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20 Strong - Review

Designer: Josh J. Carlson
Publishers: Chip Theory Games
Player Count: 1 Player
Play Time: 30 to 45 Minutes

You are a hero in the universe of your favorite board game! Roll dice to score hits against enemies and gain boons to help defeat the ultimate boss. In this review of 20 Strong I overview the gameplay of an exquisite new solo game system and dive into the production quality of what I hope is a long-lasting series of small box games.

Black and gold box with text 20 Strong, 20 dice organized by color with custom symbols and grey and black deck with text solar sentinels
20 Strong Box, Solar Sentinels deckbox, and dice

A Game and a Game System

What can you do with a handful of dice and a custom deck of cards?

Quite a bit actually, if you have a solid framework of rules.

That’s what 20 Strong is, a rules structure and an assemblage of components that players can apply to specialized decks of cards to play fast-paced solitaire battle games. The 20 Strong core box includes custom dice, a tracker token, the core rulebook, and Solar Sentinels (one of the game decks). This is everything the player needs to get started playing. Other 20 Strong decks (there are currently three available) utilize the same core concepts and components but facilitate a wholly unique and different gameplay experience.

20 Strong is not a living card game like Arkham Horror, nor a deck-building game like Dominion. With a few exceptions, the cards in the decks cannot be mixed and played together. While the Solar Sentinels deck introduces a brand new story of lunar defense against an alien invasion, the other decks are based on the universes of other Chip Theory games: Too Many Bones and Hoplomachus: Victorum, with more planned to come. In this way, 20 Strong is a game “system,” not just a game, comprising basic tools and rules that can be applied to an ever-expanding catalog of playable decks.

I have played all three of the decks that are currently available, but am most familiar with Solar Sentinels, so the bulk of this review with focus on that deck.

Three boxes lined up on a green mat with text  (left to right) victorum, too many bones, 20 strong.
20 Strong core box and expansion decks

Gameplay: Dice Pool Management

20 Strong is a pure solitaire game system, although the creators have hinted at the possibility of multiplayer gameplay in the future, and the rules would support this. Each of the different decks is going to have different setup instructions and a different flow of the game, although all three of the initial decks follow the same general pattern: pick a hero, select and roll dice to score hits against enemies, and finally face off against a big bad in a final boss battle.

The player first chooses a hero with unique stats that will help inform their strategy throughout the game. Each round, the player must overcome one or more enemies drawn from stacks by choosing dice from the pool, rolling them to score hits, and applying those hits to the enemies to defeat them. Although this is a fairly simple sequence, the player needs to delicately manage their dice pool and consider both the special abilities of each enemy and the rewards they grant when defeated.

17 colored dice organized by color, yellow, blue, green, purple, red and a circular poker chip in a brown holder.
Dice and spinning counter

And therein lies the deep strategy of the game. There are 17 six-sided dice in the pool from which the player can choose to commit to an engagement each round. After all dice are committed, rolled, and applied to enemies the player exhausts all the dice they used and may only return to their dice pool a number of dice equal to their Refresh stat. Some dice also have a higher chance of scoring a hit, having more faces with hit symbols than others. Maintaining a sufficient dice pool requires the player to carefully evaluate how many dice they really need to commit to an engagement based on the strength of the enemies, how many times they can reroll misses (from their Strategy stat), and how many dice they can refresh.

The enemies the player is up against are not passive grunts. Each has a unique ability that impacts the engagement in some way, often restricting the player’s dice pool options or bolstering other enemies in the encounter. Defeated enemies grant rewards too, in the form of instant boons (like increasing a stat or immediately refreshing dice) or items that can be saved for later. Generally, the more challenging the enemy the better the reward. Buffing stats and acquiring items is crucial if the player is going to triumph in the final boss battle. The player wins if they are able to survive every encounter without their Health stat dropping below 1.

a card depicting a silver and black mech with text and statistics labeled Beckett Sun Forger with three dice with custom symbols
Beckett Sun-Forger hero card and stat dice

Thoughts: First and Foremost Impressions

The scintillating gold trim into which the bold-font 20 Strong title is embossed on the front of the box draws in anyone who may see this little treasure on the shelf at a game store. Unfortunately, there’s not much else by way of description or explanation cueing the curious gamer to what 20 Strong may be about. And while this minimalist approach works for the aesthetic design—the individual game decks do have more thematic box artwork—as someone with a background in the retail side of the gaming industry, I can’t help but think that the lack of information about the game immediately available to consumers hinders marketability.

