Time to save the multiverse
A couple years ago I was blogging about my love of tabletop games and described Sentinels of the Multiverse as being either my first or second favorite, depending on what day of the week it was. Then last year they announced a new "Definitive Edition" of the base game with expansion content to follow. This would be a ground-up rethinking and rebalancing that would, amongst other things, be mostly incompatible with the existing content. Of which I have a lot. This has been a "shut-up-and-take-my-money" IP for years now, so it's not like I wasn't going to buy it, but I was at first trepidatious. I mean, was this even necessary? And then I saw an interview with the creators where they talked about what they were trying to accomplish with the new edition, and I was on board. And then the Kickstarter launched and more information was available and I got excited. After all, as I mentioned in the above-linked write-up, the oldest Sentinels content is by far the weakest, and it was long due for an upgrade. It was set to deliver in August, but the global shipping crisis pushed it off until the very last days of December, and as the months dragged on, I went from excited to mildly obsessed.
And now I have it. And over the last month or so, I've played it. A lot. In fact, I've played all of it. Several times. I've played it so much that I felt the need to write a setup randomizer that would force me to a try new character combinations and strategies.
Now, my original plan for this post was to run through every character and compare them line-by-line to talk about improvements and such, and as the post neared novelette-length it occurred to me that there was literally no one with enough interest in the game to read this entire post who wouldn't already have their hands on a copy. So instead I'm writing an exhaustive summary. Don't get me wrong, it's still wholly unnecessary and entirely too long, but [ed: insert justification] and it's my blog, dammit! So without further ado, here is a thoroughly unnecessary (or perhaps unnecessarily thorough) review of Sentinels of the Multiverse: Definitive Edition.
The overall package is a definite improvement. In addition to revamped art, there have been a lot of little quality-of-life upgrades that add up to a much better experience. The fonts are more readable, the tokens are better, and rules tweaks have been implemented to make things a lot easier to track. This includes standardization of mechanics around turn phases and some new terms that cut down on game text, as well as re-engineering gameplay to use these terms wherever possible. For example, the term "Discover" now replaces the game text: "Reveal cards from the top of your deck until [quantity] [keyword] cards have been revealed. Put the [keyword] cards into play and shuffle the rest back into your deck." Some keywords like "Burst" and "Module" have been done away with entirely and "Equipment" cards are now "Item" cards. Things like this cut down on game text and play-time immensely. But my favorite of these quality-of-life upgrades is the addition of health spinners. Now you can glance at your heroes and know how much health they have without having to add up tokens of different denominations.
The game has also been sped up significantly. Heroes build and recover faster, and villains do more damage out of the gate. Coupled with this is an overall philosophical change to the approach the game takes towards pacing. The previous version of the game--especially the early content--was structured around building up your engine so you could whittle down the Villain's health until they disrupted your setup and you'd have to fix your engine and keep at it while also saving up for a few massive hits, and most of the early heroes had an optimal build that you would work towards. This new version actively discourages you from playing that way. You're not going to have to time create an optimal build. Instead, it's about piecing together a working strategy with the cards you have, and once you get over the hump to where you have a functioning damage engine and some control of the battlefield, the game is usually only a round or two from ending. As such, there's not much point in saving up for really big hits in the endgame. It's far more fruitful to try to get a couple of medium-sized hits in the mid-game. And this comes through in the character re-designs.
On the whole I'm supremely happy with it. That said, I do have a couple of gripes. On the villain spinner--you know, the one you'll use every game--the dials are too close together and stick. The card stock is a little too thick. I play this with my kids and they can't shuffle these cards, which means I have to shuffle all the decks for every game, often multiple times in a game, and it makes my hands hurt after a while. My seven-year-old did try to shuffle one of the decks by making two stacks and pushing them together, which is a strategy he uses on regular playing cards, and ended up damaging a couple of cards this way. (We have repaired with glue, they're still playable, but yeah, that sucks.) Finally, for a game that's as story intensive as this is, some of the prose is rough, especially on the Event cards. It's often unclear and feels a little wooden. It's not horrible, especially compared to other narrative-forward games (looking at YOU, Aeon's End) but it would have benefited from a professional editor.
