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Within an ancient power plant, rickety turbines continue to spin out their high-voltage current. Your job as engineer is to make sure the power gets where it needs to go. But take care -- the value of your hand can change with the flick of a switch!
It's not the best thing to go into a game by comparing it to another game. And really, I didn't go into Voltage (Mattel, 2006 - Brian Yu) thinking about this. I was more excited that Mattel, one of the biggest toy companies in the world, was producing a designer game! Brian Yu, bless his soul, has his name on the cover - of not just Voltage but also Desert Bazaar, both games produced by Mattel. I was excited to see this, but at the same time I had my fingers crossed mentally, since the game will have a larger audience, I want it to be a good one.
And this is where I ran into the comparisons. Voltage reminds me of a typical game from the Kosmos two-player line, specifically Balloon Cup and Caesar and Cleopatra. It felt like a lighter version of both; and combined with the nice components, it makes for a nice, easy two-player game. It's a perfect fit for the Mattel Line and a good intro to people who haven't played designer games like these before. I personally find the game just the slightest bit lighter than I normally want to play, and it usually hits the spot for me only on the occasion; but there are many folk who will want to play this - and often.
A board with four colored terminals (places for cards) is placed on the table - orange, green, blue, and purple, flanked by two scoring tracks - five spaces each. Four double-sided terminal tokens (one side negative and one side positive) are placed on the matching color terminal spaces. A deck of cards is shuffled, and four are dealt to each player with a scoring marker placed on each track. The older player takes the first turn with play alternating between both players.
On a turn, a player has three choices. They can either
-Play a card THEN draw a card;
- Play two cards on two different colors;
- Or draw two cards.
Cards are either in one of four suits (colors that match the terminals) and numbered "1" through "3", or are "Swap" or "Blown Fuse" cards. When a player plays a card, they must play it to either side of the board on the matching terminal. So if I have a green "3", I can play it either on my side or the opponent's side of the green terminal.
As soon as five cards are at one terminal (combining the amounts on both sides), then a set is declared and immediately scored. Players add up the numbers of the cards on their sides and compare totals. If the terminal marker is positive, then the player with the higher total wins; if negative, the player with the lower total wins. Ties go to the player who did NOT play the fifth card. The player who wins moves their scoring marker one space on the track, and all cards are discarded.
Whenever a player draws a card from the fifty-six card deck, they need to examine the back. Eighteen of the cards have a "Transformer" back, which forces the player to immediately flip one of the four terminal markers to the opposite side. Also, a player can play a Bypass Card or Blown Fuse Card: both of which can only be played on the opponent's side of the table. The Bypass card replaces a numbered card and moves it to the other side of the table. The Blown Fuse card simply discards the card; but either way, both cards stay on the table and count as the five cards that make up a set (having a value of "0").
Play continues until one player has won four sets - moving their token to the end of the scoring track. They have then won the game!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: Apparently there's a humorous story in which the producers of the game came to Mr. Yu and asked for input on the quality of the cards. He emphasized that they have a vinyl finish so strongly that they took him at his word and did so, doing the rules in a vinyl finish while at it! Either way, the cards are of the highest quality and have tremendously cool graphics on them of lights that are buzzing on and off. While the theme is certainly just a mask for the gameplay, it's certainly a unique one, and the artwork really helps enhance the game. The scoring markers and terminal markers are made of a translucent plastic and look really nice against the thin, nice looking board. My only quibble is that the "+" and "1" signs are indented into the terminal markers, occasionally making them difficult to see in poor lighting. Everything fits nicely in a plastic insert in a small box.
2.) Rules: Folks, if you're wondering how to write the rule set for a board game, then look at the three pages included with Voltage - they are extremely well done, easy to read, and have important points highlighted. The game is easy to teach and learn, and the rules really help contribute to that. If I was ranking the game for ease, comparing it to the Kosmos two-player series, it would be one of the easiest - more so than Lost Cities and Balloon Cup.
