Thought I’d start the New Year off by looking backwards at the best performing Longbox Graveyard posts of 2016. Most are legacy posts from the early days of this site, with a new article elbowing in at the top of the list.
Drumroll please …
A testament to loading your blog title with powerful keywords, this post is four years old, but still pulling respectable search engine traffic. Mostly it is an ode to why I can only seem to buy high and sell low on eBay, which means I’m no roadmap for that place …
“Top Tens” and “Spider-Man” are among the most most attractive content on this site, so it is no surprise that a post containing both of those things ranks so highly. It is a formula that will appear several times in this list. Guest author Mark Ginocchio of Chasing Amazing hit it out of the park with this 2013 article, calling out Spidey’s fights with Hobgoblin, Green Goblin, Venom, Morlun, and … (click to find out!) as the top web-head battles of all time.
I remain an enthusiastic subscriber of Marvel’s Unlimited digital subscription service. I first reviewed the service in 2012 — this updated review looked at the service after it evolved into an iPad-native format. If I was really chasing clicks, this would be one of the articles I’d gin up with keywords and new information, as there seems to be a hunger out there for information about Marvel’s service.
Remember how I said that Spider-Man Top Tens drew my best traffic? Well, here you go. Mark mentioned that he’s working on a Spider-Man book — hopefully he will raid the fine work he’s done for Longbox Graveyard for print.
And the Spider-Man trend continues! Spidey isn’t my specialty, and I’d really be lost without generous guest-bloggers to cover Marvel’s top hero. In this case, it was was Dan Gvozden of Superior Spider-Talk who rode to the rescue. And, yes, Dan does tackle MJ vs. Gwen, but not in this post … you’ll have to scroll down a bit to find that one.
Everybody loves a good secret base. Did I really rank the Pet Avengers Mansion above the Bat Cave? Yes I did. (Sort of). Nice to see this post is still drawing comment three years after publication — I suppose I deserve my comment section censure for omitting the Legion of Superheroes cool rocket ship clubhouse from my list.
The sole new article from 2016 was this article from last January about the popular Match-3 Marvel puzzler. Quite a few addicted players of this one out there (and I remain among them, despite the take-this-game-and-shove-it conclusion to the post). Maybe 2017 is the year I quit this game. Maybe.
Here’s where you’ll find Dan’s MJ vs. Gwen opinion. (I would have wimped out and picked Aunt May).
Gaming content has generally fared pretty well here at Longbox Graveyard. My post on Capes & Cowls was a good performer for many months, and this comparative review of two comic book deck-builders keeps getting views (and is due for an update, as both games have evolved quite a bit since my review). I’m not playing either game right now for lack of opponents, but Legendary is supposedly coming to iOS in 2017, and that might reignite my interest.
And finally, the #1 Longbox Graveyard Post of 2016 was …
This has been my top post since it was first published — it caught a Google search wave on the run-up to release of the second Captain America movie, and it’s been chugging along ever since. It’s another post long overdue for an update, especially in view of Baron Zemo’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War. But I’m not changing the bad guy at the top of the list … and no, it’s NOT the Red Skull! Want to know who ranks as the baddest Cap villain of all time? Add a click to my pile, I’m not proud!
And with the old year taken care of, I wish all Longbox Graveyard readers a Happy 2017. See you back here every month or so for more nostalgic comics goodness!
For the past four-hundred-odd days I’ve been a daily player of Marvel Puzzle Quest, a free-to-play match-3 game featuring Marvel superheroes and villains.
Hear my confession!
This is a great game. It is also a terrible game. It’s addictive (and I’ve been addicted). I’ve also been entertained, and deeply engaged by the game’s many overlapping reward systems. It expanded my interest in Marvel’s characters and storylines and let me have some comics fun when I wasn’t actually reading comics or writing about them. It also took me away from friends and family and shoved other games and even some creative projects to the side.
