There are a few sequences in The Avengers when the various superheroes team up for combo moves. The Hulk positions a shard of armor plating and Thor hammers it into the giant space worm’s back. Captain America uses his shield to bounces Iron Man’s beam through several bad guys. Hawkeye needs to command a higher view of the city so Iron Man flies him up there (“Clench up, Legolas”). Black Widow catapults herself off Captain America’s shield to grab a passing airship. Are director Joss Whedon and his team indebted to the kind of combo moves I’ve been doing all along with my Marvel Ultimate Alliance characters or my Marvel vs Capcom tag teams? And doesn’t it go farther back to the comics that inspired them? You can only do so much with lone gods and superheroes. It’s in the aggregate that they’re most interesting. That’s the key to Sentinels of the Multiverse, a co-op card game that so good at emergent superheroics that it doesn’t need an established licence.
After the jump, DC who? Marvel what?
In terms of gameplay, Sentinels’ creative insight is how they model each superhero as a deck of forty cards. The mechanics are a mostly simple combination of card management and chipping away at the hit points of a villain before he chips away at the hit points of the heroes. Some heroes are naturally more complicated than others. But a game consists of three to five heroes, each a deck of unique cards, working with each other, against a villain deck, against the backdrop of an environment deck. One game is Egyptian fire god Ra, Polynesian Hulk-a-like Haka, and the heavily armed and armored Bunker powersuit against Citizen Dawn’s motley team of fanatics during a Time Cataclysm. Mind the charging triceratops! The next game is team buffer/tank Legacy, the sometimes too fast for her own good Tachyon, and electric fish man Tempest in the jungles of Insula Primalus to take down Kismet. The erupting volcano is the least of your problems, given the fury you’re bringing down by running off with Kismet’s enchanted talisman. The third game is a whole new cast in a whole new place, or mix and match as you will, for what sometimes feels like an entirely new game.
The choice of heroes reminds me a bit of how you pick a character in a fighting game, which was translated into character decks in the tabletop card game, Yomi. I’ve never played Yomi. It might have tempered some of my fascination with Sentinels of the Multiverse’s concept of a character as a deck of cards, but I can’t help but think that choosing whether to punch, punch, block or punch, block, punch is less dramatically satisfying than throwing down Visionary’s mind spike, firing Wraith’s razor ordnance, or letting loose Absolute Zero’s coolant blast. And holy cats, how can you rival the artwork on these Sentinels cards? What a positively glowing affection for the color, charm, and innocence of Silver Age comics!
Sentinels of the Multiverse reminds me of Irrational’s brilliant Freedom Force, which also didn’t need to license pre-existing superheroes, because creative people are perfectly capable of coming up with their own mythologies. Back in the day, these would have been kids running D&D campaigns for each other. Creative teams like Irrational, Illwinter, Gary Games, and now Greater Than Games are clearly kids who have grown up and translated distinct mythologies into game worlds for the rest of us.
Which brings me to one of my favorite things about Sentinels. This game is elevated above similar games with arguably better gameplay mechanics by its talent for world-building. When it comes to co-op game design, you can’t beat the traitor mechanic in Battlestar Galactica, the persistent character building in Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game, or the intensely and sometimes appropriately horrifically fiddly detail of Arkham Horror. As far as card-based games, the nuts-and-bolts do-this-then-that in Sentinels doesn’t hold a candle to Netrunner, Ascension, A Few Acres of Snow, or Twilight Struggle. But when it comes to tapping into someone’s richly imaginative world, you absolutely cannot beat what Sentinels of the Multiverse offers.
Legacy has a daughter, Chrono-Ranger is named Jim and he has a funky robot arm, Wraith is actually a little rich girl with more toys than she knows what to do with, and the ammo-hungry Bunker somehow lost his helmet under the ocean. Thanks for the salvage op, Tempest! Absolute Zero is suspended precariously between the extremes of heat and cold and he’s not going to get much traction until he installs either of his modules. Where’s an isothermic transducer or a null-point calibration unit when you need it? Nightmist’s unknowable dark magic sometimes blows up in her face. Fanatic’s crazily apocalyptic End of Days card is capable of winning a game in one fell swoop. This is all gameplay, so I know it without reading flavor text (Legacy’s daughter is an exception, because I didn’t understand why some woman was using X-ray vision to check out his junk on the Next Evolution card).
And these are just the heroes. The nearly limitless gameplay/narrative interaction in Sentinels comes from assembling a group of heroes against a particular villain in a particular environment. Just as each hero is a deck of cards, each villain and each environment is a deck of cards. The emergent gameplay — not to mention the dynamic narrative — is so much richer for all the interactions. It’s a bit like the way Small World combines a fantasy race with some sort of crazy adjective to craft emergent rules from weird combinations. Flying kobolds, dragon master elves, and berserk hobbits, oh my!
As a solitaire game, Sentinels of the Multiverse can be a bit much to track. It’s possible to play solo, and I’ve had a grand time approach some combos as if they were puzzles. But it’s far better with at least two other players making decisions about how to contribute, which targets to attack, how to deal with environmental threats, and how to help when. Hulk sets up the blow, Thor hammers it home. Sentinels even keeps heroes invested in the game after they’ve been “killed” by giving players incapacitated versions of their heroes.
At times, Sentinels falls apart under inconsistent or murky rules. Unlike the crystal clarity of Small World’s eurogame simplicity, Greater Than Games’ imagination can gallop ahead of its gameplay. The manual is a disappointing trifle that includes too few actual rules. I defy you to get through a game without catching your sleeve on something at best unclear and at worst broken. As much as I admire Sentinels, I have to shake my head at how amatuerish the design sometimes feels. Am I really supposed to remember the order of every single card put into play to resolve all the possible permutations? Rules lawyers will find plenty to litigate. I would gladly trade all these cardboard markers — which include far too many useless bits and lack some important bits, such as a way to indicate damage type — for a little more clarity built into the game.
But with such imaginative world-building and nearly limitless gameplay, occasionally murky rules are a small price to pay. The Omnitron spits out a relentless stream of annoying little robots (which explains the sometimes confounding frailty of Omnitron-X). Beware the Kraken in Atlantis, who can just as easily win or lose a game for you. Hey, the cops just showed up in Megalopolis! That almost makes up for all the time you had to waste saving civilians instead of fighting the Grand Warlord Voss. The Dreamer is a little girl whose manifested dreams are your opponents, until you wake her up and she goes completely postal. Don’t hurt her or you’ll lose the game, which makes her unlike any other villain! Those are her gameplay mechanics, but be sure to read her bio in the manual to find out why her dreams are manifesting themselves and what connection she has to one of the heroes. Like so many things in Sentinels of the Multiverse, I didn’t need the fiction to enjoy the game. But the knowing makes a great game even better.
Sentinels of the Multiverse is available now as an enhanced edition, which is way better than the first edition for a number of reasons. I also highly recommend the Infernal Relics and (especially) Shattered Timelines add-ons. The first add-on, Rook City, is out of print and no longer available, but will be included in a reprint this December. Greater Than Games will release an advanced add-on called Vengeance next year.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Sentinels of the Multiverse is the award-winning game in which players join forces as heroes to combat a dastardly villain in a dynamic environment! The Enhanced Edition features thicker card stock, a larger box, divider cards, tokens, and villain scaling mechanics, but the same great gameplay and mechanics that Sentinels fans know and love! Also, Grand Warlord Voss is a real dick and needs to be defeated, so do your part today!