Last time we learned how in the mid '70s, there were two hot crazes gripping the playgrounds of the UK - Top Trumps cards and Marvel comics. And 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! Well, that was almost the case... For back then Top Trumps were still mainly concentrating on vehicles and military hardware and it would be several years before the brand began to produce packs that were tie-ins to fictional properties such as movies, TV shows or comics. Clearly they were 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. Of course, that last two words in that sentence very carefully did not appear anywhere in the rulesor marketing, but kids everywhere instantly knew who to play this game - indeed the rules included 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 -
The Black Panther
The Human Torch
The Mighty Thor
The Silver Surfer
The Dread Dormammu
The Green Goblin
The Human Top
The Red Skull
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...