Board or card games based on video games are certainly commonplace these days. From the more lightweight games like Bloodborne and Portal to more intense experiences like Dark Souls, BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia or Civilization. And then there are ones that take inspiration from video games and their mechanics, such as Boss Monster, which tasks players to build a dungeon and then defeat heroes with traps as they try to walk through it or EXCEED which simulates a 1v1 fighting game. DropMix, a new physical card game from Harmonix, would certainly fall into the second category, as it's not directly based on a video game property, but certainly, evokes the spirit of their music titles. Though funny enough, instead of feeling like a previous title from Harmonix, its musical properties, and music mixing fall more in line with Activision's DJ Hero.
If my introduction to DropMix certainly has you more confused as ever, I don't blame you. After all, mixing music and playing a physical card game sound like a combination that shouldn't or even couldn't work, and yet, Harmonix and their team made this magic happen, and it kicks so much ass.
What you're getting in the box
Before I get into the details of the gameplay itself, let's talk about what you're getting straight out of the box. DropMix's appeal doesn't only lie in its ability to mix and mash-up music which I'll get into soon, but also its simplicity, both in gameplay, and its setup. The magic begins with the DropMix peripheral itself: A large, plastic rectangular dueling board with slots for five cards, and a slot for your smartphone and tablet, which is necessary to play the game. The only other thing contained in the box are the playing cards themselves and a quick start manual.
Assuming you have the free DropMix app installed, setting up the game is done in no time at all. In fact, if your cards are already separated by theme, then activating and pairing the DropMix controller to your phone or tablet and starting a game can be done in less than a minute. What's more, since all of the game's score tracking and gameplay elements are displayed on your smartphone, there is no need for any extra score keeping pieces. I absolutely love this. While I don't mind board or card games that have a lot of extra pieces, I do tend to gravitate towards ones that keep things simple, and Harmonix definitely managed that with DropMix .
The design of the peripheral, while simple at first glance, is actually quite impressive. For one, each of the five card slots can read a stack of cards on top of one another. Secondly, its light up surfaces aim to deliver key information to each player.
When starting the game, the board lights up panels for each team to place their decks in, and the game reads which decks are being used. Each side of the NFC card readers are lights that light up depending on whether you've played a mix or your opponent. We found that there are three ways the game conveys this information, and three of us playing were all using a different method of reading them. I looked at the orientation of the card, meaning if it wasn't upside down, it means I own that particular space, and if it was, then my opponent did. The lights at the edge also light up depending on who that particular spot belongs to. And lastly, the app shows this on screen. It was pretty wild realizing we all used different methods of seeing the exact same information, and cool that the game provided that, whether that was an intentional design choice or not.
So, Yu-Gi-Oh! meets DJ Hero?
At its very basic, I could describe this as a dueling card game that also happens to be a music mixer. Two players (or two teams of two players) go head to head, laying down cards that continually score them points, while also playing back whatever song part that card represents. The songs themselves are largely inconsequential when it comes to scoring, but they're the awesome byproduct of the gameplay and provide some stellar background music while playing.
Upon unboxing this in front of my coworkers and giving them a demo of a mash-up consisting of lyrics from The Chainsmokers' 'Closer,' Afrojack's melody from 'Take Over Control,' LMFAO's bassline from 'I'm Sexy and I Know It,' and the drum beat from Far East Movement's 'Like a G6,' I got two very distinct responses: "It's amazing how good that sounds," and a lot of "that's cool, but what's the game?" Many thought this was more of a glorified tech-demo upon witnessing my ability to swap in various cards that change up the song, and I didn't blame them. Hearing a song transform from one mix to another was indeed impressive, but it wouldn't mean much if the game itself wasn't fun.
Not only is the game fun, but it's also quite strategic, given its relatively simple mechanics.
How do you play it?
There are a few modes that you can play but I'll start out with Clash, the dueling PvP mode. Players take turns laying down cards, either two cards per turn if it's 1v1, or one card per player if it's 2v2. Laying down a card immediately scores a point, but there are rules as to what cards can be placed where, and at what time.
First and foremost, a Harmonix staple, each of the five card slots is color coded between Yellow (vocals), Red (melody), Blue (beat), and Green (harmony or bass line) and you can only place a card in the respective slot. There are also Wild Cards which are comprised of all four colors and can be played in any slot. What's more, each card also has a Volume Level between 1 and 3. You can always play cards on top of existing cards, however, their Volume Level has to match or exceed the card's level that's already in play.
