The Umbrella Academy Card Game Is Punishing

The Umbrella Academy Card Game Is Punishing
Beautiful but deadly. (Photo: Beth Elderkin)

The Umbrella Academy has already jumped from the comic book panel to the small screen, with season two of Netflix’s show now streaming. Now, it’s The Umbrella Academy Game thanks to Studio 71 Games. We had a chance to test out an early version of the card game and it’s off to a promising start, but there are some issues that risk making it being borderline impossible to enjoy.

Studio 71 Games sent Gizmodo an early print-and-play prototype of The Umbrella Academy Game — meaning we could see changes between this version and the one that comes out in December, following its successful Kickstarter campaign. I’m hoping we do see some changes (or at least some better options for newer players), because the version I played was so punishingly hard I had trouble enjoying it at times.

The Umbrella Academy Game is a one-to-six player cooperative card game designed by Scott Dean, where players take on the role of characters from the Dark Horse comic series from Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. Let’s start by saying the design for the game is fantastic. Each card is vibrant and brings the comic book pages to life, so much so they actually tempted me to start reading the comics for the first time. Players work together to defeat a series of villains while struggling through their own interpersonal issues, which take the form of varying penalties you incur each round. I had mixed feelings about this gameplay feature. It’s an interesting gimmick that adds new challenges to every round, but it can become demoralising time after time after time after time.

My cat joined me for a bit, if only to judge me for my strategy. (Photo: Beth Elderkin) My cat joined me for a bit, if only to judge me for my strategy. (Photo: Beth Elderkin)

Players work together to figure out how their Hero Attack cards — with attacks that range from 5 to 10 points — can be used against the different villains and only one can be used for each. Villain Attack cards have the same point range and can even defeat ties, so there’s a lot of finagling that has to be done to figure out how to inflict the most damage while avoiding taking harm. Surviving villains can be attacked again in the final round by having the heroes enact their special abilities. These powers can only be used once each round — and will inflict damage on whoever does them.

For folks wanting a truly cooperative game, there’s a lot to be found here. There are plenty of “co-op games” where players will largely do their own thing then occasionally team up for stuff, but The Umbrella Academy Card Game requires a lot of communication and teamwork. It can be frustrating, especially when you’re trying to wrangle the many issues I describe below, but it is cooperative. Sadly, this is where the praise ends.

There’s a lot more that doesn’t work about the game than does. The main problem is it’s way too hard — especially for people who are newer to games like these. Select players might enjoy having a game that’s more challenging, but that doesn’t make it accessible or enjoyable for everyone else. We’re about to get a little more into specifics than normal, but there’s a reason: I want to demonstrate how much this game is stacked against the players.

I did the maths. In The Umbrella Academy Game, there are six Villain Attack cards that have a level “9 Attack.” Since ties go to the villain, that means the only thing that can defeat them are Hero Attack cards with “10 Attack.” And guess what: There are only seven of those. Furthermore, there are five Villain Attack cards with a “10 Attack,” meaning nothing in the game can defeat them — unless the player uses a special ability. Keep in mind that the Hero Attack deck is three times larger than the Villain Attack deck, meaning the likelihood of coming across multiple villains you can’t beat without dying is statistically high. And if you happen to draw a penalty card that reduces every Hero Attack by one point, which I did twice, your “insurmountable odds” double.

These problems are enhanced in solo mode. The Umbrella Academy Game seems like a great fit for single play, which has grown in popularity during social distancing. But either the “solo play” option was tacked on last minute or they didn’t playtest it enough, because this game does not work when you’re alone (the instruction book was even missing rules for how many cards solo players are supposed to take, so I had to make it up). For example, a solo player can only use one special ability every round, so any additional villain cards you couldn’t beat will instantly cause you harm. You can’t divide up the damage like you would in a two-or-more player game — you have to take everything yourself. And as far as I know, you don’t get additional health bars. I died almost every round when I tried it solo, because the game doesn’t give you any other option.

I still think this game has potential, so I have a few recommendations: either to improve the game itself or to add a few house rules for folks curious to try it at home. The first is to add difficulty options. Let players choose whether the tie goes to the hero or villain, instead of having it automatically go to the villain. It will still be challenging, but it’ll be accessible for new players (especially younger ones, as this game claims to be for ages 12 and up). The second is to fix solo play by having players bring one or two NPC hero “companions” that can do special attacks and share in the damage. I’m sure there will be some players who’ll want to keep using the more difficult play options, and that’s fine. The key is to have a variety. If your game is only accessible for a few, then you’re going to lose out on a lot of people who equally deserve to play.

The Umbrella Academy Game is gorgeous and it has potential, but there are a lot of quirks these superheroes need to work out before they’re ready to hit the streets and fight crime. Otherwise, you’re going to see a lot of folks falling flat on their faces. The Umbrella Academy Game will be on Kickstarter through September 6.