Monday, March 31, 2014

Welcome to the Multiverse: A Review of Sentinels of the Multiverse

I love cooperative games.  There, I said it, it's out in the world and there's no taking it back.  I love to work with a team and destroy the evil game!  Whether it's ridding the planet of diseases or clearing a dungeon of vermin, cooperative games got their hooks in me a long time ago and I just can't get enough of them.  

They provide a great entry point to the hobby, allowing non-gamers to contribute and not feel picked on by the experienced players.  They provide an island of collaboration and team building in a hostile ocean of "take that" and "screw your neighbor" games.  All of this brings us to today's review - a cooperative superhero experience - Sentinels of the Multiverse by Greater Than Games!

Overview
In Sentinels of the Multiverse (SotM from here forward), players take on the roles of superheroes, fighting a supervillain in a fascinating and dangerous environment.  Players take turns playing cards from their chosen hero's deck and using their super powers to defeat the villain and his many machinations as well as whatever the chosen environment might throw at them.  Between hero turns, the villain and environment will both get a turn to add news hazards to the board and try to take down the heroes.  SotM is a fully cooperative game with a low learning curve but a lot of depth and buckets of variety. 

Setup
Setup in a casual game of SotM is very easy!  Begin by having each player select a hero.  Each player takes their hero's unique deck and character card.  Afterwards, players will select a villain to face off against.  Each villain comes with his/her/their own deck and two character cards - one to represent the villain and the other to explain how the villain plays.  Villains often have some setup involved depending on who you select.  You may have to dig for a specific card or reveal cards off the top of the villain deck until X cards are in play.  Next, players will decide an environment in which to do battle and use the corresponding deck.

Picture courtesy of Phoenix_Samurai on BGG.com.

The villain and environment deck are placed in the center of the play area.  Each player will keep their deck and character card near them and use the space in front of them for playing cards.  Finally, set out the assortment of health tracking tokens and reminder tokens.  Characters, villains, and cards in any of the decks will have a health value in the top-right corner.  I place starting health on heroes and villains but add damage to the lesser cards that come out of each deck.  This way you can always quickly see how much health the characters or villain have left.  For the lesser cards, you won't always need to place all their health on them (for example, if you kill one in a single swing, you'll never need to put tokens on it) so it's more efficient to do things this way.  My group is accustomed to it but feel free to track damage/health using whatver method works for you.


Assorted health/damage tracking tokens.
Each deck of cards is unique but shares some similarities.  Any card from a hero deck is referred to in the rules as a "hero card".  The same holds true for villain and environment cards.  Any card with a health value (including character cards) is considered a target and is often further specified as a "hero target" or something similar.  Every deck has one of three types of card: "one-shot", "ongoing", and "equipment". Villain decks may have "minion" cards.


Hero cards courtesy of Legacy!
A one-shot is a card that has an effect and is then discarded.  This effect ranges from dealing damage to drawing cards or allowing the use of additional powers.


The deadly Wagner Mars Base environment deck.
Ongoing and equipment cards are very similar in that they are both played and stay out (either in a player's area or in the equipment/villain area).  Ongoing and equipment cards provide recurring and/or constant bonuses such as reducing damage taken or changing the type of damage dealt.


The nefarious Baron Blade!
Cards from Baron Blade's deck.
Thematically, the key difference is that equipment cards take the form of something physical owned or wielded by a character and an ongoing card is usually persistent but non-physical (like a combat stance or animal form).  Mechanically, each card is addressed differently by affects so something may destroy ongoing cards but not equipment cards.  The final, universal, card type is "limited" and this is found on ongoing and equipment cards and is used to indicate that only one card of that name can be out at a time.  Multiple limited cards can be out but only one limited card named "Pushing the Limits" can be out at a time.  These cards are always unique to a hero's deck (in the example here, it's Tachyon).

Minions are unique to villains and represent evil henchmen who do the bidding of the villain.  

