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Cracked LCD- Looking at Legendary: Kirby Wept.

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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.

Cracked LCD- Sentinels of the Multiverse Retroview

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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.