Reading: Human Contact

I picked up a copy of Human Contact recently, actually a few years after it came out. It’s built upon the same engine as Shock:, which is to say, a system that excels at building speculative fiction about societies.

Human Contact describes a far-future, post-scarcity star-faring civilization. “With powers of reason and democracy forged in the fires of a brutal sectarian past, the Academy has become a peaceful, powerfully inquisitive people, sending Contactors full of black ops anthropologists and other scientists to meet cultures and forge a new, synthetic culture from that meeting — for better or worse.”

Firstly: the physical product is one of the best-designed physical tabletop books I’ve ever seen. The use of space and the typographical choices and and the attention to detail really build up the setting as much as any of the prose.

Something that surprised me: while I expected the game to espouse a naive kind of “science/reason fixes everything” philosophy, the game text seems to be more neutral about the nature of the Academy’s society. Their culture is a bit more nuanced than my initial interpretation, and the emergent flaws of their utopian society are definitely hinted at.

Relatedly, I think the game setting presents an interesting way to discuss colonialism/imperialism, if you’re so inclined. (I know I am!) The worlds the Academy visits are called “Colonies”. The Academy’s kind of imperialism – benevolently interfering with another civilization in order to absorb knowledge – does not consist of the gross excesses of history/modernity; and so players must grapple with a gray area where their well-intentioned quasi-imperial project is still going to have very messy outcomes – for the colonial society and their own. I should add that the game forces players between both Academic and Colonial perspectives, and repeatedly enforces that all humans in this drama are people. (“Everyone calls their home planet Earth.”)

The system is built on Shock:, and my experience with that game is that it created interesting outcomes, but tone could vary wildly, especially because players were building a world from scratch in a single session. Here, there is additional structure, setting material, and the extra time you get from a longer campaign, so I expect a much smoother and contemplative tone. The base resolution system pushes some forethought up front – all conflicts require figuring out orthogonal/parallel stakes up front, which is a bit challenging – but I’d like to see how this changes in longer play. The game also has some procedures for building the cultures that will be explored in play.

Some misc thoughts on getting this played:

- I’d like to get my hands on the con demo, to give it a bit of a test before committing to a longer campaign.

- It should adapt well to the KristaCon/longcon format. I also want to figure out how to best facilitate online play.

- Soundtrack: I think Academy scenes should have a cool/frosty chipmusic soundtrack, while, while Colony scenes should feature music that feels nostalgic yet familiar (without dipping into exotification), so perhaps: some Appalachia/Americana/bluegrass/folk?

- Since I’ll be playing with a few game hackers/designers in all likelihood, I can definitely imagine a “game design” minigame, where we create prototypes of the games that were mentioned in game. It’s happened already, with the game of kodrek.

game chef 2012: reviews!

I’m reviewing: Drone Home, Handle With Care, Lady and the Tower and The Words. (If you’ve been reviewed here, please be in touch if you’d like to ask for clarifications.) (If you’re another Game Chef and would like a review, drop me a line! In the Chef spirit, we could review each others’ work.) (Edit: I guess I’m a bit wordy.)

Drone Home by Christina B (link)

This is a post-apocalyptic LARP, and it seems to have political and sandbox elements in it. The presentation is solid; it’s clear that having tactile cards on hand will be important for a smooth experience. There’s a simple skill system and some thoughtful consumable currencies.

I was most excited about the Humanity/Feral cards that each character gets. It wasn’t until I was reading the cards themselves that I realizes that this – the challenges and relationships established on each card – would be major engines of change and tension in the game. Having these kinds of relationships and challenges from the beginning is a strong element. (The various Disease tracks apply a different kind fo escalating pressure as well.) The ingredient use is solid (though the “last chance” theme doesn’t quite show up.

Some unclear things: the difference between humanity cards and humanity points, and whether there is some condition that occurs at 0 humanity (other than having all feral cards). The game talks about monsters and scavenging, but there isn’t much detail about what those might detail. Perhaps they are handled by the GM, but it would be good to see the intent.

The biggest challenge here is that this feels like a framework – rules for resolving challenges and building bunkers – but I’m not sure if there are external pressures or challenges that will be introduced. I’m not sure that the Humanity cards alone will provide enough tension/conflict/collaboration between groups. I would like some goals to be out there that the groups are fighting over, unique character details to give each character their own angle, and some guidance for the GMs to inject more twists into the game.

This is not to stay that a “Plot” should be central to the game. I like the freedom of players to build their own world in the ashes of the new, and the complications and constraints their Humanity traits place upon them. I think the tactile nature of the LARP environment will also open up some interesting possibilities

Handle With Care by Jackson Tegu (link)

It took me a moment to get a handle on the writing style here. The text mentions some things out of their expected order, and the meaning and feel isn’t clear upfront, but instead requires reading through the text. However, this gave the text a unique voice, and created emergent meaning that I liked a lot. A totally great sentence: “As by now you’ve assumed, the players are giant monsters.” The text definitely communicates the feel of this game.