So, definitely a mixed bag. A game that I recommend, but with reservations.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is a free-to-play game for iOS and Android — there are also versions available on Steam and console. It is a competitive game where you put together groups of characters to battle enemy teams in head-to-head match-3 play. Matching colors powers up your heroes to unleash special attacks, activate defenses, or otherwise affect the game. At its core, matching gems has little to do with superheroics (though the same might be said of shuffling cards, or maneuvering on a chessboard), but the theme of the game shines through when assembling your teams of heroes, building up their power sets, and matching complimentary character abilities to exploit the weaknesses of enemy teams, while guarding against their particular strengths.
It’s very clever, particularly for such a simple game.
But there is a price to pay. At first, it is a price of time and attention.
Later, it is a price of pain.
its price is pain!
The game’s user interface is optimized for experienced players, and it can be daunting for new players to figure out what the heck is going on. You have a group of three characters, and the enemy has a group of three characters, but those groups are often an arbitrary mix of heroes and villains, and you will sometimes see the same character fighting itself. Your guys are on the left of the screen, and the bad guys are on the right, but your characters move and shuffle themselves around a lot, and it can be hard to understand which of your own characters is taking action, or even when the bad guys are making their move. It is ultimately pretty simple — generate enough damage to knock out the other team before all your own characters are downed, and you clear the puzzle. There is a tutorial sequence, and it is adequate, but you should expect to invest a couple hours in learning the ins-and-outs of this thing.
You can watch some intrepid YouTuber play the game here:
Eventually the game will reveal itself to you. You will understand that characters generate different levels of damage based on the colors you match — for example, Hulk smashes great with green gems, while Captain America does great with red. When you make a match, the character on your team that best generates damage using that color will jump to the front of your line … where they will also become the primary target for enemy attacks. Meanwhile, the enemy character in front will be your target — and you can shuffle the order of the enemy to hit the weak link first. You will also learn how matching specific colors gradually powers up the abilities of your characters — each character has three special powers, a mixture of active and passive abilities that you can fire off when you’ve accumulated enough of your target colors. So, to continue our example, Hulk can blast off a shockwave by slapping his hands together when you’ve accumulated enough green power, and Captain America can throw his mighty shield when you’ve banked enough red gems.
Character powers are accompanied by pleasing animations, and for the most part the powers match well with their characters. Captain America stuns with his shield and protects his friends; the Black Widow snaps off precise sniper shots and blazes away with her pistols; Doctor Doom summons demons and progressively builds a master plan that can take down the toughest foe if allowed to come to fruition. Spider-Man … mostly heals people with web-bandages. Hey, you can’t win them all! (And the Marvel Universe really needs more characters with healing powers — who knew?)
(they’re actually very useful)
These three-on-three battles are available in two basic flavors — single-player events, and player-versus-player tournaments.
Single-player events are story-driven, based around the scramble for “Iso-8,” an extraterrestrial mineral that powers-up hero and villain alike and unleashes all manner of mayhem on the world. Through a series of rotating story events, which repeat if you hang around long enough (ahem), you’ll battle Harry Osborn’s Dark Avengers, and get involved in intrigue with Doctor Doom and Magneto as they variously try to capture Iso-8 and manipulate characters to their own ends. Stories are dialogue-driven, and do the job of getting you from one battle to the next … they are generally better-written than they need to be, and they add context to a series of strung-together match-3 puzzles. I did at various times feel like I was battling the Hood’s criminal gang, or fighting Hand ninjas, or trailing a rampaging Hulk around the globe — well done.
at select times in the story, Deadpool goes meta and directly addresses the player … nice touch
Player-vs-player events are identical in terms of gameplay, but the structure is very different (about which much more in a moment). As in player-versus-event mode, you will take your group of three characters up against enemy teams, but instead of progressing through a story, you are competing directly with other players to place well in tournaments and collect game rewards. Play is asynchronous, meaning that you aren’t trading moves one-for-one with other players in realtime — instead, the AI runs the enemy team against you, and informs the owning player if they won or lost when they next log into the game. It works well enough, but the AI is generally terrible … something you appreciate when grinding through the story events, but lament when you realize your team is at the mercy of that same AI to defend against live opponents in player-vs-player mode.
There are sundry lesser systems too — hourly “lightning round” player-versus-player mini-tournaments during weekdays; special story events when Ultron or Galactus attacks the Marvel Universe; story-based character intros for new-to-the-game characters like Ant-Man or the Totally Awesome Hulk; and the very welcome Deadpool’s Daily Quest, which affords players the chance of winning a specific character cover if they can beat that day’s challenge.
rewards, rewards, rewards!
