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Review: Marvel Heroes (FFG)

Posted by Denny Koch on May 11, 2010

Game: Marvel Heroes

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Published in: 2006
Designers: Francesco Nepitello, Marco Maggi, Roberto Di Meglio, Salvatore Pierucci
Era: Alternative Reality (Marvel Universe)
Contents:1 Game Board, 16 Super Hero Figures, 4 Mastermind Villain Figures, 8 Dice, 12 Master Plan Cards, 24 Story Cards, 36 Headline Cards,12 Team Power-Up Cards, 50 Resource Cards, 10 Scenario Cards, 50 Villain Cards, 4 Team Reference Cards, 16 Super Hero Reference Cards, 4 Mastermind Villain Reference Cards, 1 First Player Token, 1 Archnemesis Token, 12 Combat Power Tokens, 1 Game Round Marker, 1 Action Round Marker, 4 Team Victory Point Markers, 13 Super Hero Wound/KO Tokens, 36 Threat Tokens, 52 Plot Point Tokens, 1 Trouble Level Track Marker, Game Rules

HFC Game-O-Meter: E


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9 (9*)
Rules:
6 (6*)
Playability:
8 (5*)
Replay Value:
8 (5*)
Overall Rating:
8 (6*)

*Note: Rating (1-10) game with fixed Fantastic Four and clarified rules; Rating in brackets: game “out of the box” with unfixed F4 and rulebook

PRO Great presentation, very close to the comic books with authentic Marvel flair. Detailed and hand-painted miniatures, clever mechanics. The most important super heroes and factions are included in the game; good overall balance between X-Men, Marvel Knights and Avengers with tricky characters; strategic/tactical depth and variety
CONTRA The Fantastic 4 are out of balance and definitely overpowered; the rules contain many “black holes” and use imprecise wording; game is in fact a 2-3 players game because the F4 override the mechanics, playing these “Über-heroes” isn’t funny and interesting at all, rules clarifying and fixing required in order to play the game

Introduction: What is the game about?

One of the 4 "Mastermind Villains": Dr Doom

“Marvel Heroes” is a strategy board game based on the classic 616-Marvel Universe. Two to four superhero teams (X-Men, Marvel Knights, Avengers and the Fantastic Four) compete against each other in solving “headlines” while simultaneously fighting their respective Nemesis (Magneto, Kingpin, Red Skull and Dr. Doom) and other major and minor villains.

The main task is to deal with threats appearing all over New York City; these threats are of different types and difficulty levels. Each team consists of four members with certain strengths, weaknesses, super powers and special areas of expertise. In addition, each team member can be used either as an active fighter or as a supporter, which has a strong impact on their special abilities and roles in combat.

If you decide to fight a threat, you first try to lower the “Trouble Level” by using your different talents and abilities in the respective NYC district. Based on the final Trouble Level, a prominent lead villain from the Marvel Universe appears at the scene, often supported by other villains. Your task is to fight these villains by using your special powers against the villains’ special powers and to beat them in the fields “attack”, “defense”, and “outwit”.

Some hero miniatures: Spiderman, Dr Strange, Captain America, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm, Cyclops

Sometimes, a “Mastermind” is behind a threat – i.e. the super villain and Nemesis of the respective team. He can boost his subordinates and give them more advantages. After finishing off his infantry, the superhero team has to face the Mastermind himself. Over the course of the game, these Masterminds try to achieve a “Master Plan” consisting of three parts, while the superhero teams try to amass victory points by solving threats. Each player controls a superhero team as well as the Archenemy of another team. Due to this mechanic, all players are permanently involved in the game and have many ways of influencing the events and developments on the map. The final victory condition depends on the current scenario. In most cases, the game ends when a team collects a certain number of victory points or after a fixed number of game rounds.

Graphic Presentation

The graphic presentation is of a very high quality – which is typical for games from Fantasy Flight Games. The designers (who are also the designers of War of the Ring), cooperated with Marvel artists who created the reference sheets and all other materials included in the game. The images on the villain and ally cards are directly taken from the comic books. Here you can find old “classic” comic material as well as pictures from modern “Graphic novels” from the 21st century.

The hand-painted, detailed miniatures of the 16 super heroes and the 4 super villains are very close to their “real” counterparts. The colorful rulebook is full of superhero illustrations. A first glance at the dramatic cover of the game box provides for a very authentic comic feeling.

The game board

The game board presents a comic-style map of New York City (mainly Manhattan, but also Queens and Brooklyn), divided into color-coded districts. In these districts you can identify the most important famous and infamous places of interest from the Marvel Universe, such as the Baxter Building, Stark Tower, the Latverian Embassy, the Daily Bugle etc.. These sights are irrelevant to gameplay but add nice “chrome” for the dedicated Marvel fan.

