Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game vs. DC Comics Deck-Building Game!
Once every hundred issues or so I like to run a superhero-related game review here at Longbox Graveyard. Last time, I lauded a game that’s harder to find than Bigfoot riding a unicorn — but this time I offer up not one but two games that you can find right now!
Upper Deck’s Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game and Cryptozoic’s on-the-nose named DC Comics Deck-Building Game are both … eh … deck-building games, both released in 2012, and both casting players in the role of superheroes fighting super villains for glory and high scores! That’s right, it’s DC vs. Marvel all over again …
… but first, for those of you who aren’t game geeks, I should address the elephant in the room. Namely, what the heck is a deck-building game?
The form exploded on the gaming market with Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominon in 2008. Simply put, in a deck-builder, players start with a small and inefficient deck of cards, and score points by playing those cards to buy progressively more complex and expensive cards from a face-up display. As new cards are purchased, they go into your deck, and each new hand provides new opportunities for combos and synergies that let you better manipulate the game and box out your opponents.
Did I lose you? It’s more fun than I’ve made it seem, honest!
In fact, deck-builders are gamer crack. They’re easy to explain, and fast to play — your turn comes around in a flash — and it is rare that you complete a game without wanting to play one more. Most deck-builders don’t have a lot of direct player interaction, lending them an aspect of “mutual solitaire,” but that’s ok — it’s fun to while away an hour with friends, semi-competitively trying to solve whatever puzzle the current selection of cards offers, and tallying up the score more to measure how each of you did against the game than each other.
You Might Also Like: The Best Superhero Game You’ve Never Heard Of — Capes & Cowls
With Dominion the new hotness, it was only a matter of time before “Deck-Building” would blossom as a genre, and before long you could delve dungeons, fight demons, and build space empires using the form. The superheroes arrived in 2012, thanks to the games under consideration here today, and more to the point, they arrived at Longbox Graveyard Secret HQ over the holidays, prompting this comparative review!
Where to begin? The games are broadly similar — in each you represent a hero or heroes, and your deck lets you fine-tune your abilities and capture villains cards that are out to give you grief. Both games are relatively quick to play, and easy to understand (particularly if you’ve played a deck-builder before). Both are loaded with art from contemporary comic books and faithfully represent the heroes, villains, and accoutrements of their respective superhero universes. Most importantly — both games are great fun to play!
The DC Heroes Deck-Building Game is the simpler of the two designs, and not just in terms of complexity. It’s also easier to set up and pack down; the game occupies a smaller footprint on your table; and its scope is a bit less ambitious than its Marvel cousin. None of those things should be considered liabilities — indeed, they may be virtues — just as saying that at heart the DC game is a traditional deck-builder should not be construed as criticism. I like deck-building and I like DC comics, so even just respraying Dominion with a coat of Batman paint would be a win.
Calling the DC game a respray is an injustice, though, as there are a few innovations on display here that allow the game to stand on its own. First, you get to be a superhero! The game comes with the usual JLA stalwarts to select from, and each character has a little advantage, such as the speedy Flash (who gets to draw more cards), Batman with his bonus for equipment cards, Superman with his benefit for playing multiple super-powers … it is a small thing, but a welcome bit of theme, and if it doesn’t feel especially Aquamany to let me put cards I captured this turn directly atop my deck, well, at least they tried.
While you might begin the game as Wonder Woman or Green Lantern, your sense of identity is going to take a beating, as you will have soon built a deck full of all sorts of heroes — both your own guy, and everyone else, too. By the end of the game, your Cyborg deck is going to have a bunch of Batman gear and combat moves, super-powers ascribed to Superman and the Flash, and maybe even some iconic location like Arkham Asylum … little of which feels much like Cyborg’s particular experience. You can tie yourselves in knots with this — Cyborg has super-strength, so just imagine it is him on the card instead of Superman, and reinterpret all that Batman gear as Cyborg gadgets; or maybe you attribute all those other heroes in your deck to guest appearances of other characters in Cyborg’s story — but ultimately I advise you to just go with it. A punch is a punch, a kick is a kick, a villain is a villain, and they’re all just points and combos that turn up in your hand to help you build up still more powerful combos and attacks.
