is a pocket play game of dystopian storytelling. Together with the author (John aka Pooka), I had a chance to playtest the game at Conpulsion last weekend.Begin
To begin the game, two cards are drawn from the deck. The values of the two cards determine the nature of the dystopia. This feature is clean and elegant, especially as the thirteen options are gorgeously brief yet rich with detail and suggestion.In game: We chose two sevens and decided to exchange one. The final result, after the exchange, was Minority and Surreal. Minority, as you'd guess, deals with the persecution of minority groups, fringe elements, that sort of thing. Surreal is more complex. Think drug use, virtual reality, the Matrix.Our story: A new drug, called "node," gives users the (real?) feeling they are connected to one another. Once you've tried node, it stays with you forever, marking you in society as an outcast. It quickly frazzles your brain, distorting your perception, turning you into a beast. Ignorant people believe you can catch the symptoms by sitting on the same toilet, etc.
Character generation is also clean. You pick three character traits, each of which interact tightly with the game mechanics. These are "What do you want?" "Who are you trying to protect?" and "What are you hiding from?"In game: For example, I chose Cody Hanks the leather-faced junkie legend (the guy who talks about how pure everything was in the old days and the wild tales of his youth). What does he want? Brotherhood—the false community he gets from the drug crowd. Who is he trying to protect? Patty—the gorgeous thirty-something node-fiend who is gradually losing her mind. What is he hiding from? He has never taken node—he does not want to expose himself to the community.
The next rule is probably the sweetest
. Each suit in the deck of cards is assigned a theme. Reds are idealogical/psychological and blacks are physical. These are the obstacles in game and, here is the WOW moment, each suit is assigned to one player. Not only are you playing a protagonist in Hammer Falls, but you are also playing a threat. In a way, this threat develops its own kind of character during play. Awesome.In game: For the four obstacles, we chose Paranoia for hearts, Hallucination for diamonds, Addiction for clubs and the Mosquito (basically The Man) for spades. My threat was clubs. So whenever an obstacle came up for a character during play, it was my responsibility to introduce addiction as a threat to that character's intention.
So that's the game setup. I won't go into too much detail about the story we generated, but instead I'll touch upon a couple of areas.Game Play
When you're teaching in a classroom, you never say "Bobby, what is the capital of Ireland?" Instead you say, "What is the capital of Ireland?" look around the classroom, "Bobby?" In this way, everyone in the class is thinking, not just Bobby. The same rule applies in Hammer Falls.
- The introduction was confusing (when I was asked to describe my character's typical day). I think, as I mentioned afterwards, it would be more interesting for players to pick one of their traits and build a scene around that trait.
- Once a player starts talking, there's nothing really there to stop him from going on and on. I'd like it if there was one person (the next clockwise player, for example) whose role it was to shout "Conflict!"
- Once a conflict is determined (by the above method or otherwise), the game becomes super-elegant again. A card is turned over to expose the nature of the challenge. So, if someone drew a ten of hearts, it would be Pooka's job to include paranoia into the scene. This is really, really brilliant. I'll tell you why...
- There's a slightly cumbersome resolution mechanic, but it's fun. If there was a way to reduce the repetition of calculations (like Adam suggested), that would be ace. For example, instead of adding every single card up for a suit (10 + 7 + 8 + 3 + 4 + 9 = 41), could you try using "highest card + number of cards" (10 + 5) as the difficulty? Okay, so this would require a bit of redesign from the cards-in-hand perspective, but it might be worth it. For example, could you reduce the hand size? Give players just two or three cards?
- Also, I don't think it's important for the game to have a happy ending. I mean, I think there should only be one track, the Dystopia Track, and that it should be thought of as a timer that keeps counting down. What will you protect before dystopia strikes (or the Hammer Falls)? While I was playing, and the odds were stacking against us, I was looking more and more to protect Patty. I started moving points from my other traits over to the Patty trait. I believe that kind of thing happened to all of us. I think it's more important to tell stories about what the character loses and not whether the result is a happy ending. Of course, this is just my perspective, but I'd really consider dropping that extra track (which would tidy up some of the rules).
To continue that point, even if you wanted to keep the happy ending bit, you could easily make that part of the "What do you want?" trait instead of a global trait for all players. Get me?
- There was some fiddliness in the swapping of cards around. When you win a conflict, you discard the card you were trying to beat and draw a new card which you place face down on the appropriate trait. I'd prefer it if you just used the card you beat—and changed the end game.
The way the end game works is that you draw a card and try to beat it with one of the stored cards on your trait. If you beat it, your trait is protected from the dystopia.
This is problematic, I think, in that a low or high drawn card could practically guarantee success or failure despite the number of saved cards on your trait. That is, success or failure doesn't seem proportional to the number of cards you invest. I'm probably being stupid here. You might consider modifying it so that you draw a card and compare it to your invested cards in a different way, like suit and number
. If you get a match, you succeed. For example, if I draw a 6 of hearts for the end game I will succeed if any of my invested cards are a 6 or a heart. In that way, it would not matter if you knew the values of your invested cards, which means you wouldn't have to do the "discard the card you were trying to beat" thing.
- As we were discussing, it might be an idea to restrict where the cards can be invested based on which trait was used to set up the scene at the start of your turn.
I think that's that.
I realise that this AP report is very much a design post, so sorry if comes across as negative toward the end. Don't read it that way, whether you are Pooka or some other viewer. This game is cool, it generates great stories, and I'd play it again in a heartbeat.
There are published games out there, good ones too, that I can't say the same about.
Good job and keep it up!
edited at the person's request to remove a surname - RE