Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I am an old school comic book geek and that includes the superhero genre, so I really don't mind playing the wink-wink-nod-nod non-copyright infringing version of superheroes. Also, while I like the modern version of grit-filled heroes, I will never deny that cheese isn't yummy.

Note: Since the expansions do not change the core gameplay at all, they are added into this review as merely a part of the entire Sentinels of the Multiverse gaming experience. And while this is primarily a review of the Enhanced Edition, mentions are made to the original first edition release.


The Overview:


The Enhanced Edition box. 


Sentinels of the Multiverse is a cooperative superhero game set in its own universe, but whose characters and powers feel familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a superhero comic book. Each player takes the role of one superhero and has their own deck of cards tailored to that identity which is used to aid their allies and combat the current supervillain and their henchmen and machinations. Numerous supervillains exist in the set, each having its own individually tailored villain deck. The players then put their characters against the supervillain and try to defeat him, usually by means of super-powered fisticuffs.

The game is for 2-5 players and generally will play in about an hour or a little more. Number of players does not necessarily add to playtime, but rather character choices and villain choices will. More support characters than attack characters may slow down the walloping, and not all villains are created equally. Some are direct and a quick fight ends it, while others may play out longer with more subtle strategies. The game is played out with individualized decks of cards for the heroes, villains and locations, and with more knowledge of the game comes more of an idea of difficulties and time constraints for each.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

Each player chooses a superhero character to play. They take the character card and that hero's deck of cards. The character card lists your hero's hit points as well as a starting power that will be available for your hero to use throughout the game. Each player then draws the top four cards from their deck to make their starting hand.

Players then choose a villain to go up against, taking that villain card and his or her deck of cards. The villain card lists that villain's hit points as well as it's attacks or effects that will occur each turn. Some villains list additional set up instructions, which may be to do something such as put certain cards from the deck in play at the start.

Finally, for set up, players choose an Environment deck in which they will be battling the villain. Environments may simply be in the streets of the technically-not-Metropolis, Megalopolis, or in the technically-not-Savage Land region of Insula Primalis, or the underwater public domain Ruins of Atlantis.

Actually gameplay follows a specific structure turn by turn, starting with the Villain Turn, then each of the Heroes have a turn, followed by the Environment Turn.

Villain Turn:


The back of Citizen's Dawn's Villain Deck. 


The Villain strikes first, recruiting aid or attacking the heroes or otherwise furthering his nefarious plot with cards from his individual deck.

1. Start: The start of the Villain's turn has its phase because certain card effects are resolved at the Start of the Villain's turn.

2. Play: The top card of the Villain's Deck is drawn and then resolved. These cards vary in type according to the specific Villain's deck. But the cards include things like Minions which are minor bad guys with their own hit points and effects and need to be attacked by the heroes to remove them, One-Shots which have effects that are resolved and are one and done, and On-Going Effects which remain in play and are usually not removed by typical means such as attack. Other cards may have other titles (such as Device or Drone), but they have similar effects, but are titled as such for the calculation of other card effects, such as a bonus for every Drone in play and so on.

3. End: Like the start of the Villain's turn, the End has its own phase because certain card effects are resolved at the End of the Villain's turn. Often the Villain's special attack listed on his character card is resolved either at the Start or the End of the Villain's Turn.

Hero Turns:
Each Hero completes his full turn in order, then the next player resolves his full turn.

1. Start: Any cards or effects that need to be resolved at the start of a Hero's turn are resolved now.

2. Play: The player now has the option to play one card from his or her hand. Similar to the Villain's deck, cards in the Hero's deck consist of one and done One-Shot effects and Ongoing Effects which often either have a lasting effect that effects the Hero or it lists a new Power which can be played by the Hero later in the turn. Also like the Villain Deck, each deck may have other cards with different names that play similar to one of those, such as Equipment (which stays out like Ongoing cards) and Relics (which also stay out). They are titled as such for other game effects that may specifically effect Equipment and so on.

3. Power: The player now has an option to use one power and resolve its effects. Each hero card has one power listed on it that can be resolved. However, new powers may be available to the hero by other cards that have been played. Many Ongoing and some Equipment cards that stay out in play for the hero offer other powers that the player may choose to activate.

