Sentinels of the Multiverse is a super hero themed cooperative card game from the company Greater than Games. Each player takes control of their very own super hero, each represented by their own custom deck of cards that contain their various equipment, powers, and skills, and must come together as a team to take down a powerful super villain with his or her own deck of minions and retributions. And if that wasn’t enough for the heroes to deal with, these battles each take place in a variety of environments spanning from the undersea ruins of Atlantis to the corrupted back alleys of Rook City, and even to the harsh wastelands of Earth’s far distant future, each with their own dangers for both sides of the conflict. Are you hearing the Danny Elfman Batman Overture in your head right now and wishing you had a cape, then keep reading for more details.
The game play in Sentinels is both amazingly simple and at times highly complex, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the type of player you are. On the one hand the basic rules are dead simple. On the villain turn, which happens first, you flip over the top card of the villain deck. The same will happen for the environment deck as the last turn before the villain goes again. The hero turns are a slightly more complex, each player will play one card and use one power, and finish up by drawing a card. The powers available for use are printed on the cards that they have already played, including the character card that they start out with, so each hero has at least their one base power that they can use each turn. That’s the basics, at least most of them. What I didn’t mention were the recurring effects, which happen, potentially, at the beginning and / or the end of each turn. Several of the cards will have the phrase “At the start of the villain turn do x” or “At the end of the villain turn do y”. The environment will have start and end of turn effects as well, as will some of the heroes. That’s the first level of complexity in the game play: keeping track of all of the effects. Fortunately this is relatively easy to do if you (literally) play your cards right. The effects happen in the order that the cards come into play, so if you keep them lined up properly on the table and get into the habit of scanning over the cards in play each time it should be easy to keep tabs on.
The second source of complexity comes from the card interactions. Many of the cards and powers have ongoing effects that will effect the entire game, some of which can be a bit hard to keep track of without some kind of system in place. An example would be the hero Legacy, and his base power of Galvanize, which offers all heroes an additional +1 to each of their attacks, or Ra, who has a power that can change the type of all hero damage to fire. Fortunately the later printings of the game come with a set of tokens that does a fairly good job of helping to mark out these situations. Even with the tokens there can be a fair amount of math involved, pulling in increases and decreases from a variety of sources to determine just how much damage that Throat Jab or Gatling Gun actually did. Some players will revel in it, others could be turned off by it. There can also be some ambiguity when trying to determine exactly how a certain set of cards interact, especially for players that are new to the game, but most of those situations can be cleared up fairly easily, and the frequency of those moments will drop off quickly after a few plays.
The theme is, at least for me, the point where Sentinels really shines. It starts with the characters, the heroes and the villains. Each hero deck comes with a character card that represents that hero, and each one looks like a comic book cover, right down to the “issue” number in the upper left, right under the imprint for the Sentinels Comics publishing company, which is used to represent the hero’s starting (and maximum) hit points. The villains have a similar setup, although without the comic book cover trappings. In their case they actually get two cards, one with the artwork for the villain, the other with the text of how to play them, including initial setup and special card interactions. The comic book representation is continued on the individual cards in each deck as well: each one of them contains a quote from the various comics that the different characters have appeared in over the years, or would have appeared in if the Sentinels Comics company had actually been a real company publishing comics. The quotes provide some fun flavor text that helps to reveal, in parts, the back story of these characters the the game creators have laid out, which is actually fairly extensive for a project like this.
