The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There are power in those words.
What is the MCU?
No, not a collection of films. I’m looking for essence. Nature. Emotion.
What is the MCU?
A dagger of lightning echoed through Mjolnir and into every inch of your mortal tissue.
Maybe for you, but not for me.
It’s April 27th 2018. In what now seems like a dream, I’m sitting in a theater. The air is vibrating. I’m watching the film because it’s culturally significant. This is our generation’s Apollo 11; a decade of intense labor and extraordinary vision lead to one moment.
And I’m yawning.
Loki mutters, “we have a Hulk” and I’m drowned out by cries of elation.
My vision begins to sharpen yet it’s but a moment. I don’t care about Thanos. I’ve seen this before. A terrible oversized dude wants to destroy life. The Avengers shut him down. It doesn’t take a thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters to craft a Marvel script.
Smothered under a thick wall of CGI is any sense of tension, any sense of peril. Without genuine stakes the conflict is flaccid. This is a dressed up children’s story for men and women who don’t realize they’re still children.
You see, I’ve never really read a comic. I don’t care about any of this. I’d take Scorcese and Kurosawa over Favreau and Feige, laughing that such a thing could even be discussed.
It’s hours later now and the caffeine flowing through my blood keeps me alive. A massive battle is happening but I’m trapped in a loop. New York, Sokovia, Wakanda; changing an over-processed background doesn’t manifest soul in the creative void.
Then the sleight of hand happens. You know. You were there.
Like Neil Armstrong taking a giant leap for mankind, Thanos snaps his bulbous fingers.
And everything changes. The Avengers lose. The ashes of T’challa and Peter Parker float in the wind. People are crying. I’m in shock but for completely different reasons. I can’t believe what’s happening.
Now I’m outside of the theater ignoring my stiff limbs because I’m excited. I want to talk about this movie.
My friends are smiling. They know the joke.
As thoughts tumble around in my head I grow confused. “But there’s going to be a second Black Panther film, right? So it’s set before Infinity War?”
They try to hold back but it’s impossible.
Fuck. You had me for a moment, Stan.
Marvel: Crisis Protocol came out in 2019. When it was announced, people went nuts. Fantasy Flight – er, Atomic Mass – doing a Marvel miniatures game? “Fucking rad”, said everyone else.
I gave it a quick look, of course. Every game deserves at least that.
Then they announced the MSRP and I, patron of Games Workshop, blinked until my eyelids fell off.
So it is with great irony that I find myself a couple years later sitting at my dining room table and just utterly struggling.
Loki, god of mischief, is performing one of his old ruses again.
I don’t know what it feels like to pull teeth, but I do know what it feels like to have your teeth pulled. Assembling some of these miniatures is how I imagine existing in a state of both giving and receiving that terrifying violation feels.
Exhibit A: I present to you, Baron Zemo’s elbow pad.
I do not possess Thanos-like digits. In fact my hands are relatively small. That elbow pad is fit for a real life Ant-Man. I feel slighted.
Finally, I finish. It takes a couple of nights while I’m watching forgettable Netflix specials, but the devil’s deed is done. A couple of models have small yet noticeable gaps but they can be fixed another day.
Then I get to the rules. And they’re fine. Simple and easy to understand, yes. Seemingly mundane and devoid of life, that too.
My apathy shrouds all that is nearby.
It’s early 2021. I can’t be sure the date, not because of some ludicrous green stone but because time is more swamp than river now. We’re watching Wandavision.
This is different because I haven’t seen this before. This is different because my daughter becomes interested.
“So, who is Vision?” she asks. I try to answer. My words lack oomph and rigor.
So we do it, from the beginning.
This. is. Iron Man.
From the launch I can already feel it. Something happened when watching Wandavision. Something broke off inside of me and I’m unable to dig it out. It’s amplified as I become re-initiated in the saga.
I tell myself we’re watching all 16 films leading up to Infinity War for her. It turns out I’m also watching them for me.
I still feel as though the early entries are middling. Iron Man is fine of course, but Mickey Rourke alone can’t sustain the sequel. Thor is forgettable. I notice more nuance in Captain America but it all feels so rushed.
I’m not there yet, but each night I look forward to the next chapter. We keep at it.
The Avengers is the first special moment I have. I care more about The Hulk than I ever did before. Loki shines. The camera orbits around the five Avengers and grabs me by the throat.
I’m almost lost again with the inexorable Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. My favorite of them all, Winter Soldier, saves the day. The surprising subtext leaves me contemplative and engaged. Reflected through the themes of the film, I begin to see my relationship with the MCU germinate, just like Cap reconnecting with the world and people around him.
And yes, I call him Cap now because I’m one of you.
With that spark the strength of material ignites. Guardians of the Galaxy, a film I previously overlooked, is sheer amusement. I don’t even like Chris Pratt but the sorcery at work in Marvel casting is unyielding.
Age of Ultron was previously “that one with James Spader”. Now I just quote Hawkeye to Wanda – “if you step out that door, you’re an Avenger”.
