My Game Chef Reviews

The cleverest thing about Game Chef is getting submitters to review games. It means not just feedback but publicity for the designers! This year’s theme was games for a Different Audience and the ingredients were dragonfly, abandon, stillness and dream.

Here are the four games I was assigned:

The Dragonfly Ritual by Filamena Young

Young embraces the other audiences idea nicely with the game entirely contained within a youtube video – and a video that is entirely within the implied setting of the game. A bit like Bloody Mary or that recent viral thing with the pencils and Charlie Charlie, the conceit is that if you know the rules to this occult game you can go and conduct the ritual (ie play the game) with someone and thus be safe from some monstrous other which follows you around if you have played the game but don’t teach it to others (so it’s like The Game crossed with The Ring).

The actual operation of the game is asking someone if they want to play a game and, if they say yes, then smiling unnervingly at them until they smile back. That doesn’t sound like fun for either participant. Or interesting. I think you’re then supposed to tell them the rules of the game so they can go and inflict it on others, but I’m not sure. Overall I was left very confused by this game – not much to do and no reason to do it. It didn’t quite seem to have enough activity in it, although that may have been because of the presentation. Videos are very passive media and this contributed to the feeling that this was kind of a performance artwork rather than a game.

BUT I love the idea of those two things blurring in interesting ways and I think this was an ambitious idea in general. Presenting the game as an entirely in-universe activity told over a video is quite atmospheric and definitely a clever way to attract new gamers. It’s just that all the effort to make it atmospheric also conspires to confuse and obfuscate the intent, and for me it kept me apart, rather than drawing me in.

I wanted to like this but I just couldn’t. I want to see a second draft that builds on the original ideas though because I think they are quite strong. Oral games are interesting, youtube games are interesting, more of that but an actual game please.

The Zone by Juliusz Doboszewski

This is a microgame that is just an idea but it’s stunning in its simplicity and its embracing performance, roleplaying and fun. The intent is to imagine a world without people, after being struck by some apocalypse. The mechanics for doing so is to simply go somewhere in a big city where you live, somewhere full of things and people, and imagine them after the event. And then – and this is the fun part – to go and engage with the items and building in that space as if they are characters.

In your head Mr Pavement is telling you how it ran red with blood that one dark day; in reality you are nodding and replying to the stone beneath your feet. You will look strange but that is of course part of the intent, and there are rules for what happens if people ask you what you are doing. Thus you will fill your city spaces with weirdness in your own actions and perhaps spread such weirdness to others. Meanwhile you will also get a greater sense and understanding of the objects around you.

This game is light but that’s the point: it’s so simple you now know the rules and everyone can play it anywhere, which absolutely answers the theme of A Different Audience. It is also wonderfully fun and engaging and silly, all things which appeal to me and appeal to a large audience, including children. I hope this takes off. I hope the teens will be off Zoning this time next year. I hope we have flashmob zones in our city squares. First class work. The only fault I find is that it doesn’t use many of the ingredients – stillness is only vaguely in there, and a touch of abandon. And it might need just a touch more substance to make it hashtag-worthy, but only a touch, so as not to take away the lightness.

Dragonfly Brewing Company by Michael Wenman

All the people who rushed into roleplaying as teens in the 80s and 90s are now grown up and having kids and wanting to teach them to roleplay so we’ve seen a spate of kid-focussed RPGs and storygames in the last five years. So far, a lot of them have had a big narrative focus, like the awesome Happy Birthday Robot by Daniel Solis. But RPGs have this weird space of combining that kind of shared narrative/improv theatre space with lovely table top elements like tiled movement, stat rolling and crafting. And stripping down D&D will never make it suitable for 6 year olds. Into this gap comes Wenman, with his usual brilliance in providing tools and components, adding the perfect kinaesthetic cream to the top of a very nice RPG for kids.

Children play fairies exploring a swamp, fighting obstacles and monsters and searching for ingredients, which they can then take home and turn into delicious brews (some of which can attract dragonfly mounts) or into other useful tools to make them better at searching or fighting monsters. (Brewing is done at a still, a clever use of the stillness ingredient.) Chargen is done through dealing random cards of Personalities and Fairy types, giving stats (named Warrior, Rogue, and Scholar) special powers. Rolls are done with d6 pools, generating possibilities of successes and failures from the same outcome, which is nice. But the real genius is the game comes with 60 tiles, covered in roads and rivers and troubles and treasures. This gives children a physical space to explore, discover and build while they do the same with a narrative one. By coding them by colour, children will encounter lower threats before harder ones, so they have time to “level up” by crafting things. And of course, the items needed for crafting are stacked in another deck of cards, allowing for more wonder and exploring, and allowing children to find their own system for trading and sharing to make what they want and divide roles. Meanwhile there are guidelines for teachers/facilitators to get out of the way of this process or help it along where necessary.

There are places where the words run a little short on explaining things and sections are in the wrong order, and I think some things need tweaking or a better explanation. However all of this could be because of word limits, time limits or just a need of an editor – certainly Wenman worked hard to produce the massive volume of hexes! And I appreciate that sense of focus, it really hits the nail on the head of a different audience. Children can play imagination games, but a box full of tiles and cards is much more likely to bring everyone in, and start them telling stories when they don’t realize they are. This needs to be in stores ASAP, and of my four, gets the nod for the next round.

Journey Through Dreams by Noble Bear

Time limits are harsh. Not everything gets to be finished, and Journey Into Dream did not. But well done to Bear for submitting it anyway; it shows potential and they will get some feedback which will hopefully encourage them to finish it. The setting of the game is playing children who have all fallen asleep and share a dreamscape. Drawing a random goal from a deck, they must pursue it before any one of them wakes. Children have a Stillness rating (I think six?) and if they run out they wake up.

The goals seem to involve rescuing Favourite Things somehow (and taking them into their possession?) or, should those Things turn Nightmarish, discarding them to the Nightmare pool. This is done through rolling dice, adding bonuses or penalties from cards, and sacrificing Stillness to get further bonuses,. The mechanics fade out there so it’s all quite vague but I like that, like Wenman, Bear understands the need to provide game architecture: there is a list of forty possibly Favourite Things and a start of listing what are to be decks of Complication/Bonus cards, and Goal cards, and Spirit Animals which will give each child a special power. I think having physical cards to drive idea generation is super important for a game aimed at children, and it seems like the intent is to have counters on the cards to track things as well. However, I’m not sure children this young would understand (or appreciate) that favourite things can become Nightmarish, and that can cause you to death-spiral into waking, or that waking up is a terrible failure. And to be honest, even if there were mechanics to explain, I too am not sure how a Peanut Butter Sandwich becomes Nightmarish.

There are some nice ideas here: card drawing, encouraging children to share (they can give Stillness to those lacking) and structured turn play, but there’s nothing BUT ideas here, just sketches in the sand. Some are nice, some need revision, some seem wrong (too scary or dark) but most I’m just not sure how they work or fit together. But I like the idea of the setting and the big decks of cards, and I like the idea of children playing a collaborative board game of card acquisition, push your luck and different character powers and changing goals. I’d suggest making the rules a bit less luck based and maybe add some set matching or something for complexity, and then reskinning it to take it out of dreams. I hope this wasn’t abandoned, but just cut short for time.

107 Entries this year. That’s insane. Look at you go, you majestic swan people. Applause all round just for stepping up. It is a HELL of a beast to try and ride.

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