Friday, July 29, 2011

Game Chef: Peer Review!

So! Part of Game Chef this year is a peer-review process, which I like. Everyone's assigned four games to read and comment on, and then recommend one of them to advance on to the next stage, which I believe is just straight-up judging, judged by judges.

I'm going to do my peer reviewing here so I can have it all in one place and not worry about being long-winded, in case it goes that way. I'm also going to try to segment my reviews in terms of how well each game addresses the theme (Shakespeare) and makes use of the ingredients (Daughter, Forsworn, Exile, Nature), as well as things I like and things about which I am not sure. Wish me luck in sticking to this plan! There will be many parentheticals, apparently!

A Midsummer Night's Scheme
Nat Barmore (with help from Caitlin Doran, whose idea it was in the first place)

What do I like? I like that this seems to be (or could be) a secondary side play happening concurrently with Midsummer Night's Dream. Nat (perhaps assisted by Caitlin!) gives a good overview of how he (or she -- could be a Natalie) sees faeries in this context, which makes for some useful roleplaying advice for the players. The faerie abilities are distinct from one another and cover just about anything I could think of a faerie doing in this context, which is good. I appreciate how what the players are doing and what the characters are doing are very similar, in that everyone's playing a game with a definite win condition. The stakes are obviously higher for the characters, but whatever -- I like the unity between in-character and out-of-character mindsets.

What am I not sure about? For what we're doing in this game, it seems awfully crunchy. You have your six stats, and Nature, and your mortal connection, which strikes me as a lot for a game about pranking faeries. I'm not sure how much better one faerie is than another in terms of, say, shapechanging should be all that important here. I'd think other factors, ones more relevant to the story or the faeries' personalities or emotions, would be more significant here. The dice mechanics look solid, but again, they seem a little involved for what's going on. And look, I like mechanics more than the next guy. I'm just saying that here, for me it's a bit of a disconnect. This also feels like the kind of game where narrative control should be shared more with the players. Instead of the SG framing every scene and (apparently) completely controlling everything in a rather traditional-GM way, it might be nice to let, say, players frame scenes, at the very least.

Is the theme well-addressed? For sure --  it's all pretty much out of a single play, but that play's also one of the most famous in Shakespeare's catalog.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nature, Forsworn, and Exile are all there. The whole game sorta revolves around your faerie's relationship with Nature (fighting against it or going with it), "forswearing" is a stakes-raising option (albeit one that seems a little easy to exploit), and Exile is the result of losing the Faerie Sovereigns' game.

Overall: I could see playing this. It's a little undefined around the edges, and that forswearing thing needs more attention, but given more than 10 days' work I'm sure these wouldn't be a problem.

Genesis Undone
Jim Ryan

What do I like? I like that picking my Role and Nature makes me think of Doctor Who, like I'm making a Time Lord. "Trust me, I'm the Savant!" It fits the whole epic nature of coming up with the First Race and the First City (which I kinda can't imagine being anything but a city floating in space, for some reason). I like the way players help define each others' characters, and the way character creation mandates some intra-party conflict.

What am I not sure about? I wish more of the character creation process were dealt with in picking a Role and a Nature. There's potential there, but Role and Nature seem to have no mechanical effect. I'm also not sure why revealing one's Nature should matter at all. For one thing, it seems like something I oughtta be roleplaying all along. If I'm the Bully, then I'm going to Bully. It should be fairly obvious what I am. Nowhere in the game does it seem to be a goal for the players to guess one another's Nature, but for some reason when my Nature's revealed (via a mechanic that doesn't seem to interface in any other way with Role or Nature), I'm at a disadvantage? I don't get it. As it is, it feels very tacked-on to me -- the fiction doesn't adequately explain why "whomever sees your Nature knows your weakness." Likewise, whether or not you've chosen to forswear the First Sin -- something that's pretty central to the backstory of the First Race and the First City -- simply doesn't matter, in the grand scheme of things. It reminds me of alignment in 4E D&D, except that it really seems like it ought to be much more significant here. Surely one's stance on the thing that should be as central to one's identity as Role or Nature. If anything, it's your stance on the First Sin that should be the thing you hide. That's your real weakness.