Despite the fact that many people criticize the game board as too simplistic and even “ugly”, I cannot share this opinion. It’s certainly not beautiful and it certainly could be more attractive, but it’s somewhat comic-like, with plain colors. By dividing the map into six color-coded areas the entire map becomes quite concise – a topographical-morphological representation of NYC would have made an odd impression on me. The map remains true to the comic book-game design and I don’t have any problems with it. In addition, the map contains all relevant fields and info boxes for the different cards used in the course of the game (headlines, story cards, resource cards, villain cards), a victory point track where you advance the team icons, a game round and action round track – the map is very well-arranged and you don’t have to take any side notes on paper or remember anything. Due to the fact that the main action doesn’t take place on the board (the figures aren’t moved from area to area as in other board games, they are only used as markers to portray which threat the Heroes are trying to oppose in a given turn), that the map is merely supporting a card game and the heroes and villains come to life  in the player’s heads, the map is absolutely sufficient.

The only negative aspect is the poor quality of the board’s backside. Due to production problems, some boards tend to “warp”, i.e. they get out of shape because of the badly glued black paper on the backside. An email to Fantasy Flight Games solved the problem almost instantly – without any hesitation and arguing, they sent us a new game board from America to Germany. In the meanwhile, players discovered other solutions to this problem, for example by carefully removing the black paper on the backside which doesn’t have any use anyway. The front side of the board is sealed and of very high quality, you can even clean it with a wet cloth. Due to the fact that the game is somewhat expensive (it costs $59.59),  high quality can be expected.

The counters and markers included in the game are of the usual high quality and consist of very thick, strong paper. The teams are color-coded and have their own characteristic team icon which is used on the various markers and cards. The counter design makes a very coherent impression and perfectly fits into the comic theme. The “plot points” used to “pay” the different actions are designed as speech balloons. The glossy material used for the cards (for example the ally and villain cards) is top quality.

The 4 Mastermind Villains: Red Skull, Dr Doom, Magneto, Kingpin

The eight red special dice show special icons which are somewhat difficult to distinguish when seen from a larger distance. They show one empty side, one side with an exclamation mark, two sides showing one hit, one side showing two hits and one side with a hit and a “boost” icon. The boost icon allows (or requires) to roll the die a second time, but the first result will be kept as well. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the “2 Hits” side from the “Hit & Boost” side, but this isn’t very problematic. Unlike the dice in “Doom – The Boardgame” (Fantasy Flight Games) where the icons are only painted on the dice, the icons in Marvel Heroes are carved in. This protects the symbols from wearing off by permanent use – often a problem in Doom – The Boardgame.

The graphic presentation is outstanding – besides the small problem with the warping board which was solved in a very fair manner. If you like Marvel comics, you won’t be disappointed but can enjoy a very authentic design. You will be feeling at home almost instantly.

Rules

The Rulebook consists of 15 colored pages so the rules are somewhat shorter than the War of the Ring rules. The layout is comic-like and graphically appealing. Despite the fact that the rules appear to be shorter and less complex than WotR, the game isn’t as introductory and newbie-friendly as it appears on first glance. It’s true that it isn’t as complex as WotR but for the average boardgamer / Euro boardgamer it ranges quite high on the complexity scale – so don’t be deceived by the comic book topic. Many reviews written by casual boardgamers complain that the rules are far too long, too full of exceptions and that there is too much to keep in mind during play. The average wargamer, who is accustomed to longer rule books, won’t have any problems though – besides the black holes (see below!) which are annoying for both the new and the experienced boardgamer. In interviews the designers, who see themselves as “wargame designers”, specifically recommend the game to wargamers – even hardcore wargamers – who don’t have any fear of contact with the Marvel universe.

May Parker, an ally card for the Marvel Knights (as indicated by the spider icon)

Talking about the rules – unfortunately, they come with some problems. The main reason for the shorter rulebook (compared to other wargames) is that the rules contain many black holes. Some aspects (for example the critical timing problem of the special abilities) are dealt with in a much too lax and unspecific fashion without dealing with the tons of exceptions and single cases. In some aspects the designers used a very sloppy wording which will annoy every wargamer. Some terms are used sometimes as synonyms, sometimes to describe different situations, while wargamers – especially consim players – are used to clearly defined terms describing a single aspect of a game. These wordings add to the confusion and result in a higher difficulty than necessary – as proven by many discussions in the relevant forums (for example at Boardgamegeek or Fantasy Flight Games. Unfortunately, FFG shut down the (very lively and helpful) MH forum and quit supporting the game).

