As I’ve written before, I’m a huge fan of Fantasy Flight’s living card game Marvel Champions. I was eager to get my hands on that game’s first big box expansion, The Rise of Red Skull, which promised tons of new content: two new heroes, five new villains, and the introduction of a campaign mode. A few nights ago, I finally had the opportunity to crack open the box and take on one of the new villains with some friends. This is far from a complete review, but I wanted to get out my thoughts on the expansion so far.
I came to LCGs through the excellent Arkham Horror card game; one of the strengths of that game is its narrative focus. Players really feel like they’re getting immersed in a cosmic horror story, and there are decision points in nearly every scenario that affect how your campaign plays out. It’s one of my all-time favorite card game mechanics, and I was excited to see how it was implemented in Marvel Champions.
The developers said before Rise of Red Skull was released that players shouldn’t expect a campaign on par with Arkham, and now I see why. Don’t get me wrong–campaign mode is neat! It ties together multiple encounters, offers special campaign-exclusive cards with interesting effects, and has some interesting modifiers for players looking to truly challenge themselves. All of that is very good, and it helps the game grow. But in terms of narrative, there’s not much going on. There aren’t really ‘decision points’ to speak of in the Red Skull campaign (not ones that affect the plot, at any rate) and the story is a pretty cliche way to stitch together a bevy of Hydra-related bosses.
That said, it was still fun to think of the session in terms of a larger plot. My group was playing as Hawkeye, Captain America, Iron Man, and She-Hulk, facing off against the first encounter in the campaign: Crossbones. The story focuses on Crossbones leading an army of Hydra goons in an assault on a SHIELD base containing an infinity stone. In our first round of encounter cards, Captain America drew Shadows of the Past and Iron Man pulled the Legions of Hydra side scheme, meaning suddenly Baron Zemo and Madame Hydra had joined the fight! It felt surprisingly apropos for the intended narrative.
As I mentioned, my crew took on Crossbones. He’s the starter baddie in this new box, and it’s clear that he shares some DNA with the Core Box’s first villain, Rhino. Both focus brute force, and they’ve even got a few similar pieces of equipment (in particular, they both have armor that allows them to soak five damage). However, it’s clear to see that the design of the game has developed since Rhino was built. There are a few cards in Crossbone’s deck that give the villain a Tough status card or, if the villain is already Tough, heals them for three damage. In an early card pool, the card might simply gain surge rather than healing; it’s a minor change, but it’s cool to see new avenues of effects opening up in card design.
One of the interesting things about this Crossbone fight is that it uses multiple modular encounter sets. There are a few Hydra-based sets shuffled in to populate the deck with minions, as well as the Weapon Master set that adds in various pieces of equipment to buff the villain. Even outside of these modular sets, though, Crossbone’s main scheme grants him access to a small set of experimental weaponry cards. These experimental weapons, when equipped, really beef up the bad guy; from shields that grant the retaliate keyword to power gauntlets that force players to discard cards, there’s some truly nasty equipment in the set.
Crossbones really hammered us early on, tossing out lots of minions and keeping us occupied with side schemes aplenty. However, he really trailed off in the late game; with Cap and Iron Man working hard at thwarting, She-Hulk and Hawkeye were free to wipe out minions and lay some serious hurt on Crossbones. There were a few close calls, but by the midway point we were confident we had the fight in the bag–he felt appropriately difficult for the first encounter in a campaign.
I’ve been looking forward to both of the new heroes in Rise of Red Skull; I can’t wait to dig into Spider-Woman’s totally unique deck-building possibilities, but for the first game I decided to give the more straightforward Hawkeye a try. I’ve got to say, I’m hugely impressed.
I’ve been partial to Iron Man up to this point (I tend to rotate through characters a lot, but Iron Man and Doctor Strange have been my two ‘mains’), but honestly? Hawkeye gives Shellhead a run for his money. One of the things I find satisfying about Iron Man is how wild his late-game turns can be once you’ve built up his suit. I find that Hawkeye gives me a similar degree of satisfaction with a bit less setup.
Hawkeye is, as one might imagine, heavily reliant on arrows. His arrows are a special type of attack event, and each kind has a different effect: electric arrows stun enemies, sonic arrows confuse them, explosive arrows can wipe out groups of minions, and vibranium arrows deal massive damage. Every one of them is satisfying to use in the right situation (explosive arrows are my personal favorite). Of course, to use any of these arrows, you’ll have to exhaust Hawkeye’s Bow, limiting you to one arrow per round.
Ah, but wait! Hawkeye’s special ability allows him to exhaust himself to ready his bow, meaning you can actually fire off two arrows per round if you’ve got the resources for it. Heck, even if you can only afford to fire one, you can still fire an arrow and do a regular basic attack. As long as you’ve got at least one arrow to play, you’ll pretty much always do a solid amount of damage per turn, which is extremely gratifying. If you can get Hawkeye’s Quiver on the field, things get even easier–it allows you to search the top five cards of your deck for an arrow card, then play it onto the Quiver. Cards on the Quiver can be played as though they were in your hand; once you’ve got that card out, the chances you’ll be without an arrow to play are pretty low.
I played using the pre-constructed Hawkeye deck, which uses the Leadership aspect. I suspect this is mostly so that Hawkeye can use allies to defend, as he’s fairly squishy by himself. However, there’s another useful way to use allies in this deck: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, a basic card, allows the player to exhaust one Avenger they control to ready a different Avenger they control. With judicious application of this card, you can end up firing three arrows in a round!
While Hawkeye has never been one of my favorite characters (I don’t have a problem with him, I’ve just never gravitated towards his stories for whatever reason–I do love Kate Bishop, though), I think I’ll be playing quite a lot of him in Marvel Champions. I love the way his bow and arrows work, and the ability to consistently fire off multiple attacks per round really makes you feel like the MCU interpretation of the character: quickly firing off arrow after arrow, picking exactly the right one for the situation. It’s awesome.
Despite a lackluster take on a narrative mode, I’m finding a lot to love in the Rise of Red Skull box. It’s adding a lot of new twists and interesting mechanics to the game, and if Spider-Woman is even half as fun as Hawkeye, it’ll have added two stellar new heroes as well. If the first box is this good, I can’t wait for the next one–especially since it features the fan-favorite Guardians of the Galaxy!