Of the many games I got to try at GenCon this year there were a few very definite standouts: Fiasco, Zombie Cinema, Dungeon World.
Disclaimer: I played all of these as part of demos between 2 & 4 hours long. It’s quite possible there are some specifics I got wrong, but I believe I have most of the important parts right. Enough to paint a decent picture of what was going on at least.
Fiasco is inspired by cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong – inspired by films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Way of the Gun, Burn After Reading, andA Simple Plan. You’ll play ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control. There will be big dreams and flawed execution. It won’t go well for them, to put it mildly, and in the end it will probably all go south in a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination. Lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom will be gained, and if you are really lucky, your guy just might end up back where he started.
Fiasco is a GM-less game for 3-5 players, designed to be played in a few hours with six-sided dice and no preparation. During a game you will engineer and play out stupid, disastrous situations, usually at the intersection of greed, fear, and lust. It’s like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one.
I’ve also heard people describe it as “make your own Coen Brothers movie.” However you want to think about it’s pretty amazing. It’s a very story-heavy, rules-light system and it’s designed to be played in a single session.
Basically, the group comes up with a situation (these are defined in the rule book and there are rules for making more) and then take turns adding pieces to that. The pieces come from a pre-defined list. Basically, think of it as coming up with a relationship map amongst all the players. The relationship might be an actual relationship (example from the game I played in: bride & groom), a need (the bride needs to marry another man), or an object. Once all the lines are drawn between everyone you’ll have a situation that’s just primed to explode.
Adding to the above, the game I played in took place at the wedding. There was the bride & groom. The groom and his father were estranged, and the groom’s father & the bride had a thing for one another. The cake decorator was the groom’s biggest enemy, the father’s best friend/wing man and & the bride both wanted her to marry someone else. There were a few other smaller bits that didn’t get touched on as much, but it’s already pretty obvious it’s not going to take much to push this situation over the edge. Play goes around the table with people setting short scenes and playing them out.
Dice are rolled after Act I and based on the rolls a tilt or twist gets involved that throws the story even more out of whack. Finally, at the end of Act II, everyone gets a sort of epilogue. There’s another roll of the dice (dice are collected/assigned as scenes are played out). What ends up happening is you’ll have some number of white and/or black dice. Through the game the white dice represent things working out for your character, the black dice are things going poorly. So what happens at the end is if you have a lot of black dice and very little white dice because your character got shit on for most of the game, you’ll probably have a… I hesitate to say happy, but at least happier ending. Think of it as a bit of karma.
Fiasco won this year’s Diana Jones Award and I highly recommend it for anybody that is interested in telling a great story at the table.
Zombie Cinema is a boardgame for 3-6 players, age 12+. One game takes 2-3 hours, all told. Learning the game takes ten minutes. The game is a cooperative storytelling exercise wherein the players create a story very much like a zombie movie. As my personal experience has it, about half of the time you’ll get something that is significantlybetter than any zombie movie I’ve actually seen.
Pretty much what it says on the tin: Zombie Cinema is a cooperative story game about zombies. You start the game by drawing some cards which give you character cues. For example my 3 cards were: independent woman, empathy, and loved ones. So, I played a nurse that was a single mother and I had my daughter with me, which caused all sorts of great situations!
Gameplay is simple and straightforward. Players take turn setting scenes, then anyone involved in the scene goes into “free narration”. You’re very much advocating for your character, so you’re playing what he/she would do (based on the cards you drew). In the middle of the table is a small board that’s more-or-less a threat track. The zombies start off at the beginning and are a distant threat, something that’s not really even in play yet. Player tokens start about halfway up the track (between start & escape).
At some point someone will do something someone else doesn’t agree with. At this point is when dice come out. Everyone at the table can either pass, ally, or support one side or the other. Pass is obvious. When you ally you’re advocating for your character, this is something he/she has a stake in. When you support, you’re acting from a meta-level, this is something, as a player you’re agreeing with. When you support you’re not risking your position on the board. For anyone that rolls (including allies), winners will move forward on the track, losers will move backwards. If there’s a tie, the zombie marker moves forward. The zombies can also move forward if it comes to the narrator’s turn (the narrator gets some veto power during open narration, and the marker can move around).
