Review: Puzzle Strike – Asymmetric Deck Building
Puzzle Strike has gone through a few upgrade processes: a second edition, an upgrade pack, and now a third edition. Each one has improved upon the model until it is now at its pinnacle of balance and multi-player capability. At least according to designer David Sirlin, who has expressed his satisfaction with this final version. So how does this Third Edition play? One word: awesomely.
The Basics. Puzzle Strike is a deck builder, based on a tetris-style game, based on a fighting game. Of course, the fighting and tetris games don’t exist (at least not with these characters), so Puzzle Strike is a property all it’s own. For anyone experienced with Dominion, Puzzle Strike will have some familiarity, but all of the cards have been replaced by poker chips.
Each turn, the players “ante”, which means they place a single gem into their gem pile. If the gem pile is ever at ten or more at the end of their turn, they lose. The goal is to get gems out of your gem pile and into the gem pile of your opponents. After the ante, the player gets a single action to play a chip from their hand. After their action, they must buy one chip from the bank. Then the player discards any remaining chips and redraws a new hand. Like Dominion, there is a bank of ten chips that can be purchased and added to the player’s deck. The game comes with twenty-four, so there is a wonderful variety.
The main portions of the game are the Combine and Crash gems. Combines allow you to take two gems in your gem pile and mash them together, so two ones become a two, or a two and a one become a three, and so on. From there, you can then Crash a gem at your opponent. You send the gem to your opponent and it goes into his gem pile. In fact, if you crashed something larger than a one, it breaks into that many one gems first and then flies over there. Of course, your opponent can Counter-Crash or may have other tricks as well.
The main thing that distinguishes Puzzle Strike is the inclusion of character chips. Since it is based on a fighting game, each player starts with three unique character chips, representing special abilities that only you have. This makes every game highly asymmetric from the get go. In fact, different characters often have different strengths, which can help you to tailor your play and make the most of their abilities.
The game also comes with a multi-player mode. In multi-player, you can attack or crash gems to any opponent, but when even one player has ten gems, they lose and the game is over. At that point, whoever has the fewest gems in their gem pile is the winner.
The Feel. After having played numerous games with the physical chips and online, I can unequivocally say that Puzzle Strike is the best two player deck builder currently available. The two player experience is absolutely wonderful. First off, the inclusion of character chips is phenomenal. I’m a big fan of asymmetric play as long as it’s balanced, and Puzzle Strike achieves this perfectly. Though you only have three character chips, they are often key in achieving your strategy – especially early game when you only have ten or so chips total.
Additionally, like many deck builders, the bank gives rise to a whole host of potential strategies. Different chips combine well together and some are especially synergistic with your character chips. Plus, although there are many variations and approaches, Puzzle Strike strategies generally fall into three very broad categories. Rushdown, where the goal is to put your opponent over the gem limit before he can effectively respond. Economy, where the goal is to build up a base of chips and then destroy your opponent with massive combos. And Defense, where your goal is to survive any early onslaught and then retaliate quickly.
The game is highly interactive. Not only are you throwing gems at your opponents, but there are additional attack chips and defense chips. Plus counter-crashes where an opponent can crash back at an opponent that just crashed at him. Your play will be equally defined by your own strategy as well as a reaction to your opponent’s tactics.
Additionally, unlike many deck builders, you are forced to buy a chip each turn. If you don’t have any money, then you have to buy a Wound. Wounds cost zero, but they are worthless. All they do is clog up your deck. This is an interesting twist, since your deck will continue to bloat as the game goes on. Now, some puzzle and character chips allow you to trash items, but they are fairly rare. While being able to trash is always a good thing (a lean deck is a mean deck), not being able to trash layers on a new consideration. Bloating your deck isn’t so bad if you keep the ratios right. Of course, games tend to end before draw stacks get too wild (a typical ending stack is between thirty and thirty five chips), but it’s a new way to approach deck building.
If I had to pick a nit, I’d focus in on two items. First, there are no randomzier chips or cards. You either have to build a bank purposefully, or figure out some randomizer method yourself. It’s not such a burden to place one of each puzzle chip upside down and select ten, but a special deck of randomizers (cards or chips) would have been nice.
Second, although the multi-player version is fun, and is a great way to include more people, it loses something from the two player game. A single weaker or inexperienced player can throw off the game entirely. But, more importantly, the two player game feels like an epic contest of wills. The multi-player version feels more opportunistic. One example: with the game ending as soon as one player hits ten gems, a serious Rush Down strategy has been more risky in my plays. On at least two occasions, a player got to nine or ten gems largely sent form one player, and then another player threw just a few gems at the rushdown character causing him to lose. It’s not necessarily bad, just different.
Components: 5 of 5. The pieces for this game are unbelievable. I love the poker chips. Not only are they easier to shuffle, but the tactile feel of them is fantastic and they are great to fiddle with between turns. Plus, unlike cards, there is no need to sleeve and no worry that inconsiderate players will bend them. But, more than just the chips, the game comes with player mats, draw bags, and even screens for hiding your drawn chips. Even better, everything fits into a custom chip holder. I could not be more pleased with the presentation.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Even though it’s a deck builder, and some draws will be better than others, the game is highly strategic. Especially in the two player version, the game nearly always comes down to the player who had the better plan and implemented it more successfully. Players should take a moment at the beginning to look at their character and bank chips and get an early idea of how to move forward. Sometimes my plan is to go economy and build up to a massive combo. But if the other player sees it and tries to rush me down, I may have to take a detour. One of my favorites is to take attack chips that give wounds and start bloating my opponents deck. There, try to rush me down when all you draw is wounds!
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Puzzle Strike didn’t invent deck building. However, it does a marvelous job of taking that genre and making it asymmetric, highly interactive, combative, and strategic. Even a question such as whether to counter-crash can be tense. If you do, you won’t be able to build and crash that gem later, and you’ll lose the money. But it may be better than accepting all of your opponents gems without a fight.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. Like most deck builders, replayability is nearly limitless. Change out the chip bank and you have an entirely different experience. Heck, keep it the same and just switch out the characters and your experience will be wildly different. Replay value is incredibly high. The half point loss here is merely for the annoyance of no randomzier chips but, like I said, that’s just a nitpick.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. As a two player game, spite is relatively low. Most of what you do, even if it is sending wounds to your opponent, is directly helping you. Still, going on an offensive with attack chips can feel meaner than simply a gem rushdown. In a multi-player game, this is slightly more pronounced.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Actually, I’d give the two player experience a 5 of 5. The game is fantastic. It’s a test of strategy with just the right amount of randomization. Players can utilize their character’s strengths and move forward in a way that maximizes their chosen method toward victory. It forces players to be proactive as well as reactive to their opponent’s moves. Puzzle Strike is phenomenal two player and pretty darn good with three or four. And, as the most balanced version with all of the goodies, you should definitely check this one out.
(A special thanks to Game Salute and Sirlin Games for providing a review copy of Puzzle Strike.)