A few things about structure: For a game this short, the set-up strikes me as awfully long. While most of chargen is pretty focused, I think the last step, "Discuss," leaves too much up to chance. I wish "what they mean to each other" were more than backstory and window-dressing. There's a lot of players collectively making important decisions, like what the First Race, Sin, and City are, with little in the way of guidance from the text. Conversely, proscribing what each of the five Acts should contain feels very forced. I'd rather see mechanical incentives to have things proceed in one way or another than just being told what I should be doing. It puts too much in the hands of the players to figure everything out.

Is the theme well-addressed? Apart from the Acts and Soliloquies, I don't get much of a Shakespearean vibe off of this.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nature, Forsworn, and Exile are used to varying degrees. Nature is most important, "forswearing" the First Sin is pure color, and Exile is something that's happened before the game begins. 

Overall: There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I think it needs more work before it'd feel playable.

The Lost Years
Matthew Nielsen

What do I like? There's a lot. I love the premise, especially how it lampshades time-travel concerns by providing a good reason for keeping the PCs in the dark. Faeries as far-future time-traveling humans is bizarre, but Matthew manages to make it seem strangely logical. Making use of Shakespeare's "apocrypha" is a great idea, too. Turning Comedy, Tragedy, and History into character stats is a stroke of genius. The dice mechanic is familiar, but it's also simple and intuitive, so I have no objections. Being able to spend style points to edit minor details (anything that hasn't been nailed down) and then act in character to regain those points is a great idea. 

What am I not sure about? I feel like the role of the antagonists, including who they are and what they do, is much more obvious to the author than it is to me. There's advice in the last page or so, but I'm not immediately filled with ideas. Even a few examples of possible plots against Shakespeare would help a lot, or some examples of "events that could change Shakespeare's perspective on the world." 

Is the theme well-addressed? You're obscure or non-existent or alternate-universe Shakespeare characters in Elizabethan England trying to save your creator's life at the behest of a bunch of faeries. Yeah, there's a lot of Shakespeare in there.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nothing's explicit, but I can pick them out. The faeries hang out in natural environments like forests. The PCs are all exiled from their native plays, and forsworn to protect Shakespeare. They're all well-integrated.

Overall: Given a group of players, I'd give this a shot just as soon as I thought of a decent plot against Shakespeare. Great job.

An Improbable Fiction
Ashley Griffiths, John Keyworth, & Barbara Croker

What do I like? I like the incorporation of the sonnets. Of the games I've read that directly invoke Shakespeare, this is the only one that doesn't rely solely on the plays. The Dramatic Elements and cards are a great way to get the story going and get everyone on the same page without a lot of kibitzing among the players. I like putting a token into each other player's bag, thus influencing their temperament down the line. 

What am I not sure about? I'll be honest: Much of this game is either confusing or awkward to me. The process of picking a sonnet for your character is nice and flavorful, but it also seems like it might take forever. There are portions that could definitely be edited for clarity. For example, each player has his own bag of 10 tokens, but the wording in the paragraph explaining how to determine one's starting temperament seems to imply that everyone's drawing tokens out of the same bag. (Not that it really matters, if the tokens are to be replenished between each draw -- although I think it'd be more interesting if they weren't.) When I put a token into someone else's bag, does it come from my own bag or from somewhere else? And I've read the section on Acts a few times now, but I'm still not sure how it's supposed to work. All I know is that it feels too confining to me, especially when it says that I "should be playing towards a grand ending" in the last act. It seems to me that this could be tied in better with the Dramatic Elements cards somehow.

Is the theme well-addressed? Oh yeah. Your character is a sonnet, for God's sake.

Are the ingredients well-used? All four ingredients appear as Dramatic Elements, although if you don't draw them, they won't feature in your game. Arguably, your sonnet could be your "nature," if you choose to see it that way.

Overall: I don't entirely get it, but I also recognize that I'm not the target demographic. It'd hang together well for gamers of a more theatrical bent.

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