Welcome back dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now elsewhere in this site there is a whole section devoted to the infamous Horror Top Trumps games, however they weren't the only cultish decks of cards available. And today we're going to have a look at another must-have pack!
Now in case you don't know, Top Trumps is an enduringly popular species of card game, and the basics are as follows. Every deck has a theme, such as cars, tanks, animals, and each card features an particular item complete with a picture, sometimes a bit of text, but always with a list of statistics. To play the game, players pick one of these stats from the top card in their hand and compares it with the other players' card. Whoever has the highest or best stat wins that round, with the winner collecting the vanquished cards and adding them to his hand. The game ends when one player has got all the cards (or some one has a massive strop). It's a very easy game to learn, quick to play, and the game has been adapted to many themes over the years, ensuring that no matter what floats your boat, at some point there's been a Top Trumps deck to suit your interests. And yes, there have even been naughty decks "adults only " produced over the years! And we have a more detailed history of this game here.
However while the leading brand and game generally goes under the name of Top Trumps, thanks to the way the game evolved - namely being spawned by earlier card games such as Quartets and Ace Trumps (a history which is explained here) - no one company or individual own the copyright. Hence many different companies have produced Top Trumps-a-like games. In fact, even in 1977, the year Dubrec launched Top Trumps in the UK, within months rival companies had started producing their own Trumps-a-like games. And as it happens, one of the coolest decks to own back in the first flowering of Top Trumps mania, and one of the most fondly remembered, wasn't an official Top Trumps deck.
But to set the scene, we first have to step out of the toy shop, carefully step over that hazardous pile of white dog poo, and pop in the newsagent next door. Just as in America, Britain had a flourishing comics industry entertaining the nation's kids, and just as the market in the US was dominated by two titans, Marvel and DC, weirdly enough, there was the same state of affairs in the UK, with another DC - DC Thomson, publishers of venerable heavyweight titles such as The Dandy and The Beano, fighting it out with arch rivals IPC for dominance of the British comics market. However in 1972, the titanic twosome's fortunes were threatened by the sense-shattering arrival of a bold new outfit. Can you guess who that was true believers?
Now American comic books had been finding their way to this septic isle for many decades beforehand. Famously in the war-years, US comic books were packed into the crates as padding. However thanks to the vagaries of shipping and having no proper national distribution network, while you could find copies of US comics featuring the likes of Batman and Spider-man in UK shops, it was somewhat a haphazard affair, and the mighty superheroes of Marvel and DC were better known through reprints by UK publishers such as Odhams Press or Alan Class Comics. However these reprint deals had petered out at the end of the 1960s, and hence in the early 1970s, Stan Lee decided it was high time to bring Marvel back to British shores.
He realised that aside from the expense of shipping comic books to the UK, and lacking a proper means of distribution in Blighty, there was another tricky problem. And that was that UK comics were very different to their US cousins. Rather than been published monthly, British comics appeared weekly. They were twice the size, and rather than featuring the adventures of one character each issue, British comics were anthologies running several strips in every week. With characteristic insight, Stan realised that for Marvel to break the British market, they needed to radically rethink their comics. Like the Skrulls they would have to shapeshift to infiltrate the UK comics scene. And so, Marvel UK was born, an outfit based in that London, but taking orders from the Big Apple, with a remit to publish classic tales from the House of Ideas, but in a format that blended in with the home-grown British titles. Hence in early 1972, a new weekly comic appeared in newsagents up and down the land, The Mighty World of Marvel, which served up adventures featuring The Hulk, Spider-man and The Fantastic Four.
It was soon joined by Spider-man Comics Weekly later in 1972, with more titles being added to the roster over the next few years. Pete Parker got a second title all to himself, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Superheroes featured tales of the X-Men and the Silver Surfer while The Titans brough British kids the adventures of Captain America, the Sub-mariner, Captain Marvel and the Inhumans. Outside the land of the spandex brigade, Marvel UK also thrilled kids with a Planet of the Apes tie-in comic and more exciting still, delivered spooky action with Dracula Lives that featured a selection from theer horror lines. In 1975 a young chap called Neil Tennant was put in charge - yes, the same Neil Tennant who is now half of the Pet Shop Boys - and his two year reign saw Marvel UK begin to produce their own UK-grown material for the Marvel Universe with the debut of Captain Britain in 1976.
So then by 1977, the year Top Trumps was released, nay, unleashed upon the nation's kiddiewinks, Marvel UK had a thriving stable of titles and were giving IPC and DC Thomson a run for their money. Plus they had given Britain its very own Marvel superhero to boot! No more were Marvel comics an exotic import, and now had well and truly become a part of British pop culture. Now the initial decks in the Top Trumps range were very much vehicle obsessed, with packs themed around cars, motorbikes, tanks and planes. However some bright spark in a rival company had the smart idea of producing a game that might appeal to something other than the petrolhead market...