The trading of narration through the deck of cards is clear, and I think the use of tactile elements – miniatures, props, cardboard highrises, physical presence, actual darkness – will all help creative some amazing experiences. The game is on the border of my earnestness threshold – but I think I’d want to try it or help facilitate it.

I think the balance of narrative power might be a bit fragile. Not just enforcing the careful driving of the municipal light truck, but moreover, the range of what someone can narrate with a card on their turn. The epilogue cards are also very open-ended. It seems up to social contract everyone being on the same page, basically. (I also think the exact mechanics of the light truck seem a bit awkward – maybe I’m not imagining it right – but I’m sure there’s another tacile mechanic that will work here.)

The character descriptions ask some far-raising questions. (Perhaps some of them should have some more concrete hooks to help stories get under way?) I would be curious see how their stories turn out.

A rambling aside: let me mention Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet” soundtrack. A few weeks ago, I saw a him at show at darkened gallery space; the audience was lying down on foam cushions with wireless headphones synced to the DJ’s output and strange ambient noise in the audible background. It was a shockingly chill and thoughtful experience. So when I was reading your game, this is the soundtrack I heard.

Lady and the Tower by Joel P. Shempert (link)

This is a game about exploring mysteries, and the setting is evocative. I like the Bluebeard references, and yet it’s clear that the game doesn’t have to end up in that direction. It’s up to the players’ choices to reveal different kinds of revelations. What’s interesting is that this creates a real a mystery without it being the product of a single GM’s machinations. In fact, what is at the heart of the mystery is the players’ own characters. You start play not truly knowing your own characters intentions or motivations, and you ultimately come to revelations that your character always knew (but that are a complete surprise to the player). The use of the “advent calendar” method to preserve the mystery is a cool idea, and presents a new way of packing a preset scenario for one-shot play.

There is a fragile center in the game where the players have to balance what they guess about their characters nature and intentions against what they may ultimately reveal, and how to imply some possibilities with closing off others. (For example: showing affection for another character without declaring onself as entirely devoted, if that revelation is to come later.) It simply takes a lot of balance, and there will possibly be parts of the game where a player has to reconcile what they think they knew with the text that was just revealed.

I also think there may be an issue with having the scenes progress at a leisurely pace, and not rushing too quickly to the reveals. Regardless of whether the characters want to hold their secrets close, the players most likely want to find out their own secrets, and there will be a tension to jump to reveals. However, doing this will cheapen the reveal itself, unless it unfolds naturally through the course of drama. Perhaps playtesting will help show what else will provide the right framing for scenes so that the scenes have a purpose in their own right. Open scene-framing with ambiguous characters could be intimidating.

One other cool thing about the game: the different roles are quietly asymmetrical and different. The Lord and Bishop share their broad narration of the world at large in complimentary ways; the Lady is, by contrast, limited to her internal monologue, but that is itself a commentary and calls attention to her as the protagonist in a neat way. (There is a problem that the Lady’s internal monologue might work against her hiding her own intentions from others; but maybe there’s the possibility of the Lady’s monologue as being itself an inconsistent/unreliable perspective, and that’s cool again.)

The Words by greyorm (link)

Powerful, dark and gritty, street-level supernatural urban horror. This entry has lots of flavor and knows the tone it wants to strike. It uses its elements well (four forge threads, no less) while going into its own direction. Games like this are welcome. The nature of The Words is slightly ambiguous, and I’d like to find out more.

I think the game could benefit from something more clear about what the Words are. Not a discrete definition – implications are more powerful than known quantities – but ultimately, the group needs to come to some consensus about what the scope of these powers can be. “Anything” seems challenging and broad. Perhaps it works, regardless; the cards can work for or against even the strongest fictional effect.

The mechanics are primarily card based. (Relatedly: I’d like to see what other mechanical implications of cards/hands/decks can come into play, beyond their use as a randomizer.) I like that the hand of cards is used in chargen just as it is used later in conflicts.

It see how the Sin and Integrity attributes are core to the game, and are the key angle by which a player can push harder against challenges. (Without further adjustment, I’d guess that card draws are roughly even, and then it becomes a question if either side is desperate enough to keep drawing.) It also seems that the general pressure within the game is that, as the player uses Sin and Integrity, their values will be pulled downwards until the character is deformed and ultimately eliminated. I’d like to see other reward cycles in play beyond this spiral to push the players in other directions.

