Stage One: Reviewing 1-2

November 24, 2011

It’s time to head into the underground! Doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo (ba-dum bum chsh)! Sorry for the delay in getting to these. I’ll try to get the last batch up imminently.

7. Return to Maniac Mansion (Maniac Mansion): Nick Wedig

There’s some really clever things in this game. While it doesn’t show up until the last paragraph, the idea that you would “improvize a cutscene” after every swath of play is great and very Maniac Mansion-y. Unfortunately, it’s kinda left at that. Likewise, the mixture of shared and unique verbs for structuring moves in the game is nice, because it makes every player able to uniquely contribute. In general, the guidelines for the players is strong, though there’s minimal advice on creating proper characters. The mansion guidelines have the potential to be super awesome but fall slightly short. I really like having a limited set of responses and having to choose between them before passing the cards to a new player; that’s gold. I worry a little bit about players “spamming” the mansion until they get a response they like, but there’s probably some way around that. Like, if the situation hasn’t changed significantly, maybe the mansion can re-issue the same response: “No, that still doesn’t work.” The real missing piece, though, is guidance on how to create mansion rooms and puzzles for the characters to solve. If they’re just emergent from play, they’re likely to be haphazard and even dumber than you’d like. Putting a hamster in the microwave is par for the Maniac Mansion course, but you shouldn’t be able to use a chicken to get out of handcuffs. That said, if this was fleshed out a bit more (maybe including a map of the mansion that was gradually exposed over play?), I could see this game being really fun and campy. Seems like there should also be strict player turns, like a board game, which doesn’t really come out in this version of the rules. Honestly, the “LucasArts internal memo” format didn’t do that much for me, once I got the joke. I’d much prefer a straight up “Maniacal Estates” setup. Hopefully Nick is still excited about this one, because it could be super cool, with a bit of work. Playtest, clarify, and resubmit!

8. Scrabblenauts (Scribblenauts): Nick Wedig

I couldn’t get the first page of this game to print, which was a bit annoying, but the game itself is sharp. Right off the bat, I’m a bit worried about the “invoke traits to draw tiles” mechanic, especially since anyone can invoke any trait or relationship at any time. [quick rant] In my experience, trait invocation mostly works when it’s closed connected to fictional positioning: you can only invoke the traits that are appropriate to the situation and sometimes have to position your character fictionally in order to achieve trait-appropriateness. There’s no sign of that here, which can lead to the problems often encountered in Once Upon a Time or Wushu, where people go out of their way to incorporate details that don’t really make sense, artificially twisting the narrative. [/quick rant] This issue might be especially weird in this game, because the chief form of action is spelling words, so it’s not clear what you can do to invoke traits anyway. Maybe Nick is imagining something different here and I’m just not seeing it! That seems likely. In any event, the main action is top-notch, using Scrabble letters to spell out solutions to problems. I don’t know what to say besides that it’s super great. The stage one challenge is great too (Tall Tower, Vicious Goblin, Locked Door, Wizard), with the difficulty of those words established by their total letter score. I would really like to see a version of this game with (1) a different/clarified drawing mechanic, even just “if you can’t/don’t want to make a word, draw!” and (2) no GM. The words kinda play themselves, yeah? And the difficulties are established by the words. So the GM’s role seems pretty minimal. You just need a few “stage two” guidelines for generating new words and situations and, bam, the game runs itself. Like the last game, I feel like this one is playtest, clarify, and resubmit, but it feels closer to being done. Really, I feel like I could quickly implement #1 and #2 above and be ready to play right now. Still, that may not be the direction Nick wants to head. If it is, though, he can have an invitation right now; otherwise, I want to see where this goes.

9. Differences (6 Differences): Jackson Tegu

This game is hard to write detailed comments about, not because it doesn’t deserve them or is “too experimental” but because we haven’t yet developed the vocabulary to be able to talk about and critique games like this. Maybe the Nordic folks have that vocabulary! I don’t feel like I do yet. This game is terrific; it’s surprising both in its inspiration (point-and-click Flash art!) and in its execution (live action still lifes!). It certainly rose to the challenge by picking a game that “only works as an electronic game” and reframing it so it works in meatspace. It uses video games to ask questions about what games are and what they can be. Awesome! The only mechanical suggestion I have is that there should be some micro-reward for completing the games. Like: “When you beat stage one, high-five! When you beat stage two, eat gelato!” Something like that. Invitation extended!

