At the Essen Spiel in October 2013 WizKids gave an interview to Eric Martin of BoardGameGeek which previewed their new game platform: Dice Masters. Based on the Quarriors system (also by WizKids), “Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs X-Men” would incorporate recognizable Marvel characters and be marketed as a collectible dice game. At the time Dice Masters was on absolutely no one’s radar. Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower had produced a “10 Most Anticipated Games” list for the German game fair; Dice Masters was nowhere to be found. Fast forward to the GAMA trade show in March 2014. WizKids introduced the game to Las Vegas convention crowd and it very nearly stole the show. At almost the same time, Rodney Smith of Watch it Played released the first in a series of YouTube videos introducing players to the game and the mechanisms of how to play. The buzz was overwhelming. By early April, WizKids had already announced that the game was sold out at the manufacturers and a reprint was scheduled for release in June. All of a sudden, WizKids had a breakout hit on their hands.
Come release day on April 23rd 2014, many gamers found themselves looking at empty shelves and going away disappointed. The product simply was not enough to meet demand. WizKids had flopped about 18 months before that with a Lord of the Rings dice-building game, so perhaps their caution in ordering a relatively modest print run was justified. In any case, WizKids was faced with the unenviable position of not being able to sell their product to willing buyers. Even into November 2014, when the follow-up Dice Masters set, “Uncanny X-Men”, was released, supply issues for the original AvX set still were not altogether solved. Thankfully, with the release of Uncanny X-Men, WizKids seemed to have gotten their footing and since that time supply issues have simply not been a factor. Dice Masters remains a top 5 collectible game through 2015, and the community has continued to expand.
Dice Masters is a two-player game of tactical combat in which each player controls a team of characters which they deploy to attack and do damage to their opponent. Each player starts with 20 life and whoever can reduce their opponent to zero first is the winner. Dice Masters is essentially a “deckbuilding” game where players begin with a small pool of simple dice and purchase progressively more useful and powerful dice.
Each turn consists of a series of phases which are roughly summarized below:
- Draw four dice from your bag
- Roll dice
- Purchase dice with energy, field characters
Players start the game with eight identical “sidekick” dice in their bag. These starting dice have 5 sides representing energy and one side representing a nameless “sidekick” character (hence the name). The energy faces let you buy dice, pay to field characters, and activate various abilities. Character faces represent the heroes themselves. Players are trying to use energy to acquire character dice to add to their dicebag, draw & roll the character face, and then pay a cost (top left) to “field” the character die. This is how the characters “appear” in the game. Fielding a Spider-Man die is akin to Spider-Man swinging into the panel on the first page of a comic book.
Once you have some characters fielded, they can then be assigned to attack the opposing player. The defending player either loses life equal to the attack value (top right) of the attacking characters in unblocked, or they can choose to block the attacking characters with their own characters. Attackers that get blocked with defending characters don’t damage the opponent, but instead the characters fight! In other words, having a character ready to block is pretty useful. It’s fun to get famous superheroes to fight your battles for you!
When an attacker and a blocker are paired up, the characters then engage in combat. The attack “A” value of each die is compared to the defensive “D” value of the other. If the A value equals or exceeds the other D value, then the die is “knocked out.” The damage happens simultaneously for each die and it’s entirely possible, and quite common I might add, for both attacking and blocking dice to be KOed. What can I say is these comic book battles never last very long. Finally, any dice that are knocked out are moved to the “prep area”, where they will be added to your next roll along with the four dice you normally draw.
Rolling KOed dice on the next turn is an important aspect of the game to understand. Frankly, I think this is the single best mechanism in Dice Masters and really what makes the game work. It’s incredibly thematic (let’s be honest, no one in comic books is out of the fight for very long) and makes the game into something much more tactical than just an out and out slugfest. There is no inherent penalty for having your dice get KOed from the field (other than you now have fewer attackers and blockers). You will be rolling all these dice again at the start of your next turn and will be able to field them or use them as energy just like always. Furthermore, for a good number of characters whose ability fires when fielded, you actually WANT them to be knocked out so you can roll and field them again next round and hopefully trigger their ability again.
