‘Marvel Snap’ review: superhero showdown

Snap, crackle, pop

Marvel Snap feels like it’s going to eat my entire life. A bold reinvention of the card games that see you filling your board with cards and playing them against each other, it’s here to show plainly that bigger isn’t always better.

Snap is immediately familiar. You’ll build a small deck of superheroes from an extensive collection and then play a six-turn match against your opponent fighting for control of three locations. Many of the cards have special abilities and the locations mix things up too. It’s that simple. You’ll never directly interact with each other, instead using your cards to exert your influence on the locations.

I hate history lessons in reviews, but I promise this is important. Ben Brode, chief development officer at developer Second Dinner, has been around card games for a long time. He worked on the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game until moving across to Hearthstone when development started. Brode has been widely credited as one of the leading lights in the game’s development, and was Hearthstone’s game director before he left the company.

Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.
Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.

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Marvel Snap is his “what’s next”, and you can feel the care that’s gone into the game not just from Brode but the rest of the team. Snap is a smart deconstruction of everything card games, the type of rebuild that’s only really possible when you’ve spent years and years thinking about how a genre ties together.

While cards you play and locations on the board can change everything, as a baseline you’ll get one power at turn one and move to have six power at turn six. Powerful game-changing heroes like Magneto or The Hulk will cost six power, while other heroes will cost less than that. The aim is to slowly build your power at a nice curve. Players of Hearthstone will be immediately familiar, but here everything feels more urgent, part of the six turn limit making sure you’re never treading water.

You can play up to four cards at each of these locations, but certain builds can up the complexity in a big way. A destruction deck draws power from destroying your own cards. Movement decks might involve using powers to shuffle your own cards around the locations unpredictably.

Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.
Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.

Chances are for your first 50 games, you’ll be slapping cards down and trying to keep track of those different locations and the stacks of cards. A lot of people that work on Marvel Snap clearly care deeply about the Marvel universe and there are some deep cuts here in terms of characters. You’ll see Black Panther, Captain America and Iron Man sure, but you’ll also see slightly more niche characters like Blue Marvel, Darkhawk and Infinaut.

The locations dig deep into the Marvel universe too: you might find yourself slapping cards down in Shura’s Lab, which will double the power of any card that is played there. The Gamma Lab will turn every card played there into the Hulk after a certain turn. There are other locations that aren’t labs, and they all do something fun, even if the fun thing they do is lose you the match by creating an awkward situation you can’t play your way out of.

You can play it on your smartphone or by downloading it on Steam, and I’ve found it’s been a fairly continuous presence in my life since its release a month ago today. I slip into it for a few minutes at a bus stop, or duck in for a few matches on the PC while trying to break the back of a difficult piece of writing. I’ve also mainlined an entire season of a TV show (Parks and Rec, since you asked) while playing back-to-back matches. It’s the perfect casual game, and a great smartphone companion.

Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.
Marvel Snap. Credit: Second Dinner.

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But there’s one true difference. Marvel Snap is free to play but surprisingly hard to spend money on. The monetisation is discreet: you can buy a premium currency – gold bars – that can get you extra cards or cool variants, but as levelling up your cards is the primary way of getting progression it’s pretty optional. I’ve been given plenty of free gold that’s now burning a hole in my pocket, but I haven’t spent cash on anything but a pair of battle passes since the game released. It’s hard to begrudge it a few quid for the hours of entertainment it’s given me.

It has a few problems: sometimes the board will choose violence, with several locations coming together to really screw up your day, or a particularly good player will lock you down. But as each game takes just a few minutes to play, I’ve found when I do get eviscerated in a match I shake it off and queue back in.

The biggest issue is the lack of any way to play against people you know. This – apparently – is on the way, but as we can only review the game as it currently stands, that’s going to be the biggest problem for players eager for bragging rights.

Ultimately though, I’ve played a lot of competitive card games since Hearthstone shuffled into my life eight years ago, and I think Marvel Snap might be my favourite. Every turn feels essential; and things can turn for or against you with frightening ease, meaning you have to constantly pay attention and adapt on the move.

It’s impossible to say whether the same sense of fun and the smart use of established characters will continue as the team continues development, but for now Marvel Snap has earnt a lot of goodwill. Go play it.

Marvel Snap is available on PC and iOS/Android mobiles

Verdict

Simple, nuanced, design makes Marvel Snap an essential play not just for card game fans but for anyone that might have a few minutes to kill. It won’t turn every player into a card shark, but it’s bound to win fans in unusual places, and with a low barrier to entry you’re really only hurting yourself if you don’t give it a go.

Pros

  • Simple to pick up, hard to master
  • Great art, with some swell variant designs as cosmetic choices
  • Thoughtful use of the Marvel licence
  • Compelling to play

Cons

  • Extensive knowledge required to be competitive at higher ranks
  • You can’t currently play against anyone you know
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