Game Chef Finalists Part One

A quick appraisal of the 12 finalists of this year’s competition. You can download and read them all yourself here.

One overall trend I’ve noticed is a general laxness of using the four ingredients. Most only use one, some none at all, and some of them are just name checks. The two most common are dragonfly and dream; they are more evocative perhaps than abandon and stillness. Nobody seems to have known what to do with abandon at all, haven’t seen one game use it except Wings (more on that in Part Two).

Dragon, Fly by Paul Beakley

A cheat on the ingredient but an interesting take on the different audience theme, this game can be played entirely as a card game. Players deal some cards to the dragon and then move cards around six locations, following instructions based on the narrative choice they make at that location, and the character they are currently playing, which is determined by suit. A dragon plagues a village and a hero must try to kill it, and the finally outcome, after the game is played, will be a series of in-character written pieces about four people in the village: the hero’s spouse, the village leader, the priest and the outcast.  Each has conflicting thoughts about the coming threat, and you explore those as they make choices linked to each location. You can keep drawing cards to determine story elements until you’re happy with your high cards in each location, but certain cards go towards powering up the dragon, so there is a push-your-luck element.

What I like about this is it really highlights the tension between game-victory and storytelling decisions which a lot of RPGs have seen as a bad thing. You may really want to add cards to the Church or the Forest but to do that you might decide something that feels just wrong for how you’ve played the character so far. Yes, you need to discard that low card but are you willing to violate your sense of narrative truth to do it? It also is specifically tailored to be a solo creative writing exercise which I think would really fit different audiences (although it does have rules for multiplayer). I can’t say how well the game works mechanically (partly because it’s hard to visualize and partly because the explanations are very unclear as they stand), but the sense of setting and character are strong, the idea is clever and it makes me want to try it to see what I get.

Dragonfly Brewing Company by Michael Wenman

I have discussed this little gem elsewhere.

Dreams of Dragonflies by D. X. Logan

This shares much in common with Dragonfly Brewing, in that it is about tile laying and similar kind of player interaction. Players collaborate to lay down a seaside landscape of tiles from start to finish, and then do roll-and-move to move their dragonfly markers along the spaces. Depending where they land, they draw cards from different decks which show a thing you discover. It’s a game on the level of Candyland, and that’s the point. The nod to roleplaying is that at the end the players gather their cards and tell a story about their dream and perhaps what it meant. The dream element is tacked on but the idea of tile laying, discovery and improvising a story is excellent for say, 5 to 8 year olds.  Some “bigger” words are also included on the cards for older players, and there are some tips for adult helpers.

All in all this feels like the right idea – kids telling stories about stuff they found – but I think it’s been done before, and this feels a little undeveloped. The tiles are a nice idea but don’t seem to mean anything, they’re just kinesthetic creation which is enough on its own I guess. Sitting next to DBC, it kind of feels like a simpler version of the former, which is a great idea FOR DBC to use. But despite my criticisms, if it came with lovely art I would give this to any kid over Candyland any day, so that’s impressive for 9 days.

Far Away From Home by Aleksandra Samonek

This reads like a fever dream, and in part that’s deliberate. Deliberate in that it appears to want to describe a fever dream of sorts, and because it’s trying to be as bare bones as possible. Players take the role of vaguely drawn characters (your only characteristics are handed to you by others in short sentences) on some kind of ship stuck somewhere after some unspecified disasters. Players take turns filling in the blanks which will lead to interesting collaborative stories. Before you’re on the ship though you write down what you – you the player – want in life and everyone else decides four steps you need to do to get it. I think the point is that the terrible ship escape is supposed to be a dream for some of you, giving you insight into your goal? Except in the dream you’re not you at all…yet you still have exactly the same goal. Which could get weird as hell.

The story-building mechanics involve each player starting a scene and it being resolved by the player on their left, then a “but then” added by the player on the right. The scenes are supposed to remove goals from your list, and then add new ones, so nothing really gets resolved unless a player hijacks a scene, which seems to have no penalty except speeding the game up. I think there is supposed to be a drive to betray each other by stealing scenes or entering scenes in a way to hand off your secret Destiny card which tells you if you’re in a dream or if this is really happening. There’s also a bizarre rule about holding eye contact and making “the Dragonfly Move”. I don’t know what the fuck that was about at all, but it sounds like something teenagers might do in a bad occult film.

Bare bones this looks like some of it could be a fun exercise but I don’t think the mechanics work and I don’t really understand the point of it or the fun of it, as it currently stands. Perhaps there are language issues as the designer is working outside his first language.

Good Night Fairy Theatre by Emily Griggs

This is a really clever piece of work, which uses a game idea I’ve been toying with for years: one protagonist, many GMs. One player takes the role of a child having a dream, the other players are dream fairies trying to make the dreamer have the kind of dream their fairy specializes in. Kids are better at competition than cooperation and instead of trying to fight this, it wires it right into the mechanics, using a dice-bidding system like Robin D Laws’ Pantheon to determine narrative truth in a scene – while the central player chooses how they react (they are of course in their own dream!). As the sole protagonist they kind of have a GM-like role, but like players they are there to be told stories by the players. Indeed, each fairy’s dream style is designed to create emotions, and if the dreamer is say, scared by a fear-dream-fairy-story or made happy by a happy-dream-fairy, they award chips (Dream Candy) to those players. In other words, the more evocative the GM the more likelier you are to win.

That’s harsh on kids who lack skills and confidence but for precocious young creative types (or with a generous, perhaps adult dreamer) this hits lots of notes for kid’s games. An instantly recognizable setting, a use of competition, and dice rolls to help generate ideas. Unfortunately that part of the mechanic is a bit vague and also uses a Rock-Paper-Scissors things I think most kids would struggle with, and the antagonism could get out of hand unless the dreamer takes control, which again, is a big deal to put on a young kid. But I think these are teething issues: another pass at the mechanics and for the right kids this would be not just amazing but also unlike anything else we’ve seen.

ISP Dragonfly by Kevin Omans

This is not unlike my recent Zombies, Probably in that it’s a game about people with terrible sins begging for forgiveness – but is about hope and redemption as well. Players take the role of prisoners who committed a crime bad enough to get exiled from all of earth, in the titular space station (phoned in ingredients here see). Once every ten years the inmates get to explain what they did, why they did it, if they’re sorry and why they should be allowed to go home – and then the inmates themselves vote on it. Unlike lazy old me in Zombies, Probably, the game comes with an excellent bunch of cards to give players their crime, the tie that binds them to earth and also what they Respect and are Repulsed By in others. The last is super clever and important because if enough inmates say, respect murdering your uppity wife, or respect not trying to go straight, or going home to wreak more chaos than a tearful apology will be far less likely to win you the game than an impassioned reasoning for why you should go back and finish the job on your wife’s sister.

To explore this part of the game, players spend the first half of it mingling around talking to each other in private conferences. They can’t reveal their crime but anything else is on the table and alliances can and should be formed (and backstabbing could happen). This adds a Survivor element to the whole thing, which makes it much more gamey and not just about who tells the best sob story. The only issue with that is the game says up to 12 can play and everyone should be allowed to pair off, which is some huge combinatoric and would take quite a while. A minor quibble obviously: this is a great and fun exercise, and the game is entirely complete and works right out of the box, and would work great for any drama class but also for a group of creative friends. If you’ve enticed them with social games like Two Rooms and a Boom or backstabbing like Battlestar Galactica, this would be a great step into a more dramatic space.

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