All of these things feed into the heart of the game, which is the reward system — an ingenious chain of overlapping pushes and pulls that really makes Marvel Puzzle Quest more than another matching puzzle clone. The core of the game is characters — the more characters you have, the more you can do in the game. Characters are built from comic covers, which are awarded by progressing through the game, or by draws from blind packs. Covers come in three different colors, corresponding to different powers that character may have. A character can have five covers in any given power, but no more than thirteen total covers, leading to asymmetrical character builds (5-5-3, 5-4-4, etc.). Once you’ve cashed in your covers to earn powers, you level up your character by spending ISO-8, with the maximum possible level driven by a character’s relative rarity, or star level (one- through five-stars).
For example, here is one my fully-leveled three-star characters:
From the above three screens, you can see that my three-star Cyclops is at Level 166, and that he does the most damage by matching red, yellow, and black gems. He has five levels of Optic Blast, four levels of Mutant Revolutionary, and four levels of Full Blast.
And here you see how each of those powers breaks down. My Optic Blasts are at the highest possible level, but because I can only have thirteen total powers per character, if I want to boost (say) Full Blast to level 5, I will have to drop a level of something else (and I won’t be able to do that until I earn, find, or purchase another Full Blast cover).
Once you understand how the reward system works, it quickly becomes the most important part of the game. Your every decision becomes driven by the quest for covers. You will scan the rewards sequence of every story event to see if it is worth grinding for a specific cover reward, and you’ll determine how much time to invest in tournaments based on the covers they (might) award.
nice tournament rewards if you are looking for Luke Cage covers … and you should be!
Because there are dozens of characters at five different star levels to pursue — and because new characters are introduced monthly — the rewards system is overlapping and never-ending. If you get all the covers for a specific character, you may still wish to re-arrange the covers you have (like my desire to improve Cyclops’ Full Blast). Even if you build the perfect three-star version of a character, then there might be a better four-star version out there for your next project. And the way the characters work together becomes important, too — to compliment that Cyclops, you might also want to collect the Scarlet Witch, who hits hardest with the colors of purple, green, and blue. Paired with Cyclops, those two characters cover all the colors of the game’s rainbow … and you still have a third character to add to your team. Will they be a defensive specialist with a game-ending knock-out punch, like Luke Cage? Someone that manipulates the board, like Loki? Maybe an exotic character that drains enemy colors and builds up a damaging special attack over time, like Blade?
Remember that most awards in this game are random. You never know if the next card pull will give you the cover you most desire.
And that’s how you go down the rabbit hole with this thing.
the White Rabbit is NOT part of Marvel Puzzle Quest (yet)
So far, so good … but now we get to the bottom of that rabbit hole. The game’s best rewards come through the player-vs-player system … and that system is patched-together, un-thematic, and deeply flawed. Players join tournaments of a few days’ duration, built around a specific character (often one that has recently been introduced). The feature character fills one of your team’s three spots, and a low-level “loaner” is provided if you don’t yet have that character on your roster. Filling the other two spots is up to you, but you will wish to pick characters that synergize with each other while keeping an eye on who is buffed that particular week. This is a nice touch — by rotating required characters and buffs, the game achieves some variation in tournament teamings, though high-level four- and five-star teams still rule the roost.
Where the system comes apart is in tournament standings. Marvel Puzzle Quest player-vs-player tournaments are basically a greasy pole. There are treasures near the top of the pole, and everyone is trying to climb it at the same time. The only way to rise is to drive someone else down, which means these tournaments are a messy brawl, with everyone bashing everyone else in their attempt to get to the top.
substitute rare cover drops for bicycles, and you’ve pretty much got it
The problem is that you can only attack enemy teams one-by-one, while you are exposed to many more attacks at the same time. This means that you might beat Team A and score 25 points, but in the five minutes it took to beat Team A, you were attacked by Teams B, C, and D, and lost 75 points. Because your team is run by the game’s cruddy AI when it is attacked, it is practically impossible to defend in this game, aside from the intimidation value of having outrageously high-leveled characters. The result is a battle of eggshells armed with hammers, with everyone trying to bash the other guy faster than they are bashed themselves. Add to this that the penalty for losing a match frequently exceeds the benefit for winning and PVP mode quickly become a game of mutually assured destruction.