Every Hero deck has been altered to a greater or lesser extent. Argent Adept has barely changed at all, aside from new art and a few things to speed up his build, meanwhile Bunker and Tempest have been completely re-designed and feel like brand new characters. And it's honestly for the best. Bunker in particular is a great example of getting away from "optimal build" because the previous version very clearly had one. You would get all of your gun cards in play plus Armored Plating and Ammo Drop, and optionally the one that lets you heal, and then just camp on Turret Mode while you reload your Omni-Cannon. But in practice, actually getting to that build was either time-consuming or you waste your early rounds not contributing to the fight, and he was extremely susceptible to villain wipes. This new version still has gun cards, now keyworded as "Ordnance", but now all of them get loaded--meaning you have something to maintain and balance in the mid-game. Certain Ordnance cards benefit from only being fired every other round, but leaving them out there without ever firing them can actually be harmful and tie up cards you have loaded underneath. I've played him a number of times and never once have I gotten every single Ordnance card into play. You pick two or three and balance them and then when your ammo starts to pile up you play Turret Mode and clear things out. The mode cards are impermanent now, so you're incentivized to use them more opportunistically. It's a lot more fun.
Several heroes have been made less swingy and inconsistent. The notable examples are Absolute Zero and Unity, who are far less likely to get a crap opening hand that leaves them useless for a few rounds with the trade-off that they're less likely to be doing huge damage spikes later in the game. There's also been an effort to remove "cheese" strategies (read as: strategies that aren't technically against the rules but reduce the difficulty to the point that it almost feels like cheating). This is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the decks play much more consistently. On the other, cheese can be fun, and a few of the heroes feel like they've been nerfed, especially Haka. Now, to be fair, Haka was an extremely cheesey character. As such, we've lost Ground Pound, there's no more thinning out the villain deck with Savage Mana, and no more Punish the Weak to mitigate the backsplash effects of Rampage. Also, his big hit card, Haka of Battle, is now delayed by a round, so he actually feels a bit less fun if you're used to playing him a certain way. Once you acclimate to the new philosophy of "fewer big hits, more medium-sized hits" he becomes more accessible.
On the whole, I like the new decks. Haka and Absolute Zero I'm a little luke-warm on, but the new versions of especially Tachyon, Fanatic, and Unity are fantastic.
I'm also very much on board with the line-up change--losing Visionary but gaining Unity, Argent Adept, and Captain Cosmic. Having these twelve heroes in the starter box makes a lot of sense, since we get two complete teams plus their frequent hangers-on. Yes, it sucks that we won't get to see re-vamped Visionary for a few years, but I have a feeling she's going to need a lot of re-working since here's a lot less scrying of the villain decks in the new edition.
We've been told that all of the existing variants will be coming in future expansions, but the base game has all new ones--and only these new ones--a "First Appearance" variant for each hero. This is some of the exclusive-to-this-edition new content! So how do they play?
Pretty well. In general, they trade some benefit against predictability and slightly lower health. Wraith can look at the top card of the villain deck and get a card bonus depending on what is revealed. Tachyon can give away her extra card draw in exchange for extra card play, which is extremely useful and invariably means you will be short on cards by mid-game. Fanatic gets to do herself damage and get a Relic into play--which plays very nicely with her new deck design that gives her bonuses for being at 10 or fewer HP. Tempest, Unity, and Argent Adept all have a power that lets them play a card blind and do one other thing--destroy a Weather card, deal damage, or use the Perform text on the card just played. Actually, Tempest and Argent both feel very similar to their original Prime Wardens variants.
