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Collectible Superhero Board Games Look Great but Play isn’t Always Superpowered

by Michael Barnes (05/02/12).

An Iron Man figure from HeroClix, a very popular and very collectible Marvel superhero tabletop game. It’s a brand that has been going strong for a decade now, with literally hundreds and hundreds of figures.

Excitement for “The Avengers” movie, which will bring together some of Marvel Comics’ mightiest—and most profitable—superheroes, is building as favorable reviews from advance screenings are filtering in. Anticipation for the film  (to be released on Friday, May 4) has been fomented by the success of the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk movies, all of which had subtle and not-so-subtle leads into what looks to be a smash hit. As a lifelong comic book, fan it’s almost surreal to see an Avengers film make it to the screen.

Of course, I’m also a lifelong board games fan. And one of the more unusually under-represented fields of subject matter in hobby board gaming has always been superheroes. Of course, there have been countless mass-market superhero games over the years and many hold reasonable value more because of the characters than because of the actual play value. Sadly, the general consensus on mass-market tie-in board games is that they’re poorly designed and represent little more than craven cash-ins. But in the realm of more serious “gamer” games, it’s a rarely explored theme.

Still, there are a few worth noting, and a few that are quite valuable. In the spirit of the Avengers film, let’s make it an all-Marvel marquee.

Marvel Heroes (Fantasy Flight Games/Nexus Editrice, 2006)

The Italian publisher Nexus Editrice had a license to publish a Marvel Heroes board game and partnered with Fantasy Flight Games to publish it in the United States. Designed by the same team that created the award-winning and much-loved War of the Ring board game based on The Lord of the Rings novels, Marvel Heroes was an exquisitely produced title that came with fully painted miniatures representing members of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Marvel Knights and the Avengers. The board was a wonderful comic-book-style map of New York City and it was packed with illustrated cards depicting villains, storylines, resources and other game elements. It was a $60 title at the time, but these days it would easily sell for $100.

Marvel Heroes is a board game that looks great, but the play is less than super.

The game wasn’t very good, at least in my estimation. It was convoluted, the rules were badly written and it felt overly mechanical. It has something of a cult following, however, and it remains in demand. At one point, Nexus was interested in a card game version of the title designed by the legendary Richard Launius, but Nexus was re-negotiating its license with Marvel literally right before the Iron Man movies began their successful run in theaters and the licensing fee skyrocketed.

As have aftermarket prices for Marvel Heroes. It’s the perfect storm for a collectible board game—out of print, unrenewable license foreclosing on reprint chances and an expensive, lavish production. Copies in new condition sell up to $170, with a median price seeming to fall somewhere in the $100 range. I sold mine before it went out of print for about $20. So much for my speculative acumen.

X-Men Alert (Pressman Toys, 1992)

A far less valuable Marvel superhero game but also one that’s a lot more fun is X-Men Alert, published in 1992 and designed by the celebrated Richard Borg, who has found great success in recent years with several light war-game designs. It was a more mainstream title manufactured by Pressman Toys and sold at major retailers. It was also apparently quite plentiful, I recall buying a couple of copies for $2.99 off a K-B Toys clearance shelf stacked with them sometime in the mid-1990s.

X-Men Alert: So many X’s for not a lot of $’s.

It’s a light, fun game with special dice and 18 silver plastic figures of the X-Men—including Wolverine, Colossus, Storm and Doctor X. It’s something of a team-building exercise, with players gathering characters (each with unique statistics and a special power) and taking on some of the team’s must nefarious villains including, of course, Magneto, as well as an assortment of evil mutants. It’s one of a subset of games that came out in the 1990s that sort of straddled the line between hobby and mass-market games, which has an interesting effect on demand.

There tends to be some nostalgia for the kinds of titles like X-Men Alert and even though they are often fairly common, prices tend to fluctuate wildly. It’s the kind of thing you can find at a thrift store or yard sale for next to nothing, but someone that really wants it will drop $50 on it without blinking. X-Men Alert, in particular, has a reputation for being one of the better superhero games, so that also can stir interest. But there were apparently a lot of these made, and it’s not uncommon to find collectors that have sealed copies tucked away on shelves. When I wanted to rebuy the game after my $2.99 copy was lost, I wound up spending 10 times that amount—which is still likely more than it sold for at retail.

HeroClix (WizKids, 2002)

Even though I don’t like the game and can’t bear the thought of getting involved in the morass of blind-purchase booster packs—in other words, boxes with undisclosed, randomly assorted figures—I’d be remiss to not mention HeroClix as a very popular and very collectible Marvel superhero tabletop game. It’s a brand that has been going strong for a decade now, with literally hundreds and hundreds of figures of not only Marvel characters, but also heroes and villains from DC and independent comics.

About a million dollars’ worth of HeroClix figures. I think I see Black Widow!

It’s a simple miniatures war game wherein each figure has a click-base to record statistics and identify special abilities, required die rolls and other information. Players assemble squads of heroes, villains or any combination thereof and duke it out with others in anything from one-on-one scraps to epic battles with dozens of figures. And since it’s specifically marketed as a collectible game, there are rare figures, convention-only promos and deluxe models including colossal characters like the world-eating Galactus. It’s the kind of game where the sky’s the limit in terms of how much you can spend—and its popularity and collectability means that there is a very active and lucrative aftermarket for loose figures.

Its comprehensiveness is certainly compelling. If you’re looking to stage a scrap featuring Nick Fury and all of the Avengers versus the entire DC Universe, you could do it. Provided you can afford it.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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