What: Puzzle Strike: Bag of Chips (3rd Edition)
Who: Sirlin Games
Board games are an interesting thing. At their core, they're all abstractions at some level. Tiny cubes may represent an army. Cards may represent resources or events. Some games are pure abstraction, where you play within a frame of rules and ideas that represent only themselves. Visit any game shop though, and you'll find that the vast majority of games aren't so abstract, and have a theme of some sort or another.
While a good theme is no substitute for gameplay, how well a theme is executed can make or break a game, especially when your chosen topic is one with a hardcore, dedicated fanbase. You can have the best game mechanics in the world, and if you fail thematically, you can crash and burn. A truly great game will carefully balance solid game mechanics with a well-realized theme to create an experience that is hard to forget.
Sirlin Games' Puzzle Strike: 3rd Edition tries to marry the deck-building mechanics of Dominion with the charm and frantic action of Puzzle Fighter, itself an odd combination of falling-gem puzzlers and the classic head-to-head combat of arcade classics like Street Fighter and Darkstalkers.
Did they succeed, or is this one board game brawl that falls flat? Hit the jump to find out!
At first glance, the box for Puzzle Strike is certainly eye catching, and starts off on the right note, thematically. Everything about the design, from the font to the super-deformed fighters, immediately calls to mind the unique visuals of the Puzzle Fighter video game. Any fan of Puzzle Fighter looking at this box would instantly recognize what this game is all about.
What's It About?
Puzzle Strike is a mix of the deck-building gameplay of games like Dominion or Quarriors, and the falling-gem battle mechanics of Puzzle Fighter for 2-4 players. Instead of using cards, and shuffling decks, Puzzle Strike uses chips - round disks about the size of a poker chip. In the middle of the table, is the "bank," which consists of 10 different stacks of chips representing actions available, and stacks of gem chips, ranging from 1 to 4 in value. Also in the bank are special chips representing 3 important actions the player can take: Combining gems, and "Crashing" gems, and one last pile of chips called "wounds" which do nothing.
Players start with 10 chips in their bag, and each player begins with the same initial loadout, which consists of a mix of gem chips (which act as money), a crash gem (more on these later), and 3 action chips unique to the character they're playing, which can drastically change how each player will play the game.
In front of each player is a play mat, that has space for their gem pile, which represents the falling gems of a puzzle game stacking up in their play area. If the player's turn ends with 10+ gem chips in the pile, they get game over, and are out.
The game starts with players each drawing 5 chips out of their bag at random, and placing them behind their screen, out of view of the other players. This is the player's "hand".
At the start of each turn, players "ante" (take one gem from the bank and place it on their play mat, in their gem pile) one gem into their gem pile, which represents the constant fall of gems that need to be dealt with in the original Puzzle Fighter.
Players then have, by default, one action they can take, by playing an action chip, from their hand. Action chips have a wide range of effects, including forcing other players to ante into their gem piles, gaining extra actions, and much more.
Two special types of action chips merit their own mention, and lie at the heart of the game: Combine Gems and Crash Gems.
Crash gems work just like they did in Puzzle Fighter - They take a gem from your gem pile, break it up, and send it over to an opponent's gem pile. Opponents can then respond with a crash gem of their own, to break a gem in their pile to try and counter the gems you just sent over. Imagine your crashed gems flying towards your opponent, and their crash gems flying towards you. They crash into each other equally, and any excess continues on it's way.
Combine gems take two gems in your pile, and smoosh them together in to a bigger gem. (This is like putting the same-color gems together in Puzzle Fighter.) Combined gems still count for the same number of gems for your gem pile, but crashing larger gems sends more out of your pile and in to someone else's. Gems combine up to a size of 4, and crashed gems with a value of 4 can not be countered.
After a player's action phase, they can use any gem chips in their hand as money, to buy chips from the bank. Better action chips & bigger gems (which count as more money in your hand for buying) cost more. Purchased chips go to the player's discard pile, and once a player's bag is empty, the discard pile (and the newly purchased chips) go into the bag to be drawn.
Wound chips, which do nothing for the player other than take up space in their hand, have to be drawn if nothing is bought, which encourages players to maintain a good mix of gems & actions, rather than just loading up on actions alone.
After the purchase step, any remaining chips are put in the player's discard pile, and a new hand is drawn. The more gems in your gem pile, the more chips you draw from your hand, making it more likely that you'll be able to make a comeback.
Play continues like this until only one player remains.
A game in progress.
The 3rd edition of Puzzle Strike includes the base game from the 2nd edition, plus some extra components; namely the 4 play mats to help keep your play space and gem piles organized while you play.
The box control for this game is fantastic. The box includes a tray to hold all the chips, organized by group, and includes handy labels already applied. The chips CAN bet a bit difficult to get out, particularly the character chips, which all share one slot in the box, but this is a minor gripe.
Everything in the box. Note the tray inside the box.
The bulk of the box is taken up by the chips. There are a LOT of them. While each game is played with only 10 sets of action chips (5 chips to a set) and the gem/crash/combine chips, there's a wide variety of possible chips to select for those 10. Combined with 10 unique sets of character chips, and in a 4 player game, there are over 400 MILLION starting combinations.
This actually leads in to my one main complaint with the game, and that's that there's no good way to randomize the game right out of the box. While there is a "suggested" setup to use for new players, beyond that, there's no good mechanic for selecting your 10 action chips and characters. Sirlin does sell an "extras" pack that includes what it calls "Randomizer" cards (Essentially a deck of cards you shuffle and draw from that represent the chips to pull from the box and use) for everything currently released, along with a 100 page strategy guide and 3 bonus chips, for around $25 - but this feels a bit expensive to get cards that should have been included in the base game.*
Other than that one complaint, the contents of the box are well worth the $49.99 MSRP, and are full of charm. The play mats do a great job of evoking the feel of playing a game like Puzzle Fighter, and each player screen has great 8-bit style artwork on it with helpful rule reminders, just like an arcade cabinet would have had, which helps add to the fighting game atmosphere.
*Note: There is a free (unofficial) app for android devices that will do this shuffling for you as well, but sadly no such app for iOS users.
So what's the verdict?Puzzle Strike is a fantastic addition to the deckbuilding genre that not only does a fantastic job of executing it's theme, but also feels finely tuned, with quick, focused gameplay. The gem pile mechanic, combined with crash gems and combine chips do an amazing job of recreating the excitement and gameplay of Puzzle Fighter, while still staying true to itself.
The base game includes 10 characters, each with a different approach to the gameplay, and mechanics unique to themselves. One character may actually WANT to accumulate wound chips, and then turn around and use them to fuel their other abilities. Another may be focused on generating big, insane combos, at the expense of economy.
The interplay of the 10 characters and the massive amount of possible setups make every game feel fresh and exciting, and the finely tuned gameplay mechanics, including drawing more chips the closer to defeat you are, help ensure that games can and do come right down to the wire, where each player's individual cunning and strategy will ultimately decide the outcome.
In addition to the base game, which supports free-for-all play between 2, 3, or 4 players, there is also support for both 2v2 team games, and tournament style play, leaving lots of room for this game at your table on game night.
Puzzle Strike is fun, quick, and easy to teach, especially to people who have already played other deckbuilding games or the Puzzle Fighter video game. While there are minor complaints, they shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of the overall experience.