Yes, I said villains. An innovation in this game is that the villains you capture aren’t just points toward your score — they go into your hand, coming out later to do damage on your behalf (the game cannily suggest this represents the experience your hero earned by flattening them in the first place), and also springing unwelcome attacks on your fellow players, unless they can defend themselves with a bit of super speed, a piece of gear, or a magic lasso (and here you see the theme again beginning to strain at the seams). What this means is that the players make trouble for each other — Poison Ivy isn’t difficult to capture in the first place, but she’ll be a pain for everyone else each time she comes out of your deck thereafter, pissing off your friends while you yuck it up, immune to the attack for having played it.
To be fair, this is a case of the mechanics fighting the theme — as heroes, the characters shouldn’t be fighting each other, but a villain coming out of deck feels sufficiently indirect that it isn’t as if Wonder Woman just stomped Batman on the head, though that has happened …
… it just feels like another day in the life of your particular superhero, who is experiencing an adventure on a parallel track with all the other heroes around the table, competing to capture the villains on display and build out a deck that provides good synergies for your hero. From game to game, Batman will get most of the gear, and Superman will buy most of the superpowers, because efficient play pushes you that way … but you will also have games where Green Lantern roars around in the Batmobile with Swamp Thing in the passenger seat and the corpse of Lex Luthor in the trunk.
Like I said, just go with it.
If you want a game with more thematic guardrails, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game might be more your speed. Whereas Cryptozoic’s game drops a whole pile of the DC Universe in your lap and leaves the players to make sense of it, Upper Deck’s game takes more of a construction set approach, letting players select the bad guys and the fiendish plot that will be at the heart of the game, as well as the heroes who answer the call of danger. So you might have Captain America, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Cyclops trying to stop Loki from opening portals to the Dark Dimension, or (if you’ve purchased the essential Dark City expansion), you could have Daredevil, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Blade, and Elektra trying to stop a Kingpin-backed citywide crime wave. This serves to impose some narrative order, but it comes at a price, as the game takes longer to set up and tear down, and also fails to afford the player a firm identity — you don’t play Wolverine or Hawkeye or the Hulk, you play all of them at the same time, so you aren’t any one person the way you are in the DC game. In fact, I don’t know who you are at all, unless it is some mid-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, vectoring heroes into the fight and scrambling around to recruit more heroes for the cause.
Legendary is also a cooperative game, with all the players winning or losing together against the evil plot (the top-scoring player is deemed the overall winner, but no one really cares). This introduces a slightly higher level of complexity and mechanical overhead, as the players aren’t just buying cards, playing cards, shuffling, and repeating, but they’re also tending to a kind of big ticking clock that represents the game’s AI, with villains coming off a stack and doing things to the players, mastermind villains emerging to put a beating on everyone, bystanders that get captured … not a crushing level of complexity by any stretch, but you will sometimes think you need three sets of eyes to keep track of everything that is happening, and you may have to plunge into the rulebook to figure out the order in which things happen.
Does this additional complexity pay off in terms of gameplay? Most of the time, yes. The heroes of Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game are more easily recognizable than their DC counterparts. A DC hero will be one iconic power plus whatever you manage to buy for them in any given game, while a Marvel hero will always be the same dozen-odd cards every game. This means that the Legendary Hulk will always be a rage case who deals wounds to his friends as well as foes, that Captain America will be a leader who benefits when many heroes work together, and that Professor X will be aces at recruiting heroes and bending defeated super villains to his will. It also means that you will think less about how any given hero fights as you will about how they best work together — like using Spider-Man’s spidey-sense ability to peek at the next card alongside Daredevil’s radar sense for “guessing” what card will come next to best effect. It is all very gamerly and rewarding but can be more mechanical than thematic, particularly late in the game when you are negotiating multi-card combos and not thinking about how Angel, Storm, and Iron Man are fighting together so much as trying to squeeze the most points out of your hand and trying to decide if it make more sense to hit Magneto once or the Hand Ninjas three times.
And here we arrive at a weakness in both designs — the fact is that the basic deck-building mechanic at the heart of these games isn’t especially thematic, no matter how much theme you bolt on top. Your basic experience in both games is shuffling cards, drawing cards, making the most of your hand, and repeating. Marvel Legendary slaps a lot of curb feelers on that chassis, that either make it feel like a comic book adventure or prove to be a damned nuisance (I go back and forth, sometimes in the same game), while the DC game kind of winks at you and says you’re thinking too hard — just deal the cards.
