We were kindly given Puppermasters for review. Puppetmasters is a resource management/card drafting game by Austin Koepp (available on puppetmastersprojects.com) where you play as a powerful Puppermaster who can control other beings with their “Strings.” These strings are their power source and a way for the powerful characters to control other creatures to do their bidding and fight in their stead. The game can be played with as many people as you would like to play against, but for the best experience 1v1 or 2v2 is recommended. The game is played over a series of phases and rounds and ends when only one player has health left.
There are few components to the game but each component has a lot of variety. There are Puppetmasters, Items, Spells, Faction Cards, Strings, Health, Scrap, and Gold. To setup, your first step is to select up to 2 faction decks per player. There are a whopping 18 decks in the game. Each deck is completely unique in artwork and playstyle and will contain your minions, called Puppets. You can use the hefty horde deck and encounter a lot of cheap and easy to defeat cards (some literally called fodder) or use the scant elemental deck which has the power to change the play area. The game is very open to using different strategies with each deck. So while the horde deck has a lot of cheap and easy to kill cards, you can still choose to buff up and create a champion with this deck. You are not limited in using the decks as they are “intended” to be used. The full list of decks is as follows: Knights, Demons, Humans, Beasts, Horde, Elementals, Nightkin, Eldritch, Automatons, Scrapdogs, Foliars, Angels, Undead, Cyclops, Aquarians, Cyborgs, Artificers, and Riders. They are all completely unique and feature different costs, weaknesses, strengths, health, abilities and artwork. Once you have selected your decks, you select your Puppetmaster.
Your Puppetmaster is your character and has a health limit that is unique to their character. Most games will have you select your character first, then continue with setup. However, since this game has such a variety in setup, Puppetmaster’s have unique abilities that may not work with certain decks. There are certain Puppetmasters whose abilities will not trigger unless playing with a specific deck such as the Undead or Cyclops. You can still choose to play with these characters but you would be hindered in terms of abilities as you cannot take advantage of extremely useful powerups. After selecting your Puppetmaster, shuffle the selected Faction Decks, Item Cards, Spell Cards and place all tokens within reach of all players. Finally, you will draw 2 cards + the number of players and place them in the center “Arena.” The arena is the place where the puppets do battle with one another and where the Puppetmasters collect their soldiers. It may take longer to decide which factions to play with than it will to set up the rest of the game.
Each game will be broken up into four phases which make a round. Turn order is established by the Initiative value based on the Puppetmaster you selected at the beginning. The highest initiative value goes first, then turn order continues from highest to lowest. The first phase is “Recovery” and consists of fixing a broken string (more on this later), gaining 1 gold and resolving any “Recovery” actions on Puppets. Puppets will also be returned to their full endurance (essentially activating them again for use in the new round). It is important to note that each action taken throughout the phases is done in this established order. So while it is okay for the recovery phase to be done all at once for every character, it should be done in turn order with the highest initiative player performing their recovery actions first.
Once the recovery phase is finished, the Maintenance phase begins. This is essentially the prep and buy phase. You may sacrifice puppets (more on this later), buy items, buy spells, cast spells, equip items and detach items to discard. While purchasing items/spells you pay 1 gold to “peruse the shop” and draw 3 item/spell cards. You may purchase up to as many cards as you can afford. The item cards contain handy things that will affect a puppet’s stats. They contain buffs, debuffs, temporary shields, one use items or even items that can be a nasty surprise like traps. Items may be played to your own puppets or puppets in the arena. They may make your puppets more desirable or make it less desirable for other players. There are also a few item cards that can be played against an opponents puppet. Spell cards follow the same rule but instead of an item, they are a one time use effect. They may only be used during specific phases of the game or in reaction to an event (such as being attacked).
Once all players have finished their Maintenance phase (meaning they have all had the opportunity to purchase spells, items, discard items, or relinquish puppets etc), the Possession phase begins. The Possession phase is where your “strings” come in. Strings are the game’s currency system for purchasing puppets. Each puppet will have a string cost and you must be able to pay the possession amount in order to recruit the card to be in your line. The fun thing with this game is that while you are about to purchase the card, another player may “tangle” the cards by offering to pay at least 1 more string. This can trigger a bidding war and the player who bid the most strings will keep the card. It does not happen often as strings are a precious commodity that you can lose rather quickly but it is a fun element that adds to the game. During this phase you may also use certain spell cards. All players continue to recruit cards until they can no longer afford to recruit any more OR choose to no longer recruit. Once all players have finished we move into the Action phase.
