30 March 2021
We assist the uncanny, astonishing, and indeed, giant-sized, X-Men in their first proper cardboard mission in a few years.
Words by Christopher John Eggett
Let us travel back in time, to when things were a little bit simpler. Before superheroes were on every conceivable media surface in your life, and before they got ‘gritty’, ‘dark’, and ‘real’. Let’s instead look at the bright and colourful world of the X-Men of the 90s cartoons, or the earlier comics where the tone was set around lighter subjects, like racism and civil rights movement. Okay, so maybe comic books have always dealt with the heavier side of culture, even if only in metaphor and yellow spandex. But in the most recent outing for the X-Men, from Fantasy Flight Games, we walk the line of international peacekeepers in a time of struggle, and silly costumes. We’re joined by Brandon Perdue, one of the designers of the just released X-Men: Mutant Insurrection to talk about this game of dice battling, bonding and teamwork.
Brandon Perdue has a storied past, having previously worked on the epic and expansively supported The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth and Heroes of Terrinoth, a dice and card game that might begin to sound familiar over the next few paragraphs.
Yet Perdue’s throughline for this game comes from somewhere a little further out, “my big influences for games like Mutant Insurrection – and I guess really for most games – are tabletop RPGs and Cosmic Encounter,” says Perdue, “RPGs with rulesets that varied a lot depending on your character type, like Shadowrun, really cemented for me how powerful mechanics can be in helping to make a theme or setting engaging, and I love the freeform storytelling.”
“Meanwhile, Cosmic Encounter has always engaged my designer brain with its vast array of special abilities and how different the experience can be depending on the aliens at the table.”
This influence can be seen throughout the whole of X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, with each game’s flavour coming from the heroes you play as and the villain scenario you’re up against.
PROTECTING THOSE WHO FEAR THEM
X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is a dice and card game that relies on tactical use of your dice pools, your friends, and a little bit of luck, to overcome a couple of decks of cards. It sounds simple, but the mechanics hit all the right notes when it comes to thinking about what the X-men are.
Players will pick their hero of the 16 available and use their specific dice pools to attempt to match those on the event cards. Clear a row of symbols by matching your dice rolls with them and you can cover that row. Once all these rows of symbols are covered up, the event is complete, the enemy defeated, and players get a reward. As with many dice drafting games the core loop of rolling some dice, discarding a single dice to reroll any number of the others, is familiar and safe – but it’s what’s built on top of this basic mechanic and how it interlocks with the theme that makes the game so much more interesting.
“A lot of players will recognize some core elements from games like Elder Sign,” says Perdue, “players will have missions to take on, roll dice, and match symbols. But a lot of the nuts and bolts are very different.”
The event cards are when it starts to feel a little bit ‘international rescue’ with player bouncing from one continent to another to mop up the various ‘mutants in trouble’ situations. These missions feel straight out of the 90s cartoons, with the variety and ‘bad guy of the week’ which comes with that. There are not only rogue mutants out causing trouble at the bidding of Magneto or the other villains included in the box, but also hostage negotiations, or simply discovering a mutant on the other side of the world is having some trouble locally.
This variety of mission translates into what the dice themselves represent. Not only is there the expected fighty symbols for tactically walloping someone, there’s also teamwork and power symbols. The latter relates to those mutants who wield huge power – such as Storm’s ability to control the weather, whereas teamwork represents something a little closer to research or investigation.
“Each character is defined by their dice pool, which determines the dice they roll and, thus, the symbols they are best at generating, plus a special ability they can use themselves and a second special ability that other heroes can use. Every character in the game gets a dice pool that is a mix of three different die colours, and each colour has a different array of symbols, so Wolverine’s rolls will have very different results from, say, Beast’s rolls,” explains Perdue, “and since the X-Men are a team and working together is always a major part of how they operate in a fight, each character has a special ability they can lend to their allies when they fight together. Mixing and matching teams to tackle problems is a big part of the strategy. Playing each hero should feel true to that character not just in what you can do on your own turn, but how you can help your teammates.”
