Designers Caleb Grace and Michael Boggs come out web-swinging!
Marvel Champions is and isn’t what you expect from a Marvel game.
Yes, there’s your A-List Avengers assembled here: Iron Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man all appear in the card game’s core set, hot off their starring roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they’re joined by characters from the Marvel comic-book universe bound to be less familiar faces to most. She-Hulk – Bruce Banner’s cousin turned a similar shade of angry green by a blood transfusion, for the uninitiated – rounds out the game’s starting roster, with Captain America and relative newcomer Kamala Khan - aka Ms. Marvel – among the first expansion characters announced.
These unexpected additions came not from some corporate mandate levied down by Marvel’s overseers keen to maintain tight control over the sprawling multiverse, but instead from the personal passion and knowledge of Champions’ three co-designers – Nate French, Caleb Grace and Michael Boggs – who were able to propose their dream team line-up freely.
“We sat down together and said, ‘Oh, who do we want?’” Grace says. “It was really about coming up with different play styles. Obviously diversity of cast is a consideration, but also diversity of play styles. For example, we had a pretty clear vision for Iron Man from the beginning; he was going to build his armour, that was going to be his play style – that you’re gonna take a couple of turns to build your armor before you join the fight. And that’s obviously going to play very different from Spider-Man, who can just jump into hero mode turn one and start rescuing people using his defence value. And then She-Hulk was our bruiser with the high attack, high hit points, like just a tank.”
The designers wanted to make enough of Champions familiar for fans whose knowledge of Marvel comes only from the films, but also to open up the possibilities of the entire comic-book universe through the game. (She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel have since had their own TV shows announced, something Grace insists is happy coincidence: “People are going, ‘Oh wow, they must’ve known that!’ I think Disney’s copying us!” he laughs.)
“We want to explore all of this; we don’t want to just focus on the most popular people, and there’s also a lot of people who really love those lesser-known characters,” Boggs says. “There’s a huge fan following for She-Hulk. Actually, I had heard of She-Hulk before we started working on her, but I never read her comics, and once I did it was like: ‘She’s awesome. I wish I had known more about her.’ And I’m kind of hoping that that sort of does the same thing for other people who aren’t maybe so familiar with her as a character, or other characters down the line. They can sort of see them on the shelves or buy them and be like, ‘I want to learn more about this character.’ And it’ll just sort of help branch them into the comics which, you know, is pretty exciting.”
While the cheeky tone and irreverent humour of the Marvel films were elements that the designers kept in mind, it’s from Marvel’s comics that Champions draws most of its inspiration. The willingness to pull from beyond the obvious extends to the game’s first villains: Ultron, Rhino and Klaw. The Avengers, Spider-Man and Black Panther baddies have all starred on the big screen, but their appearances in Champions are rooted in the original comics.
“We wanted to define this as a product that was related to the comics in a lot of ways – She-Hulk is a really good indication of that, or even Klaw,” Boggs says. “If you look at the Klaw in Marvel Champions, he’s wearing his comic outfit, which is wildly different from the one that you see him in in the MCU.
“We wanted to draw on characters that were very iconic, but also characters that would spark someone’s interest if they didn’t know the comics so well. So we really just tried to pull things together in a way that we thought would create a
really interesting and fun and exciting product, but also give a lot of diversity and variety in just the amount of things that we were showing in the Marvel universe.”
Although some of its characters and details might be new to some, there’s something about Champions that its designers are confident will feel familiar to fans of the comics and films alike: it’s a game designed to make its players feel like superheroes.
“Early on, one of the most defining features we talked a lot about [is] how Marvel comics are often larger than life,” says Boggs. “They really put you in this world and this situation with characters who are grounded in a lot of ways in reality, but they are much bigger than anything that you could ever really experience. We wanted to capture that duality in the gameplay in a lot of ways. That was a lot of the driving force for the design and a lot of the characters that we chose, and just a lot of the overall themes and stuff.”
“We had a whole talk about: what does Marvel mean to us? And it was great ‘cause we each contributed different things that came to our minds when we heard of Marvel,” Grace adds. “We just made a list of all those things and said: ‘These are all the things we want our card game to emulate.’ So that when you’re playing, you feel like these things: you feel like you’re larger than life, you feel like you’re super powerful and you’re having fun and there’s a lot of humour in it.”
In Champions you’re not just controlling a superhero; you are the superhero. Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and the rest of the roster are the characters you’d expect from the comics and films, but they’re also your personal version of that character. Each character’s deck is made up of 15 cards specific to that superhero’s identity, plus 25 more actions and abilities you can pick and choose from four universal traits of aggression, justice, leadership and protection to customise their fighting style to your liking. Giving each player a single hero to embody makes Champions a more intimate and involved experience than Fantasy Flight’s past living card games.
