Marvel Champions The Rise of Red Skull Review

The Rise of Red Skull is a big box expansion for the Marvel Champions living card game. You can find Marvel Champions products at Fantasy Flight Games.

Overview

The Rise of Red Skull big box is finally here with a much-needed injection of scenarios. Covid has turned many things upside down. Including the Marvel Champions release schedule, we were supposed to have this box much earlier, and the absence of additional scenarios was sorely felt before now. Rise of Red Skull adds five new scenarios to the six currently existing in the games ecosystem.

Hawkeye and Spider-Woman join the fray as new heroes, and the box includes four modular encounter sets and a campaign mode. There is a lot to go over and each piece could arguably warrant its own review. Since no one is going to read a 20,000 words review, I’ll break it down the best I can.

My major concern going into Rise of Red Skull was the scenario quality. If you read my reviews of Wrecking Crew and Green Goblin, you will note that I was very underwhelmed by Risky Business and the entirety of Wrecking Crew. After the villain drought, the last thing I wanted was any of the five new scenarios to be lackluster. I’ll get this out of the way now, my fears were unfounded.

Crossbones

Crossbones is the most straight forward of the villains in The Rise of Red Skull. But that by no means makes his scenario any less great, since he twists the existing rules and concepts. First of all, you are to include three encounter sets in addition to the standard one. This gives Crossbones a lot of variable potential out of the box.

Crossbones also gets the Experimental Weapons Deck put aside for him, and the effects of his main schemes allow him to draw from them specifically. Furthermore, if he has a weapon attachment he gains piercing, a new keyword that discards your toughness statuses BEFORE he attacks.

Crossbones tends to hit pretty hard when utilizing attachments. Besides everything in the experimental deck, he has a Machine gun that comes with ammo tokens based on the number of players that allow him to damage the hero indirectly after every attack. Going Full Auto follows up on the concept, dealing even more boost icons as indirect damage.

His side scheme, Crossbones’ Assault causes him to activate against the player that clears it. While his Cornered Staff side scheme discards from the encounter deck gaining additional threat equal to the revealed boost icons.

Crossbones’ design means his challenge level isn’t only defined by his cards and the content of the modules you add, but the boost icons on the cards. Modules with a high content of three boost icons make Crossbones far more threatening. It’s nice to see a villain slap you with a mechanic most players likely pass over in thought.

Crossbones ignores toughness almost all the time, so his damage is even harder to mitigate. While he is very much the Rhino of The Rise of Red Skull, his design is much more involved, despite his relative simplicity.

Absorbing Man

Sure his name is really lame, but it’s also an accurate description of how he plays. Absorbing Man gains the trait of any environment card in play and his villain deck has quite a few of them. Other cards trigger effects based on what traits he has. For example, Icy Grip stuns you, but if he has the Ice trait he also deals two indirect damage.

Absorbing Man also has a side scheme called Super Absorbing Power. Its sole purpose is to give him every trait at once, if he manages to combine it with Omni-Morph Duplication, you are going to be in trouble.

His environments are an interesting threat by themselves. They can’t be removed, when a new one is drawn it replaces the old one and they have additional effects besides granting Absorbing man traits. Each one has a different effect that happens anytime you fail to defend against one of Absorbing Mans attacks.

Absorbing Man also deals in delay counters. One gets added to the main scheme each round and some cards trigger effects based on how many are there. For example, Stall Tactics adds a threat to the main scheme for every two delay counters. Essentially, the longer the battle with Absorbing Man rages on, the more dangerous he becomes.

Absorbing Man provides an interesting challenge. You have to adapt to the ever changing environment while keeping tabs on the number of delay counters he has accumulated. Absorbing Man disincentives you from just eating attacks, as something bad will always happen in addition to the damage if you fail to defend.

He is still relatively straight forward, but he has a uniqueness to him that sets him apart from the other villains. A common theme in The Rise of Red Skull.

Taskmaster

Like Crossbones, Taskmaster bends the rules of the villain deck set up. In addition to the standard module, he always starts with Hydra Patrol and one other module. That’s isn’t the only brand new mechanic Taskmaster brings to the table.

Taskmaster is hunting down heroes, he has multiple side schemes called Captured by Hydra. Taskmaster has four set aside Ally cards, and the player can actually rescue these cards and add them to their hand by wiping the side scheme. These Ally cards are only to be used with Task Master. You can’t utilize them otherwise, and for good reason.

The likes of White Tiger, Shang Chi, Elektra, and Moonknight are powerful, mostly due to the fact that they cost no energy to play. On one hand, it’s a very interesting mechanic. On the flip side, if you are a fan of these heroes, you might be sad about their limited availability.

The rest of Taskmasters kit captures his theme quite well. Taskmaster imitates the skills of heroes. When they flip to hero form, they take damage, which can be very problematic for low health heroes.

If you end up pulling Photographic reflexes, you are forced to eat the damage from one of your own attacks before you can damage Taskmaster again. Mimicry will cause Taskmaster to attack you if you discard an attack card, or scheme against if you discard a thwart card, depending on which form you’re in.

