Puzzle Strike (Third Edition) Review – Sirlin Games
Puzzle Strike – Doing more than chip damage
Puzzle Strike is a deck-building game by David Sirlin that is, esssentially, a board game version of the PSX classic Puzzle Fighter. Puzzle Strike is currently in its third edition, and that is the version that I have and – therefore – will be reviewing. The game comes with a bunch of cardboard chips (332 plus 10 blanks by my count), four bags to draw chips from, a copy of the rules, four game boards, and four screens to keep your chips behind.
In Puzzle Strike each player selects one of 10 different characters (more on that later) who they will be using, each with their own set of three different Character Chips that provide the unique, asymmetrical feel of the game. Throughout the game, players then take turns during which they have the option of playing chips from their hand, purchasing new chips with money from their hand (you are, in fact, required to purchase at least one chip each game) and then discarding your current hand and drawing a new one from your bag.
As simple as that sounds (and Puzzle Strike really is very simple at its core), there is a lot of other stuff going on there. For starters, there are the three Character Chips you start the game with that give each character a unique feel. For instance, Jaina excels at lowering her own deck efficiency in favor of causing fast, massive damage while Grave favors a more balanced, adaptable approach. Puzzle Strike comes with 24 different Puzzle Chips (you only use 10 in a given game, giving you a ton of possible combinations), which each have different effects such as allowing you to play additional chips, giving you extra money, letting you keep a chip from your hand this turn for the next or combining gems in your Gem Pile. And that Gem Pile is the heart of the game. Each turn, you add a Gem to your Gem Pile. If you end a turn with the value of all gems in your pile over 10, you lose. So, how do you get rid of those pesky gems? Well, you can combine them (Combine chips are one of the chips along with the gems you use as money, Crash Gems, Double Crash Gems and Wounds that are used in every game) to take gems of lower value into a single, higher-valued gem. You can also send a number of gems to your opponent’s pile by using a Crash Gem, which allows you to break a gem in your pile into a number of single gems equal to its value and add it to your opponent’s pile. Of course, things are not that easy. Your opponent can counter-crash (send gems back at you) or he might have chips that allow him to take defensive actions in response. Throughout a game of Puzzle Strike you are always trying to build a ‘deck’ of chips that is as efficient as possible while still being aggressive enough to win the game. The use of chips is also fantastic, since shuffling is as easy as dumping the chips back into a bag and drawing them again.
The game supports two to four players, including free-for-all and team play. I’ve spent all my time in one-on-one play, so you can hold that against me if you want. That said, I’m pleased enough with that part of the rules to feel confident in talking about the game irrespective of the multiplayer rules.
Puzzle Strike and other deckbuilding games
So, how does Puzzle Strike compare with other deck-building games I’ve played? For me, it is easily the best of the bunch that I have tried out (note: I have not tried every single deck-builder, and so you might disagree). In particular, I found Dominion to be a little bland, a fascinating engine in search of a game. Many of the other deckbuilding games I’ve tried are uninspired takes on slapping some interesting, branded pictures on that engine. I am not impressed. Others do more interesting things, like trying to simulate to some extent RPGs, these I like much better. But none of the ones I have tried come close to Puzzle Strike. Part of this, for me, is the theme. I am a big fighting game fan (I am not good, but that doesn’t change my affection and respect for the genre) and I also thorouhgly loved Puzzle Fighter. Puzzle Strike nails the feel of it, the chess match back-and-forth. Oh, my opponent is stocking attacks, I need to buy some defense chips. Oh, my opponent is too focused on attacks and might be vulnerable to a high frequency of gem crashes since they haven’t bought an extra Combine or two. It all works in the scheme of the game’s theme, even with the minimalist, functional design of the game (which helps since there’s a lot of text). The point of the game is clear: Build your opponent’s gem pile. How you get there, though, changes every game.
So can I try out Puzzle Strike myself?
If I had to wait for people to play Puzzle Strike against in person, I wouldn’t get to play it nearly as much as I would like. Luckily, David Sirlin has put up an online version of the game that you can try for free (You can also play Yomi, his card game set in the same fictional universe on the site as well). Each week, two characters are available for free play, or you can get a membership ($9 a month) or buy individual characters to have them always available (you can either buy characters by getting gold through playing other people, getting referals or buying gold with money). It seems that most people just play the game against the bots (even I am guilty of this), creating locked games just to have a little fun, but having tried the game online against a random opponent, I can say that playing against the bot is no comparison for playing against a live person, even over the net.
So, what do you think about Puzzle Strike?
I love it. Just love it. Honestly, it is currently one of my favorite board games and expect it to continue to be such for the foreseeable future. It’s a game that resonates with me in the way only my favorite games do. Each of the characters brings an interesting twist to the game, the core mechanics make sense, the goal of the game works for me thematically and between 10 characters and 24 puzzle chips, the amount of variety in the game is staggering. It’s also a fairly quick game, coming in between 20 and 30 minutes in my experiences. Also, the box insert for the Third Edition (no idea about previous editions) is one of the most elegant storage solutions I’ve seen for any game ever. The chips are nice, thick cardboard and – while my copy had a moderate printing error on one sheet, I received a replacement in a very expeditious manner, so I have nothing but kind things to say about customer service. The gameplay feels fast at the beginning and tense at the end as each player tries to build up combos and get their deck working at efficiency. I’ve enjoyed the game so much that I am already looking to get a copy of its standalone expansion Puzzle Strike – Shadows. Puzzle Strike is available from Sirlin Games for $49.99.
If you’ve played Puzzle Strike, I’d love to hear your comments in the comments section. Even if you haven’t, I’d like to hear what deckbuilding games you like or what reservations you have about the game.