|Sentinels of the Multiverse (2011)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Christopher Badell, Paul Bender and Adam Rebottaro
Have you ever wanted to be Batman? A billionaire philanthropist in his underwear beating up the socioeconomically disadvantaged? How about Iron Man, an unaccountable womaniser flying around in a powered exoskeleton war-machine? Perhaps you have a more theological bent and would prefer the almost infinite power of a god – maybe you’d like to be Thor? With Sentinels of the Multiverse, some dreams that are slightly adjacent to those dreams might be able to come true!
Sentinels of the Multiverse (henceforth SOTM) is a co-operative fixed deck card game that can play between one and five players. It’s also perhaps the most visually striking game we’ve encountered so far on Meeple Like Us. Every inch of the box, and the cards, and the tokens is just dripping with beautiful and thematic visual design. More than any other game I’ve ever seen, this is really like playing a comic book. We’ll see that as we go through the review.
Each player takes the role of a superhero, like the ones you’ve read about in comics and seen in what is by now a staggeringly oversupplied series of vaguely competent blockbuster movies. The word ‘like’ is important there, because you won’t be playing any that you’ve heard of. This is where the adjacency of the dreams comes in – set your sights lower than being Superman. No, lower than that. Lower still. Look, sorry – you won’t even be Aquaman. You haven’t heard of any of these heroes.
You won’t be playing your favourites, but you will be playing ones that are similar. They’re not carbon copies, but evocations of certain typical archetypes that you’ll tend to find in any given stable of heroic characters. There’s the ‘Captain America’ stand-in ‘Legacy’, who is clean-cut and patriotic and stands up for his friends and allies. There’s the brilliant, wealthy ‘Wraith’ – highly trained in martial arts with a fetish for highly specific technological intervention. Kinda like Batman, in other words. There are ten of these in the base game, and there are a huge number of expansion packs that introduce more.
Your team of heroes will be facing a villain, of which there are four in the base game. We’re going to be looking at Baron Blade in the review, but there’s also the alien conqueror Grand Warlord Voss, the revolutionary leader Citizen Dawn, and the sinister sentient computer Omnitron. It’s quite a rogue’s gallery of criminal masterminds that are ever so slightly similar to other, more high profile, criminal masterminds.
Helpfully, the manual comes with a page that gives you difficulty and complexity levels for each of the various heroes and combinations, so you know which challenges are actually attainable. The more complex a hero, the more time you need to spend delving into card synergies to get the best out of them. The more difficult a villain is, the more likely they are to stomp you into the dirt.
In addition to your team of heroes, and the villain you choose, you’ll also be fighting in an environment. It’s not just heroes versus villains, it’s heroes versus villains versus the terrain. Again, there are four to be chosen in the base game.
Here’s how a game plays out. We pick our heroes (one each usually, but you can also pick and play two each if you are playing a solo/two player game) and pick their deck out of the box. Each character, villain and environment has its own entirely bespoke deck of cards designed to give them their own synergies, powers, dangers and ‘feel’ – mostly the game is successful in this, but there are a few powers that are just reskinned copies of powers other decks share. The decks are very substantial, but that’s an illusion – they also contain a *lot* of repeats. You’ll pick it up and go ‘ooo’, and then look through it and go ‘oh’.
Having picked our hero, we set up the play area – we get a card that details our hero’s base power, and we draw ourselves four cards from their special deck. For this review, we’re going with the Sun God Ra. And we’re also going to make use of the extra-terrestrial powerhouse Tempest:
Having picked our heroes, we set out our villain, Baron Blade. He comes with an instruction card, and this details the way in which he must be played – essentially, the villain plays itself based on the instructions and the deck that they are associated with. Very little human intervention is required, when a judgement call is needed (such as in the order in which attacks and the like are resolved) it’s decided upon by the players and typically in the player’s favour.
