Puzzle Strike Review

Puzzle Strike pink box

A game with an interesting take on the deck building mechanic is Puzzle Strike.

Specifically, you could say that Puzzle Strike is "what Quarriors was trying to do" (build a "deck building" game without cards). Instead of cards, Puzzle Strike is played with chips. And, instead of the traditional means of victory (victory points of some sort at the end of the game), it mixes in an element of classic Nintendo-style puzzle games like Tetris. Each turn you ante a gem into your pile (like having rows fall down on your screen), and the last person to have his ante pile filled up is the winner. So, to start each turn, a player takes a one point gem and puts it in his ante pile. Next, he is able to perform an action using the chips in his hand (actions can include combining chips into larger chips and "Crashing" chips to remove them from your ante pile and send them to the opponent on your left (who can counter Crash, etc)). After playing an action, you have to buy a chip from the bank. If you have no money, then you have to buy a wound chip - which does nothing, but it makes your deck worse because it keeps you from drawing something useful. Finally, you discard all of your chips and draw back up to five. And, depending on the size of your ante pile, you may draw some bonus chips (one bonus chip for every three points in your ante pile). Finally, you check to see if you have ten or more points in your ante pile - and if you do, then you lose (after all, your screen has filled up - you can sit there envisioning a TV screen with a pixelated "Game Over" label flashing).

Panda chips for Puzzle Strike
Gambling Panda
The first thing that I love about Puzzle Strike (yes, love) is that there are character specific chips. Each "deck" starts with six one-point gems, a Crash gem, and three character specific gems. I have not played enough to see if any of the characters are overpowered (I've played 4-5 times), but they at least all seem balanced. However, each character plays quite differently. Some are good at defense, some help you perform extra actions, one transforms into "Dragon Form" which causes him to ante 2's instead of 1's, but also makes his crashes un-defendable - and one (the Gambling Panda) has a chip that can only be used when he has 10 or more points in his ante pile (is about to die). I wish that more games would start doing this! Can you just imagine playing the Star Trek: Deck Building Game and getting to pick whether you're using the Klingon, Romulan, or Federation starting deck? Sure, Nightfall allows you to draft at the beginning of the game to make player-specific piles, but Puzzle Strike is the only game I've seen that allows you to actually start with different items that have different powers - and it does it well!

The next thing that I like about Puzzle Strike is the vintage puzzle game feel. I really think that this theme allows it to be played and enjoyed without feeling as competitive. Yes, I want to win (as with all games), but the theme is just relaxing and allows you to enjoy the act of playing the game - almost like it reminds me of my childhood to an extent.

Puzzle Strike Leprechaun
Dragon Form!
Next, I think that it's interesting that, essentially, the entire game is played with a countdown timer. Every turn, each player gets closer to losing. Sure, you can counteract this by playing Crash chips to send some of your pile at your opponents, but unless you actively do something to prevent it, you will lose the game simply by playing. For whatever reason, this mechanic resonated well for me.

Finally, I like that the closer you are to losing, the more chips you get to draw. This leads to more combos being played. If I am doing incredibly poorly, I am more likely to draw several Combine chips (these let you combine two gems in your ante pile and perform another action) and then Crash a larger gem at my opponent. It also gives me a better chance of drawing something that helps me to defend. It can do quite a bit to balance out the luck of having to draw the right chips at the right time.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Puzzle Strike. However, there were a few things that I should point out. First of which is that a lot of the chip piles will be left untouched in most games. Whereas, in our first game every chip seemed crucial (and, truly, I haven't seen any chips that aren't ever useful), some are simply better than others. Specifically, Crash and Combine are better than a lot of the other Action Chips - so unless there is a chip that lets you string together several Actions, you will probably find yourself mostly focusing on buying the Crash & Combine (and 2-4 of the other chip piles; especially if there are some that let you steal other people's Crashes and Combines... and then you'll be quite pesky.  And other people will have to play the "Really Annoying" chip on you.  That's right - that's what the chip's name is.  Why?  Well - because it's really annoying.). To be fair, though, this is true in any deck building game - you are trying to hone your deck as much as possible, and so you will often avoid buying good cards in an effort to get better cards. (*cough* I mean chips.  Did I say cards again?  It's like there's not really a difference or something.)

The next con is something that has already been addressed by the game company. It is very easy in Puzzle Strike (during your turn) to get your hand, in-play chips, and ante piles confused. And, if this happens, it can inadvertently change the game dramatically (by changing how many gems are in your ante pile). Fortunately, the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack provides you with playmats to keep track of each of these things separately.  Sweet - now if only it weren't $25.  I'd guess at some point they will combine them and sell them together for a discount.

Those are really my only two (very minor) cons. I will mention two other things briefly, though. Using chips instead of cards is unique. It doesn't really affect gameplay at all (which is why I kept referring to chips as cards), but it does reinforce the theme, so that was nice. Finally, the rule that forces you to buy a chip each turn is interesting. It forces players to pay attention to how they construct their deck to ensure that they can always afford to buy something. At the same time, it can water down a deck - which I think is intentional. This prevents the game from dragging out if several players are all able to build decks that consist of only Combines and Crashes.

Overall, I give Puzzle Strike a 9.0/10. I was quite pleasantly surprised by this game, and I'd recommend that anyone that likes vintage puzzle games or deck building games should "hit start" on this one.  (Whoa!  Vintage Game reference!!!  If only anybody else thought I was nearly as funny as I did!)

And, if you like deck building games, you might also want to read my reviews about Thunderstone or Dominion; or if you like the Fantasy Strike world that Puzzle Strike is set in, check out Yomi.  Or, for a complete change of pace, you might check out Glory to Rome.

I would like to thank Sirlin Games for providing me with a review copy of Puzzle Strike via Game Salute.

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