This overview/review was based on a single playthrough on Tabletop Simulator with the designer. Thanks to Level 99 Games for getting me set up on TTS so I could write this.
Bullet🖤 is a game by designer Joshua Van Laningham that is launching on Kickstarter tomorrow. It’s inspired by the shoot-em-up video game genre (SHMUP), and 1-4 players are defending Earth from evil, and sometimes from each other. This is done by using lots and lots of bullets. But despite the violent premise, this is more of a real-time puzzle-solving experience. The game is going up on Kickstarter tomorrow, so please be aware that all components shown in this review are prototype only and don’t necessarily reflect final production.
The game comes with 8 different playable heroines, each with a Boss on their backside for Boss Battle Mode. Each heroine has her own deck of 10 pattern cards. Player boards for each heroine will look something like this:
There are four different modes of play – Free-For-All, Boss Battle, Score Attack, and Team Play. For purposes of this overview, I’ll be describing Free-For-All, but I’ll double back to briefly describe the others afterwards.
At the start of the game, each player has 10 bullet tokens in their Current bag. These bullets have been randomly drawn from a pool in the center of the table. When the round begins, all players will start drawing bullets one at a time from their bag and placing them into their Sight, which is the grid in the center of their board. Turns are taken simultaneously. It is suggested that you use a three-minute timer for a round, but it’s not required.
When a bullet goes into your Sight, you look at its color and the number on it. You’ll place the bullet in the column that matches the column, down as many spaces as the number. So if it’s a red 3, you’ll place it in the third space from the top of the red column. If there was another bullet in that column (say in the second space), you skip over that space. So in this example, you would place the red 3 in space #4. Bullets are numbered 1-4.
If a bullet ever reaches the bottom row in your sight, the one with the arrows, it hits you. You move it over to the damage area, and that ever fills up, you’re dead. So you’ll probably want to use actions. Each player starts with a certain number of action points (AP) – usually 7. These are spent on the actions on the right side of the board. This includes moving bullets around, drawing new patterns, and other actions that are unique to each heroine.
Each player drew some pattern cards at the start of the round, usually three. When you have completed one of the patterns shown, you’ll be allowed to clear some bullets. In the example above, the pattern for Shooting Star shows a yellow symbol, an empty circle, and three starbursts. What this means is that the pattern is a yellow bullet over any bullet. If this pattern is completed, you may clear bullets from the three spaces below. The pattern must be complete, but the bullets that need to be cleared do not. So, in this case, the green 2 and 3 can be cleared, and if there was anything underneath the 3, it could be cleared too. It should be noted that some patterns require other things, like equal numbers or empty spaces.
When you clear bullets, they are placed facedown in the Incoming area for the player on your left. If any bullets cleared had a star, you could perform any star effects shown in your action area.
This all continues until you have emptied your bag. Once your bag is empty and you don’t want to (or can’t) do anything else, you can take a power-up from the center of the table and add it to your action area. This is a one-time use ability that you can discard at any time for its effect. One per player is revealed at the start of each round. When all those have been taken, a new round begins. Players take the bullets from their incoming area and add it to their bag. They’ll then check the intensity track, and draw that many new bullets to also add to their bag. The intensity track then bumps up a space, and you’re ready to play.
When your life track is full, you have died. At the end of the round, you’ll put all of the bullets in your Sight back into the center, as well as all bullets in the Incoming area of the player on your left. Then, you move your Incoming bullets to the player on your left. Basically, they get what you would have gotten had you not died. The last heroine standing wins, but if all remaining heroines would die in the last round, play another round while only placing bullets simultaneously. No other actions can be taken. The last one standing wins.
OK, other modes. Team Play has two players on the same team. There are permanent team actions that either of you can place, and bullets cleared go to the heroine across from you rather than to the left. Only one power is gained per team between rounds, and can be used by either teammate.
Score Attack is primarily solo mode, but you can play against others for the high score. There are no power-ups, and bullets you clear go into the Intensity. At the end of the round, you draw one bullet per Intensity number, plus one more per bullet cleared in the round. Bullets in the Intensity go back to the draw pool before drawing your new set of bullets. In this mode, you’re just trying to see how long you can last.
In Boss Battle, you’ll choose a boss by flipping over any heroine board. At the start of each round, the Boss draws a pattern that you must match by the end of the round or face the consequences. Heroines play as in Free-For-All, with cleared bullets going to the Boss. At the end of the round, after the Boss’ pattern effect is activated, check to see if you broke a shield with the number of bullets sent. If yes, remove the shield. It’s possible to break multiple shields in a round if you have enough bullets. You beat the Boss by breaking all of her shields, and she wins if everyone is dead. It’s an interesting challenge, with a little more to think about than the straight Score Attack.