One example is the difference between “Cancelling” and “Removing” a KO – two apparently different abilities of some characters. This difference isn’t addressed anywhere in the rulebook and there are no descriptions about how to apply these abilities. This results in the fact that some players don’t even differentiate between these two abilities. Not do distinguish between these two abilities doesn’t make much sense though – Wolverine for example has both abilities. He can “remove and/or cancel” a KO due to his regeneration ability, whereas Sabretooth can only “remove” his KO while Colossus can only “cancel” it. This automatically raises questions during gameplay when dealing with a 2nd KO and the question whether to remove it (and when) and if the battle is over or whether one of the abilities can be applied or not. There is no consensus in forums about this aspect, so I sent the question to Fantasy Flight Games ago. Alas, I didn’t get an official rules decision from FFG and even in the official game forum you only get “opinions” by different players.

In the meantime we have played the game a zillion times and we developed a patch which solves this and other rules problems as well as clarifying the most misunderstood rules of the game. With a strict ruling regarding the wording and timing, all different abilities begin to make sense and can be applied tactically and become more satisfying.

Many rules dealing with a specific topic are scattered throughout the rulebook, so that you have to search for all aspects. The rulebook doesn’t contain an table of contents. The overall layout of the rulebook follows the Sequence of Play, but some topics are mentioned in different chapters. This adds to the confusion due to the synonymous use of different terms (for example when dealing with the story track). This leads to error-prone games.

These errors can only be avoided by considering the errata and clarifications of the official FAQ. Unfortunately, the FAQ made some things worse by fixing things that were not broken, so that most players agreed on ignoring some answers of the FAQ. We included all topics from the FAQ in our patch, so you can ignore the FAQ completely by playing with the HFC patch.

If you want to play “out of the box”, you will be forced to follow forum discussions because many problems cannot be solved (or even be recognized) by just reading the rules. This complicates the – actually quite simple – basic game concept and is a barrier especially for unexperienced players. In addition, these inexperienced players, especially boardgamers who bought the game in a shop without doing research on the internet, don’t know that they are actually playing some aspects wrong – which were corrected by the errata in the official FAQ later. If you don’t visit a MH forum by accident or if you don’t know that the FAQ is now only available on Boardgamegeek, you will get some points wrong without ever knowing! Many issues not mentioned in the rulebook are not resolved yet – despite the fact that they were posted multiple times in the official forum or sent to the designers. Some problematic rules were modified by them (for example Dormammu’s Special Ability) and these rules changes were only published in the official FAQ. Not knowing about these rules changes will lead to serious balance problems for players who don’t look out for FAQs but who play the game “out of the box”.

You can download the official FAQ with errata and clarifications here (pdf, 211 KB), but we strongly recommend downloading our patch instead, it was playtested extensively and fixes all problematic aspects of the game as well as the new FAQ problems.

Sabretooth, a Villain card

I don’t want to sound too negative; the rules have some positive aspects as well. The main elements of the gameplay – for example, the different card types – are described in a very comprehensive manner, supported by illustrations. There are extensive examples for all actions taken during the Sequence of Play (but some of these examples are wrong, so take care!), and the layout is clearly arranged. After some game rounds, the Sequence of Play is internalized and you don’t have to consult the rulebook any more. In addition, each player gets his/her own reference card with an abbreviated Sequence of Play and rules summary, nicely and individually designed for each team. Regrettably the cards don’t contain all relevant aspects – for example the subdivisions of the single phases are missing. It would have been nice if the Villain reference card had included the different Scheming Options a villain player can take during his scheming phase. As long as you don’t memorize them, you are forced to consult the rulebook each time you are scheming.

In the internet (for example at Boardgamegeek), you can find comprehensive flow charts for the Sequence of Play, which can be quite helpful during your first games. They will help you to get an overview of all options available for your team and your super villain.

All things considered, the rules are okay and allow for a good introduction into the game (if you solved all black holes by browsing forums or using our patch) or if you are taught by an experienced player. But you should be aware that you have to learn about the details not mentioned in the rules, or about the aspects which have been modified in the meantime or which are written in a very sloppy and confusing fashion – if you don’t, you will be forced to use House Rules in order to balance the game or to fill in missing points by guessing.

Since we are not willing to invent House Rules because we think it’s the designer’s job to provide for playability and balance, we did extensive research in the player community about their rules interpretations and fixing suggestions and even talked about our suggestions with the designers when we developed the HFC Patch for the game in order to make it work.

This is a warning to all Euro boardgamers out there who are interested in the game! Marvel Heroes is a simple board game and meant as a funny in-between game, but getting into the game is  unnecessarily difficult due to the problematic wording of the rules. It demands some dedication and time to get familiarized with the rules before even starting to play. Learning it from an experienced player who can explain the rules to you will reduce these problems. For players with wargame experience – or even consim players – Marvel Heroes will be a nice and relaxing relief from more “serious” topics. But you should be aware that playing the game “out of the box” without a rules supplement will cause problems.

