There are two deck-building games out built around the major comic book franchises: DC and Marvel. I’ve had the chance to play them both, so want to share how they stand up against each other. For this comparison, I’m playing the core Marvel Legendary game (Amazon) and the upcoming stand-alone Heroes Unite (Amazon) expansion to the DC Comics deck-building game.
One of the first points of difference is the basic scenario being played out, which leads to slightly different thematic feels for each game. In both games, there are two basic actions in play: acquiring heroes and defeating villains. The games are very different in their approach to this, however, and each approach has different benefits and drawbacks.
In Marvel Legendary, you are playing SHIELD. Each game has a Mastermind and a Scheme (randomly selected each time) that can alter the game set-up and victory conditions. If the Scheme succeeds and Evil Wins, then all players lose the game, so there is a strategic balance between cooperating and competing that I really enjoy (especially when playing with my son), and also between buying Hero cards (which go into your deck) and defeating Villain cards (which don’t go into the deck, but instead form their own “Victory Pile” for scoring later).
There are two decks in the game. The Hero Deck consists of 70 cards – 14 cards for each of 5 different randomly-selected Heroes – and you build your deck by buying these cards, which grant different powers and abilities. The Villain deck consists of groups of Villains, Henchmen, Bystander cards, Scheme Twists, and Master Strike cards. The exact composition of the Villain Deck is dictated by the Mastermind and Scheme for a given game, so the villain deck will be different for each game. In one game your villain might consist of the Brotherhood (Sabertooth, Mystique, Blob, and so on) and Spider-villains working with a gang of Doombot henchmen and the Hand, and the next it might be Hydra and the Asgardian villains joining forces with Sentinels and Savage Land Mutates, with nary a Doombot in sight. The result of this design is that each game feels to me much more story-driven than most other games of this type.
In Heroes Unite, you begin the game by selecting a specific hero to play, represented by a set of oversized cards. The Hero grants different abilities for use throughout the game. For example, Shazam can buy a card directly off the top of the deck (without knowing what it is, so it’s a bit of a gamble) while Nightwing gets bonuses for playing Equipment cards. One drawback to the expansion is that the bulk of top-tier heroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, etc. – were included in the original game, so in this expansion you’re getting Hawkman, Batgirl, Nightwing, Shazam, and so on. Perfectly fine heroes, but definitely the second stringers. (One thing that surprises me is that none of the non-Hal Jordan Green Lanterns were chosen for characters in this expansion. The cards include Power Rings as equipment, Oa as a location, Kyle Rayner as a Hero card, and there are several Lantern-based villains. Why they didn’t just make Kyle one of the characters I’m not sure.)
The rest of the set-up is basically identical in all Heroes Unite games, which is convenient (less card sorting at the beginning and end of the game), but also less dramatic. Both the heroic cards and the Villains you defeat go into your deck and gives you benefits throughout the game. (It’s essentially an identical mechanic to the LOTR: The Two Towers deck-building game, but without the One Ring or the Wall Deck.)
In other words, instead of a specific mission being handled by a specific group of heroes, the basic game-play in the DC Comics deck-building game is to simply acquire Heroes, Super Powers, Equipment, and so on, and to defeat Villains, without any sort of “plot” to the game beyond that. The deck from which you do this is identical each time and contains a mix of basically all of the cards in the game (although, as I’ll get to later, there are some possible variations).
Starting Deck Composition:
A deck-building game begins with each player having a common starter deck and then building a deck throughout the course of the game by buying cards from a central deck.
Marvel Legendary uses has cards with two traits: Recruit and Attack. Recruit is used to buy beneficial cards, while the Attack trait is used to defeat Villains. The Marvel starting deck consists of 12 Starter Cards: 8 Shield Agent cards that grant +1 Recruit and 4 Shield Trooper cards that provide +1 Attack. Each turn you begin with a hand of 6 cards.
Heroes Unite uses a single trait, Power, for buying all type of cards. The DC starting deck consists of 10 Starter cards: 7 Punch cards that grant +1 Power and 3 Vulnerability cards that are useless. Each turn you begin with a hand of 5 cards.
