I don’t envy anyone trying to design a competitive table-top superhero game, but that is exactly what Atomic Mass Games has attempted with Marvel: Crisis Protocol. How did they do? Let us find out.
Marvel: Crisis Protocol, the new skirmish game from Atomic Mass Games, is finally on shelves. The internet is quickly filling with reviews of the game, so I feel there is little value in telling you things you already have heard. TLDR; the models are solid, with fiddly assembly of absolutely Malifaux-tiny*™ bits, but excellent engineering. The components are likewise good, and the terrain included in the core is generous at this price. The review that follows is instead a deeper dive into the quality of the game itself, with an eye towards what it is, and what it might end up being.
I want to start by admitting a bias. I wanted this game to be incredible the moment I saw the first images. A widely released, licensed super-hero themed, competitive skirmish game is something I have desperately wanted my entire life. Knight’s Models game was both cost prohibitive, and hard to find readily, thus was never destined to find the big, broad audience a game needs to establish a tournament community. Heroclix is a competitive trap, run by an unscrupulous company, I was eager to escape after my year or so on the big tournament circuit. It fell to Atomic Mass to attempt this next, best, chance at really filling this niche in the market.
So how is Marvel: Crisis Protocol as a game? It’s fine. I know… I know… Faint praise is sometimes damning, but in its launch state, the game is functional if uninspired. It features generally safe design choices, and the few times it tries something wholely its own are the times when it succeeds most fully.
Regardless of what the team behind it might say elsewhere, Crisis Protocol is clearly a game with tournament gaming as its DNA. The pre-game setup (found inexplicably only in the online rulebook, with a very incomplete starter-rules found instead in the box), tells players to bring ten models of any point value, eight tactics cards, and a selection of the two types of scenario cards, to a game. Players each pick what amount to one of the two scenarios objects, and only then use the points size of the game to determine which of the ten models will make up their team. This very much feels like a cousin to competitive Warmahordes, evoking the idea of a side-board, or even A Song of Ice and Fire’s two-list competitive format. In theory this creates a mind-game between players before armies are even selected, but in practice, after a dozen-plus games, it simply puts on the guise of a seriously competitive system in an otherwise very simple game. Players then set objects on their 3×3′ battlefield and are ready to deploy.
Sandwiched between a fairly standard setup-up phase, and a clean-up phase, the majority of the game round is spent in alternating player activations, where players will select one of their models (usually from around 3-5 models per side) and will perform two actions plus a number of additional abilities based on expending the game’s energy resource. Movement is carried out using movement widgets familiar to players of Fantasy Flight’s own Star Wars Legion, though like in that game, a measuring tape would have proven less clumsy in almost every instant. We continue to see the game’s identity crisis develop, where the movement tool implies a product targeting a casual audience, perhaps intimidated by a measuring tape(?), in a product that seemingly wants to have its ducks in a row as a serious competitive title.
It is in fact the aforementioned energy resource that is one mechanic which I feel works well. Players receive a paltry one energy per model at the start of a game round, which is rarely if ever enough to buy any power. Players earn significantly more power from being damaged (one per wound incurred), but more-so earn further power through means unique to the model. Hulk, being always angry (that’s his secret!), generates two more bonus energy each turn. Doctor Octopus revels in his hubris, gaining power any time a critical dice facing is shown on any of his results. Appropriately mustache-twirly! These factors in tandem means that the game’s engine gets going through engagement and action, creating a system that feels right when caution is set to the wayside.
Invariably, characters will take enough wounds to hit their initial cap, and become dazed. SUch models lose that round’s activation, and otherwise become non-factors for the moment. At the end of the round dazed models will heal fully and flip their character card to an injured side. I actually love this mechanic, and as their one true innovation, I find it brave, and generally excellent. It is, in essence impossible to alpha-strike a model off of the table, as they are ensured at least one chance to live on. In such an incredibly low model-count system, this feels not only essential in guaranteeing both players feel involved throughout, but prevents absolute blow-outs where you can re-rack the game after one lop-sided turn. More interesting still is how the game’s maker use the design space this provides. Some characters actively improve when hurt. Captain America gains a massive defense boost citing, “I can do this all day,” while others like the cowardly MODOK are absolutely frail once they have gotten an initial bloody nose. This creates characterful design, and mechanically interesting design, which is an ideal a game like this needs to strive for.
Where Crisis Protocol stumbles is that everything else is just rote game-design 101. Its D8 based system uses proprietary facings for functionally no reason other than to sell added dice sets (something you WILL do once you realize Hulk can easily reach 14 dice attacks, for instance). Most attacks are simple dice pools and comparing of facings after a re-roll step. Players of X-wing will be very familiar with this system. An added caveat is a weird intrinsic illegibility of these dice. Very samey looking dice facings add that split second of book-keeping as a quick glance won’t reveal all of your results. The illegibility will rear its head elsewhere as some tactics, and other card icons can be incredibly small.
One might be tempted to think that the sometimes talked about terrain rules add to the game’s charm, but following the theme of rules being played incredibly safely, the vaunted terrain destruction is mostly a non-event. While many characters have ways of throwing and destroying terrain, terrain itself is largely meaningless. Standard LoS rules of course exist but with nearly every character having ways of ignoring terrain for movement sake, the terrain mostly becomes a source of largely insignificant additional once-per-game attacks. Terrain in general harkens back to another of this game’s identity crisis, with it not being sure it is fully a table-top game, or secretly wishing (as per its movement/range tools) that it was a mass-market board-game.
I was asked, before writing this, if I feel that this game might change with further releases. I think a real caution here is that the models in the core set alone do provide enough points for all the stock scenarios. This isn’t 40k where a 500pt and 2000pt game reveal wildly different feelings and experiences, or even an X-wing where a sole core-set doesn’t even resemble a proper game. This game, in one box, shows exactly what it wants to be, and different characters are unlikely to cause an epiphany of secret buried depth, though they may bolster the raw fun-factor if you gain access to personal favorites.
I don’t envy this game’s designers. Super-heroes create a proper dilemma when they can range from street-level human, to cosmic force of nature. There becomes a crossroads where you either honor the characters so that they feel like what fans would expect or wish for, or you balance your system with an eye towards competition, and accept that sometimes Baron Zemo will just endure several punches to the face from the Immortal Hulk (no, that isn’t a typo… look it up if you’re in the mood for the best mainstream comic of the decade.)
As you begin seeing more and more of my articles, as I ramp up my work with FLG, I want one thing to be abundantly clear. I never want hype, flashy production value, etc. be a factor in what I present to you all. To that end, right before I began writing this piece, I asked myself this. If Marvel: Crisis Protocol did not have the strength of its license, would I continue playing it. Much as I wish I could say otherwise, the answer is, “No.” It is a game that when tasked with either making a terrific “Marvel” game, or a terrific competitive system, somehow decides to be an adequate version of both. It is a product that provides a decent value, and there is legitimately fun to be had, but prospective buyers deserve to know that what they are getting relies entirely on how much they will personally get out of playing their favorite heroes/villains in a tabletop setting.
I am not fond of “scores” at the end of a review for what is clearly something subjective, but I do feel a sincere need to restate my prior point. If you are absolutely over the moon for the IP, Marvel: Crisis Protocol will be a fun time, probably helped by further investment in future releases, but in a calendar year which has blessed us in this hobby with a surprising amount of very legit new competitive games, this one is unlikely to satisfy. It is both not narrative enough to absolutely revel in the Marvel side of it, no technically proficient enough to be a real gamer’s game.
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