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Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack, Part 3

I covered the non-gameplay components and the new chips in the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack here and here, and now it's time for the character chips. There's a complete set of 30 character chips in the Upgrade Pack, even though not all of them have changed. I thought this would be helpful for those who want to play mirror matches with the chips in the base set, such as Setsuki vs. Setsuki.

Let's start by talking about why any of the character chips are different at all. Shouldn't we not really mess with what's already been done? I think there's a value in letting things be for a while. Game balance doesn't have to be perfect, and can't be perfect, and there's a cost to changing balance stuff around. We have to consider the logistical difficulty of getting new chips into your hands, the possible confusion that might surround such an update, that any changes in gameplay in this upgrade pack take weeks or months to test and would cause a delay in working on the full expansion, and so on. It would certainly have been a whole lot easier not to change any game balance of the character chips, so with so many reasons stacked against making changes, why are there changes?

The Call to Action

It's because when a problem in a game is big enough, it demands attention and fixing. Often in board and card games, the approaches to this problem are a) do nothing and b) move on to the expansion and just forget about the base set. Neither of these strike me as what to do if you truly care about a game though. Because I have a serious commitment to Puzzle Strike being a tournament-viable game, if there is any problem in the base set that threatens that, I think I have no choice but to address it. And right now, this is the best method we have.

The main problem, which took months of tournaments to really fully discover, is that Valerie is too good. For those not familiar with the challenges we face in balancing any asymmetric game, the problem *isn't* that Valerie is the best character. That is no crime, and there is always some best character. It's only a problem if a character is too far beyond the "top tier," meaning too much power-difference between that character and the rest. As time went on, Valerie proved harder and harder to beat, dominating tournaments to the point that many players were losing interest in even competing. It's somewhat unusual that it took so long to discover the problem, and it lies in a false choice with her Burst of Speed chip:

For a while, there was an interesting tension between using the chip early (small benefit that snowballs over time) or late (big turn that might just win outright). In the end, tournament players found that playing it at the first opportunity--and usually using that extra turn to buy a Combine--was too good of a play to pass up. It's boring and really powerful. Interestingly, you might not even care about this in your games, because it was mostly a problem amongst the expert players and only after they played quite a bit. That said, if the game is degenerating at the expert level, some fix is required, so a new Valerie was the #1 goal here. Many versions of her were tried, but here's the final change. Burst of Speed is replaced with Three Colors:

Note that Three Colors is a move of hers from Yomi, and it's a series of three paintbrush swipes, each a different color. In a fighting game, it would function similarly to Fei Long's Rekkaken punches. In Puzzle Strike though, it allows her to chain together three actions...if you have a diverse enough deck to take advantage of it! During playtesting of this chip, the most encouraging thing about it was that the very best players called it a nerf (and of course it is, she was too powerful before) but some average players saw it as a buff! That's because they were not playing Valerie in a boring way before, they were trying lots of different strategies with different kinds of puzzle chips, and this new chip enables even more diverse strategies. So boringness is nerfed and fun is buffed, so to speak.

While addressing Valerie was the top priority, there were two other goals as well: address the "mono-purple" concerns and fix an unfortunate "flavor" problem with Lum.


Mono-purple refers to a strategy where you buy mostly purple chips (combine, crash, double crash) and money, and ignore the puzzle chips. Doing this is a kind of baseline strategy that should be beaten by more interesting strategies that use lots of different puzzle chips. The experts were long able to beat mono-purple with several different approaches, but then came the rise of mono-purple Valerie and her too-good Burst of Speed. This problem was compounded by Lum and DeGrey. Those two weren't too good, but they were very strong, and they happened to be most powerful when played in boring mono-purple ways. We got really unlucky that these types of characters ended up so strong, while some more interesting characters ended up weaker.

Puzzle Strike is one of the most complicated game systems I've ever worked with, as it's so deeply interconnected. Now that we know more about the system, I think we can better state the problem. It's that each character gives you a bit of a push in one strategic direction or another, and that if a character gets even a very small push toward buying purples, the game system magnifies this effect and it snowballs in a bad way. The good news is that we can avoid this problem by making sure characters push you in more interesting ways.

The Powerful and The Weak

I mentioned before that we happened to get really unlucky with which characters came out top tier or bottom tier in power. Let's start with the character we got most lucky with though: Setsuki. Her Double-Take chip opens up a world of strategies with all sorts of puzzle chips. There is a lot she can do, and just buying purple chips only is very suboptimal play with her. She's powerful and interesting and exactly what a Puzzle Strike character should be. There are no changes to her gameplay in the Upgrade Pack.