So as the attacker, unless it’s to your advantage, you might not want to knock out too many of your opponent’s dice because that may result in them roaring back with a huge roll on their turn. It’s an effective and thematic catch-up mechanism that gives players the opportunity for a bigger than normal roll and potentially being able to afford one of their more powerful, more expensive characters. So much of the strategic aspect of this game is dependent upon this effect.
At this point there are seven different Dice Masters sets, representing four separate IP licenses. More are coming, with presumably more licenses getting involved. One of the most attractive aspects of Dice Masters is the way the individual sets 1) live in their own self-contained universe, 2) interact with their larger IP across sets (for example, all the Marvel themed sets), and 3) are totally compatible across any IP in the Dice Masters systems. For me personally, I don’t like to mix universes too much. But for many people, the common platform for so many different characters is almost the whole point of getting into the game. Some mechanisms don’t work as well across IPs, like Experience in D&D and most Affiliation based abilities, but that’s really the exception. The cards and dice can be combined seamlessly and easily so if you want to play Dragons, Batman and Saggi the Dark Clown against Spider-Man, Lex Luthor and a Purple Worm, go for it!
Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men
The inaugural Dice Masters set, named Avengers vs. X-Men, after the eponymous 2012 Marvel cross-over, covers a wide range of the most iconic Marvel superheroes. The most recognizable characters are for the most part all there and it’s an excellent set to begin a collection. As the first set, there were some initial issues with balance as perhaps a dozen or so cards clearly established themselves in a higher tier. Most of these cards were relatively cheap, so the game revolved around quick attacks, direct damage (which is when you damage your opponent outside of an attack from a character. In general, it was difficult to bring out large characters because the tempo of the game was just too geared towards cheap powerful dice.
Global abilities were a major factor in this set. “Globals” are actions printed in red type on the cards that are available to both players as long as they can pay the cost. One of the most ubiquitous was the global on the “Distraction” basic action card which allowed players to send any attacker back to the field. There were strategic reasons to activate this on both offense and defense, and, paired up with another popular global, “Force attack”, allowed players to push and pull and manipulate the attack step. In addition, the set included four affiliations: X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Villains. Unfortunately, there were only a few uses for the affiliations and were generally not a major factor. As a result, it was tougher to play “thematic” teams (like the 1975 X-Men) than you might originally have thought.
Marvel Dice Masters: Uncanny X-Men
Uncanny X-Men was the 2nd set of Dice Masters and feels largely like an direct extension of first set. Many of the balance issues were addressed with the addition of counter-strategies. A number of cards allowed teams to focus more heavily on sidekicks as an offensive force. Finding ways to attack with unblockable characters became more a theme as well. Several new globals were introduced, but none more game-changing than the one on Professor X. Known as PXG, this ability allowed players to quickly place lots of sidekick dice in the prep area for big rolls almost every turn. To say this altered gameplay would be a bit of an understatement. The release was delayed somewhat, which brought back some bad memories of the considerable supply issues with the first set. But once it was out, Dice Masters has really never looked back. Supply has been plentiful and consistent, all while maintaining status as a top 5 collectible game.
DC Dice Masters: Justice League
The first DC set was centered around the Justice League. This set reminded me a lot of the very first one in that it concentrated mainly on filling out the most iconic characters and setting the foundation for future DC sets. In contrast with the AvX set, which had team affiliations but not much to do with them, the Justice League set has tremendous team synergies and really seems to play best when it’s Justice League vs. Villains. The set highlights a wide range of special affiliation-based abilities, most notably Retaliation, which was introduced in this set. Retaliation triggers when teammates are knocked out, so characters that survive an attack can get their revenge in the form of direct damage for each fallen teammate.
