Designed by Mike Elliott & Eric M. Lang. Published by WizKids. Released 2014. Review copy provided by publisher. This review covers both Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men and Uncanny X-Men.
Launching last year to a more than positive reception, Marvel Dice Masters is the first and most supported game in WizKids’ new line of ‘Dice Building Games’ based on the game mechanics from Quarriors. That means it’s a dice-building game, where players choose from their preselected team of characters to put together a rotating bag of dice that that draw from over the course of play. As they add more dice to their bag, they draw ever more interesting characters to use against their foes. Much like a deck building game such as Dominion, there’s some weird random elements and counter-intuitive structure that can befuddle new players if it’s their first game of this type. It’s also collectible, coming in starter packs of specific dice and character cards alongside random boosters of two cards and two dice. For some, this collectibility will be the breaking point of the game – ever-expanding complexity and variety can be a death knell. For others, the collectible elements will be the variety and spice that make the game worth playing again and again.
MDM‘s components are about the quality you’d expect from a mass-produced game with custom dice. They’re quite pretty, with each character having a specific die alongside a set of cards for that character. Each card is a different incarnation, having specific powers, but uses the same dice as the others – so a character always has the same stats in the field, but will utilize them differently depending on which card you’re using. The cards themselves are decent quality, but due to the packaging you buy them in can often be bent if they came from a booster. On the other hand, a booster is $0.99… so the occasional bent card isn’t so heartbreaking. The dice are cute little uniques, and while there were misprints in early runs of the Avengers vs. X-Men set, it seems like those production problems have been minimized in later printings. For collectors, they’re not the nicest dice in the world. Occasionally the symbols are a bit abstract for my likings, as well – consider Mr. Fantastic’s dice which has a simple atomic diagram on it as opposed to Magneto’s awesome helmet dice, Captain America’s shields, or Apocalypse’s face plastered all over his dice. The impetus to collect the various cards is dulled as well, because every version of a character has the same shot of the character on it. Why woudl this be? I can’t think of a single reason. You’d think there would be enough cool shots of say, Black Widow, from decades of comics to vary it between cards.
Playing Dice Masters is a familiar experience for most gamers: You and your opponent both have a life total – usually 20 – and gather resources to deploy your various characters and powers to hurt your opponent. If it sounds like Magic: The Gathering that’s because it’s remarkably like Magic: The Gathering. However, the dice-based mechanics make the experience of building up your forces to deplete your opponent’s life a much different one than you’d expect from the basic description. At game start, you’ve got eight sidekicks in your dice bag and an array of Heroes set out to your side with their respective dice on them. Each turn you draw four dice from your bag and roll them. Some faces of each die are resources like blasts, punches, and masks. Other faces are characters with an attack value, a defense value, and a cost to deploy. You can use your gathered resources to buy new characters from the array that makes up your army or to buy dice from the power cards in the middle of the table (We’ll get to those in a second.) As you buy dice, you add them to your bag and eventually draw them, roll them, and use their powers or deploy them to the field. Your characters always provide more resources than your sidekicks, so you can afford more and more expensive characters as you go through the game.
Often, a game goes like this: You and your opponent square off for a few rounds, trading blows between weenie characters and using abilities to foul up your opponents’ plans by sending less valuable sidekicks back into their bag to be drawn and take up their time. Sometimes, you’ll strategically block with a character, because a KO’d character doesn’t go back into your bag, but get rolled the next turn in addition to the four dice you draw. It’s often a move like this that will trigger a confrontation between players, as one person builds up overwhelming advantage and attacks with a nasty combo for a kill or a near kill over a few turns.
Various teams have various strategies, of course, and there are more or less offensive strategies that provide more protracted victories. However, the majority of games are a slow buildup followed by a rapid exchange of attempted kill shots. Like many other duel games, this is a strength when it goes for you and a pain when it feels like your random dice draws have screwed you out of a win. Randomizing the draws makes it so an unskilled player with a bad team can sometimes pull off an epic win against an unlucky veteran… though very rarely. Though this is a dice building game, you can usually win before you’ve gotten that many of the dice you brought to the table. Many games, you’ll wonder why you brought more than three of your team members, because even at the highest levels of play I’ve seen your set of dice rarely grows beyond sixteen or so total – despite that you brought 28 or more dice to the game.
If this sounds fairly complicated, well, it is. There’s a bevy of game states, areas, and phases to negotiate through. It’s less complicated than similar games in turn order, because effects are very specific about when they happen and precedence is always decided by whose turn it is. It’s more complicated than other duel games in game state, because you’ve got: An attack area, a draw area, a staging area, a knockout area, and a spent area, just to name a few of the piles of dice you’ll have on the table. Simply put, it’s not a new player friendly game unless you’ve got someone nice to build a few simple teams and teach you the ropes. Likewise, the learn to play segments of the rulebook simply don’t help you see the potential of team building and optimizing your playstyle. You’ll have to see the game in action for that.
Complicating all of this is character abilities, powers, and global effects. Global effects are things that really twist up the game, because they can be on any kind of card and anyone can pay for them at any time. I found them an unhelpful addition to the game, requiring you to ask your opponent to see one of their cards consistently. Each player also brings a few powers to the table, like “Savage Melee” or “Capture,” that go in the center and add special dice to either player’s pool when purchased. Those dice can be rolled for an action or for resources, often synchronizing with your dice strategy. On the other hand, they’re shared between players, so your opponent can buy up the actions you brought to deny you your own plans.
I can see many players enjoying the game for a long time. If you’re a dedicated collector or a casual player, the price is hard to argue with – cheap boosters make expanding your collection with a few dice from each new set easy. For many, this game will be a lot like a board game, as variant gameplay styles allow you to draft characters and adapt to multiple players easily. If you and your friends just want a cute Marvel-themed dice game, then hell, putting $10 a month into Dice Masters will give you a really impressive, fun collection to draw from very quickly. For hardcore tournament players, this is a game of optimization with a lot of fiddly bits to manipulate, team strategies to attempt, and enemies to counter. What you get out of Dice Masters is going to have a lot to do with what kind of player you are.
Bottom Line: While it’s weighed down with strategic complexity and shifty details to monitor, this is a solid strategic experience that rewards repeated play. At the same time, the game as a whole doesn’t have that much to make it stand out from the competition.
Recommendation: For casual dabblers over time and hardcore competitors, this is a good choice. The half-committed will probably be happier spreading themselves among collectible games that provide a more robust experience with fewer components bought.[rating=3.0]