Taskmaster’s chess match of counters can him turn deadly very quickly. I was concerned that the potential allies you can earn from Taskmaster would make him too easy. But he manages to keep you on your toes to such an extent that they are more likely to help you balance the scales than tip them.

Zola

The first thing that Zola does is snatch away any ally cards included in your hero’s personal kit. For example, Spider-Man would lose Blackcat, while Ironman would give up Warmachine. You can win them back by clearing the Hydra Prison side scheme.

Beyond that, Zola is all about minions and empowering his lab forged monsters through attachments. He also acquires test tokens and whenever three of them accumulate a minion will burst forth from the encounter deck.

Zola’s minions can get out of control quickly. Nearly every attachment buffs a minion’s hit-points in addition to providing other bonuses, such as Neurological Implants that grant a minion a +2 +2.

His minions are on the nasty side too. Ultimate Bioservant gains additional attack for every tech attachment, while Zolas Mutate enters with tech attachments right out of the gate. Since Zolas attachments go to the minion with the highest hit points, he isn’t limited to buffing his own.

Minions added by modular sets can be modified and even nemesis minions could benefit. Zola isn’t the first villain to have a minion focused playstyle, yet he feels substantially different from the others.

Under Zola, minions rarely feel like chumps to be dispatched. They are incredible threats that could cost you the game. If he ever manages to buff Modok, Ronin, or The Masters of Evil, you will have one heck of a fight on your hands.

Red Skull

The star of the show bends the rules as well, he gets two encounter sets plus the standard module. Red Skull then takes every side scheme in the deck and makes his own special side scheme pile with them.

Being the nefarious mastermind that he is, he pulls one, every, single, round. That’s right, a new side scheme enters play every round in addition to the normal encounter card. Red Skull’s attack grows with every side scheme, and many of his cards interact with them.

This is offset slightly by the fact that some of his side schemes grant you a boon when cleared, but it’s a hollow bonus in the face of dealing with so many schemes each round.

Playing against Red Skull can feel like an all-out climactic battle you would see in the MCU movies. His Red House side scheme protects him from damage, but heroes can use their attack to remove the threat from it. Thematically speaking, he holes up in his fortress to defend against the heroes’ assault. It’s super cool.

The Sleeper Awakens brings forth a massive minion you thankfully only need to defeat once, but even his standard Hyrda Exo-Soldiers are formidable.

Cards like Twisted Reality punish you for clearing his schemes, while Bitter Rival will smack you down for leaving them active. Red Skull poses a very overwhelming challenge. For every plot thwarted, he has a new one prepared. Furthermore, his challenge can be increased dramatically by your choice of modules since those side schemes enter his scheme pile of nastiness to be revealed each round.

I put Redskull right next to Ultron and Mutagen Formula in difficulty. All the villains in the Rise of Red Skull are challenging, but Redskull himself requires additional strategy and precise teamwork to overcome.

Encounter Modules

The Rise of Redskull features four new encounter modules that can be slotted into any villain. Hydra Patrol, Hydra Assault, Weapons Master, and Experimental Weapons. It’s disappointing that a few cards featured have been seen elsewhere, but they still deepen the game’s variety.

Hydra Patrol adds Hydra regulars with the new incite keyword, which adds a threat when they enter play. Hydras Assault’s new Flame Soldier and Jet Troopers are indeed menacing, I have to admit. Both of the Hydra focused encounter modules feel like they were made to be combined either together or with Legions of Hydra, as doing so makes them much more threatening than they would be taken alone.

Likewise, I feel like Weapon Master, and Experimental Weapons are a combo deal unless the Villain in question is Taskmaster. You get a lot more bang out of Weapon Master if the villain has easier access to weapon attachments

The modular encounters are one of the weaker aspects of The Rise of Red Skull, but still manage to provide the game with what it really needed, which was variety.

Hawkeye

Hawkeye enters the game amid a hail of arrows and leadership cards. This Avenger is a glass cannon with a myriad of options. He only has 9 health and 1 defense. But he gets 2 attack, and his bow grants him an additional +1 attack and ranged. Another new keyword that ignores enemies retaliate.

Hawkeye is all about his arrows, and his kit has a nice variety. Electric Arrows to stun, Sonic Arrows to confuse. Some Explosive Arrows for minion control, Cable Arrows for thwarting that flat out ignores Crisis icons, and Vibranium arrows for heavy damage that scoffs at toughness.

He needs to exhaust his bow with every shot, but he can exhaust himself to ready his bow for a double whammy. The real fun begins when you get his Quiver on the field. It allows you to pull arrows from the top five cards of his deck and hold them there, you can use them as if they were in your hand. Thematic, effective, and fun.

Hawkeyes Nemesis steals away his core ally. A new version of Mockingbird, and quick-strike can be deadly since Hawkeye is so squishy. I found his Nemesis set to be one of the more threatening ones. Crossfire is defeated fast, but Quickstrike at least ensures that something happens. Plus, Sniper shot is nasty all the way around.

