Game Chef 2010 reviews
Feedback for other designers, by request.
As one of the 59 finishers of Game Chef 2010 (I wrote "Egregore"), I've been trying to reciprocate when one of the other entrants has taken the time to read and review my game, especially considering the size of my entry (31 pages). Here are in-depth looks at some of the other entries. Hopefully it will be useful constructive criticism and/or a plug for worthy games.
Numbering is per the Game Chef entry page.
The Good: The robotic city of Vanurdu is well fleshed out (no pun intended), with plenty of gameplay hooks and some cool (Buzzkills and Fleshbots), amusing (the eternal train riders) and downright sadistic (the FIELDS OF GOLD, man! The FIELDS OF GOLD!) ideas that have a lot of in-game potential.
The Bad: As your crechemates guide you through the first two chapters, you add paragraph numbers in the margins and realize the RPG reads like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. You understand the author's reasoning - reading through pages of game mechanics can be dry and unrewarding - but you are aggravated at how this buries necessary information, and quickly get sick of the conceit.
The Other: For the huge focus the game puts on getting "Over the Wall," the rules are perfectly vague about what happens when you get there. There's no narrative impact to the clearly defined end-game. 20 encounters, and ...? "Thank you, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!"
Thought 1: Something I learned this competition - games with narrative conflict resolution are a HELL of a lot harder to design than they look.
Concept: You play a living being trying to escape a city of robots before being dissected and your parts sold off. Cool idea setting up a lot of conflict and atmosphere. Think "Blade Runner" turned on its head. The whole setup of the game reinforces this idea of escape - characters developed their survival skills in a creche of young humans, and their rite of passage is to give up one of their extremities ("Parts") in exchange for their rearing. Right away, the clock starts ticking: the rumors say anyone who loses all their Parts can't go Over The Wall. Unfortunately, how the game's individual encounters advance the overall theme is less clear.
Mechanics: Over The Wall charges straight into the territory of full narrative resolution. Your character has Skills, which act as mulligans if you fail in an encounter, but otherwise conflicts are resolved by who the group agrees should win based on the one-on-one face-off between the temporary GM ("bot") and the active player. The broad parameters of the encounter are determined by drawing playing cards from decks sorted by suit.
The random nature of conflict generation troubles me -- you're as likely to end up with a dragon betraying you in the train as you are to end up with a trader offering a deal in the Bazaar. This also unfortunately pushes players to react rather than storytell in their contributions to the game. If you get betrayed by ID-10-T the Traitorbot in an early scene, for example, there's no mechanic for bringing him in as a recurring adversary, or for the player to attempt to break into his house and reclaim that stolen arm - unless the cards happen to break your way at the right time. The game's arbitrary fixed length doesn't help, either; the rules seem to suggest that when time runs out, any survivors get Over The Wall with no further drama. (Or maybe this is controlled by player consensus, the same way challenges are?)
The bottom line is that it feels too anything-goes for satisfying gameplay. Without stronger narrative guidance from the rules, and without a way for players to shape encounters until after the parameters are set, the session will decohere quickly. Perhaps it could be improved by incentives to add direction to how players resolve conflicts, or perhaps some way to bid elements into future encounters? The card mechanic seems like it would lend itself to some true interactivity in scene set-up - such as re-ranking the bots, locations, complications, etc., numerically from most helpful to most dangerous, and then having some sort of bidding round that can push cards up or down the scale.
Design: The layout is fine by Game Chef standards - organized logically by section with useful headings, page numbering, and a table of contents. Virtually every game-relevant word is capitalized and italicized, which is distracting when encountering fragments like "When you Recover, you may Heal one Damage on a single Part". It would be nice to have a Glossary, but the omission didn't really bug me.
One thing noticeably lacking was either sample characters or a character sheet. Similarly, there were no gameplay examples; it would have been nice to see the author's vision of how the Creche-Kid and Bot react to the other players' interference during a scene.
A small note (what's the reverse of a nitpick?): The font choice for section headings was an excellent one and adds nicely to the atmosphere.
Would I play it?: Not in this revision. It's got good setting ideas, but the mechanics fall down. I'd like to see the same setting with a rules overhaul. Focus on what sort of story you want the system to tell, and then give players solid rules that push gameplay toward that core experience.