“It’s a very different feel from Lord of the Rings [The Card Game]. That feels like very top-down, like a video game; I’m looking down at my team and I’m controlling these people,” says Grace. “Whereas in Marvel I feel like I’m in the action, I am this character.
“Hopefully when [players] get that Captain America pack and they play him for the first time, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this feels just like being Captain America.’ You know: using this shield to block attacks and then throwing it back at the enemy, and exciting stuff like that.”
The heroes square off against a villain, who in typical comic-book fashion is trying to bring their evil plot to fruition. (Exactly who’s causing trouble and how depends on the scenario being played.) It’s up to the heroes to stand in the way, using their brains as much as their brawn to triumph. Characters’ attack and defence values are used to solve problems in a more direct way by pummelling the big bad and their minions, while the separate thwart trait represents the heroes unravelling dastardly machinations using their tact, removing threat tokens that advance the villain’s schemes.
“We decided that our game would be different from [LCGs] Lord of the Rings and Arkham [Horror] in that we’re not trying to complete a quest – instead, we’re trying to stop the villain from completing theirs,” Grace says. “Just about every [superhero] story or movie is them trying to stop something bad from happening – it’s less about what they’re actively trying to do and more about what they’re trying to prevent.”
“You’ve got a singular villain who’s trying to complete this thing and you can interrupt them constantly,” adds Boggs. “We have a whole aspect of cards dedicated to pretty much just doing that. Having the players really act in a very different way to what the encounter deck is doing, which is very different in a lot of ways from the other two games, gives it a very defining feel.”
Champions’ focus on letting players feel superheroic means it’s less of a punishing experience than the doom-and-gloom struggle for survival of Lord of the Rings’ adventurers and Arkham Horror’s investigators. Grace says that the team deliberately made Champions easier to pick up for newcomers, predicting that most players should win the majority of their games in standard difficulty. (An optional expert difficulty bumps the game back up to a level of challenge closer to Lord of the Rings and Arkham.) After all, it wouldn’t feel right to see Earth’s mightiest heroes thoroughly trounced by a baddie they’ve beaten countless times before, would it?
“Both of those games [Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror] are very dire and very like, you know, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to get out of this situation?’ You know, ‘We’re doomed!’ And the fun comes from like eking out a victory when it looked like for sure you were going to lose. And Marvel is the exact opposite of that,” he laughs. “Marvel is like, ‘Watch what I can do guys. This is going to be awesome!’ It seems to resonate with people. That’s really been fun to watch. People just get really excited. I remember showing some of the cards to other developers on our team and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, these cards all seem overpowered! Like, this thing’s broken!’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s the point!’
The heroes won’t be alone in their battle; they’re able to call in allies and make use of upgrades and other support cards to power up their repertoire of active and passive abilities. The resource cost of cards is paid by discarding other cards, letting players feel powerful on every turn.
“We really wanted the players to feel empowered,” says Boggs. “You’re fighting these superhuman villains, you’re doing these things that are just really exciting and just make you feel like you have a lot of strength and a lot of ability.”
With little holding the heroes back from unleashing their strength, the game sets the stage for moments where the Marvel all-stars join forces for combined knockout blows.
“Most of the teamwork’s gonna come across through the actual gameplay,” Grace says. “There’s definitely a desire from people who are excited for the game and those of us on the development team to see cards that maybe call out specific characters and specific moves.”
“We’ve tried to highlight a bit of everything really,” Boggs says. “We have cards that are sort of more team-oriented if you are affiliated with this team or that team. We try to keep a lot of variety and the types of effects because there are a lot of different players who want to play a lot of different ways. There are those players who want to sit down and assemble all of the Avengers. There are those players who want to sit down and just play with one friend and they’re both in their specific role playing their specific characters.”
Grace adds: “A lot of the story comes across that way where, after the turn’s played out, you can sort of see it in your head and imagine what it would’ve looked like on the big screen as, you know, She-Hulk took the hit so that Spider-Man could leap over her and kick the villain in the face.”
NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES
You won’t be doing roundhouse kicks in tight-fitting spandex during the whole of Champions. Playing just as crucial a role as the superheroes are their everyday alter egos.
