Board games and video games share many things in common, but there are certain things that video games can do that board games can’t. Certain genres and styles of games just don’t translate well to an analog experience, and in some cases, genres that seem like they’d be a hit on a tabletop either don’t, or can’t, seem to translate well.
Bullet hell games and puzzle fighters are two such styles of game that seem like they’d make for compelling or interesting board game alternatives. Sadly, there are a lot of components of these games that just don’t work when taken out of a digital realm, such as timing, randomness, pattern management, and foreboding pressure over what you can and can’t manage. These games are as much about physical skill as they are management skills, with a lot of this labor invisibly done by a CPU. The idea of players having to manage all of these things, while also competing with one another, seems impossible.
Bullet♥︎, by Level 99 games, attempts to bring a mish-mash of these genres to the tabletop by adding in tabletop gaming’s greatest secret weapon: abstraction.
Curve the Bullet
Bullet♥︎ is a game for 1-4 players that can be played competitively or solo/co-operatively against AI “bosses” in which players draw “bullets” from personal bags, placing them on their board according to their numerical value and color coding. Players can attempt to then clear the bullets from their boards using their character’s various abilities and techniques, preventing the bullets from reaching the bottom of their board and suffering damage. Bullet is a deceptively simple game, with complex strategies and on the fly action making the backbone of the experience out of what is essentially a random bag drawing game. The game is simple to set up and teach, with L99 providing a well written rulebook and a video tutorial that teaches the game in 10 minutes.
The allure of Bullet♥︎ is the fact that the game is played on a timer: 3 minute rounds. If players fail to empty their bag within 3 minutes, they are restricted to only placing new bullets on their boards until the bag is empty; no abilities, no clearing, just consequences. When a round ends, players pass their removed bullets to the player adjacent to their left, and accept incoming bullets from the player on the right, before drawing new bullets from the shared neutral bank, based on the Intensity Track. This track increases with every player death, making the endgame tense and more dangerous as players drop out of the game. While player elimination is sometimes a turn-off, Bullet♥︎ manages this by making overall games fast and snappy, while blunting some of the bad blood between players by making attacks “neutral”: rather than directly attacking an opponent, players simply shuffle their removed bullets from their board to their neighbor’s bag, no ill-will or kingmaking here.
Adding variety to this is the variable player powers, represented here by anime styled heroines, each with unique powers and quirks to their playstyle. Each girl has a deck of patterns, which dictate how and when she can remove bullets from her board. They also come with individual powers, ranging from how many patterns they can have, to more complex abilities such as having a personal “dummy” piece on their board to interact with, or even ignoring game mechanics for their own benefit. Finally, after every round, players can collect an extra special ability from a random pile giving them a one time use extra option in the upcoming round. Characters start each round with action points and can use them to manipulate abilities such as moving bullets, drawing extra patterns, or other unique options; clearing bullets with stars adds an ability point back, meaning that various chain combos and manipulations on the fly.
If this sounds like a lot, it actually is. Bullet♥︎’s main conceit is simple—pull bullets, place bullets, clear bullets However, these extra wrinkles (and a 3 minute timer) mean that you will almost always have more going on than you can manage, and managing that madness is the core of the game. And when it clicks—IF it clicks—it’s a truly amazing experience.
In just describing the game, it is likely that some readers closed the article and went to something else, while others are very much “tell me more, kind sir”. And that, really, sums up the Bullet♥︎ experience: you probably are already halfway to buying this game just from my description of its mechanics if it sounds like your jam. For my play group, a set of 4 aging gamers and anime fans, Bullet♥︎ was a huge hit; we played 3 rounds back to back, and almost forgot to play anything else for the rest of the evening. As a solo experience, I also found it a lot of manic fun fighting against the various bosses and their seemingly ridiculous powers, each one varied and flavorful to their archetype.
But if timed games and blind-bag pulling mechanics are not your jam, especially when coupled together, Bullet♥︎ is probably not going to convince you otherwise. There is a lot of very interesting abstraction going on in what Bullet♥︎ does to represent the Bullet Hell/Puzzle Fighter style video game on a tabletop. Howevre much of it comes from the timer and bag combo, with a dash of the non-personal attacks making the game competitive solitaire. Even in a two-player game, it is hard to be “angry” that your opponent is attacking you. They aren’t directly influencing your current round, but instead adding to your next round in a random-yet-never-too-difficult-to-manage manner. No matter what, you will be drawing new bullets from your bag, and all actions happen simultaneously. This means you can clear a pattern before a new bullet damages you, or manipulate bullets already out, moving them out of the way or setting up combos. In fact, I honestly found turns where my opponent gave me a lot of bullets more fun than not, as it gave me more to work with and less downtime.
The anime art style may not grab people, depending on their tastes. It is obvious that the folks at L99 are going for the “anime board game aesthetic” crowd, and Bullet♥︎ fits nicely into their existing library. Personally, I’d find that a silly reason not to give a game a chance, and the art is fantastic and engaging to look at, with each heroine feeling like they’d be at home in a SHMUP game; in fact, Bullet♥︎’s first expansion, Bullet?, brings in 4 new heroines from Orange games, a Japanese publisher of bullet hell games such as SUGURI. Points to L99 for the extremely authentic adaptation.
