18 October 2018
More Fantastic Flop than Fantastic Four
One of the best things about the analogue gaming hobby is the number of great releases based on pop-culture hits. Whether you’re a fan of Star Wars, Firefly or Game of Thrones, you’ll find a huge array of games that let you dive into your favourite movies and TV shows. And, while video games might suffer from an abundance of cynical licensed cash-ins, tabletop game creators generally treat their source material with more respect. Designers go to extraordinary lengths to capture the spirit and atmosphere of beloved fictional universes in cardboard and plastic.
That’s what makes Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealm such an unutterable disappointment.
Based on the acclaimed mobile app (nope, me neither), this dice-chucking game of superhero combat promises to throw some of the mightiest characters in comics against one another in a battle of strength, cunning and tactics. In reality, it’s a rip-off of King of Tokyo.
Those might seem like strong words, especially when game design relies so heavily on designers building and riffing on games that have come before. But stop me when this starts feeling too close for comfort: you and your friends each take control of a character in a multiplayer scrap for supremacy. You’ll each choose a cardboard standee and a corresponding player board with a spinning life counter, and you’ll win by being the last monst– erm, hero left standing, or by amassing a set number of victory points. On each turn you’ll roll a handful of black custom dice, with different symbols letting you inflict damage on your opponents or reclaim some of your own lost health. You’ll re-roll unwanted results up to three times along the way.
To be fair, Battlerealm adds some new ideas to the mix. The trouble is that they’re all bad ones.
Rather than gaining new powers over the course of the game, you’ll start out with special abilities that kinda-sorta represent your character. But many seem thematically out of place. Take Black Panther’s ‘King of Wakanda’ power, which lets him add a combat symbol to his dice roll. I’m not sure how that’s meant to represent the burden of status and responsibility so deftly explored in the original comics.
Then there are the times when player abilities seem at odds with the core premise of the game. You’re supposed to be jumping through different locations across the Marvel universe, positioning your heroes in places where they’ll have an edge over their rivals and exploiting different environments to your advantage. So why is there a player power which eliminates almost all locations from the game, reducing it to a boring dice-rolling contest?
And then there’s the jewel in the crown, the Crystal Prison – a location you’ll be confined to whenever you have a particularly unlucky result on your dice rolls. While incarcerated, you won’t be able to damage your rivals or be on the receiving end of their attacks. You’re out of the game until you manage to escape. Do not pass Go, do not collect £200.
With artwork based on its smartphone predecessor, there isn’t even a nice comic-book aesthetic to distract from the misery.
Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealm falls flat on multiple levels. Its gameplay is painfully derivative. Its variable player powers often feel unconnected to the characters they purport to represent. Its artwork has none of the punch and flair of superhero comics. The cherry on the cake? It even comes with a Monopoly-style ‘Go to Jail’ mechanism. Excelsi-urgh!
Designer: Carmen Bellaire
Time: 30-45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue 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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