Civil War. Dr. Strange. Thor: Ragnarok. Infinity War. Fire. I feel a deep loss when Spidey and Black Panther turn to dust. I know they come back but I’m still mourning. I’m invested.
I cannot deny the wonder of these films. These are culturally significant even if they’re not masterpieces. The Vision and scope in building this living mythology is breathtaking. These are our paintings of Ra, our songs of Odin.
I’m in the thick of it. A plane has gone down in Arizona and among the living is a Skrull imposter. By the time The Avengers arrive the lizard is already in the custody of Hydra. The two sides begin speaking, not with words but with explosions and fists.
This game is not simple, at least not as simple as I first concluded. Each character has multiple unique attacks and special powers. It’s a flurry of asymmetry that’s difficult to grapple with initially. I’m smiling.
While I can’t deny the cultural impact of the MCU, I also still readily admit that as films, they’re not pushing the boundaries of their craft and they’re not exactly innovative. Marvel: Crisis Protocol is much the same.
Movement uses a tool with a pivot in the middle. It allows you to make exactly one soft or sharp turn, cleverly mimicking inertia as characters fly around corners and obstacles. But it feels familiar. It feels like a reductive take on the Star Wars: Armada movement device.
Similarly, the swarm of special abilities across a diverse battle group parallels Mythic Battles: Pantheon. That’s grand though, as the confluence of powers buys characterization and personality.
There’s also a wonderful tempo to the game that’s concealed until you come to blows. As your opponent rolls mounds of dice and inflicts damage, you gain power. This back and forth of beating the hell out of someone and inflicting pain which gives way to desperation and heightened push back is, well, marvelous. It keeps things interesting and produces a dynamic experience. That flow of energy reminds me of a game you haven’t heard of, Ferox.
This context for the conflict is the design’s most original mechanism – the randomized objective system. You draw two separate Crisis cards from a larger pool, one dictating a token set that can be retrieved and the other a location or two that you must capture and hold. I enjoy this approach although it feels as though it will grow repetitive in the long term. The randomly assembled scenarios could use a touch more fidelity.
I’m also nonplussed with the quantity of cardboard required. You have chits to track activated heroes, health, and power. More tokens are spread across the board for objectives. Each character is represented by an oversized card and nestled adjacent are a couple of regular-sized tactics cards. It’s disarray.
But then I toss out a tactic card allowing Iron Man to fire a repulsor blast off Cap’s shield and into Red Skull, although Red Skull manages to yank Doc Oc into the path of the blast to save his own skin. Fucking rad.
Those tactics cards are fantastic. They’re like meta-special abilities you can trigger once per game, but they’re more specific and narratively flush than a typical character power. There’s a large assortment as well – and of course more with each expensive expansion – so the bag of tricks you can dig into is substantial. There’s a raw sense of power here that is infectious.
This game lives and dies on that power. Yes, it was miserable to assemble but the experience of play is not that. It’s joyful and empowering in a way an MCU game ought to be.
For instance, terrain can be thrown about the table and the rules actually incentivize this. In my first play Spider-Man slung a dumpster into Baron Zemo, knocking him out cold. In my last, Crossbones squared off with Black Widow and repeatedly slammed her into the side of a sedan. This is not flourish but actual process.
The characters’ abilities do feel just right. Pretty much everything you expect to do – such as throwing Cap’s shield off multiple adversaries or Red Skull drawing chaotic energy from the Cosmic Cube – is represented by an effect or power you can trigger, to occasional devastating effect.
It’s certainly swingy, which shouldn’t be a surprise for this type of design. I find myself wishing the attack and defense were merged into a single roll with a more contemporary approach, but the odds at least smooth out over repeated fistfuls. There is some initial sluggishness interpreting results on the custom dice. There are various symbols such as wilds, criticals, and skulls, in addition to blanks and standard hits. This speeds up over time and the variety of icons does lend itself to interesting outcomes.
The light core rules don’t provide great detail for verticality, instead you can simply climb pretty much any structure with one of your character’s two actions for the turn. This is fine, as the shallow structure gives way to depth provided by the character’s multi-faceted personalities. That’s of course apropos to the source material as the films feel similarly light and surface-level, only giving way to depth and meaning once you develop a connection to the characters themselves.
Unlike that crotchety dude sitting in the back of a packed theater in 2018, this design team understands the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A deeper look reveals the intense bond between character and system. Even the play area, a small three foot by three foot battlefield, surprises by allowing these oversized 40mm characters to dominate the conservative boundaries of play.
Marvel: Crisis Protocol does not push the boundaries of miniatures gaming. It does capture the spirit and tone of perhaps society’s most celebrated franchise. The old adage of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts never applied more accurately than to this game.
And that whole is expensive. Adding in The Hulk is a cool $30. Thanos, along with his jagged throne, an obnoxious $50.
It’s insane. But at this point, I don’t even care. This game has its hooks in me.
With a dagger of lightning echoed through Mjolnir, I’m alive.