Street Fightin’, Man – Puzzle Strike Third Edition / Puzzle Strike Shadows review

David Sirlin is a guy who really gets beat ‘em ups – and you’d expect him to, having had a pedigree that includes working on the excellent Street Fighter HD Remix. He’s also pretty good at putting together tabletop games of his own, as proven by the sheer majesty that is Yomi. In my opinion it’s one of the best two player games ever created, truly reflecting the back and forth of an arcade fighter and providing a fun play experience. Another of his games, Puzzle Strike, has been around for some time and has developed a loyal following. Now the latest version is available – Third Edition – with boasts that it’s the best yet… but does it match up to the task?

Before you even get to play, be ready to put some work in; there’s nearly 350 circular chips that need to be punched out from thick cardstock and sorted out into the various sets. Thankfully the plastic insert included is one of those rare useful examples, labelled with the chip types so you know exactly where they should go. When everything has been sorted out, it’s time to begin by choosing a character (there are ten included, all taken from the Fantasy Strike universe that also covers Yomi) and grabbing the three chips that represent them. A few 1-value gem chips will also be thrown into your cloth bag; these are both the game’s currency and what you’ll use to attack your opponents.

Good lord, that’s a whole mess of stuff (and it’s all very nicely put together too).

Gameplay is very straightforward, even more so if you’ve ever played a deck builder. Starting off by drawing five chips from your bag, you then have a few options open to you. As you might expect, one of the central concepts behind the game is working towards building combinations that will allow you to buy more chips and perform actions. Doing so will increase the possibilities to attack your opponents (the game handles between two and four people) – and that’s exactly what you need to be doing.

At the start of each of your turns, you must take a 1-gem chip and add it to your pile. Combine chips will let you push these together (two 1s making a 2, for example) and Crash chips see you throw them at your enemies. Any gems crashed into someone will split back into 1s which they can defend against, assuming that they have the correct chips to hand. Any that aren’t defended are then added to the opponent’s gem pile and if they have ten or more in there the game is over. It may sound convoluted but once you get a couple of rounds under your belt you’ll be hurling chips across the table with reckless abandon…

Once you get to grips with the rules, games are fast. While the main focus is on two-player affairs (indeed, there’s a whole tournament play aspect that centres specifically on that), three- and four-player face-offs are quick-paced, hectic fun. As with many deck building games, learning the rules for each individual type of chip will give you a distinct advantage, but even if you’re a newbie you should have an enjoyable time with Puzzle Strike. Should you be one of those gamers who are intent on learning just how each of the ten included characters work, you’re in for a challenge; there are literally millions of set-up combinations so be prepared to invest some major time. Or, you know, just get on with playing and having fun.

The four symbols: The Arrow bestows an extra action, Piggybank lets you save a chip over to your next turn, $1 means more money to buy stuff and the Circle allows you to draw another chip. Easy!

Everything in the latest version of the game has been streamlined to make it easier than ever to play. The rules are simple to understand but are also constantly evolving – be sure to check out the website for any updated and alterations. The use of symbols is clear throughout, meaning that you can work out what you’ll (hopefully!) do on your next turn in no time at all. Though there’s not an immense amount of art in the game what is there is very pretty indeed, especially in the rulebook. The visual focus is more on the clarity of design and it has to be said that Sirlin and his team have succeeded in producing a striking looking game – no pun intended.

For those who wish to throw themselves deeper into the Puzzle Strike experience there is an expansion available too: Shadows. Entirely playable as a standalone set, you can actually mix and match characters and powers between the two boxes however you please. Shadows offers an entirely new set of chips to play with; I’ve experienced a more aggressive vibe from them though, so if you want to start interacting (ie: fighting) with your opposition much quicker, you may wish to investigate the big blue box as well as the pink one.

As you can probably tell, Puzzle Strike is about as Ameritrashy as games can get. A gloriously arcade-style experience, if you prefer all the luck to be removed from your game you should probably avoid it. That’s not to say that there is no strategy in there, however; adapting your style around the ten chip-piles that are out for that round means a lot of thinking on your feet. Reacting to opponents’ moves is a big decision; do you take a few hits in order to take more chips at the start of a round, leaving you open to a quick loss? Should you turtle up and hope the other players take each other out?

It’s a perfect thing to bring to the table to show ardent video gamers that cardboard can be entertaining too. Could Puzzle Strike be the first great crossover title? I’m thinking it’s certainly a very enjoyable experience that’s even more fun if you get the various tropes you’ll stumble across, but even if you’re not adept in the ways of Capcom and the like you will soon discover it’s a great game regardless. David Sirlin’s design manages to present its theme better than countless other deck builders currently available and I highly recommend it, even over a title like Dominion, especially so if you’re a fan of the genre and a looking for something a little meatier.

If you’re over in the USA, Puzzle Strike Third Edition and Puzzle Strike Shadows are both available now from the Sirlin Games site for $50 apiece. If you’re in the UK you’re probably best off getting in touch with Gameslore who currently stock it for £39.99 – well worth it considering how much is in the box! Ready…? Fight!

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