So I am what can charitably be called a Comic book enthusiast. Other less charitable terms are available but suffice to say I feel pretty spoilt in these days of cinematic universes and big budget multi-season TV blockbusters. And the Boardgame hobby has been similarly blessed (or “saturated”, depending on your point of view), with a plethora of Superhero-themed games available. Even a self-confessed comic fan such as myself would struggle to argue that we needed another one. And yet earlier this year, with only a quick guilty glance at my already groaning shelves, I eagerly pre-ordered Wizkid’s Marvel: Age of Heroes, and prepared for the arrival of the latest Marvel New Kid on the Block (although Marvel D.A.G.G.E.R has recently usurped this title, Fact fans) with nervous anticipation.
But with so much Super Heroic competition a game needs to do something different to stand out from the pack and offer something new. And thankfully, Marvel Age of Heroes manages to do this with some help from an old boardgame friend…
Most boardgames set in the Marvel Universe tend to be all out brawlers (often featuring miniatures), deck management games or a combination of both. The focus is firmly on replicating the feel of combat heavy action set pieces of Superheroes films and comics. Games such as the Unmatched series, Marvel United and Marvel Champions are different systems but generally involve beating the stuffing out of each other or a super villain common enemy. Using cards or dice to simulate special powers and build combos, the key is to wear the bad guys down while avoiding taking too much damage in the process. Age of Heroes does away with most of this and offers a more strategic challenge for comic book fans. Here, players are not concerned with taking damage nor whether villains succeed as these are not part of the game. Age of Heroes is purely concerned with producing, gathering and using resources as efficiently as possible in order to rack up more points than your opponents by the time the last villain inevitably falls. This gives the game a completely different emphasis and experience to other Marvel games. Age of Heroes is a basically a traditional worker placement Eurogame with a Super Hero theme and that makes it standout in an otherwise over-crowded field.
Mutants Of Waterdeep
In Marvel: Age of Heroes, 2-5 players take control of a duo of X-men familiar to anyone who watched the nineties tv show or read the comics. Ostensibly, the aim is to attack and defeat increasingly tough villains from the X-Men’s rogues gallery and amass enough points to win the game. In reality, it isn’t really a fight at all, as the villains can’t hit back. The real battle is over who gets to the juiciest worker placement spots first. In addition to placing their pawns, players will compete to obtain and play cards onto the board, known as recruiting. The majority of these cards, are either “Allies” or “Team Up” cards and each will have more powerful worker placement spots on them. Hence as the game progresses there are more spots available for players to use. However, availability on the game board for cards to be played to are limited and once the cards are laid they will usually stay for the remainder of the game. Once they are all taken up, no more of these cards can be played. In addition, every time a player visits a card laid down by another player, the owner gets a recruiter bonus. If the idea of laying down new worker places and gathering resources to complete missions sounds at all familiar to you, that’s because Marvel Age of Heroes is designed by Rodney Thompson and is basically a reimagining of his classic worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep. And if you haven’t played that, then you really should- trust me it’s a classic for a reason.
Not So Easy Jet
Just as in Lords of Waterdeep, the key to success in this game is in building a successful engine for gathering resources by “recruiting” the right cards and ensuring you get to activate them before other players. There are two phases in the game represented by different areas of the board: the Institute phase, where players will gather resources, play cards and try to wrestle initiative from each other; and the Mission phase, where players go to use their resources to damage villains and gather victory points. In Age of Heroes there are randomly selected villain cards with worker spaces offering different types of damage in exchange for points. Each type of damage costs varying amounts of the three coloured resources and can only be completed once. When all of the damage places have been claimed on a villain card, it’s replaced by another, trickier customer until the main “boss” is out and defeated. However in order to access the Mission section of the board or the villain tiles, players need to allocate their pawns to spaces on the X-Jet. Spaces on the jet are in first come first serve order and are limited, so players who want to get the points need to allocate here early. As with Waterdeep, there is always a difficult balance to strike in choosing which actions to take and this represents the main puzzle in the game. With a limited number of pawns, players must decide carefully when to play their cards and increase options in future turns; when to visit the institute to gain resources or place on the X-Jet ready for a mission to get the points. Head for the jet too early and you probably won’t have the resources to collect the big points; too late and you risk all best damage spaces being taken and bigger points opportunities gone. Age of Heroes does lack a little something in this aspect of the game and is a rare example of the theme not sitting right with the mechanisms as the villains in the game are entirely inert with no way to interfere or interact with the players at all. Basically, the X-Jet acts as a queueing system where superheroes line up to take turns punching completely defenceless bad guys until they fall over. It isn’t very fair, when you think about it, but it is quite satisfying. It just lacks any sense of peril or urgency which you would expect from tackling big dangerous villains such as Apocalypse or Magneto, and that’s a shame.