What Perdue is alluding to here is that players can work together by swapping their assist cards with one another for the round. This means that Wolverine might lend Cyclops a couple of dice he might not normally have access to that gives him the bonus of collecting training tokens after the dice are rolled.
Should a team not complete their mission within the player turn, the failure option is triggered, and threat is usually increased.
“Working against the heroes is a threat track that serves both as timer and difficulty escalator,” says Perdue, “as threat increases, the difficulty of missions increases and end-of-round effects become more dangerous.”
In practice, this means that when your threat level moves from the green area to the yellow of the threat track, or to the red, the matching colour symbols on the mission cards must also be filled to complete the mission. So, once the pressure begins to build, you’ve really got a fight on your hands to stabilise and push back.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
Picking which X-Men to include in a game is always going to be a tricky part of an endeavour like this. While there’s a roster of 16 characters here, that doesn’t even manage to scratch the surface of what this particular comic book world offers in terms of a cast.
“There are 16 playable heroes in the box, including many of the most classic and popular X-Men, from original team members like Cyclops and Jean Grey to Storm and Colossus and later additions like Rogue or Magik,” says Purdue, “There are a couple more esoteric picks in there, too, like Armor and Forge. With so many iconic X-Men, even choosing just 16 was hard.”
The addition of Magik – the little sister of Colossus, and a slightly off-beat selection – makes more sense when the enemies line up. She made her first appearance in Giant-Size X-Men #1, along with Krakoa. Picking the villains of the piece is just as difficult as the heroes it seems.
“I like the classic stuff myself, so players will see a lot of Magneto, the Sentinels, and the Hellfire Club, plus iconic foes like Juggernaut and Sauron. Like with the hero roster, there are a couple weird ones in here too, like Krakoa, the sentient island that the team fought in Giant-Size X-Men #1.”
Each of these heroes and villains brings their own flavour to the game, and linking back to Cosmic Encounter , it all comes down to the set up. While there are certainly going to be arguments about which X-Men and villains should be in the box, the chance to explore possibly unknown niches of the X-Men universe or combinations which are either impossible or improbable is all part of the fun.
For the casual or lapsed comics reader, understanding that Armor, one of the X-Men included in this box, is from a timeline when the Scarlet Witch stripped nearly a million mutants of their powers, leaving only a handful with their abilities, is likely to be a novel and interesting springboard into a whole new love of the comics. Equally, Krakoa mentioned above, is literally a sentient island in the pacific ocean who managed to capture a number of the original X-Men (Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, Jean Grey and so on) before having them liberated by, what were at the time the ‘New X-Men’ (Colossus, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm etc). All of this is really to highlight that these character’s histories are just made out of the parts we’ve already experienced of them through comics, film and TV. We play games with familiar characters from other media partly for exploration and partly for that aspect of remixing something we know.
The scenarios in the game are plucked right from the comics themselves. You’ll be facing Magneto in his attempt to crush Professor X’s dream of peaceful mutant-human existence in the starting mission, or dealing with the Dark Phoenix, a fan favourite and pivotal point in the X-Men universe. These scenarios always end with a showdown, when we hit the third phase of the game. These are accompanied by two, three, or four card panoramas which replace the usual continental event decks for the phase. The beautiful art pieces still work as multiple locations, meaning that players are teaming up against one difficult enemy – as it’s only through this working together that they will be able to overcome.
Between missions, and during the main phase of the game, players can also decide whether to retreat to Professor Xavier’s office for a pep talk, or to the Danger Room. Both of these will help your character heal and provide you with training tokens or other bonuses. Like any game like this, being out of the action is useful, but only while you’ve got cover.
So, where are we meant to peg these particular X-men and villains? Nowhere particularly, suggests Perdue, “Mutant Insurrection goes for classic or iconic looks to the characters so that it’s not attached to a specific version of the X-Men.”
