Last weekend, I was introduced to the board game Marvel United–a cooperative game that has players take on the roles of classic Marvel heroes and team up against a villain.
I’m a huge fan of Marvel stuff, and a huge fan of cooperative board games. It seemed like a slam dunk! I picked up my copy and gave it a try. The core box features seven heroes (Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man, and Wasp) and three villains (Red Skull, Ultron, and Taskmaster).
Each hero has its own unique deck, and each villain has a special set of win and loss conditions, as well as their own assortment of Threats and a Master Plan deck. Players have to work together to defeat the villain before the villain completes their Master Plan.
Conceptually, it reminded me a bit of my beloved Marvel Champions. After all, both games involve special hero decks and wildly different villains. However, Marvel United is an entirely different beast.
In addition to the characters, the game comes with eight Locations. These are large cards that act as the ‘board’ of the game. You shuffle them up and then pick six random ones to serve as your game’s tiles.
Next, you choose your villain, grabbing their Master Plan and Threat decks, as well as their Dashboard. The Dashboard is what tells you the villain’s win and loss conditions, plus some other effects they may have. The Dashboard is placed in the center of the locations, as are three Mission cards. Players will have to clear two of these Missions before confronting the villain.
Each Location then gets a random Threat card. Threats can vary wildly depending on the villain; they might be a powerful henchmen, or a special effect that impacts heroes on the same Location. Locations also get Civilians and Thugs; Civilians can be rescued, while Thugs can be defeated by players. Saving Civilians, defeating Thugs, and getting rid of Threats are the three ways players can clear Missions.
Once everything has been placed, you plop your villain down on a random Location, placing your heroes opposite (Locations are meant to be arranged in a circle). All you need for your hero is their special twelve-card deck.
That takes care of setup, which means the game can get started. The villain gets to kick things off by drawing from their Master Plan deck; this is a twelve-card deck that allows the villain to move, add Thugs and Civilians, and utilize other abilities.
After the first Master Plan card goes into play, it’s time for the players to get to work. This is where things get interesting. Every player starts with a hand of four cards, and each card has symbols on it. There are four types of symbols: Attack, Heroic Action, Move, and Wild. Attack symbols let you deal damage, so they’re good for fighting the villain or dealing with Thugs. Heroic Actions allow you to rescue Civilians or deal with Threats. Move symbols let you, well, move to adjacent locations. A Wild symbol can be used for any of those.
Seems simple, right? Every card boils down to one or two of these symbols. It might sound a little too basic, in fact. There are three things that keep it interesting, though.
The first is that every hero’s deck is a bit different. First off, they focus on different things; Hulk has more Attack symbols and less Heroic Actions than Captain America, for instance. Second, every character has three unique cards that allow them to do something special–for example, Captain Marvel has the Photon Blast card, which allows her to deal two damage to an adjacent Location.
The real kicker, though, is that on your turn, you get the benefit of both the card you play and the card played on the turn prior. If your friend played a card with one Move symbol and you play a card with two Attack symbols, that means you can move once and attack twice on your turn. This adds a surprising level of strategy to the game; it’s not enough to give yourself a good turn, you need to set the next player up for success, too.
The recommended starting villain of the game is Red Skull, and he’s a great villain to learn on. None of his various effects are too brutal, and he wins by filling up a Fear Track that moves relatively slowly. If you find him too easy, though, don’t worry–he’s a bit deceptive.
See, in the fights I played against Red Skull, I didn’t necessarily feel like hero choice was super important. I also found it easy to split my attention between fighting Thugs, saving Civilians, and stopping Threats. It was fun working with my friends to set up big turns, but who we were playing (and how) didn’t feel like it was swaying the game much.
Then we tried Ultron.
Ultron stomped me the first few times I fought him (I tried taking him on solo). I think a lot of that had to do with the characters I was using. When my friends and I teamed up against the villainous machine, we each picked people we thought would give us an edge.
Ultron wins by filling each location with Thugs, making Thug management key to taking him down. Most of his Master Plan cards and other abilities add a bunch of Thugs to the board. To counter this, my roommate and I picked damage-heavy characters. I went with Hulk, whose Hulk Smash card is ideal for clearing Locations, while my roommate went with Captain Marvel, whose Photon Blasts give her a bit of flexibility in where she puts her damage. To round things out, my wife chose Black Widow, who can peek at the Master Plan deck, and even alter it if the next card is going to be really bad.
With this combination, we could beat down Thugs and keep locations clear while also having a good idea what to expect on most villain turns. It worked out great, and we pulled off a win–but it was still pretty close, even with a well-tailored crew.
I really enjoy how different the villains feel. Ultron is much different than Red Skull, and both are distinct from Taskmaster. Hero differences are a touch subtler, but they’re certainly there, and they become more noticeable the longer you play.
Marvel United is a great game to play with friends. Setup is simple, gameplay is fun, and it plays fairly quick–most of my games have come in around half an hour. It’s easy to learn but still offers some strategic depth. I love Marvel Champions, but honestly, United may usurp it as my most-played Marvel game simply by virtue of the fact that it’s much simpler to put together and play; I don’t have to build a deck, shuffle up a villain and modular encounters, etc. That’s not to say I don’t like those elements of Champions–I do! But I don’t always have time for them.
The only thing the game suffers from right now is the relatively small number of characters (both heroes and villains) are available. However, if you’ve got some spare cash right now, there’s a way to fix that–but you’ll have to move fast!
The makers of this fine product, CMON (and their partners at SpinMaster Games), are currently holding a Kickstarter campaign for a new version: Marvel United X-Men! This new game will be fully compatible with Marvel United, and it adds a ton of stuff. New characters, new games modes, all kinds of new things! Plus, it’s an opportunity to pick up expansions and Kickstarter-exclusive promos for the original Marvel United!
If you like co-op games, I heartily recommend Marvel United. Heck, even if you just like Marvel comics, the game comes with some neat minis for the heroes and villains, alongside a bunch of adorable chibi art on the cards and such. I’m over the moon that the new version is including X-Men; everyone should hop on that Kickstarter so we can hit even more stretch goals and get more exciting characters!