Marvel Villainous: Bad Feels Good

I’ve always heard good things about the game Villainous, but I’m not a huge Disney guy, so it never felt all that tempting to me. I didn’t realize that a Marvel version had come out last year, or else my interest might have been piqued.

Luckily for me, my roommate unexpectedly purchased Marvel Villainous earlier this week, giving me the chance to try my hand at it. I don’t know what I was expecting from the game, but it wasn’t this!

Marvel Villainous is a competitive board game in which players take on the role of a supervillain from Marvel comics. The core box features Thanos, Ultron, Hela, Killmonger, and Taskmaster.

The interesting thing about the game is that each villain has a unique objective that they must complete in order to claim victory. This makes gameplay highly asymmetrical, in a way that took me a few turns to fully wrap my head around.

On the surface, every character plays the same. Each villain gets a unique board called a Domain. A Domain has four spaces on it, and each space has a handful of symbols that equate to different actions a villain can take. One space might let you play two cards, gain a Power token (the game’s basic resource), and draw a Fate card, for instance. On your turn, you have to move to a new space, and then you can use any of the symbols there in any order you wish.

Villains can play allies and events from a personalized deck, and often have to contend with Heroes that are dealt from a Fate deck in the middle of the table. Heroes move to certain spaces on your Domain, and when a space has a Hero on it, it loses access to some of its symbols.

All of this is universal–it’s all stuff that every villain has to deal with. As a result, I didn’t realize at first just how different the villains’ goals and playstyle were.

As an an example, in my first match I played as Ultron, while my roommate played as Thanos. Thanos needs to collect all six Infinity Stones to win the game. Ultron, by contrast, has to perform four Upgrades, each of which have different triggers.

Thanos gains Infinity Stones when cards (either from Thanos’s personal deck or the Fate deck) put them in play in another character’s Domain and Thanos sends allies to retrieve them. Thanos has a suite of powerful allies in the form of the Black Order. Ultron, by comparison, has fairly weak allies–mostly consisting of cheap, expendable drones. At first, I was frustrated, because my drones didn’t stand a chance against the Black Order. I couldn’t win fights.

Then, I realized that I was approaching the game all wrong. Thanos needed to win fights to get the Stones… but Ultron didn’t. Ultron won by sacrificing his own units to Upgrade himself. I was playing the game on Thanos’s terms, and that was causing me to lose.

Once that clicked, I stopped worrying about Corvus Glaive trouncing my sentries. They were cheap and easily replaced. I could play a couple in a turn, then toss them in the discard pile to make myself stronger.

I ultimately pulled ahead in that much and managed a victory (in large part because I maintained control of the Space Stone long enough to pull off a key maneuver that netted me a ton of Power, which triggered my final Upgrade). The next game we played, however, was completely different.

I ran Hela in our second match, facing off against my roommate’s Killmonger. Hela needed to accrue allies and Soul Tokens, which were placed on Heroes and then added to Hela’s collection when those heroes died. Killmonger had to take control of Wakanda by competing a series of challenges.

In this game, the two of us scarcely interacted. It was much more of a race than a head-to-head competition. I was trying to slowly parcel out allies as I could, while also tossing Soul Tokens on every Hero that took the field. Memorably, at one point I managed to resurrect Black Panther, a hero that Killmonger had to defeat to progress their main objective, with a Soul Token on him. This not only netted me a Soul Token, it also temporarily set Killmonger back a bit!

This match was incredibly close, but Killmonger pulled off the victory (I blame bad draws–a lot of Hela’s cards are actually better in her discard pile, and I simply wasn’t drawing them early enough to bin them). The impressive thing to me, though, was the Killmonger’s victory didn’t look or feel anything like Ultron’s.

I love it when mechanics and themes are interwoven, and Villainous does a great job making each villain mechanically distinct in ways that are thematically linked to their characters’ history and portrayals. It’s a smart game, and it’s only going to get better as expansions come out that add new villains to the pool. Speaking of which, one has already been announced–it’s going to add Loki, Madame Masque, and M.O.D.O.K. to the game!

I had a good enough time with the few rounds I’ve gotten in that I’m eager to play more. In fact, this has actually gotten me interested in the Disney version, too!

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