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Puzzle Strike: Casual Play Matters

Thanks to everyone who pledged in the Puzzle Strike Kickstarter campaign so far! It's still going strong!

I recently wrote at great length how important it was to making Puzzle Strike the best game it can be for expert tournament players. While it's nice to know that the game holds up at that level of play, not everyone even cares about that. I mean, is it fun in the first place? How does it fare with more than two players?

Free-For-All Mode: 2nd Edition

In Puzzle Strike 2nd Edition, the 4-player mode has player elimination. If your gem pile fills up, you're out of the game and the other players continue. Also, you can't choose who you crash to; you must always crash to the player to your left. ("Crash" means break gems in your own gem pile and send them to another player's gem pile.)

There's a reason the 2nd Edition worked this way and a reason why the third edition doesn't. Regarding player elimination, while it's not a desirable feature really, it's better than a system with "lame duck" gameplay. That term refers to a player who has no possible way to win a game, but who is somehow still in the game. For example, in a deckbulding game where you collect victory points and where the game ends when the stack of victory point cards is empty, it's very possible for one player to be far enough behind that he cannot possibly get enough VP to win, even if he got all the remaining VP cards. Whenever you have a lame-duck player, you are inviting kingmaker. In other words, if you have a player who can't possibly win anymore, you are inviting the problem of that player making moves that will affect which *other* player will win. And beyond that, it's just a stupid feeling to be in a lame-duck situation.

Player elimination solves that problem. In Puzzle Strike 2nd Edition, if you're not out yet, you can still win. In order to reduce the downtime after you're out, the final crash that puts you over the top "overflows" and can possibly knock out other players at the same time. And besides that, the game is usually pretty fast anyway.

Then there's the other point: in Puzzle Strike 2nd Edition, you can only crash to the left, not to anyone you want. If you could crash to anyone you want, the optimal strategy is both obvious and stupid: you should form a pre-game alliance with someone, and agree to gang up on the other players to eliminate them one by one, then face off with your "partner." Any free-for-all game with targeted attacks faces this problem, and I think any thoughtful design has to do something to prevent or minimize it. Hence your inability to choose your target in the 2nd Edition.

Great, so what's the problem? The problem is that even though player elimination and forced target selection solve very real problems, a lot of people just don't like those things. Also, even though the game usually ends quickly after someone is eliminated, there are unfortunately times where it can drag on much too long.

Free-For-All Mode: 3rd Edition

With the 3rd Edition (and the Shadows expansion), I wanted to get rid of player elimination, but somehow not introduce the lame-duck problem and somehow avoid the problem of pre-game alliances too. This was actually a tough nut to crack, and I think it took over a year to really figure out.

Now, the game ends at the same time for everyone whenever *anyone's* gem pile fills up. At that point, the winner is the player with the lowest gem pile. (If there's a tie, there's a tie-breaking procedure where everyone takes another turn.) Also, you can crash gems to any player you want, and you can even counter-crash to "save" other players from losing. The dynamics that result from this are non-obvious, somewhat bizarre, and quite interesting.

First, you can't really even make a pre-game alliance with someone. If you both decide to double team another player, whichever player in this alliance has a higher gem pile total will realize he shouldn't allow that killing blow to happen, or he'll just lose. In fact, ANY time a player is about to have his or her gem pile filled to the top, that player ALWAYS has another "friend" in the game. Whichever other player doesn't have the lowest gem pile really wants to save the poor player who is about to cause the game to end. Who you're "friends" with necessarily shifts over the course of the game, depending on how poised you are to win when someone else causes the end-game condition.

I urge you to give it a try. I will say that the feedback from playtesters on this mode was pretty consistent. Most of them said, "This mode sounds terrible," then they played, then they said "This is great, I'm never playing the player elimination mode again." Ha! Perhaps it would have been better marketing-wise to have a mode that played terribly but *sounded* like it would be good. I will settle for the other way around though! Seriously though, not having to worry about downtime between games or about a pair of out-of-game friends crushing you every time is pretty awesome. Crashing to whoever you want and protecting whoever you want with counter-crashes opens up even more decisions, so it works out well.