Playability

The nicely done team reference card backside (X-Men)

Talking about playability… well, this is a two-sided sword. This sceptical view is not only based on the problematic rulebook but on another element of the game: The Fantastic Four. But I will discuss this aspect later.

Basically, Marvel Heroes is a really cool game: it transports the atmosphere of the comics to the game board, the game concept is innovative and it offers an interesting strategical and tactical challenge. Some people complain that the game is too luck-based and dicey, but I cannot support this view.

Quite the contrary – combat strongly depends on the participating team members you send in as active and supporting heroes as well as from a clever use of their special combat abilities. These abilities must be chosen carefully with a close look at the opponent’s abilities. In addition, you should consider using allies to compensate your heroes’ weaknesses. By considering all circumstances of a battle, you have a bunch of options to determine your personal strengths and weaknesses in the upcoming battle round and to guess which of his abilities your opponent will use to counter your own abilities. Eventually the battles will be fought with dice and this means you can make some very lucky or unlucky rolls – but you can always evaluate and minimize the risk of a given battle if you know how to play your team and how to use the single team members with their specific strengths and weaknesses.

These considerations are very interesting and force the player into serious decision-making.

Basic game concept

The Backside of one of the super hero cards

The basic game concept that one player controls a team of superheroes as well as the Nemesis of another team, is very interesting. It keeps you in the game – either by controlling your own team or by participating in the action as an opponent of one of the other teams. When you are playing with two players, the other player automatically controls each villain appearing at the scene. In a multiplayer game, all players can participate in a combat and add villains from their hand if they like to.

A game takes (depending on the scenario) a given number of game rounds, the average game takes 4 rounds, each round consisting of 5 action phases. Some scenarios end automatically once a player has achieved a certain number of Victory Points (at least 15). The game contains 10 scenarios which are based upon comic storylines (for example “Galactus is Coming”). Most of these scenarios introduce special rules (for example that team power-ups cost 2 instead of 3 story cards, or that the difficulty level (“threat level”) of all “crime” headlines is raised by 1). Some scenarios include a “Master Headline” which can be solved at game end and which provides additional victory points. With good timing, a second or even third place team could outrun the number one team in the final seconds of the game.

A Mastermind headline

During the game, “Headlines” announce the appearance of certain events in the districts of New York City. In a two player game, Queens and Brooklyn are out of play, the play area is then limited to the four Manhattan areas. In one of the four districts of each area appears a “Headline” which could be a threat, a crime or a mystery. These headlines tell the “storyline” of the game and are taken from the various comics. The picture shows a “Mystery” Headline, other types are “Danger” and “Crime”.

In addition, each headline demands for a talent which helps a team in solving the headline (here: Protection). Each superhero has one or two of these talents. If you send a hero into a district who has the corresponding talent to solve the headline, he can ignore “Dice Boosting” (i.e. rolling a dice again  adding to the final trouble result) when determining the final Trouble Level. The higher the trouble level, the stronger the villains who appear in the area. To ignore Dice Boosting (which is mandatory for other heroes who don’t have a certain talent) means that dice showing a “Boost” icon won’t be rolled again. This increases the chance of getting a lower final trouble level than a hero without the corresponding talents.

The left number determines the “Threat Level”, i.e. the difficulty level of a scenario. 3 is the lowest unmodified Threat Level, 8 the highest level (available only in Special Headlines), these levels can be modified by game events and character abilities down to 0 and up to 10+. If there are thunderbolts besides a number, a “Mastermind” is possibly behind the events. If a player decides to solve the headline, his opponent can choose if he wants to send the supervillain into the district. The right number shows the number of victory points a player gets for solving the headline.

Game markers: Plot point, KO, and wound token

At the start of a game round, teams get “Plot Points” which are the currency used to pay for actions. To get a character ready for action costs a number of plot points corresponding to his level. Some characters – such as Jean Grey and Dr. Strange – are very expensive in the beginning. They are level 3 characters, but players only get 4 Plot Points at the start of the game. This means that sending them into battle right away prevents players from taking other, often necessary, actions. To send a character into “support” and to use their specific support ability costs 1 Plot Point regardless of the Hero’s level. In addition, you can add some “Allies” to your superhero team. You draw your allies from the resource deck. Allies which belong to your own team (depending on the back story in the comics) are cheaper than allies belonging to another team. The special abilities of these allies can be used any time, for example to support combats. However, they don’t stay in your team forever but will be “spent” if you use them.

