Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Designers: Christopher Badell, Paul Bender
Publisher: Greater Than Games, LLC
Ages: 10+
Time: ~60 mins
Players: 2-5
Reviewed by:  Matt J. Carlson  (review copy provided)

Just a few short weeks after GenCon 2011, I came across a posting on a game that seemed to hit many of my favorite sweet spots:  cooperative game? – check.  superhero theme? – check.  semi-complex card game rife for discovery of effective combinations? – check.  Clearly I needed to check it out.  Soon after its arrival at my door, I read through the rules and bravely brought it to the local high school gaming club.  I had some reservations, as it seemed to be a somewhat complex/interactive card game (similar to a mid-level game of Magic: the Gathering) and the high school group were mostly newer gamers but the reservations were unfounded.  Because it was a cooperative game, I was able to help the students through the first few rounds until they got on their feet and the game became an instant hit.  It was played at every meeting for the next few weeks and I have no doubt it will return to the table again soon.

In Sentinels of the Multiverse, 3 to 5 players each take on the role of a superhero and work together to foil a master villain in a grandiose battle set in a particular environment.   Players can choose from 10 heroes, each with their own unique deck of cards in order to fight one of four major villains (represented by a deck of cards) in one of four changing environments (again, represented by a deck of cards).  (Note, this is card game, but NOT a collectible one – the game is a stand-alone item that comes with every card needed for play.) Throughout the game the heroes, villains, and assorted villain minions will take damage and be eliminated.  Minions simply get discarded, but if a hero is eliminated, he or she can still perform a token action on their turn to “inspire” their still-kicking teammates.  However, defeat the main villain and the heroes win the game!  (Obviously, if all the heroes are defeated the game ends in a loss.)

On any given round, the villain starts by playing by playing the top card of its deck, usually revealing minions or equipment that will help him or her defeat the heroes.  After playing a card, the villain end-of-turn actions are performed which include most villain and minion attacks on the heroes as well as other possible nasty actions.  Next, the heroes each get to take a turn.  Heroes may play a card, may use one power, and then may draw one card.  This sounds simple (and is simple at first), but it can quickly become more exciting as players get more cards on the table that allow more rules to be “broken”.  Finally, the environment deck gets a turn and plays its top-most card.  This could have immediate effects, ongoing effects, and even might have an effect coming up at the start of the next environment turn – forcing players to somehow get rid of the card before then or face the consequences.  And that’s the game.  It sounds simple, and it is at first, but since many of the cards either “break” rules or chain off other cards the game can quickly get more complex and (hopefully) much more interesting.

A promo hero card.

The Heroes:
For example, Absolute Zero is basically a frozen hero trapped in a special suit.  His power?  Cause one fire or cold damage to himself (damage comes in different types). Yep, you read that right, this hero has the mighty power to just barely hurt himself if he so chooses.  It doesn’t sound like much at first (and it isn’t) but as Absolute Zero starts to get more of his abilities and equipment cards on the table he soon begins to be able to heal himself when attacked by cold damage and retaliate to deal others damage when attacked by fire damage.  A second hero, Ra (an Egyptian themed hero), has a very powerful card representing his Staff of Ra.  This staff is useful for several of his abilities but is just a single equipment card in his entire deck.  However, a number of Ra’s special cards and abilities can be used to recall (or find) his Staff from elsewhere in the deck.  I love how each hero really does feel and play differently than the others.  My initial favorite hero was Tachyon.  She was a scientist turned into a speedster (each hero’s short background is in the rulebook) and plays like one might expect a speedster to play.  She’s somewhat fragile, has ways of playing extra cards, drawing extra cards, and even a way to give out extra cards to the other heroes.  She rarely does much damage, but she can damage large numbers of enemies all at the same time.  However, if she’s set things up correctly (usually by having discarded or played a lot of cards), she can occasionally let loose with one big wallop of damage.  (Her Achilles heel is an ability to draw extra cards, but at a cost of health – making a fragile character even more so to any greedy player… Who Me?  Maybe my friends will be willing to heal me back up…)

The Villains:
The villains also have a healthy dose of personality.  They have far more health than any hero, but then there’s only the one main villain.  And what’s a villain without minions and other fancy equipment?  Each villain even has two sides to their card – giving the villain different powers depending on the game situation.  For example, one minion is extremely good at calling out (and being protected by) their minions.  Well, if you get rid of too many minions, she flips over, becomes immune to all damage, and starts spitting out cards like no one’s business.  After a few minions come back into play, she flips back and settles down for the rest of the game.  Other villains flip back and forth multiple times during the game when specific conditions are met, keeping the heroes on their toes.

The Environment:
If it were just a villain to fight, the heroes wouldn’t have such a hard time of things, but why do the villains always have to pick a fight in the worst possible locations?  Fighting on Mars, the urban Megalopolis, undersea Atlantis, or amidst dinosaurs in a lost world, somehow makes a hero’s job that much harder.  Of course, it is always sweet, sweet justice when some aspect of the environment can be tricked into (or lucks into) attacking a minion (or, even better, the main villain.)  I enjoyed how the environment deck did cause problems, but not always.  It sometimes could prove useful (like preventing damage to ANYONE for a round, etc…) and allowed the players yet another thing on the board to manage, for good or ill.  (Just watch out for that Moon Base, it is one nasty environment deck!)

Cards from the various hero decks...

