Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comic books are produced with the hope they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my weekly column about all those things and more.
There’s a good chance that while you’re reading this, I’m elbow-deep in D20s and card sleeves at the 36th Council of Five Nations; a relatively small but awesome gaming con in Schenectady, New York. So far, Extra Medium has focused exclusively on comics adapted to film and television, but for a while now I’ve wanted to branch out. Since I’m busy gaming, I figured what better time to start than now?
Last year around the same time, two new deck-building games hit stores: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game and the DC Comics Deck-Building Game.
For those unfamiliar with deck builders, the name pretty much says it all. Your goal in a deck builder is to build a better deck than the other players. Usually each player starts out with some low value cards which they can use to purchase better cards. Generally when you spend cards, you discard them and eventually all of your cards – what you spent and what you bought – go back into your deck. Each card you buy does something different, and you want to review what each purchasable card does so you can find the best combinations. One of the challenges is usually to find a way to either minimize or get rid of those starter cards so the sweet combos come out quicker.
The first two hugely successful deck builders – Dominion and Thunderstone, both of which have spawned a bunch of expansions – debuted in the late 00s. Since then deck builders have exploded. If there’s a possible theme, it has a deck-building game to go along with it.
I was pleasantly surprised when DC and Marvel’s respective deck builders came out that they were not only both great games, but they’re different in almost every way. They’re both deck builders, they’re both based on major publishers’ super-hero comics, and that’s where the similarities end.
So let’s compare the games and at the end I’ll tell you which one is my favorite and why.
DC COMICS DECK-BUILDING GAME from Cryptozoic Entertainment
Among my gaming friends, I’m not the most adaptable. A lot of them can jump feet first into a new game and figure out the optimal strategy by the end of Round 1. On the other hand, usually right after the third time I’ve played a game, I start figuring out the rules.
Learning to play DC’s deck builder was easy, even for a moron like me. Everything is about the value of Power. Most cards have a Power value, and that value governs everything in the game.
You begin by randomly giving everyone one of the oversized super-hero cards. You can potentially be any one of the Justice League heroes on the game cover (and make sure to either just take the Aquaman card out of the deck, or prepare to deal with some whining). Each player gains a special ability based on which hero they get, and it will probably help determine their respective strategies. If you’re Superman, you get +1 Power for every different super power card you play. If you’re Batman, you get +1 Power for every different equipment card you play.
There’s a stack of super-villain cards and your goal collectively is to empty that stack. The super-villains take anywhere between 8 and 12 Power each to take out, so you want to build a deck that can produce that much power in a single round. When you take out a super-villain card, it goes into your discard pile and later gets folded into your deck.
Once the super-villain stack is empty, the game is over. With the exception of your starter cards, each of your cards has a Victory Point value (including Weakness cards, which have a negative value and take away from your points). Whoever has the most Victory Points at the end of the game wins. The super-villain cards have high values (between 4 and 6), and if one player gets a significant majority of super-villain cards, there’s a good chance they’ll win.
DC Comics Deck-Building Game‘s first expansion is due out by the end of 2013. It’s called DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite, and supposedly you can play it as a standalone or you can mix the cards in with the original game and use it as an expansion.
LEGENDARY from Upper Deck
Marvel’s deck builder isn’t quite so easy to learn, but it isn’t particularly complex either.
Legendary is designed to be different every time you play it. Each game you randomize who the main villain (or Mastermind) will be, which heroes will be facing him, and what scenario (or Scheme) the Mastermind will be putting the heroes through. Unlike DC’s game, Legendary is cooperative. The players are all working together to defeat the Mastermind, though there is still a competitive element. As long as the heroes win, one player is chosen as winner based on, like DC’s deck builder, Victory Points. If the Mastermind wins, however, all the players lose.
Unlike the DC deck builder, players are not assigned individual heroes. With the release of the Legendary‘s first expansion – Legendary: Dark City – there are 32 different heroes in the game (and two of them are Wolverine: no, really), each with 14 different cards (and by the end of October, Legendary: Fantastic Four will be released, and that will add 5 heroes to the roster: all 4 original FF members, plus Silver Surfer). At the beginning of the game you randomly choose which heroes will be involved. There will be anywhere from 3 to 6 different heroes based on the number of players and potentially the Scheme (there are a couple of Schemes, for example, that demand you use 6 heroes no matter how many players there are). Legendary comes not only with cards, but with a board. Your chosen heroes are folded into a Hero Deck that sits next to the HQ, at the bottom of the board. Five cards from the Hero Deck are always face-up in the HQ and available for purchase.