Heroes Unite consists of a central deck containing an assortment of Hero, Super Power, Equipment, Location, and Villain cards, which get laid out in “the Line” consisting of 5 cards. You build your deck by buying one of these cards. You can also buy a Kick Super Power card (there’s a stack of them off to the side, each giving +2 Power) or defeat the top Super-Villain (another stack, with Vandal Savage as the starting Super-Villain … this deck does change slightly from game to game, as only 7 Super-Villains are included alongside Savage, and they are chosen randomly). There’s also a stack of Weakness cards, which give you a penalty to Victory Points at the end of the game, and they are acquired by in-game effects, such as when an opponent plays the Black Lantern Corps card.
Marvel Legendary consists of two decks: a Heroes Deck containing 14 cards for each of 5 heroes and a Villain deck, which varies in composition from game to game. There are 5 Heroes out at any time, and each turn a card is flipped over from the Villain deck. This usually brings another villain into play, although it can bring a Bystander card into play (which goes under the nearest Villain card and provides extra Victory Points if you can rescue them), or it can be a Scheme Twist or Master Strike, which have different in-game effects based upon the Scheme and Masterminds in play. Some in-game effects can also cause more than one Villain card to be played off the Villain deck each turn. If there are more than Villains in play at one time, then the extra villains escape, and some of Villains (and schemes) have negative effects associated with escapes.
Marvel Legendary also comes with a pretty cool game board (shown in the picture) to play on, although you could play the game without the board if you needed to. The board also has space for Wound cards (which are typically negative, unless you have someone like Hulk or Wolverine who can eliminate them, possibly even gaining positive benefits at the same time), Bystander cards, and Shield Officer cards (+2 Recruit). There’s an unnecessarily large section of the board also devoted to tossing all of the the KO’d cards, which are eliminated from play for the remainder of the game.
Victory Conditions & Variations:
Each Scheme in Marvel Legendary contains a set of conditions in which “Evil Wins,” which means that everyone playing the game loses. This means you have to work together enough to defeat the Scheme. But there is a single victor of the game, as well, which is determined by adding up all of the Victory Points obtained by Villain cards defeated (and Bystander cards rescued) into the Victory Pile. The player with the most Victory Points wins.
The rulebook also contains a number of rule variants. There is an optional “Final Showdown” conflict against the Mastermind. And there’s a table with different options for how to scale the power level of the game to different challenge levels.
One final major benefit (from my standpoint) to Marvel Legendary is that it can be played in solo mode. In this case, the Hero deck is a little smaller, and the goal is to prevent the Evil Wins circumstances. The rules also suggest that you can keep track of combinations of Heroes and the Victory Points and try to beat your personal best, but honestly, just keeping evil from winning with a single player can be difficult enough. So even if no one is able (or willing) to play with you at a given time, you can still play the game.
The basic victory conditions for Heroes Unite are simply obtaining the highest Victory Point total among all of the cards in your deck when the game ends, which is either when all 8 Super-Villains have been defeated or when you’ve run out of cards in the main deck. In theory, this means you can win the game by not defeating a single Villain, which is a little odd … but also unlikely, because the Super-Villains are worth a fair number of points in comparison to most of the other cards in the game.
The Heroes Unite rulebook does contain some variations on the basic rules. In one variant, each player is able to start with a card related to their character in their starting deck. In another, the Super-Villains all get shuffled into the main deck, instead of being a separate deck. A third provides an option where you can “steal” Super-Villains from another player’s discard pile. These are clever-sounding variations, but just don’t have the scope of flexibility that is built into the Marvel game from the beginning.
These are expansion-driven games, and gamers are notorious for wanting to complete sets, so it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into on these.
Marvel Legendary‘s core game was built with a modular design that definitely had expansion in mind. Each hero consists of a set of 14 cards, and you combine 5 of these to form the Hero deck. The villain deck is composed of sets of Villains and Henchmen cards, along with some other card types. Expansions merely add the available options for constructing these sets. Even the box was built with this in mind, with plenty of space for new cards, and it comes with a bunch of dividers that can be used to help keep these different sets cleanly organized.
