Sinister Motives Overview
The Mad Titan’s Shadow set high expectations for any big box expansion to follow. In many ways. Sinister Motives lives up to or even surpasses it in terms of scenario design, but with one very large caveat. True solo play is dead. Not in the sense that you can’t play it, but the fact that the game is not attempting to support it in any way. Despite what the number on the side of the box says.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
This has been true for a while, but Sinister Motives really does hammer that point home. Every scenario in the box feels poorly balanced at one player. If that hasn’t changed this far into the game’s life, it isn’t going to, and that’s a real bummer.
As I go through the various aspects of Sinister Motives, that reality is always going to be there. Staring me in the face.
Miles Morales Spider-Man
Spider-Man is an effective hero with a very cost-efficient suite of cards. Much of the game boils down to tempo and action economy, and Spider-Man’s cards are often able to bump up his tempo in bursts of activity.
Most of Spider-Man’s cards trigger his Venom Blast or Spider Camouflage when played with the correct resource. This adds massive value to his cards for a low price. For example, Web Shot becomes a two-cost card that deals 6 damage and stuns an enemy. While Swing In becomes a two-cost card that removes four threat, confuses the villain, and grants you toughness.
While there’s a requirement of spending specific resources, Spider-Man can easily gain tempo because he is essentially gaining two to three cards worth of actions in a single card.
Arachnobatics plays off his ability to stun or confuse by dealing a whopping 8 damage for 1 resource if both are on the villain. However, the advent of Stalwart can make this a flop against certain Villains.
The Power Within and Defense Mechanism are both cheap upgrades that give you some extra flexibility about when to trigger your powers. Double Life is a very powerful and cheap card that when timed right, can allow Miles to switch to alter-ego, heal, and jump right back into the fight.
On the support side, we have Ganke Lee for card draw and Jefferson Davis that I’m not sold on. Removing threat in alter-ego form is nice, but removing one on occasion isn’t going to be super impactful.
Spider-Man also has the same web-shooter cards as Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. I’m never a fan of reused cards, but it does make sense, and it’s a nice resource generator.
Thanks to his low-cost kit that triggers multiple effects at once, Miles Morales is a definite A-tier hero. His self-contained kit means he can be dropped into any aspect, although he does benefit from extra stun and confusion.
At the same time, he does have a weakness against any villain that can resist being stunned or confused. Every hero needs some weak points, and Spider-Man is pretty well designed and fun to play making him a great fit for the Spider-verse-themed Sinister Motives box.
Ghost Spider is all about responses and interruption events, as once per phase she can ready when you play one. It synergizes well with her kit since most of her cards trigger when she uses a basic power, but that includes defending.
That makes Ghost Spider very flexible, and it requires you to think carefully about the timing of her triggers. Ghost Kick is a simple 2 drop for 6 damage while Phantom Flip removes 5 threat. Like Spider-Man. Ghost Spider’s cards are cost-efficient because they also rely on a trigger. Since she can ready when using one, she too gains a substantial tempo boost compared to most heroes.
Pirouette and Punch is particularly powerful as it cancels the reveal effects of a card and isn’t restricted to treacheries. Plus I’m a big fan of cards that turn a villain’s boost icons against them. Then you have Web Binding that just straight stops an enemy from activating altogether. Plenty of villains have activation effects, so Web Binding is incredibly useful.
Web Bracelets add further value to already efficient actions by adding card draw when she uses a response or interrupt. George Stacy is an incredibly helpful support card that helps Ghost Spider hold on to specific events so she can time them right.
I’ll also point out that her obligation has a unique effect of removing George Stacy until she can comfort her worried father, and I think that’s neat.
Speaking of unique cards Ghost Spider has one that can be a game-changer when timed correctly. Ticket to the Multiverse can be used, for all intents and purposes, to gain a second turn.
Whenever I talk about Marvel Champions, I consistently refer to tempo and action economy, and Ticket to the Multiverse managed to upend it on Doctor Strange levels, albeit as a one-time use.
It’s an interesting card because it has the potential to make for clincher moments. If the villain has outpaced you, a well-timed Ticket to the Multiverse will allow you to catch back up. However, if you are even with the villain or a bit ahead. It can dumpster the game. A second turn is huge.
Like Spider-Man, Ghost Spider is an A-tier hero and one that situationally veers into being too strong. However, where Miles can be dropped into pretty much any deck, more care must be given when deckbuilding for Gwen. Her reliance on responses can be a weakness, so you have to pilot her well to win.
