By now, you’ve read the title to this article and are probably wondering - what exactly does Marvel superhero blockbuster The Avengers have to do with a series of board games about fighting with iconic fictional and historical figures? Well, hear me out.
Prior to its release in 2012, The Avengers (known as Avengers Assemble here in the UK) seemed something that, fundamentally, shouldn’t work. Up to that point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had felt less of a complete world and more a series of films connected by a corporate entity. Combining the disparate tone of fantasy-flick Thor with the first Iron Man - a more traditional action film - seemed like it could only result in a complete and utter mess. Nevertheless, The Avengers worked. Despite smashing vastly different characters from vastly different films together onto the same screen, it came together into one cohesive whole that didn’t feel in the least bit jarring.
Which is precisely what Unmatched manages to do - to an extent, anyway. While the success of Unmatched isn’t really comparable to that of The Avengers and the subsequent corporate behemoth it spawned, the nature of its achievement is. The concept of Unmatched - that iconic figures, from Medusa to King Arthur, are stuffed into a single game - sounds like it shouldn’t work. But nevertheless, it really does.
A fine example of where a board game pop-culture mash-up didn’t work can be found in the Funkoverse Strategy Game, which turned out to be exactly the kind of slapdash hodgepodge of worlds and characters you’d fear it might be. Utilising the glut of licenses already represented by its parent company’s incredibly successful line of Funko Pop figures, Funko Games created a series of titles which sees the likes of Harry Potter and the Golden Girls going head-to-head to be the last miniature standing.
It doesn’t help that the gameplay is incredibly shallow, with barely any credence paid to the characters featured beyond the recreation of their image in cold, hard plastic. These miniatures may be dressed up to look like iconic characters, but they don’t play like you’d want them to. What’s even worse is that the aspect you’d expect a Funko product to excel at - the quality of the miniatures - is equally disappointing, presenting a collection of misshapen facsimiles of the famous characters. Certainly not the kind of reverential treatment you’d want such beloved characters as Harry Potter and Blanche Devereaux to receive.
Despite the idea of putting King Arthur, Medusa, Sinbad and Alice - from Wonderland - into the same world conjuring up the image of a child visiting the Pizza Hut ice cream factory with absolutely no self-control, Unmatched exceeds all expectations to provide genuine homage to its characters.
Unmatched pulls this feat off largely thanks to its incredible presentation and commitment to its premise of an epic stand-off between a cast of memorable characters. Oliver Barrett’s artwork for the game is far better than you’d ever expect from a series that could otherwise just rely upon existing imagery, such as film stills or stock photos, regardless of whether the styles mix well. Whilst each character gets their own unique colour palette and designs that help them to stand apart, the artwork does a lot to provide a unified style - one that makes it reasonable to believe that all these characters could exist within the same universe.
A similar approach is applied to the gameplay, with the characters getting their own defining touches to differentiate them, while the overall system ensures that it still feels like a complete experience. Unmatched is based on the system used in Star Wars: Epic Duels that takes plenty of cues from classic miniatures games such as Warhammer - making players consider distance when attacking and offering different units with varying power levels - but manages to whittle things down into a comparably simple ruleset. This not only makes Unmatched an accessible series, which fits in perfectly with the franchise’s identity as a homage to pop culture, but also allows the most interesting element of the gameplay shine - the characters themselves.
The gameplay for Unmatched works in a similar way to The Avengers’ use of plot and characters. The plot of The Avengers is incredibly straightforward - a space MacGuffin is discovered, an alien army attacks and a team of heroes needs to stop them - but it provides a solid foundation for the real appeal of the film, its characters and their various interactions, to be built upon. Thanks to its simple gameplay system, Unmatched also enables its individual characters to be the real star of the show above everything else.
Each character has their own unique ability and deck of cards, with some characters also having sidekicks or multiple allies. Character decks are tailored to work alongside their ability, giving them an overall playstyle that will lean into different tactics. For example, King Arthur has the ability to boost any of his attacks by playing additional cards on top of his initial card, with his deck largely filled with strong attack cards and fewer defensive moves. Meanwhile, Alice has the ability to become either big - which boosts her damage output - or small, which gives her more defensive capabilities. This ability is clearly directly inspired by The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, as is the fact that Alice can’t change size at will - instead, it serves as a sort of side effect of using particular cards in a similar fashion to the chaotic manner in which it happens in the original book. Sinbad’s ability is also very clearly tied to his character’s history, as he is able to move an additional number of spaces equal to the number of voyage cards in his discard pile - a reference to his identity as a sailor - which happen to all be based on his various adventures in One Thousand and One Nights. Not only does this design element provide players with a variety of different ways to approach the game, it also acts as a form of storytelling and characterisation in itself.
Unlike Funkoverse, Unmatched understands that there’s more to communicating who these characters are than their miniature designs. Just as a great movie screenplay will show rather than tell its audience about different aspects of its characters, Unmatched uses gameplay to tell the stories of its iconic figures - which is even more awesome when you consider the fact that the series is looking to include characters from cultures that haven’t really been given the limelight before, such as the Ghanian warrior princess Yennenga.
It’s obvious that a lot of care has been taken to ensure that all the potentially clashing elements of Unmatched come together into something genuinely brilliant. Just as The Avengers served as the catalyst for the entire extended MCU, I hope that Unmatched continues to provide an excellent platform for players to control some of the most iconic characters in pop culture history. With plenty of really interesting characters to look forward to - including Rosie the Riveter and Houdini - the game’s future is looking bright.