Shooting Your Shot
L99’s suggestion for your first games of Bullet♥︎ is to ignore the timer, but a lot of care has been put into the idea of this game being played at a frenetic, timed pace; the publisher has a Spotify playlist, each song coming in at 3 minutes, themed to each of the girls in the game. But what I found is that the untimed games are crucial to whether your group is going to like Bullet♥︎ or not. One of our players is extremely visual and by their own admission, does not absorb anything from pre-game rules teach. Even watching the video from L99 didn’t help them, and when they heard the game was timed, was ready to check out for the evening. When they heard the suggestion of not playing it timed, however, they agreed to try it out and the fact that turns happen simultaneously meant that other players could offer suggestions or answer questions easily. After the first round, this player was the most excited one at the table to play it again, having quickly absorbed the game through the tactile nature of playing it. Seeing such a quick turnaround on a game made me re-evaluate the game overall and I think Bullet♥︎ makes an excellent game for players who prefer a more hands-on style of gameplay; kids, too, may find the game a lot of fun, as the mechanics are simple and older players can help them out if you play untimed.
I also noticed that this game elicited a lot of table talk from our group which normally doesn’t happen—usually conversations revolve around things other than the game we’re playing—but while playing Bullet♥︎, almost all conversation was about the current round, upcoming strategies, how dead we were or weren’t, and even how “OP” some characters are versus our own (the grass is always greener, I suppose!). While Bullet♥︎ was on our table, it was the only thing anyone wanted to focus on and instantly found its way into a “we need to play this game all the time” conversation. Bullet♥︎ also doesn’t overstay its welcome. The multiple games of it we played that evening took a little under 2 hours total, and we got in a lot of game time in those two hours.
But is Bullet♥︎ one of my favorite games? Well… No, actually. I think Bullet♥︎ is a great game. I look forward to playing it more with my group, but it doesn’t quite scratch the itch that games like Red Rising does for me. I think Bullet♥︎ is an excellent filler game or entry game and can make for a few rounds of intense fun. But when I put Bullet♥︎ away, I wasn’t thinking of my next game, or what I’d do differently, because the game is random and engaging only in the moment. There’s no grand strategy or “what would I do differently” to consider. In this way, it did feel like Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, a game that I played endlessly during college at my on-campus arcade. While SPF2T is one of the games I have spent the most time playing in my life, it occupies little time in my brain otherwise. Bullet♥︎ feels like that on the tabletop, which is good, but also bad. I would never, ever turn down an opportunity to play Bullet♥︎, but I also am not sure I’d want it to dominate my gaming evening. It is an amazing snack, but a bad meal.
Part of this comes from the player count: Bullet♥︎ sings at 3-4 players, and while fun at 2, isn’t quite as snappy or tense. Because the game ends when a player dies (although players dying at the same time is an end game possibility!), the game feels far less worth the investment. The co-op mode vs the bosses, however, is a lot of fun at 1-2. While slightly less so at 3-4, the game does scale quite well, which I thought was really interesting to see in a co-op mode like this. Usually, the scaling makes the game too easy, but the Boss logic and rules made it compelling at all player counts. Again though, the co-op mode is appetizer sized. It makes for a fun experience, but back to back rounds of it result in diminishing returns for sure.
While that last bit may sound negative, I actually think Bullet♥︎ is an amazing game. It does exactly what it sets out to do: relegate the puzzle game experience with bullet hell mechanics onto the tabletop, and it does so at an attractive price point. I would, again, absolutely play Bullet♥︎ anytime people want to, but I do not think Bullet♥︎ is a “main” game for a gaming night. I also think that it has diminishing returns: you get a few great rounds, and then things start to taper.
There are a few balancing issues, as well–some characters are just markedly better than others. Having 1 extra pattern per turn is no comparison to more interactive powers, and I found that in our experience the more “complex” characters would win more handily than the simpler ones, by virtue of having better options to deal with bad board states. That said, the game itself is fair and any character can do well, but future updates, hopefully, will add in more complex, crunchier characters.
As a final extra note, there are two versions of Bullet♥︎. The Kickstarter version, or “deluxe”, comes with wooden bullet tokens; the retail version, which is what I have, uses punchboard tokens. While there is ostensibly no other difference, I ended up using 25mm coin capsules to protect my version of the game, while also giving it a far more appealing tactile feel. This is up to you, of course, but I found that the coin capsules added a layer to the game that really made it far more enjoyable, and also easier, to play than with the bare punchboard.
For players who want an abstract puzzle game with an amazing aesthetic package, Bullet♥︎ is a fantastic pick-up. When you finally do play it on a timer with the official Spotify playlist, it really does feel like a puzzle fighter game come to life; my group even started shouting out pattern names as special attacks as we played. For a competitive game, Bullet♥︎ brought my table together in a way few other games have recently. The energy and excitement of the game may burn out quickly, but that’s ok; the next time we bring Bullet♥︎ to the table, we’ll ignite that spark all over again, even if just for a little bit.