Heroes fighting heroes is a staples of superhero comic books, but now an upcoming game is letting you pit the heroes against one another and laugh along the way with other tropes of the superhero genre.
Super Powered Smash Masters is a card game developed by Dark Unicorn Games that allows players to pit some unique and lively heroes against one another, without getting too serious. Created by The Black Coat’s Adam Cogan and Ben Lichius, Super Powered Smash Masters is currently raising $18,000 in capital via Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1078033723/super-powered-smash-masters-0
With the game scheduled to be released next June, Newsarama spoke with Cogan and Lichius about this superhero spin in the popular card gaming market.
Nrama: Superhero fans seem to love pitting heroes against one another. Is that where this came from?
Adam Cogan: Super Powered Smash Masters is a tongue-in cheek customizable card game in which superheroes battle each other for no good reason, because that’s what heroes do.
Young comic readers love to imagine what a fight between the Hulk and Superman might be like. We give you that. Except we don’t have the rights to those characters, so we give you sort of that.
Each hero has unique powers themed around one of four “suits” - Nature, Gadget, Mutant, or Magic. For instance, there’s a gadget hero called Dark Unicorn who has the power to summon his fateful reluctant sidekick Night Pony.
Before a game begins, players pick out their favorite hero cards and build decks around their abilities, adding other cards that have good synergies with the hero powers. Because everyone plays with a different deck, the game is always fresh - you never know what your opponents are going to throw at you.
It’s a concept that works well with children, because they always get to play with their favorite heroes. I designed the game to play with my daughters, so the content is family-friendly, with humor to keep both adults and kids entertained. It’s also female-friendly - half of the heroes are women.
Nrama: These are all original heroes. How'd you go about designing this mass of characters all at once, Ben?
Ben Lichius: Each hero has their own personality, so we try to let that show through as much as possible. There are no specific requirements for costumes other than that we’re making a family friendly game and want it to be as fun as possible. We’ve got a lot of great artists helping out with the cards too, and it’s been a real treat to give them more or less free reign over the design of the characters that they choose to do.
We have industry vets like Ron Frenz, Pat Olliffe, Don Simpson, Rebekah Isaacs, and Anthony Castrillo designing heroes for us as well as indie creators like Dean Kotz, Drew Rausch, Ryan Cody, and Jeff McComsey. All of them have said that designing the characters has been a lot of fun and you can see it in the work they’re doing. We’re really proud to have a growing list of top-level talent helping design awesome new heroes for the game.
Nrama: These tropes and concepts you hit on in the cards are pretty spot-on. How'd you determine all the various attributes?
Cogan: It’s the Price That Must Be Paid for a lifelong obsession with comics, game design, science fiction, pun-making, and nerdology. Sorry about this, everyone.
When I arrived at the initial concept of superhero parody, I was looking for an idea that had sustainability; something I could grow and expand upon for years to come. But I was a little worried that superhero satire might be hard to maintain over the long term, because humor isn’t funny when it’s forced. Luckily, as I started brainstorming card ideas, I found that it all flowed very naturally, with no sign of slowing.
Super Powered Smash Masters is satire, but it’s positive satire rooted in a deep love and appreciation of comics, the heroes, the creators of comics, and all the people who love them. You’ll find lots of winks and jokes that only comic fans will fully appreciate.
Collectible card games often have inscrutable rule sets that are difficult for novice players to wrap their heads around. You could draw analogies to the reboots and re-reboots and crossover events that make Big Two comics so difficult for new readers to jump into.
So I set out to build a card game with elements that work really well in the CCG space, but streamlined and easy to learn so that casual players and children could play.
Nrama: And the heroes, where'd they come from? How'd you come up with them?
Cogan: I do it all wrong, actually. Most game designers will say that you should start with the game concept and then find the theme. I do the reverse. I come up with a pun or funny idea first, and then I figure out how it could lead to interesting gameplay. If it doesn’t come easily, I sit on it and see if the design will percolate over time.
Some of these characters are inspired by mainstream A-list heroes. There’s a cosmic character called the Spectator, who’s supposed to simply observe important events, but he can’t help but interfere with things out of sheer boredom.
Then there are heroes with no comic analogues that I’m aware of. the Quitter’s a good example. I thought it’d be fun to have a hero themed around quitting, and a fun challenge for me to see how that could figure into gameplay.
We also have heroes like Mister MicMimic, Cool Man, and Ninja Noir, all of whom were spawned by the twisted minds of our children. Because that’s fun, too. Also, children work for pennies.
Of course, Ben Lichius deserves a lot of the credit. He’s the one doing the heavy lifting, interpreting these ridiculous ideas into super cool, brilliantly fleshed out hero designs. The costumes, the poses, the visual humor; it’s all pitch-perfect.
Nrama: Do you play card games much? If so, how does that experience affect you designing this game?
Cogan: Yes indeed. I love collectible card games. I play a huge swathe of games and genres, but working on a card game has been a “designer’s itch” I’ve wanted to scratch for some time.
There were many influences, but I had to do a lot of innovating to meet all the goals I had for Super Powered Smash Masters. Most games that belong to the collectible card game genre are based on dueling against a single opponent. I wanted Super Powered Smash Masters to be a game the entire family could play together on game night. I wanted it to be quick and easy to jump into on the carpet during the downtime at a comic convention, or maybe while folks are waiting in some interminable queue to get Nathan Fillion’s autograph. And I wanted young kids and early readers to be able to play, and I wanted your grandmother to be able to play, and I wanted seasoned CCG players to love it, too. So, yeah. What the hell was I thinking?
