Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse—Extreme Engagement
Ever since Gen Con, Sentinels of the Multiverse has been quite the hot topic. And that status isn’t without justification. SoM provides a fantastic co-op experience and provides each player with unique and different opportunities. And, because of the different heroes, villains, and environments, the game offers untold unique combinations of play. My games (for the most part) have been nothing short of engaging, exciting, and extremely enjoyable (alliteration ftw!).
The Basics. In SoM, the players take on the roles of comic book heroes. Each of SoM’s ten unique heroes has been created specifically for the game, so you won’t see Batman or the X-Men. Though the game technically plays from three to five, four is the perfect number. So, you won’t see all ten heroes in each game, and the different heroes combine their strengths in unique and interesting ways. The Mighty Ra, for example, has a lot of direct and high damage fire attacks. Meanwhile, Bunker shifts between different “modes” and the Fanatic can damage herself to aid others or wreak her vengeance.
Once the four heroes are selected, the players can then select a villain to challenge. The Villains span the gamut of frequent comic book tropes. There’s Citizen Dawn, the leader of an evil super alliance; Grand Warlord Voss, a galactic invader; Omnitron, a self-aware robotics facility bent on destroying mankind; and Baron Blade, a mad scientist trying to crash the moon into the Earth. As with the heroes, each villain has a distinctly different play style. Add to that four different environments, such as Atlantis, the Megalopolis, or Mars, and each will impact the play of the characters.
After setup, the villain takes his turn, with all of his minions acting according to their cards. Then, the heroes each have an action. Finally, the environment effect occurs—which can help the heroes, but more often hurts them. And, they can combine to deadly effect. In one game, we had Omnitron develop ablative armor that adapted to damage. So, if you dealt fire damage, it would become immune to fire until another type of damage was dealt. Then, the Environment card Close Quarters Combat made all damage Melee damage. So, that meant only one hero could damage Omnitron that turn—the rest would be absorbed by the ablative armor.
The villain has a high amount of hit points and, in general, the players win when the villain is destroyed. The players also have hit points. But if a hero is killed, they aren’t knocked out of the game. Instead, they flip their character card to the back and have the option of selecting one of three different (and less powerful) actions to help the surviving team members. In this way, there is certainly a penalty for dying, but there is no player elimination and the players can still help their teammates achieve victory.
The Feel. SoM is an unbelievably engaging game. First off, it captures the comic book motif perfectly. You have all sorts of heroes from the time-traveling Visionary to the alien Tempest. The character cards are styled like comic book covers and convey the feel of the characters. The rulebook also has brief back stories on each hero. And many of their cards show quotes to their comics—complete with citations—even though no such comic exists. It helps you to feel like you are playing an established character.
Best yet, every hero plays very differently. There is very little overlap in ability and style. Though some heroes might be classified as more of a support role, and others as major damage dealers, they all go about it differently. So, getting a different experience out of the game is as simple as choosing a new hero to play. Tired of the Wraith? Just switch to Legacy.
The thing that impresses me most about SoM, though, is that it essentially obliterates the main problem with co-op games. The biggest critique of co-ops is that, because information sharing is encouraged by the format, one player with a more forceful personality can end up directing all the other players. A co-op can turn into a game with essentially one player and the rest automatons. By its format, though, SoM avoids this problem entirely.
First, the cards in each hero deck are completely unique to that hero. And those cards are kept secret (as a practice, not as a rule) from the other players. As a result, each player has to play their character in a manner that benefits the group. And while certain instances come up where one player might ask about the best way to play this card or that, or whether to strike out against the Villain, his minion, or the pesky Environment card, the exact details are known only to one player.
Additionally, the cards are so straightforward that any player (even non-gamers) can grasp them quickly. This means that if you introduce this game, you won’t have to spend time reading every card from every player (though certainly questions will arise in some circumstances). As a result, even new players to the game will feel like they are fully in control and are contributing what they think are the best actions. Everyone remains absolutely engaged in the gameplay and the struggle can come down to the wire more often than not.