D&D Dice Masters: Battle of Faerûn
As primarily a Marvel fan, I was originally going to pass on the D&D: Battle of Faerun set. Then I saw it and couldn’t resist. The D&D set is probably the best looking and well produced of any Dice Masters products thus far. The cards are thicker, the dice are clearer and more consistent, the colors and artwork is fantastic, and what’s more it’s probably the single most balanced and enjoyable of all the Dice Masters sets thus far. Multiple approaches to the game are possible, a healthy variety of thematic team-ups work as viable strategies and the basic actions in the set are fantastic. A few of the new mechanisms were real standouts including Experience, which allowed your adventurer characters to become progressively stronger as they “leveled up,” and Breath Weapon, which allowed your dragon characters to unleash dragon fire on the opposition. It’s fun to roast Trolls and Zombies! Featuring the undead, evil monsters, good adventurers, evil adventurers, dragons, magical equipment like helmets and swords and an excellent variety of big bruisers like Purple Worms, Beholders, and Umber Hulks, the set includes a lot of powerful synergies and hard counters and is just a blast to play.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Dice Masters: Season One
The Yu-Gi-Oh set was one that I admittedly skipped due to lack of interest in the theme. The artwork is just screencaps of the YGO animated television show and often blurry, so it seemed somewhat of a downgrade from the Marvel sets. Also, at the end of the day, it was Yu-Gi-Oh. Due to some incomprehensible (to me) licensing issues, each card was paired with a specific die with a matching serial number. For all other sets, dice are completely 100% fungible for each character, so this was the last straw for me to get into this set. I just wasn’t interested in keeping track of all the separate dice! That said, there were a few interesting things that came out of this set, particularly Blue Eyes White Dragon, which had a global that allowed players to quickly stack discounts and easily buy an expensive die, and Jinzo, which made opponents pay 2 life every time they wanted to activate a global ability. Needless to say, it’s tough to crank on PXG when you have to pay 2 life for each activation.
Marvel Dice Masters: Age of Ultron
The latest Marvel set is based on Age of Ultron, a 10 issue Marvel crossover from 2013. Whereas the AvX set almost completely ignored the underlying story, the narrative of AoU is very apparent. As a result, team synergies in Age of Ultron were highlighted and perhaps even over-emphasized this time around. When it comes to the Guardians of the Galaxy, many of them just don’t work at all outside of a Guardians team. Not sure that’s a necessarily bad thing though. The AoU set focused on story-based gameplay – the most powerful single combo in the set is Ultron himself working alongside his army of drones.
It’s also pretty clear what Marvel considers its showcase properties at this point. Avengers are everywhere, there’s only one X-Man in the entire set, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. affiliation was introduced with Maria Hill, Phil Coulson, Nick Fury and an unnamed S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent. Captain Marvel rounds out the outer-space crew and we get three new characters from Asgard. Clearly we are focusing on characters that Marvel owns the movie/tv rights to! Another thing to note about this most recent iteration: up to now every set contained 4 super-rare cards (which average about 1 or 2 per 180 cards). In contrast, AoU includes 8 super-rare cards. Four of them are the 3rd version of the character (most characters have a common, uncommon and rare/super-rare version), but the other four are special Zombie characters with special yellow, undead-looking dice. I suppose I could complain about increasing the chase cards that really haven’t been a factor thus far in this game, but I think the inclusion of a Zombie faction is fun and new enough to be more than just a pure money grab. For good or for ill, this looks to be the model going forward.
The series will continue with reactions to the just released DC: War of Light set and the upcoming Marvel: Amazing Spider-Man set!
Designed by: Michael Elliott and Eric M. Lang
Published by: WizKids
Ages: 14 and up
Time: 30-45 minutes
Mechanics: Dice Rolling, Deck / Pool Building, Variable Player Powers
MSRP: $19.99 (starter set); $0.99 (booster pack)