A deep dive into the design of two of the most prominent fighting games on the market today, from mechanisms to maps and beyond.
I think there's a certain appeal to fighting games, not only for their direct goals (if you beat that guy(s), you win) but also for the restoration of many childhood dream scenarios, whether it be Superman vs Mighty Mouse or King Kong vs Godzilla. The two largest comic publishers, Marvel and DC, carried that scenario as their stock-in-trade in the first place, but also spent the 1970s recreating that imagery with crossovers ranging from Superman vs Spider-Man to Batman vs The Hulk. There have been many releases in that genre of the board game world over the past couple decades, from Godzilla: Tokyo Clash to Epic Duels to Dice Throne, and many precursors in the form of games like Titan, which pitted creatures of mythology against each other, and Wiz-War, which was about personal combat between wizards (and which inspired games like Magic: The Gathering.) So, the term "fighting games" encompasses a variety of approaches, completely distinct from the absurdly broad use of the label on Boardgamegeek (Newsflash: Spirit Island is not a "fighting" game.) But I'd like to talk in more depth about two very different approaches by two of the most prominent (actual) fighting game systems in the board game world at the moment: Funkoverse and Unmatched.
At their respective roots, they're not that different. They're both about clashes between characters of note, whether largely legendary in the form of Unmatched or exclusively IP-oriented in the form of Funkoverse. But there are crucial differences in form and substance that make them quite disparate experiences on the table. Among those are the contrasts in basic mechanism (card-driven vs dice-driven), setting (map design), and overall visual design. But perhaps the most important aspect is in the approach to replayability. After all, if you play Batman vs Hulk a dozen times, you're soon going to find yourself doing the same thing, over and over. That presents the obvious question that is inherent to every game that isn't an abstract: Does it tell a story? One side of our duel confronted that question head-on. The other, not so much. But we'll get there. This is just the first round.
First off, let's talk about what was the initially obvious difference: legendary (aka public domain) characters vs stuff you have to get licenses for. The foundation of Funko's business is their Funko Pop line of figurines which are drawn from every possible TV show, movie, and comic that you can think of; not to mention athletes, actors, and other public figures. So it's perfectly natural that they would try to translate that collection of licenses right into a game that is played with figures that are really just smaller versions of their Pops. In that way, you can play a fighting game with everyone from Blanche DuBois of The Golden Girls to the shark from Jaws to Rick Sanchez to the Kool-Aid Man. (I'm, uh, still waiting for my Thundarr the Barbarian set, people. [Taps foot impatiently.]) When Restoration Games began Unmatched in 2019, it seemed intent to run with exclusively public domain characters of legend, like King Arthur and Medusa. Their one deviation at first was to include Bruce Lee. But they soon moved into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as a string of Marvel releases, so for now it seems like more of a direct comparison between two licensing companies (They even share a couple in Jurassic Park and Marvel), even while Restoration is continuing in the vein of public domain-type characters with the upcoming Sun's Origin (Oda Nobunaga and Tomoe Gozen.) So, they're both doing the cinematic (and childhood dream thing) of pitting well-known characters against each other, most of whom tend to be superheroes of one form or another, even if those in Unmatched are often retro-cool (Bigfoot), while those of Funkoverse are often very modern (Aggretsuko.)
But the other starkly obvious difference is that of essential mechanism. Unmatched is a card-driven game, largely based on the old Epic Duels system, wherein all of the action comes from your hand of cards and how you utilize it, while Funkoverse is a dice-driven game, where the action is often decided by a handful of the chaos cubes. They both contain variability, in that your success in Unmatched is often dependent on your draw (this is true for hand-management characters like Bloody Mary, as well as discard management characters like Sinbad and Little Red), while success in Funkoverse is rooted in taking chances with the dice. (I will refrain from going into my regular rant about people who dislike dice games not understanding that the whole point of them is to try to bend the odds in your favor so that a single roll doesn't wreck your game./rantcondensed.) It's just as easy to get the same level of frustration with your draw (ask any MTG player) as it is when the dice don't fall your way. The difference between the two games lies in the question of information.
