I liked- but most definitely did not love- Greater Than Games’ Sentinels of the Multiverse back when I first reviewed it in 2011. Less than two years on, the game has seen three major add-ons (Rook City, Infernal Relics, Shattered Timelines )and an array of character, villain, and environment micro-expansions. I actually did not realize that there was a second edition, dubbed the “Enhanced Edition” that clears up some rules issues, adds a new balancing mechanic based on the number of players, and provides much-needed status tokens. I thought it would be a great candidate for the Retroview treatment, just as the Lord of the Rings LCG was. Thanks to a charitable friend, I was able to get my hands on practically everything available for the game to date so I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks playing solo and multiplayer games to capture a sense of where I am with the game at this stage in its apparently ongoing development.
In case you don’t recall, Sentinels of the Multiverse is a superhero-themed co-op set in a proprietary but coyly familiar comic book setting. There are analogues of Superman, Batman, Thanos, Punisher, Deathstroke, Iron Man, and others but each character has a unique backstory told not only in flavor text but also in the special abilities and powers described by each of their decks of cards. Back in ’11, I thought it was unfortunate that the creators of the game didn’t license real characters but in retrospect, I actually kind of like that they’ve crafted their own comic book world, complete with chapter-and-verse dialogue references to issues that don’t really exist. However, I absolutely hate the cheap artwork that looks like someone studied the “How to Draw Manga” book instead of the Kirby drawings they should have been emulating.
The gameplay remains largely the same as I remember it. The baseline description is that The automated villain performs a couple of functions that may put minions or equipment in to play and usually there’s some kind of damage issued to the heroes. Each hero gets to play a card (generally speaking a one-shot or a permanent) and then use a power from one of their permanents. Once the heroes have gone, there’s a draw from an environment deck that sort of describes the venue where the battle is taking place. These cards can help or hinder the heroes, the villains, or both. In a very loose way, the automated opposition feels similar to the LOTR LCG but with the villains and hazard cards split into two decks. It’s also much easier, I think.
The chief problem with the game is that it’s incredibly wild. I love volatility, but given all of the different three to five player combinations of heroes and how they interface with both the villain and environment choices for the particular game, the balance is all over the place. And I’m not one to complain about balance. But it’s clear after just a few games that some heroes and groups of heroes start the game severely handicapped or even unable to win against certain villain and environment arrangements. Or the game can be a total cakewalk for the heroes. It’s not always a result of luck-of-the-draw, either.
I’m also still not particularly impressed by the core design, which relies far too heavily on +1/-1 modifiers, damage types and immunity to damage types, and other fiddly, administrative status notations. It feels old fashioned, and inevitably you are going to forget that someone should have been getting +1 to all of their damage each turn or that you were supposed to heal somebody every round. Even with the Enhanced Edition’s markers, which help immensely, I don’t think I’ve yet played a game where some card effect or status was forgotten or overlooked- even with five players at a table.
I’m also disappointed at least as far as the Enhanced Edition goes that there are still strange rules ambiguities, vagaries, and discrepancies. I appreciate that the designers wrote the rules to be super easy to read and grasp, but a lot of detail is lost in the glossary. Too much of the game’s mechanical structure rely on timing and an increasingly complicated stack resolution. That may not chafe hardcore CCGers as much as other folks, but there are far too many instances where an effect targets the hero with the most or least HP- and the order that you resolve five, six, seven or more cards may change that dramatically. That’s not strategy or difficulty, that’s mechanical clumsiness that could have been resolved simply by assigning initiative numbers to effects.
Despite serious shortcomings, there are times when this game just kills the superhero theme and better than any other that I’ve played. When you start to see synergies between your teammates and you’re working together to overcome what looks like a hopeless situation, the game kind of rules and even the “alpha player” issue that plagues many co-ops is toned down by giving each player a unique set of cards and functions. There’s a very well defined design concept at work where the idea is that the villain is going to kill you over time, and the strategies mostly hinge on triaging targets and keeping a certain rhythm of escalating damage output and whittling the villain down. You might have a situation where a space platform or cloaking device is granting the villain immunity to damage so somebody’s got to work on that. But there might be a horde of one hit point minions that are going to waste your team next turn, so you better hope that Bunker has his grenade launcher ready.
I also really like the elimination mechanic, although it can actually be somewhat overpowered and overbalancing. When a hero bites it, they still get a choice of fairly powerful actions so that they can continue to help the team even though their cards and normal powers are out of the game. I’ve seen games practically won because two heroes were KO’d. It evens out the difficulty against some of the tougher bad guys.
But above all, the variety that ironically drives the game’s volatility is also it chief raison d’etre. Each hero plays completely differently than the others, and each deck has clearly identifiable themes, combinations, and ideas. I love how playing Mr. Fixer means combining styles and weapons and that the Chrono Ranger can put bounty cards on enemy targets for various effects. Tachyon plays like a speedster should, and the Wraith has a host of Batman-like gadgets. Then there’s Ex-Patriette’s guns-and-ammo approach and the dark magic of Nightmist. Likewise, the villains run the gamut from corporate bad guys to alien warlords to time-travelling pirates. And on top of all this, you can fight them among dinosaurs, during a prison riot, in an Egyptian tomb, or on Mars. There’s always a surprising play, turn of events, or random appearance of a Kraken.
So I’ve had some good games- and some pretty fun narratives- that have come out of this game. But I keep finding myself rolling my eyes at the design. It’s crude. It’s sloppy. And that god awful, computer-colored artwork that looks like something a high school kid with dreams of going to art school would draw during math class keeps crapping in my eyes, let alone the horrendous typesetting that makes me weep Helvetica tears. I feel like the game has a great concept and working rules, but it’s just not quite where it needs to be in terms of development. It could run smoother than it does, especially since it’s fundamentally a simple card game.
I’m inclined to state, rather uncharacteristically, that Sentinels of the Multiverse is a not-very-good design that I like anyway. The concepts are there, the co-op play is better than usual, and the comic book setting is probably handled better than it is in any other game- including Marvel Heroes or that recent Wizkids Batman title. But even when I’m playing the best games- which are almost always solitaire since this game plays best by yourself using four heroes- I find myself running into elements that make it hard to completely praise or recommend the game. It’s problematic, to be sure, but sometimes it’s actually worth putting up with some of its more amateurish, underbaked facets to get to the good stuff.