Straight to the heart
When I backed Bullet♥︎ a few months ago, I knew I would enjoy it. Swapping neon-colored tokens on a grid to fulfill patterns seemed actually good fun. Well, I certainly didn't expect to love it so much. With 30 plays within one month, Bullet has undoubtedly become one of my very few favorites.
Bullet has simple rules. You pick a character, her player board, and her pack of patterns. You pick a boss, and her pack of patterns. You place shields on the boss board, draw one pattern for the boss, three patterns for yourself, then add 10 bullets (colored tokens numbered 1-4) to your personal bag, and you can start to play.
The game plays in rounds that are entirely free form. You have a number of Action Points per round, and you must draw all bullets from your bag and place them onto your board. That's about it, and you can do all of that pretty much however you deem best. When you place a bullet, its color specifies in which column it goes, and its number how many free spaces it goes down before stopping (e.g. if you draw a Red 2 bullet, you will place it on the second free space of the leftmost column). If the bullet goes all the way down, it hits you and you lose one life! You can spend Action points to move the bullets around on the grid. Finally, you can fulfill one of the patterns you drew. A pattern specifies a number of requirements in terms of bullets (e.g. four bullets in a row). If you fulfill it, you can "clear" bullets, and they go to the boss.
Once you are done, it's the Boss turn. First, you must check whether you fulfill the Boss's own pattern somewhere on your grid. If you didn't, bad stuff happens! Then, if you send enough bullets to the Boss, one of her shields break, and you are one step closer to victory. The boss tells you how many bullets you'll have in your bag next turn, and you refill your AP supply up to max. A new round can begin.
Now, why is it so good? Not for the theme -it's silly at best, and I soon forgot entirely about it. It may also be infuriating, as the game is challenging, if not brutally hard at times. I can play 10 times in a row without achieving a single win. But when I lose, I always want to re-start immediately. Again. And again. And again. Until I win. Losing is but an invitation to play again. You might lose because of bad luck alone (and it happened to me more often than not), but mostly you lose because of your poor decisions. You didn't move bullets in a column too full when you still had the opportunity to do so, for instance. Or you pushed your luck, not using a pattern to clear more bullets with it, while you needed to clear the bullets already there as soon as you could.
And the characters. I said I don't care for the theme, so I don't care for the characters, either. They all seem pretty rogue and haughty. But each character plays very differently, and you must adapt to each boss as well as you can. This means that, with eight characters, you have 8*7 = 56 possible combinations (not all are equally challenging), and they are all significantly and joyfully different. Which also means that the four characters of the expansion add 76 new combinations to the existing ones, so I'm more than happy to have snatched it as well. Components-wise, they are few, gameplay-wise, you open up a whole new space of possibilities.
I'll end with a brief account of one of my plays - one of these epic victories that I spent games and games to achieve, but felt so rewarding when I finally did. I was trying to beat The Ghost in the Machine with Young-Ja Kim. Young-Ja Kim is a telekinetic character: she pushes bullets instead of clearing them. This is a bit inconvenient (you must push the bullets towards the edges to get rid of them), but it's balanced by an unmatched freedom in moving bullets around. The Ghost in the Machine requires precision: it takes 5 bullets to break a shield (easy!), but it needs to be exactly 5. And, if you don't fulfill her pattern, she discards one of the bullets you sent (and might break the "exactly 5"). The difficulty there is not to send exactly 5 bullets (you have perfect control on that), but it means you cannot clear too many bullets every round.
To overcome this, I tried to have "failed" rounds, during which I didn't break shields, but attempted to clear as many bullets as possible from my grid to minimize my chances of getting hit. But in Bullet, things are so tight that losing one round is often equal to losing the game. And then it struck me: of course! It's all a trick! You must not fulfill her patterns and have one of your bullets discarded, so that you can send exactly 6 every round instead of exactly 5. And now you have some breathing room.
And so I did that. It was the last round. I had executed everything with perfect precision, to the point that my brain felt as squeezed out as a lemon shell. I had sent my 6 bullets already, and had only three bullets left to draw. I had enough AP to break the boss pattern if I were to fulfill it by chance. I had all reasons to get confident, except my grid was already rather full and there was a good probability I would get hit... My hands were shaking. I just couldn't keep going.
A 4 red and I would die. A 3 or 4 green and I would die. A 3 or 4 yellow and I would die. A 3 or 4 pink and I would die. That felt really tense. And so I picked one bullet: Red 2, I survive. The adrenaline rush gets more intense. Next one: Blue 3, no problem, I can handle that. Only one last bullet in the bag and so many ways to die. So I pick that very last one... Red 2. I survive. I had only to break the pattern that was inadvertently formed, and I won the game.