Review: Puzzle Strike and Expansion

Designer: David Sirlin
Publisher: Sirlin Games
Ages: 8+
Time: ~20 mins
Players: 2-4
Reviewed by:  Matt J. Carlson

Puzzle Strike is yet another take on the popular deckbuilding game, Dominion; only circular cardboard chips are drawn from a bag rather than cards drawn from a deck.  (Dominion is even acknowledged in the rulebook.)  Of all the deckbuilding games I’ve played thus far (a dozen or so), Puzzle Strike is perhaps the closest to the original.  Despite (or perhaps because of) this similarity, I find myself strangely attracted to the game and it has recently seen quite a bit of play.  Puzzle Strike provides a very aggressive/combative game from within a quirky theme that manages to catch my fancy.

Most readers will be familiar with the deckbuilding genre, where players begin with a set of cards (chips, in this game) and then play them to perform actions which allows them to acquire more cards – hopefully more useful cards.  At some point, players transition from trying to build a more powerful deck of cards and focus on obtaining points (which typically are much less useful during the game but are the only requirements for victory.)  Rather than rehash the basic mechanics, I’ll focus in on Puzzle Strike’s differences and conclude with a quick overview of the new expansion, the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack.

Theme: If it weren’t for the Japanese entries in the deckbuilding genre, I would consider Puzzle Strike to have the most unique theme.  In Puzzle Strike, players take on the role of someone playing a puzzle-based video game – the kind where gems fall from the top of the screen, cluttering things up and players need to clear them out, preferably by passing them on to their neighbors in a player vs player mode.  To add depth to the theme, this fictional puzzle game is “based” on another fictional video fighting game starring typical crazy characters like ninjas, fighting pandas, and old wise men.  At the start of the game each player has three special chips (out of 10 starting chips) which represent their character’s abilities.  Since character chips are 30% of one’s starting chips (and they typically have moderately powerful effects) one’s character often dictates the types of strategies a player will want to pursue in the game.

The boardgame uses gem chips (in denominations of 1 to 4) as money in player’s “hands” as well as markers in a player’s gem pile.  A player antes a 1 gem chip into their gem pile at the start of their turn and much of the gameplay consists of combining gems in one’s gem pile and “crashing” them towards other players.  Crashing a gem creates a set of 1 value gems which are sent to the opponent to your left.  That player can respond by crashing a gem back, with the two sets of gems colliding in the “middle” and any leftover gems are carried over to the opponent.  (So, if I crashed a 2-gem and my opponent crashed a 3-gem back, I’d lose my 2-gem and end up with a single 1-gem while my opponent would lose their 3-gem.)  Note that crashing a 4-gem is special and does not allow a counter-crash.  A player is knocked out of the game if they end their turn with a combined value of 10 or more gems in their gem pile.  However, up until that end-of-turn check a player could have quite a few gems sitting around.  This gives a nice edge-of-your-seat feel to the game in its late stages as players can fire crashes back and forth at each other trying to get back below that 10-gem limit.

Chips: Yes, the game uses chips instead of cards.  This does reduce the amount of time spent shuffling decks of cards but introduces other complications – primarily how to hold and view one’s chips during the game.  This can become more complicated later in the game since players draw more chips when their gem pile becomes full.  Players start by drawing 5 chips (out of a bag) but can draw up to 8 chips if they end their turn with a full pile of gems totaling 9.  Holding nine chips in your hand so you can reference them can be quite a chore.  Thankfully, much of that problem is solved with the new expansion: Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack which includes player mats and screens for each player so one’s chips can be more easily read.  Having played with them I would make my own for the game if I had to give up the expansion and just use the basic game.  One other strike against chips over cards are their size.  While I grant that the actions and abilities of most chips can easily be represented by icons, many chips also contain a bit of text which might be on the small side for anyone with poor vision.  At the least, they typically require being picked up to read comfortably.

