In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
Christopher Badell couldn’t find the comic-book game he wanted to play, so he designed his own.
“A lot of games boiled down to ‘You be Superman and I be Spider-Man and we punch each other until one of us wins.’ For me, a comic book is about people with different abilities and different outlooks getting together to beat an overwhelming threat in a weird environment.”
That’s exactly the game Badell made when he partnered with Adam Rebottaro for Sentinels Of The Multiverse, which released its first set in 2011. The card game has each player take on the role of a different superhero with his or her own deck and team up to fight a powerful villain in a wide variety of settings. Rebottaro provides the stylized art, while Badell pens each character’s complex biography and the flavor text on every card, which is written as quotes from the various books of fictional publisher Sentinel Comics.
“I actually have a huge timeline of when all the issues line up with each other to make sure all the flavor text pieces fit together,” Badell said. “A concerning amount of it is in my head. Whenever I’m writing flavor text, I have to go back to make sure I’m not shooting myself in the foot. We have a dedicated enough fan base that if I make a mistake, they’ll call me out on it. It hasn’t happened yet.”
That complexity is a tribute to something that Badell loves about superhero comics: the convoluted histories of the DC and Marvel universes that have resulted from having so many different writers and artists handle their characters over the decades and making decisions that were later ignored or changed.
“Every creator comes at things a different way, writing over each other’s works,” Badell said. “That puts out a lot of nonsense and people have to explain things, but it also winds up creating a lot of cool things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Each individual person is only so creative.”
That rich legacy provided Badell with inspiration for his characters and superhero teams, the first of which was the Freedom Five, which he compares to The Avengers. Any game involving Legacy, an extremely powerful hybrid of Superman and Captain America, and Tempest, a fusion of Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, tends to be pretty easy. Tempest can deal huge amounts of damage to the villain while healing his allies and Legacy can both dish out plenty of hits and protect his weaker teammates from punishment. Put them together with fellow Freedom Five heroes like the speedster Tachyon or Wraith, a Batman clone, and they can take out the game’s biggest threats on their optional, more difficult settings.
These characters were all released in the first edition of Sentinels, and they’re the game’s undisputed stars. But much like comic book studios encourage writers to come up with new characters that can create spin-offs and sell merchandise, Sentinels players love the novelty of trying out a new deck. So each Sentinels expansion has included new characters, and Badell looked to the B- and C-listers of comic books for ideas like Omnitron-X, a future version of the villainous artificial intelligence Omnitron who’s a real-world parallel to Brainiac 5. The meta-humor-slinging hero Guise was inspired by the DC character Ambush Bug, though Badell said most players associate him with the much more popular Deadpool. Others have pointed out the similarities between the time-traveling bounty hunter Chrono Ranger and DC’s bounty hunter Jonah Hex, but Badell said the character was meant to add more depth to his imagined history of Sentinels Comics.
“Comic books, before they were about superheroes, were mostly about cowboys,” Badell said. “I mostly had this story in my mind that this company, Sentinel Comics, long ago used to write cowboy stories, and that a writer came around and said, ‘Let’s use one of our old characters.’ That’s where Groot came from. Groot was an old Jack Kirby villain, a weird tree monster. Then some writer was like, ‘How about we put him on a team of galaxy-hopping weirdos?’ Comic book history is bizarre and delightful.”
While players can use the teams Badell envisioned and face their signature nemeses, most games I’ve played are like mad crossover events. You can have the Iron Man-like Bunker teaming up with a shape changing alien and a martial-artist mechanic to defeat an angry Earth spirit. It’s both entertaining and an occasional problem. Threats written for Thor aren’t appropriate for Daredevil and teams have to be tailored to keep the difficulty consistent, though sometimes it’s fun to pit the lower-powered characters against foes they have no business fighting. After all, comic book writers have often delighted in forcing heroes to take on challenges that might seem impossible.
Comic-book writers have also created numerous versions of popular characters over the years to put their individual stamp on the series, changing powers or even who’s wearing the costume. Badell does the same thing with alternate character cards that change a hero’s or villain’s primary ability. His first one was Pauline Felicia Parsons, Legacy’s daughter who inherited his powers and also has laser eyes. There are subtler versions, like heroes whose cards change just represent the new team they’re on, and more dramatic ones, like an iteration of Bunker where the original hero has died and a former villain has taken up the mantle.
While he likes to imagine the thought processes and results of having a team of writers, Badell also enjoys the freedom of being the only actual voice behind Sentinels Of The Multiverse. That’s allowed him to build his story over the course of six sets, with a seventh due out later this year. Revealed in snippets of flavor text, the game’s plot has had its superheroes face numerous threats including gods, demons, and a Legion Of Doom-style band of supervillains. But perhaps the scariest foe is one they’ve only seen in a possible future where the death of Legacy’s daughter has turned the world’s greatest hero into Iron Legacy, a cruel tyrant akin to the dark vision Mark Millar presented in Superman: Red Son.
Now, Badell’s story is drawing to a close. Villains Of The Multiverse will be the penultimate expansion, with the last edition of Sentinels Of The Multiverse planned for a 2016 release. It’s a strange concept for a board game to end. Most are one-and-done creations; some get periodic expansions or an entirely new edition. In that way Sentinels more closely resembles a video game series that can end after a significant plot arc is completed.
“I’m a storyteller,” Badell said. “Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and the end is important. Moving toward that is exciting.”
Badell said he’s dropped many hints as to how that end will come in previous sets and has enjoyed watching fans interpret those clues since the series was first released. He regularly reads the game’s forums, which are filled with players speculating about the story and future editions.
“My favorite things are the things people get really completely and see coming and when it happens they say ‘I knew it,’” Badell said. “I also like things where people are really off base. I’m pleased and honored that people are as in to the stories that we’re telling as they are.”
Popular comic-book runs end and superheroes might be killed off, but you can always count on those characters coming back. Badell is also honoring that grand tradition of changing things up while keeping fans happy. Greater Than Games will continue expanding on Sentinels Tactics, a game where players use miniatures to represent the signature heroes and villains as they do battle in various scenarios.
That game’s story is set 10 years after the events of Sentinels Of The Multiverse and is told through comic books that lay out the heroes’ and villains’ objectives. The company will also be play-testing a Sentinels tabletop role-playing game at Gen Con this summer.
“Once the Sentinels Of The Multiverse game is done, it opens up more time for us to do things like comic books,” Badell said. “We’ve got other games we’re working on. The story of Sentinels Comics certainly won’t come to the end.”