Cost: $20 From: Golden Games Players: 2 Playing Time: 15 minutes Type of game: Family Complexity: 2 Skill level: 7 Reviewed by: Kris Gould, Issue 2.4, Summer 1994
There are a lot of abstract strategy games for two players that are much simpler than chess, and look interesting when you first pick them up; Exit, Steppe, Overboard, Shuttles, In The Dark, Mage Stones, Nevo, Connections, Kensington, Meggido, ... the list goes on ... And some of them end up being real gems that you want to play again and again. But a lot of them, especially the ones with the snazzier equipment and simpler rules, end up falling flat, like playing endless games of tic-tac-toe with a five-year-old who has just discovered the game. So when I saw Golden Games' new one, called Downfall, I was tempted to give it a miss. It obviously fell into the "neat equipment, almost no rules" category, so I had to go down the games aisle of Toys R Us twice before I finally picked it up. After all, the equipment is so cool!
I was at least right about the rules. All I had to do was set it up, and immediately the two kids I was with (ages eight and six) started playing before I told them how. And the equipment really is fun to play with. The board (frame? main game piece?) is a large molded plastic item that stands upright on a base between the two players, so you can't see what is happening on your opponent's side. Each player has five brightly colored disks which he must get to drop, in order, into the tray at the bottom. The frame has five dials with notches cut in them just big enough for the disks to fall into, and by turning the dials you can catch a disk from the dial or chute above and drop it into the open notch of the dial below or beside it. So the disks move from dial to dial to dial aided by gravity, and finally drop from the fifth dial into the tray below.
Play is quite simple. The disks are numbered one through five, and they are put into the beginning chute in that order. Just turn one dial (and only one) as far as you want to on your turn. You may want to turn it further than a complete circle, since it is possible to turn a dial so it picks up a disk from the beginning chute, drops into dial number two, then picks up the next disk from the beginning chute and turns to a position where it will drop into dial number two as soon as that dial is turned so an empty slot is below the disk. The problem is, the dials go all the way through the board, so you are also turning the dial on your opponent's side at the same time. And the dials are not lined up the same on both sides, so when your opponent positions a dial just right to catch a falling disk, the slot on your side is just a bit off, so your disk won't fall into this dial, it will just keep spinning around in the dial above it. There is, fortunately, a very important rule that you can't turn the dial your opponent just turned, so when you line up a dial just right, it will stay that way for at least one more turn.
The strategies are more interesting than they appear. You can play it with your six-year-old nephew, and he will enjoy it, even though you will win almost every time. But the game gets more difficult when you play against someone with a bit more skill. You can get two or three disks into play at once, which not only increases your choices of what to do in a turn, but also makes it possible to advance two disks with the turn of one dial. You can also set it up so that the next time your opponent turns a certain dial it will help you by dropping one of your disks down. It's a good idea to keep track of where you think your opponent's disks are, so you don't accidentally help him along. You can use the rule that your opponent can't move the dial you just turned as a good defense. And watch out that one of your disks doesn't fall out of the frame out of order, because if it does you lose immediately. (But if you can do it to your opponent, it's a really sneaky way to win!)
I was a bit concerned that in a game that uses gravity and physical movement like this, things would have a tendency to get stuck, like the marbles in the old games of Stadium Checkers or Avalanche. Yet so far, things have run pretty smoothly, although you have to be pretty careful to line things up well. (There were one or two occasions where disks got stuck, but those were immediately relieved by a little wiggling). The rules say you have to turn slowly, so you can't spin the dial, hoping to go by so quickly that your opponent's disk doesn't fall out. The rules also seem to imply that once you have started turning the disk in one direction, you can't start turning it in the other direction on the same turn, although they don't specifically say this. There are a number of alternate games suggested, and the ones where you initially put your disks in the chute in reverse or random order change the game drastically, since you still have to get them to drop out in order. There are also four different colors of disks, so you can play a four player game, although it has to be in teams. (Playing every man for himself would give you way too little control over your disks.)
Despite my initial qualms, Downfall turned out to be a good little game. Very short - 5-15 minutes - but lots of fun, especially if you play one of the more difficult alternate games. The equipment is well made and will hold up for quite a while. All in all, an interesting game that is easy to play and has enough variety and strategy to remain enjoyable after many playings. And it's fun to fiddle around with the disks and dials.