Given that the majority of my offline games of Dominion are against the TaoLing, I figured I’d take a shot on Puzzle Strike and it’s now arrived. The rules clearly acknowledge Donald X., and while not a Dominion Clone, it’s so similar that the TaoLing was instantly referring to cards by their Dominion equivalents. (“I’ll buy a silver.”)
The obvious novelty is that you use chips instead of cards, and just dump them into your bag to reshuffle. As someone who can’t stand certain textures (velvet and corduroy in particular), the provided bags instantly rubbed me the wrong way. That’s why I stocked up on Crown Royale bags. But I will say that did make it easier for TaoLing to shuffle, and I like the aesthetic (the backs look like poker chips).
The true novelty is in how you win. Puzzle Strike is firmly in the “Player Elimination” mode … each turn you ante (get) a 1-value chip into your gem area. (Distinct from your hand, discards, bag). At the end of your turn you refill to 5 chips, but get a bonus chip for every 3rd point of gem you have … except that you lose if you end with 10 or more. The main (‘available every game’) actions let you combine two gems into one larger one (“Combine”) or send a single gem (of any value) to another player’s area (“Crash”). Crashing a gem breaks it back into 1-gems. So if you crash a 3, your opponent gets three 1-value gems. You can counter a crash with a crash, except that four value gems are unblockable.
The other big difference is that each player has a character, which have 3 unique chips. In the games I played, one character a big finisher (trash a chip from hand or discard to play it twice) and some cantrips, while the other had a crash-counter, a versatile utility (money or draw or hold a chip until next turn), and a remodel.
So, unlike Dominion, each player differs from the get go. This means that (for a 2 player game), the base game has 45 different starting setups for each standard dominion setup (25 choose 10).
Many of the effects are straight out of Dominion, but there are some twists. You can automatically split up your purchase into as many buys (and you are forced to buy each turn, taking a wound chip for free if you have no money). Actions come in flavors (red for attack, blue for reaction, purple for combine and crash and biege for everything else) and many of the “+ X actions” will restrict them (such as “+ 1 Red action”). The “You may set aside one chip for your next hand” symbol (a piggy bank) is a clever addition, and interesting decision.
I haven’t tried four player, but the big news is that when you crash you crash the player next in line. So there may be multiplayer weirdness (“I could crash the next guy, but I think he can take out player C and my setup can’t…”).
Ignoring those potential issues (which are theoretical, as of now)Puzzle Strike produces a nice ebb and flow. Gems enter the play area (via Anteing) and tend to bounce around, although counter-crashing removes them You don’t mind (and may prefer) having a mid-range number of gems, and you might even want to end a turn at 9, for the 3 chip bonus, but it’s risky. In our second game, I managed to set Aidan to 11 (you have until the end of your action phase to drop back below 10), but he had an 8 chip hand and could barely clear out, back to 9. I did a bunch of combining (so I could send several chips across) and ended at 6, only to discover that a) Aidan’s 8 chip hand had “+2 Actions” and a crash (and double crash) and b) I had no defense in my next hand.
Having played probably 750+ games of Dominion (mostly online, but nearly 200 FTF, mostly against Aidan), I’m still finding new things here and there in a Dominion setup, but having a new game to explore is a breath of fresh air, and I suspect Puzzle Strike’s base set will be much more difficult to master than Domnions. (A good thing, as I don’t expect an expansion).