Click Click Boom

How do you review a game you’ve played well over a hundred times?

Know going into this review that I think Bullet is a phenomenal game. I’ve been playing it since last year via Tabletop Simulator, played plenty on the physical copy that came out this year, and have recommended it to plenty of folks just to witness the game’s accomplishments. It’s a true innovator, a game with no direct comparisons in the tabletop sphere, and you had best believed I checked thoroughly. If there were other games pulling off what this has accomplished I’d want to play them!

But as far as I can tell, no. Only Bullet is Bullet, and Bullet is excellent. I hope I do a good job of explaining why.

Bullet aims to capture the feel of bullet hell games, but it isn’t especially interested in simulation. Consider the most important pieces of bullet hell: near miss dodging, real-time reactions, launching desperate attacks mid-evasion, and constant, unrelenting tension. Bullet achieves all of these, and its means of doing so is by leaning into another video game genre: falling block puzzles. The crossover makes sense when you consider that the four attributes I listed above also apply to competitive puzzle games. This is the best possible way to adapt a video game to tabletop: not literal translation, but optimal.

So we have a game in which bullets are constantly falling, must be aligned in character-specific combinations to clear and send them to other players, and all in under 3 minutes per round. And every round has a phenomenal arc. Early on you’re likely to tear through your bag of bullets to flood your board and set up attacks, only to pump the brakes when pulls start getting dicey. There’s an element of pushing your luck here but not in the same way the broader “push-your-luck” genre approaches it. You rarely really know the stakes because there are just so many bullets. One would think that the correct line of play would be to assume that your bag wants to kill you as quickly as possible and play carefully, but no! The game does an excellent job of incentivizing risk-taking thanks to its rock solid character design. Many character patterns require a pretty full board or very specific arrangements, meaning the more bullets you have the more easily you can attack your neighbors. Add in the unique benefits characters get for hitting critical mass – Ekolu getting to clear all 3s, Young-Ja shoving entire rows and columns around, Rie getting to smack would-be hits out of the park as attacks, etc. – and you can start to understand how the game constantly whispers in your ear. “One more bullet! It’ll only make you stronger! You probably won’t get hit!”

And again, this is happening in up to 4 places around the table. Bullets being clacked around, muffled swearing and numbers, followed by periodic “Aha! Got it!” moments and handfuls of bullets being roughly slammed in front of opponents to their horror. You may reasonably think that this means the game is minimally interactive, and in early games that can be true. The rules are fairly simple but they need to be learned and internalized fast, not to mention each character offers a completely different means of control. This takes time to get comfortable with; there’s nothing else like it after all. But you’ll get there, quickly even if you stick with 1-2 characters. And once you do the game opens up. Looking over at opponents’ boards becomes the norm rather than an exception. See one struggling with their yellow column? Clear some yellows and make them sweat. See that they’re about to finish their round? End yours quicker and snag the bonus tile they obviously need. These can seem minimal, but in a game where any given bullet can end your life every single one counts.

And all of this takes place in rounds that are 3 minutes tops. Games typically take 4-5 rounds. You’re looking at maybe 15 minutes, likely much less. It’s a board game that takes as much time as the actual video games it takes inspiration from. That’s a hell of an achievement! Board games, generally speaking, are a cold medium. Nothing is automated. Players learn the rules, teach the game, set it up, handle the turn-to-turn admin, and take every single action manually. That isn’t in any way a bad thing, and in fact there are advantages to entirely manual entertainment, but it does come at a time cost. There’s a reason why scripted Tabletop Simulator mods are often better experiences than the actual boxes. Bullet has an excellent scripted mod that I’d highly recommend, but the boxed experience loses almost nothing in translation. If anything it gains different benefits, like having an easier time glancing at other players’ boards and getting to see their face when you back up the bullet dumptruck to their incoming zone.

So as I said from the outset, Bullet is excellent. It warrants a play or five even if you aren’t already into its concept just to see how it works. I even liked it enough to grind like crazy to achieve a score attack record with Ekolu (7 rounds!), which I would not recommend trying to beat because hoo boy it took me forever. I didn’t even mention the co-op boss fight mode, which is practically a completely different game and yet also very good! The amount of content in this box is staggering, and not just in usual board-gamey qualities of component quantity or setup variability. Instead it’s replayable. Incredibly replayable. The kind of game that could easily be described as moreish, even addictive. It’s “ok, one more go” physically manifested. What Van Laningham and the Level 99 team have managed to achieve here is the rarest kind of game – a true innovation, and one that’s excellent to its core.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.