Game Review: PWNs, A Game of Strategic Mayhem

pwns game of strategic mayhem reviewRemember shoving matches on the playground back in elementary school? They never seemed to devolve to actual punching or violence, just kids shoving and trying to show who’s tougher. Now, imagine that you can capture that in a board game that’s goofy fun and silly both, and you’ve got the basic concept behind PWNs: A Game of Strategic Mayhem. (pronounce it “pones”). Well, sort of. Because in PWNs you actually are trying to K.O. all the kids on your opponents gangs, to be the last kids standing in the playground!

In terms of the game, there’s good news and bad news. What do you want first? Good news? Okay, once we figured out to play, it was pretty amusing fun, though you really can’t play without attacking everyone else, so this might not be an entirely family-friendly game in that regard.

The bad news? The rules were too darn confusing and we spent way too much time in our first play-thru referring back to the rules to figure out nuances. Part of the problem is that game designer Ryan Boyle really wanted to have a “one page rules” that ends up rather shortchanging important aspects of the game. PWNs would also benefit from a common element of modern rules: A setup illustration with detailed explanation of all the elements. For example, we had to guess how many cards to start out with (5) based on the fact that you pick cards to always have that many in your hand.

But let’s get into the game first…

The artwork and design definitely takes a lot of inspiration from South Park, as you can see in this close-up of some of my team:

pwns board game close up

Notice that there are different terrain tiles that the kids are standing on: brown is dirt, green is grass, yellow is dry grass (more of a fire danger!) and blue is water (these kids can’t swim). Each team is comprised of four kids, each of whom has their own particular skills. Here are the associated cards:

pwns board game character cards

Notice each has four health total and that Butch has already been injured (his health marker is on slot 3). Once they run out of health points, well, they’re knocked out and out of the game. Each character also has one or two abilities: The first is randomly chosen (though inclusion of a bag to keep all the ability tokens in for an actual random pick would be a nice upgrade) and the second you get by K.O.’ing an opponent, at which point you can steal their ability if you choose. Butch has sneakers which gives him an extra move, Mr. Decaf has a grenade which makes him a marksman, able to have any ranged attack go 1 square further, and Selfie has the boxing glove, which makes all his combat attack cards do one additional damage.

Not quite like the playground back in 3rd grade after all, is it? 🙂

Play involves moving your characters around and playing attacks and terrain changing cards. Here’s my initial hand:

cards, pwns strategic mayhem board game

Close examination reveals that I have a health card (helps one of my characters gain health points), two React cards to offset attacks from other players, and two Attack cards that let me go after someone else. Without any cards, though, the characters can simply slam into each other: a collision causes both kids to lose one HP, so you can play this as a simple war of attrition (though the cards are way more fun than that).

There are various Elemental cards that let you, for example, turn all water tiles into ice, along with Attack cards that let you set a tile on fire (if it’s not dirt or water, of course), flood a water tile so that every adjacent tile temporarily turns to water too, etc. Confusingly, some changes last the rest of the game, while others last a single round of play, something that proves hard to keep track of in the midst of the mayhem.

Push a character off the board and they’re K.O.’d and out of the game, as shown here:

quesy is knocked off the board and KO'd - PWNs

This attack card affects everyone within one tile, pushing them 1 square further away. In the case of Queasy, above, that meant he fell out of the playing area and was knocked out. Score one for green!

Here’s an overview of our three-player game in progress:

pwns game of strategic mayhem board game review reviewed

Blue is doing the best, with all four of his characters still in play. Red is down one and green has two players already knocked out. Note: Green started out ‘between’ Red and Blue in this three player game so was definitely at a tactical disadvantage right from the get-go. Darn punk kids!

You can see that there was a very disappointing lack of fire tiles in play, though the pond nearest the camera had flooded, creating a nine-tile lake (and causing any characters in the flooded tiles to lose HP, of course). Fire is interesting because of how it spreads, we all agreed we wanted more of it in the game!

Even the Reference Card wasn’t without hiccups and confusion. Phase 2, for example, says “Play any red attack card or blue elemental card”, but it would be much more clear if it said “play a red attack card or blue elemental card” to avoid any possible confusion over whether you can play more than one in this phase. The Draw phase is similarly awkward grammatically: “Everyone draws to get up to five cards in your hand.” Except I think this would be far clearer if it referred to each player’s hand: “Every draws to get up to five cards in their hand.”

Ultimately, I’ll give PWNs: A Game of Strategic Mayhem a thumbs up, because the problems we encountered can easily be remedied by creating a new rule book. This is a straightforward game, I’d really like to see rules that are less focused on saving space (the type is a bit small!) and more oriented around getting players up and running quickly.

PWNs: A Game of Strategic Mayhem, $29.99 from Awry Games.

Disclosure: Awry Games sent us a copy of PWNs for the purpose of this review.

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