As such, our villain doesn’t always make the most sensible or optimal choices, but that can be surprising in and of itself. When dealing with a real person, we can bank on a certain degree of self-preservation and cunning – sheer randomness, it turns out, can actually put you on the back foot pretty consistently. Baron Blade begins play with a Mobile Defence Platform, which makes him immune to all damage. We’ll need to destroy that before we can do anything to him. The number in the top right of the Baron Blade card indicates his health (40), as does the number in the same place on the mobile platform (10).
And then finally we place the environment deck, which in this case is the Wagner Mars Base. We don’t do anything with this yet, we just place it down. We’ll be playing cards from that deck later as we go along, and this will add a cheerful degree of chaos to the proceedings.
Play begins in a set order, and continues until either the villain is defeated, or until the villain’s win condition is met, or all our heroes are beaten into submission. We begin with the villain turn, drawing a card and executing any actions on the villain instructions set.
Our first play is Devious Disruption – a great card to play for the villain later in the game when everyone is up to speed with their buffs and debuffs. It is however a pretty silly play right at the very start. Right away thought we see the co-operative design of the game – damage inflicted by this card is not based on just how many pieces of equipment you have in your hand, it’s how many *everyone* has in *all* their hands. If this card is drawn later in the game, everyone draws in breath through their teeth and a tense negotiation begins. People argue that their cards are important enough to justify everyone taking some extra damage, while others point out that one more point of damage is the difference between them staying in the game or being knocked out of it. It’s not a group decision in the end – everyone decides themselves what they’re going to destroy, if anything. The decisions we make though have wider implications than just what they mean to our specific characters, and as such we need to be mindful of the other players if we expect them to be mindful of us.
This is early in the game though and nobody has had a chance to play anything. Baron Blade does the minimum 3 points of damage to both of our heroes, and then his turn is over and we get to cause some trouble!
During the player turn, we have three actions we can perform, each of which is optional. We can play a card, which means to either consume a ‘one shot’ card, or put an ‘ongoing’ card into play. We can then choose to ‘use a power’ – each hero has a base power they can always perform, and will make more available to themselves by playing ongoing cards into their ‘buff’ area. And then the player can draw a card. If they don’t have anything sensible to do, they can forfeit both playing and powers and draw two cards instead.
Let’s look at our starting hand for Ra. We have a Fire Blast, which is a ‘one shot’ card – we can use that to inflict a meaty five points of damage, and then we discard it. We have the Staff of Ra – a powerful artefact that increases all our damage by one, and also heals us when it comes into our hand. We have a Solar Flare, which will reduce the damage coming in to us, and we have Flesh of the Sun God, which makes us immune to fire damage. We want to balance the benefit of playing our ongoing cards versus the need for us to inflict damage upon our enemy. For this we need to take into account the makeup of our team of heroes and the kind and severity of damage that’s going to be done to us.
You can see hopefully what I mean about the aesthetics of the game – look at it! It’s like having a hand of comic panels in your hand. The art is all evocative, and at the bottom of each card is a quote from a fictional issue of a fictional comic book. All the pictures show our heroes and villains in deadly combat, as if drawing from a larger, more integrated shared mythology. A lot of work has gone into the look and feel of SOTM, and it delivers big on that.
Back to the game. A +1 boost to all our damage is a big deal, so we play the Staff of Ra into our hand. We clear our damage, and put a ‘+1 damage’ token above our card to remind us of its impact We then choose a power to play – the Staff of Ra has a power of its own (deal 3 projectile damage in exchange for discarding it), but we also have an innate power. We’ll use that instead so we keep the staff by us:
We point at the mobile defence platform, channel our considerable divine power through the Staff of Ra, and inflict three points of damage on it. We then draw our replacement card.
Play then moves on to Tempest – his choices are different, reflecting his own character design. He can play ‘Gene Bound Shackles’ which will increase his damage by two, but only if he’s targeting the villain with the highest HP. He can play Elemental Subwave Inducer, which changes all his damage types to a different kind for the round – so if someone is immune to fire (as Ra can become), he can change all his damage types to electricity. He also takes one less damage from the type he’s selected. This only lasts a round, but he gets to choose a new damage form at the start of his next turn.