Legacy gets to defend his allies instead of bolstering them. Bunker and Absolute Zero both have powers that let them do direct damage, although Zero's is weird. He hits himself and another hero and up to two enemies. It feels a bit janky until you think to pair him up with Fanatic. Ra gets to do slightly less damage for extra card play or retrieval--useful, since he has a lot of ongoings that are expensive to maintain. And then there are the two strangest: Haka and Captain Cosmic. Cap heals one of his Constructs back up to full and then it does a pretty hefty chunk of damage. The trade-off here is that Cap's regular power is a deck accelerator. He's most effective when getting lots of cards into play. So you lose that, but instead are beefing up a small number of Constructs. Haka, instead of doing damage, just destroys something weak and then heals. Useful if he's tanking and someone else can set him up earlier in the round.
These largely feel pretty fresh, and I like the idea that we're getting something new for every single hero. I love the art on them. And while there's none of these that I definitely prefer to the standard version, there's none that I would studiously avoid either (looking at YOU, Prime Wardens Captain Cosmic from the previous edition!). Overall, they're nice additions that add more flavor than substance, but it's really nice flavor.
The environment decks are what have received the biggest overhaul and, mah gawd, they are so much better. Which is good, because the environments in the original base game were absolutely shite. Two of them I flat out refused to play because they ground the game to a halt or were just so punishing that they made the game stop being fun. Environment cards are no longer snowflakes--they're all Ongoing, One-Shot, or a Target of some kind--which cuts down on the confusion with how they play. And I like the layout changes a lot. They're in landscape rather than portrait layout, and the back of the deck looks like a comic book establishing shot, which is a really cool addition that adds to the table presence nicely. Additionally, they feel more like environments. They're more thematically cohesive and feel like a place that you have to interact with rather than just another source of potential enemies.
Insula Primalis has probably changed the most. It is now centered around an imminent volcano eruption. The volcano is indestructible, although it has health and will naturally accrue damage, and at a certain point it tips from environment-deck-accelerator to murder-river and you suddenly have to deal with that. The most-improved environment is Megalopolis, which has replaced its turn-killing cards like Hostage Situation with new "Emergency" cards (one of which is also Hostage Situation). These are targets that have a pretty bad start-of-turn effect but can be dealt with either by dealing enough damage to them or by making some end-of-turn sacrifice. Now instead of being hobbled, you're given choices to make. This was one of the environments I avoided in the previous edition, and now it's the one we play by default.
The least-reworked decks are Magmaria and Freedom Tower--which makes sense they were the two that were created most recently in the previous edition. But even these feel notably improved with less tracking and more thematic cohesion.
Villains have been sped up and their relative difficulties have been re-scaled. The invading alien warlord, for example, is substantially more difficult than the surly teenager with bird magic, which feels appropriate. Their board-wipe abilities have been pulled back and are also mitigated by the fact that heroes build up and recover more easily. They also make liberal use of the new "Discover" mechanism so they're finding extra cards of a certain type rather than just blindly playing extra from their decks. As accelerators go, I'm a huge fan of this mechanic. On Dawn's flip side, for example, it makes sense that she should be playing bonus Citizen cards, not just any old card, and it makes flipping her back less of a chore and more of a mission. It also allows these acceleration effects to taper off if you manage to empty the villain deck of cards of that type.
The most revamped villain is Omnitron. He still flips every turn and plays an extra card every turn, but now his cards are all either Ongoings or Devices and they have different effects that trigger based on what side he's on. The Component mechanic is gone now, so you can't just eliminate his Ongoing cards by hitting him a bunch. This fight is much more about trying to plan out your strategy knowing what bad things are going to happen on this Villain turn and what bad things are going to be put off until the next Villain turn.
Bringing The Matriarch and Akash'Bhuta into the core game is another one of those choices that makes a lot of sense, since they're both antagonists specifically of the Freedom Five and Prime Wardens, respectively. And their dialed-in difficulties means Matriarch is actually a fun game rather than a slog.
Events and Critical Events
The other wholly new content apart from the First Appearance Hero Variants is the Event system. Every Villain now has an Event and a Critical Event. Events are slight rules tweaks, similar to the "Challenge" mode that was available in the video game or PDF's for the card game. Additionally, when you finish an event, it become a "Collection" which is good for a one-time bonus in future Event games. These Collection bonuses range in usefulness from "Why would I use that?" to "Does this actually break the game?"
