Let’s do the time warp again, and again, and again.
It can often be difficult to distinguish between cooperative board games. Many of them follow the Pandemic formula with very mild alterations: bad stuff happens, the good guys take some actions to mitigate, pass turn. It’s tried, true, and tired. The LOOP (lowercase from here out, I’m sorry) is another riff on these well-played chords, but one that’s worthy of highlighting. What it is uniquely good at, moreso than any other card-driven coop (yes I am including Spirit Island, Gloomhaven, etc. under that umbrella), is relentlessly jabbing you in your dopamine receptors. There are 4 key reasons for this:
- cube tower
- combos combos combos
You can’t talk about this game without at least acknowledging its visual style. There is no other board game that looks quite like The Loop and it reminds you of this at every opportunity. The game is so loud you can hear it from the next room, yet it sacrifices no legibility or playability. It’s striking and refreshing in a market full to bursting with games that look interchangeable. It’s inviting, appealing, engaging on the table from the word go.
The other thing most folks are likely to notice upon setup is the bizarre purple thingamajig in the center of the board. This is the villanous Dr. Faux’s time machine and it provides the irregular heartbeat that pumps life into this design. It will also ruin your day, but like, in a good way. Where most “put out the fires” coops will tell you exactly when and where the fires are starting, The Loop serves up a shotgun blast of trouble thanks to its trisected cube tower. Every time rifts tear open the active player drops cubes into the device, which tumble out in any given direction. You know how many rifts are going to open but never exactly how they’ll shake out. They could split evenly, they could all pile into one spot, you never know. It makes every “bad stuff happens” phase a pleasure in a genre where that’s not normally true, with the active player excitedly reaching for the very cubes that are trying to shatter the time stream.
There has been a fair amount of chatter online about the not-so-good Doctor’s swinginess. Specifically, regarding whether it’s fair that clones deploy before cubes are dropped and can therefore fundamentally change the odds of a location getting blown up. I’m of two minds here. A lot of coop fans like mathable odds, planning multiple moves ahead, effectively taking turns to address problems before they actually occur. I understand this, and therefore understand why they would opt to house rule a swap in order: cubes THEN clones.
Thing is, I don’t like most tabletop coops. I do like chaos. And Dr. Faux’s tendency to wombo combo an era from pristine to obscene brings me joy. He’s a temporal supervillain with an army entirely made of himself! I would hope for, nay, expect this level of effectiveness. More importantly it’s an added layer of comedy on top of what’s already the most amusing part of the turn, and often means you get to drop more cubes into that wonderful purple tube. Yeah the cubes hurt, but don’t pretend playing with the doom device isn’t delightful!
If the cube tower is the heart of The Loop then the cardplay is its circulation. Aside from a single free move per turn and whatever your specific character does, cards are how you get everything done. Every single card in the game is unique, interacting with the board state in different ways. This makes turns equal parts exciting and limiting as unlike most coops you cannot simply do “the right action” at the drop of a hat. Did Dr. Faux dump three cubes into an era and put it on the precipice of doom? Too bad, all you have is energy manipulation and movement! Get the mop timecop, you’ve got cleaning to do!
Rather than give players a menu of actions and limited action points like most firefighting coops, The Loop doubles down on its unique brand of goofy chaos by offering players the chance to make big-brained plays via the titular loop mechanism. Energy cubes litter the board, mostly placed by the players. At any point during their turn players can consume some to untap cards they’ve already used that turn, and if multiple match suit all of those cards are reusable. This is where the combos live, where the coolest decision points are. A turn can go from moderately productive to wildly efficient with the use of a single green cube, potentially snowballing even harder if players are willing to pay the compounding costs to loop over and over. We’re talking going from 3 or 4 actions to upwards of a dozen if you’re feeling especially fancy. Look, if Dr. Faux is going to abuse the time stream turnabout is fair play.
Player count scaling is a strange beast here. Turns are not especially short thanks to the aforementioned combos, which means higher counts can suffer significant downtime. 2p is quick, 3p is fine if everyone is engaged, 4p is pushing it. Moreover in a higher player count game each player will get fewer turns (the game has the same turn limit no matter what) and fewer potential card acquisitions for their deck, which means the new punchy effects are diluted. But curiously many missions are easier to accomplish with a spread out team, even if each individual turn is less efficient. It’s a tricky situation. I would be curious to see if playing multiplayer with the solo rules, pulling cards out of a communal deck and discussing who should get which cards when, would be the best way to even this out. Given how well tuned the solo rules are and how exciting initiative decks can be I’m inclined to think it’d work well.
In terms of the difficulty modes, they’re more a set of modifiers than full on different games within the system. Hideous hybrid blob clones that spew out copies when defeated but also drop infinite-energy blue cubes, machines that restrict your looping and need to be destroyed, mega vortexes that will game over you if you end your turn on them, etc. By far the biggest changeup is the final one, which introduces an entirely separate deck of actions for Dr. Faux and makes him stronger, yet also more predictable. It’s considerably challenging and The Loop is not an especially easy game to begin with. This is the good kind of variable setup, more variations on the game’s rock solid core as opposed to attempting to reinvent itself.
Yet despite all of this, The Loop never loses its grip on its strongest and most unique element: its sense of humor. From the lively presentation, to the flavor text in the rulebook and on the cards, to the capricious cube tower, there isn’t a single element here that fails to charm. Though your brow may furrow when considering your options the game will simultaneously give you reasons to grin the entire time. Most cardboard coops are content with merely presenting a resettable puzzle. The Loop offers a puzzle that stands head and shoulders above most of its kind, while also demonstrating that coop board games can be more than just the sum of their mechanisms.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.