Once the box is opened up, however, the top-notch and thoughtful production design of 20 Strong is immediately apparent. The game cards are made of pressed plastic with a matte finish that feels great and makes shuffling a breeze. In a game with a lot of card manipulation, the plastic stock makes it easier to pick up cards off a flat surface and reduces damage from excessive handling. It also means the foil treatment does not curl the card, as is the case with many trading card game cards. Each individual card front and back in the Solar Sentinels deck pops with silver foiling on hero cards and a blood red burnish on enemy cards, making the sketch artwork appear to jump right on to the table. Cards in the other decks also have aesthetically-fitting spot foiling. So soon after writing in another review on the importance of dice-forward games to have well-crafted dice, I was impressed with the weight-feel and overall vibrant presentation of the large pool of translucent rollers in this one.

Card, dice, and tracker token with a black and gold box labeled 20 Strong.
20 Strong core box components

It is clear that 20 Strong was crafted with the future in mind. The components befit one another, and cohere nicely with the art direction and themes of each of the decks currently available. But they are also created with enough measured ambiguity to allow for growth and development of more ways of experiencing and playing this game system later on.

Strategy: A Game of Many Choices, but Refresh Always Wins

As a dice-heavy game, randomization features prominently in the progression and outcome of gameplay. More than a few times, I was down to my last roll with my last die in the pool, needing to score a hit to keep me alive—sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. However, I have never felt as though I was not in control of the game; that the many strategic choices I made each turn were negated or overruled by arbitrary dice outcomes. This is due in part to how many variables—including enemy and hero abilities, items, and the process for rerolling misses each successive Strategy phase—can be strategically manipulated by the player to give them a degree of confidence about the dice outcome. So while seemingly unpredictable dice rolls are the core mechanic of 20 Strong, the player never lacks the agency to determine their own fate.

These choices open to the player each turn—which enemy to face off the top of the stacks, how many and what type of dice to commit, and whether or not to use an item—ensures there are multiple strategies for handling any engagement. And although the game progresses round-to-round, 20 Strong demands that the player think ahead and consider what enemies are coming up next on the stacks, and eventually what tactics they will use to overcome the final boss.

After a few playthroughs, it became clear that pumping the Refresh stat as high as it can go is a very dependable path to victory. Ensuring there are always strong dice in the pool to draw from in any encounter is the most assured way of defeating an enemy and the most straightforward way of maintaining a strong dice pool is being able to refresh a lot of dice at the end of every encounter. Although the Refresh stat maxes out at six, the six top dice in the pool is usually enough to overcome most enemies the player could face. I’ve found this means I was able to confidently rely on my natural dice pool refresh each turn to dwindle the stacks and save up all my high-powered items for the boss battle.

Still, there are ways in the game to make it more challenging. Changing heroes can force you to amend your strategy. Although mission cards can sometimes feel tangential to the plot of the game, they do introduce intricate and and puzzling challenges to gameplay.

Cards depicting mechanized robots with text and stats
Example hero cards

Final Thoughts

With tough challenges, a fickle dice pool, and a main character that gets buffed the more enemies they defeat, 20 Strong reminds me a lot of One Deck Dungeon, often considered a solo gaming staple. However, with more variables to adjust the challenge level of the game, 20 Strong has an advantage in tasking the player to be more strategic and thoughtful.

The Solar Sentinels deck was really exciting to explore, but without much of a deep interest in other Chip Theory games, I felt like I was missing out on some of the narrative and lore that was built into the gameplay. Gamers who really enjoy Too Many Bones and Victorum, however, may get more satisfaction out of the other decks.

With game time clocking in at under an hour, I recommend 20 Strong to any solo gamer that enjoys quick, clever gameplay with the potential to escalate the challenge the deeper they get. However, the fate of 20 Strong rests with what comes next from Chip Theory Games. So far, all three of the current decks are unique takes on the same tower defense style game. Will future decks in the 20 Strong universe introduce new game genres and styles? 

20 colored dice organized by color
Hit and stat dice

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