Marvel Champions: The Rise of the Red Skull Review

The Rise of the Red Skull - FFG - $40
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Game title: The Rise of the Red Skull

Game description: The first big expansion for Marvel Champions. Comes with two heroes, five villains and schemes, and a few items to make the linked scenarios into a longer story.

Overall
3.1
  • Play (Mechanics)
  • Presentation (Art/Quality)
  • Plan (Rules)

Summary

This campaign expansion for Marvel Champions is more of a series of linked adventures similar to how the three in the core box continue an overall story. The “campaign” aspects of Marvel Champions feel lacking, perhaps constrained by decisions made during the game’s development when adapting the game engine.

Pros

  • Hawkeye and Spider-Woman!
  • More scenarios for the game!
  • A fun storyline drives the linked scenarios.

Cons

  • Just more of the same, really.
  • There doesn’t seem to be anything campaign-y about the campaign, from a gameplay experience.

Marvel Champions didn’t impress me that much once I played the game. I was very much on the hype train for this title: after the Gen Con 2019 announcement of the game – a superhero game based on the amazing Arkham Horror: The Card Game’s system – I begged folks to run by the Fantasy Flight Games booth and pick a copy up for me. (Unlike some past Gen Con show surprises debuting during their annual Inflight seminar, FFG did not have Champions ready for the summer game convention.)

The actual gameplay experience did not match my expectations as to what the game engine could have delivered; it seemed to simplify Arkham Horror TCG to a much faster playing yet much narratively lighter game. However, larger expansion boxes (first called “campaign expansions”, then “story boxes”, and now just “expansions”) were planned and I was interested to see how (and if) they addressed the campaign issue. With the first one, The Rise of the Red Skull, released, let’s dig in and see what it brings to the game line.

Immediately, I was surprised – included are two additional heroes: Hawkeye and Spider-Woman. I’m assuming the standard format for these bigger expansions is to include two heroes. Between these bigger boxes, six hero packs are planned and, with each hero coming with a pre-built deck focused on one of the four aspects (suits) of heroic cards available, that’s a total of eight heroes. This would give us two heroes per heroic type to fill out the card pool.

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Hawkeye comes with Leadership cards. Spider-Woman comes with a dual deck: Aggression and Justice.

But to the campaign! In the box are five linked scenarios, much like the three found in the core box. Each scenario centers around defeating one villain before they complete a scheme (or series of schemes). Most of the scenarios add new elements into the mix to make defeating the villain more interesting than simply preventing threat from being placed on a scheme before the heroes defeat them. The Taskmaster scenario involves rescuing captured heroes who join your fight. The Red Skull has a deck of side schemes, rather than having them drawn randomly from the encounter deck, and has game effects based on the number of side schemes still active.

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“P. E. space G. A. S. U. S.”

Unfortunately, the narrative element of the campaign exists outside the actual gameplay. The rulebook alternates between comic book-like pages and scenario setup rules, with the comics delivering the narrative that gets you to a point where the game actually begins. The first scenario involves Crossbones breaking into a secure facility, much like the Rhino scenario in the core box. The second is just a straight fight against Absorbing Man, who is running interference for the escaping villain. The third is a fight where side schemes potentially bring in bonus allies. The fourth and fifth seem to bring some sort of storytelling into the gameplay as, in the last one, we see Red Skull getting stronger as more of his evil plans start to come to fruition.

Even worse, playing with the default hero decks for the included two heroes had the adventures be defeated easily. As Hawkeye, I was always pulling enough allies to damage the villain. As Spider-Woman with a campaign card that boosted her thwart, an early played card that increased it again, and her ability to increase her stats with each card played of a different aspect, Taskmaster never had a chance to advance his scheme far enough before I could knock it down. (Taskmaster’s scheme gives the player a choice to either damage their hero one point or add one threat to a scheme. With Spider-Woman removing 4-6 threat each time she thwarted, adding more threat meant nearly nothing.)

