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Sentinels Of The Multiverse (Acquire-To-Zendo)

🦸🏼 The World Needs A Hero. I AM THAT HERO!

2011, 3-5 players
Complexity: medium

In 2011, Christopher Badell and Adam Rebotaro pulled off a trick that every nerdy kid has dreamed of for years. They made a career out of creating a comic book superhero world. This game, the flagship property for Greater Than Games, has cast a long shadow. In addition to expanding its own content, there is a spin-off miniatures game series, a tabletop RPG, and a video game implementation--with some truly epic soundtracks--a tactical video game, a stuffed mechanical raptor, and more. There's a podcast devoted just to the stories behind the characters. There's a forthcoming collaboration with Green Ronin that uses this game engine with characters from Mutants & Masterminds.

Let's See It In Action

In Sentinels Of The Multiverse, you and up to four friends will join forces to take on a supervillain. Now, this game is fully cooperative, which means that it can be played solitaire-style without changing any rules, but a game is always going to involve three to five heroes. Each deck is meant to be an abstraction of something in the comic book world: a hero, a villain, or the environment where the fight is happening. Heroes come in a variety of complexities and no two of them play the same. Some are focused on innate powers, some do a lot of damage but are limited in the type they can do. Others are about healing, controlling the villain deck, controlling the environment deck, or supporting other heroes. There's a ton of variety.

Each hero deck is a pre-built deck with 40 cards and one character card (again, in future games this gets changed up). The character card defines your health, your base power and your incapacitated abilities (when you run out of hit points, you're not out of the game, but you take a much less active role). The Wraith, pictured above, has a base power called "Stealth" which, if used, will reduce the next damage she takes by 2. On your turn, you will play a card from your hand, use a power, and then draw a card, resolving any card effects that are triggered. Wraith is a Batman-style gadget-based hero, so her deck is built around the idea of getting equipment cards into play. Her base power doesn't do any damage, so in order to make her an effective fighter, you need to go diving for equipment cards so you can use the powers listed there instead.

The most complex hero in the base game is Absolute Zero, a character who (because origin story chemical accident) requires extremely low temperatures to survive and uses a special suit to maintain his body temp. At the start of the game, all he can do is turn is his temperature up or down, both of which hurt him. The gameplay abstraction of this is that his base power is to deal himself either 1 cold or 1 fire damage. He then has module cards that will allow him to turn cold damage into healing or deal cold damage whenever he gets hit with fire, making him a light-weight fighter with high survivability in the mid-game. Once you get him completely set up, he can roller-coaster his health up and down doing tons of damage to enemy targets and still finishing up his turn at full health.

The environment deck is the location of the fight, and it's meant to represent challenges that the heroes must face that are external to the villain. They don't necessarily have keywords (they stay in play until removed), and they can either hurt or hinder heroes and villains alike. During the environment turn, you put the top card of the deck in play and resolve any card effects.

Finally, there's the villain (note--I'm using an oversized villain card, but in the base game, the villain cards are smaller), who represents the scenario that the heroes are fighting against. Like the Environment, every villain turn you put the top card into play and resolve any effects. Each villain plays uniquely. The starter game villain--Baron Blade--is a healthy mix of everything you'll find in the base game. He has cards that make him attack the heroes, minions who do damage, devices that block, reduce, or redirect damage, cards that force heroes to either discard to destroy cards in play, cards that heal him, cards that make him play extra cards, etc. You can also see his victory condition--if there are 15 cards in his trash at the start of his turn, game over, you lose.

Villain character cards are all two-sided, and each side represents a different phase of the fight--although what that means varies from villain to villain. Baron Blade flips after you defeat him, giving you another iteration of him to defeat--this time one who deals damage but doesn't have as much health or the alternate loss condition. Citizen Dawn cannot be defeated or even take damage at all when she's on her reverse side, meaning you can't win until you make her flip back. Grand Warlord Voss's two sides represent an offensive or defensive posturing, and he flips back and forth based on the number of minions he has in play. Omnitron flips every villain turn, but the side he's on just indicates whether he plays an extra card from his deck or from his trash.