There’s been one full expansion, Legendary: Dark City (Amazon), released which adds 17 new Hero card sets, 5 new Masterminds, 6 villain groups, 2 henchman groups, 8 new Schemes, and 3 different types of special Bystanders (News Reporter, Paramedic, Radiation Scientist). This expansion basically doubles the number of cards available to form the Hero and Villain decks!
And then there’s a smaller Fantastic Four expansion (Amazon) that contains 5 heroes (the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer), 2 Masterminds (Galactus and Mole Man), 2 Villain sets, and 4 new Scheme cards. My understanding from the owner of the local gaming shop is that these smaller expansions will be the standard for Marvel Legendary, perhaps with a few of them coming out each year, but I’ve seen no official announcement of when the next one will come or what it will be. (I’d vote on Guardians of the Galaxy as a movie tie-in, but that’s purely a guess.)
Heroes Unite is the first expansion to the DC Comics Deck-Building Game (Amazon), and both games contain almost the same number of cards. Combining them, however, becomes a bit problematic. In the words of the Heroes Unite rulebook, “While you could simply shuffle all 220+ main deck cards together from the original set and this set, that would dilute a lot of the combos in both sets and be pretty darn tough to shuffle.” Instead, they recommend combining sets by splitting the cards up by card type and using three card types in each set. So, for example, you’d have a set with Equipment, Locations, and Super-Villains and another set with Heroes, Super Powers, and Villains. They have some other recommendations, but the key suggestion is this: if you own both sets, then you’ll want to play with two different sets.
One idea that occurs to me, but which I don’t see explicitly in the rules, is that you’d create the main deck from the core game and the main deck from Heroes Unite, and keep both main decks in the box (it has room for this), but would combine the Starter cards, Kick, Weakness, Character cards, and the Super-Villains all together. When you play, you’d randomly select your character card, select your Super-Villain deck, and then pick one of the main decks to play with. This seems to me far simpler than trying to re-sort the cards into different types of decks.
Honestly, part of me thinks that it would probably just be easiest to shuffle the two decks together to create one massive deck and let the synergies manifest randomly as you’re playing, and allowing whole new synergies to be discovered.
For Younger Players:
Hands down, I think that Marvel Legendary is the better game for younger players. DC Comics has always had a bit more of an edge to it, and that shows up in the graphics. As intimidating as someone like the Red Skull looks like on a card, they just don’t drip malevolence the way some of the artwork on the DC villains do. I don’t want to explain, for example, why Mr. Zsasz has tally marks carved into his flesh.
Also, despite the skimpy clothing of Emma Frost, the fact is that she’s positively a prude compared to the Starfire-related cards in the DC game. My copy of Heroes Unite arrived with a promo card to play Starfire as a character, and my wife insisted that I throw it away … and Starfire was so over-the-top skimpy in her outfit that I couldn’t argue with her! I had a health appreciation of female comic book characters as a teen, but I don’t want my 8-year-old to have premature puberty triggered while playing a card game. Starfire is still on a couple of the other cards in the game, but they’re smaller cards and she’s a bit less prominently featured, so to speak.
Marvel Legendary also has the cooperative element, which I think is definitely good to include for younger players. A parent-child relationship has enough conflict that, if you have the choice, I find cooperative games much more enjoyable with my kids. Plus the rules about how to scale the power of the game mean that it can be made a bit easier if there are young kids who are frustrated with not defeating the Evil.
All that having been said, however … my son has asked to play Heroes Unite more often since it arrived than Marvel Legendary. I don’t know if that’s just because it’s a newer game, or possibly because he’s hoping to catch a glimpse of Starfire, but he just seems to enjoy the game a bit more for whatever reason.
I liked both games tremendously. I lean a bit toward Marvel Legendary, but not enough that I would recommend anyone against the DC Comics game if that was what they wanted to get. I will probably spend the money to buy the Marvel expansions, but not to buy the original core DC core game, but this might largely be a reflection of the fact that I like Marvel comics a bit more than DC.
Regardless of which you prefer, if you’re a comic book fan who likes to game, at least one of these games should make its way into your collection.
Disclaimer: Review copy of Heroes Unite was provided by the publisher. My copy of Marvel Legendary was a Christmas gift from my awesome mother-in-law.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Expert and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.