Upper Deck’s Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game was released in 2012 and it’s been a successful product line supported by one big box expansions, two small ones and more on the way. Reviews have been mostly positive and for good reason. It’s a fun to play, easy to play deckbuilder that brings forward some of the best elements of previous games in the genre but layered with Marvel Comics characters, an appealing competitive but co-op approach and a touch of storytelling. Fans of Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and more obscure heroes like Iron Fist and Moon Knight will find a lot to like in this game.
But I’m not here to review the game. I’m already well behind the review curve on and besides that, I just picked it up in a trade and have only just started getting into it. Instead, I’m here to administer a critical beatdown in the name of good taste and aesthetics. Legendary is a visual nightmare, a trainwreck of graphic design that dashes the viewer’s eyes against tacky artwork, horrible layouts, poorly chosen typography, ill-advised effects and an overall failure to visually present a game based upon a highly visual medium.
Off the bat, there is no excuse in the world that would adequately explain why a tabletop game set in the Marvel Universe, using licensed characters and bearing the Marvel brand on each and every card, should feature such dated and tasteless artwork. Sure, this is largely a matter of personal taste and I’m admittedly much more in tune with classic Silver Age comics illustrations than anything drawn by folks like Mark Bagley, Marc Silvestri or Rob Liefeld. Sadly, the artwork skews more to those styles. But it’s not my fault if you have bad taste, and if you do then the remainder of this argument will likely be a moot point for you. Welcome to an opinion piece!
Legendary is a game licensed by a company that takes in great, modern comic book illustrations every single day for its current titles from the top names in the comics art business. But more than that, Marvel also has volumes upon volumes- decades worth- of artwork and illustrations in its library from some the masters of the form. Flip through a Marvel Comic and you’ll see medium-defining artwork by Jack Kirby, John Romita, Frank Miller, John Byrne, Frank Quitely, Walt Simonson, Jim Steranko and countless others. Flip through the cards in Marvel Legendary and you’ll see the same kind of art that you see on the cheaply licensed T-shirts you see at Wal-Mart. If you’ve ever seen a redneck in an Iron Man shirt, you’ve got a sense of how this game looks.
It’s such a missed opportunity. This game could have been a virtual gallery show of the best of Marvel Comics’ artists. Instead, every card in this game is soured by shitty art that exhibits the worst of Marvel Comics’ style. None of it looks modern, it all looks like the kind of aggressive, freakishly shiny ‘roid rage garbage that littered comics racks during the mid 1990s. You’d think that a game made in 2012 with a Marvel Comics license would have some of the great contemporary art that recent- and very popular- Hawkeye and Daredevil books for those cards. Nope. Jacked up, twenty years out of date illustrations. It’s sad that I have boxer shorts that are a better representation of Marvel Comics artwork than this game.
It’s the exact same art issue that sullied Wizkids’ Batman game- not a lick of the great Batman art that’s out there. No sir, the board game gets the exact same art that I’ve seen on dollar store Batman shampoo bottles, notebooks and party favors. And the result was a game that failed to express the visual quality of the characters and stories it was on which it was based.
Compare and contrast to the 2000AD games that Games Workshop released in the 1980s. 2000AD didn’t get some scrub “commercial artists” to crank out artwork to sell to GW to do their Judge Dredd, Block Mania and Rogue Trooper games. Instead, the art in those games- which is awesome- was executed by folks like Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. The people that actually drew the comics the games were based on. The result was a game that was not only visually successful, but also appealing to comics fans because it featured new art and a sense of authenticity.
But Marvel and Upper Deck couldn’t be bothered with making Legendary look good and it’s the same kind of artwork that you see on dollar store ephemera. It’s a cheap, careless look evidenced nowhere better than the gaudy, lazy dropshadow applied to the game’s title in a half-hearted attempt to separate the cheeseball font from the cover image. What’s more, there is massive, pervasive duplication of artwork throughout the entire product, which retails at a staggering $59.99- a good $20-$30 more than most deckbuilders sell for.
So every Wolverine card in the game has the same picture. Doesn’t matter if he’s using a healing factor or Frenzied Slash. Every villain scheme card- regardless of whether it’s robbing a bank or unleashing the power of the Cosmic Cube- has the same art, regardless if Venom is in your game or not. Every bystander card in the base set is exactly the same with no creative variation to help sell the thematic purpose of them, although in Dark City you get a couple of different ones including a very, very angry looking…news reporter. What’s more, the cardbacks are all the same when there is no reason in the world that the villain cards shouldn’t have had something different on the backs to distinguish them on the garishly ugly play board “watermarked” with an almost indistinguishable morass of Photoshop whatever.
The duplication was a big issue when the game came out and to Upper Deck’s credit, they addressed it with different shitty art for each character’s different card types in the expansions. But that doesn’t forgive what was a careless, sloppy mistake from the beginning probably inspired by a desire for cost savings rather than presenting the best-looking product possible to the consumer. There is a playability issue that results from the recycled artwork as well, which actually damages the theme.
It would be one thing if each card had a clear title and I could easily look and see what a card is called. But many cards have titles that are actually hard to read, and I’m not an grouchy old man with failing eyesight. It’s that the absolutely garbage font that they used throughout the game makes it difficult to read at a glance, let alone that it’s in a gold color against full color artwork. Whatever graphic designer (?) that Upper Deck paid to come up with this layout needs to be sacked and sent back to school. I’ve found that when playing the game, I don’t even look to see what Thor and Nick Fury are doing with their cards. I just read the text. And since the art is the same on every card, there’s no image to hang your imagination on when the text fails you.
I couldn’t help but notice that Richard Garfield’s name was in the playtesters list and the game itself is designed by Devin Low, a veteran of Magic: The Gathering development. Did neither of these guys, one of whom actually created the standard for card layout in hobby games and the other who has had a career looking at said card layout, notice that these cards look like absolute crap? We can assume, charitably, that maybe they were looking at prototype or beta cards and who knows, maybe they didn’t see final art and layout. If this were my game, I would be completely ashamed of how it looks.
How pathetic is that Marvel Comics’ standard for licensing their game to Upper Deck, a company not only with a longstanding history of sports cards but also of success with the Vs. trading card game, falls far below that of a title like Sentinels of the Multiverse? Sentinels is, by comparison, a tiny game made by a tiny company. Yet all of their no-name, made-up superheroes all have original art on their cards and their layouts and overall graphic design are both functional and appealing. You look at Sentinels and you get a sense that the people that made it really cared about the game and put a lot of heart into it. You look at Legendary- even just flipping through the rulebook with its default Arial font- and you get a sense that it’s a game that no one gave a flipping shit about.
Which is a shame, because this is Marvel Comics, True Believers! And it’s a good game, by far the best superhero game on the market today which isn’t really saying a lot since most games of that class aren’t very good, but at least this one has Spider-Man in it instead of “Bug Dude” or whatever. It’s not like a modicum of care and attention to detail would have been wasted on a garbage design, because it is worthwhile and it’s done well in the marketplace.
Whenever the issue of art, layout and aesthetics comes up in game talk, I always hear people say that they don’t really care as long as it’s “functional”. This is an ignorant statement. Perhaps in a soulless, heartless and narrativeless game like Suburbia that’s the case and it is true that a good design is a good design whether it’s illustrated by some kid’s stick figure drawings of superheroes or the hand of Kirby himself. But when a game is trying to convey an atmosphere, story and the essence of a medium that is essentially visual, it is absolutely important that it look current, look right and look good.