Altogether there are ten heroes to choose from, four environments, and four villains, making for a lot of potential gameplay variety. By and large, characters in the base game are archetypes. There's the charismatic leader (Legacy), the god from an ancient pantheon (Ra), the one that controls weather (Tempest), the speedster (Tachyon), the psychic (Visionary), the gadget-wielding stealth detective (Wraith), the vaguely European mad scientist (Baron Blade), the fascist cult leader (Citizen Dawn), the alien invader (Grand Warlord Voss) and the rampaging robot (Omnitron). Defeat the villain--which usually just means reducing their health to zero, but there are exceptions--and you win. But if the villain's alternate game-ending conditions are met, or if all your heroes are incapacitated, then you lose.

As in real life...

What Makes It So Good?

Originally conceived as an RPG with no GM, Sentinels is the game that comic book fans have been craving from their favorite properties but never getting. The closest thing to it is Marvel Champions, which came out in the last year. While I like that game a lot, it doesn't come close to capturing the magic that Sentinels has. Mechanically, it's basically a scenario-driven engine builder, and I love those types of games. The fact that it's an engine-builder where the goal is not just to accumulate victory points but to take out a supervillain menace just makes it all the sweeter. But going beyond just gameplay, Sentinels does an amazing job of capturing the feel of an expanded comic book universe from a company that has been publishing hero books for nearly a century. These characters and worlds feel thoroughly lived-in, and it's a testament to the writing that the game is able to pull off its world-building so well in a way that never interferes with gameplay.

Not only does it never get in the way, it has been allowed to build and grow as more and more game content has been released. In the base game, Legacy feels like a sort of hybrid between Superman and Captain America. But the artwork tells a story. On his incapacitated side, you can see him being cradled by his daughter after he was defeated by Baron Blade. In that story, he dies and is succeeded by his daughter who was the first variant ever released as a promo card. On her incapacitated side, you see her being killed by Baren Blade, which is a reference to an alternate timeline in which Legacy is crushed with guilt and becomes an authoritarian warlord, who is then the villain Iron Legacy in the Shattered Timelines expansion. There was also an older hero named Legacy who fought the Nazis during World War II, and he was also released as a promo, but he was also killed by a previous Baron Blade because these characters have been dynastic nemeses for decades. At the end, because of timeline shenanigans, all of the heroes are back alive, which enables them to join forces against Oblivaeon.

It's not just heroes and their mantles. The art and flavor text throughout are just littered with references to long-running continuity (that doesn't actually exist). Some of it was tied into ARGs around the games' Kickstarter campaigns, but there are a ton of callbacks and echoes just within the game. Take, for instance with the blue hairdryer that shows up in decks for The Wraith (base game), the Realm Of Discord (Infernal Relics) and finally as a Mission reward in Oblivaeon.

Heroes and villains are constantly showing up in new contexts. As I mentioned above, Legacy is one of the marquis heroes, but an evil version of him called Iron Legacy is one of the toughest villains in the expanded game. In addition to the two promo character cards that are different people using the mantle of Legacy, there's also an "Inverse-iverse" version called Legacy Of Destruction who shows up in the art for a heroic version of Baron Blade. The evil sentient supercomputer Omnitron is a villain, a promo villain, a target in a different villain deck, a hero, and an environment. And because it happens in a world with lots of timeline shenanigans going on, everything is allowed. The game designers have always maintained that "every game is canon"--because multiverse. If you want to have Omnitron-X leading a team to fight Cosmic Omnitron in the environment of Omnitron IV, you can do that, and it's canon.

That's because Sentinels Of The Multiverse is comic book Legos. Here are the pieces to an epic comic book showdown. Select your team and see how it plays out. Find the crazy synergies that make card games so wild. And find the character that speaks to the type of hero you want to be.

What's Not To Like?

This is a game where the designers have gotten better and better with time... which means that the oldest content (read: the base game) is also the weakest. Don't get me wrong, I still adore this game, but the art is rough, the environments tend to just outright hamstring you rather than providing challenges, and the villains can be super swingy. Citizen Dawn, specifically, can make the game extremely not fun if she gets the right card draw. She has a Devastating Aurora card that wipes out all of your hero set-up, and she has minions that can force you to destroy or discard and reduce or block damage, and these scale very sharply. It's possible to end up in a situation where you can't hurt her or her minions, but you're forced to discard your hand every round before you have a chance to play anything, but she's not really hurting you either. And that just sucks.