To solve this the developers have resorted to a patchwork solution — players can spend their high value currency (Hero Points) to erect a “shield” for several hours. While shielded, your team can still be attacked, but you won’t lose any points for a defeat. The winning strategy in PVP mode is thus to build a quick-strike attack team, smash a bunch of high-value targets as fast as you can, and then pop up your shield to avoid retaliation and to better hang onto your precious spot on the pole. Later, after your health packs have regenerated, you drop your shields and repeat, “shield hopping” several times over the course of the tournament to attain the highest possible ranking before time expires. It is a tedious process, and one prone to disappointment — it requires that you play the game at specific times of the day, to properly synchronize your shield hopping, and there’s still no guarantee you won’t get plastered in the minimal time that your shields are down. It is also unthematic — your heroes hide in the shadows, emerge just long enough to beat up someone weaker, and then go back into hiding.
Does that sound like a super-team beatdown tournament to you? Me neither.
MPQ Player vs. Player mode … or maybe In Pictopia, by Alan Moore and Don Simpson
After you’ve built out your three-star roster of characters, you will find that four-star characters are only awarded through these crapshoot player-vs-player tournaments, or through long grinding sessions with single-player story events … and by grinding, I mean playing several hours a day, every day, for the three-to-seven days that most story events require. The virtue of single-player grinding is that rewards are guaranteed — you know that if you play each day’s event three times inside of twenty-four hours, and repeat for most of the week that follows — that you will get whatever card you’re aiming for on the reward schedule. The downside is that your soul will be cauterized by the mindless reputation of mundane actions.
Pretty much all of these criticisms spring from the same source: the monetization methodology of Marvel Puzzle Quest. Before I dive in here, let me go on the record as a player who likes free-to-play games and feels developers should be paid for their efforts. I always buy something if I play one of these games for any substantial length of time. It’s the polite thing to do, and after all, these games are free-to-play, but they’re not free-to-make. And, yes, full disclosure requires that I state I work in the free-to-play games business, but I would have come around to this position sooner or later regardless of my profession. I think people should pay for their entertainment, whether it is a free mobile game, a web comic, or a story on the internet. You’d never walk out of a restaurant without offering a tip. Why not leave a buck for the people who create your entertainment?
here comes the pain
I have no problem with Marvel Puzzle Quest passing the collections plate — I’ve spent somewhere around a hundred bucks on this game in the year-plus that I’ve played it. But I would have spent a lot more if the game didn’t have such a regressive monetization system. In effect, MPQ inflicts pain on players, then expects them to pay to make it stop. They are not alone in this approach — plenty of games are set up the same way — but that doesn’t make it any more palatable, and the inevitable result is a player base bifurcated between payers and non-payers, which isn’t an attractive thing for a game driven by player-vs-player tournaments. And no matter which class you are in, you aren’t likely to feel very positive toward the game. Wouldn’t you rather spend your money on something fun? Who likes to pay money to stop pain?
(The answer to that question: addicts).
And what pain do those addicts pay to avoid?
Primarily the pain of losing what they’ve earned. The goal of the game is to accumulate comics covers, and use them to build characters to take on still greater and greater levels of opposition. These covers can be earned by placing well in player-vs-player tournaments and grinding through the story events. But only a select few of these characters can be retained by the starting player — if you wish a full and versatile stable of characters, you will need to purchase additional character slots with Hero Points, earned (infrequently) from grinding, or purchased with cash. If you fail to purchase needed slots within a few weeks, those covers you earned will expire, and turn into (low-value currency) dust. Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing covers it took you hours to earn? You Must Pay.
