18 May 2022
Bend it, shape it, any way you want it
Theme or mechanism? It’s the classic board-gaming dichotomy. Are you someone who cares most about theme, an evocative setting you can immerse yourself in as you find your gaming flow? Or do you prefer the abstract rhythms of a game’s structural genre, whether it’s worker placement, trick-taking, deckbuilding, or whatever? Whichever way you lean, Tom Vandeweyer’s Rulebenders will challenge your preference. After all, it’s a game where mechanism is the theme. And vice versa.
The rulebook comes with a bemusing back story about a retro sci-fi machine with vague abilities (“the device has the power to bring the past back to life and even make wishes come true” – huh?), but you can and probably should skip that. The point here is each player is competing to earn chips (aka VPs) by tweaking the game’s various component parts to their own benefit and advantage.
At its ’50s-gadgety heart, Rulebenders is essentially an area-control title, with its appealingly designed, circular Fallout-ish board (created by ace French artist Naïade) offering a number of different panels on which players must vie for majority in the placement of energy cubes. If at the end of the round you’ve ‘won’ a panel, you can then tweak the rule it governs. So, for example, you might want to change everyone’s hand limit from five to eight, while also using that panel’s “Evolution Track” to give yourself an extra card or two on top of that. Or you might want to change the currency (typically used to purchase cards) from chips to energy cubes or cards. Or perhaps you just want to make yourself the first player, or even change from which of the game’s four theme decks people can draw.
It’s an interesting dynamic, and not for nothing has Rulebenders been called ‘Flux on steroids’. Though it lacks the popular card game series’ sense of sudden, dramatic pivots. Each rule-bend is contested over the course of a long round of card plays and cube placements, and with only four rounds in the game, the changes are relatively few and far between, while the strategies are necessarily slow-burn. So while it is absorbing, it’s not amazingly exciting.
The cards, meanwhile, are the game’s least satisfying element. As if worried (not unfairly) that its mechanism-as-theme core might be too abstract for some, it includes six differently themed decks (prehistory, sci-fi, zombies, pirates, fantasy and Arabian nights), from which players will choose four per game, each deck with its own playstyle. The pirate deck, for example, is very take-that-y, whereas the sci-fi deck is calibrated more for those who prefer strategy. However, none of these decks really allows its theme to sing, so any hopes for a fun mash-up experience (zombie pirate dinosaurs from space!) will soon be dashed. They might as well all be as functional and abstract as the “Flexo” deck (named after the game’s cartoon mascot) that sits at the board’s centre, and provides each player with their most basic needs.
Rulebenders is an ambitious game, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s a curiously cerebral experience. But for all the effort it takes to win you over with its quirky styling, and for all its inherent playstyle variety, it lacks enough flavour to demand more than a few replays.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Rulebenders is a strange one. While you’re playing it, you think, “Okay, this is pretty clever.” But once it’s back in the box and on the shelf, it really doesn’t make you feel like you have to get it back on the table sometime.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED FLUXX…
It’s basically what Fluxx would be if it were expanded out to fill a great big board and token-and-cube-packed box, with a playtime of almost two hours. If you can imagine such a thing.
Designer: Tom Vandeweyer
Publisher: Game Brewer
Time: 75 minutes
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