Confusion (Game Review)

The elevator pitch that I usually hear for Confusion is “It’s like Chess meets Stratego“. While this does cover a lot of the game’s basics, it’s also somewhat misleading. Because you can see what your opponent’s pieces can do instead of your own, it’s actually the opposite of Stratego. It will probably be easiest to show how the game works, and how cleverly the components support this structure, with pictures.

All the pieces have meaningless letters and pictures on one side, with an insert on the other the shows how they can move:Before a game starts, the inserts can be shuffled up and randomly put in new pieces. Because the back side of each insert looks the same, it’s easy to shuffle them face-down and put their matching unit on top of them:

All the pieces are set up so that you can see the capabilities of your opponent’s pieces, but only the useless letter side of your own. On your turn, you may attempt to move a unit, and your opponent will tell you if that move is legal or not. If it is not allowed, then you just lost your turn! Either way, though, you gained some knowledge:

A dry-erase board lets you record what you know about your own pieces by crossing off each possibility that you have ruled out, along with a second side that lets you record what your opponent has discovered about his own pieces. The board looks confusing, but it becomes natural quickly: For example, if you were not allowed to move piece A forward two spaces, you simply cross off the left half of the “A” row to rule out every piece that can do that. If you learned instead that you can move “A” forward two, then cross off every square that cannot do that:

The game itself involves moving and capturing pieces as one would in Chess, with the goal of capturing a briefcase token in the center of the board and delivering it to the opposing side. The game features a couple other twists, such as certain pieces (which cannot move backwards initially) that will promote to a much more powerful unit if they cross to the other side of the board. Most importantly, one unit with movement marked as “?” is a “double agent”, and the owner’s opponent is free to give any answer he wants about how that piece can move.

It’s not only a clever idea, but it works amazingly well. Slowly discovering your own pieces’ capabilities is an unusual experience. It add a lot of tension to see all the ways that your opponent could threaten you without knowing about your equally-powerful counter-moves. There is also an interesting psychological element, since the squares that your opponent enters or avoids may give you an idea of which spaces your own units can attack. Every now and then, it turns into a miniature Chess game, when known pieces come together in a vital area near the briefcase. But the composition of each of those events is more varied and less predictable than standard Chess. A mixture of luck, strategy, and bluffing determines how those situations will evolve. The victory condition usually guarantees interesting situations, as well, since it involves a player sending one or known two units to the other side, where their opponent has many pieces but less knowledge about them.

A direct “is this like Chess?” comparison, with the implicit assumption that Chess is the ideal, will make Confusion seem disappointing. After all, one of Chess’ strengths is the lack of any hidden information or luck at all, and it’s also notable that interesting situations are being set up within a few moves of the game’s start. In Confusion, players can easily spend the first fifteen or twenty moves just experimenting with their units and figuring out what chance has dealt them. However, Confusion is a very different game than Chess, and these are not weaknesses. Moves go by faster, so the slow start is not a problem, and the randomness leads to a wider variety of situations for people to deal with. There are plenty of chances to correct an unlucky situation, and the better player will still usually win.

Confusion is not necessarily for everyone. Specifically, it only works with people who can be honest about what the other player’s pieces show, and it will fall apart if someone gets confused too often about reading or recording a unit’s information. Mixing up “forward” and “backward” is surprisingly easy, given that the game uses a down arrow (“towards the other side”) for forward, but your personal whiteboard shows your pieces’ forward movement as an up arrow. It’s quite possible for a game to be lost because a someone has the wrong information about one piece, and it’s almost impossible to determine whether one player misread that piece or the other player recorded it wrong.

Also, it is difficult to predict how long a game of Confusion will last. Usually one person will decide to make a run for the briefcase within the first ten minutes of the game, and it’s possible for them to win quickly afterwards. However, if the other player stops them, it can go back and forth any number of times before one of them finally succeeds in their mission. I have had incredibly tense games that lasted for well over an hour, but other times it would be possible to play three or four times in that span. (It should be said that those long games are some of the tensest and most memorable of any games I’ve played in recent years.)

Even if Confusion isn’t for everyone, I suspect that it will find a home with many gamers who aren’t normally fans of Chess. The interesting thing is that it should also appeal to many Chess players, and even a lot of casual gamers who aren’t interested in the strategy games I normally review. This is one of the most original and unique games I’ve seen in a long time. The tense mix of strategy and luck, and the mindgames that arise from knowing more about your opponent than yourself, make this an incredibly fun game.

Grade: A

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