I’d also like to see more guidance about the kinds of motivations, plots, kickers or agendas that a character may have. I can read between the lines and guess at some character-driven scenarios that will put the players in conflict with their Sin and Integrity, but I’d rather see a clear authorial vision about how gameplay should unfold, and how to set characters going in the right direction.

And, finally: learning more about the Words. I’m uncertain about whether this should have its own novel mechanic, or simply some fruitful setting material, or perhaps an open void where the playgroup and see what they will. The hook is there and is intriguing.

[gamechef 2011] reviews

I’m going to record some of my reviews here, as they were getting a bit long for the original thread.

Shakespeare’s Daughters

I like the game’s clear focus: a three player game that’s a coming of age story. The ingredients are clearly available at the core of the game. (Exile is somewhat awkward in its context, and may be worth changing post-Game-Chef, but this is to be expected.) The Shakespeare content is at the fore, though there isn’t much Shakesepare-specific here. With more time, you could either delve deeper in the kinds of Shakespearean details you want to the girls to be exiled into, or go deeper into the lives of Shakespeare’s daughters, or perhaps consider detaching from a Shakespearean focus and emphasize the exploration of “coming-of-age” with diving into fiction. This combination is compelling to many readers.

The dice system (with dice representing the Girl and the World) generates some conflict outcomes and thematic fuel in a single roll, so I think there’s something there. Can the Girl die trigger multiple lessons at once, or are lessons only triggered if they make sense, fictionally? You want to make sure it always makes sense to fight some Lesson in the context of the game.

Take another look at the overall pacing of gaining Growth, reducing Lessons, and getting to endgame. Completely conquering a Lesson of strength N requires (((N+1) x N) / 2) total Growth to be earned, and each Lesson must be solved in order to get to endgame; however, a Lesson can only be fought against if the dice rolls under the level of the Lesson (meaning that one Lessons are lower enough, it becomes less likely you’ll get a chance to finish them off). I wanted to highlight this so that you could hack on these to make the mechanics work out like how you want. (So, what do you want the pacing to be like for gaining Growth, learning Lessons and leaving the game?)

Aside from the mechanics/endgame, I’d suggest becoming more specific and prescriptive about what you’d like the game to be about: when you imagine the game being done “right”, what kinds of players and setting seem best to you? Which Shakesepareean encounters should the players be exiled into? What are some examples of Lessons and Bad Habits, and what kinds of events will the Girls be rolling dice for? You have a vision of how gameplay should look ideally, and should elaborate more on this.

A Midsummer Night’s Scheme

Everyone enjoys some fae shenenagans, and this game is about conflict on the border between faerie mischief and connections to the mortal world. It seems that there’s a potentially flexible tone in terms of content: you mention gameplay suggestions for family play, but this could also be good for setting up some serious drama alongside the pranks. The scenes have a clear focus: pranking the mortals, and thus racking up enough points to avoid exile (or, possibly, to determine the nature of your exile). It’s a solidly formed game.

The resolution system is at its heart a die pool relating to the only stats that matter, being the faerie abilities; most die rolls are made against the Oberon & Titania, rather than against a difficulty per se. Does the dice roll necessarily map to the outcome of the glamour or effectiveness of the prank? It’s unclear, and it may be up to the SG (as you say that a prank may be unresolved over several scenes due to narrative logic), but that can be fine: it’s interesting if in fact task success is guaranteed, and the important thing is how it relates towards progress to the end outcome (being: impressing the sovereigns). (Minor quibble: I think the elemental stats aren’t very clear here; as it turns out, Cruel, Satirical, Witty & Deceitful are perfectly clear descriptors for the sovereigns, so these may be more appropriate.)

I would worry that which abilities to use would become a matter of using your strongest ability (relative to that of the Sovereigns). The Forsworn mechanic is interesting in this context; aside from narrative logic of creating your own challenges, it gives one a reason make some of their rolls slightly less effective in order to gamble for greater points. (I think it makes sense to be Forsworn, in some fashion, in most every scene.)

Still, it would be good to make sure faeries have some reason to use their less powerful abilities. It would be better still to make the pranks, narration and fictional elements have implications in other ways. For example: how does the prank I narrated affect my die roll? (i.e. avoid a “parlor narration” situation) Can we recognize certain pranks as being more truly Cruel, Satirical, Witty or Deceitful? (Perhaps some reward dice mechanic from the SG could work here.) How will the consequences of one prank affect others? A challenge in revisions of your game would be to make sure the fiction of the game impacts the mechanics (so that the dice rolls and points do not become to abstracted from what’s happening).

Finally: in an expanded text, it woudl be nice to see more examples of scene constraints would help (one-prank rule, when to roll, when a SG should cut a scene, etc). Leaving them out in the GC version makes much sense, but I’m all for giving clear player instructions about how to create the vision of play you have.