Above the Hero Deck is the Villain Deck. In the Villain Deck you’ll put randomly chosen Villain Groups (e.g. Horsemen of Apocalypse, Skrulls, Enemies of Asgard, Masters of Evil), randomly chosen Henchmen (e.g. Savage Land Mutates, Doombots), Master Strike cards (cards which cause something bad to happen, and this is always dependent on which Mastermind you’re fighting), Scheme Twist cards (cards that cause something really bad to happen, dependent on which Scheme is being played), usually Bystander cards (innocent bystanders which are usually kidnapped by villains when they come out of the Villain Deck, though in some schemes the Bystanders represent something different), and depending on the Scheme there could be certain hero cards folded into the Villain Deck (e.g. in the “Secret Invasion of the Skrull Shapeshifters” Scheme, 12 random heroes are folded into the Villain Deck and act as Skrull villains disguised as heroes when they come out). The Villain Deck is placed next to the city in the middle of the board. Each round begins with a card from the Villain Deck being flipped over. When those cards are villains, they keep pushing to the left into different city squares. When a villain card leaves the fifth and final city square, they are considered Escaped, and usually bad things happen.The heroes’ goal is always the same. To the left of the city squares you place the Mastermind cards. In order to defeat the Mastermind, you have to fight him four times, and you have to do it before the Mastermind achieves his victory conditions. With one exception, the victory condition is always different and is dictated by the Scheme (that one exception is the Mastermind Apocalypse, who has the extra victory condition that if each villain from the Horsemen of Apocalypse Villain Group escapes, Apocalypse wins no matter what the Scheme). For example, in the “Unleash the Power of the Cosmic Cube” Scheme, if 8 Scheme Twists come out of the Villain Deck before the heroes can fight the Mastermind 4 times, the Mastermind wins.
Some cards have attack values, represented by claw marks. Others have purchasing values, represented by stars. And some, particularly since the addition of some new rules in the Dark City expansion, have both. In order to defeat the Mastermind or any of the villains trying to escape the city, you have to have enough attack value to take those cards. The Mastermind cards usually have the highest health value, anywhere between 7 and 12 (and with the upcoming Fantastic Four expansion, we’ll have Galactus with a whopping 20 health).
While the hero cards you purchase from the HQ go into your discard pile and eventually your deck, the Villain, Mastermind, and Bystander cards you acquire go into a separate Victory Pile. At the end of the game, assuming you survived the machinations of your particular Big Bad, you count up your victory points exclusively from the Victory Pile.
That’s Legendary, the nutshell version.
AND THE WINNER IS…?????
Legendary, and I’ll tell you why.
1. PERSONAL PREFERENCE
I love DC Comics. I mean, not lately, to be honest, but some of the best comics I’ve ever read were from DC. Still, I grew up on Marvel. So for me, all other things being equal, between a great Marvel game and a great DC game, I’m going to choose Marvel.
I’m also a sucker for cooperative games. The great, frustrating cooperative board game Shadows Over Camelot was one of the first board games I knew I had to buy as soon as I got the chance. Call me a communist if you must, but I’d rather work together against the game than alone against the other players. Because when the game beats me, it’s not going to laugh in my face and do a douchey victory dance.
Finally, being a sad, isolated man-child, I love it when board games offer Solo Play rules, which Legendary does and its DC counterpart does not. I’ve played Legendary solo so many times in fact, that when I finally do play it with a group, I get pretty damn impatient waiting for my turn.
No matter what else you can or can’t say about Legendary, it’s clear designer Devin Low worked hard to create the feeling that you, the player, are in fact working against the machinations of Magneto, Mephisto, or the Kingpin. There is a sense of urgency in Legendary that DC’s deck builder just doesn’t have. You could take all the time in the world to play the DC Comics Deck-Building Game and it wouldn’t matter. But with Legendary, time is working against you, just as it would for the Avengers or X-Men in any one of their adventures.
While it’s a good, solid, fun, and extremely accessible game, the DC Comics Deck-Building Game makes absolutely no sense thematically. You’re not just trying to capture super-villains, you’re trying to do it better than your teammates, and in fact you’re actively working against your teammates’ attempts at heroism. I love the irony that while – unlike in Legendary – players are supposed to be playing as specific heroes in the DC deck builder – again unlike in Legendary – they aren’t doing anything those heroes would actually do. When you’re playing as Batman and use a Scarecrow card to hurt your teammates, sure that could translate into a pretty funny story, but it probably just wouldn’t happen.
3. THE NAMES
DC Comics Deck-Building Game? Really? You couldn’t try a little harder than that?
Now, in fairness, I will say there is one huge thing that the DC deck builder has over Legendary: set up and clean up. The DC Comics Deck-Building Game cleans up fairly quick. The box insert has a spot for the oversized super-hero cards, a spot for the main deck, and then just 5 more slots for different types of cards.
Legendary is a freaking monster in comparison. There are 32 hero card sets, 9 Masterminds, 13 Villain Groups, 6 Henchmen, Bystanders, Master Strikes, Schemes, Scheme Twists, Shield Officers, Shield Agents, Shield Troopers, Wounds, yadda yadda yadda. And again, keep in mind the upcoming Legendary: Fantastic Four expansion will add 100 cards to an already massive card count. Of course, you don’t use each card every game, but you get the picture. At the end of each game you’re separating each player’s individual deck and victory pile, the Hero Deck, the Villain Deck, the Escaped villains and anything in the KO pile (trashed cards) and HQ. Put 15 minutes or so in your schedule.
I also want to reiterate that while I enjoy Legendary much more than the DC Comics Deck-Building Game (in fact Legendary is easily one of my 5 top favorite games as far as card/board games are concerned), they are both great games and are worth checking out.
I’ll end with some free advice to Legendary developers Upper Deck. Hey guys! I’ve got a great promotion idea for you. Convince Marvel to get a bunch of their writers to sit down and play Legendary, randomize everything, and then write a comic based on the game they just played. Watch Jonathan Hickman’s head explode as he tries to figure out how to explain why Galactus, the Skrulls, and a squad of doombots are trying to rob a bank. EXCELSIOR!