First, there was Dominion. Then, there was Thunderstone. Now, it seems like there’s an absolute avalanche of deck building games flooding the market – Ascension, Resident Evil, and Heroes of Graxia have all come out in the last few months, with Eminent Domain and Nightfall on the horizon (along with many others, I’m sure). Pretty soon, the market is going to be oversaturated and a deck building game is going to have to really stand out from the pack to get noticed.
So, for your consideration, here’s Puzzle Strike. This 2010 game was designed by David Sirlin, and is published by his company Sirlin Games. They’ve been getting some press lately as Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower has really been pushing another of their games, Yomi. Puzzle Strike is for 2-4 players and takes about 20 minutes to play. The game has a very anime look to it, and the mechanics will sound a LOT like Dominion to you. However, the big thing that caught my attention about the game is that, rather than cards, you will be using chips. Rather than shuffling and drawing cards, you’ll be pulling chips out of a bag. The idea has been around for a while…I know that Brian Poe (BGG user Golux) posted this description of his custom Dominion chip set. Puzzle Strike is, as far as I know, the first commercially produced game that uses that method.
The game comes with around 350 chips, as well as a nice insert that keeps them organized. There are also four cloth bags for you to draw your chips (the game description says this is for people who get bored with shuffling cards). At the start of the game, each player will choose a character. There are 10 possible characters, and each one has three associated character chips that give you special abilities. You’ll take these three chips, as well as six one-gem chips and a crash gem chip, and put them in your bag. You’ll then set up the bank. There are 24 kingdom cards (I mean Puzzle Chips!) in the game, and you’ll choose ten of them to lay out. The other 14 will stay in the box. There are only five copies of each Puzzle Chip. You’ll also lay out the treasure cards (I mean Gem Chips), Crash Gems, and Wound Chips.
You’ll start with a hand of five chips, drawn from your bag. The first thing you’ll do on your turn is to ante. You’ll draw a 1-gem chip from the bank and place it in front of you. This pile will grow throughout the game, and that’s bad – if you get to a value of 10 in this pile, you lose.
Next is the action phase. You can play one action chip during a turn – these are the chips with banners on them. Some of these chips will give you extra actions, some will let you draw extra chips, some will give you extra money – sound familiar? You also might want to play a crash gem. This will send a gem from your pile over into an opponent’s tile. If you have combined some of your gems, you might be able to send several at once. You can also play a crash gem to counter this strike when it isn’t your turn.
After actions, you MUST buy chips. Any gems in your hand can be used to purchase chips from the board, as long as it’s enough. If you have no money, you have to buy a wound chip. These simply clog up your bag. They’re like a compromise between an estate and a curse in Dominion – they don’t give you points, they don’t cost you any points, they simply exist to give you a headache. Like I said, you must buy at least one chip. However, unlike Dominion, you can buy as many chips as you have money for. With $6, you could buy something that costs 6, or two somethings that cost 3 each, or whatever.
Finally, cleanup. Discard your hand and draw a new one. If you ever don’t have enough chips to draw out of your bag, toss in your discard pile, shake ’em up, and keep drawing.
If, after the action phase, you have a value of 10 or more in your gem pile, you’re out. Any number of chips over ten get sent to the next player. If you’re the last one standing, you win.
I have several concerns about the game. First and foremost, this is the most obvious Dominion clone I’ve looked at. It’s a testament to the originality of Dominion that so many games have gotten compared to it, though I remember Dominion itself getting compared to Magic: The Gathering when it first came out. Puzzle Strike is very similar in the way it plays, even using the same terminology for the phases – Action, Buy, Cleanup. They add another A to the beginning (for Ante). Where the gameplay separates itself is the amount of interaction. You are not trying to score the most points or be the most profitable or kill the most monsters – you are trying to eliminate your opposition. In that, this game IS different. I also like the use of chips in the game rather than cards, though it really drives up the cost. I think the MSRP is $60, which seems like a lot. To their credit, Sirlin Games also offers a print and play version for only $10. Still, chips seem more durable than cards.
My other big concern is the powers of some of the chips, particularly the Master Puzzler. It costs 12, so it’s the most expensive chip in the game. When you play this chip, you can choose any number of chips (that aren’t the Master Puzzler), play them, and gain them. So you could take 9 action chips, a combine chip, a crash gem, a double crash gem, and use them all immediately. You could also collect 10 in gems (1-2-3-4), which goes into your bag. This seems REALLY powerful. It seems like you might have a race to get the Master Puzzler. I don’t know how easy it is to get up to 12 treasure, but this chip seems like the game ender. Maybe I’m misreading how it works, but it’s a concern. Maybe it’s great. I won’t know until I play.
Anyway, I’m interested enough to want to try it out. Dominion is still the only deck-builder I’ve played, and it’s a favorite game of mine, so I’m interested to see how other designers approach this fledgling genre. The use of chips definitely make this stand out from the pack, but I wonder if the high level of conflict will turn off people who are normally interested in deck-builders. We shall see. Thanks for reading, and insert clever tagline here.