I’m still chuckling at the absurd length of both the game’s and this article’s title. However, it fits with the way the MCU has slammed together sequels and crossovers with reckless abandon.
I’ve written at length of my own personal Marvel cinematic renaissance. Since then, I’ve kept up with most of the ongoing films and television series. What If…? on Disney+ was a peculiar offering, one which I initially struggled with. Conceptually it pairs well with the current phase focusing on the multiverse and parallel realities. But it also sits somewhat incongruent from the larger picture of the intellectual property, as it’s the first animated Marvel offering in this Kevin Feige-led media institution. It feels partially relevant, but also partially disposable.
This led to my divested interest level as the ambition and interrelation are a large part of the Marvel cinematic identity. What If eventually displayed a deft creative touch by unifying its disparate episodic stories into a culmination that was oh so Marvel. Everyone coming together to stop a big bad in an epic showdown that we’ve seen over and over again, almost as if the recurrent theme of these exploits should be “I Got You Babe.”
But I smiled. It pushed me into actually appreciating these odd character twists such as Captain Carter and T’Challa Star-Lord.
This unusual take on traditional characters coupled with a tenured miniatures skirmish system formed the foundation of my interest in this boxed game.
Just like my initial brush with the series, my early impression of the What If miniatures game was not one of endearment. It mimics the diffused state of its property, presenting a product that I’d characterize as messy.
The little niggles arise quickly. Misprints like Party Thor’s character cards missing artwork. Or a scenario requiring errata as there’s no indication where to place the objectives. The disheveled state continues with the HeroClix system itself, a relatively straightforward game that has mass appeal and wide reach, which loses itself in bloat.
HeroClix has had an extremely long run. It’s popular and remains a big seller in the collectible market. I get it, the figures are nice for their cost and the paint jobs are serviceable. The Marvel property is perfect for this format, and the ruleset the figures are wed to has some strong points, such as its clever activation system which boasts strategic latitude. It’s an alternating activation system, but you spend three actions across your entire team as opposed to fully activating any single model. A miniature can only have two actions assigned to it before needing to rest and refresh, however, which creates a wrinkle in terms of sequencing actions and leaning into various tactics for board and tempo control.
Where it struggles is with trying to encapsulate such a wide range of characters and powers in a unified format. The designers tackle this by re-using icons and abilities across the entire enormous pool of figures in the HeroClix universe.
That’s a reasonable approach. Frankly, it works. It’s just not as smooth or inviting as the rest of the product’s makeup. While learning the game and a new team of characters, you will often have to divert attention between multiple references. You will need to look at stats on your character’s dial – the patented Clix system – and then back to your character card which lists their special powers. However, the details of these powers are found on a pamphlet that contains a wide range of abilities. Going back and forth between these materials bleeds some of the velocity and tempo from the skirmish.
I do enjoy the dual approach to characters in this set, offering a basic and advanced set of stats and abilities. They are worth different point values and scenarios dictate a mix of both character types to field. This allows for a measured approach to learning the game.
Characters also possess an interesting arc of competency unique to their design. As a hero takes damage and their Clix dial is shifted, they may gain new abilities or lose others. It creates dynamic power curves and is a tool for character differentiation.
Unfortunately, the combat mechanism is bland and the majority of special abilities are somewhat restrained and flat, mostly as a consequence of the standardized powers. You’re mostly modifying movement or attack values which feels more technical than creative.
Again, this system is serviceable. The more you play with the same team of miniatures the quicker you internalize special abilities and can begin to actually employ more complex strategies. But it has me pining for the more astutely designed Marvel Crisis Protocol.
That game has two advantages in its methodology. The first is that each special power is unique. No two characters are alike, and this affords the Atomic Mass design team immense flexibility on the creative side of things. Secondly, that individuality is not a detriment, because every single ability is defined right on the character card. There is still a familiarity curve, but it’s easier to tackle and requires less material at the table while breaking free from a narrower power profile. The learning process is also more enjoyable as the quirkiness of the effects is pronounced.
But this HeroClix boxed set is not Marvel Crisis Protocol. It’s far cheaper and it can be enjoyed as a completely self-contained product. You are able to take these painted miniatures and thick map tiles and employ them in the wider world of HeroClix, but this is not at all a necessity. This is a fully featured experience in its own right, something which most miniatures games struggle to produce in a contained set.
This reminds me of a Games Workshop box. Not in terms of the quality of deliverables or exorbitant cost, but in the structure of providing a unified themed set of miniatures with a ruleset and contained scenarios. Each of GW’s boxed sets possess a story focused on the contents, some kind of ongoing skirmish or battle that you are meant to experience. Fluff is found in the rulebook and scenarios allow you to play out this narrative struggle. But you can also take the contents and engage in the larger game, which is where it’s all expected to lead.
HeroClix What If is exactly that. This is its own game with 10 scenarios taking you through a story that parallels the television series. Some missions are better than others, the final battle with the gnarly dynamic flipping of tiles as the world changes and splinters around you is particularly inspired, but there is a decent offering for the size and scope of this product.
I am a little confused over the storyline though as it doesn’t quite fit with the Ultron-focused finale of the Disney+ series. I think that may have made a better focal point instead, but what we have here is competent.
The HeroClix system and this boxed set in particular will not compete with stronger and more modern miniatures games offerings. It’s a little clunky and dated, some of the content in the box is questionable, and it ultimately won’t have the legs of something more fertile like Warhammer Underworlds. Yet, it is still a decent enough isolated product that would allow someone who has no interest in modelling supplies or paints to experience the MCU at a modest price point. There’s not a great deal of competition in this regard, unless you’re willing to ditch the tactical miniatures play and pick up Marvel United or Marvel Champions.
This set also serves as a solid starter for the HeroClix world, offering a full ruleset, map tiles, and miniatures selection to get you playing without cutting any elements that typical starter sets often require you to sacrifice.
While it may not come together with the same sense of pageantry as the television series’ culmination, I do believe there is a purpose and place for this title in the hobby.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.