It isn’t all gumdrops and moon pies in the Multiverse of the Sentinels…  there are a few things that detract from the game.  They range from simple things like the game having a few telltale signs of being from a small publisher (cards that are “good” quality finish, but not top end, no provisions in the game to help you keep track of health for all the villains and characters in the game, etc….)  The rules can be vague at times – however this is somewhat expected for a game where most of the rules text will come as exceptions written directly on the cards themselves.  Things like: if a new minion appears at the end of the villain turn, does that minion also get to do its end-of-villian turn actions? (answer: yes) or a few effects aren’t clear if they target THE villain or villain cards in general, etc…  The rulebook is full of character and villain bios and backgrounds, which help enhance the theme, and even contains a glossary but it might have been good to have a page or two more devoted to some of the more problematic cards that appear to clarify their meaning.  The difficulty of the game can vary widely depending on the mix of villains and heroes – especially if playing with only 3 hero players.  (Watch out for that Mars Environment deck… uggh!)  Until the game is played enough times, it may be difficult to get a good feel for how easy (or difficult) a game will be before it starts.  Finally, the game isn’t going to be for everyone.  There is an awful lot going on, especially later on in the game.  This isn’t a game I’d bring out to show anyone who has come to a game night for the first time.  Some experience with interacting mechanisms is a huge plus.  I say this even though my first game was with three teens who were all gaming newcomers.  The youngest least experienced gamer had what I consider the most complex hero to run and he still did OK, and everyone there wanted to play the game again another day, so I guess it isn’t all that bad.

Game layout for a 4 player game.

The bottom line:
When all is said and done, Sentinels of the Multiverse ranks very high on my list of fun games.  I love the theme, and the theme comes across well throughout the game through the images on the cards, the unique powers and play styles of the decks, etc…  The game fosters camaraderie through cooperative play, but there seems to be enough going on in the game so that everyone typically has something to contribute to solving problems as they come.  There simply is too much going on for one person to decide the best move for everyone.  There is some level of difficulty adjustment, in that each villain has an additional ability that can be used to provide an “advance game” experience for players.  The shear number of heroes (10) gives players an opportunity to explore many new ways for players to interact with each other and defeat the villain.  Hopefully this keeps the game fresh and prevents the game from getting stale too fast.  However, I suspect some of the thrill of the game comes in the discovery of fun combinations of powers and abilities as the game is played.  Once all 10 heroes have been played through a few times, the game may lose a bit of its luster.  In his comments below, Greg Schloesser takes issue with the complexity of the game – specifically the large number of effects that can be active at the same time which must be tracked.  This is definitely a drawback and may put off some gamers.  However, it isn’t an insurmountable deterrent to play.  Having at least one (or more) players who have dealt with similar multi-effect games such as Magic: the Gathering or many role playing games is an immense help.  They can help guide and/or remind the team of all the various modifiers in play at any given time.  Since Sentinels is a cooperative game, all the players can pool their knowledge to fact-check each other’s actions to be sure any appropriate modifiers are always applied.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is not going to be a runaway hit for everyone, but I think there is a large segment of gamers who will find it very attractive.  Those who simply love the theme and the cooperative nature of the game and those who enjoy the exploration of rules mechanics and the interaction of powers and effects in the various decks.  These would be people who like the exploration/learning experience of games like Magic: the Gathering and role playing games or even gamers addicted to “the cult of the new” because they enjoy working through rules sets to find and test strategies.  Gamers with an aversion to all coop games or games with a high “complexity” overhead may want to steer clear.

If what you’ve read piques your interest, feel free to head over to the Kickstarter page for the Rook City expansion to the Sentinels of the multiverse game…  it’s already funded but ending on November 27th…

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg Schloesser:  So what do I like about Sentinels?  Of course, the superhero theme is appealing, as is the concept of working as a team, which fits nicely with the concept present in “team” comic books.  The artwork is excellent and evocative.  Further, if one reads the flavor text while playing it does help evoke an appropriate atmosphere.

The continuing appearance of minions and the effects of the environment force players to divide their attacks amongst multiple threats.  Early in the game players have few cards in front of them, which allow the villain and his minions to inflict considerable damage on the heroes. As the game progresses, however, players have more cards in play and the heroes become stronger and stronger.  So if they can withstand the early assaults, they should be able to overcome this early damage and defeat the villain.

So what do I not like about the game?  First, it seems too easy, especially with four or five players.  Even when using the most fearsome villain and environment, victory seems to come fairly easily, especially when one becomes familiar with the various cards that can surface and how best to use one’s powers, especially in combination with one’s teammates.  This is a cooperation game, and the rules allow for players to freely share information concerning the cards in their hand with their teammates.  While this is consistent with superhero teams, it does make victory easier than it should be.  Victory is far more difficult when playing with only two or three players. Surprisingly, there are no rules to increase the difficulty level when playing with more players, but I understand the designer is planning to make some changes in this arena in future editions.

My biggest complaint against the game – and this is a deal-breaker for me – is its very nature.  As mentioned, it is somewhat akin to Magic: The Gathering, a game I’ve never played but based on my observations probably would not enjoy.  As more and more cards are played, there is a dramatic increase in the number of effects and modifiers that will apply to just about every subsequent card that is played.  This means that just about every time a card is played, every other card in play must be consulted to see whether or not it modifies the effect of the just-played card.  This is tedious, time consuming, calculating and, well, dull.  Many folks don’t mind this process, but I find it sucks the very life out of a game.  Sadly, for me, it is a game killer.

I certainly applaud the effort at developing a cooperative superhero game that evokes the feel of “team” oriented comic books.  As mentioned, the artwork is superb.  However, I simply do not enjoy the card play mechanism wherein multiple cards – sometimes dozens – must be consulted with the play of each card to ascertain their modifiers and mitigating effects.  It simply isn’t fun for me.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!…  Matt Carlson
I like it…
Not for me… Greg Schloesser

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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