Game Chef 2011 – Last Reviews

As promised, the reviews of the other three finalists. Bit short because well, life has not been kind to me of late.

Globe Records by Mike Olson is basically a freeform/LARP, as in it’s about pre-written characters with differing agendas. It’s set in a record company where the major players are all Shakespearean characters – Lady Macbeth the current big star, Juliet the new talent, Hamlet the flakey poet, Richard III the power-hungry boss. This is a fun twist on Shakespeare, crossing the familiar with the new for both fun (grungey Dane’s band is called Sea of Troubles) and good drama (who wouldn’t want to see Tricky Dick go up against Lady Mac?)

It uses a cool mechanic like Smallville’s where the strength of your relationship determines how many cards you draw (and thus how likely you are to succeed) and also uses Smallville’s relationship statements.  The values of relationships can shift back and forth as the game goes on, allowing for a nice organic LARP flow, although like most LARPs I imagine it wouldn’t play out much differently each time – EXCEPT for a lovely little mechanic that generates three different plots each game. What’s clever about this is the authors model soap operas by having one plot just starting, one developing and one hopelessly convoluted. I really like the idea of starting with some stories already well underway, and drawing not just a random event, but what happened next, and then after that. Classy and stealable!

A Midsummer Night’s Scheme by Nat Barmore and Caitlin Doran has a very clever set up worthy of its very own play. Titania and Oberon have come down to check if any of their fairies have gotten attached to any mortals. They must prove they haven’t by playing a prank on mortals to impress their lord and lady. This is done by picking the appropriate fairy magic stat related to the prank and rolling against the appropriate appreciation stat of the lord and lady, and the more you succeed, the more points you get, leading to a final winner. If you’re going against your own favoured mortal, however, you get a lot fewer dice to roll – but if you still win, you get a lot more points. There’s also a few stats that can shuffle up and down, as you get closer to your mortal or to the mortal world.

It seems to work and is nice and complete, but it ended up leaving me a little flat. There are a few suggestions for what your fairy might be and who your mortal might be and how they all ended up together, but it’s all a bit vague in the execution. And you have to do a lot of heavily lifting as a player – invent a fairy, a mortal, a relationship, and then weave every other players’ mortals together at the same time and place and come up with some amazing prank – without any real help from the system, which just does success and failure. It was the opposite of so many others – excellent structure and clear rules, but no scaffolding or verve. But these things could easily be added with a bit more time and of course, space.

The Lost Years by Matthew Nielsen is very clever indeed – it made me smile the moment it opened with an in-setting letter to the new time agent. In another universe, Shakespeare’s life was different, and so were his plays, but that universe never really existed. So some of the characters from those unwritten plays have been recruited as Time Cops to guard the most important person in history from time criminals. That man is Shakespeare, and he’s at his most vulnerable during his “lost years”, when no records exist of where he was. This is a great concept for a game – a clear, direct mission, with obvious badguys, but you can put the story anywhere in the medieval world. Likewise you can play anyone, as long as they are the kind of figure who might appear in an unwritten or changed play. A lot of chargen is “I want to be like guy X in a movie, but if he was Y” and now you can do that. Play Hamlet with less whining or Lady Macbeth after she ruled all of Scotland.

I also really love the mechanics. Of all the games I read they are the simplest and easiest but cover pretty much everything. Every character has three stats: Comedy, Tragedy, History. Comedy is used to make things better, Tragedy to make things worse and History to keep things the same. This is to be interpreted harshly – killing a bad guy counts as tragedy, as it is a destructive and bloody end, even if it leads to good. Players roll d6s equal to each trait to do things, but can also spend traits to do Dramatic Editing, with History modifiying the past, Comedy the Present and Tragedy the future. Tricky to adjudicate but a lovely balance between having better rolls vs making defining statements. Also, characters get bonus dice or points back if they act against Shakespeare’s protection and rather for themselves, because being from plays, they have implicit goals. And there are two types of goals – things they want and things they have been scripted to do. Whining or not, Hamlet has to die, and with such a high Tragedy score he has lots of points to spend but recharging them means taking actions which drive him towards that death.

I have always adored the idea of playing characters who are caught up in stories beyond their control and in the history of gaming, this is the best mechanic I’ve ever seen for it. I am going to steal the hell out of it, combine it with Walk the Line and write a whole game about being stuck between what you want and what the story wants. Which is not to say the Lost Years doesn’t do an excellent job on its own – it’s clever and unique, it works, it’s clear, it’s simple, it’s fun and it’s just full of understanding of the right amount of control/freedom balance to produce excellent gaming opportunities, in both system and setting. Forsooth was probably more shakesperean, but this one I think is the best game. The setting alone deserves the gong, and it may be the heart of my next con adventure.

And we now return you to your regularly scheduled lives, already in progress. Until next year.

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