Friday, 29 December 2006

A Review: Perplex City, The Board Game

Publisher: Mind Candy
Price: £24.95 at Firebox but available many places
Players: 2 up to 4 (individuals) or 16 (in teams of 4), although we extended this to 5 without trouble by improvising some pieces and stones of our own
Age: 15+, apparently
Playing Time: About an hour
Web: (Hint: head over to the mini game to get a free 5 quid Firebox voucher... Also, look out for the bonus cards revealed through an on-line stone hunt.)
Board Game Geek link

There may be some people out there reading this who have no/little idea what exactly Perplex City is (or hereby referred to lovingly, simply as "PXC"). There are also probably many people who do know what it is, but have difficulty describing it to those who don't. Alas, I am one of these people. Still, a quick attempt yields:

PXC is an "Alternate Reality Game" (ARG), which basically means that the game isn't as "self-contained" as many. You buy cards a la football stickers or other Collectible Card Games (e.g. Magic: The Gathering), each of which has a puzzle on. You try to collect all the cards and solve all the puzzles. Simple, so far. But on top of that, there's a whole story going on about a parallel-type world (where Perplex City is). A precious item (the Cube) has been nicked from PXC and moved to Earth, and using the story, clues from the cards, and clues from elsewhere, players have to race to find where the Cube is. It's "Alternate Reality" because it uses the web, e-mail, newspaper adverts, blogs, telephone messages, real-life events, etc, to engage the player. There. Fortunately (for this review), the board game being reviewed is actually relatively isolated from all this. So if you want to find out more about the main game, head over to the link above.

The main connection, then, between PXC and the board game is the Perplexians' (i.e. them from Perplex City) love of puzzles and games. According to the intro, the PXC Board Game goes back a long, long time, and has finally been sent over to Earth to be produced and sold and hurray etc. Other than that (and various adverts on the box/in the instruction guide), you definitely don't need to know anything about PXC in order to play this one. No questions along the lines of 'what is card #235?', or 'Name three whipsmart ice cream flavours' here. (Well, as far as I know - I resisted temptation to look at all the question in advance...)

So the game itself is rather basic, which is reflected in the 'standard' contents of the box, and the thin rulebook. The basic gist of the game is a little like a souped-up, puzzle-ridden version of Trivial Pursuit: questions/puzzles under 6 different categories, with the aim being to collect a special piece for each category. To keep track of progress, players acquire natty little gemstone-pebbles (more aesthetically pleasing than Trivial Pursuit's cheeses/cakes, but you don't get to slot them in to your piece), by landing on particular squares and answering a question from the relevant category.

These categories are a fairly diverse mix, providing a 'familiar-yet-varied' question experience as the game goes on. Numerical trivia, anagrams, odd-one-out, dingbat-style visual puzzles and more graphical challenges all await you and, despite the multiple choice approach used in the on-line demo, you're on your own without options in the real thing. However, one thing noted frequently on the first time played was that many of the sub-genres (e.g. a particular type of visual puzzle) were clumped together 'out of the box'. If you're jumping around the board from one colour to the next, this isn't so much of a problem, but when you're chasing a particular colour, it can be a little amusing/irritating. Fortunately, this is easily resolved by shuffling up the cards something good before play.

Fans of Cranium, Dingbats, Pictionary, etc will be familiar with the 30-second egg timer that is included in the game. (In fact, if you had any of these others, you could always grab a second timer for those moments when someone answers a question and you're waiting for the rest of the sand to fall through... Handy hint hurrah!) In addition to this and the gemstones, you also get a single die, and 4 player 'pieces'. That's in single quotes, as these are actually the same shape and size as the die, so try not to pick up someone's piece as you go to roll for your move... In fact, these pieces are probably my main niggle - the ones in my set were all rather similar in colour (brown, goldish, silverish, grey?), and while I could remember my own, I found it pretty difficult to keep track of who was which other. An ingenious game player/producer might like to replace these cubes with smaller/different-shaped ones, with a greater variety of colour to help poor, alcohol-marinated human brains...

Play consists of moving in lines across the board in order to get where you want to go, with the handy little twist of being able to 'bounce' off the edges. If you land on another player, or on a special 'Challenge' square, you can go for a head-to-head showdown, where the fastest player to answer the question correctly gets to keep/steal (depending on who's challenging) a gemstone. As with the usual 'endgame twist', a player must finish (i.e. get the 6th stone) using a challenge.

So what's the game like to play then? Overall (oop, that's the ending given away), I found it very fun to play (even taking the fact that I won into account ;) The rules are simple and similar enough to other games that they are picked up very quickly, while different enough to offer some fresh ideas. For instance, the layout of the board, and the ability to bounce off edges, means that there is some slight strategy in deciding which direction you move in to maximise your chances of landing somewhere next turn. (Hey, how about a 3D version, eh Mind Candy?) The length of the game seems about right (and probably better if you play with more shuffled cards than we did), and the ability to challenge players for stones means that there can be mad rushes as one player sneaks ahead, or has a stone that other people need.

Ultimately (and especially so for a PXC-branded game), it comes down to the puzzles. Again, there is a nice balance here - not just between the different categories (everyone has a speciality...) and sub-genres, but also across difficulty levels. Many are amazingly easy (especially, it must be said, the odd-one-outs) but there are enough 'stumpers' in there (the number trivia ones are good for this) to stop even the hardiest player in their tracks before everyone else gets bored. Sometimes a flash of insight, or the dredging up of some obscure film trivia, will be greeted with an enlightened face (either to the relief or the frustration of the questioned, depending on whose face it is).

How could it be improved (aside from those things mentioned above)? This is, after all a review, and not an endorsement. For the first venture away from the complex ARGy roots of PXC, it certainly feels like this is a "step down" in terms of simplicity, and - dare I say - originality. Regular players of board games will be relatively familiar with the "move, ask question, answer question, roll dice" theme. Perhaps this is simply an expectation thing - after following PXC for a while, then hearing a boardgame was in the works, I admit I may have been expecting something set, say, amongst the streets of the City, or involving the characters. Perhaps I was even wondering what kind of twisted rules would be invented for the occasion. Still, I guess originality isn't a necessity for fun, and there's certainly plenty of time for other games that do cater to my whims.

And while I'm looking to the future, it's also easy to speculate that Mind Candy have at least produced an expansible game. If they choose to, it would be relatively straightforward to provide more question sets based around different subjects, or for extreme puzzlers perhaps. They could also, theoretically, issue extra board pieces (as fans of "Robo Rally" may imagine) as further realms to delve into. But, aha, my imagination runs away with me.

So, as always, whether you buy it or not depends entirely on you. While I'm sure Mind Candy are doing their utmost to use the existing PXC fanbase as consumer leverage, I'm pretty sure the tie-in isn't strong enough to buy it purely for its PXC brand. However, if you have a group of people that enjoy mental twisters (and the range of puzzles here is mostly broadly appealing) but aren't so heavily into other games, then this might well be one that you can fetch out of the cupboard regularly. Fortunately, then, there are enough example and demo questions scattered around the PC sites to give you a good idea of the kind of questions included, so you begin to put together some fair expectations. Ideally, I'd like to see Mind Candy offer some expansions. While I know they're busy on other projects, they could at least turn out to be the kind of company that take such advice into account...

(I'm avoiding scores in reviews, as I think most games are fairly subjective to person and context. I'd be most interested in hearing thoughts on this review, things I missed, etc, so please leave any comments you like below... Thanks :)

No comments: