Marvel Dice Masters is like a deckbuilding game with Magic: The Gathering style creature attacks, but using dice. Unfortunately, the parts don't add up to a very compelling game.

Marvel Dice Masters is based on Wizkids earlier dice game, Quarriors. When it first came out, Marvel Dice Masters was so popular there were serious supply issues. It seems to have a fairly strong following even now, and there's a DC version on the way. I wanted to see if the game warranted the popularity — Wizkids sent me a starter pack of the Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men set, a bunch of booster packs, and two playmats.

To begin with, I literally can't imagine playing this game without the playmats. There are so many different zones to move your dice back and forth between that without the markings on the mat to differentiate, it would be very confusing. Piles of dice here and there, and which is which?

Before we even get to the rules of the game, we have to address the quality of the components. The game materials are dice and cards that tell you what those dice do. Each booster pack comes with two dice and two cards in a foil pouch. The cards tend to get bent around the dice during shipping, so when you open the pack the cards will be bent and rumpled. This doesn't directly affect gameplay, as the cards are never shuffled into a deck or anything, but they look pretty crummy.

The dice are the focus. Each one represents a character, with special colors and a symbol to distinguish it from other character dice. Some of them look really cool.

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However, roughly half the dice in the starter and booster packs I received had significant defects. Mostly they just looked bad, but in a few cases it rendered the numbers on the dice difficult or impossible to read. Now obviously the price point on this is pretty low ($1 per booster pack), but if the focus of a game is on the dice, it seems like the dice ought to have better quality control.

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Unfortunately, the game itself wasn't interesting enough to make me overlook the minor component flaws. It starts out like a deckbuilding game — you get a bag of generic dice, and you draw four dice at random, then roll them (with one chance to reroll). These dice either generate energy which you use to purchase other dice, or they become sidekicks, nameless, low-powered characters than can attack or defend. The used dice, and dice you purchase, go into the used area. When your dice bag runs empty, it's refilled with the dice from the used area. So, like a deckbuilding game, you bolster your initial generic dice with more powerful character dice, as well as action dice (these generate more energy, allowing for the purchase of even more powerful characters, and also generate special effects when rolled).

Unlike most deckbuilding games, there isn't really any easy way to remove the generic starting dice from your dice pool. This means it takes quite a while to purchase enough dice to let you consistently roll strong attacks, or enough energy to purchase your best characters (more powerful versions of characters have higher energy costs). By the time you're buying those six or seven-point characters, the game has usually ended.

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How do you end a game? By knocking your opponent's life total from 20 to zero. This is accomplished by attacking with your character dice, and this functions exactly like creature combat in Magic: the Gathering. Each die has an attack and a defense value. Characters attack, then your opponent assigns characters to block them. Various special effects are generated that can affect the outcome, damage is tabulated, and combat ends. Characters that attacked unblocked are moved to the used area. Oddly enough, characters that get "KOed" in battle go to the prep area, where they get added into the dice you roll on your next turn. This means getting destroyed in battle imparts a significant advantage on your next turn, which feels...weird.

There is an interesting wrinkle whereby dice can be leveled up or down. Three sides of a character die have different stats marked on them — the character's card shows which side is which level. The level you use is random at first, based on how you rolled that particular die. However, some effects can force a die to be raised or dropped a level.

All this cycling dice between play and the dice pool feels pretty unspectacular, and the combat even moreso. Something about attacking with (often misprinted) plastic dice feels less viscerally exciting than it does when using cards. The game also seems to swing wildly from dull as dust sidekick fights to mind-bendingly complex board states with half a dozen effects and triggers going off at once. It doesn't help that players have access to effects on their opponents' cards, so you're constantly peering across the table trying to read upside down cards (or just giving up on keeping track of them all).

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One of the goals of any superhero game is (or ought to be) to capture the gonzo feel of a comic book slugfest. At no point does Marvel Dice Masters even approach that feeling.

Still, there are plenty of fans of this game. It's possible it was designed to appeal to a younger audience, which would explain why it fell so flat for me. And I must confess that the dice are kind of neat to look at, especially if you're a Marvel fan. In fact, my favorite thing about the game is probably analyzing the iconography they chose for each character. Some get a literal representation of their face, like Green Goblin and Dr. Doom, while some are more abstract, if obvious, like Storm's Lightning Bolt. Iron Man is denoted by an arc reactor, and Mr. Fantastic's symbol appears to be a molecular diagram. Why go with a winged hat for Thor instead of a hammer? Who knows?