Aspect & Basic Cards
Ghost Spider comes with a protection deck, and Spider-Man rolls with Justice, while both offer plenty of interesting basic cards. Although some reprints are present, there aren’t a lot of them, and I’m happy about that.
The Protection aspect gains some diversity with Jump Flip, a defensive response that removes threat. A Great card, but terrible theming, how does a Jump Flip thwart the villain’s plans?
What Doesn’t Kill Me is another card named after a generic concept rather than an action. It’s an exceptionally strong card, however, healing for two and readying just by paying with fist resources? I’ll take three!
I can’t see the value in Return the Favor though. Damaging the villain, while required to win, doesn’t change the board state and often results in a loss of tempo. Allowing an extra treachery to reveal on top of it is a serious loss of tempo. The five damage simply isn’t worth it, even for a 0 cost.
Plan B is a neat card, other than the fact that it features Spider-Ham (sigh). Some heroes could really use the option of using a leftover card so it will fit nicely into a variety of decks.
Monica Chang is the first card to directly reference other cards in an aspect, she brings out and enhances Surveillance Team, and I’m conflicted on this. On one hand, it’s a good way to boost cards that may otherwise go unused.
On the other hand, we’re entering a dangerous territory where future releases could have entire decks built by selecting a few groups of connected cards. 15 cards of our decks are already chosen, so I’m not sure I want to see the game go down this road.
Both Spider-Man and Ghost Spider have a team-up card called Young Love. The healing is nice but like most team-ups, it’s inconsistent to use with the named allies. However, this one is also difficult to use even in multiplayer as both heroes need to be in alter-ego at the same time.
Venom and the Symbiote Suit make an appearance, and well, they could probably have a whole article dedicated to them. Both have the potential to completely overpower you against some scenarios and make you instantly lose in others. This also greatly depends on player count.
In a four-player game, one player having the Symbiote Suit is likely going to be a massive power boost. If all four players have a symbiote suit, it’s probably a crushing loss.
I personally would be greatly satisfied if I never see a hazard symbol again. But I can’t deny that theory crafting with the Symbiote suit is wild and messy.
S.H.I.E.L.D & Web-Warrior
Sinister Motives puts a focus on two keywords, and it suffers the same problem as Android and Asgard. There’s very little support for some of them outside of the box they came in. Now that Fantasy Flight has moved to bi-monthly releases and is replacing extra aspect cards with encounter modules in-hero packs. It may be some time before any keyword receives proper support.
Shield cards come with a variety of effects, from Monica Chang empowering Surveillance Teams, to Field agents blocking consequential damage from Shield allies. Homeland Intervention easily becomes one of the most powerful Justice cards in a shield deck. Most supports and upgrades don’t get used every round, so being able to tap them to remove threat is great.
Skycarrier can get pretty nasty too, especially when combined with Agent 13. The Shield cards are a bit easier to work into deck building as there are a lot of existing cards with the Shield keyword, but you’re still largely limited to Justice right now.
Web Warrior, on the other hand, is very enclosed and probably shouldn’t have been made, given the fact that existing heroes and allies, such as, you know, Spider-Man? Don’t have the keyword. It’s awkward.
The cards are effective, however. Spider-Uk can hit insane levels of damage if you are running a web warrior deck. Keep him healed, and the villain will just break themselves against him.
The new Peter Parker Spider-Man ally requires three different resources to play but, his ability combos extremely well with Miles or Gwen. I also really like Hobie Brown’s Spider-Man because I like turning boost cards against the villain.
Web of Life and Destiny is free to play if you have the web warrior trait and offers card draw whenever a spider gets squashed and it works well. Web warriors are neat, but the keyword bloat is getting excessive. In the case of web warriors, it’s also janky as existing Spider heroes lack the keyword.
Shield makes sense, but every other keyword that isn’t Avengers or Guardians could have gained some support instead of adding another one that may or may not get additions over the next 6 months.
Sandman is the simplest of the new villains but is by no means basic. He comes with a couple of quirks that require a different approach from common villains. First is the fact that his attacks deal indirect damage. The second is his ever-expanding sands throughout the city.
Not only do many of Sandman’s cards become stronger as the sand accumulates. Every time it triggers, you also discard cards from the encounter deck equal to the number of sand counters on city streets. Sandman attempts to gain acceleration tokens quickly, and his main scheme even deals indirect damage to you for doing so.
You can exhaust a character to remove sand tokens equal to their attack once per round. It puts you in a constant battle to keep the sand from overwhelming the city, but it doesn’t feel like a resource tax in the way that Nebula’s ship did. It’s a decision point of when to let the sand accumulate and when to try and clear it.
