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Review: Ice Cool

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School is booooring! The only good thing worth looking forward to is lunch. But I’m hungry now. I could just skip class, sneak into the kitchen and grab myself a couple of fish. Who would even notice? Probably that goody two-shoes hall monitor. I’m sure she’d liking nothing more than to rat me out to the principle. But she’ll have to catch me first! No one’s going to stop me. I’m the king penguin. I rule this roost. This is my Ice Cool.

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How it Plays

School’s in session but the penguin students have only one thing on their minds: fish. The winner of Ice Cool is the player who can collect the most.

On your turn, you will flick your penguin pawn a single time. Certain doorways around the school will have fish tokens in your color attached to them. If you flick your penguin through one of these doorways, you remove the fish token and draw a fish card. It’s an easy enough goal, but it’s complicated by the presence of the hall monitor.

Every round, one player is designated to be the hall monitor with the goal of catching the other players’ penguin pawns. When it is the hall monitor’s turn, they also get a flick, but the goal is to hit the other penguins. If successful, the hall monitor takes the ID card of that player.

The round ends when the hall monitor has collected all the other players’ ID cards or when someone has collected all 3 of their fish tokens. Players will then draw fish cards equal to the ID cards in their possession. The hall monitor role rotates to the next player, the board state is reset, and a new round begins. The game ends when everyone has had a chance to be the hall monitor and the player with the most fish on their fish cards is the winner.

Getting through doorways to collect fish is the name of the game.
Getting through doorways to collect fish is the name of the game.

Ice Cool, You School

Dexterity games live or die on how well their pieces function. It’s more about feel than it is about intellectual engagement. The materials you interact with and how you use them are the foundation for a successful experience. It’s the difference between hitting a baseball with a wooden bat and hitting a wiffle ball with a plastic bat. A good dexterity game starts with high quality bits, and on this front Ice Cool succeeds.

The star of the show is the nesting box that makes up the play area. The rooms of the school stack neatly together when stowed away and the clips that hold them all together when it’s set up for play create a sturdy play area. And the penguins have a nice heft to them and are solidly constructed.

The nesting boxes come together to make a solid playing area.
The nesting boxes come together to make a solid playing area.

Having good components is important, but what you do with them is just as important. Ice Cool is a flicking game, so let’s talk about the penguins a little more. They have rounded, weighted bases that cause them to wobble like an inflatable punching bag. This often leads to wild and unpredictable results when striking one these penguins, compared to something more traditional like a puck or disc. Penguins spin and careen all over the place and seemingly have a mind of their own. Getting your penguins across a room much less through a doorway is challenging; I am terrible at Ice Cool.

Or at least I was.

There was a definite learning curve that I had to contend with before I started getting any confidence in my shots. The rulebook gives some tips on how to curve and even jump your penguins; by striking certain spots of the penguin you can control the path it takes. Hit it straight on and it will travel in a straight line. Hit it on the side and it will curve in that direction. And if you give it a good whack in the head you can get some nice air on your penguin. And I couldn’t do any of it. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the right spin to curve my penguin, and forget about trying to jump it. Even getting it to go straight is a frustratingly difficult proposition. In short: I was bad at it.

I even set up the game to practice my flicking skills on my own. And then something strange happened. I got better! Very strange, but it was fun. I was curving around corners, threading shots between other penguins and doorways. It was great! Controlling your penguin is a matter of managing your strength and strike location. Try for a straight shot but hit it off center and you’re bound to get some curve. Add too much strength to a curve shot and the curve straightens out; hit it too softly and you might end up doing a u-turn. As for jumping, well, I’m still working on that and I’ve got sore fingernails to show for it.

A shot through 3 doorways to collect 2 fish. There's no way I would have been able to do this when I first started.
A shot through 3 doorways to collect 2 fish. There’s no way I would have been able to do this when I first started.

I don’t want to overplay how steep the learning curve is. While I certainly had trouble getting my penguin under control, other players came to it much easier than I did and were fairly capable after just a game. But even if you start out as poorly as I did, don’t let it put you off. Learning, practicing and getting better at something is satisfying. It a was a journey to get better, and it’s paid off in actual (albeit limitedly useful) skill. And that’s the best thing you can ask for in a dexterity game. Your chances of victory are directly tied to your ability and mastery of the game. Except when it’s not.

The greatest failing of Ice Cool is its scoring system. Unpredictable things happen in Ice Cool, but they aren’t random. Bank shots, tight curves and multiple tags might be unintended, but they are the direct result of someone’s skill (or lack thereof) and the physics behind it. Collecting fish is the direct result of your ability to move your penguin around the board and your opponents’ ability to beat you to the fish. But all of the skill required to collect the fish is undercut by the values on the fish cards. The values on the cards range from 1 to 3. That means that you can score three times more than someone else on a single fish by mere chance.

The game does make a concession by allowing you to use two 1 value fish cards to take an immediate extra turn, but I’d much rather have two 3 value cards. An extra turn just isn’t enough to offset the imbalance of fish values. If you’re really good, you can consistently end the round early and collect more fish cards than anyone else to minimize the effects of the values, but that requires an extreme skill disparity between the players. It’s quite the letdown to play an obviously better game than your opponents and still lose through no fault of your own.

It’s an interesting study in randomness. I’m not adverse in seeing randomness in games, but it can certainly be done well and it can be done poorly. I’d argue that Ice Cool does it poorly. And it’s a shame because Ice Cool has a really strong foundation and all the makings of a really great dexterity game, but the random nature of the scoring works against the experience. People can argue that I’m taking a simple game too seriously and that it gives a bit of excitement and unexpectedness to the game. I’d argue that playing out the game provides for the plenty of surprising and unexpected moments and the random score cards are wholly unneeded. It would be like playing roulette every time you got bullseye in darts.

Cards. Why did it have to be cards?
Cards. Why did it have to be cards?

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is that Ice Cool is a fun, entertaining experience with some unfortunate game elements. Sliding, spinning, and even jumping around the board is an innately satisfying experience with room to improve without being an insurmountable challenge. Penguins careening around corners and bouncing off of each other leads to great laughs and some genuine cheer worthy moments. When a game can make a group of grown men leap up with fists in the air, it must be doing something right. But the letdown and communal sigh that’s let out when the final score cards are revealed is undeniable. I also wish there some more room configurations possible with the multiple rooms. They’re blemishes on an otherwise fun experience, but they aren’t enough to completely negate the joy that’s there and I’m still glad to pull it out from time to time.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Brain Games for providing a review copy of Ice Cool.

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Summary

Pros

High quality components
Clever nesting boxes allow for a lighter and smaller package
Allows for real skill and improvement

Cons

Random scoring undercuts display of skill

6.5 (Slightly Above) Average

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

Discussion1 Comment

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