Those hoping to sleuth out a particular timeline will be thwarted at each step. They’re familiar, but a little… uncanny. For example, Cyclops seems to be rocking the mid-00s Astonishing X-Men look (i.e. no yellow pants) whereas Wolverine fits into a classic blue and yellow outfit we’ve seen everywhere except for in live action movie outings, thankfully. Storm equally seems to have opted for the turn of the century Uncanny X-Men look, rather than the grey-silver of the 90s, or the slightly improbable bikini of Giant-Size X-Men #1.
Equally, as Deborah Garcia, art director for the game, mentioned on a Fantasy Flight livestream of a prototype playthrough – the goal was always to create an entirely new look for the game. This meant especially stepping away from the artwork of the Marvel Champions card game and finding a spot that sits between the comic book world of that game and the cartoon series looks of this one.
Regardless, all these versions are in support of some kind of zoomed out version of some of our favourite heroes and villains.
“The X-Men lend themselves to so many different takes and tones that going iconic lets the most fans find something they recognize as being like their preferred version,” says Perdue, “regardless of whether they are long time comic readers or only watch the movies or one of the animated series.”
“And, personally, I’ve always been a fan of Marvel’s brighter, more colourful eras,” he admits, “when it seems like any wild or imaginative thing could happen in the pages of one of those books. Especially with the way 2020 has been, I like media that keeps a positive outlook, not ignoring that problems exist but believing that, in the end, we can find solutions and be better.”
Which is what the artwork does. It sheds the gritty and grimy nihilism introduced in those Christopher Nolan directed Batman movies that’s permeated all versions of what superheroes have to be ‘about’.
“Besides, the art is way more fun if all the characters have unique colourful costumes rather than slight variations on the same jumpsuit,” Purdue adds somewhat pragmatically.
Regardless of where we can fit this version of the X-Men in the canon, or in our personal filing cabinet of superheroes, one thing we all agree on is that teamwork makes the dream work. Also that a core tenet of the X-Men that they’re dealing with the emotional turmoil of being different while also hanging out in what is more or less a high school. You know, teenage anguish.
To that end there’s ‘bond’ and ‘betrayal’ mechanics built into the game to represent how your team might be coming together, or falling apart.
“One of the most fundamental things about X-Men stories, to me, is the way that they aren’t just about fighting a bad guy and saving the day,” says Purdue, “they’re soap opera, and the drama between the X-Men is sometimes as dangerous as any foe they face. At the same time, the connections the X-Men form are often their greatest strength.”
“In the game, this dynamic is reflected by bonds, double-sided cards that have a positive effect on one side and a negative effect on the other,” says Purdue, “bond cards come in pairs, and when you get one you give the matching card to another player.”
This ties the players together in some way, giving them advantages when they’re working together on the same mission.
“When you are together you’ll get a powerful bonus from that bond,” explains Purdue, “however, if you’re on the negative side, the reverse is true: being together makes you subject to difficult penalties.”
Gaining a bond can be achieved through completing a mission together. These bonds are straightforward in names and nature – you can tap them during play to activate their advantage. The bond ‘Love’ gives the active player an additional dice of any colour to add to their pool for the mission, while ‘Camaraderie’ doubles the damage of a single ‘fight’ result dice. Powerful stuff, but it can all turn nasty quickly. A mission failure can result in flipping these cards to the ‘betrayal’ side, making the uncomfortable teenage problem of hanging around with your ex not only awkward and embarrassing, but possibly mission threatening.
“These cards can flip back and forth over the course of a game, and that can lead to some fun emergent narrative with will-they won’t-they romances, bitter rivalries, and heroes triumphing over not just the villain, but themselves.”
X-Men: Mutant Insurrection is planned for release on February 26th 2021.
This feature originally appeared in Issue 52 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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