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The Coyotes of Chicago playtest document

25 Jul

You guys asked for it! This is the “Urban Coyote Researchers” scenario of my Game Chef game, updated to the newest version of the Far Horizons of the Unknown rules:

The Coyotes of Chicago playtest

If you haven’t seen The Shadows of the Trees yet, which is the same set of rules in a sword and sorcery setting, you can find it here.

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The Shadows of the Trees playtest document

6 Jul

The spiritual and systemic successor to my Game Chef game has just entered open playtesting. You can get it right here:

The Shadows of the Trees playtest

The situation and setting are totally different, but it runs on the same system as Coyotes in Dark Alleyways (with vast improvements, of course). Let me know your thoughts, at semielgames@gmail.com!

Review – Becoming

22 Apr

No rules link, because this game is apparently not meant to be shared.

First, a general disclaimer that I’m putting on all my reviews this year: I tend to be very harsh with my criticism. It’s a personal failing, and one I try to temper, but with limited success. Don’t take my criticism as a sign that I hate you and your game. If possible, think of it as an attempt to help you make your game as amazing as possible.

Now, on to the actual review.

The idea of “bleed”, where your in-game and out-of-game selves get blurred, is an interesting one that doesn’t get explored much in Forge-style games. I hear it’s a bigger deal in Nordic games, but it’s fun to see it explored here as well. Whether or not this particular game works out, I think it’s interesting territory to keep exploring.

I feel like I need even more of a disclaimer for this game than the general one I gave. I feel like a lot of my reactions to this game are idiosyncratic, and the reasons I don’t like it might be reasons other people would love it. Take this post as an account of my personal experience of reading it, not as a perfect, impartial judgment.

My first thought is that I really, really disapprove of the limited-access model. It seems to go against everything that Game Chef stands for. Game Chef is a celebration of our shared creativity, a chance to see what everyone else is thinking about and working on, and ultimately, a source of nearly a hundred cool new games to think about. Removing your game entirely from this shared experience seems selfish and weird. Why participate in Game Chef if you reject its entire premise?

I’m also really unsure about the whole “game-as-therapy” model. Maybe this is just because I talk about a lot of these themes all of the time in my actual life, but I’m not sure why I want a game about a weird coyote to be the context in which I learn about my friends’ childhood memories. It seems like the game will get in the way of the sharing, and the sharing will get in the way of the game.

Possibly relatedly, I’m not particularly inspired by the genre of “children in an allegorical fantasy world”. Maybe some more flavor text, examples, or media references would help. I don’t currently have the slightest idea of what I would actually do in this game.

The system seems unnecessarily baroque, to me. I had to re-read the rules several times to have any idea what was going on. This is especially relevant because the entire system is literally nothing more than a pacing mechanic and a complicated way to choose who has to make the weird choice at the end of the game.  There’s no obvious reason to avoid failure, and you know the outcome of scenes before they even begin, so there’s not even dramatic tension going on. There’s a little bit going on with the possibility to help someone by sharing a secret, but I don’t see why anyone ever would. The out-of-game incentive to hide your secrets seems much, much stronger than any in-game incentive, especially since there is no obvious downside to failing.

The same criticism applies tenfold to [edited to remove spoilers, at the author’s request].

I just honestly don’t see any upside to playing this game. At best, you get a weird and complicated way to have a couple interesting conversations with your friends. I know that you’re supposed to end these reviews on a positive note, but I just have such a strong aversion to everything about this game that I can’t do that honestly. Perhaps that’s the reaction you are going for, or perhaps other people will have a different one. It certainly says something about the game that it can provoke such a strong reaction in me!

Review – Dark Beast, Dark Name

22 Apr

First, a general disclaimer that I’m putting on all my reviews this year: I tend to be very harsh with my criticism. It’s a personal failing, and one I try to temper, but with limited success. Don’t take my criticism as a sign that I hate you and your game. If possible, think of it as an attempt to help you make your game as amazing as possible.

Now, on to the actual review.

This is an intriguing little game where you draw and name a monster over time, hopefully ending up with a full name and visage to be confronted and destroyed.

My first comment is that pastebin was a poor choice, as it made the game hard to read. Similarly, some proof-reading would have gone a long way. I know that presentation is not the point of Game Chef, but in this case it actively interfered with understanding the game itself.

On the actual game itself, I think it’s an interesting idea. Progressively revealing a monster while progressively learning things about the characters is a good general structure, and the actual drawing and personal secrets give it some new twists.

I don’t think the actual rules support that very well, however. I suspect that the drawing and the name will look like a random mish-mash of things, especially if you get someone like me who is not great at drawing. Perhaps more importantly, there are literally zero mechanical choices to be made, regarding the drawing or anything else. You just follow the random monster generator’s rules, and hopefully it’s scary at the end?

The memories were weirdly specific, and not very evocative to me. To me, they’re in an unfortunate liminal state where they are too specific for me to do what I want with them, but not detailed enough for me to do what the designer wants me to do with them. They need either more detail or less specificity.

I’m also really unsure about the stakes. Since you can’t influence the draw at all, it seems weirdly punitive to have some random subset of the players reveal personal secrets. It also doesn’t follow very naturally from the rest of the game. We’re learning more and more about the characters… and then suddenly we reveal real-life secrets?

There are some interesting kernels of an idea here. I can see a later draft of this game being a fun diversion at a party or something. But it needs a lot of polishing to get there.

Review – Our Last Best Hope

22 Apr

Rules Link

First, a general disclaimer that I’m putting on all my reviews this year: I tend to be very harsh with my criticism. It’s a personal failing, and one I try to temper, but with limited success. Don’t take my criticism as a sign that I hate you and your game. If possible, think of it as an attempt to help you make your game as amazing as possible.

