Thursday, October 15, 2015

Quick Review - Pentoggle - Kickstarter Preview

Quick Review - Pentoggle - Kickstarter Preview

Designer: Douglas Jones
Publisher: Unpublished
Pentoggle (formerly Match 5) is an abstract tile matching game for 2-6 players, with a unique twist.  It is for ages 7 and up and plays in about 45 minutes, all of which I'd say is fairly accurate.  The game came to me a few weeks ago from Douglas Jones and is currently unpublished.  Although the rules were solid the prototype I received was obviously handmade and the game seems to be quite a ways from production.  But the game premise sounded interesting to me, so I agreed to review it.  I've been told that eventually it'll be on Kickstarter, but there is no definite schedule yet.  I'll update here when I have more information about production plans and pricing (I'd expect it to MSRP for about $35-$40).

At first glance Pentoggle's overview sounds very much like Qwirkle, except you're matching sets of 5 tiles instead of 6, and numbers/colors instead of shapes/colors.  Even the rules are very similar, sets can be the same color but different shapes numbers or the same shape number but different colors. Players have six five tiles in their hand and can play one or more to connect to or extend a set that has already been played. When a set of six five tiles is completed the player gets a bonus of six ten points.  After you've played your turn you draw tiles from a bag back up to a full hand.

Honestly, when I read the description of the game I wasn't expecting much more than Qwirkle.  And while Qwirkle is a family favorite, I didn't think I'd need something else that seemed like basically the same game.  But a few features of Pentoggle caught my attention and I agreed to review it.  Heck, if I liked Qwirkle this couldn't be all that different, could it?
Bright, colorful tiles are used in Pentoggle.

But it's the few differences in Pentoggle that really make it shine.  Whereas in Qwirkle the tiles are square where all four sides can be linked, in Pentoggle the tiles are hexagons where only three sides can be linked.  That might not seem like a huge deal, but it really adds quite a bit to the spatial organization that your mind has to figure out.  Oh, and did I say only three sides of the Pentoggle tiles could be linked?  Actually it's four sides.  That's right, the tops of the tiles can have other tiles stacked on them to create vertical sets that tower over the table!  This add a whole new dimension (pardon the pun) to tile matching games!
The game grows horizontally as well as vertically!
Scoring is also a bit different in Pentoggle than in Qwirkle.  Instead of each tile being worth one point, a la Qwirkle, each tile is worth points equal to the number printed on the tile.  This means a series of tiles can be worth anywhere from 5 to 25 points, plus a ten point bonus for the player that completes the series.  Just like in Qwirkle, when you add to a series you score not only for the tiles that you played, but also all tiles in the series they continue.  And when tiles are placed that connect multiple series the scores can get really wild!  Although most single turn scores average around 15 points, we've had single-turn scores reach into the 50s!
Every game creates its own little sculpture as it grows!
Also, unlike Qwirkle, once a player goes out, everyone else gets one final turn, then any tiles left in their hands is subtracted from their scores.  Although, in all the games I played, this only amounted to a few points lost for several players (many were also able to clear their hands in that last turn, too).  Final scores are usually in the 150-500 point range, depending on the number of players.
Here a 1 is played for 10 points.
Pentoggle also has Wild tiles, which can count as any number/color.  Wild tiles are worth zero points when played, but if you have any in your hand at the end of the game you'll lose 25 points.  This generally isn't an issue since you'll always get one turn after someone goes out, however if you get stuck with two in your hand when that happens you're out of luck since you can only play one Wild per turn.

The last bit that is different than Qwirkle is tile locking.  This is an interesting mechanic where, once a series is complete, the open horizontal sides on the first and last tiles in the series have small wooden cubes added to them to indicate that they can't be built onto any more.  If a series has already been started off the end tile of a series that is about to be completed, it can remain.  And vertical series can still be started off of the end tiles.  Tiles in the middle of a series can still be built onto. Once a vertical series is complete a lock cube is also added to the top of the stack to indicate that it is complete.  This makes the growing tile grid a bit more restrictive and means strategies need to be planned to take this locking into account.
Wild tiles and locking cubes add an interesting aspect to the game.
The components in Pentoggle are pretty standard for what you'd expect in this type of game.  I'm not sure what a final game would be since what I played was an obvious homemade prototype, but hopefully a production game would have very similar tiles.  They were made of large wooden hexagonal blocks, about 1/75" wide by .75" thick.  This is quite a bit bigger than Qwirkle tiles but I don't think they should be made much smaller in a production game.  The big tiles are nice to hold and are easy to see and stack.  Smaller tiles might make for a smaller bag and more portable game (e.g. Hive sized tiles), but since the numbers have to be written on the sides (to facilitate stacks and also indicate which sides can be connected) they can't really be any thinner and the breadth of the tiles makes them easy to read and stack.
The big blocks are great fun to play with.
The one thing that does need to be done better though is screens.  Since the tiles have their numbers and colors on the sides you can't stand them up and keep them hidden like in Qwirkle, so you need screens to make sure your opponents can't see your tiles.  The screens I got in the prototype were just half sheets of cardstock, which were pretty much useless.  A production game needs larger screens made of a sturdier chipboard material.  I'm sure any kind of production game would have better quality screens though.
The prototype screens need a little work, but they're functional.
Final Thoughts:
I really, really liked Pentoggle.  Before I played initially I didn't think it would bring enough different to the table to replace Qwirkle.  And after one play I had mixed feelings.  The scoring is more complex than Qwirkle since each tile is worth a different number of points and that ended up creating a very messy score sheet for the first game.  I created a column for each player and then used tally marks to keep score.  That was fine in the first few turns when scores were 2-15 points, but very quickly the scores turned into 30-50 point turns.  I made a TON of tally marks and spent most of the time scratching little lines on a piece of paper instead of focusing on what I could do on my turn.