Sequence of Play

Once you’ve distributed your Plot Points, the next game round begins. In this round, all players can take 5 alternating actions. Here they have different options:

  • Movement” allows a player to move one active super hero and his supporter in one of the districts where he wants so solve a headline, or to move the figure from one district to another.
  • Healing Action” allows a player to heal a wounded hero currently in “Recovery” status.
  • A “Story Action” manipulates the story track (consisting of 4 spaces). The story track symbolizes the teams’ publicity and public acceptance, as told by newspaper headlines. The last story card will be pushed off the track and given to the player of the team which is discussed in the latest newspaper article. This means, this team has made it on page 1! Three story cards can be used to buy a Team Power Up which is very important for upgrading your team. Alternatively, you can move one of your own story cards on the track to the front position, thus banishing another team from the Daily Bugle’s Front page.
  • A “Support Action” allows characters currently in support to do one support action – if they possess a support action ability. Examples of these actions are “Cerebro” by Jean Grey, “Weapon X” by Wolverine, “Sanctum of the Sorcerer Supreme” by Dr. Strange or “Peter Parker” by Spider Man. These actions generate Plot Points, Resource cards, or manipulate the story track. Not all heroes possess support action abilities; some have support abilities which assist in solving a headline or have impact on combat.
A Reference Card with rules summary (Marvel Knights)

The final option is “Troubleshooting” – the attempt to solve a headline. Heroes must be in the corresponding district to choose this action, while supporting heroes only have to be in the area. They then determine the final Trouble Level, taking their talents into account, and fight against the villains appearing at the scene. If they succeed in defeating the lead villain, they score the victory points of the headline. If the villain wins, the beaten superheroes must return to their headquarters and are sent into recovery. They must be healed from their wounds before they can be sent back into combat in the coming game rounds. Some villains show a special icon – they become a “Most Wanted Villain” if they win a battle. All players can choose them instead of choosing a villain from their hand when they have to fight a team of superheroes.

The decision of which action to take in your precious 5 action rounds, when to do them (timing is a crucial aspect of the game), which characters to activate with your few plot points – or if you should save your Plot Points and spend an entire game round with support actions only – and what to do with whom in which combination in which district – are very important and guarantee a very suspenseful and interesting gameplay. Once you have answered these questions for yourself during your planning phase, you have to deal with the combats where you will be forced to make some hard decisions, again. Which of the three superhero abilities will be used against the villain? The answer to this question often depends on the initiative, i.e. who strikes first in battle. In addition, it’s possible for both sides (with the help of some certain actions and abilities) to switch initiative – so sometimes abilities which are quite risky because they are very one-sided, can prove fatal when used with the wrong timing.

The teams and their Nemesis

The super hero's abilities (here: Captain America)

With three of the teams – the X-Men, Marvel Knights and Avengers – the playability is great. The composition of these teams is quite tricky, they have strengths and weaknesses which differ strongly from the strengths and weaknesses of the other teams. You need some experience to use each of these teams and their individual members in an optimal fashion. It requires some skill to play them and they show very specific differences in their reactions to Headlines. A good recommendation for new players is to concentrate on one team first and to play some scenarios with them in order to find out which member and which combination of members is suited best for a given job.

The Avengers for example have two team members who can take 3 KOs (Hulk and Thor); a third member, Iron Man, can be “upgraded” to taking 3 KOs by using a team power-up. This means they are the physically strongest superheroes in the game, while other teams – such as the X-Men or Marvel Knights – don’t have any members with 3 KOs at all. Physically, the Marvel Knights are the weakest team because Daredevil and Elektra will leave the scene after their first KO. The downside of the Avenger’s strength is that it’s quite expensive to activate their heroes, while the Marvel Knights can generate Plot Points with the help of Dr. Strange – thus enhancing their flexibility and options. In addition, the X-Men and Marvel Knights can manipulate the story track which is vital for gaining team power-ups (thanks to Cerebro and Peter Parker), while the Avengers are forced to take regular Story Actions to get hold of “their” cards. X-Men and Marvel Knights both have only one character whose activation is expensive (Jean Grey and Dr. Strange both cost 3 Plot Points), while the X-Men’s combination of talents (Mystic, Danger, Rescue, Protection, Investigation, Fight) is the most disadvantageous. There are even some headlines for which they don’t have any talents at all. Cyclops, who can also take only 1 KO, has very difficult and problematic special abilities regarding his optical beam. All of his abilities show weaknesses in two of the three aspects “Attack”, “Defense” and “Outwit”. Marvel Knight’s Elektra has a very weak defense regardless of her special ability used. Which characters to use as active fighters and which to use for the (much cheaper) support, must be learned by experience.