The big Red Skull adventure was also easily managed by comboing threat reduction on the side schemes with abilities that let me draw more cards each time a side scheme goes out of play. I’m not sure if I was just lucky with the card draws or if the game is simply easier as a single-player game. I was constantly double-checking the rules to make sure I wasn’t accidentally making things too easy on myself. None of the scenarios felt tense.

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With Spider-Man removing 3 threat from a side scheme when played, almost every time he will remove all threat from one of Red Skull’s side schemes. If you get both of Spider-Woman’s Finesse cards into play or one of your double resource icons in your hand, getting Spider-Man out there is easy. Then, with Skilled Investigator in play (and the Improved Thwart Upgrade campaign card), you draw more cards. It’s a fun combo that gives Spider-Woman the keys to a steamroller.

And as a single-player game, in none of the games I’ve played from this expansion have I ever gone through the entire encounter deck. (Nor did I seem to cycle through my hero’s deck.) Villainous attacks and scheming are done by discarding cards from the encounter deck, ignoring the effects of the card and only applying a revealed modifier to the damage done. By ignoring cards, it feels like I miss out on things that make the scenarios unique. For example, the Absorbing Man has environment cards that come up in the fight that give him that environment’s trait: he could be metal this round or ice the next, constantly changing. However, due to the cycling of the cards in scheming and attacking, I only drew one different environment card while fighting him — he was the Amazing Ice Man for nearly my entire fight (and none of the “If Absorbing Man is Ice when this card is revealed, this neat effect happens” cards came up). In the Taskmaster fight, there are four side schemes with an opportunity to rescue a captured hero in the encounter deck, but there again only one came up. None of the minions in his deck came up.

(This is probably why I have only seen one Nemesis side deck be added into the encounter deck during a game. Even when that happened, none of the nemesis cards were drawn in that game.)

There is not much character growth here. Change only occurs with the addition of two cards: a single-use card gathered in an early mission and a boost card that increases one of your character’s attributes and hit points. You might have the opportunity to add a rescued heroic ally to your deck.

It’s a bit lackluster on the villain’s side, too. Items looted by a villain in the first scenario show up in later villains’ encounter decks. Time that passes in Absorbing Man’s scenario has a negative effect in a later mission. (Which, as mentioned above, was easily managed.)

There are optional rules for keeping your hit point levels at the start of a scenario the same as at the end of the previous are there (and healing up between adventures by adding more obligation cards), even though in the actual game one can just chill out with Aunt May for a while and get better while Rhino just continues to punch his way through a wall.

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And, of course, you can get all sorts of playmats featuring heroes or the villains, plus artwork used on the cards. (I just use a starfield playmat from X-Wing, which works well for up to three players.)

What I was hoping was for The Rise of the Red Skull to be something more than what we got with the Green Goblin scenario pack. While that scenario pack was a nice change from the three scenarios in the core box and delivered interesting elements to fights played in the game, The Rise of the Red Skull is content to deliver a similar experience on par with Green Goblin.

If you like the game experience of the core box, you’ll probably like these larger expansion boxes. If you’re looking for something that improves the experience, it’s not here.  

From the “Let’s Save You Money Dept”: You can totally get this as your core set. The Learn to Play and Rules Reference documents are available at the game’s product page under Rules. You’ll need also need counter tokens from some other game, but if you’re the type of gamer that would purchase this, you’ve got plenty of games with counter tokens around the house. Each hero and the villain needs a health tracker — nearly every other Fantasy Flight Games currently being sold has the two-dial health counters to keep track of health. And you’ll need to scrounge up tokens for Stunned, Confused, and Tough markers.

Want more heroes than Hawkeye and Spider-Woman? There are several individual Hero Packs available, which also increase your card pool for deckbuilding.

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2 Comments

  1. Thomas Deeny
    September 21, 2020
  2. Thomas Deeny
    September 21, 2020

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