The strategy then comes from acquiring various bonuses that give your team an advantage. For example, after the first turn, you get a bonus point for playing a color that hasn't been activated yet. Furthermore, any card you play counts as "Your Mix," and if you manage to fill up every card slot with your team's mix, you get a Full Mix bonus. Then there are also colorless FX Cards, which can be played anywhere, and can give your team an advantage, such as letting you play an extra card that turn or scoring extra points for already having a particular color on the playing field.
And then there's the DropMix button. If your opponent controls most of the field or you simply can't play a card on your turn, you can press the DropMix button on the other side of the board. This will then activate a spinner that can land on various volume level icons. If it lands on a level 3 volume level, that means your opponent has to take down any volume level 3 cards they have on the board, freeing that space up, deducting their points, and hopefully giving you a chance at a color bonus once again. There's also the small chance that you'll land on a red X, meaning your opponent has to clear all of their cards from the field.
It's deceptively simple, as you're able to teach this to anyone in literally a single turn. However, the strategy comes from various decisions you have to make in each turn. Do you start strong with a high volume card so that the other team can't place their card over yours but in turn have lower volume cards late game? Do you hold on to your FX card until late game just in case you don't have a particular color to play, or do you play it now and potentially score yourself extra points? Do you press the DropMix button now even though they don't control a lot of the field at the chance of a color bonus, or do you wait until later when they do? Even my skeptical coworker who is also a hardcore board game player eventually saw the amount of strategy potential this game has. That's saying a lot.
Aside from Clash, the game also has a mode called Party which can be played solo, and with up to five players cooperatively. In this mode, you're playing cards at the request of the game over five rounds. Each round consists of many requests that are scored based on how quickly you can fulfill them. For example, on-screen, you'll see an image of a red card symbol, meaning the game is asking you to play a red card. The faster you play it, the more points you'll score.
Of course, the requests become more complicated as the rounds progress, meaning you'll be asked to play more cards that can satisfy multiple conditions, or if you're lucky, a single card that satisfies all of them. The same rules for playing cards apply here as well though. You can only play cards on the same color space, and you can't play lower volume cards on higher volume cards.
It's crazy just how drastically different this mode plays, especially when you have a team of four people trying to cooperate with one another. Communication is key in this mode as laying down certain cards early could cost your team a turn down the line. For example, if in an early round a player puts down a requested red card but at volume level 3, it will be hard in future turns to play over that card, unless you have another level 3 card. This mode also proved that there is strategy required in order to get the highest score, despite its simple premise.
So what about the music?
Earlier, I stated that the music is largely inconsequential to the actual gameplay mechanics, and that's certainly true. The kind of music you play never dictates game flow, but it is amazing that Harmonix was able to take these samples and manipulate them in ways that they'll always sound good, no matter what other cards you play them with.
Sure, Sia's 'Chandelier' transposed into a higher key than it already is, does make for a relatively odd sounding chorus, but for the most part, the song mixes all sound relatively great. It does this by matching the beat and key to an already played card. That means if I play the melody to 'Call Me Maybe,' it will keep that song's key and tempo across all future placed cards. Alternatively, if I played a different card first, for example, Ed Sheeran's 'Sing' vocals, and then placed down 'Call Me Maybe,' it will alter that melody to match the key and beat of 'Sing.'
The magic doesn't quite stop there though. Those multicolored Wild Cards that I described earlier, create some of the coolest transitions. When placed down on a particular color/colors, they'll play that particular instrument or vocal track. However, they'll also start a sweet transition that will then change the song's BPM and the key to that particular song. Whenever these cards come out, whether it's just messing around in Freestyle or during a match, everyone who is playing always goes silent and waits for that awesome transition to happen, because it's just so badass each time. Credit to whoever at Harmonix decided to make Disturbed's 'Down With the Sickness' a multicolored card, which always ends the transition with the song's signature "Ooo-wah-ah-ah-ah!"
If you just want to mess around and come up with cool mash-ups or even an ongoing performance, you can simply hop into Freestyle Mode, where the rules and points don't matter, and you can simply drop cards down to hear what particular mixes sound like.
