The deck-building games Dominion and its immediate descendant Thunderstone have been accused of being multi-player solitaire. While I love both games, there is truth to the allegations; there is very little direct player interaction. Puzzle Strike takes the core deck-building mechanics of Dominion and marries them to the direct conflict present in the video game Puzzle Fighter. While Puzzle Strike has some rough edges, the marriage succeeds admirably.
Puzzle Fighter is a competitive video game in which two characters fight by each playing a Tetris-like falling-block game. When a player successfully removes blocks from his own game, penalty blocks appear on his opponent's side, complicating matters and driving his opponent closer to losing. Swordfighting in the video game Puzzle Pirates is similar. David Sirlin strove to capture the feel of Puzzle Fighter in Puzzle Strike and is successful. (That Sirlin did development on a later version of Puzzle Fighter may help explain this.)
Players begin with a "deck" of poker-sized chips made of very thick cardstock. The deck has gems (money), a few character-specific chips, and a "crash gem." Each turn a player draws a gem from the bank of unused chips and adds it to their "gem pile." If the total value of gems in your gem pile is 10 or more at the end of your turn, you lose. Note that the gems in your gem pile and gems in your deck are not related, despite using the same types of chips. On your turn you'll have a hand of 5 chips from your deck. You'll buy new chips from a stock of 18 options in the bank, some of which are selected randomly each game. The chips offer many options, but the most important two are combine gems and crash gems. Combine gems have the ability to merge gem chips together: a pair of 1 chips becomes a 2, a 2 and 1 become 3, a pair of 2s or a 3 and a 1 become the largest: a 4. Crash gems take a gem from your gem pile, breaks it into smaller, more annoying gems, and move them to your opponent, pushing him closer to the game-ending 10. Larger gems, created with the Combine gems, are larger threats.
The video game Puzzle Fighter often remains exciting up to the end, in part because while a nearly full gem pile is dangerous it also provides a lot of ammunition to potentially fire at your opponents. Puzzle Strike captures this in part by letting you draw more chips as your gem pile grows. As you enter the end game, fast swings back and forth are possible. You'll regularly almost knock each other out, in the process clearing out your gem piles, then return to the fray. Most games of Puzzle Strike are exciting up to the last moments.
The swingyness of Puzzle Strike is occasionally frustrating. Sometimes you'll lose because of skill, but when you're riding the edge you'll occasionally lose because of bad luck. However, with a typical 2-player game only taking about twenty minutes, I didn't mind, especially since sometimes you'll win a close match thanks to some dumb luck.
While games generally take twenty minutes, they will occasionally run much longer. Two of our first twelve or so games had ponderous mid-games. The game forces a player to add at least one new chip to their deck each turn. Over time this can bloat out a deck, reducing their turn-by-turn effectiveness. This encourages players to move quickly, to select chips that prune dead-weight, and to build an efficient economy so they afford better chips instead of being stuck with a glut of weaker chips. Unfortunately, especially with new players, there is a real risk of reaching the mid-game and not having a tight enough deck to make serious attacks. When this happens, the game turns into a slow grind as the players try to recover. In both of the games where it happened to us, we eventually recovered and finished the game, but the game stretched out to 40 or so unfun minutes. I suspect that depending on the chips available in the back, it may not be possible to recover. I suspect that with skilled players this case will diminish to zero, but it can make for the occasional frustrating game for new players.
Players will have 18 different chips to select from each turn. 10 of these are chosen from a set of 24, creating variation each game. Unfortunately Puzzle Strike's essence is using combine gems to create large gems in your gem pile, then sending them over with crash gems. Crash and combine gems should be your primary purchase targets, a focus reflected in the distribution of chips in the bank. In Dominion a different set of cards creates very different gameplay. Puzzle Strike games all have a certain sameness, with the varying chips providing only a little bit of spice.
Like its Street Fighter inspirations, you pick a character. Each of the 10 characters has 3 unique chips. In the opening game this creates asymmetry of play. Different characters feel different and force divergent tactics, increasing the complexity of play. By the mid game the chips you have purchased overwhelm the character chips, but the asymmetry lingers. The result is more satisfying that Dominion's initial setup, which relies on dead-weight cards and only delivers slight asymmetry.