2v2 Team Battle Mode

This mode is pretty self-explanatory. Have you played 2 Headed Giant in MTG? It's pretty much like that. You share a gem pile, and take your turn at the same time as your partner. 2v2 is fun in almost any game just from the social dynamics of it all; it's nice to have someone on your side when you're trying to have a good time.

Custom Clockwork Mode

In Flash Duel 2nd Edition, I put in a mode where you can draft your own character by mixing and matching chips from different characters. People really liked that, so it's in the new Puzzle Strike as well. Enjoy. ;)

Panic Time

You can never get 100% of the people to agree on anything, ever. That is, until this rule. It is the first time in human history that everyone agreed that a thing was good.

The Panic Time rule simulates in a puzzle game when time is running out and the pieces are falling faster. It exists to end games that are going too long. When stacks of chips in the bank run out, players have to ante 2-gems instead of 1-gems. If the game goes a bit longer, Panic Time turns to Danger Time where they must ante 3-gems. If it goes a bit longer than that, Deadly Time activates where they must ante 4-gems (which are *un-countercrashable* in Puzzle Strike!).

95% of the reason this rule exists is for new players, and 5% is for experts. Sometimes new players struggle to build a good enough deck to really finish each other off. (Often this is because they buy too many money chips, because that is a good strategy in other deckbuilding games, but not in Puzzle Strike.) To help address that, the rulebook gives some basic advice on how to play effectively now. But more than that, the Panic Time rule will kick in and help you end the game if your deck is getting too bloated to really do the job effectively.

When good players play, Panic Time rarely kicks in. Like I said, it's mostly for beginners. But when it does kick in during expert play, the experts are thankful. Once in a while, two experts have the opposite problem as the beginners. They each manage to build such a efficient and amazing decks, that they stay exactly equal with each other, and struggle to finish each other off. While this is rare, it's really stupid when it happens, and players will even skip playing the mega-powerful Master Puzzler chip in this situation, because all the good chips it could get them are already gone from the bank. When experts do manage to reach this kind of deadlock (and again, that's not often), an end-the-game force from Panic Time is welcome.


The Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack came with extra components: playmats and screens to hide your chips on the table. Even though these things aren't necessary, they sure help. And just as importantly, they look cool. It's just more fun when there's some extra visual appeal to a game.

The screens each teach a different game rule using amusing 8-bit character art, and if you don't like holding a bunch of chips in your hand, they offer an alternative:

The playmats are now boards in Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition and Puzzle Strike Shadows:

A lot of reviews said that after playing with those components, they couldn't imagine playing the game without them. Ok fine, they come right in the box now, thanks to our success on Kickstarter! And also, the box is bigger so there's even more space to hold the extra components.


Even if you don't care about Puzzle Strike as an intense competitive game, I hope you can appreciate the interesting new multiplayer modes, the Panic Time rule, and the extra components it comes with these days. Show your support in the Kickstarter campaign if you're interested. Thanks!

Reader Comments (19)

It is as you say: When I read about the FFA mode, I was dismayed that this will never work, and lead to a horrible game. Then I played a single game online, and reverted my opinion. It plays incredibly well.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

The loss of player downtime with the new FFA mode compared to the old circle of death is a massive improvement for casual gaming - nobody sits out for more than a couple minutes ( and even that long only happens in the rather rare sudden death situations ). That there's also less kingmaking due to it being harder (sadly not impossible) for a losing player to grief is an added benefit.

Panic Time probably does kick in just a bit more than 5% between good players though - it becomes a purposeful strategy to attempt a finish or to muck with Menelker's Deathstrike.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrabid_schnauzer

The section about Panic Time is dead on.

You mentioned that the playmats are now boards. What's the reasoning for that? I rather liked them as mats.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFry

Glad you guys like the new rules and stuff.

Fry: we managed to include board and screens in the box (and a bigger box) yet get the overall price DOWN (which is pretty magical, really). If instead we used mousepad material and put those in every box, we'd have to increase the price of the game by like $20 or something at least. The are very expensive to make.

April 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

@rabid: He didn't mean it happens in 5% of games. Clearly he didn't mean it happens in 95% of casual games! The decision was based 5% on competitive games, which could be true even if it's a relevant strategy in most competitive games (which it clearly is not) - if adding it improved casual games by 19 times as much as it improved competitive games.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Conkle

Mark: correct. The reason to implement the rule is mostly because of casual play, and not a claim at how frequently it kicks in.