Gameplay
Gameplay is SotM is very straightforward and easy to learn.  The game has three turn types: Villain, Hero, and Environment.  The Villain will always take the first turn.  The first thing to happen is a "Start!" step.  Follow the instructions on any cards (including characters) that have a "start of the villain turn" effect.  This may be dealing damage or destroying another card (or itself).  Next is the "Play!" step: play a card from the villain deck.  This could be any of the card types listed above but it's always a card unique to that deck.  If it's an ongoing or equipment card, you lay it out in the play area next to the villain deck and do as the card says.  If it's a one shot, follow the instructions on the card and discard it to the villain's trash.  Finally, there is an "End!" step.  This step functions identically to the "Start!" step except you check for any cards that have an "end of the villain turn" effect.

The Hero's Turns have a similar structure in that they make use of both a "Start!" and "End!" step (phrasing changed to apply specifically to the start/end of a hero turn).  In between are the "Play!", "Power!", and "Draw!" steps.  In the "Play!" step, a hero will play a card from his hand and follow the instructions.  This could be a one shot, ongoing, or equipment card, as outlined above.  In the "Power!" step, the hero gets to use a power.  Each hero has one base power on their character card.  Many involve dealing one or two damage to a chosen target.  Others have various effects that support what that hero's deck is built to do.  

Additionally, most heroes have a few ongoing and/or equipment cards that feature a power.  When this card is in play, it can be used as a power instead of the hero's basic power.  Some cards allow heroes to use an additional power but you can only ever use a specific power once in a turn.  On the "Draw!" step, the hero will draw a card.

The final turn, the environment turn, is identical to the villain turn except it refers to "environment turn" in the "Start!" and "End!" steps.  Now start all over with the villain turn.

That's it!  That's how you play.  The only hitch to make note of is if you have multiple cards that say "at the start/end of...".  This is most common with the villain since many of the villains' cards have these effects.  In this scenario, you always resolve the cards in the order they were played.  This means the villain is always first (since his card was played first).  Then you go in order that his cards were played from his deck.  It helps to keep them in a row and just slide the row down as a card is played.  The closest to the deck is the youngest, farthest is oldest.  Beware!  There are cards that have you play additional cards from the villain deck and these would also be resolved since they are the youngest and therefore last to resolve.

There are a few final interesting bits in the rules to cover.  Many cards in the environment and villain deck feature a stylized H with a circle around it.  This symbol is a balancing effect.  It is a variable that represents the number of heroes in the game.  If you are playing a four hero game and a villain card says it deals "H minus one damage" then it means three damage.  Heroes and villains each have a nemesis due to previous encounters in the backstory of the game.  This is represented by icons on hero and villain character cards.  A given villain is the nemesis of the indicated hero and vise versa.  Mechanically, nemeses will deal one additional damage to one another.  I'll skip explaining advanced play, this is best left to teams of experienced heroes but does add more complexity and challenge!

Theme
As stated in the beginning, SotM is a game about superheroes, villains, and fantastic environments.  What makes this game unique, however, is that the heroes, villains, and environments aren't the ones we are familiar with from the worlds of DC or Marvel.  These characters are the creations of Greater than Games and there's a whole world of backstory that we've come to expect from comic books.  These stories are initially laid out in the rulebook and the expansions for the game flesh them out further.

While each character is a unique creation, they do share similarities to characters we know and love.  Legacy is a cross between Captain America and Superman with a soldier background but super human strength and the power of flight.   The Wraith is a wealthy heroine with access to all kinds of gadgets and gizmos.  Sound like someone we know?  Tachyon's tagline is "The Quickest Woman in the World!"  I'll let you piece that one together.  Regardless of similarities, the characters still feel unique and part of their own world.

Components
It's hard to complain about components in SotM - it's almost entirely cards!  The card stock is good quality but I can't speak to sturdiness because I obsessively sleeve every game I own.  The only elements that aren't cards are the health tokens and reminder tokens.  These are good, quality cardboard so no complaints there.  The box is simple - two channels for stacking your cards.  It also comes with graphic dividers for every deck you have - this is an awesome feature making organization dirt simple.  

If I had one complaint about the box it's that it's barely too narrow for both channels to filled with Fantasy Flight sleeved cards.  But then again, Ultra Pros would likely fit just fine so that's no much of a complaint (I prefer the length of FFG sleeves but it is often my undoing, as seen here).  Some minor tweaking allowed me to get them in but its a bit of a squeeze.  Still, it all fits in the box!