I like this game, and I think the gameplay will encourage a competitive display of pranks, both cruel and witty.

You and Me

I appreciate that the game is taking on a gripping subject: an obligatory relationship where both parties have a dysfunctional relationship with each other. It has a vivid and iconic zodiac-based “map” of character traits. The gameplay happens over this map, as players spend resources to “flip” key traits to be more to their own liking.

I will challenge you to open up the gamespace a bit. You make clear that “participation is failure”, and I have some problem with this. In games with a strong editorial bent, it’s important that the message of a game be uncovered – or better yet, questioned – in gameplay. If the game is set up to be an exercise in demonstrating how terrible it is to change on another, what will be revealed through gameplay, other than our ability to imagine some terrible dysfunctional exchanges? (As entertaining or cathartic as this may be.) If the game can provide the misguided *promise* of a mutually agreeable ending, while providing problematic options such that a bad ending is possible, then this opens up the possibilities for the palyers.

I like the use of a bidding system as each tries to lay claim upon the other, and tying the size of a bid to periods of time (day/week/month/year) is clever. It’s possible that large spans of time will suddenly pass as the players take their turns bidding, which has interesting implications. Playtesting should help find out if the bidding system is good and remaining unstable. (Previous open-bid systems I’ve seen can sway towards determinism, so that’s a thing to look out for.)

The players’ turns are built around making formal statements, and I would challenge the designer to let that grow into a more full-fledged scene. If the players’ reduce their turns to an exchange of formal statements and chips, they’re not playing to their full potential. If you can back these rules with more in-game details – and tie that extra fiction to the players’ options – then things become more complicated.

Fates

This game is focused on a single pivotal decision of a youthful protagonist, and the possible far-reaching consequences of that choice. It could be described as being a kind of structured freeform experience: there’s a clear progression of scenes to initially present the core conflict of the drama, and portray alternate paths to go forward in this drama. The game text, on its own, seems to have a lighter emphasis on Shakespearean content, but the settings-specific material brings this content back into the spotlight.

I like the focus of this drama, the way in which different narrative responsibilities are delegated, and the way the non-linear flow of time is used to provide multiple perspectives on a given event. (It’s fair to say that when a Companion character is portraying a possible future, they’re something of an unrealiable narrator.) It’s interesting to draw from one’s childhood memories explicitly to create the part of the companion character, especially because that player will have to incorporate a Nature from the other player into this character.

One challenge in this game is that it is vague in parts, and expects much to be filled in by the players: not just techniques (aggressive scene framing/cutting, negotating scenes without negotiating outcomes) but also the content: coming up with whole scenes and backdrops, a taut personal decision, vivid companion characters, and the like. The players have to generate a lot of content for the game, and have to consciously make sure it’s all relevant and worth of serving the conflict at hand. I think this is challenging in practice. For one thing, I think coming up with the right kind of pivotal choice – one that really is represented by two different friends and has instant, permanent, life-changing consequences – will be hard to do delicately. Then again, games such as “Hero’s Banner” do just this.

For me, the Settings Sheets (trappings, natures, and certainly scene starter cards) provide a great deal here. From reading purely the procedures, I was a bit lost at how to proceed, but drawing from either of the settings instantly grounds the activity and gives a clear sense of what kind of genre we’re playing in. That was quite interesting to me. On one hand, because different settings could result in quite divergent games, and because you could build upon these settings to create more structure if you choose to do so. I wonder if some suggested “choices”, fitting with the themes of a setting, would be appropriate. For this especially I wouldn’t want to rely on a strict list, but it may help.

It’s an interesting game, and it’s nice to games produced by a team effort (as in this case).

Review: LostWinds

My rather late review of LostWinds, one of the first WiiWare titles! (Click through to see the game description.) The game is a mostly a simple platform game, but every game like that has to have a unique twist, and I think it’s shtick is a good one. Meanwhile its aesthetics and pace are just right.

You effect the world and your character in two different ways: direct character action, and control of the wind and windpowers. By mixing up these different possibilities in the gameworld, the game sets up some creative puzzles which are nicely both simple and satisfying.

The graphics are gorgeous (somewhat Zelda/Windwaker-esqe), and the background music nicely fills space but isn’t to pushy or tedious. The game overall nicely delivers the vibe of adventure and wonder. The game is certainly short, but it plays like a nicely balanced “short story”, as video games. The game does very well with the “progressive intuitive tutorial” mode of play, and new powers are gradually introduced, explained, and reincorporated into the existing world. (It’s very neat to get a new power, and immediately think back to the rest of the world, and how to manipulate its old elements in new ways)

Downsides: it’s not extremely challenging or long, and perhaps the pseudo-japan-via-pueblo-via-medieval landscape just seems silly. (My partner certainly though so.) I say it’s worth a quick play.