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Cracked LCD- Sentinels of the Multiverse Retroview


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.

Cracked LCD- Batman: The Gotham City Strategy Game in Review


Regardless of the quality of the gameplay and design, Wizkids’ new Batman: The Gotham City Strategy game fails to meet expectations on a fundamental level. As the first-ever serious attempt at a Batman-themed hobby title and as an example of the typically problematic superhero theme, expectations were high- especially from this lifelong Batman fanatic. When I opened the box and saw that the illustrations were the exact same ones that you see on coloring books, party favors, or lunchboxes at the dollar store and not anything based on the actual comics, my heart sank. Looking past the high quality Heroclix figures of Batman, Joker, Penguin, Killer Croc and Two Face, I was profoundly disappointed to see a card titled “Harley Quinn” that had…a picture of Joker on it- the same picture that is on all of his upgrade cards. I mean, seriously. Couldn’t they get somebody to draw a picture of a laughing gas canister?

One of the results of the cheap, repetitive party favor artwork used in lieu of authentic comic book penciling is that the game falls well short of being the tabletop analog to the licensing grand slams that were Rocksteady’s Batman video games. Unlike those brilliant games, which dug deep into the Batman canon and presented a mature, fan friendly but mainstream-accessible version of the classic characters and setting, the Batman board game feels like a very, very high level take on it with almost no connection to any bona fide comics material. This is Batman as a bland, corporate mascot concept with the only buy-in being the notion of classic Batman villains committing crimes in Gotham City while Batman runs around thwarting their madcap schemes. Further, the game acts like the Christopher Nolan films never happened, and I think that is a mistake if it’s gunning for a wider audience.

I’m hitting the artwork and production design hard because this is a comic book game and simply having bad drawings of characters drawn much better elsewhere and slapping a comics lettering font on the components doesn’t hack it when you’re trying to make a convincing attempt at putting superheroes in a tabletop game. This is a ground floor, foundational failure and it’s especially disappointing that Wizkids, with their long and successful history of licensing comic book characters, couldn’t do better with visually presenting the property.

With that bit of ugliness out of the way, the nuts and bolts of the game are actually pretty decent. It’s a light, very easy to play hybrid that melds area control Eurogame mechanics with a distinct “dudes on a map” feel, paired up with some fun PVP and a mutually controlled Batman that acts as a spoiler. That’s right, there’s no arguing about who gets to be Batman. Everybody gets to be Batman. Smart move.

I’m especially pleased that designer Paolo Mori made another smart move and eschewed the usual superhero game pattern established by Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd (1982) and carried on through Marvel Heroes and others. Instead of having villains commit crimes on a city map and tasking the players with resolving them, this game puts the players in control of the villains. I like this idea, especially for a Batman game since his rogues’ gallery is the best in the business, bar none. I’m not quite sure why Mr. Mori (or the Wizkids suits) would pick Killer Croc over Catwoman, who doesn’t bother to show up at all. But neither do Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, or any of the other members of the Bat-family.

The idea is that the players use their villain’s figure and a small handful of way-out-of-scale henchmen figures and some “threat” markers to control areas of Gotham City. Each turn, a player plays an action card that provides one of two different income types (money and information) to whoever controls a specific part of town. Control is based on whoever has the most henchmen and threats or whoever has their figure there. The second part of the card is an action which may feature prerequisites such as controlling a pair of areas or a certain number of pieces in one.

The kicker is that some cards also have the Bat signal which heralds a mandatory action by the Caped Crusader, which means that the players have some control over when Batman decides to make the rounds. It’s not total control, because he may decide to pop up in one of your own areas to fight your villain figure or clean out the threat tokens present. Batman has his own click base and can level up over the course of the game, increasing his crime-fighting capabilities. He’s a real threat to the bad guys, and I think the game really captures the idea of Batman watching over the city, striking out of nowhere, and returning to the Batcave.

The villains also level up, and that is the ultimate goal of the game. Each villain’s click dial has a series of goals that include things like controlling a number of areas or having a specified amount of money. When the villain upgrades, he may unlock a special ability card thematically tied to the villain like Penguin’s trick umbrellas or Two-Face’s coin. The goal of the game is for a player to level their villain all the way up the dial to level ten, giving the game an interesting development curve and sense of escalation.

I like how it all works together, in general. The dice combat is fun. The resource management is a little convoluted but working out when to spend your information to move in on a territory and invade it or save it for an upgrade make for some simple but significant decisions. The upgrades increase the thematic feel as the villains become more detailed, and the presence- not just the activity- of Batman feels right.

This is a game with just a couple of pages of rules, which usually means two things. One is that the game is very easy to learn and approachable. The other is that there are invariably rules clarifications, uncertainties, and vagaries. I haven’t seen anything particularly egregious, but there have been a few times when I wished the rules were actually a little more thorough. It doesn’t help that there is a touch of sloppiness to the design, with its multi-tiered area control triage and multiple resources.