“One of the things that has always shined about Marvel is the fact that I can really relate to the specific character,” says Boggs. “Like, I can see Peter Parker or Kamala Khan and they feel like real people with real problems and I actually care about those problems. So we wanted to bring that in a little bit. We wanted to ground the player slightly, which also helps kind of highlight those larger-than-life moments. You’re back home, you’re kind of doing your thing, resting up, preparing for the next battle, and that just sort of helps propel you into those moments when you are able to come in with your big swinging web kick or do your really exciting play.”
Players begin the game as their unassuming alter ego – Peter Parker, T’Challa, Jennifer Walters, Tony Stark, Carol Danvers – and don their superhero suit by flipping over the character’s card. The characters’ hero forms let them go head-to-head with the villain by dealing damage and thwarting their scheme, but they can turn back into their alter ego on a later turn, recovering health and drawing extra cards before rejoining the fight.
“We really built the entire game around the dynamic of hero and alter ego,” says Boggs. “We really tried to use that alter ego dynamic mechanically to sort of give you a reprieve from what the villain is doing, but also it’s got a lot of thematic weight there that really helps tell the story in a lot of ways.”
It’s not as simple as ducking out of the battle for a breather, though. Heroes in their alter ego form won’t be attacked by the villain directly, but not being present as their superhero gives the baddie the chance to add more threat to their current scheme, advancing the players towards defeat.
“A lot of the game is just balancing that dynamic of: when do I flip to alter-ego, when do I flip to hero? When do I take the damage? When do I rest up and let the villain sort of progress in their evil plan?” says Boggs.
Each villain has their own deck of encounter cards that can summon their own minions into battle and unleash attacks on the heroes. These attacks can be personal, too – shuffled into the villain deck is an obligation card specific to each hero that reflects their unique challenges as a character, and requires them to return to their alter ego form to resolve. It might be T’Challa needing to tend to the state affairs of Wakanda, or the great responsibilities of Spider-Man – outside of saving the world, that is.
“When your obligation comes up, you have to make a choice,” says Grace. “That’s really where the duality of the identity card really shines: here you are in hero form fighting Ultron to save the world from nuclear Armageddon, and then there’s some kind of family emergency, you know.” He laughs.
“Peter Parker has to go home and pay rent,” Boggs chuckles.
While it comes with risks, slipping back into their everyday clothes can also help the heroes build up their strength and enable some of the most impressive abilities in their deck.
“Every hero has a card that pretty much only works in their alter ego,” says Grace. “T’Challa’s the king of Wakanda, so he has a support card that’s the Golden City of Wakanda that lets him draw cards, but only as alter ego – he has to go home to take advantage of all the resources he has there. And Aunt May is a great card for Peter Parker – lets him heal quite a lot – but she doesn’t know that he’s Spider-Man, so she can’t help him when he’s Spider-Man.”
With decades of Marvel comics as inspiration, the designers are keen to delve deeper into superhero history. Champions’ core set will be followed by monthly expansions introducing new characters, cards and scenarios – both standalone missions and connected sets that form mini-campaigns. There’s plenty of possibility to recreate iconic storyline arcs from the comics, and play with the characters’ difficult juggling of duties.
“The enemies and the scenario design can represent different story beats from the comics as well, so I’m really excited for that,” Grace says. “The alter ego form is one of those just fertile fields where we can really start to delve into that. In the core set, it’s mostly about teaching you the game itself and so you’ll find yourself in alter ego most often when you need to recover hit points. But in the future players can look forward to looking for more opportunities to interact with their hero form and alter ego form in different ways.”
Marvel – like its superheroes – doesn’t do things by halves. So it’s only natural that Champions’ creators have their own Hulk-sized ambitions for their card game.
“There was definitely inspiration [from the MCU],” says Grace. “The big lesson there was just: plan ahead.”
Grace, Boggs and French have four years of Champions releases in mind already; their own ‘phase one’ for the game. Grace is quick to add that those four years are hopefully just the beginning: “Of course the hope is that the game goes well beyond that,” he says. “It’s not going to be done in four. Not as long as people keep buying it.”
Champions has started out with the unexpected. Speaking with its creators, it’s clear that their passion for comics and the game’s anything-goes design will take players to even more surprising corners of the Marvel universe.
“I want to see Ultron on a Goblin Glider!” Boggs laughs.
“Now you can!” Grace says. “Ultron has one of those sets too, where there’s like his vibranium chassis and his energy blasts; you could take those out and give those to Rhino.
“That’s one of the ways we embraced the wackiness of Marvel, where anything’s possible. Anything that we could think of that would sound weird in the game, we could very quickly identify that Marvel’s done something even crazier in their comic books. Really, the sky’s the limit for the amount of wacky stuff we can do.
This review originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.