So place new worker spaces, gather resources, complete quests for points- so far so Waterdeep. So what makes Age of Heroes different? Well, quite a bit actually.
Firstly, one of the criticisms of Lords of Waterdeep is that the Dungeons and Dragons theme is somewhat pasted on. In Age of Heroes, the comic book feel is not just skin deep. A Player’s choice of heroes is important as there is some interesting asymmetry between the different X-Men teams. Depending on which side of the player boards you choose (Blue or Gold- another nice nod to the comics) the characters have different priorities, and a different feel right from the start. Most importantly, all players have access to evolution cards, which they can activate through the game to give additional powers as they progress. These abilities can guide the player’s playstyle and help to set objectives through the game, although they are subtle enough to still offer the players a choice in the matter. For example, a player using Storm and Forge team will notice that their Evolution cards focus on gaining and using Student pawns-basically temporary action pawns which are returned to the supply after one use- and with the right combination of evolution and recruited cards, a player could build a very successful points engine based around these. Or they can choose to ignore them completely and just go for resources and villains if that is what feels more effective or fun. What is cool is that the special powers are in keeping with the characters abilities and personalities in the comics. It feels right that Storm, at one time a headmistress of Xavier’s school, should concentrate on gathering students. And it makes sense that Kitty Pride, who’s comic book power is becoming insubstantial, has an evolution card which lets her move on to occupied action spaces. It’s smart, adds variety and shows a love for the source material that is always appreciated.
Another element that works well thematically is the Xavier Protocol cards. These come in three flavours: Allies, Team Ups and Events. Allies tend to be played in the Institute area and offer spaces that give resources, small points bonuses, extra students or occasionally other more unusual effects. Team Up cards are placed in the Mission area of the board and offer different, and often more efficient, ways to damage enemies than those on the Villain cards. Finally, the Event cards as you would expect are situational in nature and will usually allow players to break the rules as a one off effect. They introduce an element of randomness and gameplay twists which are welcome in what is an otherwise straightforward worker placement game. In some ways these replace the Waterdeep’s Intrigue cards. Those tended to be “take that” effects which would rob another player of resources or operate in some underhand way and, as with most such mechanisms, tended to divide players. The vent cards, by comparison are better as, apart from a small number of cards dealt at the beginning of the game, they will be generally be available for all to see in an available market at the top of the board. While players can choose to take random and therefore secret cards form the deck it is rarely the case one would want to. This means that while the events can be very influential on the game state and impact on other players, it is rarely something that you can’t see coming. In my opinion Age of Heroes is the much better system. Event effects tend to benefit the player rather than penalising opponents. The aim to encourage and reward smart tactical play and encourage players to find interesting combos and synergies as a reward rather than pull down your opponents and that is just a better game experience for me as well as being more thematic- you are, after all, Teammates!
Marvel Age of Heroes delivers on many fronts, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any issues and unfortunately these take the shine off an otherwise well-designed game.
Firstly, and of lesser importance, is that title is a little misleading. This game is called Marvel Age of Heroes which would lead you to believe that it is across the Marvel Universe. Yet all of the characters in the game are heroes and villains from the X-Men comics. Not a single cameo from Avengers, Spiderman or other Marvel franchise big hitters. Now this could mean it is set up for expansions to take the game in other directions, however the board itself is entirely based around the Xavier school so an add-on with Tony Stark or the Fantastic Four would likely need a new board to make thematic sense. Personally, this isn’t a huge issue- I’m a fan of the X-men and love how much time has clearly gone into research into their background- but a casual fan who has seen the Marvel name and is expecting a game that is a little less Uncanny and a bit more Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be sorely disappointed.
