We All Need Control
Elegance is tough.
Think about it. If you want your game to be elegant, it needs to have moving parts, but not so many that it becomes a mess, and what’s there must be well-oiled and purposeful. You’ll need clear winning strategies, but no single strategy that trumps all others. Simplicity, but simplicity with depth.
Control, a game ostensibly about time travelers wrestling to escape a rift in spacetime, is elegant. Unfortunately, most people might not reach the point where they can recognize that.
The basics of Control couldn’t be much more straightforward. By installing fuel cells in front of you, reach or break 21 points. It’s possible you’ll only need as few as three cards. Certainly four or five will do.
The problem is, this is anything but basic. Control might as well have been named Lobster Bucket: The Card Game thanks to all the red-nailed clawing everyone is performing on everyone else’s ankles. Keeping even one good card active in front of you can be an ordeal, let alone summing up enough fuel to get home.
See, a series of turns might go something like this. Your opponent has installed a Nova, the highest-value card in the game. Of course you play a lowly Rift to destroy it. They try to reclaim their lost Nova from the discard pile with a Wormhole, which you Time Stop, so they retaliate by using an Anomaly to destroy your Exotic Matter, Rift, and Deflector all in one fell swoop, which triggers your Deflector and lets you either draw a card or make your opponent discard something. This once you decide to draw a card because all this back and forth has been depleting your reserves. Then your opponent plays their last card, an Antimatter, destroying both of the cards in your hand.
To say that Control can be frustrating would be an understatement.
The reason Control works so well comes down to the way its game state is about so much more than what cards are on the table, or even in your hand. In the example I outlined above, both players have been left with no fuel cells installed and neither is holding anything in their hand. To an onlooker, it might appear that they’ve gone through a factory reset, back to zero.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth. From that point on, both players are armed with crucial knowledge of what has been played. If someone draws a Wormhole, every single card in that discard pile could be the next bullet in their chamber, or it might be used as fuel rather than for its ability, catching you off guard because you didn’t think anybody would sacrifice such a useful card. When all the Novas have disappeared from the deck, Future Shift will never have the possibility of revealing another. Then again, it just might provide the second or — heaven help your opponent — even third Exotic Matter you need to create a chain of cards that could leap you forward to victory when your opponent, also operating under the assumption that all the Novas are cold and dead, is least expecting it.
The result is a game that fires on two levels. There’s the one you’re playing, cards on the table and players defusing or trumping those cards. Then there’s the one you’re trying to play in your opponent’s head, trying to work the angles they can’t quite see, wondering what on earth that last card they’re holding might be.
Five minutes later, the game is over. Control only ever lasts a few minutes; it has to if it’s going to be played four or five or six times in a single sitting. Which is precisely how Control is meant to be played: fast, hard, and multiple times, with the winner being awarded one of its little brass tokens and then ganged up on in the next round. The primary downside is that it’s all too easy to finish a single game, figure that’s all there is to Control, and dismiss it out of hand.
But that’s not all there is to Control. For instance, it’s telling that it plays entirely differently based on the number of people at the table. With two, it’s a tight contest focused on slipping ahead when your opponent isn’t holding the right cards to stop you. Three players makes the whole thing an exercise in masochism and endurance, everyone ganging up on the meta-leader with each new round. And with four, it would be so impossible to maintain a lead when three other people are taking a turn in between your own, that it’s actually a team game, two pairs of people working together to finally bust that spacetime barrier.
Each mode is worthwhile in its own way. All of them are as brutal as the next, though some people will prefer one over the others. Personally, I have a soft spot for the way the game morphs into something new the instant it gives you a partner. Now it’s possible for one person to build up fuel cells while the other goes hunting. Communication might be key, if communication didn’t give away so much precious information. It’s even fun to watch how players gradually get used to each other over multiple plays, learning how to bounce actions off each other at the right moments.
Look, Control isn’t the heftiest game out there, and it’s malicious enough that it won’t appeal to everybody. Perhaps most frustrating, it’s so light that it doesn’t appear to have any staying power until a group of clever individuals really dives in and explores the way its cards trigger, when to use a Singularity as a burn and when to use it as a defuse, how to cooperate against the winning player or at least pretend to. Ultimately, it’s a dang fine cerebral experience that’s compact enough to justify your fashion decision to wear cargo shorts.