There’s also the pain of retaining your position in player-vs-player tournaments. Remember how I described them as a greasy pole? Well, you can kind of hold your position for up to a day by purchasing shields — and again, this will cost you Hero Points, most often acquired with cash. Achieving a Top 50 position in most tournaments will likely require at least one shield purchase. A Top 10 position will require many more. The alternative is to hope you don’t get hit too hard in the closing hours of a tourney by the players coming up behind you. (You can guess how that works out). Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing dozens of ranks in that tournament you’ve been playing for hours? You Must Pay.
the wrong kind of shield, unfortunately
The game does offer fun purchases, but they make for poor value. You can buy individual character covers directly, but it is prohibitively expensive. A three-star cover costs about six bucks in Hero Points, and the first cover in each color must be earned through a game reward or a blind draw, meaning that up to ten covers may be purchased, so a fully-leveled three-star character might cost sixty dollars. The cost of leveling four-star characters is in the hundreds, and five-star characters run into the thousands (!). It is satisfying to buy that last, key cover to complete a character to your specification — dropping prices to allow players to do this more often, and more profitably, might make players feel better about the money they spend on the game.
The game also allows you to purchase packs of cards, of varying rarities, quantity, and content, but given the poor draw rates, this quickly reveals itself as a mug’s game. Such purchases should be a highlight — it’s fun to open packs in Hearthstone, or even something like Star Wars Card Trader — but not so much here. The value of packs also diminish as your roster matures, as the odds of getting covers you can use dwindle, so veteran players (who might otherwise be the most inclined to spend) instead generally ignore pack purchase option. This is another place where I think the game’s very punishing and conservative rewards system is leaving a lot of money on the table for the developers.
But I can see where the developers are trapped — they’ve created a game where the value of their goods is established by the long and painful grinding needed to attain them. To avoid that grind, You Must Pay. If the grind is made less painful and time-consuming, then it undercuts their entire economy. This is the corner you paint yourself into with a pain-based economy. A solution might be allowing players to “power up” their experience for six or twelve hours at a time through cash purchase — pay, say, $1.99 or .99 to earn double or triple rewards during the time their power-up is active. This would keep the fundamental grinding economy in place while allowing players to speed up their progress with select cash purchase, feeling smarter for optimizing their playing time, and sending more cash to the developers by better monetizing a hardcore base of grinders who might never otherwise be convinced to pay. Better than offering sales — which trains players to wait for discounts before paying — this system would allow players to declare “sales” of their own whenever it suited them, and would get them making those small, regular purchases that are the gateway to larger spending. I hope the developers do something like this. It would get me back into the game!
Because I am out, mostly.
we’re free! let’s go!
From being a daily player and sometimes payer, I am down to playing once a week or so, and never paying at all. Having filled out my roster of one-, two-, and three-star characters, it’s just too daunting to make the transition to four-star play. The four-star characters are too difficult to attain, and it is dispiriting to play for hours only to earn duplicate three-star rewards that I end up burning for low-value currency. And with the developers introducing new four-star characters every month, I see the pool of four-star covers expanding and diluting even as my ability to draw from them diminishes, meaning increased chances of my pulling the first cover of a new character I cannot use, rather than the sixth or seventh cover for a character I have long nurtured toward viability. Finally, the recent introduction of five-star characters, like the Silver Surfer and Phoenix, indicates that yet another wave of power escalation is coming, pushing me even further down the pole in competitive play. I can’t even complete the jump to four-star level, and now the goal posts are shifting to the five-star realm?
And so my review of Marvel Puzzle Quest ends on a down note, but it should be a qualified down note. I played this game for well over a year, and had fun with it, most of the time. It was confusing to understand how the reward systems fit together at first, but once I’d tricked out a team of one-star heroes, and started to accumulate two- and three-star covers, the game became a lot of fun. Completing my first few three-star heroes was a great accomplishment, and joining an alliance and experiencing some small success in player-vs-player tournaments was also great fun.It was awesome to finally put together a killer team of Wolverine, Daken, and Hulk to bomb the board with escalating rage bonuses, or to team Professor X, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch to create match-5 events that unleashed Xavier’s instant-killing psychic attacks. But once I’d exhausted the three-star level of play, it just became too exhausting to play — the time and scheduling demands too onerous, the rewards too infrequent and too scattershot. Add to this the wholesale dilution of the card base by the rapid introduction of new characters, along with the specter of possibly having a critical character “nerfed” because that selfsame rapid pace knocks the meta-game balance out of whack, and it is easy to opt out of the game as an advanced player.
