The question was raised, a few podtoids ago, would you pay $60 for a new Super Puzzle Fighter II. Johnathon Holmes said absolutely. Well, Johnathon Holmes... it's time to put you money where your mouth is on this review of Puzzle Strike: Bag 'O Chips.
Released by Sirlin Games back in February, Puzzle Strike was a new twist on the deck-building genre of board games introduced by Dominion. Sirlin, fresh off designing, but still playbalancing Yomi, decided to do as Nintendo, Capcom and Midway had done. Put his game characters into a competitive puzzle game. At the time, aggressive deckbuilding games weren't really all that known. After all, there was Dominion, Tanto Cuoro, (in Japan only) Heroes of Graxia, (terrible game) and Thunderstone. Of those, Heroes was the only one that actively encouraged ruining opponents days. Soon, Ascension and Nightfall dropped but at the time, Puzzle Strike was pretty much the only PvP deckbuilder.
Which is why what they did next stands as epic. You see, he put all of the cards on thick cardboard chips and detroyed your "deck" to replace it with a nice purple cloth bag. To draw cards, you draw these chips from a bag. When the bag is empty, dump all the used chips back into the bag. So as a gimmick, what they did was pretty cool though it undoubtedly made the game more expensive to produce. Which unfortunately took the MSRP up to $60 though frugal gamers can find it for around $45.
The concept of the game is based around Puzzle Fighter, Magical Drop, and Panel De Pon (Tetris Attacks) whereas gems you "bust" could potentially become a problem for an opponent. But picking your character is important as well, as each character has different talents and abilities.
In the game, there are many types of chips with various abilities all building towards one thing... burying your opponent in gems. The first is the Gem Chips themselves. When placed in front of a player, (referred to as their Gem Pile) these gems are your doom clock. When used in your hand, however, they work like money. Next are Wound Chips, they do nothing... literally. They take up space in your hand. Action Chips are special actions where players can do stuff like make buying chips easier or defend against incoming chips. Finally there are the purple chips which perform actions on the gems in your gem pile. The action chips change from game to game so, like dominion, there's no real setup that will always be there. The gems, purple chips, and wounds, however, are always in the game. The character chips are a set of 3 chips unique to a single character.
So on your turn, you Ante (place a single 1 value gem into your gem pile) then perform an action. If, after your action, you have 10 or more gems in your gem pile, you're out of the game. If not, however, now you get to buy more chips for your bag. Finally, you refill your hand based on your gem pile. The more gems you have, (the closer to death) the more chips you get to draw. With players having to ante a chip in front of them each turn, this means you'll get, at most, 10 turns before you have to deal with the gems in front of you.
So let's talk about that since it IS the core mechanic. Now, one of the purple chips is called a Crash Gem and I'm going to refer to this action going forward as crashing a gem. What a crash gem does is destroys one gem in front of you and sends gem shards to the next player. Always the next player, you cannot choose who to hurt with crashing. The value of the gem determines how many shards get sent to the next player. By default, any gems in your gem pile are 1 Value gems. But the game has 2, 3, even the unblockable 4 valued gems.
When you crash a 3 gem, you destroy it in your pile and the broken down gem comes at your opponent in three 1 value gem shards. These gems are not in their pile yet as any chip with a purple banner can be used as a defense. For every gem they crash, they prevent one of those shards from coming down. If they crash a 1 value chip in their pile, they not only destroy a chip from their pile, they prevent one shard from coming down. Prevent shards from dropping is good enough, but yes, you can send shards back. Here is how that works. If you crash a gem that's higher in value than the shard being sent, (which is pretty much anything higher than a 1) you can send the difference at an opponent. So he crashes a gem and sends one onto you and you, in turn, crash a three. Three minus one equals two, thus you'll send two individual shards back at your opponent. All of this, however, is destroyed by the simple concept of the 4 gem. When crashing a 4 gem, all four shards, plus any produced by other gems crashed at this time, become unblockable and you just have to hope and pray you can get under 10 gems by the end of your action phase.
So with the big gems so instrumental for victory, just how in the hell do you create them? For the most part, a purple chip named Combine. You take two gems, return them to the bank, and produce a gem that's the combined value of the traded in gem. So two 1's becomes a 2, a 2 and a 1 become a 3, two 2's become a 4, etc. Now, you haven't DEALT with the gem, you've just made it a more powerful gem for when you do crash it. A 3 gem is just as bad in your gem pile as three 1 gems.
Now, let's say your opponent has 8 gems in his gem pile and you just crushed him with seven unblockable shards. When he dies, it only takes 10 gems to defeat him, thus any gems over that amount become overflow. In this way, Puzzle Strike has a very "shit rolls downhill" mechanic. Overflow spills onto the next opponent and you get to giggle maniacally because it is FULLY possible to wipe out two or more opponents on a single turn.
If there is one bad thing to be said is a lot of these concepts are confusing to first time players and the battle mats (pictured above) do a great job of explaining the game. They just don't come in the box and you have to find them on www.boardgamegeek.com.
There are also two house rules my friends and I change between in regards to the Wound chips. In the rules, it says you "buy" a wound chip whether you want one or not. These slow down your decks so we have unique ways of playing.
Rule 1: Being Broke Sucks
With this rule, we go with the "you have to buy a wound token" and change it so that you only need to buy a wound chip if you cannot buy anything else. This makes the wound chips much more aggressive as a gameplay emchanic instead of a natural consequence of the game continuing.
Rule 2: Bleed Out The Evil
With this rule, you always acquire wound chips like the rules say. However, if you reveal two wound chips from your hand at the beginning of your turn (during the ante phase), you may trash both chips as well as a chip in your discard pile/hand. This helps balance out the flood of wounds and accelerates decks.
So if any or all of this sounds cool to you, by all means, give Puzzle Strike a try. It's one of the rare successes of mixing the world of video games with the world of board games.