You can tell it's a negative review when I didn't bother to center the title in the image.

Ctrl sure knows how to strut its stuff. Never mind that its stuff is an ill-fitting peg leg, peg arms, and a peg head that keeps falling out and looks so identical to its other peg-parts that nobody can remember which depression it’s supposed to peg into.

And then smaller things when the bigger thing falls apart.

From small things come… well, bigger things.

Speaking of strutting its stuff, there’s a certain appeal to Ctrl’s expansion from a handful of cubes to dozens, folded over and under each other in a way that could be considered almost organic. It’s reminiscent of a tangled garden, a movie representation of a computer virus, or those illustrations of chaos theory from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Here is life. It cannot be contained. Unless you put your flag in the proper position, anyway.

And really, the concept is rather elegant in its simplicity. Your goal is to have the most pieces of your color showing — from each of five directions. In scoring, you’ll view it face-on from one direction, count up everybody’s score, then rotate the entire cube. After doing the same for the remainder of its compass faces, you’ll also stare at it from above, a topographical map of a Disney Park that’s been Inception’d back upon itself. Add together all the shown cubes from each direction and there you have it: the most effective cube-stacker wins.

Except it isn’t about stacking, and that’s the first of its wrinkles. Instead, its pieces crawl across the surface of its play area like cuboid caterpillars. Each turn lets you place three cubes: one adjacent to another of your cubes, and then two growing from the first and thrusting in a single direction. There are a few rules to this procedure, slightly unintuitive but quickly internalized. Cubes can only step up or down so far during a move, can “turn” under particular circumstances, can only grow away from the central anchoring cube upon initial placement, and are immediately blocked by flagpoles.

Those flagpoles make up the final portion of each turn, and act both offensively and defensively. Enemy cubes can’t expand into anything blocked by your pole; the same goes for any opposing cubes obscured during scoring. They can also be taken as markers of intent. Don’t expand here, because I intend to wrap around your spire on my next turn. They prevent your cubes from being wrapped around, but only in as many spaces as you can line up, the sort of system you can manipulate if only you could see how.


Borg gone wrong.

Half the fun of Ctrl is watching the expansion of your shared construction in real-time. It’s almost an architectural wonder, poised halfway between utility and impossibility, like some neo-futurist incarnation of a painted favela. It probably helps that its peg-holes resemble windows, doorways, or portals. You half-expect a colorful Blade Runner to dash across its rooftops or to see laundry drying on a line.

Is that enough? Well, not really. There are two problems that prevent Ctrl from realizing its full potential, one physical and the other mechanical. In the first case, the plastic is disappointingly light, with the windows on four sides of each cube angled for easy removal of flags and other cubes. Unfortunately, “easy removal” often means “self-removal,” especially when flagpoles are erected on lonely perches or pulled free at the start of a turn. At times entire clusters of blocks pop loose, scattering across the table and transforming Ctrl into a memory game as everybody tries to recall precisely where everything was slotted. And heaven forbid you dare pick the thing up. You might as well flip the table. Instead, Ctrl quickly instills a unique tactility. Careful movements, pinching the blocks whenever you touch them, carefully installing each block’s main peg against the most stable anchor, sliding the cube to the next player rather than passing it; these are the steps that keep the game going.

The bigger problem revolves around Ctrl’s more theoretical structure, at least in the three- and four-player games. Since each turn consists of adding three blocks and ideally marching them across the expanding cube in such a way that they obscure opposing cubes, competent play tends to reward whichever player goes last. Careful placement can mitigate this to some degree, especially as you grow comfortable thinking about how each cube will appear when assessing all five perspectives in scoring. But the fact remains that the last player gets the final say in which blocks will be highlighted or blotted out. It’s often enough of an advantage to translate into a game-winning swing.

The paradox: Not every game is improved by bluffing, but bluffing improves every game.

The two-player game adds a necessary element of bluffing.

But then there’s the two-player game, which, although it contains the same structural problem of handing some innate advantage to its final player, has the good sense to bury the issue beneath some real cleverness. In this case, designer Julio Nazario didn’t want to limit players to only two sets of pastel cubes. In maximizing the use of his game’s components, the solution is both natural and a little bit brilliant: each player receives control of two colors, with the twist that you’re required to secretly choose which of the two you’ll score when the game is over. You’re both green and blue, for example, but only one of them will score. And which one is a big fat secret.

This isn’t entirely transformative; Ctrl is still the same game, and it’s still saddled with the same problems. But it’s a step in the right direction, adding an extra layer of meaning to every placement. Because both players are using two colors, you’re never sure whether your opponent’s latest string of three cubes is intended to block yours, score points, or act as the basest of maneuvers, the bluff. It’s even possible to hem yourself in by erroneously placing your flagpole somewhere that might limit your other color’s options for expansion. Best of all, this doubles the decision space. Where once you only had marginal control, now the cube bristles with possibilities and traps. It isn’t enough to save Ctrl from its missteps, especially the chintzy production values, but it sparks some genuinely beguiling options for claiming and securing the cube’s real estate.

Honestly, this mesmerizes me.

Look how good at technology I am.

As a toy or visual piece, there’s much to appreciate about Ctrl. The game’s fractal appeal is undeniable, and it leverages its multi-dimensional nature to good effect. But as a game it’s too fragile, too breakable, not quite functional enough. The core concept is solid; too bad about the cubes stacked around it.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on August 18, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The first line of the review got a little mangled. Thought you might want to know.

  2. I playtested this at the Gathering 2 years ago and told them the last player advantage was too great. I guess they didn’t listen. 😦

    I was hoping they would offset the turn order with pro-rated actions.
    1st player getting 1 action.
    2nd player getting 2 actions,
    3rd player getting 3 actions,
    then everyone getting 4 actions until the final round when the pro-rating would get reversed and everyone would have a total of 21 actions. If you started with 21 blocks, then the final round would just happen on its own without having to keep track.

    I never tested this, of course. It was just a suggestion and it probably wouldn’t work. That’s the nature of game design. You have a great idea. You’re really excited. You test it. It sucks. You have another great idea that you’re really excited about. You test it. It sucks.

    But sometimes after going through this process a hundred times something finally clicks. Then you’re happy for a long time. And life is good.

    • Yeah, I had a similar thought on the back end, although I really like your idea of implementing the solution at the beginning as well. Over on my Geeklist somebody mentioned that the publisher felt that flags offset the problem — but that’s another example where going last can be beneficial, since you’re placing your final flag entirely to obscure scoring rather than needing to consider where you’re blocking rival placements!

  3. I love Julio’s continual innovation with physical components. That’s his design specialty, no doubt! It’s too bad Pandasaurus struggled to develop and produce Ctrl to its full potential. That seems to be a consistent issue for them based on my experience with their games. Thanks for your review!

  4. Pablo Schulman

    A much simpler solution than Dominic’s is to give the players a certain amount of points at the end of the game based on their position (first player gets more, than second, etc) Of course, that requires a TON of tests to find the right amount.

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