Review: ‘Marvel Snap’ marries cards and comic books in brilliant concept

As a new father, Marvel Snap is the perfect game for me right now. It doesn’t ask a lot, it keeps me entertained and, best of all, it’s built for smartphones from the ground up. That means I can fit the collectible card game in the cracks of free time that emerge in my life.

It’s what I turn to when I’m trying to rock the baby to sleep at 2.37am I have one arm cradling the infant and the other trying to figure out where to place my Rocket Raccoon card for maximum effectiveness. The matches churn quickly with each contest lasting about five minutes. By the time my boy dozes off, I have played through four or five matches, making what could have been a trying part of my day a little better.

A mashup that works

Because I used to play collectible card games in my pre-baby days, I was familiar with the mechanics. The best way to describe Marvel Snap is that it’s a cross between poker and Hearthstone. The latter shouldn’t be a surprise because Second Dinner, the team behind Snap, has several members who worked on Blizzard’s card game including co-creator Ben Brode.

Players make a deck of 12 cards. They’re all characters or equipment from the Marvel universe, with some having powers that are interpretations of their abilities. For example, Wolverine can be destroyed or discarded but he’ll reappear somewhere on the gameboard, which is a nod to his regenerative mutation. The Hulk Buster can merge with a friendly card as the character dons the Tony Stark-created suit.

Players have to keep an eye on two numbers on each card: its energy and its power. The energy is how much it costs to play and its power is how strong the card is. Both are important because the energy determines when players can drop a card and the power signifies its strength. In case you’re wondering, the Hulk has one of the highest base powers at 12.

A touch of Texas Hold’em

So where does poker come into this? That happens when players put the cards in play. They see three locations, almost like the community cards in Texas Hold ’em. They’re revealed during each turn of a match, and they all have game-changing traits. The goal of a Marvel Snap match is to win two of the three locations and that’s done by having the most powerful cards on the spot.

Most of the time, the contest runs through six turns and each turn gives players more energy to play with. As the match progresses, they can Snap, which essentially ups the ante. The games are played for Cosmic Cubes, which essentially show your ranking. If players want to hit the top, they have to know when to raise and when to fold. Because of the location randomness and the draw of the cards, not every win is guaranteed, even if players have the most best cards.

Just like poker, players face all these small judgment calls that cement over time into a win or loss. Players can drop a 1-cost card on the first turn in hopes of taking an early lead, but an opponent can counter with Elektra, which destroys a random 1-cost card that kills its advantage. A play has the option of moving blind into an unrevealed location in hopes of scoring an advantage, but that move can also backfire by giving an opponent an energy boost.

Easy to learn but hard to master

Similar to Hearthstone, the depth of Marvel Snap is bottomless. With a smaller deck to build, it’s easier to put together a serviceable band of heroes and villains. The variety of cards and locations means that there’s plenty of creativity when it comes to building a deck. Players have to adapt to circumstances, and that stretches their analytical and math skills.

Best of all, Second Dinner crafted Marvel Snap in a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s pay to win. Players don’t get new cards by buying virtual packs. Instead, they spend Credits, which they can earn by completing missions. Using that virtual currency, they upgrade the look of their cards. That bumps up their Collection Level and unlocks new cards.

It’s convoluted, but after upgrading a card and looking through menus, it’s easy to pick up. Players can spend real money to buy gold and convert that into Credits, but they’ll still need booster energy obtained by playing matches for the upgrades.

On a whole, it’s a better system that lets players spend money but still keeps the field relatively level. It’s a better system compared to virtual packs, in which players get repeat cards that they grind for dust. The money you spend in Marvel Snap doesn’t feel wasted and thrown up to chance.

The focus is solely on the cards, which is where all eyes should be. (It helps that the artwork is gorgeous.) The way that Second Dinner adapts every character and takes their relationships into account makes Marvel Snap unusually cohesive and polished. Fans will notice that card combos such as Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur have a synergy, but they may not realise that the pairing goes beyond the cards and into the actual comics. The same goes for Cloak and Dagger.

When he was working on Hearthstone, game designer Brode talked about creating the soul of a card. With Marvel Snap, he and his team brought that same philosophy and care to play and it shows.

Marvel Snap

4 stars out of 4

Platform: iOS, Android and PC

Rating: Teen – Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service

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