Geiger, like Setsuki, is pushed by his design to play in an interesting way. He's an "engine" builder, meaning he can get a whole bunch of draws and actions going, and he can use a deck with just a few purples that he can dig for. It's pretty cool but there's a major problem: Geiger turned out too weak to be relevant in tournament play. In the testing before the game's release, small changes in Geiger made him either too good or too weak, so he was hard to get right. He ended up too weak, but in the Upgrade Pack he has that same gameplay theme, but a high enough power level that there's another fun character who is a real choice in competitive play.

In Geiger, we got unlucky because such an interesting character was too weak. With Valerie, DeGrey, and Lum, we got unlucky for the opposite reason: because such boring characters are too strong. They weren't intended to be boring, of course, but each of those three characters happened to end up top tier and at their best when they focused mostly on purple chips. Valerie we already covered, so let's look at DeGrey.

In the base game, DeGrey's Troublesome Rhetoric chip was basically never used by experts. We could have replaced it with a wound chip and they wouldn't have even noticed. To me, that is a major design problem, even if it's not a balance problem. Further, his best strategy was to use No More Lies to trash Troublesome Rhetoric, then play a very small deck of just purple chips. Yes it was fun in that it was different from other characters, but it was also like playing a non-character who was just mostly degenerate. This is not the kind of character you want ending up being one of the very best in the game.

It actually took longer to figure out how to address this than it did to fix anything else, but we finally did it. Troublesome Rhetoric is now a chip you'll actually use, and No More Lies still offers you the best trashing ability in the game, it just doesn't do it to the extreme degenerate levels it did before. DeGrey feels more like an actual character now, rather than the lack of one (because he used to just trash his character chips).

Then there's Lum. We got the same kind of unlucky with Lum, meaning he is very powerful and also very boring. He's often at his best just buying purples, while some of the more interesting characters just happened to turn out too weak to compete with even footing against him. Lum has even another problem on top of that though: he doesn't feel like the gambling panda he's supposed to be. (He does in Flash Duel and Yomi though!) Some joke that he is "Lum, Careful Accountant" in Puzzle Strike. Originally, the idea was that a gambling panda would have more money than the other characters, but this turns out not to result in very interesting gameplay. Because his flavor was so far off the mark, I wanted to revamp him to make more sense, along with being more strategically interesting. Poker Winnings is out and Jackpot is in. Also, Panda's Bargain is more gambley and less "you just get tons of money-y." The new Lum, Gambling Panda:

Midori and Jaina were in the same boat as Geiger, basically. They have interesting varied strategies, but not enough power to be used in tournaments. Now they play similarly to before, but with high enough power to be real threats.

That just leaves Argagarg, Grave, and Rook. These characters were in mostly fine shape to begin with, so not much is different. Rook just has a wording change, but the same gameplay. Argagarg is just slightly weaker, partly to help the 4p game and partly because he was kind of dangerously strong in the new metagame. He's still a beast though. The main problem with Grave was that his ability to trash his crash gem on turn 1 and trade it for a 7 cost chip meant that we basically couldn't make any 7 cost chips or it would make Grave way too powerful. He can't do that trick anymore, and he got a little boost in another area to make up for it. And just to prove how fun a 7 cost chip can be, check out Custom Combo from my Part 2 post about the Upgrade Pack.


I know some players will still be upset that there are any changes at all, but as I said at the beginning, I think it was absolutely necessary to adjust game balance in a way that keep Puzzle Strike a tournament-viable game. The best case would be if we had addressed these issues before the original release. We certainly tried and tested as well as we could, and even then it took months of tournaments after release to fully grasp Valerie's power. So given the situation we're in, I think that offering players a rebalanced set of character chips is a far superior option to doing nothing, as would more commonly be done here. I hope you agree.

So that's the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack. So many players asked for playmats, that the four playmats alone are reason enough for lots of players to want it. The screens with the cool 8-bit art are a nice bonus. Some players were dying for a few new chips, and the three carefully chosen new chips should serve you well. Finally, the adjusted character chips power up the weakest characters while taking the purple out of the strongest ones. (You can see all those chips here, by the way.) All in all, I hope you find it an upgraded experience!

Reader Comments (30)

Great changes and a great article.

It's disappointing that there is no upgrade for the old MDF sets but I understand that there is not much you can do about it (except to spend way too much money).

I might consider getting a completely new full set when the expansion ships, so I'm looking forward to the upgrade pack for that point in the future. ;-)

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZ

Checking the game info page, I notice Rigorous Training is now a brown shield instead of a blue shield. Is this deliberate or a misprint?