If you end up mixing together a five-part mash-up masterpiece that you're incredibly proud of, you can always hit a button on the app and that mix will save, so you can either listen to it later or even share it with other people, provided they have the app installed on their smart device.
For a different kind of board-game night
The more we played DropMix, the more I realized that this probably isn't the kind of game you bust out on a board-game night with people who enjoy heavier games like Arkham Horror, Pathfinder, or Betrayal at House on the Hill. And while my board-gaming aficionado coworkers enjoyed DropMix, even they admitted it would have been a hard sell for game night.
The art on the cards is pretty stellar
However, as a family game, it works extremely well. Taking that further, since it is a Harmonix game, the crowd you used to play Guitar Hero and Rock Band with back when that craze was at its peak, will undoubtedly enjoy this fast paced game as well.
So what didn't I like?
Despite absolutely loving the game, the design, its mechanics and the music mixing, there are a few nitpicks I have with the game.
First and foremost, the starting card count. While 60 cards give you enough to play with up to four people, you'll start hearing a lot of the same tunes over and over as a result. And while the songs themselves don't impact the gameplay itself, you'll notice that you're going to rely on similar strategies after you've played a bunch of matches, especially back to back.
Second, the packaging. This isn't something I'd normally bring up in a video game review, but since board games rely on storage, it's important to mention. While I absolutely love the design of the box from the outside, it's the inside that worries me. The game will eventually have expansions (which make this list as well) but currently, I have nowhere to store them. The box only has room for the peripheral itself, and four indents to place the game's included themed decks. Given that the peripheral and cards are housed inside a giant blue piece of plastic, I'm bummed that it wasn't a bit more future-proof since I certainly plan on buying more expansion cards when they're available.
The rules, while easy to grasp, have some nuances that aren't described in the game's manual that's included in the box. For example, to find out what all of the FX card icons mean, you have to go through the app's glossary, select FX cards and then you're presented with multiple windows that describe what each FX card does. It's a little unintuitive, especially if you need to check this during a game. It would have been much easier to pull out the manual and check it there, rather than halting the game, undocking your smartphone, and swiping your way through menus. I suppose the upside is that since it's digital, you'll never have to be scared of losing it.
The price is also rather steep. Sure, the tech behind DropMix is downright magical, but at the end of the day, it's still NFC technology, something we've had in gaming since Skylander's inception. Those games somehow managed to get by selling around 80$, which included the base portal with an NFC reader, a few figures, and the actual game itself. Hasbro is charging $99 for DropMix. That's not counting the Season 1 expansion packs that will be priced at $15 each for a pack of 16 cards, and there will be a total of 20 packs. That's $300 on top of the $99 base price. That won't sit well with a lot of folks. As for me, I'll probably be at the store at opening hours when those packs launch, so I suppose I am a part of the problem.
Lastly, since the entire game relies on the use of your smartphone, you'll want to A. have an external speaker available so you can get the best sound and B. sit very close to an outlet because it is an absolute battery drainer. Our first night, we've played for about an hour and a half, which consisted of a single 1v1 game, two Party Mode games, and two 2v2 games. I started the night at 98% and ended at 19% over the course of an hour and a half.
Despite my somewhat lengthy 'What I didn't like' section, I absolutely adore DropMix and fully admit that had I not been sent a review unit ahead of time, I would have definitely bought myself a copy on launch day.
I love its simple rules that can be taught to anyone within a matter of minutes, but also the deceptively strategic mechanics which reward careful planning. I love the music mixing mechanic, and how a song works despite what card you drop down. And even though the extra card packs will be an added cost, I am excited to purchase a few and experiment with even more mash-up possibilities. I love its easy setup that can be done in a matter of minutes, and that games can easily be restarted without a need to really reset the gamespace.
Most of all, I love that it made us all laugh and smile while playing. I can confidently say that I've lost nearly all the matches that I played during our initial game night, and despite this, I had a blast playing, figuring out various strategies and card combos that gave us a slight edge during a few turns. I also had a blast seeing my opponent's (better) plays which ultimately led to their success.
I do fear that the asking price of $99 might be a bit too high, especially for the casual card-gaming crowd, but those that do take the plunge on September 24th when it releases, or even those that wait a few months for a potential sale, will find a lot to love in Harmonix's latest offering.