This is no small thing, because theme is critical to these games — neither one of them is as good as Dominion, so they can’t get by on their mechanics alone. All those superheroes have to mean something. Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game does a lot of heavy lifting to make each game feel like a comic book, but seams still appear when I don’t know who I am, and the underlaying mechanics too often show through the paint. In adopting a less thematic, 10,000-ft. view of the proceedings, the DC game at times ends up being (paradoxically) more thematic, because the game is breezy and easier to play, leaving time for table talk that spontaneously teases out the theme — like the time Wonder Woman won the game because Bizarro let her count her weaknesses as points, and we decided Diana and Bizarro must have gotten married; or the time I drew two weaknesses and two vulnerabilities for the Flash, and decided he must have popped both hamstrings before falling over and concussing himself. The more mechanically-demanding Marvel game seems to generate fewer such spontaneous bits of nonsense, and the story is more about whether or not you beat the big bad, rather than the crazy stuff that happened along the way.
not quite Wonder Woman marrying Bizarro, but use your imagination … the game requires it!
Now the bazillion dollar question. If you can buy only one game, which should it be — Legendary or DC?
And the answer is … Dominion! Seriously, if you’re only going to play one deck-builder, it should be the first and still-best example of the genre.
But if you’ve lasted this long, you deserve an answer about which game is better, so let me sum up with pros and cons, and then I’ll offer my watery recommendation.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, by Upper Deck
PROS: Endless combinations of heroes, villains, and plots (particularly if you purchase the essential expansions); potentially deeper gameplay once you start concentrating on multi-hero synergies; more overtly story-driven (though you may be too busy playing the game to notice); a very entertaining solitaire mode, if you are into that kind of thing (and I am); better support to date from Upper Deck with expansion sets and the promise of more; plus it’s Marvel, DUH!
CONS: Much longer to set up and tear down; all the little rules and effects sometimes feel less than the sum-of-the parts; no firm sense of who you represent in the game; poor usability from a graphic point of view with some bizarre font choices and card layout; generally a more overwrought gamer’s game with less room for table talk and unexpected events.
DC Deck-Building Game, by Cryptozoic
PROS: Easy to set up and take down; you get to play as an iconic hero (however thinly defined); faster to play with fewer things to remember; the anything-goes premise generates funny moments if you care to narrate them out of the mechanics; the relaxed pace of play suits itself well to table-talk and visiting with friends and fellow comics fans as you play; plus it’s DC, DUH!
CONS: Smaller game with fewer cards, expansions and options at this time (though DC plans to catch up); no thematic guard-rails so the game can feel at times like an abstract grab-bag of unrelated superhero powers and gadgets; super villain attacks can feel punitive and arbitrary; not a terribly deep game that combined with minimal variation in set-up may lead to stereotypical strategies over time; because you are playing against each other instead of the game, you might take it more personally when some wild swing of the cards hoses you and hands victory to your opponent.
So. Which game do I prefer?
I choose … both. Seriously, I like both of these games. Suspend my cut-up copy of Hulk #181 over a pit of acid and I’d have to pick the DC game, but there is room for both in my library, and I like being able to bring out one game or another as my mood and the nature of the crowd dictates. To put things in comics terms, the DC Heroes Deck-Building Game is like the Silver Age — goofy and hard to take seriously but charming and fun, and a real scream if you’re in the right mood, while Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game is a bit more like contemporary comics, full of sturm und drang and random heroes crossing over with each other to battle whatever interchangeable bad guy threatens the world this week.
If you are a gamer first and foremost, you won’t go wrong with Marvel Legendary. If you are a comics fan without a lot of gaming experience, then DC Heroes will be a better choice. If you are a comics fan with a gaming background, then let your Marvel vs. DC preference be your guide. If you are a hardcore comics and/or games fan, then who are you fooling … you know you’re going to buy both games anyway, so why not do so from the Longbox Graveyard Amazon Store?
DC Comics Deck-Building Game
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite (Expansion)
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
Legendary: Dark City (Expansion)
Legendary: Fantastic 4 (Expansion)
And by the way … I bought or traded for all of the games used for this review, so no product disclosures are required!