My second minor quibble with Age of Heroes is that it feels as thought there ought to be a more cooperative or semi-cooperative nature to the game. Thematically the X-men are a team and while they are rivals, they are fighting for a common goal. But this just doesn’t come across in the game at all as while you are all trying to defeat villains, the way in which this is done is purely competitive with no sense of shared responsibility or risk. It just feels like an opportunity lost, given the theme, not to make the game semi-cooperative and let players juggle with the additional puzzle of balancing individual versus team objectives.
My third issue is a more fundamental concern and biggest barrier to getting the game to the table in future and that is game length. Marvel Age of Heroes comes with three different scenarios in the box with a whole array of different villains who can be swapped in and out. Each scenario adds slightly different elements to the game play and while this adds variety and replay value, fundamentally the game play is the same. And the fact is, no matter which scenario you choose, every one of them takes too long to play out.
The game box suggests a play time of 60-90 minutes which is, to my mind, laughably optimistic. I have struggled to get games to finish in under two and a half hours and that is with only two or three players. At higher player counts, it could easily be an hour longer. If players are new or given to analysis paralysis it will be more. While I have no objection to playing a game for that long if the game warrants it and the decisions and depth are there, Age of Heroes is just not that game. Fundamentally it is a light experience with some interesting interplay and simple strategies to unlock and would frankly be a great game if it played at the promised ninety minutes. Unfortunately, as it is, it really starts to drag well before the end is in sight as players are repeating the same actions to grind out resources in order to damage different villains until the final Big bad is defeated.
Part of the issue is that there is no sense of peril or risk when playing the game. Because the villains are static targets there is no scenario where they won’t be defeated- the only question is when it will happen and no reward for doing this more quickly. This is a game that would desperately benefit from some kind of in-game timer, one which focuses the players around defeating the villains before their plans are fully enacted, or alternatively, providing different end game conditions to enable players to hasten the ending if certain conditions are met. As it stands, there is nothing to stop players from building a points engine that doesn’t involve damaging villains and then just farming it turn after turn while everyone else tries desperately to defeat the villains.
In fairness, it is clear the designers of the game have recognised this issue as the first rules errata they released contains several suggested optional changes to hasten the end of games and reduce the length of the first scenario. However even with this change, my game with five players still clocked in at about 3 hours including the time taken to teach the game. It is a shame as it turns what should be an evening of light worker placement fun into something of a slog. In future games, I am considering house ruling to end the game at an agreed turn limit, with a loss for everyone declared if the main villain isn’t defeated by this point. It isn’t a perfect solution but should at least ensure everyone is at least partly concentrating on defeating the main villain and moving the game along.
Not The Best At What It Does…But What It Does Is Very Nice
Perhaps the above criticism seems fairly damning, and if you are set on a game that will play at all counts in the stated time, then it could be. But I think it is a testament to everything the game got right that I still want to play Age of Heroes, that I want to come up with house rules (something I normally steer well clear of) just so I get to have another crack at it. The truth is, there is so much to love about the game. The production and components is frankly excellent. The player pawns are especially cure, being little acrylic standees with a front and back to the characters. Totally unnecessary touch but appreciated. The rest of the game is similarly high quality- the card stock is good, the art on the cards has a really unique style which is reminiscent of classic silver age comics but with many of the more modern characters depicted. Even the board design is well thought out, with a longer thinner design to allow for player boards and villain tiles on an average dinner table.
And there is no doubt about it, for two thirds of its time, Marvel Age of Heroes is as engrossing and thoughtful as a worker placement game can get. It just needs to be tightened a little.
It is also worth noting that as I have only played a few times, this is a problem that could diminish was I become more familiar with the game, but in honesty I don’t think so. As it is, I think Marvel Age of Heroes is a good game, very pretty but unspectacular and a little flawed. That being said, if you have an X-man/ worker placement fan in your life I can guarantee they will get a kick out of this game and would recommend without hesitation. For anyone else, I am just not sure that the theme and production quality is enough to put it ahead of other games, including it’s famous predecessor.