Battle Bros is an ongoing biweekly column where we started off with Drew (PantsOptional) teaching his brother Chris (head58) how to play Warhammer 40,000, but there’s been some serious mission creep. Catch up on their past adventures here, and specifically part 1 of their discussion of Marvel Crisis Protocol here.
Meet the Battle Bros
The older of the two brothers, but newer to the game.
Learning to play Iron Hands teaching Drew about the joys of comics miniatures games.
The younger brother,
holding his brother’s hand through this terrible ordeal being dragged kicking and screaming.
CHRIS: Welcome back! The world is still a rancid, burning tire fire, and we still don’t know enough about 9th to even pretend we know what we’re talking about, so we’re plodding on again this week with Marvel Crisis Protocol.
DREW: Man, we don’t even know enough about 8th edition to pretend we know what we’re talking about. And I definitely don’t know enough about this game, but that didn’t stop me from buying the box and immediately speed-painting everything. Contrast: it gets the job done. (Even if it doesn’t get the job done especially well in all cases.)
CHRIS: Last time we talked mainly about the characters available, the models, and some general stuff about the game. This time we’ll get into more of the weeds of the rules and how the game actually plays.
The rules are all online; the starter box comes with an abbreviated rulebook that only tells you how to set up the demo scenario and has no details about things like building your own roster (that’s how Star Wars Legion does it too, allowing for more frequent updates of the full digital rules. Maybe this is an Asmodee/Fantasy Flight standard), and overall are pretty basic.
As I said last time there’s some real wonkiness around elevation and some minor weirdness about throwing characters or terrain, but overall it’s a concise and relatively clean ruleset. It’s alternating activations, and each character can essentially do any 2 actions (move, attack, use a superpower, shake off a condition).
DREW: I’ll admit it’s definitely concise, but “clear” isn’t the word I’d use for either the core rules or the downloadable missions. The trouble with the core reared its ugly head the moment I saw the first hero card, and it only got worse as I cracked open the booklet. This game leaps at every chance it gets to use symbols instead of words. I definitely counted and there’s like thirty goddamn symbols. That’s not a “hard no” situation, and some of the powers at least make their innate/active/passive nature clear through context, but ugh. I reserve the right to roll my eyes so hard that I have to go see Dr. Andretti for special drops.
CHRIS: I didn’t bat an eye at all the symbols and it took me a minute to pin down why. I think using icons for conditions, attack types, etc. is common outside of GW games. Especially in games that use cards for characters/units like Legion, Warmachine, or Guild Ball. You have a lot of info to cram onto a small amount of real estate so a symbol instead of a word here or there can make a lot of difference. Since 40k doesn’t use unit cards but instead can have up to a full page for a datasheet it’s not as much of a concern. The MCP character cards themselves have a ton of information on them, even with symbols instead of full text for everything. In fact as I am rapidly approaching the age where AARP will be regularly sending me mail, I wish the cards and font sizes were a little bigger frankly.
DREW: As for the downloadable missions, we had a bit of a back and forth over the last week. When you told me recently – I don’t know, probably last column or something, it’s not like I read your sections – the Ultron mission is a big flaming bag of dog poop. I was so sure that you had done something wrong that I had to check and re-check, and every time I thought I had caught you out some new fuckery abounded. Are his Doomsday Console devices objectives as per the core? No, but also yes, and he has rules that circumvent those anyway! What a wonderful design setup.
CHRIS: In your defense, assuming I’m just a screaming idiot is usually the safe move.
DREW: For what it’s worth, Atomic Mass also provided a version of this mission where both players play as the good guys while Ultron has a predetermined “AI” flowchart that determines its actions and reactions, and… well, that sure does exist. On the one hand, it seems like it might be more fun to play against rather than the almost certain auto-win by Ultron. On the other hand, this seems to be accomplished by having Ultron’s “programming” focus on trying to prevent the heroes from succeeding rather than achieving its objectives. It’s not a great sign when the fix for your mission is to have one side not actually play and even then not actually try to win.
CHRIS: Honestly, I didn’t even look at the AI version. I can see why they would release something that can be played solo in These Troubling Times, but that’s not a fix to their bad scenario design. When I posted on the official Facebook group about what happened one of the devs said “you should have used the characters we suggested in the scenario” (which was “everyone in the core box except Ultron”). Which made no goddamn sense because we had Black Panther, Shuri, and Venom in our squads, and they’re faster and better at board control than fucking Crossbones, Doc Ock and Iron Man.
