Overview: During the Cold War, to prevent a full-on nuclear war, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 501: all international conflicts were to be brought to the table — the ping-pong table. Based on the Penny Arcade comic strip series, Paint the Line is an expandable card game that brings this over-the-top Cold War Era ping-pong to life. Red Tide is the first set, featuring Tycho Brahe (US) and Oksana Svedlovigoba (USSR).
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 35 minutes (per game; you can play multi-game matches)
Rating: A wicked spin on a hilarious concept. Great gameplay; mediocre rulebook.
Who Will Like It? If you like the humor of Penny Arcade (and their Paint the Line comics in particular), this game definitely captures the feel of those — the weird juxtaposition of the Cold War and table tennis, the ratcheting intensity of a ping pong match. It has similarities (so I’m told) to Magic: The Gathering in its mechanics, and also sports some serious ping pong credentials.
Jerry “Tycho” Holkins contributed the flavor text on all the cards, so playing the game feels like inhabiting the bizarre world of Penny Arcade. Mike “Gabe” Krahulik contributed the artwork for the coaches, but the rest is done by three other artists and it blends pretty well. You play the game by rolling a D20, which represents the ping pong ball, back and forth, while using various cards to hit different types of shots at each other. Ok, sure, it’s a little slower than actual ping pong, but it does capture some of the feel of it, and there are some cool mechanics that match up with actual play.
The game comes with a 20-sided die (the “ball”) and 128 cards: 8 Escalation Index cards, and two pre-built 60-card decks, one for the US team and one for the USSR team. Each deck has one coach card, and the rest are Stamina, Basic Shots, Trick Shots, and Shot Enhancements. Trick Shots and Stamina cards are specific to a particular nation, but the Basic Shots and Shot Enhancements can be used by any nation — the idea is that if you buy two copies of the game (or boosters later) you could build your own deck to customize your play style. As it is, there is some overlap between the US and USSR decks but they do not share all of the same neutral cards.
The cards themselves are actually very thin and somewhat flimsy, floppier than your standard poker cards. They do shuffle all right, but they just don’t feel like they’re going to hold up well. That’s too bad, because the artwork, layout, and effects are all done pretty well. One thing that would have been nice is to have different card backs for the couple of cards that do not get shuffled into a deck: the coach cards are kept separate, and the Escalation Index cards are also separate: I’m not sure why these don’t have a different back to them, other than cutting costs.
The D20 is standard sized, white to look like a ping pong ball with light green numbers. I’m not sure if the green numbers were so that it still looked mostly white, but they can be a little harder to read from across the table. At the bottom of the cardboard divider that separates the decks and holds the D20 there’s a “Serve” token printed on the cardboard, with a scissors icon indicating that you should cut it out to keep track of whose serve it is. Certainly you can find something that will serve just as well (if, like me, you don’t feel like cutting up your box) but it seems weird that they couldn’t put something in there for you.
And that leads to something that’s noticeably absent: something to keep track of your score. Again, you don’t need a bunch of them — you play to 11 points — but I would think that something as simple as a single sheet of punch-out chits would have done nicely for the points and the serve marker. One last thing: some of the cards refer to “shot tokens” — you’ll need something for those as well, because that’s another component that isn’t included.
Components-wise, Paint the Line is actually a bit disappointing, which is surprising to me for the Penny Arcade brand, and particularly for a game that has Game Salute’s “Springboard Seal of Quality” on it.
Each player gets a deck of 60 cards — if you have multiple sets you can build your own deck within certain guidelines. The Red Tide set comes with two pre-built decks, one for each nation, so you can just shuffle and play.
The coach cards are set aside — these are special one-time-use cards with a stronger ability — and the rest are shuffled. The Escalation Index cards are set in a pile face-up, with the “6” showing on top. Each player draws a hand of seven cards, and then rolls the D20 for initiative (serve).
On each turn, you ready any Stamina cards you have in play (on the table), draw a card, and then you may do each of these actions once:
- Put a Stamina card from your hand into play.
- Untap one shot card in play once.
- Recycle to draw more cards — for every two cards discarded (from your hand or the table), draw one from your deck.
- Play as many cards from your hand to the table as you have Stamina to pay for.
- Hit one shot card or use the Default Shot. For a shot card, you may use one that is already in play (if it’s ready) by paying the Stamina cost, or you may hit one that you played from your hand this turn for free (since you’ve already paid the cost to put it into play).
- At the end of your turn, you must discard down to 7 cards.
A clarification: when you use a shot, you “double tap” it, turning it around 180° so it faces your opponent. When you “untap” a card, then you turn it back 90° — but it cannot be used until it has been untapped twice and is back in “ready” position, facing you. If you play the “Default Shot,” you’re rolling the die without playing a shot card, so typically you won’t have any modifiers.
The Escalation Index shows you your target number for your shot. You have to roll the die and match the number on the index — but your shots can affect this, either adding to your roll or subtracting from your opponent’s return shot. Every time you successfully hit the ball, you flip the top card of the Escalation Index, increasing it by two. Once the Escalation Index reaches 20, it stays there until somebody scores.
If you fail your roll, then your opponent gets a point, and serve switches players (regardless of who scores). A natural 20 on the die is an automatic success regardless of modifiers, and a natural 1 is a fail. After a point is scored, all cards are set back to “Ready” for the next volley. The game ends when one player reaches 11 points. (You don’t have to win by two.)
There’s one more thing: the shot cards are all Lob, Spin, or Drive. If you return a shot that gives you an advantage over your opponent’s shot, you get to use the “advantage” modifiers instead of the “normal” modifiers. The game uses a Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic for advantage: Lob has advantage over Spin; Spin has advantage over Drive; Drive has advantage over Lob. This is indicated on the Escalation Index cards, plus each shot card shows its own type as well as the type it has advantage over. (Or, as the rulebook suggests, you could use the simple mnemonic LSD.)
Paint the Line is a lot of fun; it is only the quality of the components and the rulebook that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. Even so, the fun factor may trump the component quality in this case.
The game starts off slow, particularly if you can’t draw any of your Stamina cards to play anything else in your hand. The first few volleys may not go very high — with only a few Stamina, you can only afford basic shots and some of your more affordable trick shots. But once you’ve built up your arsenal with a hefty repertoire of shots, things can get really interesting. Since your Stamina resets at the beginning of each turn, you’ll be able to use powerful shots every turn — and then the trick becomes whether you’re trying for advantage (to get the bonus stats) or if you need to use something that helps you get the ball across the net.
It’s a clever setup. Lobs are defensive shots, which means they’re easy to hit: you get to add a bunch to your roll to help you hit the Escalation Index. The trouble, though, is that it sets you up for a Drive, which has advantage. And Drives are offensive shots: they usually don’t add to your own roll, but they subtract from your opponent’s. So if you manage to hit a Drive over the net, then your opponent will have a really hard time returning it … unless they Lob again. Spins are sort of in the middle; they can add a little to your roll and subtract a little from your opponent.
There are also some very powerful Shot Enhancement cards. Some of these are single use, and the most powerful will actually drain your Stamina — meaning you discard them instead of tapping them. An example is the titular “Paint the Line” card, which gives you a +8 on your roll and a -8 on your opponent’s return. The other one is the “Impossible Return” which lets you return any shot — at a permanent cost of 4 Stamina. The trick is using your combination of cards, but with the D20 a lot of it still depends on how well you roll.
I love the theme, but what really sells it is the combination of artwork and Holkins’ flavor text. Each card has a little tiny quote at the bottom, but you could imagine them being lines from a cheesy ’80s movie about Cold War table tennis. From the “Minutes to Midnight” card: “It is later than you think, my American friend.” Or the American “Naval Bombardment” trick shot: “We can’t hit the ball, no. But we can hit everything else.” The story behind the development of the game is fantastic, too. Fellow GeekDad Matt Morgan covered it for MTV Geek here.
I do have some gripes, though. First up is the fact that the rulebook leaves out some important information. Most specifically, there are some cards that talk about “shot tokens,” but these are never explained, or even mentioned, in the rulebook. Again, this is apparently something that Magic: The Gathering players would be familiar with — but I’m not, and it’s not intuitive. Here’s an explanation from Xavier Vargas on BoardGameGeek.com — this really should have just been in the rules. But also, presumably you’ll need something to stand in for those shot tokens, whether it’s dice or chips or what have you — it’s another extra component that I didn’t realize I needed until that card came up in play.
The other complaint (as I mentioned above) is that the components do feel a little bit like they’re cutting costs. As fun as the game is, it’s hard not to hesitate a little, considering the $30 price tag for sub-par cards and still having to provide your own points trackers and shot tokens. I’d think that a Penny Arcade game would have the financial wherewithal to ensure that their components are top-notch, but maybe I’m assuming too much there.
One last thing: the game will most likely take you more than 35 minutes the first time you play it, because of all the reading. With any game that has a pile of unique cards, each with its own modifiers and interactions, knowing the cards (in both your deck and your opponent’s) is a key part of being able to play the game and make decisions quickly. If you have to stop to read nearly every card you draw before you can decide what to play, it will take a long time. This problem, fortunately, will diminish as you play it. I’m looking forward to the time when a game of Paint the Line will more closely approximate an actual game of ping pong, time-wise.
Will you like it? Check out the original Paint the Line comics, and see what you think of those. If it makes you laugh, so will Paint the Line: Red Tide. If they just make you scratch your head, then you may not care for the theme — but you might still enjoy the table tennis aspect. You can purchase the game from the Penny Arcade store, Game Salute’s online store, or at a Game Salute Select Store near you.
WIRED Great mechanics that lead to intense volleying; captures the weird blend of Cold War and ping pong from the comic.
TIRED Flimsy cards. Rulebook assumes you know how to play Magic: The Gathering and omits info.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.