Eventually someone will either reach the end of the track in which they get away and escape and you can give them a final scene. Other characters will fall behind and get overtaken by the zombies, in which case they get a death scene. There’s also a rule for sacrificing, so if someone’ s about to fall back to the zombies, you can sacrifice your position on the board to move them forwards. This may mean moving your marker back to the zombies instead! Play continues until everyone is either eaten or escaped.
This is probably one of the more accessible story games I’ve gotten to play. It’s really straightforward. Lots of people (gamers and non-gamers alike) are interested in the zombie genre, and all it requires is some creativity and willingness to tell a cool story with a few other people.
Dungeon World is the only game at GenCon I actually played twice. I did my best to try and sample as many new games as possible so even though I enjoyed other games, I’d often forego another playthrough of them in favor of something new. I had another chance to play Dungeon World after hours and I leaped at the chance.
Dungeon World does a fantastic job of giving a feel of an old-school dungeon-crawl/fantasy game, but at the same time doesn’t feel like a slog through faceless enemies and bland rooms. Playing DW brought out feelings of that teenager playing D&D for the first time. I wanted to dim the lights down and get out the Cheetos and Mt. Dew.
The basic mechanic of Dungeon World (from Apocalypse World) is just roll 2d6 (plus/minus modifiers). 1-6 means you probably fail completely and the GM can really mess with you. 7-9 means you succeed, but there’s some sort of complication. 10+ you succeed no strings attached. It’s simple, but it’s clever. There’s a good chance you’re going to succeed at a lot of things (especially if it’s something you’re good at with a +1 or +2). That means things are always moving forward, but there’s a good chance things aren’t always going perfectly. It keeps things moving and it keeps things interesting. Very important in a game!
In Dungeon World (as of the current release) you play a Thief, Wizard, Priest, or Fighter. One of each, that’s it. No doubling up! Everyone has their own niche tasks and there’s lots of room to customize. In the two games I played in I was first the wizard and then the thief. What I love about the spellcaster (and I believe the Priest is somewhat similar in this regard) is casting a spell isn’t a guarantee you’ll lose it. If you get a 10+ the spell goes off, no problem. 7-9 the spell goes off, but the player chooses one of 3 options (the spell is forgotten until you spend time preparing spells again, you’ve messed with magic a little too much, so casting is at -1 from now on, or casting your spell brings on unwanted attention in some way).
Also, the way you level up is fun. You’ll have two stats that are “highlighted”. Any time you use either of those (pass or fail) you earn experience. Those stats are chosen every session, one by another player, the other by the GM. It can be a way to get easy experience (highlight a thief’s dex) or it can be a way to say, I think it would be really cool if you got out of your comfort zone and started using this more (Str for a wizard, perhaps). Sure, you can ignore it, but it’s in your best interest to go for it and earn the experience. Sure, you might get some consequences, but… level up!
Because of the basic nature of the game, a lot of things are very contextual. For example at one point in the second game I played in, my thief had found a secret compartment. Inside was a rope that was giving off a magical aura. The wizard decided to try and identify it, but his roll didn’t go well. The rope animated and began to strangle him! The fighter ran over and cut the rope off. It’s magical properties dissipated and all that was left was some un-magical bits of rope. Because of that sort of thing, even though I played the same adventure twice they both played out very differently! It just all depends on how the dice rolls go and where the players take it.
Another thing worth noting is the GM never rolls the dice. The players are presented with situations are problems that we have to react to. Goblin attacking? Roll “avoid danger” or maybe the fighter can roll “defend” to try and absorb or deflect the attack. The GM’s decision making power is pretty much restricted to just dealing with low rolls when bad things can happen.
I’m very much looking forward to the full release of the game (especially because it sold out at GenCon and I didn’t manage to snag a copy) and if you’re interested in some fantasy adventuring with a new twist, I highly recommend it!