4. Draw: The player draws one card up into his or her hand.

5. End: Any cards or effects that need to be resolved at the end of the Hero's turn are resolved now.

Environment Turn:
Now the area in which the Heroes are battling effects the scope of the battle, sometimes aiding them, but often hindering them. However, while the heroes are often more vulnerable to the environment (they need to be more wary of collateral damage), the Villains aren't necessarily immune to the negative effects.

1. Start: Any cards or effects that need to be resolved at the start of a Environment's turn are resolved now.

2. Play: The top card of the Environment Deck is now revealed and resolved. Many cards have effects that may linger and need to be resolved by the Heroes in some inconvenient fashion (by attacking the card, discarding cards, or skipping your turn) and if they are not resolved, the negative effect of the card will remain in play and continue to effect the battlefield. But, like most decks, there are creatures that are put out and remain out until their hit points are reduced to zero or Ongoing effects that remain in play affecting the scope of the battle.

3. End: Any cards or effects that need to be resolved at the end of the Environment turn are resolved now.

Play continues in this fashion until either all of the Heroes are Knocked Out (their health reduced to 0) and the players lose or the Villain is defeated (usually by reducing his or her health to 0) and the players win. There is no distinction or ranking for the Heroes. Either they all win or they all lose as a group.


The Theme:

Sentinels of the Multiverse does a good job of creating a superhero universe. Although back stories are included for each of the Heroes and Villains, the theme really comes from the collective consciousness that popular superheroes have installed into our culture. There is no problem with drawing upon this, because we all know and love the Marvel and DC heroes. However, when I introduce the game to new players, I don't offer them Hero options by saying, "Do you want to play Bunker, who is really Lt. Tyler Vance who wears a suit created from the government's Ironclad Projet, or would you rather play Tachyon, who is really Dr. Meredith Stinson the physicist who gained her powers working on the Particle Yield Enhancing Wavelength?" No. Instead I'll say, "Do you want to play Bunker, he's kind of like Iron Man, or would you rather play Tachyon, who is sort of like the Flash?"

So in that way, the universe in Sentinels is really just an approximation of all of the comic book heroes and tropes.

Like Superman? Well Legacy flies around with super strength and fights for truth and justice.

Would you rather play a rich socialite whose tragic past has caused them to focus their fortune on fighting crime and becoming a super detective? Well, the IP for Batman would cost an arm and a leg, but the Wraith fits the bill fine.

Are you a Punisher fan? Well, Expatriette may have breasts, but she also has the firepower to rival Frank Castle and is only missing her own version of Chip.

Are you a big fan of secret-identity possessing janitors who are masters of Kung-Fu? Well, Hong Kong Phooey may be out, but Mr. Fixer will be your number one super guy.

So, yes, while it is set in its own universe, the superhero collective bleeds through well enough and you get the fulfill your childhood fantasies of seeing the (sort-of) Submariner and (a rough equivalent of) the Flash joining forces with (a not exactly) Superman and (an equivalency of) Iron Man battling (a very similar to) Thanos in the (very much like) Savage Land.

The only thing that takes away from the narrative, however, is the playing of the decks. It seems a little odd that the greatest superheroes are gradually building their powers and strength through the game. Bunker (Iron Man) doesn't begin with a weapon and needs to wait to draw and play one before he can use its power. So, in that sense, the game loses some narrative as you are left wondering my Bunker didn't show up with his cannons ready to fire. But then again, I also come from an era of yelling at the screen as a kid of wondering why the hell they didn't just form Voltron and draw the goddamned Blazing Sword right from the start or why the hell they didn't just shoot the Wave Motion Gun the moment the threat started. So I suppose it's thematic in the sense of returning my childhood frustration as Bunker doesn't shoot his cannons at the bad guys until half-way through the battle when you goddamned know it's what he should be doing from the start.


Learning the Game:


Not included in the game: An easy way of tracking health. These are croquet loop counters, purchased on Etsy. 