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSniffnoy

Actually, here's what appears to be an actual misprint (assuming the game info page is reflective of what things will actually looks like): Bubble Shield now only has 1 blue shield icon instead of two. Though I suppose this isn't actually important as people will probably still get the idea.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSniffnoy

Yeah really sorry about that Z.

Oh, the missing bubble shield icon really is a misprint. Luckily it doesn't ruin anything, there is still a shield on it. Rigorous Training shields being brown is not a misprint. Blue shields react to attacks, that's what they're for. But Rigorous Training doesn't react to an attack, so it's kind of misleading to be blue. It definitely needs a shield though because shield lets you know it can react *at all*, in other words "that it can be played on someone else's turn potentially." So now there is an icon for reacts that are not to attacks.

October 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

It's better for the game overall, but a part of me (the part that likes boring guys) is going to miss Lum: Careful Accountant.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBT

Will there be a print-and-play option for those that order the Upgrade Pack? I supposed that one could print the new chips on to a cannibalized spare copy of the Deluxe Edition, if there will be a print-and-play option for the Upgrade Pack.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCynan

Yes Cynan, I'll post about the print-and-play option in a couple weeks.

October 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

These changes look like they'll make Degrey pretty weak, unfortunately =(. His two best chips were nerfed and his new chip also looks like it'll play out pretty poorly.

Don't know why you found his strategy one dimensional before. While it's often good to make a slim deck of purples, he really needs some puzzle support to achieve that in something like Gem Essence, It's a Trap, Roundhouse, or One of Each. Without any of those in the pool, he really can't do much to keep his deck from growing apart from getting lucky, as it'll likely be increasing just as fast as it's decreasing in size. Pilebunker did most certainly need a nerf as it was near impossible to go for any kind of economy against him - coming from Dominion, just reading the chip made me cringe before I even began to play. Really surprised that one saw print.

While I like the nerf to Val and the new chip, I really cannot understand how anyone could reason that not using Burst of Speed at the first opportunity was the right play. Seriously, you end up a turn ahead either way - but one way, you do it without having a wound in your deck the whole time...

Buffs to Geiger are welcome as well and almost definitely needed. Research and Development still seems extremely weak though. The other chips now seem at least reasonable - before, his chips seemed so noticeably weaker than other characters; I just didn't understand. Compare the old Future Sight to just about anything similar and it seems so obviously underpowered.

I love the concept going on here - Dominion with two EVs to keep track of (gems and purps) and asymmetric gameplay through character chips. But I was ultimately disappointed in the execution of the original. Simple things, like having starting decks already have two terminal actions (which leaves little room for terminal action puzzle chips), and having so many terminal actions that draw chips (which increases variance in the game a ton) left me with a sour taste. I might pick the upgrade up, but I'm skeptical.

October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAeka

DeGrey is not too weak based on all the playtesting, so I don't know what to tell you there. His new chip does not "play out pretty poorly." And the old state of having a useless chip and then playing without your characters chips is not acceptable, so he's in much better shape now.

About your claims about Valerie, I guess you are smarter than all playtesters who played the game. Or maybe hindsight is 20/20. if you really are able to spot problems instantly that no one else could in months of play, you should try testing the expansion though.

Again, Geiger's chip is not "extremely weak" based on playtesting.

It's intentional that some character chips are terminal actions. The whole point is you can't play everything and that you have to choose what to play, then later on your engine allows more +arrows to play more and more. So I don't understand how that can even be a criticism. Anyway, I'll let the people who played the new chips extensively explain in more detail why they are not worthless and underpowered or whatever, or perhaps you can play against them on the server.

October 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Valerie was strange. As soon as someone pointed her problem out to me, it became obvious. After having played a decent number of games with the reworked chips, I must say I really like them, and they fix pretty much anything that ever bothered me (such as Geiger's chips being more complicated than necessary).

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

I don't doubt that Degrey isn't overly weak - especially when compared to Jaina or Midori, but I don't really see him being advantaged against Setsuki, Grave, or even Rook or Arg now. New chip reminds me of Browbeat in Magic - except the payoffs are even less exciting and Browbeat was never a good card. Early game, I see players giving you action+draw, and late game, +$2 and pig. I do appreciate the addition of the +pig option to Pilebunker as it helps offset a lot of the awkwardness involved in prematurely forcing a shuffle.

On Geiger's Research and Development - it just seems like a waste of a chip to me. Searching for a combine does little more than smooth out your draws by a single chip exchange, at the cost of an entire chip. Searching for a crash can be useful late in the game as you often want them to be timely and it does more for smoothing out your draws, but it still doesn't actually do anything to increase your gem EV or purple EV.