In Funkoverse, all information is open. All players can see everyone's abilities, their available tokens, and the state of the map. In Unmatched, you're operating with hidden information, since you don't know what your opponent has in hand until they reveal it to you (or you have one of those cool Schemes that lets you look at their hand.) Thus, solid play relies on not only knowing how your character functions, but in knowing how their character functions and what responses they might have to your plays; the most notorious one being Feint, since it eliminates all the cool stuff you were hoping to do with your big attack. This is an example of predictive and counter-predictive play, in that you have to weigh the odds of them having a Feint in hand before you decide to unleash that big attack. That sometimes involves knowing how many Feints that character has in their particular deck, which is asking more of most casual players than they'd be willing or able to give. This is in addition to the fact that having that cool attack spoiled by a single card can be every bit as frustrating as failing to hit that important roll. Of course, sometimes your big attack is just a big attack and Feint doesn't reduce much damage, so there's less risk in just going in and punching them in the face really hard. In contrast, there is nothing to play around in Funkoverse except what you see right in front of you. If you can see that your opponent has no red tokens available, there's often less risk in getting close to them, since they'll be less likely to knock you down and/or out. But the best way to ensure that your efforts are successful is in figuring out ways for your characters to work together in order to accomplish that (i.e. don't just depend on the dice to go your way.) That aspect kind of highlights a major angle of replayability that Funkoverse has over its rival, too.
Funkoverse is meant to be played in teams; sometimes of two characters, but most often of three. In that respect, the fact that you have completely open information and fewer abilities than the average Unmatched deck is ameliorated by the fact that your characters' different abilities will mesh with each other in different ways every time you select a team. Even further, they'll function differently based on the scenario you choose to play, as well, which we'll get to later. One of the tactical achievements of Unmatched is becoming so familiar with the characters that you know how to play yours well and predict what the other hero will do in any given situation. That can lead to better games, but it can also lead to repetition. How many times can you play Dracula vs Beowulf before your actions start to feel rote? In contrast, your combination of Albus Dumbledore, Black Panther, and Darkwing Duck will not only function differently than the opposing team of Batgirl, T. Rex, and Quint, but they'll all function somewhat differently in different scenarios and on different maps. That variety is part of what gives Funkoverse its appeal and its energy. That's not to say that Unmatched lacks appeal, since it obviously has it. But there's no debating that Daredevil will always play like Daredevil and Achilles will always play like Achilles, regardless of map. Sometimes that familiarity is a good thing. I've said before that I'll always play another game with Bloody Mary because I enjoy her style of play, but it does mean that variety of play and, thus, the notorious "replayability" (latest buzzword of the board game world) is more limited in Unmatched.
Something else that's occurred to me in that respect is that the multi-character advantage that Funkoverse has, wherein you can always try to succeed with another character if you haven't with the first one (or two), seems to permeate Umatched, as well, in that the characters with Sidekicks are almost always demonstrably (or at least widely believed to be) superior to those without. The best character in Cobble and Fog? Sherlock Holmes. The weakest? Jekyll and Hyde. The best character in Legends, vol. 2? Probably Sun Wukong. The weakest? Probably Bloody Mary. As movement is usually the key element of most combat games, being able to move more than one figure/pawn in that action will almost always be superior to moving only one, even if moving that Sidekick is only a way to block your opponent from going where they want to. Funkoverse has this covered, not only with teams of characters, but with Companions, as well. That "teams" aspect extends to players. Despite Restoration's assertions, it's evident that Unmatched was designed to be a 1v1 game and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. They claim that Neuroshima Hex can be played in teams, too, but no one ever does and it's one of the best games in its class. But Funkoverse is described at the outset as being a genuinely team game, with two players per side controlling their group of characters. It doesn't have to be, of course, but that option is more readily available, on top of being a game that already employs a team of characters who can support each other. That said, Funko's decision to market a game of teams of 3 and then to only sell the sets in boxes of 4 and 2 is an occasionally frustrating bit of financial legerdemain that keeps people spending on more sets, when each is ostensibly marketed as being an independent game unto itself. The counterpoint being, you certainly can play 1v1 in Funkoverse, as some scenarios like Croquette (which came with the 2-character set of Alice and The Red Queen) work quite well in that fashion. But most of the maps make it quite unwieldy.