3.) Balloon Cup: Speaking of which, the inevitable comparisons will arise between this game and Voltage. In both games you are trying to win a set and can play cards on either side of the table. I think that while Balloon Cup is the better game, Voltage is easier to learn and play. It's also easily compared to Caesar and Cleopatra (although to a much lesser extent). That's not to say that one can't own both; but if you thought Balloon Cup was too simplistic, then Voltage isn't going to change your mind.
4.) Tactics: The game has some strategy to it, and players must take care what cards they are going to play; but it's actually rather simple. Simply play the cards on your side that help you, and ones that hurt the opponent on their side. With many, many Transformer cards in the deck - the terminal markers get flipped quite often, making it difficult to have any certainty of just when a set will be completed. I've played the game many times now and have yet to see any clear strategy come forth. Everything simply seems rather obvious to play.
5.) Fun Factor: And yet, the game is simply enjoyable to play. It's fun to play cards, flip the terminal markers, and do one's best to win as many sets as possible. There's not that much tension in the game - everything simply flows rather naturally. Again, it's not the type of game I want to play all the time - a bit less than challenging for me, but I can enjoy it for what it is - an introductory game that's simply easy going and fun to play.
So if you happen to see Voltage in the store and might like the easygoing, fun two-player style of play, pick it up. Not only will it send a message to Mattel to keep making these types of games, but you'll have an excellent game to introduce to someone who may be wary about this whole "game" thing. Voltage can probably best be described as a "gateway" game for two-player games. Why not have one of those for when the time warrants it?
"Real men play board games"
NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine
Akin to Rio Grande’s Balloon Cup and Heave Ho, Voltage has an electrical current theme and is billed as “The Game of High Tension”. Players alternate laying of cards on either side of a board, hoping to accumulate either the greatest or least cumulative value, depending upon the polarity of the terminal tokens. Victory goes to the player who first wins four sets.
The deck of cards is comprised of four different suits (colors), with each suit containing cards valued 1 – 3. There are also a few special cards – blown fuses and bypasses – which allow the player to remove or swap a card from an opponent’s side of the board. Cards are played to either side of a board, aligning them with the matching suits depicted upon it. Thus, rows of cards are formed on both sides of the board, and when the total number of cards in a row reaches five, the row is scored.
Each row on the board has a matching terminal token. The token is double-sided, depicting a “+” symbol on one side, and a “-“ symbol on the opposite side. The tokens will be flipped over-and-over again during the course of the game when cards depicting transformers on their backs are drawn from the deck. The player drawing the card flips whichever terminal token he desires. The current polarity – positive or negative – of the token determines whether the player with the most or least points assigned to that row will win the set.
Each player receives an initial hand of four cards, and can never possess more than six. This prevents players from hoarding cards. Each turn, a player has three options:
1)Play ONE card to either side of the board. The card must be placed next to the matching color on the board. The player then draws a card to conclude his turn.
2) Play TWO cards to different rows, but do not draw any cards.
3) Draw TWO cards without playing any cards.
Whenever a player draws a card from deck that depicts a transformer on its back, he must change the polarity of one of the terminal tokens. The idea is to flip a token to the side that will give you the advantage when determining which player will win a set. If a terminal token is on the positive side, the player with the greatest value of cards when the set reaches five wins that set. If the terminal token depicts the negative sign, the player with the least cumulative value of cards wins the set (again, when it reaches five cards).
The difficult part, however, is that there is little control over when the terminal token will flip, as it is solely determined by the proper card surfacing atop the deck. Further, the token is flipped at the END of a player’s turn, giving one’s opponent the chance to either flip it back if a transformer card is drawn, or play a card to that row to alter the outcome. This is a huge random element that many might find too overpowering.
A set is scored immediately when a fifth card is placed in a row. The winner moves his score marker one spot on the score track, and the first player to win four sets is victorious.
The game clearly borrows mechanisms from several popular 2-player games, but there are enough twists to give it a different feel. It is certainly on the lighter end of the strategy scale, but it still offers some interesting decisions. Sadly, so much is dependent upon the surfacing of the all-important transformer cards, and that is beyond a player’s control. This will be a game-killer for some, but those seeking a light, fun game that plays in 10 – 15 minutes should be pleased.