Puzzle Strike is a very cool deck-building game that uses bags of chips instead of decks of cards. But what really sets it apart isn’t so much the chips, which are kind of a fun gimmick but don’t actually change the mechanics. It’s the fact that each player gets to be a different character, starting with three unique character chips that have their own strengths and weaknesses. I reviewed the original game in 2011, and then wrote about the Upgrade Pack early this year, which introduced version 1.1 of the characters. Designer David Sirlin is constantly tweaking and rebalancing the characters to make them viable for tournament play, so there were some small changes that reflected that.
Later this year, though, Sirlin was happy enough with the tweaks to introduce Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition, as well as the first (stand-alone) expansion, Shadows. Both were part of a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly five times its goal. I kicked in for the Shadows expansion to get the new chips and characters, and received my copy a couple of weeks ago. Game Salute provided me with a copy of the 3rd Edition so I can tell you what the differences are, as well as a copy of the Puzzle Strike Advanced Strategy Guide which covers both sets.
If you’re not familiar with Puzzle Strike, you can check out my earlier review for details on how the game works. Here are the main differences between the Upgrade Pack rules and 3rd Edition:
- Different multiplayer modes: no player elimination, plus a Team Battle mode
- Reworded chips to allow for these modes
- “Combine” chip now has a “-$1” value
- A few puzzle chips have been upgraded a bit to make them more useful.
- Panic Time! As chip stacks run out, players will have to ante bigger chips, accelerating the game.
- Custom Clockwork Mode: customize your character.
If you already have the game and Upgrade Pack, you can just refer to the new rules and take a pen to the relevant chips instead of buying a whole new set if you don’t want to shell out for a whole new base game. The Shadows expansion is already built with the 3rd Edition rules, and it can be played by itself.
The Kickstarter stretch goals unlocked a bunch of bonuses, so now every copy of the game comes with player boards and screens, similar to what came in the Upgrade Pack. However, unlike the Upgrade Pack versions, these boards are cardboard rather than the mousepad material that was in the Upgrade Pack. It works just as well, but I prefer the feel of the flexible mats. The other difference is in the material used for the chip bags. The older version had a sort of velvet bag, but these are thinner fabric, more like what you see in a lot of typical Eurogames. Again, the bags work just fine, but the velvet bags had a more luxurious feel.
Another nice bonus from Kickstarter (now sold separately) is the deck of randomizer cards. Picking a random set of puzzle chips can be difficult unless you pull out one of each and shake them up in a bag, and then you have to put all the unused ones away.The randomizer deck has one of each puzzle chip, plus a card for each character (in the base game and expansion) in case you want to randomize character choices as well.
So how about Shadows?
Well, it’s basically another stand-alone Puzzle Strike game, with the same number of components. You’ll get a full set of the common chips like the gems, wounds, Crash Gems, and so on. The rules are also the same as the 3rd Edition set. However, you get 10 new characters, and all of the puzzle chips (24 types) are different from the base game as well.
Here’s one representative chip from each of the new characters:
From left to right, top to bottom:
- Troq Bashar the minotaur
- Sirus Quince, Chief Magistrate of Flagstone
- Captain Zane of the Blood Guard
- Bal-Bas-Beta the robot
- Gwen Grayson the Doomed Wanderer
- Persephone the Oracle
- Gloria Grayson the healer
- Menelker the Deathstrike Dragon
- Vendetta, assassin of the Blood Guard
- General Onimaru of Flagstone
Each character has three chips which influence the type of strategy you’ll use with that character. Troq, for instance, gets some powerful bonuses when his gem pile is high — but you have to watch that it doesn’t get too high, or you lose. Gwen has this interesting “Shadow Plague” chip which actually gives you wounds, but her other two chips are very powerful and can make up for that. Zane’s chips tend to encourage maximum anarchy, affecting many other players at once; Gloria, on the other hand, tends to help everyone (but herself most of all). As with the original game, some characters can be harder to play than others at first – particularly those that depend on strategies that put yourself at risk.
I do wish there had been some more background description of the characters in the rulebook. The characters from the base game are also present in the other Fantasy Strike games, like Yomi and Flash Duel, and you get bits and pieces of their story in those games. Here, though, all you get is some descriptions of how each character’s chips work, but not really much about who the character is supposed to be.
That’s where the Strategy Guide comes in, at least a little bit. The guide has a section on each character, giving an overview of each one, listing strengths and weaknesses, and showing which puzzle chips are good or bad for each character. However, it’s more about how the character plays with just a bit of flavor text, rather than really saying anything about a storyline or the Fantasy Strike setting.
Now, I’m not somebody that has often used strategy guides — in fact, I don’t know that I’ve even seen strategy guides for most board games (outside of games like Chess or Go): it does seem more like a videogame phenomenon. But browsing through the Puzzle Strike Advanced Strategy Guide was eye-opening, and helped me grasp some of the nuances of the game a little better. (I still have a ways to go, and the best way to really understand it is to play the game alot.)
The book starts with terminology used by Puzzle Strike players and some general principles, like when to trash chips and common pitfalls. Then it introduces the Triangle:
There are three main types of strategies in Puzzle Strike, and the Triangle shows where the various characters fall on the spectrum. This means that match-ups aren’t always balanced, and you’ll have to adjust your gameplay based on who you are and who your opponents are. This sort of analysis of a game can sometimes lead to the One Dominant Strategy that always wins, making the game less fun once somebody has figured that out. What’s nice about Puzzle Strike is that there is this sort of rock-paper-scissors cycle, meaning that no single character is better than all the others — it’s all about how you play to your strengths.
The bulk of the book covers the characters, as I mentioned above, and then there’s a section that covers each of the puzzle chips and gives a few tips on using them effectively (and which characters benefit from them the most). If you only play a little bit of Puzzle Strike here and there, I don’t know if you really need the strategy guide, but if you’re considering tournament play or you just like a bit of game analysis, it could be very illuminating.
If you like the idea of deck-building games but despise the constant shuffling, take a look at Puzzle Strike. Despite the chibi cartoon characters on the box, it has some serious gaming chops and can make for deep strategic gameplay. Or you can just “mash buttons” and try to smash each other indiscriminately — either way, it’s pretty fun.
You can purchase the games, randomizer cards, and strategy guide directly from Sirlin Games and Game Salute. Both games retail for $49.99, the randomizer cards are $8, and the strategy guide is $15. The games are also available from Amazon.
Disclosure: GeekDad was provided with a copy of the 3rd Edition base game and strategy guide for review.