One thing I always appreciate about Level 99 Games is that they frequently take a type of game I wouldn’t normally be interested in – in this case, shoot-em-up with anime-style art – and turn it into something I have a lot of fun with. Take Millennium Blades – I don’t really like collectible games, and I don’t particularly enjoy deck building as a pregame mechanism. However, that one leans so heavily into the meta-elements of the genre that I can’t help but love it.
I’m not that familiar with shoot-em-up style games. I’m more of a Care Bear, as people of my ilk are often called. Bullet🖤 is a game that doesn’t lean so heavily into the fighting aspect that it turns me off completely. The game is more about building the patterns needed to empty your board, and trying to avoid elimination. In short, it’s more of a simultaneous puzzle than anything, which I do like.
Obviously, I can’t talk about the quality of components since I’ve only played this game digitally, and likely not in its final form. However, having followed Level 99 for many years, I know their components are typically well done, and I’m not concerned about that. From what I’ve seen online, everything looks well laid out. It’s bright and colorful, and there are symbols to help identify the relevant colors for those who need help.
The art is in an anime style, which doesn’t really do much for me. However, as all the characters in this game are female, I do appreciate that they are all appropriately dressed. I’m happy to see another game (like One Deck Dungeon) making all of its characters female. The designer told me this was to pay homage to games like the Touhou Project and other “cute-em-up” type games. This is a subgenere I had never heard of before, but then, I’m really not with the program on all the styles of game out there. The heart at the end of the title is also a reference to the presence of symbols in Japanese media, and also to make the title stand out a little.
Gameplay here is in real-time. This is a phrase that will inevitably turn some people off to this game, but believe me when I say that it shouldn’t be an issue. They suggest using a timer to keep the game moving, but it’s not crucial. The only real reason to go quicker than your opponents is to get first choice of power-ups, and they’re usually pretty good. So don’t worry about it.
As I mentioned earlier, the main meat of this game is forming the patterns on your board that will allow you to clear off some bullets. Of course, you want to send as many bullets as possible at your opponents, so you want to clear as much as you can. You’re at the whim of the draw for what comes out, but you still have those AP you can spend in order to mitigate the luck a bit. It’s really satisfying when you can clear off a whole swath of bullets and dump them in front of your opponent, and kind of disheartening to see the pile your opponent just dumped in front of you.
In terms of interaction, there’s not a lot. You really are mostly focused on your own board, knowing that you’ll have bullets coming at you from an opponent, but also trying to send as many as you can to the next person. You can keep an eye on what they’re doing, and if it looks like they’re going to have a lot of a particular color left on their board, you can try to send that color. You’re also speeding towards getting the power-ups first, but it’s all very passive interaction, which seems strange given the theme. I don’t find it bad – in fact, it’s one of the things that appeals to me most about the system. There’s also player elimination, which I think gets a bad rap because of games like Monopoly. Here, the game is pretty quick when everyone knows what they’re doing, and it’s not that big of an issue.
There are eight different characters in the game, each with their own deck of power cards and their own strengths. One might let you hold four patterns, another might give you some immunity to certain symbols if they hit you, another might let you clear extra bullets. Add to this that each heroine has its own boss on the back, and the fact that there are four different modes of play, and you’ve got a ton of replayability right out of the box. Of course, this is a Level 99 game, and if there’s one thing they know how to do, it’s how to keep a game from going stale.
Speaking of the different modes, I have tried out three of the four. I haven’t gotten to do Team Play because, well, I’ve just been playing on TTS and don’t really have other people to try that out with. But Free-For-All is fun – there’s a slight solitaire aspect to it as you don’t really need to concern yourself with what others are doing while you’re playing. I definitely wouldn’t call it multi-player solitaire because you still have to deal with what others are passing you and trying to get the best power-ups. The Score Attack game is essentially a beat-your-own score game, which is not my favorite way to play solo. However, it is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the game’s mechanics, and also to get used to how the different heroines play. The Boss Battle mode is the cooperative (and solo) version of the game, and it provides a whole new challenge
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? It’s probably pretty apparent that I really like this game. Everything here just works really well, from the puzzle aspect to the action point management to the variability in characters. There’s a lot to explore here, and I recommend it. This is designer Joshua Van Laningham’s first standalone game project (he previously worked on the Collusion expansion for Millennium Blades), and I think this one is going to be a hit.
Be sure to check out Bullet🖤 when it goes up on Kickstarter on May 19 (I’ll update this with the link when it goes live) (EDIT: Here it is!). Thanks again to Level 99 Games for setting me up with Tabletop Simulator so I could try the game, to the designer for teaching it to me, and to you for reading!