One of the diversions from playing the First Elopean War Map Campaign is, after a long period of self-imposed lockdown, I want to get back out and socialize in the local gaming community. That generally means playing a popular game put out by Games Workshop. (By "popular" I mean that at least one other person is playing it, has their own figures and rules, and you do not need to plead with them to get in a game.) The last one I played like that was Warhammer Underworlds Harrowdeep. I thought that I would not like the new format, which is to play using the game decks straight out of the box, as it takes away the deck-building aspect of the game. But as I look upon my Warhammer Underworlds (WU) journey, that was actually the aspect of the game that made it expensive and ultra-competitive. By Games Workshop removing that 'pay-to-play' aspect from the game, it became much easier to grab a pre-defined deck, a warband, your core box, and go. That said, it is not a game for the sleepy (or the sloppy) as one mistake in the game can cost you a win.
Back in March 2021 I received my first box from the Marvel United Kickstarter. I joined the Facebook group for it and started watching the posts of people painting the miniatures and playing the game, but my copy sat on a shelf, unplayed.
The next Kickstarter campaign, for Marvel United: X-Men came along, and Fear of Missing Out struck again, and I bought the whole thing despite not having played a single game of the original Kickstarter campaign. Worse, I had bought another copy of the core set from someone because he had painted all of the miniatures and was selling it for a mere $60! So I had two core sets, all the expansions, and was buying all in on the second campaign without having played a single game.
Why? Well I definitely liked the miniatures. You see, they are in the 'chibi' style (big heads, smaller bodies, tiny limbs).
One day, the wife says she wants to 'bond' because she feels like I have been locked up too long, so "Let's play a game." As it so happened, I had just finished re-reading the MU rules for the umpteenth time and decided that this was the least 'war-game-y' and was co-operative rather than competitive, to boot! So I finally broke out the game. I was waiting for my second Kickstarter to arrive after all, so if she liked this, I would seem like a genius for buying more! (Right.)
We played the game and at the end she said "That was fun. Let's do another." We have since played it several times. Within a couple of weeks the wife and I played several sessions and she (nor I) had tired of the game.
Another part of this story is that I had a local painter paint up the Guardians of the Galaxy expansion (which is selling for an insane amount on Amazon) and that had not been cracked open either. When the painter asked me if I wanted to start up the Monday night gaming sessions I quickly suggested we try MU and put his figures into action.
How the Game Plays
Each player selects a superhero and gets that character's deck of 12 cards. Their cards are unique to them and reflect the style of the superhero along with their superpowers, making their gameplay thematic.
Every card contains action icons on the bottom of the card. Some of them also have a Special Effect that represents the superhero's special power.
In the image above Captain America gets on Attack icon and can use the Leadership special effect, which allows Cap to give a Wild token to another hero on the team.
Here are the four action icons that are in the game.
There are only four icons in the game total, one of which is Wild, which allows you to substitute that icon for any of the other three (Move, Attack, or Heroic). We will look at the actions later.
In general the game has one supervillain, which is controlled by a set of rules and a deck of cards. Just as with the heroes, the villains are unique with their own powers, villainous plots, threats to the heroes, and deck of cards. Instead of using action icons, like the heroes, their cards represent whole actions that they take for the turn, including a move, any attack(s) they make, any crisis they create, and any special effects they create.
Basic gameplay is for either the villain or a hero to play a card from their hand to the Storyline, which is a chronological sequence of played cards that forms the narrative. The villain always plays the first card from his deck of 12 cards called The Master Plan deck.
In this example above, Red Skull plays a card into the Storyline. Reading from top to bottom, he moves four locations clockwise, attacks ("BAM!"), and then adds four thugs (mooks, or minor henchmen) to the board, two in his location and one each to the locations to his left and right.
The image above shows a typical setup of the board. There are six locations spread out around the board in a circle. The best way to think about locations is as they are in comics; they a places where action occurs. The game plays out cinematically as the villain moves throughout the city/country/world/galaxy carrying out their villainous plot. The heroes deal with the effects and then eventually catch up with the villain, beat the stuffing out of them, and then the episode(s) are done. Next issue, a new villain!
So in the example above the villain (cast in red plastic) is at '6'. Their card indicates they move four locations clockwise. That would land them at '3'. As there is no hero figure at '3' (they are at '7' in the image), he has no one to attack, but there are other effects to a BAM! After those are resolved, he draws two thugs and places it on the card at '3', and adds one thug each to the locations to the left (clockwise) and right (counter-clockwise) of the location where Red Skull ended his move.
After the villain plays a card and resolves it, play goes to the heroes. In the beginning, the heroes will take turn in rotation and play three cards, one from each hero, before the villain gets to play another card. Note this is three cards regardless of the number of heroes. In this example above there are actually four heroes being played – Captain America, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Black Widow – so only three would get to play before Red Skull takes his second turn. After that, the fourth, first, and second would play one card each, then Red Skull, and so on.
