Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse31 Oct 2014 0
Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse
Released 15 Oct 2014
Prior to 2011 there were almost no games in the hobby market with a superhero theme. The only two I can remember were 2007's Heroscape Marvel and 2006's Marvel Heroes. While successful at the time, Hasbro eventually killed Heroscape and Marvel Heroes was never reprinted. After 2011, however, superheroes are nearly as ubiquitous in board games as they are on TV or at the cinema. Games like Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (that's an actual title), the DC Comics Deck-Building Game (seriously, guys?), and the fashionable latecomer, Marvel Dice Masters (it has dice!). So, what happened in 2011 to ignite this boom? Sentinels of the Multiverse happened.
The problem with trying to create a superhero-themed board game starts with superheroes doing the impossible. The impossible is a hard fit for a board game's strict ruleset. It works in superhero RPGs because a game master can adjudicate and find ways to keep the story moving forward regardless of what a PC hero (or villain) can dish out. A board game is tighter and lacks that flexibility. Sentinels overcomes this by putting the hero powers on cards and giving each hero and villain their own deck, thus making everybody play by their own set of rules. You can now have heroes with super speed or flight both work in the same game universe. Super strength or a tech-based hero? Yep, both work. It didn't hurt that they made the game cooperative, too, so when the draws aren't going your way and you feel a bit nerfed, at least everyone wins or loses together in the end.
Sentinels of the Multiverse was the first superhero game to become a phenomenon, spawning (to date) 4 full expansions and too many promo and alternate cards to count. Now, Sentinels has made its way to our tablets and has turned a good tabletop game into a great digital one.
I'm going to lay this out there. I'm not a big comics guy. I've read some, but can probably count the comics I've read on one hand. It's not that I don't enjoy the genre--I've seen just about every superhero movie out there--but getting into the comics always feels like trying to read Lord of the Rings by starting at Helms Deep. There's so much that has come before, I always feel out of the loop. That's why I really enjoy the setting that Sentinels brings to the table, which is a group of heroes not affiliated or belonging to either Marvel or DC (although their influence is definitely felt). Greater Than Games has created a new world with new heroes which makes the barrier to entry very low. The game even includes a look into the Multiverse, offering you in-depth looks at each hero and villain's origin story as well as how they fit into the world at large. It's something you get in the rulebook of the cardboard version, and it's a fantastic addition to the digital version as well.
At its heart, Sentinels is very simple. Each hero has their own deck of cards, with each card detailing a specific power or equipment used by that character. For example, Wraith has a Targeting Device that allows her to do +2 damage when using projectile weapons. Villains have their own deck as well, so baddies like Baron Blade have cards detailing goon squads or devices to hinder your progress. In this cooperative game the heroes will all win or lose together, depending on if the villain can achieve their goal, which is defined on the villain card. Each turn a player will play a card, use a power (defined on cards in play), and then draw a card. After all the players go, the villain gets to play cards and deal whatever damage he can, based on the cards in play. Rinse, repeat until the heroes defeat the villain or lose the game. While it is a very simple game, mechanically, there is still a lot to learn about each hero and it can make the learning curve very steep in some cases. For example, don't pick Absolute Zero as a hero until you're familiar with the game. I still have a hard time using him to his full potential. Luckily, the game has a very in-depth tutorial to get you up and running.
So, how did Handelabra manage to make the game better than its tabletop parent? No math. The tabletop game can become muddled and tedious after a while depending on which cards are in play. There are tons of modifiers, immunities, and powers that trigger off other powers. Even using Handelabra's helper app for Sentinels, Sentinels Sidekick, the tabletop game could become a bogged down mess. There are certain heroes and villains I just refuse to play with on the table due to the fact that they're messy to play. Not with the app, though. Everything is streamlined and calculated automatically with the modifiers all being listed during combat so you know why your damage value is what it is. It's a liberating feeling after playing the card game. It doesn't matter what complex combo I want to play, the game will handle it.
That's not all that the app brings to the table, however. Visually, the app is beautiful with its evocation of comic book pages that flip as the current hero or villain changes. Each hero has some great artwork and, as a nice touch, it changes as your heroes get more beat down over the course of the game. Everything within the app is fairly intuitive, as well. Cards that are illegal to play will not highlight during your turn, and targeting damage to different individuals can be as easy or detailed as you want. For example, if you have a power that does damage to all enemies, you can manually choose to deal that damage to each enemy individually, or just hit a button and let the game decide for you.
It's not all unicorns and rainbows, however. A few of the messages could be a little clearer. Often, an effect will fire off based on a card in play and you won't know why someone is getting damaged or healed. Adding a little more information to the pop-up messages would solve this. Also, there are little things like being unable to examine the back of double-sided cards. Each hero and villain has a double-sided card that will flip during the game (the heroes only flip when they are dropped to zero hit points). On the back of the card are different powers and even victory conditions which you cannot see in the game until the card actually flips. You should be able to flip and see what lies ahead, or what powers your heroes have when incapacitated. I've heard others bemoan the lack of online multiplayer as well, but I think the game works great as a single-player cooperative experience. I just don't see a good way of facilitating the amount of conversation that's needed between the heroes for them to be successful. Lastly, the cardboard version has a chart in the rulebook which grades all the heroes and villains by difficulty. It would have been nice to have some switches while setting up a game that would allow you to pick easier or harder heroes and villains to better adjust your experience.
The game ships with 10 different heroes, 4 villains and 4 environments which gives you a nearly limitless amount of different combinations to try. If it gets too easy, there is an Advanced option for each villain which makes them even harder than their normal, evil selves. Add in the expansions, each which add several new heroes, villains and environments and you could play the game endlessly without ever getting the same combination. We're not there yet, but Handelabra has already confirmed that promo cards are on the way as well as the first expansion which could be around as soon as January.
The cardboard version of Sentinels is a good game, but not a perfect one. The bookkeeping can get to be overwhelming at times and you can find yourself in a no-win situation with some unfortunate draws. With the digital version, the bookkeeping is automatic and the game is so much quicker than its cardboard counterpart that, if you're in a no-win situation, it's easy to just reset and start again. All of that combines to make digital Sentinels the ideal way to play Sentinels. Considering all the expansion material that will be added over the coming years, Sentinels of the Multiverse has found a home on my iPad and it's not going anywhere for a long while.