Map design is one of the other prominent topics of this comparison. That comparison is also rather obvious. Just like its commitment to open information, Funkoverse's maps are wide-open affairs that enable movement in all directions and in a variety of ways (just like Epic Duels, incidentally.) They're also often extraordinarily eye-catching. You can tell in an instant that you're playing at Blips and Chitz or Halloweentown or the Gryffindor Common Room. Everything about the setting of the game screams immersion. What makes them different from game to game is not only which scenario (there's that word again) being played, but also the different obstructions that may be present, which means this game of Flags in Courthouse Square will be somewhat different from that game of Flags at Catwoman's Penthouse, completely aside from characters in play. But, again, the defining characteristic is openness. In contrast, Unmatched's maps, using the old Tannhauser colored circle approach, function more as a constraint, in that movement is tightly limited to two directions per space and the overall function of movement is also binary: either toward or away from your opponent. In that respect, the maps in Unmatched are just this side of superfluous, since the constraint they apply could be defined on an undecorated grid.
Now, don't take the idea of constraint as resoundingly negative. That concept can be really useful in game design. The literature on constraint plays in American football is considerable because they're intended to counter your opponent's counter of your usual approach. This is in lockstep with the predictive/counter-predictive aspect of the card play in Unmatched, so it's no surprise that the maps, intentionally or not, seem to serve the same purpose. But, as before, the amount of constraint on movement that most of the maps create is also a recipe for repetition, in that the obvious path to take (towards or away) will often be the road most traveled to no difference at all. One great inclusion to Restoration's map design is that Tannhauser system for ranged attacks, which is something rarely seen in games like these and is as quick and relatively intuitive as counting spaces like you would in Funkoverse, but definitely more creative. (It also utterly removes line-of-sight arguments from the table, which is a good thing.) But the real downside is the visual design as a whole. As noted before, when you're playing in the Isla Nublar Lab, you can tell at first glance. If you're playing in the Hanging Gardens in Unmatched, you'd only be able to tell if you read the label on the map (in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!) The large circles completely blotting out the artwork underneath them makes them just a step above the aforementioned undecorated grid when it comes to catching the eye. Combine this with the uniformly gray characters and colored discs striding/sliding across them and you can see where art design is also a tremendous contrast.
Games that look cool on the table are usually going to be more fun to play for the same reason that it's much more fun to have a bunch of Space Marines and Tyranids on the table than it is to have pennies vs buttons. Eric Lang stated that one of the central approaches he had in mind for his mythic trilogy (Blood Rage, Rising Sun, Ankh) was to create something that looked cool on the table. It's fun to move those cool figures around and it attracts others to the table that also might want to join in that fun. Funkoverse embodies this idea. It can't be surprising that a game based on a line of figures whose sole purpose is to stand there and look cool might have visual design front and center. As noted, when you're playing on the Helicarrier Bridge, you know it right away. When it's Oogie Boogie and the Night King and Hermione Granger striding across said bridge, you know that right away, too. Everything about the game is intended to be eye-catching and memory-creating. That's just fun. It's further enhanced by the presence of famous Items from the various IPs, so that the Batarang is visible in someone's hand right alongside the Portal Gun and the Pink Flamingo Mallet. Those items also add to those variability and replayability angles I was talking about earlier, since the results you get from Captain Hook wielding Needle from Game of Thrones is going to be different than Arya wielding the Raptor Claw.