At each location there are up to four different elements: civilians, thugs, a threat card, and an end-of-turn effect specific to that location. There are three basic missions to the game (indicated in area '1' on the board, represented by Mission Cards): clearing threats, defeating thugs, and rescuing civilians. So if a location has a civilian token on it, you can rescue the civilian, placing it on the Rescue Civilian mission card. Same with thugs at a location. Your hero can defeat them, placing their token on the Defeat Thugs mission card. At the bottom of each location is a Threat Card, which is unique to the villain you are fighting. For example, Red Skull has three cards representing his three henchmen that need to be defeated: Bob the Hydra Agent, Lady Mantis, and Crossbones. Other threats require heroes spend actions to clear the threat. Once a threat is cleared from a location, a threat token is placed on the Clear Threats mission card.
Completing missions is the first objective of the heroes. This is because the heroes cannot damage the villain until at least two of the three missions (Clear Threats, Rescue Civilians, and Defeat Thugs) are completed. After that, they can start beating the stuffing out of the villain. You can complete these missions in any order.
The rub is that after the heroes complete the first mission, the villain gets a little anxious, realizing that the heroes are onto them, and they start playing their Master Plan cards after every two hero actions. So timing the completion of the first mission with the second becomes critical to success. (By the way, if you finish the third mission the heroes get an extra benefit.)
So, how does this tie back to the action icons? A Move icon allows a hero to move one adjacent location, clockwise or counter-clockwise. An Attack icon allows you to defeat one thug, remove one hit point from a Henchman, or remove one hit point from the villain. A Heroic icon allows a hero to rescue one civilian and (frequently) allows the hero to clear ⅓rd of some Threat cards.
Why is This a Great Game?
It is co-operative. So what makes it so? The one element I did not tell you about is that when a hero takes their turn not only do they get the action icons from the card they played, the special effect (if any), and the action icons from the card played by the previous hero. So when you play a card, not only are you trying to make sure you have useful actions, but that the next hero does too. That leads to a lot more conversation between players, especially when you get towards the end and you are desperately chasing down the villain while trying to stack enough Attack icons to bring them down when you catch up.
Every decision you make is meaningful. Besides the villain-specific loss condition there are two additional general loss conditions that the heroes face: if a hero has no more cards to play; or the villain must draw a Master Plan card and there are no more cards to draw. Therefore, there is a time limit the players face. Heroes cannot afford to throw away action icons unused. Further, your card play impacts the following hero's turn, so playing cards with icons unusable by the next hero is not doing the team any favors.
It can be played solo with little effort or loss of quality. There is a documented system for playing solo (S.H.I.E.L.D. mode), but most players I have spoken to simply play the heroes as one would do normally with two players each controlling a separate hero. The key to successful solo gameplay is that the opposition is already programmed, so reducing the number of cooperating players is relatively simple.
It is a very simple game and easily taught to new players. There are essentially nine pages of rules, all large print and with lots of illustrations. I recently taught three people how to play in about five minutes. Two were seasoned gamers, but the third was a relative novice, especially to these types of games.
There is a lot of replayability given the combination of number of heroes being played, which heroes are used, and which villain is fought. Here I am just talking about having either the core Avengers or X-Men set. Adding in the dozen (plus) expansions adds so many heroes and villains you could easily play this game every week for years without playing the same game twice. In fact, there is probably too much right now.
Given that I am trying not to play anything that is not painted, I am using the same set of heroes and villains more frequently and I still do not feel like the games are cookie cutter. Yes, Red Skull has a distinct feel much different than say, Taskmaster or Ronan. But multiple games against Red Skull, even if I keep using Captain America and Iron Man, don't play out the same due to the random elements in the game. There is the order of the villain's cards, the order of the hero's cards, which locations are used (you use sic out of eight possible choices), and where the threat cards are placed. That is a lot of potential variation.
Have you seen the miniatures? Okay, so chibi-style is an acquired taste. Because the figures are a softer plastic, details are not as crisp as you might expect. In a way, though, I like that. I prefer painting on details.
For example, the lines on Rhino's horn is not texture on the figure, but all paint effect.
This is not a 'war' game, but it is a game featuring combat, as you might expect with the superhero genre. Because of this I feel like it is more 'acceptable' subject matter for players that don't want to play a pure, historical wargame. For people that don't want to learn a lot of rules and simply want to get started, this game is also ideal. Like chess, it has few real rules; the depth is in the play.
MU has a flavorful feel. It is not a tactical battle like Marvel: Crisis Protocol nor an RPG game like Champions. You have the superhero cinematic feel of moving to a location NYC Central Park, battling it out with the villain's minions, rescuing the civilians, then moving on to the next crisis that the villain has created. Eventually you collect enough clues (complete missions), close in on the villain and finally battle it out with them, determining whether you have defeated them once again, or whether you are going to have this issue's cover showing your hero's broken and battered body with a tagline of "Death of [Your Hero]?"
More importantly, all types of gamers will find MU fun. It can be tense as you are down to the last few cards and you haven't whittled down the villain enough. It can be exciting as you envision the move that will allow your hero to end it all in victory. If you are analytical like me you will love devising the strategy for how to defeat the villain, i.e. which missions to clear first, and so on.
Highly recommended if you want casual, fun play, especially with other casual gamers. This, however, will not scratch your tournament-level competitive itch.