Earlier this year, I was at the UK National Championships for Dice Masters, and had the chance to briefly meet Eric Lang, the game’s designer.
Aside from getting a few cards and playmats signed, there was a brief chance to chat to him, and I asked the question which had been puzzling me since I first picked up the game last year – “How do you decide which characters to include in the various sets?” his answer was simply that Marvel (Or presumably DC, or the company behind the IP being used for any other set) tell them which characters they can use.
This makes a certain amount of sense – Marvel know the long-term plans they have for characters and even franchises, and Eric said, as a comic fan, he doesn’t want to be given information that’s going to spoil his enjoyment when he gets to read things.
Who makes the cut?
As I’ve said, the overall principal for determining who is in which set seems fairly logical. However, the specific choices for character inclusion (or exclusion) puzzle me somewhat.
Obviously, there are some characters Marvel are going to want to make a big deal of – I’ve talked in recent weeks about Iron Man and Captain America who are the chief poster boys for Marvel right now, and appear in all 3 sets. We’ve also seen in-game appearances for most other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the Guardians of the Galaxy, an Avengers line-up that covers the recent films, and even Phil Coulson.
That said, I still feel like fans have a right to get a product that reflects the title it comes boxed under. The first Dice Masters set was Avengers vs X-Men, named after the 2012 cross-over event. This was a good choice as it featured conflicts between the “good” characters on one side, and “good” characters on the other side too. It was an obvious way of smoothing over the thematic issues of why my Black Widow is attacking your Professor X (or whoever).
For those unfamiliar with Avengers vs X-Men storyline, it begins when we learn that the Phoenix Force is headed for earth. With the fear that the Phoenix Force will possess the Young “Mutant Messiah” Hope Summers, a violent conflict breaks out between the Avengers and the X-Men. In the end, the Phoenix Force does not possess Hope, but instead the “Phoenix Five” – Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus and Magik. On the other side of the conflict, the Avengers continue to be led by Captain America, with Iron Man making a major contribution on the tech side for taking down the Phoenix, but as the story develops, the main figures we see in the conflict are Scarlet Witch, Iron Fist (no, I’d never heard of him at that point either), and Hope herself. Wolverine continues to prowl.
So then, if the first set for the game is “Avengers vs X-Men” at minimum, you’d probably expect to see those characters listed above. There’s also plenty of scope for others: Spiderman, Magneto and others have significant roles, but those are the minimum, right?
Well no. 3 of the Phoenix Five – Emma Frost, Namor and Magik don’t appear until the second set, “Uncanny X-Men” likewise, Scarlet Witch is a later arrival. Iron Fist will only be appearing for the first time this autumn, as a promo card at organised play events. Hope herself, the pivotal figure of the drama remains entirely absent.
All New All Different
WARNING: This section contains spoilers for current/ongoing Marvel Comics Plotlines.
At this precise moment in time, Marvel is the process of massively restructuring its universes: essentially taking all the different continuities and mashing them together. In the wake of this change around, it seems that The Fantastic Four have ceased to exist as a team, the X-Men are being marginalised, and groups like the Inhumans are thrust front and centre, suddenly the preferred option for explaining “powered” individuals without using the word “mutant.”
A lot of people have speculated that Marvel’s restructuring is as much about giving prominence to the characters for whom they still control the film rights (and taking it away from those they don’t) as it is about making it easier for new comic book fans to get into the stories. As an X-Men fan (I’m really not that bothered about the Fantastic 4) I’m hoping they don’t carry this too far, but I also hope that games themed around Marvel characters don’t just become a political football between various cinema companies.
Sadly, I’m not convinced that this isn’t what is happening: The first set (AvX) contained 3 of the Fantastic Four. The Invisible Woman, ironically, is nowhere to be seen, and at no point in time have we had any synergy between them.
X-Men characters have been in steady decline as a proportion of the Marvel sets with each release, and even though there are quite a lot of mutants out there, their synergy has always been much lower key than the Avengers: there are various Avengers who reward you for having other Avengers, but it’s almost unheard of to come across an X-Man who rewards you for having other X-Men. In fact, the Promo Kitty Pryde is the only card to interact positively with other X-Men, whilst there are multiple cards which target X-Men negatively, such as Dark Phoenix, Sentinels, or most of the Maximoff family. (Villains and Justice League are also thematic teams with much more mechanical support). X-Men it seems were in the title early on, to draw people in, but not really delivered upon as a mechanic.