The four super villains are very different, too. It is a hot topic amongst players whether there are stronger and weaker super villains – in fact, all of them have their own specific strengths and weaknesses and it depends on how you play them. They all become quite dangerous once they start to realize their master plans because this enhances their abilities and options. Dr Doom’s abilities are somewhat problematic, though – especially compared to the F4 which are his opposing hero faction. While the other Masterminds profit from their special abilities which are enhanced with each master plan, Dr Doom is actually handicapped before he resolves his first master plan. In our patch, we suggest a Doom variant which works fine. 

A Supervillain's special abilities (here: Dr. Doom)

Gameplay with all three teams is a very unique experience because they differ much according to their individual strengths and weaknesses. They all demand heavy thinking and decision-making – especially because of the limited resources -, but they are all very interesting to play. During the games we played for the review, we sent them into the race against each other in all combinations and all games were very well-balanced. Often the last action in the last game turn decided who won the game. During gameplay the teams outran each other various times and they were  head-to-head in victory points more often than not. When playing Marvel Heroes with 2-3 players and only using these three teams, the game provides for an exciting challenge and the strategic aspects are surprisingly demanding.

Unfortunately, all this isn’t true for the fourth team in Marvel Heroes – the Fantastic Four. And this is one of the most devastating downsides of the game. For 2-3 players, Marvel Heroes can be recommended as a funny, interesting and challenging game which will even entertain a consim player (if he doesn’t fear contact with the Marvel Universe). But I would strongly advise against playing Marvel Heroes as a 4-player game – because the Fantastic Four destroy play balance and spoil the basic game mechanics (the need for decision-making and resource point plotting). This team is definitely broken if their special abilities are exploited.

Besides this, it’s neither interesting to play them nor to compete against them. This is based on a very simple reason: The active combat ability of Mr. Fantastic in combination with the Invisible Woman’s Support Ability is absurdly powerful. They are so overpowered that even the strongest villains in the game (Juggernaut, Sentinels or Dormammu) don’t stand a chance against them. Their Nemesis, Dr. Doom (aka “Dr. Doomed”), is absolutely helpless against them and has serious problems to even accomplish the first part of his master plan. Of course you could limit yourself and only use Human Torch and The Thing, voluntarily ignoring Mr. and Mrs. Fantastic’s unstoppable combination. But this would be a weak move regarding victory strategies. Why should a player be forced to refrain from his most powerful combination just to offer himself and the other players some more variety and tension or to avoid frustrating the opponents?

When the game was released, the F4 were the main focus of discussions in the entire Marvel Heroes gamer scene. Even discussions with the designers didn’t solve the problems; in fact, they confirmed the option of playing this over-powered combination in an ensuing clarification. Most players hoped that the unstoppable combination was the result of a misunderstanding of the card texts, but this wasn’t the case. The designers themselves didn’t see any need for action (despite the fact that they announced to “keep an eye on the problem”), they were of the opinion that this combination was far too expensive to be powered in an effective fashion. We examined this question in the HFC test lab and came to a different conclusion: If you focus your gameplay on using  “The Unstoppables” combination, you can fuel it after two warming-up rounds and use it until the end of the game. The main argument against constant use of this combination (that fueling the combination with Plot Points takes too long and that the other teams could score headlines in the mean time) is irrelevant. Yes, they can, but that’s pointless. There is not even a guarantee that the F4 will win every scenario by using their powerful combination – actually, they don’t. But fact is, they can solve any headline by using this combination, regardless of the difficulty level, regardless of possessing the required talents, and regardless of the headline type. The Trouble Level is of no importance either because the F4 will defeat each villain they will face (except with very, very bad dice rolls or in one of the rare instances where the opponent possesses a Scrull-Warriors or Agents card which forbids the use of the super hero’s special abilities, but to rely on these rare instances isn’t a strategy).

Dr Doom, as provided in the game, is worthless against them because he is at a heavy disadvantage before he manages to resolve his first master plan – which only brings him up to par with the other Masterminds. He is rendered pointless when facing the (unfixed) F4.

The backside of one of the four super villain cards

My main allegation isn’t that the F4 win each game (they don’t), but they win each combat  with their “no-brainer” combination, it doesn’t even matter which of Mr. Fantastic’s three special abilities are chosen (during the test games, I mostly resorted to the “yellow” ability, the rubber ball). They don’t depend on allies because they can negate all negative dice results without spending precious plot points on expensive allies. with this combination. The other two team members get a very raw deal here – and that’s sad because they have very cool special abilities, too. Playing the team is boring, plain and simple, except when using a fixed variant for Mr and Mrs Fantastic (as provided in our patch) or when avoiding their special abilities altogether and choosing the other two team members.

