How Marvel Comics Became ’90s Tabletop Action

Marvel Heroes Clashed With Shi, Witchblade and The Indie Comic Heroes of the 1990s is the tabletop role-playing game based on the BattleBooks comics.

For decades, comic book fans have argued over which of their favorite characters could fight. Over the years, the battles between the heroes of Marvel and other comic book publishers have taken many forms in things like video games, board games, card games and, for a brief time in the 90s a tabletop fight comic series called Battle books.

In 1998, Billy Tucci, the comic book creator behind the ’90s indie comedy hit Shi, created Battle books, a game that allowed comic book fans to engage in passionate battles between their favorite characters through specially crafted comics.

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While the use of comics instead of more traditional role-playing material was a new choice, it was not without precedent. In 1980, Alfred Leonardi created Ace of Aces, a game where two players took on the role of an ace combat pilot. Each player had their own book full of different attack and movement options. Players would pick their action for their turn, tell their stories, then consult their books to see what the results would be. In 1983, Alfred Leonardi joined forces with James Rosinus to develop his Ace of Aces gameplay and create Lost worlds, a series of high fantasy action-centric fight books. Playable characters ranged from human knights and dwarf warriors to skeletons and goblins.

Billy Tucci and Brian David-Marshall were so impressed with Alfred Leonardi Ace of Aces that they contacted him and got permission to create Battle books. Different characters have been involved with Marvel and various independent comic book publishers. Marvel was well represented with characters like Iron Man, Wolverine, Dr. Doom, and a number of different X-Men. Characters like Witchblade, Darkchylde, Vampirella, and Billy Tucci’s own character Shi were also included which brought great variety to the game.

A standard set of Battle books involves two players each choosing which character they want to play in and their corresponding battle book and maneuver card. The players exchange Battle books; it is to represent what the chosen characters see during the battle. Each player chooses an action from their maneuver card and turns to the appropriate panel in their battle book. In doing so, each player then turns to the appropriate page indicated by the information provided by their battle matrix and reads the result of their action. By performing successful maneuvers, players can reduce their opponent’s body points to 0 and thus win the game. In a sense, Battle books are like a mixture of rock, paper, scissors and a book Choose your own adventure. Results are never guaranteed, and since the difficulty of the game is largely based on the luck of the outcome of your maneuver, there is therefore a balanced fairness between the characters.

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Despite the large number of characters introduced in the game, Battle books didn’t last very long. Unlike card games like Magic of the Gathering and Pokémon or collectible figurine games like HeroClix, Battle books lacked basic gameplay that offered a deep sense of strategy or customization.

Battle books was a new idea and a big expansion on the Lost worlds game books, but they’ve been largely lost in time following other superhero showdowns like Capcom’s Marvel Vs. Capcom and Injustice series from NetherRealm Studios, plus card games like Vs. System and DC Comic’s Deck-Building Game, the simplicity of Battle books has grown over the years. That’s not to say that the Lost Worlds game design should be forgotten. Jill Leonardi, daughter of Alfred Leonardi, helped design new character matrices for Queen’s Blade spinoff books published by Hobby Japan and also created Firelight Game Company in 2012 to release brand new material.

While some of the design elements of Battle books live in the other descendants of Lost Worlds, has not been seen since its initial release in the late ’90s, but Battle books still rank among the strangest comics featuring Marvel characters ever released.

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About Johanna Gooding

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