On the leadership side, Hawkeye brings in some great new allies like the defensive US Agent, Aggressive Black Knight, and the heavy-hitting Goliath. Ready For Action is a nice cheap way to keep allies alive longer, and Team Training makes the whole squad beefier. The new leadership cards are all pretty great.

Hawkeye can work in every aspect, but I feel that he excels in Protection and Leadership as they can help keep him alive while he unleashes his full glass cannon offensive potential.

Spider-Woman

Spider-Woman is literally a game changer. One of her core concepts is that she has to be built using two aspects, but must include an equal number of both aspects in her deck. Furthermore, she has two of every aspect featured inside her hero kit. This means you get a dash of all four aspects.

This naturally combos well with her ability. She is a 1-1-1, but she gets +1 each round for every different aspect card she plays. Spider-woman is a lot like Captain America. She is a jack of all trades, able to fulfill any role, and like the Cap, I think she is a little over tuned, but in a much more granular way.

Firstly she has weaknesses. Something old Steve Rogers didn’t have. Second, it takes a lot of skill, both during deck building and playing the game to utilize her strengths. Combining two aspects kicks open the door for an untold amount of synergy, but it’s also very easy to build her poorly. And it’s also difficult to include basic cards, as you need so much room for aspects.

Anything that forces her to discard from her hand can absolutely ruin her in-game, and her nemesis The Viper plays off that fact by lowering her hand size. However, her jack of all trades role is built into her kit. She can heal herself and gain toughness with Containment immunity or deal 5 damage for the low cost of two energy with Venom Blast.

Her Pheromones stun and confuse simultaneously, and Inconspicuous is a super cheap and versatile threat remover. She gets Captain Marvel as an ally, and free card draw when attacking is ludicrously good.

She also comes with incredibly solid Justice and Aggression cards. Clear the Area is a cheap one-two punch of threat removal and card draw if you time it right. Spider-Man might seem costly at 5, but look closely, he removes three threat on a side scheme PER PLAYER!

Press the Advantage is the damage version of Clear the Area, and Piercing Strike is a nice toughness breaker that can be used in any aggression deck.

Spider-Woman is most certainly unique, but I also believe her thematic potential suffered. Her design is more focused on being a vehicle for dual aspects than being Spider-Woman. Yet she is undeniably fun to play, and she opens up a whole new world of deck building.

Campaign

The Rise of Red Skull features a story-based campaign mode that takes you through all five new villains with some aspects carried over between fights. It’s an interesting idea I’d love to see expanded but falls a little flat.

First of all, half the features are gutted if you don’t play expert mode. If you play expert mode, your hit points don’t regenerate between villains, and you have the choice of taking special obligation cards that screw you when you draw them to heal yourself.

Each villain usually has a quirk after the fight is over. When you beat Crossbones you get to add a special tech card to your deck. In the fight against Redskull, you add threat to the main scheme equal to the number of delay counters that accumulated in the fight against Absorbing Man. You also retain any heroes you rescued from Taskmaster.

It’s all thematic and neat, but fairly basic. The villain decks are preset, so the replay value is pretty low. What’s most disappointing, is if you lose, you just try again. It would have been fun to see the campaign continue with consequences for your failure instead.

One of my biggest gripes is with the campaign cards themselves. There are a bunch of cards printed for exclusive use in the campaign, they have no use outside of it. They takes up space where other more meaningful cards could have gone. For example, Hawkeye brings leadership cards while Spider-Woman brings aggression and Justice cards.

The Protection aspect completely gets the shaft, there are no new protection cards in The Rise of Red Skull. I’d trade the campaign cards that I will only use once or twice for new protection cards in a heart beat.

(This stings even more if you look at the release schedule for upcoming heroes, we aren’t getting new Protection cards for a long time.)

Verdict

Overall The Rise of Red Skull knocked my expectations out of the water. I had my fears about the scenarios after Risky Business and Wrecking Crew. But the designers are getting more experienced tweaking the game, and it really shows. All five villains are varied, well designed, and fun to play.

Hawkeye and Spider-Woman are great new additions to the hero pool, and the aspect cards they bring with them are fantastic. Sure the encounter modules and campaign are a bit of let down, but those are small blemishes on this otherwise fantastic big box expansion.

This is the content injection the game really needed, and with it I can confidently say Marvel Champions has hit its stride. New content will now feel like exciting new bonuses rather than specks of water in the drought we had before. This marks a new and exciting chapter for the game, and its the best time to get on board.

You might also want to check out my review of the Marvel Champions Core Set. If you enjoy my content, consider donating to my Kofi page, every little bit helps.

Pros

  • Five well designed new villains
  • Each villain is unique with new mechanics
  • Spider-Woman’s dual aspect nature blows deck building-wide open
  • Hawkeyes arrows feel great and are fun to use
  • New aspect cards are really solid
  • While not optimal, the prebuilt decks for Hawkeye and Spiderwoman are decent

Cons

  • Campaign cards take up box space for a very underwhelming mode of play
  • Protection completely got the shaft, no new Protection cards
  • The Encounter modules are solid, but not as mechanically interesting as the villains.