X-Men: Mutant Insurrection board game review - tactical teamwork meets faithful superhero drama
In an episode of the 1990s X-Men animated series, the titular team of superheroes winds up in a fight with the United States government-backed mutant group X-Factor. Members of each squad pair up for one-on-one fights that all seem to favour the X-Factor until Charles Xavier suggests that the X-Men change their partners to better play to their strengths, a tactic that immediately turns the tide of the battle.
That idea is at the heart of X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, a fully cooperative dice-rolling game where up to six players battle against a series of classic villains. Designers Richard Launius and Brandon Perdue understand that while the X-Men may be individually powerful, their success and failure is always based on how they function as a team.
Players can choose from 16 different X-Men to control, from the franchise’s biggest stars such as Wolverine and Rogue down to deeper cuts like Armor and Magik. Because the game is fully cooperative, you’re welcome to play more than one character if you have fewer than six people at your table; the game plays at its best with four or more characters, since you’ll get more complexity in choosing your team-ups and get to see more missions.
The designers understand that while the X-Men may be individually powerful, their success and failure is always based on how they function as a team.
Each character has their own pool of four dice representing what they’re best at. For instance, the strong and smart Beast has an even split between red dice, which represent fighting prowess, and blue ones indicating intelligence. Meanwhile, the extremely powerful telekineticist Phoenix has almost entirely yellow dice that represent stranger mutant powers. Each die has a different concentration of symbols, with red emphasising fighting, yellow power and blue teamwork.
Equally important to their core abilities is each character’s assistance card, which indicates how they bolster their allies. Each provides two additional dice representing their core competency, plus a special ability. For instance, Colossus can provide a teammate with two additional red dice and act as their bodyguard, taking any damage for them. A mutant fighting alone will get their own dice but can’t use their assist ability, meaning it’s almost always better to be paired up.
Like the actual X-Men, the heroes’ abilities aren’t created equal. Some play out just like their comic book equivalents should and are almost always useful, such as Rogue’s primary ability of power absorption - which lets her duplicate the talent of any other hero and assist with an offensive energy drain. Others nail the flavour but are more situationally useful, like Shadowcat’s ability to turn a teammate intangible so they’ll ignore damage. Unfortunately a lot of them are just slight variations on each other, providing rerolls or converting dice with vague justifications, such as Jubilee’s fireworks or Beast’s enhanced agility.
At the start of the game, you’ll choose from one of eight plots of varying difficulty levels based on classic X-Men conflicts such as facing Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutant or Emma Frost and the Hellfire Club. The plots offer some great surprises, such as the Hellfire Club taking control of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, making it impossible to use some helpful locations until you’ve taken out the threat - a mechanic that adds some urgency while providing a nice homage to the number of times the X-Men have been attacked on their home turf.
Luck is always a factor, but thinking ahead can put you in the best possible situation.
You’ll need to divide your time between dealing with randomised missions that pop up across decks of cards, each representing a different continent, and facing whatever challenges are thrown at you. Once you’ve pushed the plot far enough, the X-Men will engage in a final showdown where they’ll have a limited number of rounds to fight their foes without any chance to rest and recover.
Every mission has a number of conditions that must be met by rolling dice. In Yahtzee style, you’ll typically have the chance to reroll your dice three times, keeping the ones you want to match the icons on a mission card. Some cards force you to take damage or even expend extra dice if you want to reroll, while many X-Men powers provide free rerolls or the chance to change results to something you need. Luck is always a factor, but thinking ahead can put you in the best possible situation.
The X-Men spend a lot of time preparing for battle, represented in the game by training tokens that can be used to provide a specific die result. Each character can only have one at a time, so you have to consider carefully what’s going to be most useful based on your dice pool and the missions on the board. Some characters gain free training tokens as their special ability, such as the crafty Gambit, but they can also be awarded for completing missions or spending some time back at base in the Danger Room.
Taking time off to train and heal means that the X-Men aren’t fighting villains or stopping disasters. That’s a problem since many missions and baddies generate threat, indicating the growing tension between humanity and mutants. A number of missions gain extra conditions that must be met when the threat is at higher levels and the cards drawn from the threat deck go from bad to worse, with mutant-hunting Sentinels deploying to make your fights even harder.
Players can choose to start the game at a higher threat level if they want a tougher challenge, but no matter what difficulty you’re playing on you’ll need to keep track of threat, as you’ll lose if it ever maxes out. That means you can largely ignore missions without threat unless they have a particularly appealing reward. You’ll especially want to try to get the threat under control before starting the showdown to improve your odds of victory.
On normal difficulty I found the game challenging but not too difficult, though things can quickly spiral out of control once the threat rises. It’s pretty common to have one of your X-Men knocked out at some point due to a mix of bad luck and getting a bit greedy when you should’ve taken a turn to recover. It’s sometimes smart to arrange for that to happen before the showdown, giving you a chance to swap to a fully-healed character since a character knocked out in the last phase of the game can’t be replaced. The level of complexity is reasonable enough that it’s pretty easy to manage two characters if you’re playing with a smaller group but still want the challenge that comes from having to navigate more locations.
Having to consider if a mission is going to go south because Wolverine and Cyclops hate each other is a pretty perfect marriage of mechanics and flavour.
The urgency of the threat level means that you can’t always send the whole squad to one mission in order to guarantee success, so you’ll need to carefully look at the mission requirements, divide up your forces and hope for the best. Beyond the teamwork benefits, choosing who to deploy together is based on the characters’ bonds, a mechanic representing how X-Men stories often marry family soap opera plots with superhero adventures.
Succeeding or failing in missions can cause heroes to gain or break bonds representing their relationships with one another. Positive bonds, like respect, can provide powerful buffs like free training if two bonded heroes are on the same mission together. Its counterpart, resentment, prevents you from training or using training tokens. Having to consider if a mission is going to go south because Wolverine and Cyclops hate each other even though they should have the firepower to make it work is a pretty perfect marriage of mechanics and flavour.
Likewise, the X-Men are often getting other mutants out of tight spots. There are a lot of missions involving rescuing mutants or stopping ones that are out of control that reward one of the victorious characters with a mutant ally who can provide some useful ability, such as healing or ignoring negative effects on rerolls. It’s a great way to showcase some minor characters such as Mirage and Karma while providing players with a powerful reward that makes them feel like real heroes.
There’s a fair bit of replayability to X-Men: Mutant Insurrection thanks to its different plots and character combinations, and it’s a game that’s absolutely designed for expansion. Providing more playable characters, threats, plots and allied mutants could give the game the longevity of Marvel Champions, providing superhero fans with a new way to share their love for their favourite heroes and storylines.
Like the X-Men, players of co-op games are all supposed to be on the same side but can struggle to figure out the best way to work together and achieve victory. Making that challenge core to the gameplay through assistance and bonds forces players to really consider their moves as a group rather than trying to make their character the biggest hero. The clever marriage of tactical gameplay, flavour and comic-book lore makes X-Men: Mutant Insurrection an adventure worth sharing.