Ed Sheeran, Meghan Trainor and Disturbed walk into a bar…
Reviewed on: Mobile (Review copy provided)
Harmonix are a developer synonymous with the mad, mad world of music videogames. After launching the studio with the sublime PS2 game Frequency, Harmonix have gone on to bring us such treats as Amplitude, Guitar Hero (you may have heard of it), Rock Band and Dance Central, always finding new and clever ways to interweave popular music into gameplay loops and often bringing unique ways of playing through peripherals. Their latest game, however, may well be their most ambitious yet. Published by Hasbro, it’s a mixed media digital board game that lets players be virtual DJs.
What is DropMix, then? Well, it’s easily described as a music card game. In the glossily presented box you get a fairly chunky “board” – a black slab with a notch at one end, a big “DropMix” button at the other and five “spaces” in between – as well as 60 cards. These cards are split into decks of 15, each representing a musical genre (Rock, Pop, EDM or Hip-Hop) with each card (for the most part) representing a specific loop from a specific popular song. There’s Sing by Ed Sheeran, Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen, Bangarang by Skrillex, Scenario by A Tribe Called Quest and many more. Players start the game by downloading the DropMix app to the mobile device of their choice (Android and iOS are supported) and popping said device into the notch on the board. The board connects to your device via bluetooth when the app starts up, players choose their decks (30 cards for a full game) and a simple tap of Play on the screen will get you going.
The basic and most competitive mode is Clash. Each player draws a starting hand of 5 cards and take it in turns to play them onto the board. On a turn, a player can take 2 actions; laying a card or pushing the big DropMix button at the end of the board – before drawing two cards up to a hand total of 7 to end their turn. To lay a card you have to look at the cards colour which tells you what space you can play it into on the board. If the space is free, pop your card down and score a point – if there’s already a card in that space then you need to look at the “strength” value in the top left hand corner of the card. This goes from 1 to 3 and the card you want to play has to match or exceed the card already in play for you to claim the space. It’s as simple as that with a couple of exceptions; Wild cards and FX cards. Both of these card types can be played into ANY space on the board, again adhering to strength, and FX cards give you perks like taking two points off the other player, or gaining bonus points for each blue card you have in play. Rinse and repeat; first to 21 points wins. I’ll admit, it sounds like a fairly basic gameplay system and it kind of is, but it’s where the board, cards and app work together that the game truly shines.
These are no normal cards, you see. Each one has an NFC chip inside which, when placed on their respective space, is read by the board. This then starts a loop playing on the app. As you add more cards with drum beats, basslines, vocals etc, a song starts to form. What’s exceptionally clever is how well the app mixes all of this noise together in real time, transposing time signatures and keys so that the loops work with each other – hearing Sia’s Chandelier vocals blare out over a crunchy, distorted guitar line from Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness is bizarre, surreal and amazing in how the game simply makes it all work together. Not only that, but the app keeps track of your moves, your score, makes sure you only play legal cards and more. It tracks when you get bonus points for playing specific colours in specific spaces, or when you control all five slots on the board for a “Full Mix” bonus and overall makes it dead easy to understand what’s going on in the game.
But it’s the DropMix button that is a real game changer here. If the other player is controlling too much of the board you can hit that big button and start a roulette wheel spinning on the screen. Whatever strength value it lands on, those cards which belong to your opponent get wiped off the board and they lose a point for each one. This adds a layer of tactics in – as the board fills up, level 1 cards are harder to play but they’re also weighed on the roulette wheel so that they are hardest to remove. Conversely, level 3 cards are a guaranteed score but they take up 50% of the chance wheel. It’s a great risk/reward mechanic and adds a lot of tension to the gameplay when that wheel is spinning.