Okay, breathe, calm, the sun’s getting real low… as I said, this is an Asmodee game and that means proprietary dice and measurement tools. Everything in the game uses the same 8 sided dice with funky symbols on the faces (there aren’t separate attack and defense dice like in Legion). There are hits, blocks, wilds, crits, and skulls. Unlike in 40k, the skulls are bad. They’re a failure and you can’t reroll that die no matter what. Wilds count as hits and often unlock some kind of special bonus with an attack (like inflicting a condition or pushing the target). Crits count as hits and allow you to roll an additional die (rolling a crit on that additional die doesn’t also generate an additional die, so it doesn’t go super crazy nuts). The defender rolls a number of dice equal to their defensive stat – physical, energy, or mystical – with the wilds and crits counting as blocks. If there are more hits than blocks at the end that’s the amount of damage inflicted. Hooray. Not too bad once you figure out the symbols and pay for a pack of special dice (the core box doesn’t quite come with enough in my opinion).
There are also the special measuring tools for movement and range. No tape measures or mundane rulers for you!
DREW: Using the special measuring tools almost certainly makes design easier but coming from 40k it clearly also loses some granularity. It also nicely solves the “problem” of being able to cheaply and easily replace lost measuring tools at literally any department or hardware store.
CHRIS: I swear the first person at Fantasy Flight who suggested “what if we use proprietary dice and measure tools for X-wing so they have to buy our stuff” must have dislocated their shoulder from all the enthusiastic high-fives. There’s a solid gold statue of that employee out front of the building, and the shareholders all have a small shrine to them in their homes. And the person is probably in witness protection, much like The Son of a Bitch Who Invented Comic Sans.
As opposed to the economics of the industry, the economy of the game is based around Power – most attacks and superpowers cost Power to use, and some generate Power based on the amount of damage dealt. The main way you get Power is by taking damage – usually one point of Power per point of damage taken. Which at first feels weird but completely follows the Bugs Bunny/Jackie Chan/Voltron model of superhero combat: the character starts off slow and gets beaten down until they come back in the third act and go completely ham. It also adds a tactical element of “do I really want to attack Captain Marvel and give her enough Power to activate her Binary Form?”
DREW: Yeah, it’s every comic where Parker gets his lunch handed to him for two-thirds of the book, and then when he stops cracking cheesy jokes you know things have gotten serious. I can absolutely see this being the factor that gets me into trouble, especially coming from a 40k style where focusing down a unit is the clutch play. Instead, if I shove everything I’ve got at Cap in the hopes of taking out a leader unit early on I’m just setting myself up for his shield to come in from off-panel and beat seven kinds of hell out of my crew.
CHRIS: Cap is actually a perfect example of another neat piece of the design.The cards are double sided – once a character has taken about half their Stamina (hit points) you flip it over to the Injured side, where some stats might be weaker or, like with Cap, they might just get tougher once they get roughed up a bit. When Cap flips to Injured he adds a power called “I can do this all day” where he now counts blanks as blocks on the dice, making him nearly impossible to take down and making his Bodyguard power, where he can make himself the target of an attack instead of a nearby ally, so much better. The overall result of the double sided card thing is you can never one-shot a character off the table. Hit them hard enough to flip them to the Injured side, fine, they’re down but now you can’t target them again for the rest of the round. Next round that character gets a chance to at least do something.
DREW: I like that. Anything to prevent the problem where I put my models on the table, you roll your first turn, and I immediately put half my army back in the case. (Remember I mentioned playing Tyranids? Yeah…) Not only that, it emulates comic book fights nicely where one attack never really takes someone completely out of the fight right away. Even if it’s just Hawkeye squaring off on his own against Ultron, Clint still doesn’t get disintegrated immediately despite the fact that his “powers” are to launch sticks really hard and make astoundingly bad life choices.
CHRIS: Also when the card flips to the Injured side you don’t clear off any Power gained by taking that damage. This is a point I very often forget to consider, and then I eat a Unibeam.
DREW: Oh thank god. There were some moments, especially last column, where I thought you might be good at this game. Think what that would do to our entire premise! It’s barely strong enough to survive our normal inane rambling, let alone a complete divergence from principles.
CHRIS: Son, after near-on forty years on this planet I think you’d have realized by now: I’m not good at anything. Another thing I always forget is that a lot of superpowers don’t take an action. Things like Hulk throwing stuff or Black Widow’s counterattack are free as long as you have the Power to pay for them. So there are ways around the limit of 2 actions and lots of tactical options.
