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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- LOTR LCG Retroview


I reviewed Fantasy Flight’s Lord of the Rings Living Card game not long after its core set released back in 2010. To refresh, there were some things that I liked about the game but I chafed at its packaging and the way that Fantasy Flight was effectively limiting the game’s capability as a standalone product by not including a nominally complete and self-contained set of cards that would not require further purchases to link to existing keywords, combinations, or other potentialities. I stand by this review, but I thought it would be interesting to try the game again now that it’s matured over the course of nearly two years with monthly expansion packs and a couple of larger add-ons.

I felt that the game was good enough to give a second chance, and thus here is the first ever Cracked LCD Retroview- a post facto review where I’ll go back and re-examine games that got middling to even bad reviews to see how they fare a few years on. I’m not going to tell you how to play the game, describe every piece in the box, or anything like that. Read another review if you want that. This is a way to dig a little deeper and analyze a little harder with the “new” worn off and with the hype long dead. I think this is particularly a compelling opportunity to revisit games that have changed a lot or that have taken on a life of their own

My retroview of LOTR LCG was made possible by trading my way into three core sets (thereby “completing” a playset of the core set cards) and all available expansions up through the recent Hobbit set, which suggests a more campaign-oriented way of framing the scenarios. I have every card currently available and thus the full range of deckbuilding options are available to me. And I still can’t beat the Dol Guldur scenario from the core set.

Even though it remains a popular, widely played, and widely written-about game, The Lord of the Rings LCG is a strange product that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the current market. It’s effectively a co-op CCG wherein each player builds a deck and somehow needs to find synergy and mesh points with the decks built by other players. But due to the nature of the adventures, which supply different goals, challenges, and adversaries, no one deck could possibly stand a chance against each story and that means that it’s necessary to build a custom deck for each. It’s a very demanding, sometimes incredibly difficult game that either gets way too hard or way too easy with more players, but some scenarios seem to be impossible with one or two players. Enveloping all of the above is the odd fact that the game absolutely plays best as a solitaire game with one player building and playing two decks concurrently. And then there’s the whole LCG model, which exists rather awkwardly between one-stop board game packaging wherein one player can buy a game and play with others and the serial, individual purchases required of a CCG.

The sum of the above is that LOTR LCG is a solitaire CCG that requires a greater-than-usual commitment to both acquiring cards and deep-dive engagement to get the most out of it. This makes it a quite unique title, and as a single-player game it’s astonishingly rich, layered, and replayable. Particularly when you’re building two decks to work in synch with each other, and working out how to manage threat, deal with difficult encounters, and accomplish goals is really quite rewarding- if you’re willing to put in the time to fail scenarios, re-jigger, and try again with different builds. This is a game that you can really dig into, if you’re willing to deal with some of its idiosyncracies. And the serial purchases.

In some ways, the game is an intricate, high stakes puzzle (which again, makes it ideal for solo play) and some of the thrill comes from do-or-die decisions that seem to happen every other turn. The entire game can literally hang in the balance of choosing whether or not to commit a character to a quest or to block an enemy. Sacrifice is inevitable, and topdecking Gandalf at a moment of desperation is genuinely exciting. But due to the nature of how cards are drawn from an encounter deck to determine the threat number players must meet by sending characters to quest and the appearance of overwhelming foes, the game sometimes can feel as though too much hinges on not drawing cards that add more cards to the row through a couple of keywords. You might go into an encounter phase drawing two cards but wind up with five- and it can be very, very difficult to clear them.

So a big part of the game- and the deckbuilding- is working out strategies to deal with eventualities like that and tailoring decks to work with the particulars of each scenario. You’ve got to think about mitigating threat, having enough characters with good questing ability to keep pace and move through location cards, and having attackers or blockers at the ready. This can be very difficult to do, and some scenarios can be quite frustrating if you’ve simply failed to bring the right cards or right strategy. Again- that “all purpose” deck doesn’t exist.

Regardless, I keep dashing myself against some of these scenarios over and over again, toolboxing and “Monday morning quarterbacking” builds to try something different. I’ll run a Dwarf-focused deck (using a lot of cards, obviously, from the Khazad-Dum block with a Rohan-focused deck that backs up the combat power of Thorin and the gang with lots of questing options and mobility. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it will fail spectacularly. It’s how the game rolls.

And you’ve got to roll with it if you’re going to play it. There are some gamey mechanics, like how attacking and blocking are totally separate functions. If you lose a character, the difficulty of any scenario ramps up dramatically and there are very few cards that will bring one back from the dead. Like some of the more challenging co-op games with automated adversaries, it’s the kind of game that can go south very quickly if the player doesn’t- or can’t- react to tactical situations.

After playing the game extensively over the past couple of months and getting the lay of the land as far as how the game exists beyond the core set, I would definitely recommend it for solitaire gamers and committed partnerships but I would recommend those looking for a three or four player game to go elsewhere. Getting into the game can be expensive, and my suggestion there is to buy two Core Sets and the first block of expansions (The Mirkwood Cycle) to really get a sense of its potential. Going this route- and adding each adventure pack’s card incrementally into the card pool- will keep you from getting overwhelmed, and it will keep the power curve on course with how the game has developed over its releases. A third Core Set is kind of a waste of money, as there are only something like 15 cards that only occur once in each box.

Tough, deep, dramatic, infinitely replayable. These are signs of a good game, even when some of the quirks of the design and infuriating vagaries or rules uncertainties threaten to derail the whole affair. But- once again- when you’re playing it solo and not as a group entertainment, those kinds of things don’t matter so much since you can work through these things on your own time. I think this is a great game with lots to offer if you’re willing to dive in and explore- and this is something that definitely was not apparent when I first reviewed this game.