Superheroes – Marvel Dice Masters review

MDM BoxLucky ducks that we are, Little Metal Dog recently received a copy of the base set for Marvel Dice Masters to review. Seemingly now as hard to get as hen’s teeth garnishing a pile of rocking horse poop, we thought that both Michael and Emma should check it out. And so we did! Emma, take it away…

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So this is Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men. Or possibly Marvel Avengers vs. X-Men Dice Masters, depending on how you read the box and understand English. It seems to have gripped the gaming community to a fairly breathtaking extent, so you already probably know all about it, but just in case you’ve only just got Internet signal back after some kind of catastrophic router failure, here’s a rundown. In MDM:AvXM/MAvXMDM, you have a selection of custom dice representing Marvel characters, nameless sidekicks and actions, each with its own ability cards to contain all the text you can’t fit on tiny dice. You take out a handful, roll them, use them to buy new dice, eventually use some of them to field powerful heroes, and use them to attack your opponent (just the one, this is strictly a two-player experience) until one of you stands victorious. Now, if you’re thinking this sounds more or less exactly like Quarriors, then you’re pretty much right: MDM (let’s go with that for now) is published by WizKids (who published Quarriors), is designed by Mike Elliot and Eric Lang (who designed Quarriors), and consists of hundreds of tiny customised dice and a poorly-defined play area (like some other game I could mention whose name I’ve forgotten for the minute).

Of course, I say hundreds of dice – the basic set only has 44, and all the rest are available as blind-bag random booster packs (or so I’m informed – I can’t actually find any for love nor money). If your rampant-money-gouging sense is tingling here, it’s probably warranted – despite WizKids insisting that the game is perfectly playable with just the starter set, we tabletop gamers tend to be, as a rule, rabid completists and hoarders, so they’ll probably make a huge amount out of people trying to get every card in the set, and the blind-bag model means that the cost of this could quickly spiral out of all proportion. This model wouldn’t make it feel like a bit of a rip-off on its own (at least not to me – I grew up on Magic: the Gathering and am a massive sucker for collectible games), but compared with the fairly low production costs of the game, it does begin to feel like WizKids are putting their profit margins before everything else – the cardstock is light and weak-feeling, the printing on some of the dice is frankly awful, and the less said about the horrible wax-paper envelopes they refer to as ‘dice bags’ the better. Also, after you’ve got through the tutorial game and start looking at some of the deckbuilding variants, you begin to realise that the starter set is totally playable on its own, but only if both players have one – played according to the printed rules, one starter set doesn’t let players have over eight dice each (out of a maximum 20) – this determines your maximum life points as well, which makes for just ridiculously short games.

Anyway, enough about dodgy business practices – how’s the game? To be honest, I’m not sure – it’s growing on me at the moment, but I’m still aware of its many faults. The rulebook is practically unreadable, packed with interminable amounts of tiny text, and it feels at times like they just took Quarriors, took away all the mechanical tweaks that made it different from M:tG, and replaced them with ones unashamedly lifted from it. This makes it a little questionable as a deckbuilder – I was particularly bemused by the lack of opportunities for deck optimisation, as there’s no way to remove dice from your bag to streamline it – but after a few plays, I began to see my problem with it. It isn’t a boardgame. Sure, some of you are probably saying “Well yeah, it hasn’t got a board,” but that isn’t the thing. Lots of boardgames don’t have boards. Quarriors doesn’t have a board and is mechanically identical in many ways to MDM, but it’s still a boardgame. With its mechanics and sales model, as well as just in overall feel, MDM is definitely more of a CCG, but one that’s being marketed to a boardgaming audience, which I think explains a lot of the disappointment people have been feeling about it. Taken as a CCG, however, it’s pretty solid: with at least three variants on each character, there’s a lot of scope for strategy once you’ve got enough dice to play with sensible life totals, and there are so many cool power interactions (even just in the starter box) to satisfy inveterate combo players like me.

