I'm looking at the five cards in my hand, another plethora on the table before me that I've built up over turns while dealing with Ultron's drones. The pesky creatures keep my attention diverted from the big bag machine himself while he works to advance his plans to where we, the odd pairing of Dr. Strange and Hulk, will not be able to stop him.
Every card in my hand offers up a different effect, each also bears a mark allowing it to be spent to play another of its brothers. This hand management forms the core of every turn in Marvel Champions, where accomplishing heroic feats with tight card play gives a puzzle a satisfying comic thwack. If I do it right, I'll be able to slim down those drones and cast a spell or two weakening Ultron so my brother, wielding the great green monster, can deliver a devastating smash.
Designed as a cooperative adventure, where you and up to three others don your costumed superhero of choice (and of purchase) to go up against a villainous cadre, Marvel Champions offers up a strange brew.
On the tasty side, the hero variety, even from the core set, is great fun. The name invokes a wide roster and the designers commit to it, chucking together Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Iron Man, and Spiderman in the first box. By veering away from MCU staples, they immediately let the game create its own energy and its own narrative.
Setting down to play Marvel Champions involves more set-up than many board games while, at the same time, smoothing the sharp edges many Living Card Games (different from, say, Magic in that there is no randomness to the cards you purchase) push on their players. Creating my version of Doctor Strange didn't require sifting through cards by the hundred, trying to pin the right 40 for my strategy. No, instead every hero has fifteen static cards, and the remaining 25 must then come from one (of four) aspects, such as aggression (when you want to whale on things), or leadership (when you want to play team leader and recruit lots of buddies). Any leftovers will be basic cards, catch-alls like minor heals or resource generators.
When playing a card game, I tend to be all in on the strategy involved in creating a puzzle-blasting deck. I should've been miffed at the inability to exploit combos deep in the collection, but instead I've come to enjoy how swapping a hero doesn't take an hour or more spent combing through the collection to find a fun combination. Instead, fifteen minutes spent tweaking and I'm ready to wreak some havoc.
Once down at the table, Marvel Champions doesn't let you goof around, though. This is not a cooperative game for people looking to relax, nor for people looking for a leader ala Pandemic to make their choices for them. Your hand is secret, and most cards have enough text and effects to make playing everyone's turn a chore even for an adept Quarterback. The villains, too, refuse to let you rest, pushing each encounter to a tense conclusion that mirrors the world-at-stake climax in most superhero stories.
I could rate the difficulty as a detractor, but really, it's a perk that helps hide the limited villains in the core box and beyond. Marvel Champions calls out for a real story, a way to progress a hero from neophyte to swaggering superstar. Instead, the villains are largely standalone (there is a campaign expansion, which I've completed, and while it's nice, there's room for more) and each encounter is disconnected from the last. This can make the victory seem a little deflating, as there doesn't seem to be anywhere to go.
And yet, without strings attached, it's easy to pick up a new hero and take them, and all their unique mechanics, for a spin. Next week, we're taking Spiderman and Ms. Marvel on a team-up against the Green Goblin - will we get wrecked? Likely. Will we have fun?