The Action phase is the combat phase of the game. Here is where you choose to attack players, attack cards in the arena, and where the general offense of the game takes place. Cards have several components to them. The armor (denoted by shield) value is a defense that mitigates damage per attack. So a value of 1 would make an attack of 1 equal to zero. The health value (denoted by a heart) is the amount of damage a puppet can take before death. The attack value is exactly what it sounds like, it is the amount of damage a puppet does as an attack. There is also an Endurance value, which is the amount of actions a puppet can do in one turn before becoming exhausted. So an endurance value of 2, would mean that it can take 2 actions and then be rendered “immobile” for the rest of the turn. Should you choose to, a puppet can use 1 additional action and push themselves past their limit. This is known as a “strain cost” and will be paid in damage to your Puppetmaster directly. So a strain cost of -4 will take 4 health points directly from your Puppetmaster. Finally, a puppet may or may not have an additional “Action” available in their flavor text. The action can be performed instead of an attack, in which case they would do as the card reads. Some cards allow you to recover health, deal additional damage or other random things (such as drawing another card for the arena). On your card you will also find the Possession cost and the Maintenance cost. The Possession cost is your cost in strings to recruit. Once recruited, the cost to keep the card will be your Maintenance cost. Maintenance costs tend to be lower but it is not always the case.
Attacking a puppet is simple. You simply declare your attack, compare stats and deal damage accordingly. If you choose to attack a puppetmaster, they may take damage directly or may choose to use one of their puppet’s actions and “block” the attack. The puppets will absorb the damage keeping the Puppetmaster safe. Defeated cards are placed in the discard pile. If the defeated card was from the arena, the player who dealt the killing blow will earn the full gold value of the card. If the puppet was under the control of the player, then only half of the gold value (rounded down) is collected. This makes it less tempting to defeat player’s puppets as they do not net you as much gold. If a player’s puppet is defeated they also lose half of their strings (rounded down) to the “broken string” slot. Broken strings cannot be used for possession but can be recovered one at a time during each Recovery phase.
Play continues in this way until a Puppetmaster reaches zero on their health points. The game can be fun but there are certain cards and characters that seem very overpowered. Pitting The Huntress Artemisia against The Gladiator Ares was interesting to say the least. The Huntress’ ability is that when defeating a player’s puppet, they collect the FULL gold value. This game was completely one sided for a very long time. The Gladiator could only afford cheap cards to begin which lead to the Huntress resorting to attacking the Gladiator’s cards, slowly dwindling away at all strings and making it impossible to collect any gold. Needless to say, the player who was the Gladiator (not saying any names) was not happy with the situation.
Overall Puppetmaster does a good job of keeping things interesting. It has an extremely varied strategy every time you play. Each time you play you’ll most likely play with different faction decks and different Puppetmasters. It would be very unlikely that you would ever try the same strategy more than once. It’s one downfall is that the game feels very one-sided often. There are puppets, items, and spells that can turn the tide very swiftly. It can feel a lot like being in first place while playing Mario Kart when suddenly the blue shell strikes and you end up finishing in 8th place. It is extremely fun to take out your opponents quickly and gain a lot of spells, but it is not fun to be on the opposite side of that.
Language Barrier Playability: Difficult. The game is text heavy and it would be difficult to play this game with a language barrier. The symbols do help a lot so depending on fluency it may be possible. However, if someone does not speak English it is nearly impossible to play with them as you would need to translate every spell card, item card, action etc. It would defeat the purpose of having the cards hidden and eliminate any sort of trap card from being effective.
Replayability: Excellent. With 18 factions and 27 Puppetmasters, it would be very unlikely to every play the same game twice. Especially because you can technically choose how many players and decks you want to play with. It is a very modular game and it will keep you playing many games. Depending on your endurance, it may or may not hit the table many times on the same night as the games can get a little long.
Artwork: Good. The artwork is a little bit of a conundrum. The artwork is extremely unique. It has many artists and each deck has a different feel. The artwork is very well done but the different styles all have such varied styles that the game does not immerse you in a specific theme. Instead of feeling like you are playing Puppetmasters, it feels as though you are playing Puppetmasters with the Horde, Elementals, and Cyborgs deck. It does not feel as cohesive as you want from a game that has such potential for great lore.
Strategy: Medium. The game has a lot to offer in terms of strategy. You can choose to constantly attack and kill everything in sight to gain gold. Then use that gold to cast as many spells as you can to defeat everything in sight. You can choose to bide your time until the time is right. You can power up a single character or recruit a bunch of cheap things and let them die because who cares? They’re expendable.
Quality: Great. The cards are well made, the tokens are sturdy and the game “feels” good. If we are being nitpicky about things, the flavor text could be more ornate. There is one angel card that has no name and we are not sure if that was intentional or not?
Instruction Manual: Good. It is simple to read and well organized.
Organization: Excellent. Everything fits extremely easily into the box. The 18 decks can be divided evenly into the two provided slots. Spell cards and Item cards have their own slots as well. All of the tokens fit snuggly in place as well. This is how board games should be organized. Minimal space, minimal packaging, no bells and whistles. Just what you need, in the smallest possible package, and everything is easy to organize and find for later use.