So then, as the two hot crazes gripping the playgrounds of the UK were Top Trumps cards and Marvel comics, it was perhaps inevitable that these two titans would not only meet, but be fused together by colossal cosmic forces in a Stan Lee style plot twist! However, that never actually quite happened. For back then Top Trumps were still mainly concentrating on vehicles and military hardware, and it would be many years before the brand began to produce packs that were tie-ins to fictional properties such as movies, TV shows or comics. So back in the early 1970s, they were clearly missing a trick here. But in the shadows, other eyes were looking to seal a canny and timely toy licensing deal.
Those eyes, presumably glowing with the uncanny light of comic-book radiation, or at least the prospect of big money to be made, belonged to Jotastar, a toy maker who would produce a great many tie-in toys for a variety of different kid-friendly properties, from the Mister Men and Hollie Hobby to The Real Ghostbusters and M.A.S.K. Now when it comes to games, rules mechanics are very hard to copyright, mainly because so many share commons ones i.e. roll a die and move that number of spaces, or play a card on your turn etc. Now in the case of Top Trumps, things were even murkier, as that game itself had evolved from earlier card games such as Quartets. Hence you could, quite legitimately, produce a game with identical rules, and provided the magic words "Top Trumps" never appeared in the instructions, packaging or marketing, there was very little to stop you.
Now while cars and motorbikes undoubtedly had an appeal for kids, Jotastar couldn't help but notice that superhero comics were greatly outselling motoring magazines down the newsagents. And so, in 1977, the Marvel Superheroes Card Game was launched, and news soon spread that there was now a Marvel Top Trumps set. Of course, the words "Top Trumps" did not appear anywhere in the rules or marketing, but the rules of hte game were identical. Indeed kids everywhere instantly knew who to play this game - the rules included in the box could have been written in ancient runes of Latvaria and the game would still have sold shed-loads.
The pack itself consisted of forty cards, two a card detailing the rules and another listing all the character in the deck. The pack was divided into two halves, twenty heroes, and twenty villains -
SUPER-HEROES Black Bolt Captain America Captain Britain Daredevil Ghost Rider Goliath Invisible Girl Iron Man Mr Fantastic Spider-Man The Black Panther The Hulk The Human Torch The Mighty Thor The Silver Surfer The Sub-Mariner The Thing The Vision The Wasp
VILLAINS Absorbing Man Dr Doom Dr Octopus Dr Strange Galactus Hammerhead Loki Mephisto Morbius Tarantula The Abomination The Dread Dormammu The Green Goblin The Gremlin The Grizzly The Human Top The Jackal The Red Skull The Rhino The Vulture Tiger Shark
The rules of the game suggest dividing the pack into heroes and villains and for two players to have at it. An alternative is also suggested under the banner of GAME TWO - basically a brief couple of lines saying just shuffle the pack and divide it among the players and use the rules for GAME ONE. However of course many kids came up with their own variant, such as pitting a small team of heroes, like for example all the Fantastic Four and seeing how they fared against an army of villains, or if they could take down their fellow heroes.
Indeed using the stats given on these cards - Physical Strength, Special Powers and Weapons - many a geek argument was settled. And fact-fans, in case you wondering how Civil War would play out in this deck, well it was no contest really - with Iron Man out-gunning Cap in all categories: Physical Strength - 8 vs 7, Special Powers - 5 vs 3, and Weapons 6 vs 5. Yep, Shell-Head wins every time! Now you may argue that these stats were just pulled from the air by some desk jockey at Jotastar, but these cards were OFFICIAL Marvel merch right? They even advertised in the pages of Marvel's flagship comics in the UK, The Mighty World of Marvel as seen below (which even cheekily included the word "Trump" just to ensure everyone knew what they were getting). And what's more you could even send off from a pack from the advert too in case your local toy emporium didn't stock it.
And hence as they were not only advertised but sold in the pages of Marvel UK comics, this game felt like pretty definitive. Indeed even the rules sound like Stan the Man himself, complete with unnecessary capitals - "a game for challenge for two players in which those Mighty Marvel Super Heroes battle the most awesome array of Vicious Villains ever assembled!". Of course now we may question the actual selection of characters - Grizzly and the Gremlin but no X-persons - but it is a fascinating snapshot of the Marvel Universe as it was back then, an era before the likes of Wolverine, the Punisher and Venom became mega-favourites with the fans.
Back in the 1970s however, in an age before Wikipedia, and lavish coffee-table books on comics lore and history, this card game was more than just a fun pastime - it was a secret encyclopaedia of the Marvel universe. Remember that cheesy old song about how a soldier gets out of trouble for having a deck of cards by spinning an elaborate explanation of how the cards all remind him of something in the Bible? Well, that was close to how we felt about the Marvel Super Heroes Card Game, except we really sincere (unlike that soldier in the song who I suspect if he were a Top Trumps card would have stats such as BARE-FACED CHEEK 8 and BULLSHITTING SUPERIORS 9). And this was even more true I think for UK kids, who had only recently discovered this universe thanks to Marvel UK opening as few years earlier. Of course, even back then we knew there omissions - what no Nick Fury or Man-Thing? However this was a close to a guide book to the comics as you were going to get back in the mid-'70s. And hence that what it was to many of us - an encyclopedia with shufflable pages!
Interesting around the same time, Jotastar would produce a very similar Doctor Who themed deck. But that's a story for another day...