With four potential players, it’s also troubling that the game doesn’t feel quite right with a full table and not just because it’s 30 minutes a player. It runs long, with players struggling to get into position to hit the upgrade checkpoints against three other players doing the same, knocking each other down at every opportunity. I like the three player game quite a bit more, but the two player game feels like it is missing friction. So it may be best to regard Batman as a three player game, which puts it into a certain niche that may make it a more valuable proposition for some players.

I’m looking at the box sitting next to me and although I like the game, I think it’s fun and it does have a measurable amount of Batman flavor, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where so much potential was squandered. This could have been THE Batman game. It needed to be that ultimate expression, not a good but not great game that doesn’t leave a particular mark other than it’s slightly better than most other superhero titles that we’ve seen over recent years. I don’t think it would be hard for even a casual fan to look over the game and notice missed opportunities or to furrow their brow over the presentation that doesn’t speak to the current interpretations of Batman- or any of the most popular ones over the past 70 years that the character has been around. The inspiration seems not to be in the Batman of Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Timm/Dini, or even Bob Kane. It seems to be coming from the notion of Batman as a party favor mascot rather than as a cultural icon and I think that is terribly unfortunate.

Judge Dredd: Countdown Sector 106 Review

New Judge Dredd iOS game book from Tin Man Games

I have never been a particular fan of the famous 2000ad comic, in spite of it being a central fixture in the life of most British boys and indeed nerds. But I can’t say the same for its central character, Judge Dredd. I’ve devoured the stand-alone trade paperbacks of his exploits many times over, and played the related board games many more. So you can imagine my delight when I heard Tin Man Games were bringing a Dredd gamebook to iOS, and the further delight when they offered me a copy to review.

Countdown Sector 106 posts you in the boots of the famous lawman himself, drafted in to help out with routine patrols in a sector that’s suffering a shortage of personnel. I have to say that I think the set-up is a bad choice. For starters casting the player as Dredd himself immediately sets the bar very high indeed in terms of writing and story. And Judge Dredd is famous for busting psychotic cursed earth gangs and extra-dimensional psychic entities, not doing routine patrols. Of course we all know Dredd has to do grunt work some of the time, but building an interactive adventure around his everyday experiences? Not such a great idea. You get to feel like you’re a judge in Mega-City, but at no point do you get the sense that you’re the epic man Dredd himself.

The issue is compounded by the writing style. Author Nick Robinson claims himself as a big 2000ad fan and it shows: his tale skillfully weaves in all sorts of mega-city tropes from colloquial language to the likely contents of department stores. Unfortunately he seems to think this familiarity is a substitute for strong characterisation and pacy, colourful writing. Too often the narrative lies flat and lifeless on the page, and it fails utterly as regards the political and darkly humorous overtones for which the comic strip is rightly famous.

However, Mr. Robinson has done a bang-up job when it comes to plotting a course through the numbered paragraphs of the book. The options you’re presented with are often numerous and always help to bring home the dilemmas that Dredd’s everyday activities would present him with as regards juggling the collection of evidence with the need to apprehend perps and a healthy dose of self-preservation. The good choices are subtly hinted at but rarely obvious and the overarching plot does a great job of tying together a disparate bunch of flavourful events into a coherent whole, allowing you to experience many of the delights of Mega-City without feeling like you’re being railroaded.

One issue I have had with all the Gamebook Adventures series is the combat system which is clumsy, overly protracted and prone to wild swings of fate. Countdown Sector 106 uses the same system for hand-to-hand fights but introduces a new shootout mechanic for gunfights. It’s based on a single dice roll and so is much faster and cleaner. It’s also frequently used to present the player with tough risk management choices: they can attempt a difficult gunfire role to take down all the antagonists but risk leaving them all alive, or try a lower value roll to to take down one or two and leave the rest for melee combat. The system works really well, and I hope to see it replicated in future titles.

Another thing all the Gamebook Adventues that I’ve seen appear to have is a good achievements list. This isn’t something I’d normally find worth mentioning, but with gamebooks on mobile devices I’ve found it to be a big incentive to really explore the title, tick all the boxes and thereby get maximum value from the book. The usual suspects are here, including a worthy nod to an icon of British geek culture, and you can also collect the artwork you’ve found in the book, all of which is of the high quality you’d expect from a famous comic strip character. But there’s another neat addition specifically for this book: the perp record sheet. This not only tracks which criminals from the book you’ve successfully hunted down, but gives you a portrait and a short biography for each one that you’ve caught and sent to the cubes. For a budding judge, it’s hard to imagine a better motivation for replaying the book.

Countdown Sector 106 doesn’t endear itself with its bland paragraphs and flabby writing, but once you’re stuck in it more than redeems itself with pacy moments, background colour, a thrilling plot and challenging decisions aplenty. It’s a great way to whet your appetite for the upcoming Dredd feature film, and a welcome return to gaming for one of Britain’s finest exports.