DropMix Is A Good Game, But A Remarkable Musical Toy
Harmonix has a long history of creating game experiences that bring the joy of music to anyone, whether you have a background with music or not. The team's latest venture, created in cooperation with Hasbro, is the furthest afield the studio has gone from traditional video games. DropMix is more of a tabletop card game and musical toy than anything else, allowing players to add the component parts of different songs (vocals, drums, etc.) and having them instantly remix into a new musical composition, on the fly. And like most of Harmonix's projects, the combination of technology and creativity is impressive, accessible, and fun to play – if you're willing to pay the price of admission.
The core DropMix gaming system ($99.99) is out in retail this week for the first time, and I've spent the last several weeks exploring the ins and outs of the experience. The system requires no additional consoles or PC connections, but it does require that you download a free app to your phone or tablet, which syncs up directly with the DropMix table/board. The board itself is an unassuming but sturdy black plastic, with a single large button on one side, and five slots for cards. The cards feature surreal but beautiful art, along with some relevant details for gameplay. While game modes differ, the substance of play is always the same; play a card onto one of the slots, and within moments the mobile app begins to play that musical thread. Add more cards to add complexity to that music. Of course, you can optionally link up to a connected speaker for better sound quality, so those tunes you're crafting sound even better.
The initial pack also comes with 60 cards. Additional cards come in sets of 16 (Playlist packs, $14.99) which are labeled by music genre, or 5 card sets (Discover packs, $4.99). Hasbro and Harmonix are promising 300 total cards in the game's first “season,” which runs from now until Fall 2018. Both companies have verifiable backgrounds in supporting games for the long haul; Harmonix famously supports Rock Band games for years after launch, and Hasbro is the parent company of Wizards of the Coast, which publishes Magic: The Gathering. I have high hopes that DropMix will see the promised support, both for this first year and beyond.
The DropMix board syncs with a free app on your mobile device; no other screens or platforms are required
After popping in four AA batteries, the DropMix board quickly connects to your mobile device, and you can instantly hop into the Freestyle mode to get a taste of the action. Here is where DropMix really wows, as the flexibility and creative opportunities are vast. Play one card from a Latin-themed Ricky Martin tune, and layer in the rhythm section from a Skrillex joint. Combine the rapping talents of A Tribe Called Quest with Sia's plaintive singing. Every card can be combined with every other card in your collection, and the music instantly shifts to integrate the new elements. No musical skill is required, but you'll certainly begin to find combinations that you like or don't like.
While you don't need to have a music degree to enjoy the experience, Harmonix has kindly offered a ton of tools to let you tweak the sound. Each individual track can be equalized independently for volume. Beats-per-minute can be adjusted on the fly. Choose major or minor keys, and even adjust the key through the entire circle of fifths, the classic organizing principle for the chromatic musical scale. Of course, all of these features are completely optional, but they do allow enterprising remixers to craft a very personalized sound. Upon getting it just right, you can save your mix to listen to later, or share it to friends; anyone who downloads the free app can listen to your creation.
The Freestyle mode is often thrilling. I found a lot of fun in simply starting with a particular melody, and then layering in new elements all the time. It's fascinating to hear the way different snippets get rolled into the dough of the larger composition, The horn part of a Cake song somehow adds in seamlessly with the vocals from Carly Rae Jepsen's earworm vocals in “Call Me Maybe,” even as I add in the drums from Chvrches' “The Mother We Share.” The experience is especially magical for music-inclined kids, who really gravitate to the freeform ability to combine and create new music. It would be easy to spend hours with the Freestyle mode without ever touching the more structured game modes.
When you are ready for more organized play, DropMix offers two main game modes – Clash and Party. Both are simple to learn, play fast, and are fun, if at times a little simplistic. More than anything, these game modes recall several smart tabletop card games I know, in which you use a hand of cards to jockey for position on the table and use the traits of your selected cards to win. Clash is a competitive experience for up to four players. Players take turns laying cards on the board, or alternately tapping the button on the board to kick random opponent team cards into the discard pile. Meanwhile, party mode allows up to five players to join in cooperatively for a race to meet crowd requests, as dictated by the screen on your app. Cards of specific types are demanded, and everyone works together to get a card of the designated type onto the table as fast as possible. As the mode name implies, its the perfect introduction to the experience for get-togethers with friends.
Both modes are fun, if at times not especially sophisticated gaming experiences. Frankly, the enjoyment always comes back to hearing the way the music changes as new cards go out on the board, and that's why DropMix produces so much laughter and engagement.
You can find multiple cards relating to a single song, but more commonly you'll mix individual elements from multiple songs
The DropMix app is cleanly designed and easy to use, allowing instant tapping moves between game modes, or exploring your saved or shared mixes. I also appreciate that the game offers a “Collection” tab where you can input the cards you've collected so far, and build decks to be used in different modes. Meanwhile, the cards offer an impressive array of catchy tunes across a bunch of genres, including pop, dance, hip-hop, and even some country songs. Of course, because this is remixed music, many of the finished compositions end up having the tonality of some variation of electronica or dance music; if that style of music bugs you, DropMix may not be for you.
Like many of Harmonix's peripheral-based music video games, DropMix demands a pretty high initial investment, and the collectible card element adds to that. The music you can create with the board isn't going to be for everyone; I know some people who simply don't enjoy heavily remixed music on principle. However, if the idea of combining musical tracks into a new whole has always appealed, but you've never gotten into traditional DJing, DropMix has a lot to offer. I had a blast trying out different tunes, and even more fun sharing the experience with friends and family. I can't speak to whether Harmonix and Hasbro have managed to hit on something with mass market appeal, but as yet another way for non-musicians to get in on the thrill enjoyed by more musically inclined friends, it's a success.
DropMix is an unusual tabletop game because of its music interactions, but it offers card game play similar to any number of great tabletop games. To check out more of our board, card, and role-playing coverage, you can explore our Top of the Table hub, with tons of game recommendations for a fun night with friends and family.