With the other teams, you are forced to make decisions in each new combat round, to evaluate the position of your opponent, to consider your own and his strengths and weaknesses – but you don’t have to do this with The Unstoppables. You don’t have to think at all, all you need is a nice and comfortable pool of resource cards (which you will get due to Mr. Fantastic’s Support ability during the first two rounds in plentiful lots) – and then you can win all combats with a bored yawn. Mr. Fantastic does remove all of the opponent’s dice showing two hit icons, Mrs. Fantastic removes all dice with a boost icon. You don’t even have to use both powers most of the time (thus saving resource cards). It’s sufficient to destroy your opponent’s dice results.

It isn’t a single bit challenging or demanding to play this team and it virtually hurts to spend your Plot Points on these two guys while leaving the other two in the Baxter Building. But it’s pointless to activate the weaker team members and risk being defeated while knowing that you have the chance of solving even the biggest, most dangerous headline without resistance. Players discussed this topic very emotionally – this led to curious advice such as “it’s good sportsmanship to abstain from using this combination” – but this cannot be the key to save the game. Would a sportsman use poorer equipment or slow himself down just to ensure his opponents enjoy the competition?

“The Unstoppables” aka “The Fantastic 2” in action

In addition, the F4’s opponents can forget all strategies developed and established versus the other teams – they are forced to accumulate as much victory points as possible – and fast! They have a small time window while the F4 are fueling their resource cards. This means, they are forced to take higher risks, to take chances they won’t take during a “normal” game. It has become a saying: “In combat, all fight against the villains. The rest of the time, all fight against the Fantastic Four”. This cannot be the whole purpose of the game – and it destroys any tension and strategy.

Besides this, no player in a multiplayer game will voluntarily sacrifice a strong lead villain (for example the Juggernaut) against the F4, because he knows this villain will be eaten for breakfast. He will save him for fighting one of the other teams where he could do at least some damage. This will eventually lead to the fact that the F4 will be waved through the headlines because no one opts to confront them. This problem absolutely requires some fixing because the F4 ruin an otherwise great game! To leave them out of the game and to concentrate on the other 3 – well-balanced – teams cannot be a solution (and it definitely isn’t for all the F4 fans out there!). We talked to the designer, hoping that they reacted to the criticism and overhaul the F4 (they promised to think about our suggestion), but unfortunately, when FFG dropped the support for the game, the designers disappeared.

This was the main reason why we fixed all problems ourselves in endless playtesting sessions. Now, playing with the patch is quite satisfying with all four factions, but it wasn’t our job to fix the game, it was the designer’s job.

Last but not least, I want to mention that the rules don’t answer some questions raised in the “House of M” scenario. At the end of the scenario, each team appoints two super heroes to face Magneto. Neither the scenario description nor the rulebook specify the two superhero’s “jobs” – whether they both are “ready” or whether one is going into support. This has a very heavy impact on balance and gameplay between the different teams and would demand employing very different strategies. In addition, it’s not clear what to do if two teams have the same amount of victory points at the end of the scenario when the “boss fight” is triggered (this happened in one of our test games). This is quite typical for the entire game – small details and sloppy wording impair the good overall impression of the game; one small sentence would have been sufficient to solve these questions.

Besides this very, very big problem and the sloppy rules, there is nothing I can say against the playability. The gameplay is fast, dynamic, interesting and challenging. Because of the great variety of options, no two games are alike.

Replay Value

Dr Doom's first master plan: Mystical Armor

High (except with the F4; you should play them once for informational purpose, but then you will leave them in the box anyway – or you use the HFC patch). To concern yourself with the three other teams, to find out their abilities and specialties, to combine them, to decide how to use them and how to manage their resources will not become boring for a long, long time. In addition, the headlines are chosen randomly and the scenarios sometimes add some special rules.

Rumors about possible future expansions were not denied by the designers, but then FFG dropped game support and it became a certainty that there won’t be any official expansions. Nevertheless, the fans are quite active and there are a lot of fan-made expansions and scenarios. Most of them are available at Boardgamegeek. We also designed some modules which supplement the basic game, for example a combat mod which improves the combat system and a story mod named “Gambit’s Table” which adds new options to the Story Action.

One more criticism, though. The ten scenarios included in the game could be somewhat more innovative. They differ in the title, but the overall victory conditions are much too similar to each other to allow for much variety. While “Born Again” could be considered as the introductory scenario, the rulebook promises “more complex and deeper game experiences” with the other scenarios. As a matter of fact, most of the victory conditions are: “Get a number of victory points” (about 15) or “Play a number of game turns” (about 4) and then solve a master headline. Sometimes the Threat Level of one Headline type is raised by 1. Some scenarios, such as “House of M” or “The Brood” indicate that there was a chance to introduce many more special rules for each scenario, for example in order to come closer to the comic storylines and re-tell them. Instead of using this chance, most of the scenarios use standard victory conditions which isn’t very innovative. Furthermore, it’s very unsatisfying that players are not forced to solve the “Master Headline” – it’s completely voluntary and in reality they don’t play any role. More innovative, different scenarios with individual special rules and much better story telling would be quite helpful in enhancing the replay value.