So, should you buy it? I’m going to have to give you a resounding “Maybe.” here. If you’re an M:tG fan with an interest in light deckbuilding and rolling huge numbers of dice, then you’re pretty much me, and should look into it, while being aware that the surprisingly low price on the starter box is not how much this game will cost you, as in that form it will not satisfy you. It might look like cheap Quarriors, but the average tabletop gamer will probably get a lot more out of the later, despite the comparatively steep price. Marvel Dice Masters: it’s good, but don’t believe the hype.

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MDM Starter Set with empty biscuit wrappers – M. Fox, 2014

And now it’s time for me (that’s Michael, by the way). I’ve got to say that I’m not as forgiving as Emma was – Marvel Dice Masters to me was pretty disappointing. I’m a big fan of Quarriors, maybe not as much as I used to be, but I’m happy to sit down and play whenever someone breaks out a copy. Whenever someone new stumbles across Quarriors, it’s a lovely thing to see – the excitement over the fistfuls of dice, the surprisingly complex gameplay hidden beneath the cutesy vibe of the thing – and I was hoping that I’d be getting the same thing from MDM. On getting my hands on the base set I experienced the same feelings myself, probably combined with the hype that surrounded… and then I sat down to play the thing.

Or at least I tried to. Where Quarriors originally had a rulebook that was rather vague and needed the occasional house ruling, MDM heads to the other extreme. I can see why they’ve included a terrifyingly detailed set of rules in that small package, of course; the game is being aimed at the tournament play market where rulings are broken down to an infinitesimally small degree and a single word on a card can be argued over for hours. Rather than the joy and relatively light play that you get from Quarriors, MDM presents itself as something for the hardcore from the moment you open the box.

(On writing, I realise I’ve mentioned the Q word four times in two paragraphs. No more from here on, promise – MDM deserves to be analysed independently of its predecessor.)

MDM feels like a Serious Dice Game For Nerds and while that sounds utterly amazing I just don’t reckon it lives up to the hype. This is two large superhero groups smashing into each other. This is broken bones, blood spilled, buildings destroyed; this is  Wolverine punching Cyclops in the face, represented by a selection of smaller than average dice. I think what I’m trying to get at is that you just don’t get the big screen feeling that this kind of story deserves. If you’ve seen it, think of those last thirty minutes of the first Avengers movie that came out in 2012; call up that bombastic style again, just remember the power of each frame… and then look at Marvel Dice Masters. It just doesn’t match up for me.

Underneath the whole thing, there’s a solid enough game, sure – but it’s a game that I’ve already played that I just don’t feel works in this environment. That whole ‘Oh, I’ve knocked you down to zero health’ thing just doesn’t seem right to me; thematically it’s just a bit dull. I’ve seen that many people are getting into it, but I think that I’m going to be leaving MDM behind. I appreciate that the designers have tried to answer every possible question that MDM could possibly create, but in doing so they’ve surgically removed the frivolity in a bid to enter the collectable game market. Fun, it feels, has been traded in for a cash grab – and seeing the amount of demand for the product, Marvel Dice Masters is going to pull in a fair bit of it. Just wait until they expand it yet further, adding in more characters including all of those supervillains… the Marvel Universe isn’t exactly small, and there’s a lot of potential for tie-ins. Guardians of the Galaxy in the summer, anyone?

Emma already brought up the production value thing, but yeah… I’ve got to mention the slightly meh dice and those bloody awful excuses for dice bags (seriously, Wizkids? You couldn’t front an extra few cents for a couple of actual bags?). At least the art on the cards is excellent, with some of Marvel’s finest in recent years represented amongst those whose work is used. For me though, Marvel Dice Masters will be left on the shelf. If I want to get the dice-building experience, well… you know what I’ll be playing.

Marvel Dice Masters will set you back around £13 for the starter set, with booster packs priced at around £3 if you’re into all that rare-chasing stuff. Designed by Mike Elliot and Eric M. Lang, it was published by WizKids in 2014 and is only for two players (at the moment, anyway). Shipments should be coming to the rest of the world (ie: not the USA) soon, but for now, if you want a copy expect to pay something of a premium. If you’d like to check out a more positive look at the game, here’s The Judge’s opinion!

 

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