Since I largely quit playing Magic: The Gathering, I’ve been rotating through board, card, and video games, looking for something new with which to scratch my gaming itch. While it’s still early days, I think I may have finally found a long-term successor to my Magic obsession, in the superhero card game Marvel Champions.
Published by Fantasy Flight Games, Marvel Champions is a scenario-based card game in which each player plays as a Marvel superhero, attempting to defeat a villain (or villains) before they can enact their devious scheme.
Unlike other superhero-based card and board games I’ve played, Marvel Champions is an entirely cooperative game. The game’s villains are controlled by its rules, and players never fight each other or attempt to score points over other players. This a) allows players to play by themselves against the game, which has been quite a boon in the pandemic environment and b) transforms multiplayer versions of the game into a true superhero team experience. Rather than trying to defeat or stay one step ahead of each other, players are always working together to figure out the best strategy for surviving, defeating the villain, and saving the day.
A Refreshing Amount of Teamwork
Champions‘ cooperative nature makes playing it with a group feel much different than playing Magic or other non-cooperative card games. So far, this difference has felt most pronounced when playing out in the wild, at my local game stores. When I play Magic at a store, I almost always have fun, and I almost always chat up my opponents. But I also almost always feel a little tense. There’s a need to watch my opponent, to ensure they’re not cheating, to conceal my emotions, so my opponent doesn’t gain an advantage, and to play perfectly, both in the interest of winning and of not accidentally cheating myself.
In contrast, when playing Champions at a store, I feel none of this tenseness – which has been remarkably refreshing. In Champions, there is no incentive for players to cheat or conceal information from each other, as they’re all on the same team. You can even talk through plays and strategies with the other players, which is a far cry from most games of Magic.
Most importantly, though, players win or lose Champions as a group, which turns the act of winning or losing into a communal experience rather than a singular one. This may not sound like a big difference, but it’s actually quite the game-changer (pun intended). When a group wins a game of Champions, players feel like they accomplished something together, and each player gets to feel the thrill of victory. When a group loses, no one else has won, and players still share the experience of losing together. Compare this to Magic and other player vs. player card games, in which (at least) half the people playing have to lose each round, and they don’t always have someone to commiserate with.
All that said, I’ve played far more games of Marvel Champions solo than I have with a group. Recently, I’ve been setting games of Champions up on the floor of my home office and playing a turn or two on breaks from work. And while playing alone is not quite as fun as playing with others, it is still very enjoyable. (Also, the fact you even can play alone is, as said above, a blessing in these still-diseased times.)
The best superhero-based games are those that capture the feel of being whichever superhero or heroes you’re playing as. In this regard, Marvel Champions excels, which is what has kept me coming back to it. When playing as Doctor Strange, you have access to a special book of spells that other heroes don’t have. When playing as Ant-Man, you can switch between giant and tiny form, each of which has its own strengths. And when playing as Captain America, you can call on allies, depend on Cap’s indomitable stamina, and yes, throw his mighty shield.
While it took me a few playthroughs to completely understand Champions‘ rules (and honestly, I’m still probably missing some things), the game is fairly simple to play after you do understand it. First, your hero takes a turn, in which you use the cards in your hand to play upgrades, summon allies, attack the villain, or thwart their scheme. Then, after every hero has had a turn, the villain attacks the heroes and/or furthers their scheme. If the villain defeats the heroes or enacts their scheme, the villain wins. If the heroes defeat the villain, the heroes win.
Despite how the above might make it sound, games of Champions are not same-y. In fact, they are anything but. Just as each hero is designed to play differently and thematically, each villain scenario is also designed to play differently and thematically. For example, Ultron summons hordes of robot minions, which he uses to overwhelm the heroes. Kang scatters the heroes through time in the middle of his battle, forcing each hero to fight their own, separate version of Kang before they can rejoin to take down the Conqueror. And the Wrecking Crew juggles the heroes among themselves, making you feel like you’re battling all four members of the group at once.
Champions contains so many potential, flavorful hero vs. villain combinations (to say nothing of hero team vs. villain combinations) that, months into playing the game, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. And this is without having yet tried to build my own custom hero deck, which Champions also lets you do. This is the amount of flavor, customization, and extensibility my brain needs to get hooked on a card game. And so, my brain is now hooked on Marvel Champions.
Championing Marvel Champions
After a weird couple years in which I’ve tried and failed to latch on to a new go-to game, I think Marvel Champions may finally be my new standard. It’s easy to set up and play, yet complex and customizable enough that you can play for months and the game still feels fresh. It’s rewarding to play alone or in a group, and most importantly, playing Champions feels like conducting a fast-paced, exciting superhero battle.
If you are also a card gamer with a soft spot for superheroes (and especially if you can’t always find a dedicated gaming group), I can’t recommend Marvel Champions highly enough. It will likely become your new go-to game as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just lost a heartbreaker to Ultron between edits, and I need to shuffle back up and try to teach that adamantium adversary a lesson.