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?
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