Going beyond that each of the decks is very thematic in and of themselves, and do a good job of both representing the character and their power set, and of giving each character their own feel. None of the characters are particularly new, they play off of established archetypes from across the comics industry. Legacy is an obvious Superman clone, with a bit of Captain America thrown in for good measure. The Wraith is a female Batman, right down to the utility belt and not-actually-batarangs. Ra follows the exact same path as Marvel’s interpretation of Thor, only with the Egyptian god of fire standing in for the Norse god of thunder. Does this lack of originality detract from the game? I’d argue just the opposite. Sentinels plays off of the established comics shorthand to give the players fast access to these characters without needing to bog the game down with them. And the pay off comes in the way that the decks play. Looking at Tachyon, for example, anyone with even passing familiarity with the super hero genre will recognize her as a classic speedster character, like the Flash. And when you play her deck that comes out, unlike some of the other heroes she has very few cards that stay out on the table. Everything in her deck is about getting cards into and out of her hand quickly, taking small quick jabs at the enemy, sometimes all of them at once, and building up momentum for powerful flurries of blows, or one really big punch that can send the enemy reeling. In the opposite direction you have Bunker, a guy in an obviously military robot suit, conjuring images of Iron Man, but with some real bulk on him. And true to the cover, he plays a little slow, as the player has to deploy his equipment, but he comes built in with a vast array of weaponry and shields, and feels like you are playing a mobile tank.
Which goes into the next part of the theme that really shines: each of the decks offers a distinct play style. Not only do the decks do a good job of representing the character, they also have a lot of variety to offer, so playing the game as Legacy will flow completely differently than playing the game as The Visionary. Like true comic heroes the Sentinels each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and each will have situations in which they shine, and those in which they are crippled. The different decks are fairly balanced, so there is no real “best” hero to play in all situations, though there are certainly heroes that play better with certain other heroes, or against specific villains. The villains in the deck get the same treatment, each comes with their own style of game play, and their own quirks and challenges. Part of the joy of the game is finding those particular character interactions that really bring out the idea that you are not only playing a super hero with awesome powers and crazy weapons, but that you and your friends are actually playing a super hero team.
For me the best example of this is actually in the very first game that a new group will play. The game itself suggests that the first game be played against the villain Baron Blade, a mad scientist bent on world domination, or failing that, world destruction. It’s a good first match, Blade is one of the easier opponents, so even heroes unfamiliar with the game will stand a decent chance of beating him, and his deck does a good job of introducing most of the central mechanics of the game in a relatively easy to understand way. But, while the Baron is bringing out his worst a fledgling group of super heroes, the new players, are learning about their own powers and beginning to learn to come together as a team to take down the threat. The story plays out like the first issue of a comic book as the game continues and, with any luck, the heroes emerge victorious. And if they don’t, you can bet that the heroes will dust themselves off and jump back in the fray for a rematch.
The game itself consists of only the various hero, villain, and environment decks and a handful of tokens that are used to track damage and ongoing effects. That said the quality of those components is decent enough that no one will bat an eye. The cards are a nice thick card stock, and feel sturdy enough for multiple plays (though if you do wear them out you can always replace individual cards or decks directly from the Greater than Games web store without needing to replace the entire set, which is a really nice touch). The tokens are thick press cardboard, and easy to read, though my set at least couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the printing for the tokens to line up with the cutouts. Still, everything was at least close to center, and its not a huge detractor.
The artwork on the cards can be a turn off for some people, and will be a draw for others. It is fairly consistent across all of the decks, and it does do a pretty good job of representing the super heroes, but it does have a bit more of a cartoony, web-comic style feel than the art you would see in a number of off the shelf comic books. Even so, the art is fun and expressive, and in true comic book form, tells a story all of its own as the game progresses.
The same can be said for the rule book, which again is presented in comic book style, full of narration style “bubbles” that explain the rules and provide some backstory for our heroes and our villains.
The Expanding Multiverse
The base game for Sentinels of the Multiverse contains ten hero decks, four villain decks, and four environment decks. That can give the players a decent amount of variation between games as they explore different teams and combinations, but if the game is played often in your group odds are good that many of the scenarios will start to wear a bit too thin before too long.