In contrast, the uniformly gray figures of Unmatched on the collection of circles that make up the maps simply can't compete. That's not to say that the figures are poor. All of them are good and some of them are outright fantastic. A good chunk of the fun of playing Bloody Mary (can you tell she's my favorite?) is moving around the skeletal woman bursting forth from the mirror (on both sides(!)) Going the 28mm route and using a simple ink wash to draw out the often considerable detail of Unmatched's figures is a great, cost-effective way to approach the game. It also leaves them open to be painted by those who like to do so. Having played all of GW's games for well over a decade, I used to be one of those people and understand that creative drive. But it's also a case of function over form, almost to the game's detriment. It's even more stark when applied to the usually brightly-colored figures of Marvel characters. When you think of Daredevil, do you think deep crimson or flat gray? Same with the bright white of Dagger. Black Widow running around the March Hare's Tea Party is eye-catching. Gray figures sliding around what looks like a cricket pitch on drugs isn't as much. Now, there's certainly room to argue that Funko's approach can border on the garish. There are people who aren't attracted to the bright colors and bulbous heads of the game. Those same people could be more interested in the subtle approach of Unmatched's figures. That's perfectly understandable. On the other hand, I can't say I've found anyone that really has taken a shine to the maps because they're the clearest example of function over form, but there it is. But, again, playing with cool-looking stuff is usually a draw to playing something repeatedly. What's even more of a draw in that respect is playing a very different game with the same rules and figures and that's where the scenarios come in.
Unmatched has only one goal: beat the other hero down. And that's perfectly fine for a fighting game. That is, in the end, the goal of most of them. The point of King Kong vs Godzilla was for one to beat the other one. But even that story and others like it (say, for example, the immortal Aliens vs Predator series by Dark Horse; not the crappy films) had stories that went beyond just the two big guys (or species) slugging it out. If the whole story is Kong and Godzilla beating each other to a pulp, your film lasts five minutes or your comic series one issue (if that.) But no one ever played Street Fighter to look at the pretty backgrounds, either. They played to get E. Honda's Hundred Hand Slap to go off and wreck their opponent. But once you get the Slap down, what else is there? In the same way that Unmatched's map constraint means that there are only two types of movement (towards and away), there really isn't much more to the game than beating on your opponent. The difference in Funkoverse is the scenarios. Those scenarios create narrative context for your games. If you're playing Territory or Runners or Control or Infiltrate, you're playing a different game with that first mix of characters or a hundred different ones. If you're playing Yennenga vs Invisible Man at 221B, well, it's another game of Yennenga vs Invisible Man. Now, that question of familiarity that I mentioned before is also a point of attraction to many gamers. Playing the same character until you're intimately familiar with them is a kind of play that many find extremely enjoyable. It's like playing a Magic deck a couple hundred times. You become accustomed to the pattern of play and you're good at it, so it's fun to play again. But the inherent variability (and complexity) of Magic is also a selling point and even when you're playing your favorite deck, the opponents will often be playing different decks which, of course, creates a different game. The last time you played with your team of Iron Man, Jack Skellington, and Dr. Ellie Satler, you played Scrimmage. But this time you're playing Red Light, Green Light and it's a whole new world (almost literally.) Those different scenarios tell different stories. It's not just the five-minute film of one person beating on another. It's a story of beating on a bunch of people while one makes it to the enemy's flag and back or holds an area for longer or puts a basketball through a hoop even while being repeatedly and very intentionally fouled (and no whistle!) Again, that variety- and those stories -are a serious point in Funkoverse's favor.
Now, most of this piece would give you the impression that I'm trashing Unmatched. I'm absolutely not. I enjoy the game and own many of its sets. I'm perfectly comfortable owning it alongside Funkoverse (in fact, they're sitting right next to each other on the shelf. Almost like they're prepared to challenge each other...) But when it comes to the broad comparison, I can't help but look at all of the things that Funkoverse simply does better, from map design to variety of play to simply being cool to look at. I think the strongest argument that Unmatched presents is the depth of its card play, in contrast to the generally simple approach of Funkoverse's dice. But when you combine all of the varying abilities of your team of three, plus the different ways to score points in those different scenarios, and being able to have Tinkerbell pick up your knocked down Jun-Ho, and... There's just too much there to ignore. I will still play both and I am earnestly looking forward to trying new characters in both systems but, in the end, the one that will probably last longer in the fight for game time is the bighead people. I think it's a TKO.