10. Fortunes and Thieves (Uncharted): Steve Hickey

Uncharted, yeah! That’ll be awesome! There’s a mysterious opening salvo that hints at connections between Cibola, Somali pirates, and Mexican narcos. Sweet! And the love/hate connections you build with other fortune hunters are great. Rockin’! And then the game itself… is basically 4E-style skill challenges, with a few changes. What? You totally had me hooked here, Steve; what happened? There’s not even much guidance for setting up good challenges, so the GM apparently has to wing it. Maybe if there were some examples of play or something to liven this up, I could get excited about it. As it is, it’s all mechanics and not especially evocative. I also kept looking for some way for there to be real and interesting consequences for failing a challenge, but didn’t spot those either; you just get a harder challenges you’re even more likely to fail than the last one, which sounds like it could lead to a failure spiral. Also, once you finally find the initial treasure, it’s not necessarily related to the opening salvo about golden cities, East African piracy, and drug cartels. Follow through with your setup, Steve; give me some hint of where this is going! Hint at bigger things! In any event, I was totally sold on the premise and the setup, but the overall play guidelines still needs some work to follow through on the promise and excitement of the early paragraphs. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this eventually shows back up in a format that rocks socks.

11. Dragon and Warrior (Dragon Warrior): Orion Canning

I don’t have a lot of background in Dragon Warrior, but (1) a bunch of other folks seemed excited about this game, (2) the initial descriptions are amazing — Though these friendships are new and uncertain, you’re pretty sure you can walk into their houses and take their stuff, and (3) it advertises itself as a hack of Silver & White, a game I can’t say enough good things about, so I went in expecting something pretty solid. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but it doesn’t feel like it all fits together quite yet. For one thing, unlike in Silver & White, the responsibilities of the different players are not all equally interesting. The player with the “Treasure” card really gets the short end of the stick, because they don’t control any characters, unlike the Monster, People, and Dragon Warrior players. Even then, the Monster and People players only play NPCs when the Dragon Warrior is in certain places. Orion seems to realize that the Dragon Warrior has the most interesting role, because he has the players take turns as the Dragon Warrior. However, I would recommend maybe not having the roles rotate in initial playtesting, so you can ensure all four roles are good. Maybe you don’t need four? What about three? Or even two? This may be a place where the Silver & White influence isn’t necessarily helping. The mechanics for fighting and such seem decent, though not especially exciting, aside from the fun choice of Attack, Item, Spell, or Run every turn. Finally the game has some trouble fitting into the “stage one” concept, partially because the rules are fairly general, applying to every level after the first as well. For the anthology, I would prefer a more focused approach where Orion detailed the missions in the first town and then left future towns up to the players to create. Overall, this game feels like it needs some initial playtesting to help pare it down and focus it on the core experience. There’s a huge amount of content here in small type! And that’s great for an initial draft, but it needs to be a bit tighter and more direct going forward, I think. Once some revisions are made and the game plays really well, right out the gate, it’ll be ready for more detail-oriented work.

12. Naughty Duck’s Dream Adventure (DuckTales): A.D. Henderson

There’s a lot to like here. This game clearly comes from a love of its source material, especially when it remarks that Scribner McMallard is “known for his racecars, lazers, and aeroplanes.” However, as I continued deeper into the game, it struck me that — like Mushroom Kingdom Stories — it’s inspired more by the media around the video game (in this case the original DuckTales cartoon) than the video game itself. Otherwise there’d be much more pogo-sticking and less pulpy adventure. Now, I loves me some DuckTales; I can yell “quack-a-roodie!” with the best of them! But it does drift away from the focus of the contest a bit. But let’s judge this as a DuckTales cartoon game: “Danger Master” (yay!), species-related gifts (hmm… does it matter that Scrooge is a duck, really?), a signature gadget (Huey, Duey, and Louie have… their ballcaps?), great stat names (yay!), treasure-map-based play (yay!), terrific short, punchy guidelines and examples for creating a map and encounters — if it’s a desert, draw sand-blasted ruins, frightful wastes with little animal skulls in them, or a mysterious oasis (super yay!), and a somewhat confusing but relatively straightforward resolution system involving collecting three types of gems (mmm… alright). As with Fortunes and Thieves, I’m much more sold on the premise and setup than the resolution system itself, though maybe some additional examples would help increase my excitement. That said, the lack of video-game-specific inspiration here makes me a bit concerned about including in the anthology, at least as currently written. Andy should consider if what he really wants to make is a tribute to the DuckTales cartoon. If so, then — by blatherskite! — that’s what he should do, and the anthology may be irrelevant. In any case, it’s probably time for this to get played, so Andy can get first-hand experience with it and reactions from players on whether the mechanics are engaging.

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