What do you get when you cross the deck-drafting of Dominion with the gem-smashing theme of the video game Super Puzzle Fighter II? It turns out you get Puzzle Strike, one of the most fun, addictive games I have had the pleasure of playing in recent memory.
Dominion is a wildly successful game that created basically a new genre--the deck-drafting game. And with any game's success will inevitably come others, and currently there are no shortage of games either already released or in development that utilize this deck-building mechanic.
For all the ballyhoo over Dominion, however, there are some who had issues with the game. Too little player interaction. Yet another VP chase. And the shuffling...oh, the shuffling.
Enter Puzzle Strike.
First off, it's important to get the idea of a "Dominion knock-off" out of your head. Like it or not, a new genre of game has been created. And much like the flow of CCGs that followed the monstrous success of Magic: The Gathering, it appears that this style of game is here to stay. There's a lot of appeal to this whole notion of building your deck on the fly; you get variability, the ability to build your deck on the fly--and without worrying about those bleary-eyed late night sessions scrambling to get your deck together before a big tournament, endlessly trying to cull 65 cards down to 60.
Puzzle Strike corrects just about every problem I've ever seen listed with Dominion--and some that you possibly didn't even
think of as problems until you've tried this one. The theme is not centered around an abstract race for Victory Points, but instead based on the popular puzzle-style video games. In these you have blocks or gems that stack to the top, and when you get rid of them you send stuff over to your opponent, hoping to gum him up and stack his blocks to the top more quickly. Puzzle Strike accomplishes this theme through the "Gem Pile"--a stack of gems you accumulate to the side of your playing area. End your turn with more than 10 points worth of gems in your Gem Pile, and it's Game Over for you. But you can always smash gems in your pile to send them at your opponent, keeping your total down and hopefully forcing him to the top.
Instead of cards, Puzzle Strike uses wood (or wood-substitute) chips. The 'bank' of chips that each player can purchase from are small stacks of these chips. Instead of shuffling cards, your chips are tossed into your cloth bag and you just shake a few times and you're ready to go. These chips allow you to do everything from smashing gems in your pile, combining groups of gems into larger ones that will allow you to attack your opponent with more gems at once, to messing with your opponent's hand and all other sorts of goodies. Like Dominion, there are a larger selection of bank chips, but you only use 10 in any given game, so each game can be radically different based on the available chips.
Speaking of variability, I haven't even mentioned the best part yet. Instead of each player getting a vanilla deck, you instead get to choose from one of 10 characters. Each character has 3 special action chips that are only available to them. So no more 'dead spots' in your deck...you start off right out of the gate with a selection of abilities that you and only you will have for that game. These chips do a great job at conveying the personalities of the associated characters and force you to adapt your playstyle, both for whom you are playing as well as how you play against your opponent's character.
A lot of these chips are awesomely powerful, and every character will have at least one chip that will make you go, "Whoa!" DeGray has a chip that lets him trash two chips in his hand--and any Dominion player will tell you how powerful that ability can be. Rook has a defensive chip that will let him ricochet gems sent to him right back at the opponent. Valerie has a chip that she can trash to take an extra turn, which can be extremely useful at the right time. Basically each character will have their own flavor of play, whether it be rapid attacks, big money, defensive play, or crafting and manipulating your deck. Mix in a bank of chips that changes from game to game, and you have TONS of replay and variability.
So not only are you trying to keep your gem pile under control, you're battling a deck that will bloat as the game goes by. You'll reach an apex where your deck is tweaked exactly as you want, but you'll still be forced to buy new chips. This is great as it avoids the 'dead' period at the end of Dominion, where decks have reached their optimum states and players just go through the motions, buying only when they hit the magic number to accumulate the big victory point cards.
First up, there are two versions of the game. A standard edition (with MDF chips, a wood substitute) and the Deluxe edition(featuring real wood.)There are over 350 chips included, and each have a nice heft to them and are colorfully printed directly to the wooden chips. The quality of the printing does vary, and early runs had some printing issues, but Sirlin Games has been very aggressive at getting free replacements for anyone dissatisfied with the quality of their chips. I have to say that using the chips instead of cards makes a HUGE difference, not just from the avoidance of constantly shuffling cards but the great tactile element they add to the game.
There are four bags included, one for each player. The standard edition comes with cloth bags. I found that a couple of the bags wanted to fray after a few plays, but they are certainly serviceable. I went ahead and ordered some nylon replacement bags for 5 for $3.75 from American Science & Surplus, because I anticipate this game is going to get played quite a lot. The Deluxe version comes with much nicer velour bags, but I have not had the chance to see these in person.
The box itself has an *extremely* nice wooden insert, pre-labeled with places for all of your chips. It makes sorting and finding chips a snap and is nice and sturdy. One caveat though is that you can't carry this box sideways under your arm, as the chips will topple from their inserts and get jumbled up inside the box, a mistake you're likely to make at least once (I've done it once already.) Still, the insert is rugged and more importantly, convenient.
I can't really talk about components without mentioning the elephant in the room, and that pertains to price. Sirlin Games is a small manufacturer at this point, and this lavish production doesn't come without cost. The standard edition will set you back $75, and the Deluxe edition a whopping $150 (!). It should be noted though that Sirlin does not have relationships with distributors as of yet, so you're not seeing the customary 35% off that has spoiled most of us when it comes to evaluating game prices.
Thankfully, if you're price-conscious there are other options available. There is a free online client you can try, just to get a feel for the game. It's available at http://www.fantasystrike.com/dev, but just note that the client is still in the beta stages and you will need to try and catch a time when several players are on--most of them will gladly show you the ropes. There is a print-n-play option that you can purchase directly from the Sirlin Games website for only $10, where you can print out the images and sleeve them as cards. You'll lose the coolness factor of the chips as well as going back to the shuffling cards routine, but the gameplay is worth the extra effort. There is a second edition forthcoming down the road that will be more affordable, using cardboard chips instead of wood or MDF, but that printing is potentially several months away.
Puzzle Strike is simply awesome. It's the kind of game that hooks you to the point when you're not playing it, you'll be thinking
about playing it. There are so many characters and chips that games are never going to play out exactly the same. Even in choosing one character, you've got nine potential matchups on the other side and a bank that changes from game to game.
I realize that price is a factor, but I look at it like this--I could organize my collection into several piles of $75 worth of games that have not and likely will not approach the amount of replay and enjoyment I've gotten thus far from Puzzle Strike. For me, this improves so much on every facet of Dominion and yet creates its own fully realized game that it will be tough for me to go back to Dominion, at least for some time. Dominion does have a price and variability advantage right now, but to get one, you've got to give up the other (higher variability only comes via expansions, upping the buy-in price.)
The theme is well realized, the degree of player interaction is high, and the game offers so much in terms of replayability that I can honestly not recommend this game enough. I haven't been this taken with a game since Battlestar Galactica, and that is high praise indeed. This is, hands down, the Game of the Year thus far for me.
- Fun theme
- Highly interactive game play
- Tons of replayability
- 10 characters, each with their own style
- No shuffling
- Wooden chips really are a nice element
- No VPs
- Price. Seriously, that's all I've got.