The one negative, and it’s bound to happen with so many combinations, is that there are some hero/villain match ups where the heroes just smash the villain to teeny tiny bits. It’s not even a challenge. And, conversely, some match ups where the villain strolls up and takes the heroes’ lunch money and tells them they dress funny. This can be true if you pick too many “support” heroes and not enough damage dealers—especially against Citizen Dawn or Voss, who have armies behind them.
However, this happens only in a small minority of plays. It’s easy to remember the epic failures and to avoid their repetition. And, if you find yourself too successful against the villains, each has a special “advanced mode” that makes the game far harder for the heroes. So, while you might have an aberrational “bad” game from time to time, the vast majority will be thrilling, engaging, cooperative, communicative, games that really make your group come together.
Components: 3 of 5. This breaks down into what is there and what isn’t. What is there is phenomenal. The cards are on sturdy stock and can stand up to a lot of shuffling. The artwork is also fantastic. I love the comic book covers for the character cards and the fallen hero pictures on the back. The inclusion of comic book references and little quotes from the characters is wonderful and helps to create an immersive experience.
What the game lacks, though, are counters for the life totals. Heroes, Villains, some environment cards, and villain lackeys all have life totals. And they carry over from round to round. The game states that players should use pen and paper to keep track of it. Um…no. With the amount of losing life, gaining life, and the extreme variety of minions out there, doing it that way would turn the game into an accounting nightmare. I added ten-sided dice to keep track of health and glass stones to cover spaces on some life trackers. Adding dice or other counters is essential. Otherwise, the game becomes more homework than fun.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. There is definitely luck involved. In one game, Absolute Zero had all of his best cards out and, after spending several turns gearing up, was ready to kick some butt. Then, a villain card came and made him discard all of his precious cards. Bam! Just like that he was back to square one. That happens. Still, there is a lot of discussion about which cards to damage, who should sacrifice for the greater good, and which powers should be used and why. While the unexpected frequently happens, players are fully in control of their characters and usually have a number of options to impact the game (though bad draws, as in all card games, do happen).
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Considering that players have to read unique cards and learn their characters on the fly, the game goes surprisingly fast. Each turn, a hero plays one card and uses one power (modified by other abilities). This streamlined gameplay, reminiscent of greats like Ticket to Ride, ensures that plays move quickly even while the players can accomplish a good deal on their turn. The only negative here is the number of players. The game definitely plays the best with four players. Although it says it can support three or five, that’s only half true. Three player games will seem very difficult, with Villains getting more actions and the heroes having less opportunities to fight back. The reverse is true with five player games often feeling like a hero win is inevitable. Stick with four players for the best experience.
Replayability: 5 of 5. SoM provides a truly powerful experience. The common enemy does a great job of bringing all of the players together. In a four-player game, there is a significant challenge and the victory feels well-earned, and a defeat only encourages more play. But, with ten heroes, four villains, and four environments, the combinations are huge! Fighting Baron Blade in Atlantis with Bunker is a far different experience than attacking Omnitron with Legacy in Megalopolis. The replay potential for this game is astounding.
Spite: 0 of 5. As a co-op game, spite is completely absent. Every player is hoping to kill the big baddie at the focal point of the game. There is no reason to steal other players cards or skip their turns. In fact, sometimes cards must be discarded to end nasty Environment cards and a discussion will ensue about who can best pay that price for the good of all.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. I play a lot of games, and I do enjoy co-ops. Though SoM will have the occasional lopsided game, and though you’ll definitely need to add dice or other health trackers in order to have a good time, this game has absolutely given me the best experiences in co-op gaming. I completely dig how everyone works together, but each player is in total control of their own character—without that annoying guy telling you what you “should” do or what the “best” move is. I would recommend SoM to anyone who enjoys co-op gaming, comic books, or any person who generally likes to have a good time. The only way this isn’t for you is if you’re the enemy of fun.