People get into games for a number of different reasons. Sometimes you first encounter a game as a child and that series becomes important to you for the rest of your life. Other times the excitement of others around you convinces you that a game is worth your time. And sometimes, you’re a game blogger who needs to bang out a couple of quick first impressions posts to cover a period of time when you’ll be traveling and can’t write about the games you’re actively covering. Marvel Snap for me is a combination of reasons two and three, a game that caught my attention as I saw multiple folks raving about it and happened to fall at a time where I needed something I could cover quick and dirty. Luckily, checking out the game was a…breeze! (Did you think I was going to say snap?)
Marvel Snap is a mobile free-to-play card game from some of the devs who made Hearthstone. This is to say that they have some respectable chops when it comes to developing digital card games, not to mention the significant influence of Disney money behind them. Because it is free to play, it has a lot of the same exploitative monetization policies that many games in this space operate on – in-game timers and currency block you off from parts of the experience to try and extract money from you as the player. Now I played for somewhere between 1-2 hours and didn’t really run into significant problems on that front, but the shop clearly advertises the ability to buy special card variants and custom avatars and all the sorts of things that can nickel and dime you to death in this genre. As always, I recommend checking out the Game Studies Study Buddies podcast episode on the book Addiction by Design as a great starting point for better understanding how these games hack the human brain.
Structurally, Marvel Snap is a game where you and an opponent compete the earn the most points at two out of three locations on the virtual game board. You earn points at a location by playing up to four heroes there. You’ve got a deck of a dozen heroes to work with over the course of six turns. Each turn, you and your opponent simultaneously place a number of cards based on how much energy you have to spend. Card effects resolve, points are tallied, and at the end of the game whoever controls at least two of the three locations you were competing for wins the match. The six turn limit and simultaneous play work together to make matches quick and short – most of the games I played were only about three or four minutes in length.
Each location on the board has a different effect, and there are a good variety of locations in the game – in ten matches I did see repeats of specific locations, but never more than once and usually with the other locations being something I hadn’t seen before. Locations might protect cards from harm, move them, prevent cards from being played on certain turns or force cards to be played on certain turns; and for two of the locations on the board, you won’t know what they do until the second and third turns of the match. If you placed a card only worth 2 points at a location that then it is revealed to subtract 3 points from every card there, you’re starting off on the back foot. Recognizing the impact a location is going to have early and strategizing around it is important to playing well. I had matches where my opponent misreading or otherwise not understanding a location led them to make major mistakes; in a particular match, my opponent kept playing cards at a location that was going to swap our cards on an upcoming turn, ultimately giving me a big advantage when the swap happened.
Location effects aren’t the only thing to be aware of, as hero effects can impact a game as well. Each hero card has three aspects: the energy cost, the point value, and the effect. Some hero cards don’t have effects and are simply low-energy, low-power cards you can throw out quickly or high-energy, high-power cards for racking up big points at the end of the match. But most cards do have effects to keep in mind. Certain effects resolve when you first reveal the card while others are ongoing effects that persist while the card is in play. An example of an on-reveal effect is the Sentinel, who summons another Sentinel card to your hand when played. An example of an ongoing effect is Mister Fantastic, who gives +2 points to locations adjacent to the one where he is placed. The way card effects play together (or don’t) can influence your approach to a turn. A simple example using early cards is Hawkeye, who gets stronger when you play a card at the same location on the subsequent turn. It’s tempting to try to counter that with Starlord, who has a higher starting power than Hawkeye and gets a bigger bonus if the opponent plays their card at the same location that turn. But if the Hawkeye setup was bait to get you to burn your Starlord, you lose the benefits of your card while the opponent gets to make a play that’s more beneficial for them.
Energy defines the pace of the game. Each turn you get energy to spend equal to the turn number; so only 1 on turn one, but a whopping 6 on turn six. This slowly increases the scale and power of the cards you can play, as well as expanding the strategic decisions available to you. Do I throw down a Hulk card that costs all my energy but gives a huge point boost? Or do I play a couple of middle value cards with more potent card effects? What makes the most sense will change from match to match. Because energy works in this way, it also influences how your deck should likely be built. Since most games will only have one turn where you have six energy to spend, having more than one six cost card in your deck is a risk. Sure you’re more likely to have a powerful card to play on the last turn, but you’re also more likely to get a hand full of cards you can’t use on earlier turns in the game. Your starting deck is pretty well balanced in this sense but as you collect more cards, you have more and more control over your build and need to be aware of how to build well.
When you win a match, you get some resources to spend to “upgrade” your cards. I put upgrade in quotes here because these are not mechanical improvements, they are visual ones. These are card effects like the image breaking out of the frame, 3D effects on the card, etc. What upgrades really do for you is help unlock new cards; the game has a track of how many upgrades you’ve received and gives a card reward at preset intervals. The same goes for ranks you earn while maintaining a winning streak; each time you rank up there is generally some kind of reward attached to that, either avatars or card backs or new cards for your deck. On top of the upgrade and ranking systems, you can also earn new stuff by completing missions, which are meta objectives tracked over the course of multiple games. These can be things like “win x number of matches” or “finish x games winning a location with a score of y or less.” When you fulfill the conditions of a mission, you get a reward as well as moving yourself closer to a larger payoff that requires a certain number of mission completions to earn.
I found Marvel Snap to be a decent enough experience but not one that really caters to what I enjoy about card games. The short matches (which make no mistake, will absolutely be a boon for some players) don’t keep my attention for very long – after only a couple of them I would have been content to stop if not for the need to play enough rounds to write a serviceable article about it. The card rewards unlock relatively slowly and the main benefit for winning matches being visual upgrades with no mechanical payoff means that I don’t have a strong motivation to continue playing. I could see myself finding joy in experimenting with different builds to see what style of deck most matches how I like to play the game, but the slow trickle of cards as opposed to unlocking an entire deck at once (more like Slay the Spire or Monster Train) means that those builds take a lot longer to discover and optimize. The game is neat but for players who have a lot of experience with different card games and board games, you probably won’t find anything that feels groundbreaking. I’ll maybe try the game a little longer, but I can see myself burning out on this one pretty quickly.