In addition to Clash, DropMix also support Freestyle and Party game modes. In Freestyle you can lay down whatever loops you please into their respective spaces on the board, constructing all manner of musical monstrosities to your heart’s content – no scoring, no competition, just play time. Party mode is a fixed length score chasing mode for 1-5 players. Everyone has their own deck (30 cards each for 2 players, 15 cards each for 3 or more) and hands and the game challenges players with placing specific card strengths and colours on a timer – the quicker the players place the requested card, the more they score. Although the game keeps track of the highest score, it’s purely played for fun, but it’s a great distraction from the main Clash mode and good for those who don’t want a competitive experience.
One of the cooler features of DropMix is how it incorporates social elements into its infrastructure. At any point during any of the games modes you can touch a button on the interface to save your current mix. These can then be brought back at any time by touching “Mixes” on the homescreen and shared on social media or with your friends. The easiest way to share is to create a link which can be opened up in the DropMix app, but if your device supports it you can save the mix down to a one minute video clip to upload to the service of your choice. We’ve put some of our dopest (Editor’s note: Don’t say that, Andy) cuts up on YouTube and you can listen to them in this very review! It’s a cool feature and fits perfectly with this game.
Obviously as this is both a card game and a Harmonix game, there are options to expand beyond the basic set. Extra cards are available to buy either in full decks or “Playlists” or in smaller “Discover” packs. The playlists come in sets of 15 with an extra mystery “Hidden Track” card and retail for £14.99, while the Discover packs come in sets of 5 for £4.99. Unlike most collectible card games, the Discover packs aren’t blind bagged, so you’ll always know which cards you’re getting, meaning it will be easy for players to find the sets they’re missing. Hasbro have also dipped into event exclusive cards with a Transformers Theme wild card that was only made available at certain trade shows and comic-con’s in the US. What this all leads to is a great potential for customisation. Players are completely free to make their own custom decks so long as they contain at least 30 cards and don’t go over a total of 80 strength points. The cool part of this is that the game will scan the players deck before a game and make sure it’s legal, meaning players can’t sneak anything in that would unbalance the game. A neat mechanic and certainly enticing for CCG enthusiasts – as all the base set decks have a power level of 36, there’s definitely scope to mix a few of these extra cards into games as you get them.
So far so very, very positive. DropMix is an excellent game that is bound to turn heads when it’s played in the wild but, sadly, it’s not without its disappointments. Firstly and most likely unavoidably, the price of the base game is eye-watering. It currently retails for £119.99 which is a big jump for a game of this type both for board and video game fans; fortunately I don’t feel that the add on content is priced too badly in comparison, so you’re only really considering the price of the board. Related to the cost is the UK availability of the game – while Hasbro seem to have gone all out in the US, making the game available on Amazon and most good stores, the UK distribution seems to be done exclusively through Game for the moment (EDIT: Dropmix is also available from Amazon in the UK now). While this is not necessarily a bad thing, and stores seem to be getting plenty of stock in, it would be good to see it in more mainstream shops like Toys R Us, or even supermarkets to give it more exposure. On a somewhat more technical level, I found the quality of the cards to be… middling. They’re certainly not the worst cards I’ve experienced in a board game, but they have a somewhat matte finish which seems to scuff easily and, more worryingly, the NFC chips in the cards seemed to be starting to break through the surface on repeat plays and shuffles – it’s an easy fix, though; card protectors are available from most good board game stores, so a set of those will see you to keeping your game in good condition.
Despite the above concerns, DropMix is an easy game to recommend. It feels like a fresh take on both card games and music games in general and the way it seamlessly combines loops together to form coherent mixes is wonderful. Hopefully Hasbro can sort out the availability in the UK to help it find its audience, and Harmonix can work to expand the game with more cards and game modes.
Expensive and only available in a limited number of shops in the UK, DropMix is nevertheless a hugely compelling experience. A solid card game mechanic with room for plenty of deck customisation wrapped around familiar popular tunes and a bright, responsive app. Fun to play and to play with, here’s hoping that Harmonix and Hasbro can expand on the base formula and take DropMix further.