Creativity

One of the X-Men team power-ups: The Blackbird jet

The game concept appears fresh and innovative. It strongly differs from War of the Ring which means the designers didn’t copy themselves. There is strategic depth combined with an appropriate amount of rules, due to the combination of the special abilities, the differences between the teams, the resource management and the planning and action sequences.

The comic design is very attractive. I don’t know whether the game consists of genuine new ideas or if the designers adjusted some older or popular board game elements.

Simulation Value

Well, this is not a consim which wants to “simulate reality” as accurately as possible – but a superhero board strategy game. It wouldn’t be fair to apply the same criteria here.

For a super hero game, they do their thing properly: All heroes possess their typical abilities (Cpt. America can throw his shield, Cyclops has his optic beam, Storm manipulates the weather, Thor throws his hammer…) and each character is very unique and easily recognized by the fan . The same is true for the villains which are abstracted by cards. They all have their typical abilities already known from the comic books. All characters and teams are presented in an  authentic way which should please the fan.

Solitaire Playability

Not recommended. Marvel Heroes is intended as a multiplayer game and definitely not as a solitaire game. It’s a fun strategy board game with a main focus on evaluating your own abilities versus your opponent’s abilities – and by playing a kind of poker game with them. Combat is fought by hidden determination of your current combat strategy each round. Both players reveal their strategy simultaneously. This won’t work if you already know what ‘your opponent’ will do in combat.

Can be compared to:

A common factor the game shares with War of the Ring is that many characters from their respective universes are included in the game by an abstract card system – both on the heroes’ and on the villains’ sides. Secretly choosing a combat power is somewhat similar to the combats in the Battles of the Third Age tactical scenarios (Rohan and Gondor). I’m also remotely reminded of Marvel Hero Clix.

Denny Koch’s résumé

As you may have already guessed, my opinion about Marvel Heroes is somewhat ambivalent. It would be a really cool game – if the F4 were playable and well-balanced. Without fixing the F4 with a patch, the game is at least a great 3-player Marvel strategy game, with the minor problem that it is sold as a 4-player game.

I won’t repeat my arguments here, but we appealed to the designers to do something about the F4 and suggested our really simple solution presented in our patch. They approved of it and promised to test it for their next official FAQ release but then the game support was dropped by FFG and with it any more official releases. Try it out, so that the F4 become an interesting, well-balanced team you want to solve headlines with – and a team which will have to face the same hard decisions as any other team. As long as the team isn’t fixed, I can only recommend the game for 2-3 players.

One of the - not very innovative - "scenarios"

The game requires some fantasy and imagination because many events are abstracted. Many people complain that they don’t understand some elements of the game, for example the story track. The main game happens inside your head and not on the board – and this is the main fun. The game invites you to cite famous superhero phrases or to make noises such as “SNIKT” or “BAMF” or do some prominent gestures while using your hero’s abilities. To play the X-Men, the Avengers and the Marvel Knights is fun and challenging. The astonishing thin is – you don’t realize it at first glance, but if you wholeheartedly play the game, you will realize that you can actually optimize your team and minimize the luck factor. Regrettably, the scenarios lack some variety and strategic depth.

Graphically, the game is great (besides from the somewhat  blatant map). The graphic design is true to the comic books. The sloppy rules can be understood when studied with some dedication, but you should prepare for the fact that not all questions are answered in a satisfactory fashion and some game concepts remain unclear, especially the crucial timing of special abilities.

If you are an inexperienced or casual boardgamer, Marvel Heroes could be  somewhat too complex – we repeatedly realized this by reading the tons of questions asked in the forums and the huge number of wrongly played rules as well as by the complaints about the long time people need to learn the game and about the amount of stuff and exceptions players must memorize. An experienced wargamer won’t have any problems once the rules are internalized and the black holes are filled.

I recommend the game to wargamers with an interest in the Marvel universe, experience with games of the Axis & Allies level will suffice. War of the Ring or consim players won’t have any problems at all and actually think the game to be quite easy.

All things considered, Marvel Heroes is a great game with a very, very big flaw, which has some serious problems when played “out of the box” – but it works great once you fix all problems. The fact that fixing is required is a serious drawback and somewhat sad because it is so superfluous, but at least fixing is possible without much effort – simply by clarifying the wording and timing questions, and by fixing the F4.

Download our patch, and the game, including the F4, will work fine (PDF).

Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9 (9)*
Rules: 6 (6)*
Playability: 8 (5)*
Replay Value: 8 (5)*
Overall Rating: 8 (6)*

*Note: Rating (1-10) excluding the Fantastic Four; Rating in brackets: including the F4

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