Gameplay: Since the object of Puzzle Strike is to eliminate one’s opponents, it has a much more aggressive feel than traditional point-based deckbuilding games.  Progress in clearing out one’s own gem pile often results in accumulation of gems in an opponent’s pile.  While it seems as if generic bonus actions (granting two or more) are a bit harder to pull off in Puzzle Strike, there are many more chips that have one additional action allowing for a long single chain of actions.  Each chip type has a color: tan (generic action), red (attack), blue (defense), and purple (having to do with the gem pile – either offense or defense).  Some chips have color-coded arrows indicating they grant additional actions of that type – where black arrows can be an action of any type.  This is best seen in red (attacking) action chips.  Many of the red chips also have a red arrow, granting an additional red action.  This means players who go in for attacking chips (chips that grant wounds – a useless chip, chips that add to other players gem piles, chips that mess with other players’ hands, etc…) can string a long chain of them in a row.  Between crashing gems and attacking other players with red chips, there is far more player interaction in Puzzle Strike than in most other deckbuilding games.

Combos:  Most fighting video games provide “combos” for each character.  Given Puzzle Strike’s theme of a fictional puzzle game based on a fictional video game, it should come as no surprise that “combos” play an important role in the game.  While any deckbuilding game will have killer card combinations that may appear, Puzzle Strike goes a step further and includes chips designed to encourage combinations to appear.  There are several chips that allow players nearly carte blanche to gain a pair (or more) chips from the field.  The most powerful chip in the game even lets players gain, and then use, up to one of every chip type in play!  (It does cost a whopping 12, though.)  For some reason, perhaps because I’m always monitoring my gem pile, I find combinations harder to pull off in Puzzle Strike.  Thus, having a few “crazy” chip options to foster better combination opportunities is a good thing.

Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack: The recently released Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack contains the following:  four player’s screens (charmingly decorated with 8-bit graphics that demonstrate a fundamental principle of the game, such as how crashing a 4 value gem is unbockable), four player game mats (made of thick mousepad material), three new stacks of action chips to choose from, and a complete set of hero chips (those sets of 3 chips that give variety to each player.)  As I mentioned, the player screens and game mats are an invaluable addition to the game.   I would make my own screens and game boards if I didn’t have them.  The screens make it so one doesn’t have to fan out chips in your hand, while the play mat helps players (especially new ones) remember the many little rules that might otherwise be forgotten.  The most important being how many chips to draw (“lets see, I have 3 gems in my pile so I now draw…  6 instead of the normal 5 chips at the end of my turn…”).   As for the new chips, I do like the new basic chips.  One grants LOTS of additional actions (+15 actions anyone?), a second is an attack chip that helps to mess with players who use a lot of basic purple chips (purple strategies could be compared to a boring pure silver/gold strategy in Dominion), and the last new chip also hinders a heavy purple strategy.  Each of the three chips add some interesting effects to the game and would help change things up for someone who’s played the base game for awhile.  The new set of hero chips are copies of the original hero chips in the base game.  Ostensibly, this allows players to have a challenge match between two of the same characters.  However, about half of the characters have had their powers slightly adjusted for better play balance.  A couple of characters have been entirely revamped.  While casual players might not notice much of a difference, anyone who plays a LOT of Puzzle Strike may welcome the changes to keep all the characters on a more balanced footing.  Oh, and perhaps most importantly, with a little bit of care the expansion and its accouterments can be crammed back into the original Puzzle Strike box.

So, should you get the expansion?  On the one hand, I appreciate the nice mats and screens, but they seem so useful it is a shame they weren’t included in the original game.  They’re probably the most useful item in the upgrade pack.  If you haven’t already created your own, I’d recommend the upgrade pack just for its utility in playing with new players.  If you already created your own setup, you are probably are into the game enough to want the other goodies in the package like the new characters and chips.  The Upgrade Pack isn’t a must-buy, but it will greatly enhance casual play.