The Good: Having a character based on virtues (and NOT the low-hanging fruit of the seven Christian virtues/vices!) is genuinely intriguing, and the resolution mechanic is punchy. Packs some nice ideas into a small package.
The Bad: The game errs on the side of Desert in its presentation of setting (and narrative resolution). Why Alexandria? Who are the people that travel there? What does it look like? If your setting is important enough to make it into your title, it needs to come out in the text as more than hints.
The Other: Similarly, there's no guidance at all for when tasks that advance the game can occur - or whose plots advance, or what to do if someone aces their Reason with game time still left. (Do they pick another, or just do the happy butt wiggle? I'd be tempted to HBW, so maybe I need to roll against Temperance ...)
Concept: Players (and one GM) take on roles of characters travelling either to, or from, Alexandria in classical antiquity, each driven by their own goal as they work towards a pre-agreed overall plot. They walk the edge between the Desert and the City both physically and metaphorically (balancing their Virtues between deprivation and excess). It's a simple core of a game, but the City/Edge/Desert trifecta shows up on many layers.
Mechanics: Each player involved in a conflict rolls 6d6, throwing away some dice based on the balance of the attribute used. The collective results of all players are used to determine whether Desert, Balance, or City are "dominant," and then whoever's dice score highest "wins" the conflict.
I first have to say that the dice rules are surprisingly tight. I keep poking them from different angles and I keep finding fewer loose ends than I expected. This doesn't mean that they're perfect, but even the parts that frustrate me seem like they fit in.
Take, for example, the dice tallying. Someone using a Desert attribute will be adding up a fraction of their dice (and low-numbered dice, at that); someone using a City attribute will be adding up a fraction of their dice (high-numbered); and someone using a Balanced attribute adds up all 6d6. This means that it's all but inevitable that Balanced people win conflicts. I don't think this is a good mechanic - it means that once a player falls out of the center, they're almost powerless unless they race their character toward the extremes, throwing all of their Virtues in one direction to get their whole 6d6 back. (This is especially pronounced with Desert characters; a City roll losing a few 1's and 2's doesn't really affect it, but dropping your 5's and 6's is heartbreaking.) However, while broken, this is still oddly thematic: the Desert represents dissolution and the City represents excess, so why shouldn't your dice pool react that way? The fact that a mostly-Desert player's (1, 2, 3, 4) can lose to a slightly-City player's (5, 6) makes me want to whack my head against a wall, but it feels more like a feature than a bug.
One thing that DOES stand out as problematic is the way the creative reins are simply handed to the winning player. This essentially turns the players against each other as they compete for a scarce resource (narrative control). This feels like poison for a narrative game. There's kind of an unspoken social contract when characters are in conflict that it's all in-game; if Augustus and Lucretia have different goals, then Alice and Larry can still play them adversarially and have fun, but if Alice and Larry are competing, the dynamic is different.
Another odd mechanical note: This is the first game I've ever read that has prompted me to ask the question, "Why does this game have a GM?" The GM's role seems limited to two things: (1) describing the "natural" aspects of scenes; and (2) rolling 6d6 for the environment. Since players already narrate scene conclusions and set up subsequent scenes themselves, which are the tasks traditionally requiring the most GM intervention, why not go whole hog and distribute (1) and (2) up as well? If you assigned those tasks to the person who won the last scene, then it would let them expand their vision of the scene setting more elegantly, and would also prevent the same person from continuing to win scene after scene and dominating the game.
Thought 2: What happens if there's a tie in adding dice? Also, are there any special rules when >2 players are all participating in a single conflict? And what are the circumstances under which PCs can die? Inquiring minds want to know!
Thought 3: This is totally a nitpick, but worth mentioning. "Honesty" doesn't ring true for me as the name of Virtue #5. It wavers between Depression and Arrogance. It sounds like you're going more for "Confidence"?
Design: The two-column layout feels natural, with thematic art. I'm not so much a fan of the desert scene that adorns the bottom of every single page, but for Game Chef purposes it works. Likewise, it's missing navigation features (indexes, etc), but a game this short doesn't require it. It feels as though I read the content in the order I needed to.
Would I play it?: Qualified yes - the mechanics are novel and accessible, if the rest of the game still feels incomplete in many areas. However, it would require some prediscussion with my gaming group to figure out how we would handle the narrative resolution and pacing issues, so as it stands I'd be scared to play it with people I don't know well.