The Elemental Subwave Inducer is an equipment card (so it would have been destroyed by the Baron’s Devious Disruption), and it’s also ‘Limited’. We can only have one of those in play at any one time, regardless of how many we may have in our hand.
We can play Shielding Winds, which absorbs serious damage – if we would take five damage from a single source, we reduce that damage by two. And, that impacts on *all the heroes*, not just Tempest. It’s a group buff, in other words. It’s ongoing, so also would have been destroyed by Devious Disruption if it had been in play when the Baron drew the card. Knowing what the Baron has done and could do in the future is an important part of knowing when it’s safe to play cards and when your effort is likely to be wasted.
He can also play ‘Into the Stratosphere’, which allows him to temporarily knock a villain card out of play – it’ll return the next time the villain plays a card though. That might be good for the Mobile Defence Platform, except that it’ll just come back – if we had more heroes to play after us, we might think ‘I’ll open this up for them to bring the hurt’. We don’t though, so instead Tempest plays Gene-Bound shackles – any time he attacks the villain card with the highest health, he does a meaty 2 HP of extra damage. That’s a conditional damage effect though, so we don’t use the general reminder token like we did for Ra. We’ll just need to remember it’s something that we do, because it’s not something we do all the time.
Tempest can now use his power, which does all non-hero targets one projectile damage. But, we can only do that to the mobile platform since the Baron is still immune. Damn that damn platform. As we inflict damage on enemy cards, we place damage tokens on them – as these accumulate, when their total is equal to or greater than the health on the top right, we discard that card into the villain’s trash pile. BUT! For Baron Blade, that’s a double-edged sword – when that discard pile gets to fifteen cards, he’s won. It’s one of his winning conditions. So – we better be careful.
Finally, we draw a card from the environment deck – ‘Villainous Weaponry’. This card increases damage done by the villain by one, for all cards he may play. Well, that’s not good. It’s a target though, so we can damage and destroy it in the same way we can villain cards and the mobile platform. Sometimes the cards work in our favour, sometimes they work in the villain’s favour. Sometimes they just introduce mayhem for everyone.
Having played the environment card, play cycles around to the villain and we do it all again. This time he draws his ‘Blade Battalion’:
At the end of the villain turn, this card inflicts their health in damage against the hero with the highest health. That would be Ra. Ooft. Except, because of Villainous weaponry, they do their health plus one, for six damage. Ooft again.
Now play returns to our heroes. Ra does a flame strike on the mobile platform for two damage, and then his innate ‘pyre’ ability on the Blade Batallion for three. Flame Strike allows him to use an additional power this turn, so he also lays pyre on the mobile platform, which is now sitting at nine points of damage:
Tempest plays shielding winds, to reduce the pain of future assaults, and then uses his innate power. He gets to choose the order in which things are done, so he does a point of damage against the blade battalion, and then another point to the mobile defence platform. Neither of those are the ‘villain with the highest HP’, so his Gene Bound Shackles don’t do anything. But, the platform has now taken ten points of damage and is removed from the game. The Baron is finally vulnerable!
Now that he’s vulnerable, Tempest continues to inflict damage with his third target choice. The Baron takes three points of damage, as at 40 health he’s the one with the highest HP. Tempest also does a point of damage to Villainous Weaponry, since that’s a non-hero target card. Not enough to do anything to it, but every little helps.
Finally, this round ends with another environment card being drawn:
Yikes. Now the villain is at +2 damage for everything. That’s… a lot. We want to stop this situation getting out of hand.
Play continues in this way until either the villain is defeated, the heroes are dead, or the villain’s win condition is reached. Sometimes though the flow of play is a little more complicated, as some cards require the playing of other cards. For example, let’s say for the next turn the Baron draws Hasten Doom:
Each hero gets two damage (four, taking into account the two villainous weaponry cards in play) and then the Baron draws another card:
Son of a…
Yeah, the villain has multiple copies of cards too.
Let’s fast forward, with our two heroes bravely fighting back to back until they’ve got the Baron on the ropes!