If you can absorb the acceleration icons it’s not a huge deal. You do have to beware of his Sand Clones as they scale with the counters and Sandstorm, which could take you out if you aren’t ready for it. But sometimes you can let it go as part of your strategy.
Sandman captures the theme of the villain very well throughout his mechanics and battling him is a unique experience, despite being a standard punching match. However, this is where the downfall of the solo player begins.
Sandman only has one main scheme with a threshold of 9, and you lose if it breaks. Like Rhino, you can commonly lose to Sandman with an unlucky advance card.
Additionally, while not as bad as hazard icons. Acceleration Tokens don’t scale down effectively. For example, a single player’s acceleration icon doubles the amount of threat placed each turn, with two players it’s only a 50% increase, and so on.
With an already low threat threshold, Sandman’s acceleration focus makes for a disproportionately difficult solo game.
True to his nature, Venom is a powerhouse, but one with a distinct weakness. Attacking Venom just aggravates his ferocity. When you deal damage to Venom you place a boost card on your hero. When Venom attacks you, he gets those boost cards.
This instantly alters how players need to approach the fight. Low damage attacks aren’t worthwhile, and hitting Venom multiple times in a row will result in Venom tearing you to shreds. This is where the Symbiote’s’ weakness to loud noise comes into play.
Instead of dealing damage to Venom, you can choose to add counters to the Bell Tower. After meeting a threshold of counters based on the number of players, the Bell Tower card is flipped and begins ringing.
On the loud side, every attack on Venom deals extra damage, but more importantly, Venom becomes more concerned with stopping the noise than hurting you. When Venom would damage you, you remove counters from the tower instead.
Like Sandman, Venom manages to take a simple knockdown fight and spin it around in a unique way that’s both fun and thematic. The need to alter what attacks you throw, changes the game, without altering the mechanics. It’s a pretty brilliantly designed scenario.
Venoms kit won’t allow you to simply focus on the tower either. Now We’re Angry increases his damage and gives him Overkill. If you want to get rid of it, you are forced to damage him, which results in extra boost cards.
If you rely on the Bell Tower too much and draw Guard The Bell Tower, Venom will erase all the effort you put in. It’s all pretty clever, and while it can make Venom deliver nasty attacks on the same level as Ronan, you have more control over when and where that happens.
I also like that two of his side schemes feature the ability to remove threat by damaging Venom. It’s a nice risk versus reward mechanic that makes you choose between instigating his wrath to potentially clear them quicker.
On the flip side, a solo player faces additional struggles that upend the balancing act that the scenario tries to maintain, particularly on Expert. Two of Venom’s forms have Steady, and if you play expert, Tooth and Nail will start in play which has a hazard icon. Plus, like Sandman, Venom has a single main scheme with a fairly low threat threshold
Steady and Hazard icons scale poorly. Doubling up encounter cards on a single player is already rough, but slowing Venom down is far more difficult thanks to Steady. It all combines to make Venom far more brutal for a solo player.
Given how the action economy works in Marvel Champions, I’m instantly wary of any scenario that messes with encounter cards. The Hood is a prime example of why it doesn’t work, and I definitely went into Mysterio expecting the worst.
While he can be swingy, he, like Venom, gives you slightly more control over the situation. Mysterio likes to put encounter cards, in YOUR deck. Whenever you draw one, you deal it to yourself as an encounter card. This can definitely result in some bad luck piling more encounter cards on you than you could be reasonably expected to handle.
However, a common theme with Sinister Motives is how each scenario forces you to alter how you would normally play. In the case of Mysterio, you can somewhat push back against him by building a deck larger than 40 cards and keeping cards in your hand, rather than discarding them at the end of your turn. Excess card draw is almost always beneficial but will burn you against Mysterio.
Mysterio will constantly try to slip more cards into your deck. Humungous Hallucination attack increase can rarely be ignored, and the guard keyword on Shifting Apparnations will force you to deal with them. The scenario will always have some degree of swing to it, but it’s actually fun to try and counter while avoiding being overrun by his illusions.
However, he completely breaks in solo play, and that’s no illusion. Players are meant to work together to spread out the encounter cards between multiple decks. If one player is getting too many, another player can take out a Shifting Apparition instead, for example. A solo player has no choice.
The lack of balance becomes crystal clear as soon you read Deja Vu. There are two copies, and It deals damage or adds a threat, and it can’t be removed. It gets reshuffled into ANY player’s deck after it triggers. Ideally, you pass it around to the player with the most cards left. A solo player just keeps drawing and redrawing it more and more as their deck gets thinned out. It feels really bad and makes playing against him a chore.