You can also see hints of the current comic-book events setting the agenda with cards like the Age of Ultron Thor. No longer is the wielder of Mjolnir the Son of Odin, but Jane Foster – entirely in keeping with Marvels current comic-book output, but nothing to do with the Age of Ultron.
Legen (wait for it…)
Aside from Dice Masters, the Marvel game which occupies most of my time and money at the moment, is Legendary.
Although this game has been out for a few years, it’s only acquired an official UK distributor in the past couple of months, so is quite the hot property over here.
I think Legendary is a good example of the way that the Marvel brand is subjecting the board games to comic-book continuity: No longer is a rough working knowledge of the last decade or two of the comics sufficient to fully engage with the tabletop games coming from Marvel.
The earlier sets for this game reflected a fairly traditional line-up of characters (mostly X-Men and Avengers, with themed mini-expansions for Fantastic 4, Guardians of the Galaxy and Spiderman and friends), including art and characters that were decidedly retro in style.
Last month however, the new “Secret Wars Part 1” box appeared, which drags Legendary, kicking and screaming, right up to date – bringing in twists and variations that will be lost on / major spoilers for, not only on those folk who haven’t read a comic in a few years, but also people like me who prefer to wait a few weeks for comic-arcs to be collected into paperbacks.
To take one example, the Secret Wars 1 box finally gives players of Marvel Legendary the chance to play as my favourite X-Man, Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat. Kitty has been around since the 1980s, when she first appeared as a teenage student at Xavier’s school, and was the central figure in the original Days of Future Past comic (i.e. it was Kitty, not Wolverine whose consciousness was sent back to inhabit her younger body), Kitty had a close relationship with Wolverine, who acted something like an uncle to her, and the two had their own spin-off series in which Kitty was possessed by a rather sinister Ninja, and adopted her most enduring codename, Shadowcat.
After this, she moved around a bit: joined Excalibur for a while (we all make mistakes), and had a spell as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. when someone hacked a Hellicarrier to only respond to her commands. Kitty returned to Xavier’s school as a teacher/guidance counsellor for Joss Whedon’s excellent Astonishing X-Men series in the early 2000s, and saved the planet earth from destruction by a giant bullet, at the cost of leaving herself trapped in space.
She was brought back a few years later, and has continued as a teacher at Xavier’s School, taking responsibility for the original X-Men brought from the past (Cyclops, Jean, Beast, Angel, Ice-Man), and has travelled with them into outer space on a number of occasions, for the Trial of Jean Grey, and more recently to save the Universe from a Magic Mirror, going by the sinister name of “Black Vortex.” It was during one of these visits that she met Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord who she begins dating and, after pausing briefly to become an entity of cosmic power, the two get engaged whilst walking in space.
Marvel Legendary: Secret wars part 1 features the character “Apocalyptic Kitty Pryde” – who seems to be the version of Kitty Pryde from the Age of Apocalypse reality, (and also bears a suspicious resemblance to Olivia Newton-John in the final scene of Grease). This version of Kitty was last seen some years ago (when I thought she was dead), but has apparently been revived and thrown together into a title with Star-Lord.
- With the real (Earth-616) Kitty suddenly AWOL, does the inclusion of “Apocalyptic” Kitty in the game mean that she is gone forever?
- Will Peter simply get over the loss of his fiancée with this parallel version?
Inevitably, I’ll end up buying Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde once they collect it into a TPB (I own Kitty Pryde: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and it can’t be any worse than that), but I’d rather read the comic story in its own good time, and have this sort of thing appear on my game table in a few years’ time.
Those of you familiar with my other blog will know that I like to produce a fair amount of fun custom content. Up until know that’s been something I’ve largely avoided for Dice Masters – being a competitive game rather than a coop, and also being one I don’t play much at home, there’s been little point designing a card no-one could ever play with.
That said, I wanted to end this article on a slightly positive note so, using the custom card creator for the first time, and safe in the knowledge it will never see the table, I’ve designed a Hope Summers card, at least until WizKids give us a real one…