W. Eric Martin
This review first appeared on FunandBoardgames.com.
Game and toy publisher Mattel has a long history of success with board and card games, from both putting out original games and buying already popular games, such as International Games' Uno. In 2003, internal market research showed that Mattel was underserving the game-frenzied German market, so the company decided to design and develop a few European style games to test the Old World waters.
Three years later, Mattel's first Eurogames—Desert Bazaar and Voltage—are finally making their way onto American and European shelves, and the results are generally good. Voltage might be the more accessible of the two games, simply because the rules and playing time are shorter.
In Voltage, the players are rival engineers, playing cards onto circuits to make them match the current. The gameboard depicts four circuits in four colors. A current indicator, marked with a "+" on one side and a "-" on the other, is placed onto each circuit. Players start with four cards in hand, and on a turn a player can (1) draw two cards or (2) play one card, then draw a card, or (3) play two cards onto different circuits.
Cards come in three varities: colored cards valued from 1 to 3, bypass cards, and blown fuse cards. When you play a colored card, you must play it on the matching circuit, but you can play it on either side of the board, yours or your opponent's. With a bypass card, you can play it on any circuit, but only on your opponent's side of the board; you then take a colored card from the opponent's side of that circuit and place it on your side. A blown fuse card is like a bypass in that you play it on the opponent's side of any circuit, but you simply discard one of the opponent's colored cards from that circuit.
One interesting element of Voltage is that the card backs also play a role in the game. Roughly one-third of the cards have a transformer on the back instead of the normal image. Whenever a player draws a card with a transformer, she must change one of the current indicators from + to - or from - to +.
So what's the goal of all this circuit shuffling? Whenever a circuit has a total of five cards played on it, the circuit is scored. First, total the numbers on each player's side of the board, counting blown fuses and bypasses as zeroes. Second, look at the current indicator; if the current is +, then the player with the highest total scores a point; if the current is -, the lowest total scores. In the case of a tie, whoever played the fifth card to the circuit loses and the other player scores.
The cards on this circuit are then discarded, and game play resumes. When a player scores her fourth point, she wins the game.
Voltage has a neat tug-of-war feel in which the circuit values slowly add up on each side, but with the current indicators flipping back and forth, you're often not sure whether you want to go high or stay low. Pile up a high score on your side of a + circuit, for instance, and one transformer is all it takes to reverse your fortune. You can try to draw a transformer to reflip the circuit, but with a hand limit of six cards, you'll sometimes run out of time to find the card you need.
Like most card games, the luck of the draw can play a factor in winning or losing. If you never draw a transformer, you'll have no control over how the circuits run. You sometimes dread drawing cards because you might leave a transformer on top of the deck, yet you must draw cards at some point.
While the game play compares well to its European counterparts, the components are a bit faulty. The scoring pieces are generic blocks of plastic that look like they were swiped from some other Mattel game, and the current indicators, while stylish, are hard to read while on the game board. You often have to pick them up to determine whether the current is + or -.
Overall, Voltage is an excellent entry by Mattel into the world of European-style strategy games because luck of the draw is mostly outweighed by the skill and planning of the players. Future designs from the company—assuming that these initial titles find a market and meet sales goals—should only get better.