Fortunately Sentinels does not stop with the base game. There are four regular expansions out currently for the game, as well as two mega expansions and eight single deck mini expansions to help really jump up the number of interesting combinations that can come into play. The regular expansions each introduce two new heroes and four new villains. Rook City pulls in some gritty noir style themes, including one of the harder opponents, The Chairman and his nefarious crime organization. Infernal Relics adds a mystical aspect to the game. Shattered Timelines lives up to its name with time travel inspired characters and villains, including alternate future versions of some of the existing characters, now on different sides, playing nicely back into the ongoing story of the Sentinels universe. Wrath of the Cosmos expands the multiverse story into space with far flung environments and galactic heroes.
The mega expansions take it to a whole new level. The Vengeance expansion not only added new heroes and villains, five of each, but also introduced an entirely new play style. Instead of the hero team facing off against a single villain and their henchmen, the heroes now have to contend with a team of villains, providing an even match. The newly released Villains of the Multiverse expansion includes no new heroes at all, but offers up ten more team style villains to punish the heroes.
The mini expansions offer up three new heroes, four villains, and four environments, each with their own special brand of sweet.
The best thing about the expansions is that, for the most part, they are not content to offer up more of the same. Many of the expansion heroes and villains not only bring their own unique style to the game, they play with the basic rules in a way that can greatly alter the playing experience. For example, the villain The Dreamer, from the Shattered Timelines expansion is an alternate timeline version of one of the heroes from the original set, The Visionary, as a young child. The Dreamer’s nightmares are manifesting as real monsters and attacking the world, so the heroes are forced to stop them, but unlike all of the other villains in the game, if the Dreamer’s already low hit points drop to zero the heroes have lost the fight. Wrath of the Cosmos gives us another unusual fight scenario in Kaargra Warfang, which sets the match up as a classic gladiator battle, where the heroes are more focused on winning titles and the favor of the crowd to win. And the Miss Information mini expansion pits them against their own secretary, secretly plotting against them. The first half of the game is spent being sabotaged on other missions before she even reveals herself as a target.
Expansion and variation does not stop there, though, because there are also the promotional cards. In Sentinels of the Multiverse the decks that the heroes use are pre-made, there is no deck building or customization. Which means that all of the promotional cards for the game are alternate character cards, with different base powers, representing the character at different points in their timeline, or occasionally other characters that have taken up the mantel of that hero. Amazingly just shifting the base power of the character can make a huge impact on the way that the character deck plays, breathing new life into a deck and adding an incredible number of new possible game combinations. These cards come primarily from conventions and as pre-order add-ons, but Greater than Games is a really cool company in this respect: they have made the artwork for cards available around the web, and have given permission for people to print their own copies of past promo cards to use in their games, making it possible to gain access to these variations even if you were not in on the game from the beginning.
The other interesting aspect of Sentinels of the Multiverse, its fan base, and the stance of its creators, is that there is a lot of fan made content available to help really push the boundaries of the game. Sentinels has a very active fan base pumping out a variety of game accessories, hp trackers, storage options, and so on, as well as custom made content. With the help of professional printing services, relatively cheaply considering, an interested player could create their own hero or villain, or they could use one of the many fan created characters and integrate them into their existing game. For a good example do some research into The Cauldron, which has become the de facto fan made expansion, with a huge cast of heroes and villains that have undergone extensive play testing.
Sentinels is well set, with the various expansions, promos, and so on, to offer up a lot of reasons to keep playing. Even with the same heroes versus the same villains in the same environments the randomness of the card draws can completely change how a battle goes down. And because there is so much content at this point there will be little reason to play the exact same scenario over again anyway. The feel of the game itself shifts against different villains, or with different teams involved, and each hero plays differently from the others, and will play differently depending on who else is on the team. There are a ton of little synergies between the heroes to find as play progresses, different combos that can be pulled off in the right scenarios. Sometimes even the turn order for the heroes will make a difference in how they play (try placing Tempest right before the Scholar in turn order for a fun card mill combo). With all of those options, including the shifts in play priority that come with using the alternate abilities on the promo cards, it’s going to be a long time before the game starts to feel stale.