I realize that the idea was for people to build an engine to support more terminal actions, but, in my experience, it plays out very similar to Dominion in the sense that spending time attempting to build an engine is most often not very optimal for improving your deck. Sure, every so often the pool allows something akin to Village/Smithy/Remodel, but if you're trying to get by with just Village/Smithy, something is wrong with your evaluation. Outside of Setsuki, and characters with a weak terminal action, I just don't see them buying many, if any, terminal action puzzle chips.

I played plenty on the server awhile back, but like I said, the game left me with a sour taste and I'm not very interested in continuing. Still, I wish you luck, as I think the potential is there.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAeka

was the change to Argagarg's Hex of Murkwood tested? Seems like a last minute change that wasn't on the online server until very recently

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCentimetro

Aeka: I think it plays out nothing even close to Dominion, at all.

Centimetro: yeah it was tested a lot (in ruleless mode). You can ask Chumpy and Dan about it. They were quite certain that old hex was a real problem in the new environment.

October 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

What the heck Aeka? The new rebalanced Geiger is a beautiful character, he is a delight to play and feels so "right."

The choice on DeGrey's new chip is pretty interesting I think. I find whether or not I choose to give them action + draw or money + pig has more to do with whether or not my gem pile and hand are vulnerable to a Crash or a pilebunker than with how early in the game it is. Choices make the game more interesting just like Intrigue did for the base Dominion set.

As for character actions being enders, I think Sirlin knew what he was doing here -- if all characters had non-conflicting action choices, then the character would just play itself

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCentimetro

Aeka, you'd be surprised how much you can do with engine characters, including Geiger. While there are similarities between PS and Dominion even now, the ability to harass opponents even while building your engine is a huge difference. A lot of Dom players I know have issues getting the hang of PS until they can make the leap completely and stop trying to play the more static Dominion inside Puzzle Strike.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAtma

Can someone tell what the change to hex was? I'd check on the online server but my computer/browser is having problems with unity (all unity :V) and I am unable to check.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrilly

Crilly: you can see for yourself here:
There are links for upgrade characters and base characters there.

October 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Actually, to my knowledge, players have already started to figure that Burst of Speed was supposed to be played turn 1 by the time the game came out. When I started playing this game, about 2 or 3 months after release, pretty much no one played Val seriously. So even though some players knew Burst was best used early, there weren't many people to show that. The players who did rarely ever went monopurp, after all, Val already has a 2nd crash, why would you bother to buy combines if you already have enough pile control to focus on more money based strategies, or even disruption? A monopurp rush is also surprisingly difficult to do against the likes of Sets and Grave if you don't know what you are doing. It takes practice, but who would want to practice monopurp for that long anyway?


October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteelCoil

Nice to see the logic and reasoning here, even if we had a hell of a time with some of the balancing. The new DeGrey was a major bone of contention for a long time, but is ultimately more interesting despite the loss of the ability to eventually draw your entire deck every turn if done properly. In fact, the matches between the top 3 (winners finals, losers finals, grand finals, and grand finals mk2) included Rook, Jania, Geiger, Grave, Argagarg, DeGrey, and Midori - the only three characters absent from these sets were the new Lum and the former top two characters, Valerie and Setsuki.

Also, Research and Development is one of the single most powerful chips in puzzle strike. With it, you can pull a crash, dcg, or combine from your bag when you need them, and equally importantly, PUT A CHIP AWAY FOR LATER. This helps Geiger synchnorize his draws to keep certain chips (money or enders prominently) together or apart, while still granting the black arrow and allowing any action to follow it. Geiger would be a WEAKER character if he didn't put a chip in his bag while playing this.

Hex was changed to put the new wound in the player's discard instead of their bag.

Also, Jania is an incredibly good and scary character now. The main thing holding her back before was her virtually impossible to win matchup against the old Valerie, and with that taken care of, she can do some incredibly scary things - just look up the grand finals set 1 here.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterx1372

x1372, I think Research and Development would actually be incredibly broken if he didn't have to put a chip back in the bag. Not only can he potentially get more money from it (since he doesn't have to put any gems back) he cycles even faster. The chip basically becomes a cantrip that makes you draw purples 100% of the time. That's really good, better than Roundhouse in the endgame. I'm pretty sure R&D was like that before, and it got changed for good reason. I mean, pigs, topdecks, and putting stuff back in the bag is nice and all, but not really if it's forced. The extra drawing power is usually the better choice, which was why old Future Sight with forced topdeck wasn't a good chip.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteelCoil
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