If you have the option of choosing between the regular version of the game and the "Enhanced Edition", go for the Enhanced. This game is fiddly. Very fiddly, as you have to track the damage of heroes, the villain and sometimes up to six or ten minions all at once. The original edition of the game didn't have any of this. Fortunately, I come from a gaming-heavy house, so we had a lot of dice to use as facings for how much health each card had. But I pity the poor player who didn't have such resources. Honestly, the first edition of Sentinels is the perfect example of the problems with Kickstarter. It is a great game and idea, but going through a traditional publishing house, the problems with the game would have been caught and it wouldn't have been released in its initial form. The original edition didn't scale and you had to track everything by hand.

By contrast, the Enhanced Edition scales the Villain characters better and also gives a lot of tokens to track the health. It's still fiddly as hell, but at least you're not expected to record everything with pen and paper.

Other than that, the game play is really easy and simple. Each hero has a different deck and some of them are a lot more straightforward than others. So it ends up being a game about learning the individual decks. If you grab Legacy, you won't be dealing massive damage. You are a support and damage mitigation. If you're playing Tachyon, you'll learn that you want to get a lot of your cards quickly into your discard pile to help her best attack effects.

Probably the most complicated part of the game (and adds to the fiddlyness) is trying to go through all of the end of turn abilities for each of the villain's cards that are out there. When you are looking at a half-dozen minions or effects, it can feel like a long slog of going through everything and figuring out all of the effect modifiers.

Even with the Enhanced Edition, the game is not streamlined. If you love elegance in games, it is not here. You will miss effects that were supposed to be played or triggered. It's still a lot of fun and full of flavor, but I would never argue that this is a good game design because of that.


The Components:


The Enhanced Edition box also includes dividers and room for the expansions.



A LOT of tokens and bit... But still not enough.




Hero Cards for Ra and Tachyon. Each shows their starting Power that can be used. Character cards
look like comic book covers with the issue number being that character's health. 





The artwork isn't up to par with modern comics, but it has a charm to it.




And what would a comic book style game be without having promo cards that are difficult to get?



As I mentioned above, ignore the first edition of the game and grab the Enhanced Edition. The tokens are invaluable and save you from scrounging up every single d8 and d10 and d12 you've ever owned to try to track things.

The card quality is good. The artwork is a little cheesy and it doesn't feel like modern comic book art. Instead it has an amateurish feel, but ultimately reminds me of Silver Age comic book artwork. However, each card has its own artwork on it and after an original shrug at its quality, it grows on you and you understand the charm that it has. For me, who has followed the game from its Kickstarter release and through all of its expansions, upgrading the artwork now wouldn't feel right. It would be like Glory to Rome. It's kind of hip to bash the art, but when a new version comes out with brand new sleeker art, you realize how much of the charm of it was really in that original art.

The Enhanced Edition also comes with tokens to track increased and decreased damage modifiers, resistance types and immunities as well as a bunch of other things. There are a lot of tokens. However, there is so much to potentially track that it still isn't quite enough.

The Enhanced Edition comes a long way to improving the components, the playability, the scaling and the tracking of everything for the game, however, it does not stop it from being a very fiddly game.


Playing the Game:

Cooperative games often end up feeling like puzzles where a single optimal move needs to be done each turn in order to "solve" the game most efficiently. Sentinels, however, escapes that feel. Part of this is because each player has their own individualized decks that each play very differently, so you minimize the alpha-player syndrome that can often occur in a cooperative game.

Also, each player is optimizing their own hero deck's engine while trying to still be helpful each turn. Tachyon needs to burn through her deck because she had cards that benefit from more "Burst" cards in her trash. The Wraith needs to get out as much of her Equipment as soon as possible, while Ra's attack cards are much more valuable if he can first get out his Staff and other damage modifiers that he has. This actually helps to break the overall puzzle feel. It isn't quite immersion in a narrative, but as you learn the decks you realize how certain cards chain off of one another's modifiers. However, you ultimately do feel like a team working together. You have individual decks and abilities that you are managing, but you need to work as a team. Is Legacy going to use his "Heroic Interception" to mitigate damage this round, or is Tachyon ready to use her "Hypersonic Assault" to stop the damage. You feel like a team working together.

But ultimately, the game is fun. It is fun to be a superhero working as part of a team to battle a supervillain in some fantastic location. And as much as you have to track and move tokens and monitor when abilities trigger, it is fun to see it all happen and be a part of it.


