|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Janice Turner and Stu Turner
A review copy of Assembly was provided by Wren Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I’ve said before that one of the things I like most in a game is when its packaging is appropriately scaled for its contents, and Assembly is a dream in that regard. It’s odd, but it always puts me in a positive frame of mind to know the majority of what a box contains is game and not empty air. It’s kind of like a little secret message. ‘I’m not trying to deceive you’, it implies. ‘What you see here is what you get’. It’s not trying to puff itself up to appear bigger and more imposing to other cardboard predators. There’s a confidence that is demonstrated when something is okay with its own diminutive natural proportions. Or so I keep telling people.
In Assembly you play the part of one (or two) (un)lucky survivors of a plague aboard an orbital factory. You’ve got to escape the space station before the virus reaches the Earth, but the station has entered into a lockdown state that is aimed at enforcing a lethal quarantine upon its hapless survivors. Your only hope is to apply the hacks that you know to force the machinery to finish the assembly of the half-completed ship that will let you escape and presumably spread your infection to an otherwise blissfully ignorant planet. It’s hard not to feel like you’re playing the part of the baddies here. If not the baddies, at least a pair of incredibly selfish plague carriers indifferent to the suffering they are about to bring to an unsuspecting world. You’re aboard Eros station and you’re about to bring the protomolecule to Earth. Good going, hero.
To accomplish your goal of arriving on Planet Earth as an interstellar patient zero, you need to task the station to deploy the appropriate prefab modules and lock them into the right bay in the frame of the vessel. You begin with a clock circle you deal out to represent the ship’s architecture, and through the use of command cards you’ll deploy ship modules, rotate them around the frame to the correct bay, swap them around and lock them in place. You need to get them all where they need to be, and affixed permanently, by the time the draw deck runs down for the third time because that’s where the game, and your oxygen supply, ends.
You usually begin the game by deploying as many modules as you safely can to random locations in the construction bay. From there you need to consider the magic combination of cards you can play to neatly lock the majority in place before the deck runs out. Maybe you have two modules in their opposite number’s position and they can be swapped around in one neat move. Or maybe you swap those two modules into the wrong bays and then rotate them gently into place like a key turning in a lock. Everything rotates at the same time, except for locked bays. As such you can accomplish a lot through clever and careful placement of modules. It’s a satisfying feeling to line up the teeth of a gear and then have it majestically move multiple cards into their true alignment. It’s especially satisfying if you can follow that up with the immensely cathartic feeling of immediately securing them permanently in place.
You’ll want to do that as often as you can. Every time the deck runs dry it gets shuffled into a new draw pile. When you do that, you also take all the unlocked bays, shuffle them, and deal them out to new positions. If you’re lucky you might find that a previously deployed module is now in its proper location. What happens more often is that all your almost aligned modules are now in a configuration indistinguishable from a shattered jigsaw puzzle.
Making the task more difficult still are the malfunction bays that are arrayed at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 positions of the clock circle that you dealt out. Every time a module is locked into that bay you need to check what’s going to happen as a result and perhaps moderate your strategy appropriately. For the malfunction shown above for example you need to discard an additional card when you lock the bay (eek), or you need to be able to lock bay 6 at the same time (eek again). You can only lock bays when they contain the correct modules and navigating these malfunctions makes an already challenging puzzle more challenging still. You don’t really have cards to spare. Often you’re left trying to work out how to route around the damage implied by these malfunctions with minimal pain to yourself. There are multiple sets of malfunctions, so there’s a nice additional layer of variability added into the core puzzle – decide on the malfunctions with which you want to play and you make your life appropriately more difficult as a result.
The first thing then about Assembly is that it’s genuinely an enjoyable puzzle – there’s a win condition but that’s not really what you’re playing towards since after a while wins become a reliable outcome of play. After the win there’s scoring, and that’s based on how optimally you achieved the goal as measured by cards left in hand. I’m not hugely in favour of ‘beat your own high score’ models of achievement but I think it feels appropriate here. It actually comes across as evocative, and that’s in no small part due to the nature of the framing of the game. You’re trying to get out before the oxygen is vented and the cards represent the timing beats of the pace at which that’s happening. Cards left over in hand therefore represent literal breathing room.
The second thing is that it’s also a very manageable puzzle, which has both positive and negative aspects. There are some consistently effective strategies that emerge from familiarity, such as ‘deploy modules as quickly as possible in the first third of the game’ and ‘don’t waste your locks’. The solution space of the game begins to constrict tightly too as modules are locked, emphasising the important of getting a few of those handled early on. Once you’re in the swing of it, it becomes a task with few surprises. That said, luck is always a factor here. I’ve had a few games where the difference between a likely poor score and the eventual great score was a good shuffle. That happens when a bad configuration is reshuffled at the end of a draw and a couple of awkward modules end being re-dealt where they were needed . That doesn’t seem quite in the spirit of an optimisation challenge – sometimes the reward for lethargy is surprisingly high. When the game state is too tangled, you can hope that a better random deal comes your way as an unwarranted reward for simply killing time.