But for a beginning player, or more accurately an intermediate player, this game can be a ton of fun, and I’m glad to have had a year’s worth of joy with it. If you are a new player, I encourage you to jump in … just be prepared to jump out again! And remember that if the game starts to cause you pain, it isn’t a bug. That’s a feature!
And finally … a word about addiction. For a time I was deeply hooked on this game, and the near-four thousand words of this review have been part of breaking free from Marvel Puzzle Quest. Several times over the past year I have scheduled — and then rescinded — this review, which I always figured would be the exclamation point at the end of my experience with the game. It was only in the past month, when I found myself grinding away in a player-vs-player tournament to score a tenth Professor X cover … on freaking Christmas Eve … that I decided enough was enough. Since that time I’ve imposed rules for myself that make the game less available, and broke my many months long consecutive playing streak. It was the right choice, and I’ve already put time that might have gone into Marvel Puzzle Quest into more profitable ventures (like writing this blog!) I do expect to play in bursts from here on out, but the days of playing first thing in the morning, every morning, are gone forever. We geeky folk are prone to all sorts of dorky addictions, but a good match-3 game, with its swirling cloud of slot machine-like enticements, makes for an especially heady brew. With great game comes great responsibility. So if you do elect to play … play responsibly!
(And if you get whacked by LBoxGraveyard in PVP when I was supposed to have quit the game … then spare a prayer for this poor addict!)
NOVEMBER 2016 UPDATE: It’s been awhile since I published this article, and it continues to do well at Longbox Graveyard, so I thought it was worth updating, particularly as Marvel Puzzle Quest has changed and evolved in some key ways since this review first went live.
A key and welcome addition to the game are Champions. As fate would have it, this paradigm-changing addition went live right after I published this article … and, yes, it sucked me back into the game, big-time. Champions allowed players to continue leveling up their heroes after hitting what was the previous maximum limit. Now, instead of selling off excess covers for fully-leveled heroes, you can spend those covers for additional levels. You can also freely change around the cover schemes of your Championed heroes, allowing you to experiment with different character builds and fine-tune your teams on a battle-to-battle basis. This has been a great addition!
Sweeping in with Champions were changes to the game economy that loosened things up and made it easier to transition into those 4- and 5-star hero ranks. Legendary Tokens allow players to draw from packs that contain only 4- and 5-star heroes. The tokens are available for placing well in the game’s various competitions, and are also (cleverly and crucially) awarded by leveling up your Championed heroes. In effect, Legendary Tokens provided a bridge across that gulf I lamented between the 3- and 4-star level of play, and since their introduction I have added several fully-covered 4-star characters to my roster (and, yes, Championed them too!). Along with Command Points — a new high-level currency that let you earn Legendary Tokens on a slow drip — the developers have considerably improved the overall character leveling up flow and substantially increased the lifespan of their game.
New characters have continued to be introduced, of course — this past month saw Doctor Strange come out, in tandem with his movie. There have been a few new story events and boss events. There’s a premium “VIP” system that provides additional awards every day you play. You can now elect to view ads now and then if you want a little rewards boost. The game also introduced SHIELD Clearance Levels, which are effectively reward tiers that players unlock by earning experience points during regular play — they help provide a more guided path for new players as the game unfolds, and theoretically partition players into groups as they compete against each other in the game’s various events.
Unfortunately, the game’s multi-player structure is still as regressive as described above. The developers did tweak the way defensive teams are selected, to close a loophole where alliances were effectively throwing matches to each other to progress in multi-player tournaments, but they offered nothing to replace the very real (and often fun) alliance cooperation that powered that quasi-legal process. Now, PVP is back where it started — you build your team, you climb as high as you can, you get whacked by a wave out of nowhere, and you quit the game in disgust. Whee!
And that brings us up to the moment. Overall, the game has made great strides in the last ten months and continues to improve. If they can finally get PVP dialed in, they will suck me back in! Right now, I only play a little bit. Honest.
(If “every day” can be considered a “little bit.” Grrr!)
NEXT MONTH: #156 Beneath The Longbox Bookshelf
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!
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