2 Chits, 3 Giggles
Reaction games are the best. They're right up there with 'push your luck' and 'worker placement' games in my unfinished list of favourite game mechanics. Why? Well, the primary reason is because they're fun, and in quick doses you don't have time to get bored. Secondly, they are perfect filler games for sandwiching in between two longer games, but they are still taxing on the brain so you can still revel in a win (even if it is just against your little sibling). Finally, they also allow people who may not be good at certain games to be competitive. There is however a major problem with this genre; most of the time, you have to play with people of your skill level, or that 'fun' thing I talked about before? Yeah, that's not happening.
That's always been the biggest flaw with this game type. Take for example Ben, my Chits & Giggles comrade. When he and I sit down to play a game of Geistes Blitz, it is not a question of if he will beat me, but by how much. It's inevitable. Yet I'll still play, because I'm an idiot who doesn't realise the situation never changes, or instead a dreamer who thinks that one day my wish will come true.
Enter Cortex Challenge. It certainly isn't a magic pill that will make everything better mind you, oh no, but at the very least it will allow peoples strengths and weaknesses to even up the battle for first place. This is because instead of facing one type of challenge, you'll face eight.
Gameplay is simple and effective. Your goal is simply to collect four brain pieces which is not as gross as it sounds. You'll do this via a big deck of cards face down in the middle of the table, and each round someone takes the top card from the pile and quickly turns it over. Players then race to work out the answer, but before they tell everyone they must slam their hand down on top of the card. Only the first to do so gets to answer. The reason for this is twofold; first, it gives the table a clear first 'guesser', and secondly, it forces players to decide if they want to risk answering without fully knowing if it's right. This is because many of the challenges are multiple choice, with A, B & C being popular answers. Therefore, sometimes it might be worth giving it a 1 in 3 shot at answering to stop somebody else getting that card they really need. The penalty for an incorrect guess though is you must sit out the next round so it can backfire. If you're correct though, congratulations! Take that card. If you ever get two cards from the same challenge, you can trade them in for a brain piece.
The challenges are varied and feel like a board game version of 'Dr Kawashima's Brain Training' with some cards involving working out which word is written in the colour of itself (e.g. 'red' written with red ink), others involving memory and some having you dextrously placing fingers on your own face.
One of them these challenges is the rather odd selling point of this game; tactile cards! Cards with texture, that all feel unique and genuinely recognisable. In the game, these ten 'touch challenge' cards are set aside from the regular deck of challenge cards. A picture of leather has the cracks and bumps you'd expect when petting a crocodile or an old relative, and a teddy bear has a soft and furry fuzz like your teenage brother's facial hair. During the gameplay, when you reveal a touch challenge card, the player who won the last challenge must avert their eyes while the rest of the players come to a decision about which of the ten cards to give them. They will have ten seconds to feel the card and have a crack at which object it is. Essentially they've created five 'pairs' of textures, in that each card has a matching one that it could be confused with, so instead of a soft toy you might actually be feeling a bit of moss. Pick the wrong one and you lose, but get it right and win yourself a brain piece instantly. It might seem overpowered, but in my experience these at least bring the playtime down to a more fun level.
So it's clear that this is a brain tingling and fast paced game, but it's not perfect. For example, with the previously foreshadowed multiple choice answers challenges, a so called 'friend' decided to just instant guess every one of them that came up as it gave them a fairly good shot of just guessing the right answer. While not cheating, this definitely went against the spirit of the game. which is that knowledge is the best path to victory. Simply sitting out the next round was not enough of a deterrent. FYI, we house ruled it so that anybody instant guessing and getting it wrong would have to lose a card or brain piece, but I suppose certain people could ruin any game within the boundaries of the rule book, so I don't hold it against Asmodee too harshly. Another issue is that despite everything it is still a short game, and like Timeline, it will wear out its novelty some day as people get used to the cards (though at a much slower rate).
Cortex Challenge also comes in three varieties. The regular edition is the one I've reviewed here, but there is one for youngsters subtitled Kids and another for geophiles (I know that term's not accurate but it's the best I could find) labelled Geo. I did get a chance to try the latter at Essen a couple of weeks ago and while initially put off by my lack of knowledge of maps and the like, this did at least add some new twists on the challenges and wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be.
Overall, this is a solid game in the category. It's cheap, accessible and well made. The tactile cards are a little gimmicky but believe it or not aren't as easy a challenge as you might think. Give this a go before purchasing, but I think this will find its audience and we'll probably be seeing more versions of this in the future.
Review by Russell Chapman