Moe's Game Table: NHL Ice Breaker Review

Moe's Game Table: NHL Ice Breaker Review

Publisher: CSE Games

Game Designer: Fabio Del Rio, Paolo Del Rio

Players: 1-4

Playing Time: 20-30 minutes

MSRP: $24.99


NHL action in a card game

With an historic Stanley Cup Final series set to launch tonight between the Washington Capitals and the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, what better way to celebrate than with some tabletop hockey action playing NHL Ice Breaker from CSE Games.

Hockey is a fast game, with players careening down the ice at speeds of up to 35 MPH, dishing out body checks and making constant split-second decisions and adjustments. Aside from a dexterity game like air or bubble hockey, it’s a tough sport to transpose to a board game while really capturing its feel and intensity. Thankfully, NHL Ice Breaker from CSE Games does quite an admirable job of doing just that!

Fast and furious

NHL Ice Breaker plays as a variant of war with a healthy dose of poker and some interesting card mechanics to create an up-tempo game that captures the feel of the sport very well and is pretty damn fun.

Players start with a hand of five cards which drives the battle for the puck up and down the ice. When your hand is empty or there is a stoppage in play, you refill again to five cards. Thematically this is treated as a line change, just as in real hockey. The deck also acts as a timer, with each play through signifying the end of one of the three periods of the game.

The components are excellent. The board has a nice glossy sheen to it, similar to a sheet of ice, along with sturdy playing cards that can withstand a lot of shuffling and even a pair of pucks. The rule book is well laid out and explains everything clearly, allowing you to hit the ice in just a few minutes. There is also a deck of NHL team cards which are not simply for adornment but can play a pivotal role in key moments of the game.

Battling for the puck in the neutral zone

Battling for the puck in the neutral zone

Starting at center ice for the puck drop, players play cards to win possession and advance down the ice. Generally, it’s the high card that wins but you also have the option to play poker hands as well, beating a high card with a pair for example. The puck moves up the grid on the board based on the direction shown on the card, which is where the game isn’t only about playing the high cards but the right ones. There’s some tactical thinking in playing the right cards to maneuver the puck up ice and into the ‘shooting zone’ for a chance to score, or into a less advantageous position to hamper your opponent.

A really neat thing about the card play is while you may have a matching pair in your hand you don’t need to commit it right away. Instead, you can throw that five of diamonds down and see what your opponent plays, and if their card beats yours, you can follow up with the other five. Your opponent can also do the same if they have a pair of their own of course but may opt not to, since you are not forced to play anything you don’t want to.

Anatomy of an Ice Breaker card

Anatomy of an Ice Breaker card

I really like how this works, since you don’t have to tip your hand to your opponent and commit that second card. Instead, you can hold onto it as this can be really important ‘late in the shift’, when your opponent’s hand is really thin with lower value cards, allowing you to move the puck up ice a little more easily and possibly score. This works out to be a nice thematic element of the game, as the line is gassed nearing the end of its 45 second shift.

NHL Ice Breaker isn’t simply about moving the puck back and forth across the board trying to score, there’s plenty of hitting, beauty passes and trips to the sin bin. This is where the Ice Breaker mechanic kicks things up a notch and really brings in the hockey flavor.

On the grid there are 56 orange squares that trigger the Ice Breaker mechanic, a card draw off of the deck and following the directions in the Ice Breaker section on the card. This creates exciting swings in the action, just as we see on the ice. Big hits can be dished out allowing your opponent to play two free cards, sweet outlet passes can send a shooter into the slot for a shot on net or you can earn a trip to the sin bin.

Ice Breaker square.jpg

If you get a penalty, your hand size is limited to just four cards until you empty your hand or a goal is scored. If there’s a stoppage in play, you’re stuck with whatever cards are in your hand while your opponent redraws to a full hand of five. At this point, just as in real hockey, your only concerns are keeping the puck out of your zone and emptying your hand to kill the penalty.

I’ve come up with a fun house variant where you can play down to three cards in hand if you get a second penalty while killing the first. Once your hand empties the first time, you go back to four cards and then five once your hand empties and the second penalty expires. I’ve only been playing this one with my hockey friends as it can be a little more punishing but to us it captures the feel of the game a little bit better.

Brodeur stones the Bruins

Brodeur stones the Bruins

Once in the ‘shooting zone’, or slot as it’s known in hockey, shots on goal work in the same way with high card or poker hand winning. What sets things apart here are the NHL team cards I mentioned earlier. Each card has an NHL team logo next to its shooting and goaltending area and if you play a card that matches the team card that you’re playing as, it trumps any cards played by your opponent except for a five card ‘power hand’ (straight, full house, or any flush). Another good reason to weigh your options carefully when playing cards from your hand as you might want to hold onto your team’s card to play at the opportune moment, being that their are so few in the deck.

Another great design choice that keeps the game from feeling stale is that while the game includes all of the current NHL teams (prior to this year’s expansion to Las Vegas), it isn’t locked into any season roster. So you can field your dream team in your mind and on the table, creating any match up that you want and are free from any arguments over statistical accuracy of roster composition.

He shoots, he scores

NHL Ice Breaker isn’t a hard-core hockey simulation and isn’t meant to be. What we do get is a pretty fun game that I feel captures the frenetic read and react play of the sport very well in an easy to teach and quick to play format that’s accessible to almost everyone. You can play a fast and loose, run and gun style and forego managing your hand for killer combos, or you can play a little more reserved and save cards for a better hand, to a degree.

By playing good/high cards you risk ending up with lower cards for critical plays in either zone, or you can try to move onto an Ice Breaker square and risk a big play to change the flow of the game. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks to create the big play!

Using familiar War and poker mechanics, NHL Ice Breaker is easy to pick up and understand for just about everyone. Games play in about 25 minutes, fast enough to run through a best-of-five mini Stanley Cup series in a sitting. While I loved my many plays of Strat-o-matic hockey back in the day, sometimes you just want to play a quick game of hockey without worrying about stats and this is where NHL Ice Breaker fits perfectly. Hockey fans for sure will want a copy of this game on their shelves!

You can order the game right here


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Note: A copy of this game was provided to me for this review.

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