Scalability:

Although the game is listed as playing from 2-5 players, it really plays from 3-5 players. If two players are playing, each should play controlling two characters. For experienced players, it isn't that difficult, but especially for new players, it means managing two separate decks and hands of cards and tracking all of the effects of each hero.

There is a bit of a sweet spot for the game. It probably plays best with four heroes, however, each of the villains have a different difficulty and as such, some are better suited for smaller groups of three heroes to fight, while others are more likely beat if you have a full table of 5 heroes battling them. With the Enchanced Edition, the villains all scale (such as they will do X-2 damage, where X=the number of Heroes). Still, the number of Heroes as well as the specific hero choices will make a big difference in how well the group fares. A group of five support and versatility characters, such as Legacy, Mr. Fixer, the Argent Adept, Visionary and Wraith may not do as well as a group of three heavy hitters such as Haka, Ra and Tempest.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She likes cooperative games. Don't get me wrong, she's subtlety cutthroat in competition, but there is a special place in her heart for cooperative games. That being said, she adores this game. No one knows Tachyon's deck better than my wife and she'll default to that character whenever we play. We will play the game two player and each control two heroes. This means she gets to play with a bit of variety and try something new, while at the same time keeping her core strategies with Tachyon well honed.

But she loves this game and it is one of her all-time favorites. Despite the fiddlyness and problems with it, I happen to like it as well, so it has made it to our table quite often and she'll always take the opportunity to suggest that we play it when we get together with our gaming group to the point where her suggesting it has become kind of a joke.

However, it had made things rather easy for me. Her birthday is coming up in February and normally, a husband should be worried about dinner reservations, flowers and other sentimental accruements. For me, should I fail to set up all of these, I know I can always just grab some candles at the last minute and offer to play Sentinels by candlelight and I'll be fine, because this time, it's me sweetly suggesting it instead of waiting for her to suggest it.

I just better let her play Tachyon, otherwise no sex for me.


The Pros:

*Great themed game that benefits from the popular comic book collective consciousness.
*Easy to bring new players into the theme by bringing up the hero equivalencies.
*Super hero theme is big right now, and it is fun to be an individual hero looking at your hand of cards to try to do the best you can to aid your allies.
*Good quality of cards and components.
*Dynamic artwork through all of the cards.
*The fun of the game shows through, making the fiddlyness and tracking worth the effort.
*Enhanced Edition makes huge steps to correct some of the errors of the first edition.
*Each Hero plays different with different strategies.
* A lot of versatility in play, as different combinations of Heroes can fight different Heroes in different Locations and you see the synergies that can ignite between each of them.
*Environment Deck is a stroke of genius to make the location you are fighting seem more dynamic and give other dangers to react to.
*Expansions are very accessible and add more variety without complicating and adding more bloat to simple rules.


The Cons:

*Charm in the artwork will not be appreciated by all.
*A more traditional release through an established publisher would have probably streamlined some of the tracking and rules, especially from the initial release.
*Hero types should be classified (Attack, support, versatility) so that new players wouldn't end up with a role that they didn't expect (Nothing can turn a first time player's experience sour more than thinking that they are playing a brutish man of steel only to find out that he's essentially the guy who takes the bullet shots while everyone else bashes the bad guy).
*A lot to track and remember, even with all of the tokens in the Enhanced Edition.
*The over-arching fiddlyness of the game adds a lot of complexity to an otherwise very easy to learn game.
*None of the Heroes carries around a shield to give me the approximation I am really craving. Come on, everyone would love Second Lieutenant USA.


Overall:

Sentinels of the Multiverse is my guilty secret. I'm someone who plays a lot of game and really likes to delve into game design and understand mechanics. I see the flaws in Sentinel's design and the awkward bloat that is added by tracking everything from when things attack to how much damage is dealt after each modifier. However, despite all of these problems, I have a lot of fun whenever I sit down to play it. The game is challenging and once you are familiar with the decks, you can adjust the difficulty just by the set up choices you make (Want to have your ass kicked? Try Akash'buta in Insula Primalis.). If you are looking for an elegant design that refines game mechanics to its height, look elsewhere. However, if you don't mind moving tokens around and want to have a rowdy fun time with some friends pretending that you're superheroes as you bash on some bad guys, then this is the perfect game.


8/10

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