April 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

and here I thought the reason Panic Time was implemented on was as reaction to the triple marathon match between my Gloria and Thelo's Gwen in the "Short Notice" tourney :p

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrabid_schnauzer

I've played Ninja Burger and Munchkin. When playing in FFA mode, each game fell into the traps you've mentioned, and encouraged really unfun situations and relationships between players. I didn't understand how anyone could enjoy them except when playing on teams.

When I read about the new Puzzlestrike FFA mode, I was amazed that people thought it would be bad. It's a really elegant solution and ensures a "true" winner, because to win you have to effectively beat everybody simultaneously to end the game.

It seems like it would be really hard to have a sore loser at the end. Instead, because of all the close-call situations it encourages when ending the game, it seems like all the losers would come away with the "aw man, that was so close!" feeling, which is the best outcome anyone can hope for in competition.

I also love that it encourages cooperation among players in a free for all setting, without falling into all the common traps. That's a feat in itself.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

Thanks brized, yeah I agree with all that. It was a really difficult design problem, as it's not even a Puzzle Strike-specific thing, but a problem with pretty much all FFA games that allow interaction. The solution is so interesting that I am also using it in another card game I'm working on and it's fun there too.

May 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I like the rules for FFA mode until you add certain blues or reds. It gets old when 2 different people play chip damage in a row way before it could happen in a 1v1 (very common), or when someone plays a chip and gains several wounds due to simultaneous really annoying reactions (also very common).

The power level of reds gets really wonky when you can be hit with several of them on turn 3 because multiple players buy them.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskeis

Sorry, I'm a pedant, but you know that's not really 8-bit, right? That's just low resolution pixel art.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvilagram

@Evilagram, yeah, it's not really "8-bit" but it's much easier to say "8-bit" and have people know what you are talking about than "low resolution pixel art."

I usually just call it pixel art, but whatever.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBT

In head to head, it's possible to play 2 Chip Damages on Turn 2, so that's a pretty poor example of the sort of odd interactions that can happen in FFA "way before" they happen in head to head.

In FFA the most extreme case makes it possible to lose the game at the end of your 2nd turn (and in a couple different ways), compared to in head to head where the fastest possible loss is at the end of your third turn (and that's only with Zane lining up a near-perfect Riskonade rush)

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrabid_schnauzer

It is possible for certain characters to play 2 chip damages on turn 2, yes. But in FFA, it pretty much happens when chip damage is in the pool. Imagine several of these 2 on turn 2 characters in a game together? I haven't seen that yet, but I bet it would make a fascinating yet boring game to play. I didn't say it was imba or stupid. I said the power level was wonky.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskeis

@Evilagram - It's art evocative of the 8-bit console era. What should we call it? Pre-16-bit-ite?

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Actually, FFA mode doesn't solve the problem of kingbuilding or alliances. It usually works when all players want to win on their own, but in reality, anyone can sacrifice themselves to let anyone else win, either by using chips to ante more gems, or choosing not to crash when they could have.

Example 1: Two people form an alliance, they don't care which one wins. They use characters capable of increasing their gem piles (with "Playing with Fire", or "Strength of Earth"). As soon as one has the lowest gem pile, the other chooses to end their turn with 10 gems if possible. No one can make them crash. No one can crash for them.

Example 2: You're teaching a group of people to play, and one person gets bored. They wait until their friend is in a winning position, and then pile up using easy to acquire chips like "Risky Move", or less commonly, "The Hammer".

May 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrandin

It really does solve the problem of a pre-game alliance where each player is trying to win. It does not attempt to solve the completely different problem of a pre-game alliance where you are splitting the pot and are not playing to win for yourself. Problem 1 (the solved one) is much more important imo.

May 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

If someone is playing not to win, I think there are other serious problems outside the game.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterApolloAndy

FFA does not *eliminate* kingmaking, nor the potential for a player who is facing an unavoidable loss to grief the other players. Play a couple FFA games with Persephone as a character and you'll likely see opportunities for both.

However, when compared to the prior circle of death, last player standing multiplayer variant it does *reduce* both of those. You could play a couple games with *anybody* as a character and you would certainly see both.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrabid_schnauzer
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