Final Thoughts:  At first glance, Puzzle Strike is as close to the original Dominion as any other deckbuilding game.  However, because of the selection of powers and how victory is achieved through player elimination, the feel of a game of Puzzle Strike is much different.  It is far more interactive.  Perhaps because of the constant threat of other players and the need to ante a gem each round, the game provides less time for players to develop long-term strategies.  Some of that may be my learning curve (I have less than a dozen plays under my belt) but I suspect Puzzle Strike (as it stands now) has a much “faster” playing environment than other deckbuilding games.  That is its strength (keeping the action going) as well as its weakness (slightly less opportunity for involved strategies).

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Ted Cheatham:  I have only played this one twice.  I think there is some interesting strategies based on your starting character that I have yet to explore.  Pretty simple build up/take that game.

W. Eric Martin: While I’ve played Puzzle Strike eight times, half of those involved one game play error or another from us misreading rules and just winging things, which seemed to be the spirit intended for the game.

Since I imagine you need at least eight plays for each character vs. character interaction to get a solid feel for what’s going on, not to mention getting a handle on the chip array in play, I could be talking through my hat, but the game seemed to involve a lot of hat-passing – “Here, you take a gem.” “And now you get that gem plus one more.” “And here’s a gem for you, sir.” – and busyness for the game play. We kept forgetting to take the one gem at the start of our turns, for example, so we’d have to ask one another constantly whether we had done that. “I think I had three at the end of my last turn, then you gave me two, but I crashed one, etc.” Hardly the video game-style experience promised.

As Matt notes, Puzzle Strike plays quickly, but I felt like 50% of our time was spent doing things extraneous to the game play, which detracted from the experience. I am becoming a forgetful old man, however, so perhaps you spry young’uns would be striking more quickly than me.

Dale Yu: (Disclaimer: I’m one of the developers of Dominion, the game which Puzzle Strike was based upon).  I’ve played Puzzle Strike maybe 10 times now.  My initial impression of it was “I love it”, but repeated plays has actually dropped this down into the “I like it” category.  As has been mentioned above, there is some element of familiarity that is needed to know what each character’s special chips do, but after playing around with and against the different characters, the different powers didn’t do as much for me as I thought they would.

I think that Mr. Sirlin has definitely created an interesting take on the deck building idea, and some of the chip actions are innovative as is the concept of the asymmetrical starting positions of the players.  I will admit that I’m not a big fan of the endgame – the cascading gems which often result from a player elimination bothers me.  I don’t like the fact that my chance of winning can be significantly impacted by the fact that the player to my right sucked.  I also am not a fan of player elimination, though in this game that is not as big of an issue because the cascading gems at the end often triggers a series of quick demises as the surviving player(s) in turn order often end up taking on gems they hadn’t necessarily planned on.

My last comment deals with the components.  Initially I liked the idea of the chips and the bag.  However, after multiple plays, the chips are kinda small for the amount of information that needs to be printed on some of them.  Additionally, they are really not well suited for viewing like a hand of cards.  I pretty much have to hold them in a stack and then constantly rotate them to see the top one on the stack.  In the end, using cards would have been easier to play with (in my opinion) — though I can definitely see where it’s easier for some people to adequately shuffle chips in a  bag as opposed to cards in a deck.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!…
I like it…  Matt Carlson, Craig Massey, Pitt, Ted Cheatham, Dale Yu
Neutral… Luke Hedgren, John Palagyi, W. Eric Martin
Not for me… Tom Rosen, Brian Leet, Geske

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Review: Puzzle Strike and Expansion

  1. Doug says:

    Easily my favourite of the dozen or so deck builders I’ve played. Unforgiving, with a lovely feeling of escalating tension.

    So… the expansion is out? (Asks the patiently waiting Sirlin customer…)

  2. Matt J Carlson says:

    Not sure if the expansion is out. I was given an advance review copy and was under the impression the expansion was imminent… Of course, that doesn’t help you since I’m sure you’re under the same impression…

    I wholeheartedly agree with the rising tension, but have to get better at the game to see how unforgiving it is. I know I’ve played a few games where one mistake came back to haunt me a turn later (causing me to lose, usually with one of the more gambling-type characters…)

Leave a Reply