If you've ever watched a sci-fi film from the 80s or 90s, you know that artificial intelligence is a no go. The incorporation or introduction of any level of A.I. will always result in disaster. It's a poetic recurrence and it follows a beautiful pattern. A.I. is introduced to revolutionise something, A.I. gains sentience. A.I. kicks off. Remember Skynet? H.A.L. 9000? The Master Control Program? All good to start off, all turned sour. And the list is endless! Even Johnny 5 had the potential to cause some mayhem. Assembly by Wren Games follows this poetic beauty to a tee. You're on a space station, and the A.I. has decided it has had enough of people, and has therefore scrambled the station up, preventing you from evacuating. It's a cooperative card game for up to 2 players that’s easy to access but hard to master!
Assembly is entirely cooperative and requires players to work together to reassemble the station's modules into their appropriate docks. But it's not so simple. The A.I. listens and prevents. You cannot discuss the actions you're intending to take directly, and cannot openly make a plan. Everything is done with a mind to not let the A.I. know your goals.
To start, each player takes a role card. These grant players unique abilities and can be perfect in a pinch. You then choose which set of malfunctions to play with. There are four sets to choose from, one of which is blank and therefore the easiest to manage. You then place these out like a face of a clock. Next players deal out of the 12 blueprint cards, starting from 12 and working round clockwise. These cards have two sides: locked and unlocked. All blueprint start unlocked.
Players then need to get out all module tokens and place them face down. Now, a player rolls the dice and places one random module marker onto the respective blueprint. Next players set up the deck, setting aside the cards indicated by the rules (these are added later in the game). Shuffle the remaining cards to create the command deck and deal three cards to each player. Players' hands are hidden at all times.
Taking a Turn
Now the game begins with players taking turns being the active player. When they are the active player, the choose cards to execute in order to manipulate the modules and attempt to get them back in the correct spots. Players may choose a card from their hand to execute, or may discard 3 to execute any command.
Players’ turns contain the following phases: inform, verify, execute, malfunction, and refresh. Inform is where they may ask a single question about the other player's hand, with them responding with yes or no. Verify is where the active player chooses and discards their executed card, the support player must verify the command. This means they must have the same card in order to allow the active player to execute it. If they can't verify it, they also discard a card to execute the command. Execute is where the command happens, but it only affects unlocked modules. Malfunction is where the issues listed on cards 3, 6, 9, 12 come into play, should they be being locked. And refresh is where the active player draws back up to 3 cards. The aim of the game is to get all modules locked back into their respective blueprints.
Assembly's commands are very straight forward and require very little explanation. Rotate allows you to rotate modules, lock lets you lock them in, deploy allows you to roll the dice and add another module, and swap lets you swap two modules. The issue is ensuring your cooperator has the same card in order to verify it. There aren't many cards in the deck, and if you run out of cards, you add one more. However, you also "scramble" all unlocked blueprints, shuffling them together and redeploying them randomly. Once the deck runs out three times the game is immediately lost.
How It Handles
Assembly is a quiet game. Silent even, other than the mutterings between you both to ask simple questions. It really is like A Space Odyssey, only this A.I. cant lip read luckily. But it's still brutal, unkind, and unrelenting. This game will make you think and you'll spend time feeling like you’re tactical masterminds, or feeling dumbfounded by how you ran out of cards. You will likely lose your first few games, and it will feel like an uphill struggle. But the game can be completed. You can be victorious and win, however it is not easy.
Cooperative games always require a level of "knowing your associates", but not as much as Assembly does. Other cooperative games allow for discussion, sharing plans and ideas, and developing tactics. Not here! You'll undeniably create plans, but you'll need to hope your cooperator can also develop these plans too - without prompt. No talking means no hinting, gesturing, or eyebrow raising. You need to have read one another's previous actions correctly to see the best way to complete the goal. This should be easy, but if you cannot play commands to support the plan it can cause two big problems. Number one: the plan isn't going to progress. Number two: you're going to look like you haven't got a clue! The second is the worst in any scenario, as deviation form the plan will result in anarchy. And chaos is what the A.I. wants.
There can be a lot of forgiveness in the flexibility of any plan. Needing to get one module to a specific location before a scramble is often the next step in any plan, and it can be achieved in a number of ways, but there needs to be a consistent level of understanding. So much can go wrong to hinder the efforts of the players: bad module draws, unable to verify commands, scrambles... Each of which can once again hinder you efforts. Every loss is a learning point, and you can easily track back to recognise what went wrong. One bad verify could be the pivotal point, and knowing that can make you think what you would have done. The issues pile up and it can feel insurmountable, but it isn't. At all! There's a solid sense of success when you achieve what you need to.
Reflecting On Error
A true tactician would adore this game for its easy to see complexity and many moving parts, but what's more is the game's lightweight set up, ease of access and small footprint. Although, on the tactical side, there's a beauty to losing. Appreciating that loss is difficult, as more often than not it's by the skin of your teeth. No end of our losses were down to running out of cards the turn before we locked in that last module. And yeah, it was disheartening at first. We sulked, moaned, and through that sulking and meaning we identified where we went wrong. An unnecessary use of three cards meant we'd lost more cards from the draw deck, thus reducing the number of turns we could utilise. So how did we deal with this defeat? We whipped out the cards again and had another crack at it!
There's a great sense of achievement to succeeding at Assembly, but success is not mastery. To truly master assembly, you'd have to take on the scaling difficulties. Assembly at its basics and in its most vanilla form is tricky. No malfunctions, and a learning curve combined make for a great thinking exercise. It's by no means easy, but it's forgiving. Ramping it up removes cards and makes it somewhat harder. True mastery is removing the inquiry phase - no talking whatsoever. Everything has to be entirely based on your ability to be in sync. Only once you've cracked that are you truly a master of Assembly.
What comes more with the reflection is the context of what might have helped. Sure, this is again situational, but it's where the roles players use come in handy. These roles have mega helpful abilities that enable them to make bigger leaps in specific areas. They're not one role fits all, however, and often play to a specific strength. We found that having a role centred around locking modules in play made it imperative for that player to do that more often. But don't get trapped in that mentality! It may mean someone wastes a turn, or worse, a scramble rocks up to ruin everything!
Theme and Iconography
Assembly runs on icons. Learning to play is like learning a new language, with words being exchanged for symbols and arrows pointing as necessary. It flows beautifully with this and makes using the different roles easy. However, if Assembly isn't a language you fancy, each role also has the translated explanation into the back, too.
The theme of this game is great and suited throughout. The station has many different bays with their associated modules, and was clearly conducting some 1980s film style surveying in a distant part of space. A clear cut recipe for disaster. Everything is a solid blue and white except for the module identifiers. These are symbolised with a single icon in a solid colour and contrast beautifully with the hard blue. Not only that, the game looks good when set up! It's unique in its layout, but also functional and purposeful.
Assembly is a solid puzzle game with lots of variety in what you can alter. Malfunction, roles and difficulty changes make this game dynamic and scale-able. What's more is how much it offers to those true tacticians or those desperate for mental punishment. As far as qualms for, we'd only dispute the games difficulty, but as said, it can be changed accordingly. It's never insurmountable. This one’s great for the thinkers and truly worth checking out as a solid 2 player game!
For those looking for the next step after Assembly, check out its expansion pack - Re-Sequence and Override. Or its epic sequel: Sensor Ghosts!