Now, on to the actual review.

This game sets out to emulate a fun genre, which automatically gives it some points in my book. I like the really simple “crises and complication” table, it gives us a good starting place and is very true to the source material. If I were playing this game, I might use it as a random table, which is great because I love random tables.

I found myself having a lot of quibbles with how this game works. I don’t know if it’s helpful for me to be this nit-picky, but here are some things that bothered me:

-30 dice in two contrasting colors is a lot of specifically colored dice. That’s about twice as many as Fiasco requires, and I’ve had trouble scrounging enough dice for that game before. I wouldn’t be able to play this game using my existing dice.

-The “Role Abilities” don’t seem very balanced. I know that balance is a very nebulous thing in this sort of game, but a penalty to “acting quickly” seems much harsher than a penalty to “disobeying orders”.

-Myers-Briggs is a complicated system. I like the idea of making it a part of char-gen, but I feel like it’s too complicated to be useful in actual play without more systemic support. I would have liked more specific rules about how to incorporate the types in play.

Even ignoring those quibbles, however, I’m nervous about the general way this game is designed. There are some common dangers that Forge-style games often run into, and I am worried that this game will do so.

The first potential problem is that it seems to rely on the players already having good ideas about this sort of fiction. The main exception is the initial list of possible disasters, which is great. But otherwise, the inspiration for the game ranges from Solaris to Children of Men, and the game doesn’t do much to help if you get stuck and don’t know what should happen next.

This may be nothing more than a word limit problem. A longer version of this game could include more GM advice, and more examples, which would help a lot. Still, though, I’d love to see more mechanical support for people who don’t know what to do next.

A second potential problem is how rigid the structure of the game is. It has a very specific economy that changes in relatively deterministic ways. I worry that this will make it hard to fit the circumstances of the individual game to the structure of the game. In particular, I don’t like the way assets and story points work. If I have the perfect tool for the job, why do I have to spend a point to use it? I’m also pretty unsure of the “Consequences” roll. What is it supposed to represent in the fiction? What if there’s no obvious way to lose or gain an asset there?

That said, this game has an interesting premise, and is very complete. If I could get my hands on some more dice, I think I could play this game right now. With a good group who is comfortable doing a lot of the creative heavy lifting, I think this could be a lot of fun.

Review – This Match is Scheduled for One Fall

22 Apr

Rules Link

First, a general disclaimer that I’m putting on all my reviews this year: I tend to be very harsh with my criticism. It’s a personal failing, and one I try to temper, but with limited success. Don’t take my criticism as a sign that I hate you and your game. If possible, think of it as an attempt to help you make your game as amazing as possible.

Now, on to the actual review.

The premise of this game is very clever. You play professional wrestlers, with one player responsible for each of the wrestler’s “real” and “gimmick” halves. The idea of two people having control of the same character is an interesting and clever way to represent the split personalities of wrestlers, and I’d love to see further development of that idea.

Actual gameplay seems to be mostly boardgame-like, with the only roleplaying element (beyond possibly describing your moves or something) being flashback scenes that some but not all players can inject into the game. The idea of some people playing a board game while other people tell a story surrounding the board game is kinda clever, and might work well with groups that have players who are not as interested in being put on the spot, and just want to watch other people roleplay while they fiddle with dice. I’m worried, though, that in other groups the gimmick players would feel like they don’t get to do the fun part.

My main concern with this game is that I don’t think either of the two games (the board game or the roleplaying game) is going to be very fun. The board game aspect is just a variety of ways to manipulate two pools of points, with a pretty hefty random element. Maybe there are clever emergent strategies, and you end up having to adapt to your opponent in interesting ways, but that’s very non-obvious from the rules. I rather suspect that people will start by doing stuff more or less at random, until an obviously dominant strategy emerges. Since this game is only meant to be played once, there isn’t much room for experimentation or trial and error. Maybe a strategy guide would help alleviate this problem? I’m still not sure I would have much fun manipulating two pools of points, but maybe in practice it would work out to be interesting if I knew what the strategic considerations were. I don’t really know enough about board game design to be of much help here. (Another consideration is that the different roles will be harder or easier than others – the poor Gimmick Doctor of Pain! This is not inherently bad, but it means that I would have no idea what to expect or how impressed I should be with a victory. Again, a strategy guide might help with this.)

The roleplaying half (unless you really get into describing the wrestling moves) is limited to a small number of flashback scenes. The problem I have here is that there is no clear incentive or motivation to tell an interesting story with them. The fundamental tensions of the game are, by definition, not known until it’s over, so you can’t really bring them in to the story. The prompts are occasionally somewhat interesting (I liked: “Former Title Reign – The Doctor had a 6-month run as the heavyweight champion. What happened in his real life that led to him giving up the title?”), but are usually pretty broad and often uninspiring. If you already had a cool story to tell about the life of a professional wrestler, then maybe you could tell it using these mechanics. But it’s not going to help you if you don’t already have good ideas. I suggest putting more tension into the description of the flashbacks. At the moment, I don’t have much interest in seeing what happened to the Doctor of Pain in Japan. Give me a reason to care about it, an interesting conflict or revelation or something.

All in all, I have thinking about this game all week, which is a sign that there is something interesting here. I like a lot of the ideas in general terms, and it’s certainly innovative. I think it needs a great deal of thought about how to make the various elements of the game really shine, though. This game has set itself a difficult task: making a fun board game and a fun roleplaying game, at the same time. I don’t think it has succeeded, yet. I have hope that a future draft might get there, though.

Final Game Chef draft

16 Apr

Coyotes in Dark Alleyways