it blocks the number of damage a player takes. Ally cards work the same way. The only difference is when they do one of these three actions, they take consequential damage. Under each of the stats are several pips representing how much damage they have taken. Once they reach the total damage they can handle, the ally card returns to the player’s discard pile. We loved how the Allies could fight on our behalf. The justice affection cards include Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which were excellent.
When exhausted, players can not further use the card until the end of all players’ turns in the Player Phase. So once a hero attacks, they can’t thwart in the same round unless another card “readies” them. Once per turn, the player may switch from the superhero form to their alter-ego. When a player changes to the alter-ego, they may recover the number of health listed on the card and add that back onto their player dial. Switching forms we found is the key to winning. If you don’t take some attacks head-on, the villain will win by scheming, but if you are the hero, they can win by defeating you. The only way the players can win is by defeating the villain. Even if the scheme is down to 0, it does not mean the players win.
Finally, players may trigger actions on cards in play. These actions will often have two options, Hero and Alter-Ego and the card works differently depending on which form the player is in. The cards also contain keywords such as “Interrupt” or “Response,” which show when a player can perform that action.
At the end of the player phase, the players ready their player card (turn 90 degrees back up) and draw back up to their hand limit. Then the villain gets their turn. First, the threat gets added to the main scheme based on the acceleration amount listed on the card; then, the villain activates once per player.
If a player is in its hero form, the player draws a card from the encounter deck and places it face down next to the villain. The attacked player then decides whether they will defend, an ally in their control will protect, or they won’t defend the attack. Choosing to defend means the hero won’t be available for attacking or thwarting in the next round unless another card readies them. If an Ally defends, they take the full brunt of the attack unless the enemy has the “Overkill” keyword. Once the decision to defend or not is made, the player flips the face-down card and adds the number of boost icons from the lower right onto the attack value of the villain. Then the villain attacks and does that damage along with any additional damage from other cards in play. If the flipped card has a star, there are instructions on the card about what to do. After the villain’s attack, each minion in play, attached to the superhero, attacks with the attack value on their card. The player can choose to defend against these attacks or have an ally defend. When deciding whether or not to defend, it may seem obvious that you should defend, but the reality is that when you do, you lose the opportunity to attack or thwart in the next round.
Now, if the hero was in alter-ego form, the same process as above occurs; however, the threat increases. This action represents the villain using this “down time” to further their goals. The face-down card flips up, and that boost number gets added to the scheme value, and that number of threat tokens goes on the villain’s scheme card. If any minions were attached to the alter-ego, they also performed a scheme action adding to the threat level.
Finally, after each player is attacked or threat tokens have been added to the main scheme, they draw one card each from the encounter deck and flip it over. There are usually two actions on the card, one for the hero and one for the alter-ego. These can be minions who attach to the player, treachery, which are one-time events that get resolved and discarded, attachments that get added to the villain, making them harder to defeat, or side schemes. Side schemes work the same way as the main scheme; they often enter play with threat tokens already on them, and the players need to clear the scheme of threat. These side schemes have special symbols that determine how they affect the game. Crisis icons require the players to thwart this scheme before returning to the main scheme. An acceleration icon will increase the threat on the main scheme by one more each round, or finally, a hazard icon will require the players to draw an additional encounter card each round until the scheme returns to the discard pile. So, the side schemes are not good and delay the players’ ability to defeat the villain. We got in trouble in our first game with a crisis scheme that had to be cleared even though we had almost defeated Rhino. It ultimately made us lose the game.
The last thing to mention about Marvel Champions is the “Nemesis” and “Obligation” cards. These cards are not in play when the players first set up their deck. The obligation card is a card specific to the hero. When drawn by any player, it gets shuffled into the encounter deck and is handed to the hero it affects and must be immediately resolved. It is usually a negative card. The Nemesis cards come into play when another encounter card tells the player to do so. In the first scenario, there is one encounter card that does this. When players pull that card, they place their Nemesis attached to them like a minion. The rest of the Nemesis cards, including side schemes, are shuffled into the encounter deck, and now everyone has to deal with that player’s Nemesis and the main villain. The obligation card is similar to Arkham’s Weakness card, but the Nemesis is brand new. We love how Spiderman’s Nemesis is Vulture and when he comes into play, which may or may not happen due to the luck of the cards, he becomes an added headache for all the superheroes.
In the few games we have played, we’ve lost them all. That said, we enjoyed Marvel Champions. It’s a fascinating puzzle to solve with so many moving parts the strategy changes each time you play. We’ve only played the Rhino scenario so far but can’t wait to dive into Klaw and Black Panther, for instance. The game has plenty of heroes to add to decks. You can play Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, or Widow, to name a few. The game also has scenario packs that come as either standalone or larger campaign boxes. We’ve got our eye on the Guardians of the Galaxy expansion next. (we’re huge Guardians fans here at DHG)
The one thing that could be better is the dial pieces. Maybe it was just our copy, but it took a few tries to assemble the dials without falling apart. We don’t think this is a significant issue, just something to keep an eye on. We love that the villain’s dial can reach 200+ hit points. For example… help us if we ever get an enemy like that.