My favorite Event is Moonfall, which takes the basic Baron Blade scenario and ups the difficulty by getting more of his minions into play. I actually prefer it to the regular version, which is an introductory game and fairly easy. The reward for Moonfall is the one that feels the most game-breaking. It allows you to destroy X cards in order to have the Villain do itself 2X + 2 damage, and that's a lot of damage, when you consider villains typically have 70-100 health in total. That means if you have 14 Ongoing or Item cards in play, you can wipe them all out to deal 30 damage. It feels a little over-powered. Now, granted, if you have 14 cards in play, it's likely that you're already doing 30 damage in a round anyway, so it's not as huge a benefit as it feels like. Regardless, it's one that we always carry forward and at mid-game we start adding up our cards in play and comparing it to the villain health to see when we can deal the crushing final blow.
The Voss Event is another that feels like basically the same game but slightly harder. Meanwhile the Citizen Dawn and Matriarch Events feel like basically the same game but slightly easier. The rules tweaks don't make it easier, but the fact that you can bring Collection bonuses in sure does. The Events for Akash'Bhuta and Omnitron, on the other hand, feel like they fundamentally change the game and force you to make different strategic choices. Omnitron's scenario counts all of your Item cards as Devices that will hurt you, meaning you're going to want to use heroes that don't rely on them. Akash'Bhuta does blanket damage whenever environment cards are destroyed, so you have to be very careful about when you do that so as to avoid a catastrophic cascade. Then it becomes a meta-game of setting up dominoes, getting behind a shield of damage reduction, and then letting them all fall.
Critical Events are really just a re-skin of the old Villain Variants. In fact, previously existing Villain Variants like Mad Bomber Blade and Cosmic Omnitron have been made into Critical Events. Every villain has one and you are allowed to bring your Collection bonuses in. On the one hand, yay, more villain scenarios. However, Critical Event villains are only one-sided (meaning that they don't flip, not that they're particularly hard) which makes for a faster game with a little bit less depth. There's some inventive stuff here. I won't spoil, but the Critical Event for Akash'Bhuta made me "squee" a little when I saw the card. I will also note that both Mad Bomber Blade and Cosmic Omnitron have been significantly reworked and are all the better for it. For the Critical Events, I've started eschewing Collection bonuses and just playing them like Villain Variants. As such, when I set up my randomizer, I have them mixed in with the villain scenarios.
All Events and Critical Events are dated, meaning you can play them sequentially as a Campaign game, and I've already played through the campaign twice--once alone and once with my oldest child driving the games. I love this conceit. It takes some of the extant lore and actually works it into gameplay in a way that feels naturalistic.
This has gone from being one of my two favorite games to easily my favorite tabletop board game, hands-down, no qualifiers. I've seriously been playing it so much that the cards are starting to show wear. My children are now obsessed with it as well. In many ways, this edition takes a lot of the fiddly stuff that made the previous edition occasionally a slog and makes it much more bearable. There's still a lot going on, but it's more manageable without having memorized every single card interaction. I've joked that this is basically making the tabletop game play a lot more like the digital edition, and I think that's great.
I'm eagerly awaiting the Kickstarter (or however they manage pre-orders) for the first expansion: Rook City Renegades, which will feature six heroes, nine villains, plus who-knows-how-many hero variants and environments. There's going to be a bevy of new content--one new hero and one new villain confirmed, but I've been doing some back-of-the-envelope math and I suspect we're going to get three new villains in this expansion and as many as nine new villains altogether. I'm not going to dig into details of how I arrived at that number, but yes, there's a spreadsheet involved.
So yes, one of my favorite games is getting a much needed facelift and some new content to boot. I'm beyond ecstatic. And it's likely that there will be more posts like this speculating about new content when more information becomes available because, as I mentioned above, it's my blog, dammit! And until then, keep on saving the multiverse.