Lichius: For tabletop games, I mostly come from old-school RPG-land with a mix of traditional board games – not card games so much. Actually, most of my experience with card games has come in the form of their digital versions. For instance, I worked on the console version of the Marvel Trading Card Game probably 10 years ago. And more recently I’ve dabbled with digital products in the Hearthstone mold. Now my son is collecting Pokemon so I’m getting more exposure to the physical CCG world and I’m constantly impressed at what a long shelf life they have. When it comes to illustrating the cards, that’s one thing that strikes me. Video games typically get played for a month or two and then are forgotten. These cards can be around for a long, long time. It’s intimidating, but it’s also rewarding. For Super Powered Smash Masters, I just want the cards to be bright, fun, and exciting to look at. They’re not going to come to life like you might see in a digital game, but they can come close.
Nrama: Adam, your name should be familiar to comic book readers for APE Entertainment's Black Coat, especially. What led you to do this card game?
Cogan: I’ve been in love with comics since early childhood, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to make it a career. After high school, I actually wanted to be a comic artist. I even attended the Kubert School back in 1990. But my attentions gradually shifted toward games. I strongly suspect some meddling by the Spectator.
My day job is designing and writing for games, primarily in the video game industry. Your readers might be familiar with a superhero game I wrote called inFAMOUS II. I love working on games, but whenever I there’s a little bit of creativity left over at the end of the day, I use it on the handful of comics I’m puttering away on in my spare time. So I think it’s natural to want to blend comics and games together and see if they make spicy salsa.
Fun fact: S.A.L.S.A was an acronym for an earlier iteration of Super Powered Smash Masters. It stood for ‘Super Action League of Super Action.’
Nrama: Ben worked with you on Black Coat - are card games something you two have always been interested in?
Cogan: Ben and I have been making both games and comics together for a very long time. I think his idea for The Black Coat was born around the time we were working on a game based on Marvel’s yet-to-be-released The Call series. We were interacting with a few Marvel writers, like Chuck Austen and Bruce Jones. It was inspirational. The project got cancelled, but I guess it kindled, or perhaps reignited our dreams of making comics. Around the same time, Marvel had started experimenting with recruiting new talent through the Epic relaunch (spoilers: they didn’t pick me). Also, small independent publishers like Speakeasy were coming together, and the whole concept of creator-owned books was gaining momentum. And the methods of making independent comics kept getting easier. Print on demand services were setting up shop. How could anyone not make comics, right?
So Ben started working on The Black Coat, and I Jedi mind tricked him into letting me write a few issues, which eventually came out through Ape Entertainment. I also created a comic with artist Ryan Cody called Villains that we published through Viper Comics.
Lichius: Adam and I have been working together in different capacities for a really long time. First it was video games, then comics, then more video games, then some more comics, now tabletop and card games. He’s easily the most creative person I know and I always love hearing what new ideas he’s going to come up with.
Cogan: Over the last few years, we started to get more serious about doing board games and physical products, which would be a fun departure from digital. I brainstormed a lot of different ideas, but I kept coming back to this one, and Ben saw the potential immediately. I think it fits our personalities and skill sets extremely well.
Lichius: When he pitched our team the Super Powered Smash Masters card game, I thought about it for a minute and then started to hear something like a slow golf clap in my head. My head started to nod and it was like: “Yes! Let’s do this!”
It also doesn’t hurt that I absolutely love drawing super heroes. I feel like a 14 year old kid again, drawing comics in my room all day, every time I get to work on this game.
Cogan: Card games are a joy to work on. It’s nearly instant gratification. Like comics, there are very few necessary moving parts, so we get to keep the creative circle tight, with a swift turnaround time between concept and realization.
Nrama: I have to ask, with these heroes lying around - any plans to do a actual comic book at some point with them?
Cogan: Yes, please!
Lichius: Yeah, wouldn’t that be great?! Don’t tell anybody, but a one-shot comic is actually on the stretch goal list for the Kickstarter campaign and boy, would I love to do that. Even if we don’t get to do a comic though, I’m still really anxious for people to get to know the characters by playing the game. Seeing how they interact and react to each other is cool, and you definitely start to develop your favorites based on how you like to play.
Nrama: When will the Kickstarter debut, and how much are you looking to get?
Cogan: Super Powered Smash Masters Kickstarter campaign launches on October 18, and it’ll run for about a month. We’ll be funded if we can reach our goal of $18,000. We’ll be even happier if we can add a few extra zeroes on the end. No pressure.
Nrama: What's the buy-in level for people to get a copy of the game, and when do you expect it to be delivered - if the Kickstarter is successful?
Cogan: The 4-player Base Set of 250 cards is available for $30. If you visit the campaign before we sell out, you can take advantage of our early bird price of $25.
The Base Set includes all of the available cards in the game, with 40 hero cards, 40 super cards, 40 story cards, 100 smash cards, 10 team up cards, and 20 loot cards.
We also have premium reward tiers that give you a chance to design a story card or a hero card that we’ll include in the game. This one should appeal to you closet game designers out there, or to comic fans who have a special hero idea they’ve always wanted to get out into the world. Or, hey, maybe you have a child that you’re very, very serious about spoiling.