Heroes are important. Upon their collective backs sits admittance to mankind’s narrative traditions. Whether alongside legendary gods or orphaned idealists, our imaginations are wired to follow our fictitious acquaintances into the thick of it. The best stories are told so convincingly that they unfold with an immersive sense of immediacy, second only to first-hand experiences. Tension is at its tensest when victory is uncertain, if not improbable, where success of the protagonist is far from guaranteed.
Video games take even greater liberties toward invoking simulated empathies thanks to the outsourcing of agency. Player characters are distinct from literary heroes. They exist only through of the codependent relationship we share with them. Mario wouldn’t be so super were it not for the frantic mashing of buttons that turns him into our beloved koopa-stompin’ parkour enthusiast. We, the button mashers, breathe life into the little plumber; in return he takes us to the Mushroom Kingdom. Interactive storytelling at its finest.
Leagues away from Bowser’s Castle is another intersection of heroics and gaming – spectator sports. With physical competition, agency is exported from player characters to player athletes. The chronicle of any given match, from rugby to chess, is compelling in that it presents a high-stakes battle between opposing factions. When we root for “our side,” we are cheering for our protagonist, the champion(s) with whom we identify.
I grew up in the suburban outskirts of the post-industrial dystopia that is Detroit, a city whose cultural heritage outshines its unrelenting winters. To some it is Motown; to others, the Motor City. I know it to be Hockeytown. The Detroit Red Wings have been a powerhouse NHL franchise for the better part of the last three decades, and I was raised on every minute of it.
There’s something elegant about hockey. Its ebb and flow is unique for a team game, it being one of the few kinetic sports where the object in play does not typically fall out of bounds. Hockey players suit up like warriors, attach blades to their feet, and skate around fighting each other night after night, losing teeth and gaining glory in the process. It is a spectacle of gladiatorial proportions.
Discovering the existence of NHL Ice Breaker brought out my inner Amazon 1-Click Shopper. Prime’s two-day shipping felt longer than the post-Stanley-Cup-Playoff depression that is the summer offseason. Digging into the box took me back to days dedicated to chasing my favorite hockey players, trying to liberate them from the silvery, plastic packaging of Fleer’s imprisonment.
The game itself is quite accessible. Its probabilities are derived from a customized deck of playing cards – the standard suits and values are coupled with a set of hockey-related variables: passing, shooting, goaltending and the eponymous “ice breaker.” There cannot be a good ol’hockey game without a rink, of course, and the folding board that serves as Ice Breaker’s is crafted with enough attention to detail to appease puckheads while minimalistic enough as to not intimidate the uninitiated.
NHL Ice Breaker is designed for head-to-head competition. Two teams are selected from a pool that includes every NHL franchise as well as the major nations of the International ice Hockey Federation (think the World Cup of hockey). Five cards are dealt out to each of the two players and the game begins. Every contest is decided in a poker-like fashion, where the highest card combination wins, starting at singles and pairs but building to straights, flushes and the like.
The basic mechanic is a card’s pass vector, which lists a direction and number of spaces. Should you win the match, the puck is moved according to the card’s specifications. (In the case of a combined hand such as a full house, the topmost card laid down is used.) A grid of tiles covers the rink, and landing on a yellow “ice-breaker” square triggers a card’s secondary ability that can work both for and against either player. These special moves are appropriately descriptive: checks, turnovers and penalties are detrimental, allowing the other team to play free cards to move the puck down the ice, while dekes, exceptional passes and breakaways move things along in the right direction.
To score a goal the puck must reach the other end of the ice, into your opponent’s shooting zone, where a winning hand once again decides whether a shot turns into a goal or a save by the goalkeeper. Each team has two trump cards, one for offense and one for defense, adding another strategic element to NHL Ice Breaker. A period ends once all 52 cards in the draw deck have been dealt; rinse and repeat another two times and you’ve got yourself a tabletop hockey game. Unless there’s overtime, or a shootout, of course, then the game’s got rules for that too.
If you’ve played poker before, you’re ready to play Ice Breaker. Armed knowing I represented my illustrious Red Wings, my Datsyuk jersey was on and I was ready to show Jessie what Hockeytown was all about. She went with the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Lightning, a divisional rival of the Wings, and we set out to play a best-of-three series. Once we got used to the core components, gameplay unfolded very much like a proper NHL match. Battles up and down the boards culminate with a scoring opportunity that is bound to fail if you’ve spent all of your good cards breaking into the shooting zone. To play NHL Ice Breakers is to accept the hybrid role of a spectator-coach who gambles their way to victory.