On subsequent games I started grouping scores in groups of 10, 5, and 1 by using X, V, and tally marks.  So if a score was 39 points I'd put three Xs at the top of the player's column on the score sheet, a V in the middle, and four tally marks at the bottom.  Then if their next turn was 18 points I'd add another X to the top, another V in the middle, and three more tally marks at the bottom (turning the first four into a group of five and then adding two more).  This made tracking scores a whole lot quicker and made them easy to add up at the end of the game.
The first game I only used tally marks and quickly ran out of paper.
On my second game I got a better scoring method down.
Look at how high the scores get in a two player game!

Once I got over the issues with scoring and was able to focus on the actual game I started to really enjoy it.  Not that I didn't enjoy the first game, but later games were a ton more fun because I could focus on the game more (and I'm happy to say, win more, too).

I really, really like how everything isn't in a straight grid.  The hexagonal tiles make everything twist and zig-zag around.  And the vertical stacks really add a ton of interest and additional strategy to the game.  It looks incredible on a table while being played and really attracts attention, drawing in interested people.  And the crazy layouts mean the players have to be a bit active, too.  There are many times when you simply have to get up and move to the other side of the table to see how the tiles over there are laid out.
The game looks completely different depending on your perspective.
From the opposite side you can see a lot of other options.
This invites players to get up and move around.
Everyone I've played the game with has absolutely loved it.  I even played it back-to-back with Qwirkle (some of the people had played Qwirkle before, some hadn't, and no one had played Pentoggle before).  Everyone unanimously agreed that they enjoyed Pentoggle as much as or more than Qwirkle.  Qwirkle has won a number of awards, including the 2007 Mensa Select and 2011 Spiel des Jahres, so saying they preferred Pentoggle is quite an honor!
Is this the Qwirkle killer?  This group thought so!
The concepts are simple, but the strategy is much deeper than in Qwirkle.  You are constantly thinking things like, should I play my two fours to extend this series of fours, or should I only play a two, but the two can connect to two different series.  Or maybe I should play the two with this three and make it a part of that series over there.  Because each tile is worth a different amount of points and you score points for the entire connected series, where you place tiles matters a lot more in this game than they do in Qwirkle.  And deciding when to use a Wild tile is also an interesting decision.
Every game results in a work of art!
Though the scoring is a bit daunting at first, Pentoggle makes a great family game and teaches arithmetic in a fun, challenging way.  The game is easy enough for my six and nine year olds to play and helps strengthen their math skills along the way!  It's a perfect game for casual gamers (or deeply strategic gamers that occasionally like a lighter abstract), families, schools, and homeschools!
Your kids can learn while they play!
Another great feature of Pentoggle is that it doesn't use cards or light components, so it holds up against the wind!  One of the games I played was at a park, on a wire mesh picnic table, on a very windy day and the game held up fine!  A few of the square locking cubes blew off the stacks once or twice, but I'd expect a production game to use a denser wood than the craft store cubes this prototype came with.
Outside, in the wind, and the game played great!

So, would I recommend Pentoggle over Qwirkle?  Yes!  Would I recommend getting Pentoggle if you already have Qwirkle?  Possibly.  I'm still not sure it's different enough to kick Qwirkle out if you already have it, but if you are ok with having both, or don't have either yet, definitely consider Pentoggle over Qwirkle (if it ever hits retail, that is).
I can't wait to permanently add
Pentoggle to my collection! 
Unfortunately I have to send the prototype copy of Pentoggle back very soon.  It's obvious that a lot of time and love went into making the copy I got to play and I know Douglas wants to get the game into the hands of plenty of other reviewers.  But he's definitely won a fan here.  My wife is very,very disappointed that we have to send it back and can't wait until we can buy a production copy someday!  Hopefully that day will come soon!

Preliminary Rating: 8/10

This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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