That’s all fine and well, but at two players there’s something else you need to manage.
The two player version of Assembly is a very different beast even if it shares a very similar setup and core of rules to the solo game. The game as described above is what you should expect if you’re playing this alone – a simple, uncomplicated and satisfying puzzle of rotating modules and locking them into place. The two-player game introduces a kind of awkward, paranoid silence into play in exactly the manner of Bowman and Poole trying to hide their plotting from HAL 9000. The station doesn’t want you to leave, and the various techniques you have for assembling your escape craft rely on you working in sync with a partner that can’t reveal the contents of their hand to you. The framing of this is that the system is watching you closely and you need to be covert.
In the one player game you choose a card and play it. Fine. In the two-player game every action must be verified, which means that your colleague must have a card in hand that matches the instruction you intend to give. Every turn, the active player can ask a single question about the supporting player’s hand. The answer to this must be ‘yes’ or ‘no’. On the basis of that and the other answers that have been given over the course of play, the current player must choose a card that they believe contains a verifiable instruction. If that can be verified, everything is golden. If it can’t, a manual override is required which means that the supporting player has to get rid of one of their cards to essentially force the command through. That adds an interesting elasticity to play because the game becomes both one of state deduction as well as unilateral risk-taking. Sure, you’re the one that made the decision to play a card but it was your supporting player that paid the cost. It would be egregiously unfair if you weren’t both tied together in success or failure.
You can work out a lot from what your supporting player can verify, and also what they ask if you can verify. If you can get compatible mindsets of what each of you has available you can work smoothly together towards the game’s conclusion. If not, you’ll find yourself forced to discard important opportunities just because someone isn’t asking the right questions. You can collaborate and confer over general strategies but as soon as you hone in on specifics the veil of silence must descend. The Computer is listening and all you can do is share information in the most parsimonious manner possible to avoid it picking up something incriminating it could use to kill you.
It’s a bit like living with an Alexa home device, really.
The two-player game then has just enough miscommunicated uncertainty to offset the reliable predictability of the solo game, and it’s easily the best mode in which Assembly can be played. However, it’s also a game mode that suffers from a lot of the same problems that we discussed in Hanabi. There’s a lot of information that can be conveyed in a yes or no answer. It’s inevitable over time that a bespoke intonation vocabulary will emerge that conveys more than the single binary truth bit that is clearly intended. Similarly too the speed and conviction with which an answer is given has information content. For example:
‘Can you confirm…’
Well, there’s a player with a wild card in their hand and that’s incredibly useful to know.
‘Can you confirm a rotate?’
Okay, so there’s someone that can confirm one direction of rotation but not the other.
A ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ is a confirmation or negation. A true or a false. A one or a zero. But when you add in all the flexibility and nuance of human cadence it’s hard for it to keep that purity of precision. Our execution of communication converge towards ever greater levels of expressive sophistication with ever smaller units of language.
This isn’t an inevitable outcome of a game like this, but you have to work very hard to make sure that communication is constrained appropriately if the experience of verification isn’t to lose all its intended meaning. Assembly seems like a game designed around a degree of longevity, especially given the variants and difficulty modes that are emphasised through the manual. It just seems unlikely that any regular players are going to be able to keep the mystery in the relationship for the length of time needed to get the most out of all of that. It’s not cheating… it’s just what happens when familiarity develops a meaning and a context all of its own.
But… Assembly is not Hanabi. There’s an interesting game here completely independent of this constricted discussion space. As such it doesn’t seriously lose anything as the mono-syllabic communication accrues ever greater levels of contextual meaning. Especially since, in one of my favourite things about the game, it even comes with a glossary of sign language you can use in one of the variant modes supported in the game. I love this – it’s like having the physical language of Belter creole as a formal option in play. Kowlting gut, koyo. Kepelesh da imbobo kaka.
I enjoyed the time I spent with Assembly – the puzzle is knowable enough to permit mastery but uncertain enough to merit repeated plays. As a solo game it gives you enough scaffolding in difficulty level to be consistently challenging. As a two-player game it adds enough ‘confusion through communication’ to sprinkle a lot of extra variability into play. Assembly is definitely a game you should make the effort to check out when you get an opportunity.
A review copy of Assembly was provided by Wren Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.