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Author Topic: [HoS] The Disappeared -- Knitting Plots Together  (Read 1560 times)
Josh Roby
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« on: February 13, 2006, 03:41:19 PM »

Last night we played a game from Heads of State: Nine Short Games About Tyrants.  Our selection last night was "The Disappeared," in which the three of us played characters who were all connected to one "disappeared" NPC.

The game uses a 5 x 5 grid of playing cards, face down, with the very center space occupied by a number of cards equal to the players.  That center space is where the Disappeared NPC sits, along with what happened to her and her current status.  Play consists of turning over cards on the periphery to uncover evidence that eventually leads to uncovering what happened to the Disappeared.  When you turn over a card, its suit and number suggest what kind of evidence it is -- a 10 might be a location; a diamond might be something to do with wealth and excess.  You must narrate one or the other; you get a bonus if you can work both in (the 10 of diamonds was a Casino, for instance).  You replace the card with a PostIt noting what evidence you discovered ("The Casino").  Additionally, if you turn over a card next to a PostIt, the evidence you uncover must relate to that PostIt.  The cards you accumulate build up your "hand" which describes how much trouble you're getting in as you snoop around -- the secret police don't take kindly to that.

I was rather skeptical of the game setup, as it sounded like it would provide a pretty weak structure for the investigation -- a two of hearts had to be passion and vice somehow, but how would that figure into the larger narrative?  Additionally, as we started out, the first pieces of evidence turned over were wildly disparate -- we had a casino and a sleepy little village and a dead grandmother -- and I really didn't know how it was all going to come together.  However, my fears were totally unfounded.  Because you work from the outside ring and then the inside ring and then the center cards (peeling an onion), and adjacent cards must be related to each other, things knitted together very quickly.  The outer ring only has to relate the cards to either side, but the inner ring needs to relate to the outer ring cards and the inner ring cards on either side, so you get a sort of "tightening noose" feel, which was absolutely awesome.

It wasn't easy, especially when we got down to the meaty center and we had to relate a new card (Queen of Spades, a female character with a secret?) to four other cards that were already revealed (a drunk truck driver, a casino, a warehouse, and a kidnapping).  That "difficulty", however, quickly revealed itself as the prime challenge of the game, and one that escalated very organically.  It was this constant complication, "Okay, you explained that, now explain this.  Now explain this."  When we finally got to the Disappeared character in the center of the grid, we had an elaborate backstory of conspiracy that was filled with unexpected twists and turns.  One of the best comments was Mark looking at the card he just turned over and saying, "Okay, I can do something with this, but it's not how I was envisioning how the story would develop."  That sort of challenge and the mechanics forcing the players to continually improvise was just rockin' all night long.

While the poker hand aspect was a little on the weak side, that might have had to do with the fact that we all but dropped our individual characters in favor of just revealing more evidence.  The next time we play (and we will!) I'm looking forward to trying to put a sharper focus on the individual characters doing the investigative work, rather than just narrating facts into the fiction.  I think that will give it far more of a conspiracy movie feel, and knit things together even tighter (and present more challenges to overcome with clever narration).

Mark, Alex?  What am I forgetting in here?
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redivider
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« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2006, 10:54:50 AM »

The idea to require narration about a card to relate to adjacent notes came up while we played -- chalk one up to the benefits of playtesting.

This requirement solved some of the dilemmas of having players jointly narrate parts of a mystery. From playing mystery-solving games like The Disappeared and InSpectres I've experienced tendencies for (a) each player to have a different solution in mind; and (b) everyone to hold back on solving the mystery out of a desire to not push 'your' solution onto everyone else. The almost mechanical, geometric way that the outer cards lent elements to the inner cards kept us advancing the mystery and merging the evidence.

A final thought is that I liked how the Dictator was absent until the final cards, when Alex got a King = important male character and I got a 3 = vice; and we both independently decided that the Tyrant has some creepy obsession with observing torture and would be lurking in the hospital where our disappeared victim was being held.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #2 on: February 14, 2006, 12:36:49 PM »

A final thought is that I liked how the Dictator was absent until the final cards...

I think the Dictator might have been a little more prominent -- or at least mentioned -- if we had been more sunk in our characters' heads rather than merely introducing evidence authorially.
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