For my money, Sentinels of the Multiverse is a fantastic game that offers up, especially with its expansions, a wide variety of scenarios and combinations that should keep the game fresh and interesting for a very long time. The game itself is fun and engaging. The challenge of the game can be very swingy depending on which heroes are in play, which villains they are up against, and in what environment, and to a degree what cards come out of the draw, to the point that some games will seem impossibly easy and offer no challenge at all, while others will simply seem impossible, but that uncertainty can lead to a lot of amazing moments. Ultimately the game is a great concept and really just a lot of fun.
That said, this game won’t be for everyone. The large swing in challenge level will put some people off, and the amount of upkeep required to keep track of everything will turn off others. The game isn’t as involved as something like Arkham Horror, but it’s certainly not a casual game, so your milage may vary. Overall if your gaming group is into the super hero theme, likes cooperative gaming experiences, and either doesn’t mind the math, or has someone that doesn’t mind keeping track of everything for the other players as well, then you will likely have a good time with this title. Sentinels offers up a solid gaming experience with a great amount of replay, and plenty of opportunities to pull off surprising plays at just the right time. At the risk of being completely cliche, it’s the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and that last minute save that will get this game back on the table again and again.
Bonus Review – Sentinels of the Multiverse: The Video Game
Yes, that’s right. There’s also a video game version of Sentinels, brought to us by the folks over at Handelabra Games. And if you like the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, you are probably going to enjoy its video game incarnation. I can say that with some confidence because they are nearly identical. Handelabra has done an amazing job of presenting the original game in a digital form, you actually feel like you are playing the same game. It has the advantage of keeping track of all of the ongoing effects and fiddly bits for you, which is nice, at the cost of making each decision require explicit questions be answered by the player. In some cases this makes the game go faster (you don’t, for example, need to work out who the three targets with the highest hit points are, it knows that already), and in some cases slower. If Legacy is immune to fire damage and can direct damage to other heroes to himself, and Visionary can turn all of a villain’s attacks into fire damage it would be easy, on the table top, to say that the villain simply does no damage. In the digital version that same interaction requires a confirmation of which damage type the player wants, for each attack, whether or not to redirect that damage to Legacy, whether to change the damage type again for the new target, and so on, for each attack, which can actually take a lot longer.
Even so it is a faithful reproduction of the original that offers not only fun in and of itself, but an opportunity for learning. The single player mode makes it easy for the player to take control of up to the full five heroes, and gives the player a way to really familiarize themselves with the different characters, which is great for discovering combos, or for really getting a handle of that one guy that you’ve only really played the one time and didn’t quite get. It’s also useful for those times when you simply don’t have time to play a full game as you can drop out and continue the game from where you left off later. Or, if you want something a bit more authentic, you could try the online multiplayer.
The digital version presents the turns of the characters as pages of a comic book, turning from page to page to see what everyone is doing as they go through the game. It has minimal animation, keeping with the original card art, but has a nice set of sound effects to indicate the different effects and attacks as they happen. It also sports a rather catchy sound track (which incidentally is available to buy separately, and can be played during your table top Sentinel games for some added atmosphere).
The one place the digital version lacks, and this is a temporary situation, is that it does not have the same breadth of content found in its table top original. The base game has exactly the same content as the original base game, and in the digital version all of the expansions are being made available as DLC, purchasable either individually, or in a bundle through a season pass. Unfortunately the digital version is relatively new, so only a small portion of the expansion content is actually available at this time. That, combined with how easy it is to play game after game in the digital version, can lead to a lot of “eh, I’ve done that”. Fortunately more content is already on its way, and the digital game will eventually feature all of the content available on the table top, with the exception of the fan made content.
Recommendation: If you like Sentinels, get the digital game, you’ll like it. If you don’t like Sentinels the digital version probably won’t do anything to change your mind, unless the idea of having the computer keep track of everything for you fixes your main beef with the game. If you haven’t played Sentinels in its original card based incarnation and want to see if its something you can get into the digital version is a good way get a feel for the game and help you decide if its for you.
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