Disclaimer: This review is primarily based on the Avengers vs. X-Men Dice Masters starter kit kindly supplied by Esdevium Games. They also sent over a handful of booster packs (from this set and the Uncanny X-Men expansion), for understanding how the game can be expanded and how collecting works, information which has been factored into this review. As with my HeroClix review, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a comic book reader and casual tabletop fan.
Avengers vs. X-Men Dicemasters is a game that I first heard about last year. It came to my attention for a couple of reasons: One, it’s a comic book tie-in, and I do love my comics. Two, it was apparently the hot new game that a lot of people wanted to get their hands on. Intrigued I popped to my local shop and found that it had sold-out. Similarly it seemed to also be out of stock online. After a quick bit of research I confirmed that the game had indeed completely sold out, having been snapped up faster than even the publisher anticipated. Thus, I decided I would check the game out later.
Well, now it’s later! So having spent some time with Dicemasters, do I like it? Yes!
“I’m the best there is at what I do…”
I cannot lie, I felt a little bit overwhelmed when I first checked out the Dicemasters rules. I saw cards with corresponding dice, some sort of neutral white dice, lots of different symbols and a system that seemed to involve sliding dice around the game mat. The slim size of the rulebook also worried me. However, fear not. It only took a single game for me to realise that actually Dicemasters is pretty straightforward. It’s not as complicated as it looks. Within a few games I’d gone from floundering around to carefully planning my moves and trying to lay down plans for the next turns.
If I was in a burning building and someone said to me “Quick! Explain Dicemasters before we die!” I’d rapidly sum it up as follows: You have a dice bag which starts out full of fairly weak die called sidekicks, you roll these and use the energy they generate to buy more powerful die, but you have to be careful to also defend yourself. It’s a game of risk vs. reward which also depends a little bit on luck.
If I wasn’t in a rush, I would elaborate and explain that although that’s the basics of the game, there’s a lot of hidden strategy too. Characters not only have corresponding powerful dice, which you’ll want to spend energy to acquire, but also special moves which can be activated. Thus choosing your team, which is made up heroes/villains from your collection, isn’t just about how useful their dice is, their character power also ties into it too. Furthermore, you have to constantly decide whether you want to spend your energy or save it. At the start of each turn you draw 4 random dice from your bag, your bag is refilled from your used pile when you run out of dice. Keeping weaker dice in the field can actually tactically increase your chance of drawing one of your powerful character die, because you know it’s still in the bag with a higher chance of drawing it.
The game lists matches lasting at over an hour, but in my experience the time to play varied and some matches only lasted about 30 minutes. However you can control the length of matches by adjusting the health of each player. By default each player has 20 health using the full tournament rules, but it’s recommended to use just 10 for getting to grips with the system. There are three game type variants included in the rulebook, which scale the game appropriately for both health points and game size. I found using 10 health kept games a lot faster, as you would expect, and it was sometimes more enjoyable to play a set of shorter 10 point games than a lengthier 20 point one. But your milage may vary, it simply comes down to how long you want to play for. But of course if you’re planning on playing the game at a more professional level and taking part in shop tournaments, then you’re best getting used to having 20 points.
“First rule about the fastball special… You don’t talk about the fastball special…”
One of things that keeps the game exciting is constantly wondering about whether to launch into an attack, or hold back some defence. I lost an early game by focusing on gathering my strength, while my opponent whittled my health down so low I couldn’t recover in time. Playing it slow isn’t a bad strategy per se, but you have to remember to defend. Likewise another tense game came to a quick end because focusing too much on early offensive left me up against a wall of defence I couldn’t crack in time.
As with all good competitive games, the key is adaptability. You have to adapt and re-think how you’re playing based on how things are going. Which itself keeps games dynamic and avoids them getting stale.
There is an element of luck involved, which is obvious with the presence of dice. But you do get to choose to re-roll any number of your dice once at the start of your turn. This is a small rule comparatively but does wonders for balancing the game. If you roll a hand of dice that are terribly imbalanced, then you can pluck out a couple to re-roll for another shot at evening things out.
Earlier I mentioned that character cards also affect the game using their own special abilities. Well, on top of that character cards themselves can vary. In the starter set you’ll find multiples of each included character, Hulk, Thor, Storm, Spider-Man, Human Torch, Beast, Iron Man and Captain America. However, each card is different, offering a different ability. So even if you want a certain character because you like their dice, you then still get to customise your choice even more. What this means for the starter set in particular is that mixing up the hero combinations offers up plenty of opportunities for different match-ups. Even then, having re-matches with exactly the same team compositions often resulted in very different results and kept matches feeling fresh.
“To me my X-Men…”
I’m going to deviate from focusing on the starter set for a minute to talk about how the game can be expanded. As with all collectable games, part of the fun with Dicemasters is adding to your collection and available heroes. I can already hear the comic book fans and those unfamiliar with these sorts of games starting to worry, however, you can relax. Dicemasters is very inexpensive. A booster pack comes with two characters and a corresponding dice for each. That’ll cost you as little as 90p, seriously. I’m so conditioned to believe that collectable games need to be expensive that I was stunned by how cheap Dicemasters is.
Speaking of booster packs, tearing into the ones I had blew the doors open on team opportunities. I can’t lie, as a big comic book fan I got a kick out of pulling out characters like Black Panther and Namor and seeing their respective dice designed with their colour scheme and logo in mind. Here’s where it really became clear that characters have their own personalities. For instance Black Panther is a very heavy hitter but doesn’t have much in the way of defence. This meant I had to keep this in mind when choosing who to pair him with in matches. If you’re going to pick up this starter set (or one of the other two that are now available at the time of writing) I suggest tossing in a handful of boosters too for extra choice. Do you need them? No, but the added choice only makes the game more fun.
Okay, so I’ve spent a lot of this review explaining the game, you might be looking for a more blunt elaboration now so I’ll get right to it: Yes, Dicemasters is very fun and the comic book element does make it even more appealing. The character abilities lightly call back to the characters themselves from the source material, but they don’t let themselves become too limited by their origins. The physical dice themselves are perhaps the best little bonus for comic book fans, I certainly enjoyed playing with Storm’s icy blue dice for instance, with white lightning etched into the attack sides. Meanwhile Hulk’s are, of course, bright green with a dark green fist instead. The character cards themselves also use comic book art, I got a couple of laughs by geekily pointing out I knew the origin of most of the art, but that just shows that they’re pulling from popular and relevant material. WizKids have worked hard to pick appropriate images and along with the dice it means the Marvel theme feels well thought out and more than just an afterthought.
As a starter set it definitely offers plenty of content to burn through and there are enough die included to let two players battle it out to their heart’s content. If you want to play with the expanded tournament rules, you’re still able to do so using this Starter Set. That said, tournament rules allow for a greatly expanded amount of characters and dice, so you’ll struggle to see the full potential of the game without investing in some boosters. Luckily booster packs are so cheap it’s a relatively small investment if you do choose to go down this route. But, that doesn’t stop this Avengers vs. X-Men Starter Set from being a great investment and a lot of fun, even if you never take it any further.
So essentially, if you’re a comic book fan and you want a new tabletop game to play, then I can absolutely recommend Dicemasters.