Review: Mess Machine


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Automation and lights-out manufacturing may sound economically attractive.  But cheaper labor costs and faster production aren’t worth where it all leads.  So unless you want to welcome your new robot overlords, let’s just slow things down a little.  Your fancy schmancy technology ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Nothing beats crafted quality from the caring hands of an honest worker in control of his own labor.  Besides, machines just mess things up so royally that, before long, paying that union worker $84 an hour doesn’t sound so bad after all.

How To Play

In Mess Machine, players are trying to build a toy without the automated circuitry destroying the whole product.

The design is a straight-up puzzle and literally looks like one.  Each toy/image – there are four you can assemble – is represented as a picture with sixteen tiles.  One of these sets are mixed up and arranged in a 4×4 grid, image face up.  Your job is to reorder them so that the picture is complete.

The catch is that your assembly line machinery only has four functions – and may only run a limited time before it shuts down!

What a mess! How are we supposed to put this back together?!

On your shift, you get to push one button.  Hey, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!  If you push A then you can switch either the first and third tiles in row or the second and fourth images.  Button C performs the same function, but within one of the columns.  Buttons B and D will swap the two tiles on either end of a row or column, respectively.  Once you’ve pressed your button and resolved the action, your turn is over and it’s time for a coffee break.  Each function may only be operated collectively up to ten times, however.  When you press a button, you remove one of its corresponding tokens from that board space.  When all of the tokens of a particular button are gone, no one may perform it any longer.

The factory’s goal is to manipulate the tiles to complete the image.  Individually you have two ulterior motives, as well.  First, any time you slot a tile in its proper place, you score a point.  Also, you earn points at the end of the game based on correctly guessing which buttons get utilized the most.

Why, with the ACME Automatic Toy Arranger 3000XD, of course!

That depends on how you start the game.  After analyzing the mixed-up image, you select two button tokens labeled either A, B, C or D.  Keep them secret.  You’ll place a cog on one of these, your direct button.  The other is your indirect button.  If you successfully solve the puzzle, you score one point for each time you pressed your direct button.  Likewise, though even if you fail to fix the toy, you score a point for every time your opponents opted for your choice of indirect button.

The game ends when either your team has arranged the tiles correctly or everyone agrees there is no possible solution after one or more functions become inoperable (out of buttons).  The player with the most points between his/her running score, direct and indirect buttons wins and is employee of the month!  And rest assured.  These machines are ergonomically designed and all aspects of the factory floor meet with strict OSHA standards.

The curious case of direct and indirect buttons.


A wonderful aspect to the hobby is its versatility.  There are titles out there for just about every gamer type and personality.  For example, I don’t typically play puzzle games.  But I recognize their place and the bridges they can build to non-gamers.  And I’m impressed by Mess Machine’s delightful premise, which reminds me of the old, little, cheap tile slide puzzles I always got for free in goodie bags at birthday parties as a kid.  Of course, even when filling a niche a design has to be good.

Mess Machine is indeed a sound little design.  It’s a nifty idea that is so recognizable and basic that I’m surprised it hasn’t been implemented in a board game before now.  Perhaps it has in some form, but I’m not familiar enough with a variety of puzzle games to have come across one?  No matter, this one works really well and absolutely accomplishes what it wants.  It’s straight-forward, but also offers a solid challenge.  Since you can only operate each function up to ten times, players must quickly map out an efficient plan before the machine runs out of juice!  One of the best strategies is to first group the tiles by halves, either left-vs-right or top-vs-bottom.  If you can get each in their relative areas, then you can work towards slotting particular tiles into their correct spaces.

Or not!

Probably the more interesting aspect to the design, to me, is how each player can opt to work towards his/her own agenda at the expense of the long game.  You can quickly earn a point by engineering a piece in its correct spot, even if it sends another to an awkward position that’s difficult to extract near its proper place.  You can try pressing your direct button choice in hopes that everything will get worked out and thus acquire points from those.  Or you can set up the other players to frequently press your indirect button in order to nab points at the end that way, even if it means working against the team in the process.

Now you’ve done it! You’ve gone and pressed D one too many times!

While that works at cross purposes to the cooperative element, it’s still satisfying in that there is always a winner, even if the team fails overall.  For that matter there is a single winner if you all solve the puzzle, also.  If you don’t find the semi-cooperative aspect as appealing, you can always go full coop and forget the points and just try to see how efficiently you can assemble the toy.  While the rulebook doesn’t mention solo play, you could easily do the same thing by yourself, too.

Another wrinkle you can toss in to ratchet up the challenge are malfunctions.  Whenever you reduce a button to five and two tokens (depending on difficulty level) the machine goes haywire.  Like they do.  You can always reboot it, but not before it mixes up two random tiles in the mishap.  It’s better than them taking over our world and eradicating human lives in the name of self-preservation, but this robotic faux paus can really foul up your progress.  It’s also a lot of fun and a humorous obstacle to face.

So even though there’s not much to Mess Machine, it certainly makes you think and it weighs in nicely for families and casual gamers.  It likely won’t have staying power with any group.  However, the malfunctions and the cooperative-versus-competitive nature will prove cerebral enough for serious hobbyists to enjoy with friends and loved ones of the former demographic.  Earlier I wondered why the idea hasn’t come up before.  It could be that it’s simply not extremely exciting.  And while it may not be compelling fare for most, puzzle game fans will certainly enjoy it.

So close! And, yet…

Mess Machine is a cute idea that can reach audiences not accustomed to designer games.  It won’t be a smash hit or circulate in a lot of groups, but its resemblance to cheap tile slide puzzles will immediately resonate with most and fit well with families, too.  Thankfully it keeps the approach just as simple, but provides a legitimate challenge.  Because it’s not just the machine that messes things up.  While players need to cooperate to build the toy, they’ll also go after their own points which may not further the cause in the long-run.  Then you just might be ready to take a hammer to both machine and opponents!

QSF Games provided a review copy of Mess Machine for this review.

Automated Fun

  • Rating 6.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 8
    Your Rating:


Extremely simple, but quite challenging
Still produces victor even if you don’t solve the puzzle
Charming concept


Players usually work at cross-purposes
Not a lot of long-term staying power
Could use third action

6.5 Average

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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