You fight multiple villains in Sinister Six and it has some inherent clunkiness, much like Wrecking Crew. You need to use dice, or a pen and paper to track their health due to a lack of dials. But aside from that, it’s a much cleaner implementation of the concept.
However, if you go purely by the Rules as Written. You can’t change the encounter modules in Sinister Six, and that’s a huge mistake. Encounter modules greatly enhance the replayability of a scenario, so I feel like that is a massive misstep.
In any case, a few villains start in play based on player count, and more will get added in and out as you play. Defeated villains may even return later because this is a scenario in which you don’t win by outpunching the bad guys.
You’re trying to escape an ambush instead. You need to remove all the threat from Light at the End, flip it and then do it a second time while also keeping the main scheme in check. Defeating the villains still has benefits though. You get to remove threat from a side scheme (including Light at the End) whenever you down one of them. Plus their cards tend to get nastier with more of them on the field.
Heightened Morale buffs the attack of a villain based on how many are in play, and there are villain versions of the team-up cards. Frequent Flyers, for example, gives you indirect damage if Hobgoblin is in play or makes, you discard a card if Vulture is in play. If both are in play, you’re getting a double whammy.
Sinister Six is a great scenario. It functions somewhat like Escape the Museum but with its own twist, and it’s a more cohesive take on taking on several villains at once. The activation order is simple to understand, and every villain brings a unique threat to the table while still using a single encounter deck. It has some issues though. it requires the Guerrilla Tactics Module which has some serious balance problems, but I’ll get to that later.
It also falters in solo play. Please contain your shock, I know none of us could have seen that coming!
The frustrating thing about it is that Sinister Six was almost balanced for a solo player. But Fantasy Flight Games certainly loves their Hazard symbols. The second side of Light at the End has one, which means once you flip it, it stays in play until you win or lose, and that pretty much ruins the scenario for a solo player.
I have a bone to pick with the existence of Venom Goblin. Venom Goblin is not an existing villain in the comics, it is an original villain created for the game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but given the roster of existing Spider-Man villains that could have been chosen…I’m a little annoyed.
Why do we have an original villain when we could have had solo scenarios of Electro, Doc Ock, Scorpion, Kraven the Hunter, or King Pin! This is like creating an original hero before Daredevil gets his own release. Although the fact that Spider-Ham is coming before so many others means I sadly wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
Griping aside, Venom Goblin is a very challenging but fantastic scenario. Although it too has some issues.
With Venom Goblin you are contending with three main schemes, each of which represents parts of Manhattan. Venom Goblin continually rides his glider to the different districts attempting to infect the city. When any main scheme flips, it is replaced with a symbiote environment which empowers his cards. If two symbiote environments are in play, you lose.
A battle against Venom Goblin is very much like fighting a wildfire as you scramble to keep all the regions in check as he bounces around them like a maniacal match stick. Just like every other scenario in Sinister Motives. It feels unique and poses a distinct challenge that differs from existing ones.
I bet you will never guess what I’m gonna say next? Surprise! It doesn’t work with solo play! All versions of Venom Goblin have steady, and if you play expert, you are dealt two encounter cards at the start of the game. The thing about the main schemes is that individual effects only affect one scheme, but they all gain threat during the villain phase.
It’s simply too much for a solo player to manage effectively, especially when it’s more difficult to slow down Venom Goblin thanks to steady. The two extra encounter cards on expert usually seal the deal in that you’re already drowning before the ship has ever set sail.
Sinister Motives Encounter Sets
One thing to note about the encounter sets is several of them are required for certain scenarios and actually feel like they are part of them. That leads to a few of the modules feeling out of place in another scenario. A few of them do feature named villains though and that’s fantastic, but overall they are a mixed bag.
Sets such as City in Chaos and Sinister Assault are great as they allow very threatening named villains to enter the fray as minions. Being able to slap the likes of Vulture, Doc Ock, and Rhino into various scenarios is great.
Down to Earth is a particularly interesting set as it focuses on a hero’s life outside of the bad guy punching, and it reflects well in the mechanisms. Loose Ends can even bring your obligation into play, even if you have already gotten rid of it, and that’s neat.
Symbiotic Strength allows you to give any villain the power of the symbiote, and it strikes a nice balance of card types. On the flip side Osborn Tech, Goblin Gear, and Guerilla Tactics are all varying levels of broken.