IN TWO WEEKS: #126 SHAZAM! — The Power of One Magic Word
Posted on March 5, 2014, in Other Media and tagged Cryptozoic, DC Comics, DC Comics Deck-Building Game, deck-building games, games, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, Marvel Comics, Marvel Legendary, Upper Deck. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.
HA! I see that you changed the title of your next post to Shazam instead of Captain Marvel. I knew it but, somehow, I can’t help but feel cheated. Come on, give us some more Captain Marvel and I mean the true and only one Captain Marvel not the big red cheese cake!
I will beg your indulgence on behalf of the ORIGINAL Captain Marvel (unfairly stripped of his name by copyright lawyers) … I know very little about this character myself, which is why I invited a guest blogger to provide that particular article. He is a new voice to this blog but he’s turned in terrific work — I think this will prove to be one of the most popular articles every published at Longbox Graveyard!
Now say it with me … ‘SHAZAM!”
(See you on March 19th!)
Indeed, the real Captain Marvel says SHAZAM!
Great Pama! No need of cosmic awareness to tell who’s the true Captain Marvel.
The wisdom of Solomon will show us all the true Captain Marvel, and his name is not Mar-Vell.
I like ’em both to be honest, haha
Well, well… Has the Big Red Cheese post got lost in the negative zone? Should I call Captain Marvel, protector of the universe, for help?
Nah, it’s up my friend! Posted last week right here at Longbox Graveyard, and it’s a smash hit! And The World’s Mightiest Mortal would find his way out of the Negative Zone without Rick Jones!
Hahaha, banter is fun!
Sentry 459 has kept you under close surveillance and no posting activity has been reported! Are you trying to mess up with the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree?
These just are not my type of games. I really love Heroscape; I have lots of customs for it. JLA vs. Galactus anyone?
Heroscape was a lot of fun, used to play it with my kids … but the setup and teardown kept it on the shelf and I eventually gave away my sets. It’s too bad Heroscape never did more with their Marvel brand extension, but as you note, there is a flourishing custom community.
Yeah, I love Heroscape, but between the setup-takedown time and the fact that no one will play with me, I am gonna sell it or give it away myself.
Some of those sets (the tundra?) command big prices on eBay. Research a bit before dumping that set …
I’ve been really enjoying the Marvel Legendary game and recently introduced it to some friends who also had a lot of fun with it. I agree that the biggest drawback is the set-up time. It almost takes as much time to get it ready as it does to play it!
I’ve been considering picking up the DC game as well (I’m actually a bigger DC fan than Marvel) but didn’t know much about it. Now, I’m convinced. Thanks for the great article!
Pretty much all of my Legendary play is solo, now, and I’ve scanned the game into Card Warden so I can play it on my iPad with zero set-up and tear-down time. Not as good as playing face-to-face with real components, but it does get the game to the (virtual) table a lot more often. I might offer some additional coverage of the Legendary games I’ve been playing here at the blog if I can find a way to make it interesting.
DC remains our face-to-face game of choice — we play it at work, so the fast set-up/tear down and pace of play are real benefits. I recently purchased “Heroes Unite,” which is billed as an expansion to the DC game, but it really more of a parallel title, as it comes complete with all the support cards you need to play (and vexingly gives you twice as many component as you need if playing both games). It is a lighter experience than Marvel’s game but I remain charmed by this design and I think there is room for both games in your library. As a DC fan you will be more likely to forgive that game its faults. Hope you like it, let me know what you think if you give it a try.
Thanks for the Card Warden pointer. I’m not a programmer, so I’ve been (im)patiently waiting for someone to make that kind of app for a long time. I’ve been using LackeyCCG to play games like Vs. and Star Wars: CCG on my computer, but it appears they have recently shut down the server and their website, as neither are currently accessible. Playing on a tablet just seems like such a natural progression for these intricate card games (although it is fun to have people all in the same room, too).
I researched both the DC game and Marvel Legendary a little further after reading your post and found it amusing that your silver age/modern age analogy held up with the expansion strategies for both games.
DC’s tact seems to be eschewing “continuity” by offering standalone games that don’t require the previous expansion to play, while Marvel’s expansions not only require the base game, but seem to build each new expansion upon the previous with new kinds of cards, new mechanics, and new rules.