Baron Blade's oversized villain card.
I'm a big proponent of upgrading my game.  This is rarely because I am displeased with what came in the box.  I just like fancy, cool looking components and I don't mind spending a little extra for them.  To this end, I love that Greater than Games released a set of oversized villain character cards.  These cards are 4" x 6" and feature the villain art and all setup information (in the base game, this is two separate cards).  These oversized cards make the villain feel extra villainous and give you more room to keep their copious amount of health tokens.  They are, of course, completely optional.


An assortment of reminder tokens.
Another option for upgrading your game is the fantastic "Sentinels Sidekick" app developed by Greater than Games.  This app allows you to populate a game with a villain, environment, and heroes as well as providing a means for tracking health and reminder effects.  It completely removes the need to use the tokens provided in the box.  The app is $5.00 and features optional downloads for art packs.  The app can also connect to other devices but I haven't had this part of it work successfully yet.  Theoretically, you can all share the same game and see health and info updates from other players.  For me, the app is invaluable for solo play.  Being able to track health in one place without the need to use the tokens is great.

Difficulty and Scaling
Being a cooperative game, SotM has scaling difficulty.  In the rulebook, this is represented by the numbers one through four.  When referring to villains and environments, it's giving you an idea of how difficult it is to win against that villain or in that environ.  When these numbers refer to heroes, it's referring to how mechanically challenging that hero is to play successfully, not the hero's inherent power level. 

All that being said, the system isn't ideal.  I've had games against Baron Blade (a purported level 1) where we just got trounced.  I've played games against a more challenging enemy and wiped the floor with him.  The system is very different depending on the combinations of heroes, villain, and environment that you choose.  Some villains are particularly unforgiving against heroes that make frequent use of equipment.  This can put you at a disadvantage.  Likewise, some hero combinations result in a lot of support and healing but minimal damage.  This doesn't even include the randomness of the all the decks.

I say all this, not to discourage you, but to help people understand that there is a deeper game here than just "grab some heroes and have fun!" (which is a completely viable way to play).  If you're looking for a superhero themed puzzle with a big challenge, SotM can provide that.  To this end, I present you with the Sentinels of the Multiverse Statistics Project.  This is, without a doubt, one of the nerdiest things I've seen and I am so very, very happy it exists because I love it.  

The short of it is that you can submit your heroes, villain, environment, game result, cause of death, and a few other things and it's all tracked in a Google document that spits out ever shifting probabilities of winning when hero X is in your party, how often heroes won against villain Y, or in environment Z.  One caveat: this does not take into account specific interactions such as equipment based heroes being weaker versus equipment prejudiced villains.  There is another page, the SotM Difficulty Score System, that derives its data from the Statistics Project.  This page is basically a scoring system to determine the difficulty of your game based on the statistics.  Again, this isn't perfect but it's close and far better than the system built into the game.  On top of all that it's super fun to track these things and see just how you measure up.

Final Thoughts
Sentinels is a fantastic, cooperative experience and my favorite cooperative game (right now). The gameplay is simple and easy to teach but offers a lot of group interaction and communication.  For those interested, I feel like SotM offers layers of depth many games struggle to reach.  Playing a particularly challenging villain with a carefully selected pool of heroes can be like a very complex, multi-player puzzle. 

In regards to fluff, the world is growing but still has a solid foundation to build on.  There are expansions available already, however the base game has a lot of content for the price point ($40) with a great deal of replay value (four villains, ten heroes, four environments).  If you enjoy cooperative games, this is one to keep for a long time.  In my opinion, this game is the pinnacle of superhero games currently available on the market and it doesn't look as though the franchise is going to slow down anytime soon.  Give Sentinels of the Multiverse a shot and you won't regret it!


See what The Broken Meeple has to say about Sentinels of the Multiverse.

Here's Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower reviewing Sentinels of the Multiverse.

Here's BGGer Oogie Da Bruce's review of Sentinels of the Multiverse.

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Donny is a music educator in the suburbs of Dallas.  He has an obsession with all things Star Wars and, when asked what he wants to do, will always respond with "board games".  You can find him at Nerd Night events in the Dallas area, Dallas Games Marathon, or at his second home, Madness Games & Comics.  He spends far too much time on social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, and comments or suggestions can be directed to his email