Tempest pulls back his alien fist and shoves it right into the Baron’s face. BAM! KAPOW! WALLOP!
On the Baron’s card is the instruction that when he’s defeated, you flip his villain card and the instruction card. And we see we’re not quite done yet – he has a Phase Two mode – he has fewer HP, but is considerably more violent. We take all the villain trash, shuffle it into the deck, and remove all the mobile defence platforms – he doesn’t get those in phase two. What he does get is the ability to do (H) damage every turn – the (H) resolves down to the number of heroes in play (a way to ramp the difficulty up and down depending on how many players are involved). Sighing deeply, our heroes raise their weary fists and prepare to fight once more.
That’s Sentinels of the Multiverse then – we play decks against decks until one deck is proclaimed the winner and becomes the king of decks. It’s not a complex game in terms of its rules, but it fast becomes a *complicated* game, which is a problem at later game stages. So many of the cards have conditional, or temporary, or stacking effects that it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s supposed to happen as we play. Consider the Hasten Doom card – if we had previously played Elemental Subwave Inducer and protected against toxic, then Tempest alone would have taken one point of damage from it. On the other hand, if the Baron had a +3 to damage rather than a +2, our Shielding Winds would reduce that damage to all heroes to 3 rather than 5. Some cards trigger on other cards being played, others have buffs and effects that last only until the start or end of a turn.
Someone that plays Elemental Subwave Inducer needs to remember that they have a new duty at the start of each turn – to choose a damage type to modulate.
Let’s look at how that complexity might stack for Citizen Dawn, one of the tougher villains in the base set. Let’s say we’re a little bit advanced into the game and we’ve drawn five of her cards through various routes:
So, Citizen Anvil reduces all damage to citizens by one. We need to remember that. At the end of the villain turn, we employ the following effects:
- Find Citizen Hammer from the trash and put him into play (via Anvil)
- Do 3 energy damage to the hero with the highest health (via Battery)
- Destroy one hero ongoing card (via Sweat)
- All players discard one card (via Tears)
- The hero with the lowest HP takes one damage (via Blood)
Because Tears is in play, Sweat destroys *all* ongoing cards controlled by the hero, and since Blood is also in play the hero takes 1 damage for each destroyed card. Because Sweat is in play, Tears forces every player to discard two cards instead of one, and each hero takes one damage for each discarded card because Blood is also in play.
Because Tears and Sweat are in play, Blood does three damage instead of one. A different combination of citizens would change all of that, so the next time we cycle round to Citizen Dawn, all of that may have changed.
All of that gets modulated through environment cards in play (imagine Villainous Weaponry here, adding a point of damage to each attack) and the ongoing and equipment cards players have active.
For example, the hero Legacy can ‘Lead from the Front’, meaning that any damage that a villain card would inflict can instead be redirected to Legacy. Similarly, he can do a ‘Heroic Interception’ during his turn, meaning that he takes some damage but everyone else is immune to all damage until his turn next starts. The Wraith can make use of a combat stance which does 2 melee damage the first time per turn she takes damage from a target. Except, with Citizen Hammer in play, it would only be one damage unless perhaps Legacy has used his innate power to Galvanise (+1 damage until the start of his next turn) and also his inspiring presence (+1 damage, ongoing). In that case it would be two damage, etc, etc, etc.
This deep synergy of cards is one of the things that makes it such thematically good fun – it all feels like the anarchic chaos of a good superhero encounter. But it’s also what makes it so difficult to consistently play correctly, because cards go in and out of play, effects are temporary until conditions are met, the order of play may alter dramatically based on cards that are being used, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a lot of fun – but things get missed, easily and often.
The game pretends to be easy to play, fooling you with a slim manual and a back cover that lists the flow of the game in big, chunky letters. But it’s not being entirely honest, because it has offloaded hundreds of fiddly, awkward little rules into the cards themselves. The indicators such as ‘+1 damage’ and ‘immune to fire’ and such are a small help in this, but you still need to remember to apply them consistently and there’s no inherent adjacency to their placement. You don’t necessarily know which card the effect came from, and so if you forgot to remove it at the right time you need to scan over all the cards to find out if it’s even still relevant.