The typical flow of the game is that you start with a villain who is at least partially set up (or building towards something) and heroes who are not set up at all, so you have to balance ramping up your heroes against dealing with emergent threats. Cards that either reset or substantially set back that ramp are brutal--and three of the four base villains can do that. Sometimes they don't even have to reset you. If Omnitron's Electro-Pulse Explosive comes out on turn 1, you can wind up losing half your health in the first round if you have characters who aren't immediately ready to start hitting. Some of this is just the inherent randomness of card games. You can just as easily get a really good card draw and the game ends too quickly. Or if you personally get a bad card draw but everyone else is fine, you can end up spinning your wheels for a few rounds while everyone else at the table is having fun and contributing to the victory.

Beyond that, card interactions can get extremely complex, and it can be a lot to keep track of, especially if you're playing solitaire. The wording is sometimes vague (Greater Than Games doesn't have a great track record with writing very clear rule books), which can throw a wrench in the flow of the game while you search the BGG forums for official rulings. It doesn't help that the keywords aren't bold when they're used in card text. If you're new to the game, you might not know the difference between a card and a target or the difference between a hero card and a non-villain card.

While the characters are all archetypes, some of them are more thinly-veiled reskins of existing characters than others. Bunker wears a suit that turns him into a walking tank, but you'd never in a million years confuse him for Iron Man. They have different looks, different personalities, they use their weapons in different ways, and all of that comes through in the cards. Wraith, on the other hand, might as well wear a sign saying "Basically Batman."

Finally, the game doesn't scale transparently. It scales well at least from a difficulty perspective, but a three-player game against Omnitron is going to feel like a different experience than a five-player game against the same villain.

Is It Expansible?

Holy cow, yes. The base game includes ten heroes, four villains, and four environments, but after all of the expansions, there are thirty-seven heroes, twenty-four regular villains, and twenty-seven environments. There are variant character cards that change up gameplay: six villains that use an existing villain deck with a new scenario and between one and four variants for every hero that have different base powers and incapacitated abilities. There are also two new modes of play: there's a team villain mode where you choose three-to-five villains from a pool of fifteen, and there's the final expansion Oblivaeon that turns the game into a three or four hour heavy-weight where you command a dozen or so heroes in a multi-phase battle across five environments and two battlefields with side-missions, special rewards, and ten mini-bosses of which you will face four or five, typically.

Oh, also, there's a whole community of fan-made print-and-play decks, if that's something you're into.

Here's a run-down of the official content that's available (Rook City and Infernal Relics are now sold as a single box--same with Shattered Timelines and Wrath Of The Cosmos):
  • Rook City - 2 heroes, 4 villains, 2 environments, noir vibe
  • Infernal Relics - 2 heroes, 4 villains, 2 environments, supernatural vibe
  • Shattered Timelines - 2 heroes, 4 villains, 2 environments, timeline shenanigans
  • Vengeance - 5 heroes, 5 team villains, 2 environments, adds "team villain" game mode
  • Wrath Of The Cosmos - 2 heroes, 4 villains, 2 environments, serious Jack Kirby energy
  • Villains Of The Multiverse - 10 team villains, 4 environments
  • Oblivaeon - 5 heroes, 11(ish) Oblivaeon villains, 5 environment, adds the Oblivaeon scenario which includes Oblivaeon and the 10 Scion mini-bosses, and decks for missions, scions, and aeon men.
  • Void Guard - 4 hero mini-expansion
  • Single decks - 5 heroes, 4 villains, 4 environments, these largely started life as Kickstarter stretch-goal rewards and are now sold individually
  • Hero Variant collection - all hero variants, available as both foil and regular cards
  • Giant-size Villain cards - giant-sized versions of all villain character cards, includes all six variant villains, available as both foil and regular cards
  • Collector case - includes one variant, a comic, and a single (unwieldy) box that will hold all of the content

Final Thoughts

In the "Final Thoughts" of my Azul post, I said that if you were to ask me what my favorite game is, there's about a 50/50 chance I'd say Azul. The other 50 in that equation is Sentinels Of The Multiverse. It's got crazy card interactions, delightful characters, and superheroes. What's not to love?

Tune in next week for some intense press-your-luck and bluffing in Skull...

In Acquire-To-Zendo, Kurt is going through his favorite board games in alphabetical order. Read the explainer or see more posts.