Thanos Rising: A Glove Story
Today, we’re handing to reigns to Space-Biff! ally Brock Poulsen to review a game that Dan had never heard of. Take it away, Brock!
In the biggest threat to humanity since the last threat to humanity, big purple rock man Thanos has arrived on your table, bringing with him a pile of henchmen and a penchant for the dramatic. It’s up to you to take a handful of dice, recruit some heroes, and stop Thanos from that most devious of villain activities: rock collecting. Also universe-spanning genocide.
After you watch the obligatory montage of comic book panels, every player chooses a stylish hero to start with, and then nine cards are dealt around a way-too-big Thanos figure. Heroes and henchmen populate the deck side by side, so you may find yourself spoiled with allies or choked with baddies.
The game is kind of vague (read: completely mute) about what the three areas around Thanos represent. Are they different planets? Galaxies? New York City boroughs? Are Falcon and Groot hanging out together on a distant jungle world orbiting Tau Ceti, or are they holed up in a restaurant that sells pungent Mediterranean food? Perhaps it’s best not to examine it too closely, lest we succumb to space madness. Just pick one and send your team there.
Whatever the weird geography, you’ll need to discern what cruel deeds Thanos has in store. True to his philosophy, this requires a toss of dice. Thanos will deal damage to heroes, either those already on teams, those waiting to be recruited, or both, and he’ll make progress on his quest to claim the Infinity Stones.
After Thanos sows his foul deeds, you’ll spend the bulk of your turn with your own dice, assigning and re-rolling until you’ve used them all. It’s a superpowered take on the roll-and-save model, using symbols to either harm one’s enemies or gather one’s friends. Match the correct icons and you’ll bring death to your foes, or add more heroes to your ragtag super squad. Can a team still be “ragtag” when it contains kings and genius billionaire philanthropists? Thanos Rising asks the big questions!
Play continues until either the heroes have been overwhelmed, losing too many of their number to resist Thanos any longer, or until Thanos obtains the last stone. In either of these scenarios, the screen fades to black and you collect your popcorn refill on the way out. In the unlikely event that the players defeat seven of Thanos’s henchaliens, they win! The players, I mean, not the henchaliens.
It’s not surprising Marvel decided to capitalize on the success of their cinematic universe with a board game, and it makes perfect sense to take a hero-bonanza like Infinity War and turn it into a co-op game. What is surprising is how well it works. Recruiting heroes to your squad gives the game a sense of progression and growth, so that by the end you’re throwing more dice and linking card combos to do awesome things. The way wounds are distributed feels threatening, but diluted: because the heroes around Thanos are soaking up the hurt instead your own team, it doesn’t feel like it’s putting your effectiveness at risk. A hero might die before you have a chance to recruit them, and that’s a bad thing in terms of impending doom, but it doesn’t directly take a hero away from you. It’s a clever bit of design that I’m calling a nonsequence. It carries the emotional weight of punishment and loss without dealing a blow to the fun.
“Recruiting” a hero is tied to this concept, in that it serves the double function of rescuing them from Thanos’s clutches. Bringing a hero to your team wipes out any wounds they’ve accumulated and rewards your brain with the sweet dopamine hit of risk aversion. I’ve foiled Thanos’s plans and made a sweet card combo?! I’m into that in a major way.
Granted, it’s not all big fun. Some turns will pass by with a few futile rolls of the dice, and end with you accomplishing precisely nothing. Mixing the bad guys in with the heroes sometimes fails to achieve a perfect rhythm. Some games will be uncomfortably villain-heavy, like a sequel movie, while others will stall out with a glut of heroes, like, well, a different sequel movie. It’s also not overly deep on strategy, never really approaching the task optimization of heavier co-ops.
On the other hand, turns go by fast enough that your buddy Jeff (legally distinct from Geoff) will never have to agonize over every detail, so there is that.
But there really are moments where it finds a graceful balance. With so many heroes to choose from, no two games will be exactly alike, and it’s a satisfying feeling to drop a handful of dice and use them in heroic ways. It’s appealing to new gamers while being challenging enough to please hardened veterans, all without overstaying its welcome. Channeling what makes for a good superhero movie, Thanos Rising is a familiar formula that offers some nice surprises. And it won’t take 160 minutes of your time.
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