Advanced Glider allowing a villain to activate twice against each player is laughably busted. All of Osborn Tech has the surge keyword, and Guerilla Tactics is very swingy. Hidden In Shadow should not exist, plain and simple. Adding a hazard icon to every enemy means that in 90% of cases, you either have the means to get rid of it the same turn it hits the table, or you start cleaning up because it’s an instant loss.
At low player counts even a single minion means two extra encounter cards, and at high player counts there’s likely more than that on the field with most scenarios. If you happen to play a villain like Ultron, it would be more fun to lick a cheese grater.
Personal Nightmare and Whispers of Paranoia are interesting but both feel really out of place outside of the Mysterio Scenario, more so than pretty much any other module to date.
There’s definitely merit to some of the modules, and variety is always nice. But it really feels like they are being designed by throwing darts at a wall with words on them. Some of them are simply ludicrous, not just challenging. They are well beyond the level of even being remotely balanced.
Sinister Motives Campaign
I still strongly feel that printing cards specific to a small five-page campaign is largely a waste, and like every other campaign, it has some issues. But I do like the reputation system, it’s one of the cleaner implementations of a reward system so far. Basically performing certain acts within the campaign increases your reputation and grants you boons, but in response, the villains ramp up as well.
The overall structure is better designed than the other campaigns, but it can’t escape some rather glaring issues. The first is that the expert campaign slaps the expert side of Public Outcry into every scenario, which, of course, has a hazard icon…At this rate, I’m going to wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares of being chased by an angry swarm of hazard icons…
The second is that if you reach the final tier of the reputation track, the reward almost isn’t worth it. You are allowed to add a Symbiote Suit to your deck. It’s a restricted card for the campaign otherwise. In return, however, every player gets dealt an extra encounter card during setup.
Odds are you, are going to hit this tier right around when it’s time to fight Venom Goblin. Just tell Manhattan to embrace its new gooey alien overlords and don’t bother. Especially if you’re playing expert since he already deals each player two other encounter cards at the beginning.
The campaign has never been a selling point for me, which is a good thing because I’ve yet to be sold on one.
My Perspective on Sinister Motives
As a whole, I enjoy Sinister Motives. I like both new heroes, new aspect cards are always welcome, and the five villains are all unique and mostly well designed.
My favorite aspect of the box is just how well each of the new scenarios captures its theme through its mechanisms. With Sandman, it feels like you are containing an ever-growing pool of sand in the city. Battling Venom captures the symbiote’s ferocity and the need to outwit it using the Bell Tower. It feels as if Mysterio has you trapped within his illusions and that the Sinister Six has you outgunned while you try to escape an ambush.
Despite being an original villain, It still feels as if you’re chasing Venom Goblin throughout the streets of Manhattan desperately trying to cut off the infection.
By comparison, I think I hold Sinister Motives a little bit below Mad Titans Shadow, but above the other big box releases. However, it does put the final nail in the coffin for solo play. I no longer regard the game as a solo game, at all. Unless you play two-handed. Its solo balance has grown worse since the game was released, and it’s obvious that it’s not going to change. Sinister Motives basically hits you in the face with it, but it’s an issue with Marvel Champions as a whole.
The problem is that I don’t enjoy playing two-handed, and my partner isn’t as attached to the game as I am. There are too many other games competing for table time when I play with my board game group. So, this does pose a serious issue for me that I’ll have to spend time thinking about.
Sinister Motives Verdict
Sinister Motives is a solid big box expansion that has indeed learned many lessons from the game’s past shortcomings, while it stubbornly clings to others. The core of the box is the five new villain scenarios, and they are simply fantastic. Complimenting them are the equally well-designed new heroes.
However, the new Web Warrior keyword has little support, the modular ranges from fun to busted, the campaign has issues, and the solo player will find the game box hard to swallow. Seriously, what is the deal with Hazard icons? I’m turning into an episode of Seinfield here…
In a way, you could say that the distribution of good and bad is perfectly balanced. But I’m gonna have to disagree with Thanos, however, in this case, that’s not how it should be.
More Reviews of Marvel Champions
- Five unique and thematic scenarios
- Two well designed new heroes
- New Shield keyword support is neat
- Modules such as Sinister Assault are awesome
- The reputation track for the campaign is interesting
- Campaign has issues
- Nothing in Sinister Motives is balanced for solo play
- The overuse of hazard icons and extra encounter cards is excessive
- Some of the modules are overpowered or feel weird outside of specific scenarios
- Venom Goblin shouldn’t exist when there’s a backlog of Spider-Man Villains that could have been used
- The Web Warrior keyword lacks support right now