Then we get the Team Tactics, which maybe add too many tactical options. You build your roster of 10 characters with 8 of the Team Tactics cards, and then at the start of the game you choose which 5 of them you’re using that game. These cards all have very specific triggers, usually that multiple characters have to be within a fairly short range. Sometimes they specify exactly which characters they can be used with (Cap and Iron Man, Thor and Loki, etc.). If you meet the criteria you can play the card at any time – it doesn’t have to be played on the character you are currently activating. They have some really good effects like allowing all Avengers-affiliated characters to move, or setting up a special attack, or clearing conditions. You really need to engineer the characters being in the right place/condition to use these rather than just looking at the board and seeing which card you might be able to use this round. Super situational, and I consistently fail to get lined up right to pull them off. I would definitely leave these out at first when doing a demo or teaching someone who doesn’t have a lot of minis gaming experience.
DREW: Or, and this is just hypothetical, someone who’s never played the game before? Just sayin’.
CHRIS: I just assume that somebody like you who has been playing these games longer than most of the other Goonhammer writers have been alive would be able to jump in the deep end and grok how these cards work right from go. But when I demoed the game for my local store I definitely held off on introducing the tactics cards. First round I had folks only look at the attacks on the top half of the card, just move and maybe attack. Second round I had them bring in the Superpowers too – you usually don’t have enough Power to use them round one anyway. Then once they got how everything was going I gave them a couple pre-selected Team Tactics cards and said “try to work these in to your planning this turn.” When they realized they could do stuff like stand Cap and Bucky back to back and make them pretty much invulnerable, or have Hulk Gamma Launch an ally up the board to get to a crucial position, that’s when I’d see a light go on over their heads and they saw the cinematic element of the game.
DREW: When all is said and done here, I don’t hate the rules. They need a bit of editing and touching up for clarity, and by god they need to adjust that whole symbols situation. One of the best things that 8th edition did, in my mind, was to make datasheets clearer and include most of the relevant rules, and I think Atomic could learn here from their example. Hell, even if they just made a cheat sheet that would be better than nothing.
Ultimately, though, this game just feels like it’s still so early in its product line that there’s barely any variation. I’m sure the licensing doesn’t help; right now it’s pretty much just the Avengers, their MCU associated characters, and a handful of bad guys, and that’s it. It really needs more characters from other teams or something that makes me think of Marvel when we play. Give me battle mats or terrain that outline the streets of New York, or… Marvel has another city location, right? No? Okay screw it then, the Danger Room or Doom’s palace or a Helicarrier.
CHRIS: There’s a “Cosmic” terrain set and mat coming out pretty soon but I get you. Everybody, myself included, was making a New York Streets board when the game first dropped. I’m personally hopeful for official mats for “the Xavier School Softball Field” or “The Top of the Brooklyn and/or George Washington Bridge.”
DREW: Only if the Goblin gets a special tactic card called “Tiny SNAP.” The missions for Hulk and Ultron are at least interesting even if one of them stinks, so give us missions that evoke actually interacting with the property instead of just bland-ass “two teams run at each other on an airport tarmac.” Hell, give us secondary objectives that specific characters can achieve. If I can get a victory point for having Spider-Man take a round to teach the Beyonder how to poop, that’s still better than most of the cards in this objective deck.
This all comes back to a point that you made last column: this game is so close to being the game that I want it to be that it almost hurts. I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. It was the same problem with HeroClix, but that game had the decency to come out when I was young and foolish, and was also able to flood the scene with boatloads of figures that really connected with what I felt was a great time in comics.
CHRIS: Totally agree, and not just on the Beyonder pooping objective. Legion released some expansion packs that really mixed up the game about a year and a half in, I’d love to see MCP do the same with secret objectives or personal vendettas, or “save the civilians” kinds of situations. If this weren’t a licensed game with characters I love in it, would I have bought in? Almost certainly not. The licensing and the great models got me in the door but there needs to be more to hold my interest long term, especially when I’m also playing like six other skirmish-level games plus supposedly learning how to play 40k.
Which, hey, reminds me that this is supposed to be a column about me learning to play 40k, and since Number for these MCP columns have been so abysmal Rob’s finger is inching slowly toward that button that will open the floor and drop us into the corpse starch grinder, in two weeks we’ll get back to our space fascists and, my spidey-sense is telling me, we’ll have a lot more concrete info on 9th. So join us then as we look at those lists I made a few weeks back to see what complete rubbish they will be in the next edition! Or something!