Gameplay at later stages can become punishingly slow as new cards are weighed up against the old cards. ‘If you do this, then I can do this, which would mean that this card does this and this, which in turn triggers this and that cycles back to that which then makes this happen’. On the plus side, that allows for some incredibly cool chained plays depending on the combination of heroes, villains and environments. On the minus side, it’s a bit like sitting an abstract logic exam for which you didn’t have time to revise, and nobody told you would count towards your degree classification. You just don’t expect this kind of thing when sitting down in your pants to beat up bad guys.
But then, there’s all that lovely art! It’s a beautiful game – it’s a game that feels like playing a comic book. I think. I’m actually a comic book person, so I guess it feels like what I imagine playing a comic book would be like. There are all the wonderful little thematic touches. There’s the incredible variety of play – heroes, villains and environments all have their own tricks and expectations, and they can change the entire narrative of the story. If you play in Metropolis, the heroes are constantly interrupted to deal with hostages and stop plummeting trains. If you play in the Insula Primal you’re dealing with enraged dinosaurs and erupting volcanos.
And then there’s the flavour and personality of all the heroes! Look at Legacy, and some of his headline powers:
He’s a tank, and a buffer – he’s a support character primarily that can also occasionally bring some serious damage to the table if the cards align. He can heal and shield and generally keeps everyone in the fight. He plays exactly like you’d expect a heroic Captain America type to play. A typical loadout of Legacy might look like this:
Now look at the Wraith.
She’s clever and skilled and rich, and she’s also capable of astounding damage. But, she’s very tied in to preparation – she needs time to ready the ground from which she can strike. It takes her a few turns to ramp up, but once she has gotten up to speed she is dealing staggeringly powerful hits against multiple targets, every single turn. But, if her equipment setup is interfered with, then she takes a lot of time to get back into the fight. She’s deadly, but fragile – but also innovative and able to deal with emergent situations thanks to her deep pockets:
They play very differently, and contribute very different skill-sets to each play. All of them have things they can offer in any environment, but some are more useful in some scenarios than others. That gives the game a lot of re-playability, allowing you to iterate over various combinations and finding new and interesting synergies to exploit (or fear).
All of that said, sometimes the choices offered in SOTM are striking mainly in how shallow they are. There will be emergencies and sudden changes in optimal strategy, but there are only a limited number of areas in which cards *really* matter. In many respects, the reward for clever co-operative play is optimisation of an already understood system. You’re looking to maximise the damage you inflict while you minimise the damage you take, and there are certain strategies that are very effective for that. Very few of the card synergies offer an opportunity to do much more than tweak the parameters. There are cards that get rid of debuffs, put in place buffs, or strip away the defences of the enemy, but there aren’t really any deeply *interesting* choices to be made, at least in the base set. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying to put together a team combo that lands double-digit hits on a tough enemy, but it does limit the extent to which you can be genuinely clever in play. It takes a while though before you eventually come to realise how restricted your meaningful choice can be. The novelty of each new deck is very enticing, and they do all play substantively differently. However, the game as a collective whole plays very similarly each time.
Sentinels of the Multiverse is an awful lot of fun – I like it a lot, but you pay for your fun with an escalating complexity that can turn later stages of the game into a grinding brutal charnel-house of card-checking and cross-referencing. It’s all so well executed in terms of its theme and aesthetics though it’s easy to overlook because you’re mostly watching the internal superhero movie you’re creating play out in your head. For those that enjoy the fun, there are also a boatload of expansions that add in new heroes, new villains, and new environments – the combinatorial explosion of your choices means that there is a huge amount of replayablility to come from even a relatively modest increase in the number of decks. It’s 3.5 stars from us – a good, solid game with a lot to recommend it. Now if you excuse me, I see someone is shining the MeepleSignal in the sky – someone, somewhere, needs a fourth for a game of X-Com.