What's Up My Sleeve?--A Double-Take Review of Custom Heroes


Last year publisher AEG brought us Mystic Vale, a deck-building game where you'd add powers to cards by sliding them into sleeves. It was a clever new take on the long-in-the-tooth deck-building genre. Well this Card-Crafting System is back in AEG's latest card game in their Big In Japan line: Custom Heroes. It's a ladder game where you're adding upgrades to cards to change them on the fly, in an attempt to get rid of your hand of cards. Is Custom Heroes as crafty as it sounds? Or is it just a fistful of cabbage? Let's find out!


The Components

  • 60 Character cards (six sets numbered 1-10)
  • 84 Card Advancements
  • 80 card sleeves
  • 76 VP tokens
  • 36 Power tokens
  • 6 player screens
  • 1 Card Advancement bag


The Setup

Before you play your first game, you'll need to sleeve the Character cards.  


Each player takes a player screen, and then takes 1 VP token, 2 Power tokens, and 1 random Card Advancement and places them behind their screens. Each player also gets one Ascended Form and one Kodora Card Advancement--with the rest of those cards going back in the box. All of the other Card Advancements go into the fancy bag so you can draw them without seeing what they are (those cards are see-through). Finally, create a deck by taking one complete set of Character cards (1-10) for each player in the game, and then shuffling those together to form one deck. 


The Cards

Though we usually don't do this, these cards take a bit of explaining. Each Character card has an image of the character, the name of the character, and a base value of 1-10. 


The Card Advancements are see-through cards with overlays on various parts of them that convey information--and change any card they're added to. For example, an Advancement might simply change the base value of the card by covering the old value. Or it might have a +1 and appear in the "bubbles" under the base value spot (see the image to see what I mean). It might have special text on the bottom that changes how the card is played. 

Each Character card has four spots on the bottom that represent Power Gem colors, and every Card Advancement has a Gem color associated with it. It sounds complicated, but all you need to know is that each Character card can only have 1 of each of the 4 gems, so a card can never have more than 4 Advancements attached to it. 

But they stack. So if a Character card has a base value of 10, but one Advancement that adds +3, and another that's -4, those all combine to make the value 9. 

Again, this sounds complicated, but in practice and gameplay, it's very easy and intuitive. 


The Gameplay

Custom Heroes is played over a series of hands. Each hand starts with an Upkeep phase, where you deal out the deck evenly among the players. 

Two very different Cyborgs...

Two very different Cyborgs...

In the Main phase, players take turns playing cards or passing. The first player plays a set of cards with the same value. This could be a single card, or numerous cards, as long as they all share that same value. For that round, every subsequent player must play that exact same number of cards, but of an equal or higher value. So if Player 1 plays three 2s, Player 2 must play exactly three cards with a value of 2 or higher, or pass. Players may pass, even if they have a legal play--and if you pass, you can still jump back in the round later. Players take turns either playing or passing, and once everyone has consecutively passed, the round is over and the last player to play cards wins the round. Clear the cards and that player leads the next round. (If the player who won is out of cards, the player to his or her left leads.) If a player plays cards with an equal value to the last cards, then the player to their left skips their next turn. 

Some Card Advancements cost Power tokens to activate the power on them. When you play a card or cards that include one of those Advancements, you choose at that moment to either pay the Power token and activate that power, or to not pay and just play the card. The value still holds, even if you don't pay to activate the special power. 


If you're the first player to go out, and you have 10 or more VPs at the moment you play your last card, you win the game! If you have fewer than 10 VPs, you score as detailed on a chart on the back of the player screens. It depends on the number of players, and which place you got in the hand, but you'll get some combination of VPs, Power tokens, and Card Advancements. 

If no one has won, you gather the cards, shuffle them up, and start a new hand. The player in last place leads the hand. Of course, through the course of the game, cards will gain Advancements, and those stay in the cards throughout the game, so a card that was great for you in this hand might be great for your opponent in the next one!


At the end of the 6th hand, if no one has won the game, there's a final championship hand. If the player who won the 6th hand has the most VPs (not tied), that person just wins! Otherwise, the person who won the 6th hand, and the person who does have the most points, face off in a 1-v-1 hand for all the marbles. (If multiple people are tied for first, they're included in that final hand.)


The Verdict

Jeremiah--Whatever you want to label Custom Heroes--ladder game, trick-taking game, whatever-- it comes out of the gate strong. There are a lot of REALLY meaty decisions to make, without a whole lot of analysis paralysis. And the learning curve is pretty speedy!

Firestone--Our group experienced a little analysis paralysis, because each round is a puzzle, and with numerous Advancements at your disposal, you're trying to figure out if you can turn that card into the number you need, using those Advancements. It wasn't bad at all, and seemed less present when I played with family. 

Jeremiah--The art design is intentionally stereotypical anime. And the way the card enhancements also enhance the artwork is clever, thematic, and fun! Be aware that a few of the female characters tip-toe the line of family-friendly appropriateness--there's some cleavage. Ultimately, the level of scantility (is that a word?) doesn't alter or affect the game play.

Firestone--Yeah, it's not bad, but as I was playing with my 13-year-old son, I did wonder what he was thinking. I didn't ask what he was thinking, because I didn't want to plant those thoughts in him. Even though they're already there because he's a 13-year-old boy. Whatever! Parenting is hard!

Jeremiah--Like Firestone mentioned in our review over on the TOG Podcast: This game is just begging for an expansion! Not that it isn't great on its own (because it is!), but it would/will be easy for them to drop packs of new enhancements quite regularly! 

Firestone--I don't want anyone to think this game is someone incomplete. It's not! It's just the sort of game where you immediately think about how an expansion could really open things up. 

As far as gameplay, it's great. I wasn't sure I liked the rule that if you match the previous value played that the next player loses a turn, but it turns out I think it's good. I also really like the addition of the championship hand rule. I could see this stalling out, and a simple rule that keeps that from potentially happening is a good thing. 

Firestone's Final Verdict--Custom Heroes is a neat ladder game with fun gameplay. I'm not going to bring out Tichu with my family, but this worked for them. And it works for my game group. It doesn't overstay its welcome, and I felt there were meaningful and interesting decisions. Thumbs up from me!

Jeremiah's Final Verdict--Ladder, trick-taker, whatever you want to call it: Custom Heroes hits on every level. Kids game, family game, gamer game. I've played it with everyone! It. Just. Works! Lots of fun, SUPER high replayability, and a great learning curve all have earned Custom Heroes a spot on my shelf! Highly recommended! 

Theology of Games would like to thank AEG for providing review copies of Custom Heroes. This in no away affected our opinions of the game. 

Thanks for reading! 


You can listen to Jeremiah’s Driveby Review on That’s How I Roll right here!  http://www.theologyofgames.com/roll/2017/9/8/episode-52-gen-con-pt-2-custom-heroes

or you can listen to our audio Double-Take Review on the Theology of Games podcast right here!