The very different characters do create a balance issues, especially in casual play. Some of the characters have clear advantages that are easy to play. For example, Grave's Martial Mastery lets him trade weaker chips for more powerful chips, then take another action, allowing him to quickly ramp up his economy. Many characters are either inferior or at least require a large amount play and study to make effective use of. In the hands of a new player, their character can be the difference between an easy victory and a hopeless cause. This isn't surprising given Sirlin's background in balancing fighting video games; he has called out as a feature that expert level players may find characters balanced while new players do not. It suggests that Sirlin views his target audience as people willing to heavily invest time into Puzzle Strike. This may be a problem for board game fans who prefer to bounce around between games. For someone introducing the game to others, it's a definite problem. In practice it appears that as owner of the game I'll need to play a few dozen games to identify the easier characters and recommend them to new players.
As for in the hands of a skilled player, I don't know and probably never will. With ninety possible character match ups, learning is difficult. I have played about a dozen games and I don't feel like I'm making much progress. I'm trying the seemingly weaker characters, trying to make the most of their unique chips and not seeing an improvement in their play. I don't foresee playing the hundreds of games I expect are necessary to appreciate the characters in depth. In the video game Puzzle Fighter, a match is over in just a few minutes, you can start a new match instantly, and if you can't find a human to practice with you can play against the computer. Racking up a hundred plays of Puzzle Fighter isn't too hard. Puzzle Strike games last about twenty minutes, take time to set up and clean up, and require at least one opponent. Building up Puzzle Strike expertise will be a long, hard road.
Physically Puzzle Strike is quite nice. While $60 is a bit expensive for a board game, it was went spent. The chips themselves are printed on extremely thick cardboard; they are satisfying to hold. The sheets they came on were cleanly punched out; there was no significant flashing and certainly no tearing as I removed them.
The chips are a featured element of the game; the current edition is even titled, "Puzzle Strike: Bag of Chips." Sirlin has claimed that they provide a significant benefit over cards because shaking a bag of chips is much faster than shuffling a deck of cards. Indeed, it's not uncommon in Dominion to still be shuffling your deck when your next turn arrives. Shaking the bag of chips is faster. But there is more to speed than shuffling. Cards are used for so many games because cards work very well. The store of available chips in Puzzle Strike is 18 stacks of chips. Setting out these stacks is more complex with chips than cards. Where 20 cards is a small, very stable deck, 20 Puzzle Strike chips is a tall tower prone to collapse. Simply pulling stacks of chips out of the tray requires a bit of care to avoid an explosion of cardboard and a few minutes of hunting lost chips off the floor. Perhaps more serious than the slowed setup, the chips are much slower to draw and use than cards. A player wants to keep their hand of chips secret from their opponents. It's difficult to hold the starting hand of 5, let alone the hands of 7 or more common in the end-game. Instead it's necessary to keep the chips face down on the table, peeking under them to remember which is which. When drawing chips out of the bag it's difficult to tell which face is up. Player are forced to either carefully feel each chip drawn before pulling it out of the bag, or to draw the chips out in a fist and try to discretely flip over some of them. As a whole, the time savings is dubious. For this reason alone, I recommend considering the "Print-and-Play" option which gives you PDFs of cards. It will take a lot of effort to create the decks, but I believe they will be superior to the chips in actual play.
Like Dominion and Thunderstone, the game is kept fresh in part by randomly selecting a subset of the cards or chips to use. Unfortunately unlike Dominion and Thunderstone, Puzzle Strike doesn't provide a set of cards or chips for the purpose. You can pull out one of each chip type, but then after you have selected your subset you need to return the rest. A small deck of cards to help randomly select chips would have been a nice addition.
The box comes with a plastic tray to sort and hold the chips in, and the chips stay in the tray when the box is closed, even if the box is flipped or shaken. The tray has labels marking the general categories of chips, which helps in locating the chips you want. Unfortunately finding specific chips is a bit slow, since there aren't specific labels and the chips are on-edge in the tray.
The game comes with four perfectly fine bags for shuffling and drawing chips from. Unfortunately the bags don't fit on top of the tray. If you place the bags on top, the box won't shut. There is plenty of space under the tray, but the tray is snug in the box, making me worry that I'll crack the plastic repeatedly removing and inserting it.
Puzzle Strike is fun. Sirlin deserves praise for three big accomplishments: he captured the feel of the Puzzle Fighter video game, he created a game that tends to stay exciting right up to the end, and he created a deck building game that places direct inter-player conflict right at the center. Unfortunately it has balance issues for new players and a certain sameness even as the available chips change. At $60 for the chip version or $10 and labor for the print-and-play version, I weakly recommend it.
On the up side, you can check out the rules (PDF) then go play online, so if Puzzle Strike sounds appealing go play! When you get there, select the Puzzle Stike icon in the top left corner; it defaults another Sirlin game, Yomi. Unfortunately the online version requires the free Unity Web Player and thus only works on Windows and Mac.