However, that might be changing, as according to Cryptozoic’s website, future DC expansions like Crisis and Forever Evil will be geared towards shaking things up a little by offering co-op and letting you play as the villains instead of the heroes. Regardless, it’s going to be fun to have some options and variety for when friends come over. Hell, I might pick up the Star Wars deck-building game, too.
In a way, both games are trying to evolve into each other — Legendary has announced a stand-aside, big-box parallel version of their game where you play the bad guys in what seems to be a more competitive environment, while DC has a Crisis game on the way that goes full cooperative.
Good luck with Card Warden — it takes a little jiggering around, but eventually you can build card sets pretty rapidly. The biggest problem with playing games on that platform is you can’t properly see the cards in either the default or “magnified” view, which means you have to get good at recognizing your cards from a distance (amplifying some of the peculiar flaws in Legendary’s card layout and font choices). Takes some getting used to.
Good article, me and my gaming group prefer Legendary (even though I own both).
I was thinking, you know what would be sweeeeeet? SmashUp! Marvel and/or DC.
The games are generic enough that they are easy to re-skin (and the Cryptozoic engine is itself based on re-skins — you can mix Lord of the Rings cards into your DC games if you want, and I expect the same will hold true when they release their Aliens game).
A real DC vs. Marvel game would be very cool, but likely a licensing impossibility, unless it happens through some weird backdoor (like a Lego version, where one party holds all rights and can leverage them in unexpected ways). Legendary is what it is but I can’t help thinking there is some headroom for additional development of the DC game — maybe a full-on cooperative Justice League game, with some more thematic mechanics for missions and threats, where the players really have to work together to save the world.
In any case, this is a rich era for superhero gaming. It occurs to me that a very good niche blog could be devoted to the intersection of superheroes and gaming — cards, figures, video games, the works. This deck-building article (and my Capes & Cowls post) continue to draw good traffic here at Longbox Graveyard, so I know there is plenty of interest out there.
No, I’m not referring to a re-skin, I’m referring to SmashUp! the deck-building game, where you take a pair of “themed” decks (say ninjas and pirates) and mix them to form your deck (Hey! I’ve got my pirate-ninjas ready for action!).
I know that combining licenses would be hell, but even though, it would be sweet to be able to combine two superheroes (or villains for that matter) even if it’s from only one universe (Here goes my Thor-Hulk deck vs. your Thanos-Dr. Strange one).
Supposedly rumors say that DC’s working on some improvements for their dbg to make it a little similar to legendary (though I say that’s all they are, rumors).
Yes, I was being willfully ignorant of your Smash-Up reference, because I thought the game looked a treat but found it tedious the one time I played it.
I do believe Cryptozoic has announced plans to do a more co-op style Crisis on Infinite Earths edition of their game sometime later this year. Hopefully both designs enjoy a good long lifespan — I still like ’em both well enough.
Marvel vs dc, I say why choose I loved both games so much I decided to find a way to merge the two and it has worked out wonderfully, you get the crazy antics of dc with the strategy of marvel.
If you’ve not had the chance to pick up the Crisis expansion for the DC game, then do so – it’s completely worth it. It flips the game into a co-op game, and changes several core rule, the most notable being that villains in the line-up are not taken into players decks when defeated. All villains must be defeated before all the players take on a Crisis (all taking inspiration from famous DC event comics), and once the Crisis has been averted, you get to take on a Crisis-level super-villain. It’s a lot of fun, streamlines the role-playing elements somewhat (there’s no way Wonder Woman can attack Green Lantern with Clayface, for instance), and the co-op rules, with their Crisis modifiers, make the game fresh and new.
I look forward to it! My old game group has broken up since I wrote my review, so I am in a gaming interregnum, but the time will come I am sure when I swing back into this game. I did buy the first expansion/not-expansion — the “Heroes Unite” edition which was effectively the same game, with new cards. Played that a couple times — I found it slightly inferior to the original edition, in that it concentrated on regressive cards that slowed the pace of play somewhat, but I was still happy to have it.
One thing that game really pointed up, though, was how thin DC’s bench gets … I mean, I love DC for their goofy and obscure characters, but this is (charitably) a B-lineup from top to bottom: Shazam!, Hawkman, Red Tornado, Nightwing, Black Canary, Batgirl, and Booster Gold. Compare that to the heroes that would headline a second Marvel set of equivalent size and it is a real eye-opener as far as the IP value of the Big 2 comics companies are concerned.
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