A New Challenger Approaches: Puzzle Strike Review

Puzzle Strike cover

Round one...FIGHT!

Does anyone even remember days before deck-building games existed? I remember the first time I played Dominion, back in the fall of 2008. Even though it cribbed generously from both CCGs and efficiency Euro games, it did so in a way that felt completely fresh. I remember that sense of “awakening” that only a few games before have given me. And I wasn’t the only one to feel that way either. Dominion has become one of the few genuine crossover hits in the hobby, up there with titles like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride as games that will convince the average Joe to enter the dankest game store.

I’ve played a lot of Dominion, and I’ve loved the game. But it certainly isn’t perfect. It needed expansions to give it legs, and the castle-building theme can barely register on the effort-o-meter. There was interaction in the game, but it wasn’t inherent in the design; you had to pick to use the interactive cards, and even then you could ignore them. In same ways, the whole thing has felt about as safe as a revolutionary idea can be. Any rough edges that might specialize the appeal of the game were sanded away, to make something that, while very fun and addictive, was also completely drained of any personality. I want to be clear on something: I really like Dominion. But that is largely in spite of its flaws.

So a lot of games have tried to correct these issues, with various levels of success. Ascension, Thunderstone, Nightfall, and several others have attempted to add meaning and context to the deck-building mechanic, but they’ve all missed one of the big reasons why Dominion was so successful. They lack the straightforward structure that makes the game teachable to everyone. But what if someone made a deck-builder that maintained that simplicity, while giving it the character and richness that lacked from the original product, wouldn’t that be something?

Fortunately, someone did just that. Puzzle Strike is the only deck-building game I’ve played that meets Dominion on all of the strong points, and surpasses it wildly on the weaknesses. Set in David Sirlin’s Fantasy Strike universe (utilized to great effect in the excellent Yomi), Puzzle Strike is a fighting game where characters crash gems to each other, in order to fill up their Tetris-like gem pile. If your pile fills up, you’re out of the game. Last player in, wins the whole thing. Yes, you read that right. Player elimination is a big part of Puzzle Strike, and if that bothers you, well hey, you can play more Dominion.

The distinguishing feature of Puzzle Strike are the cards themselves, which aren’t cards at all, but small cardboard chips. When the game is set up, it looks for all the world like a round of Pogs. The idea here is that you toss the chips into a bag and mix them up, then draw your hand. That means there’s no shuffling. If you hate the shuffling in other deck-builders, then this is right up your alley. It does speed that part up, but the chips are also harder to handle and generally more cumbersome. For me, it’s kind of a wash. But I do like the tactile nature of the chips. The cardboard is very heavy and sturdy, and they have this satisfying “plink” noise that they make when they all go in the bag. It adds to the unique character of the game, and I think it was a good move.

The coolest trick that Puzzle Strike pulls is that of characters. Each person starts with 3 action chips that are unique to that player, and that are tied to a character in the game. It makes for a LOT more variety, and I cannot overstate how much this helps the game. These characters are very asymmetrical, though I’ve seen all of them win at least once. The other chips all represent moves that you can add to your repertoire. You can also buy chips that manipulate your gem pile by shooting gems to your opponent and filling their gem pile with more chaff.

The gem pile is essentially the defining mechanic in the game, since it basically apes the ABC turn structure from Dominion. Players can combine chips in their pile into bigger gems, and then smash those into small ones again and send them to opponents. The opponent has a few moves as well, and can defend by crashing their own gems. It’s far more efficient to crash big gems to your opponent. For example, crashing a “3” gem will send 3 “1” gems to your adversary. You clear out your own pile and fill theirs at a much better rate. Because of this, I often find myself waiting to crash gems, so that I can pound them as hard as I can. But then, your pile is sometimes way too big to manage, and you need to clear space now. It’s a nice little tension that makes the game way more interesting. The size of your gem pile also dictates how many chips you draw into your own hand, so a big pile means you have a better shot at pulling off some awesome combo. Of course, it also means you’re closer to leaving the game.

If you can’t tell already, this is a game of confrontation. It’s not nasty or cutthroat, but you play the other people rather than your own deck. The game doesn’t leave hard feelings, but it absolutely is meant for those who play with their heads up. For that reason alone, I think it won’t automatically appeal to every Dominion fan out there. It’s not really about creating an awesome deck, it’s about clogging your opponent’s gem pile. A sub-par deck can still pull that off, with a little luck. In fact, I find that it’s hard to create a terrible deck in Puzzle Strike. In general, the game is far more strategically flexible than Dominion. You can focus on stringing together a lot of actions to combo your way to victory. You can load up on money to buy the power chips. And of course, there’s the strategy where you focus on buying the purple chips that manipulate the gem pile. Some would argue that the purple chips are too strong. You absolutely cannot win without them, but in my experience, the game allows people to adapt their own strategy as much as they see fit.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely skill here. It’s just that in any given game, there will be a number of different ways to win, and the character you are playing as will guide you even further. Dominion had a lot of variety out of the box, but after about 50 plays, it felt tired and spent. Puzzle Strike is good for far more play-time, and it feels much more satisfying to me. It’s a lean, addictive game, and it’s probably about as wide-open as a game focused around deck-building can be.

Lest you misread me, this game is not for everyone. If you’re chief pleasure in Dominion was to create that perfect deck that hums along and does everything right, then Puzzle Strike will probably frustrate you. And player elimination is kind of a dirty world these days, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a short enough game that the other players can wait around to see what happens without much loss of interest. Still, a lot of people have already balked at elimination, and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. And of course the “puzzle fighting game” setting is more specific and integrated than Dominion’s bland castle-building theme, but it’s also much more limited in its appeal.

And if I have any complaints at all, it’s that the game is impossible to discuss without bringing up Dominion. I cannot emphasize enough that the games are very different, but the mechanical similarities are undeniable. But in the end, that’s a very minor complaint. The proof is in the pudding: I am hooked on Puzzle Strike. It’s rare that a game can capture my attention so thoroughly, but I feel like this one has the legs to stick around for a long time.

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