Monday, November 15, 2010

Game Chef 2010 - Finalist?

Well my review is up over on the Game Chef but I'll reprint it here as well.

Over The Wall by Jonathan Lavallee

Concept: You play cloned human youth raised to be the hope and future of the denizens of a dystopian robot city in which flesh is currency and everyone wants some, because you have to be part human to make it over the wall to the paradise beyond. Very cool.

Execution: The designer made the really interesting choice, when writing up the rules for this
game, as including them in the setting description. It makes the text very difficult to skim, but is a cool approach overall as it really lets even the rule descriptions carry the feeling of the game. Still, it would have been nice to have a summary somewhere – preferably before or after each section – that stated the basics (for example: Run and Hide are the universal skills and characters get other skills for being a Roboticist, Trader, or Bully). As far as resolution is concerned, the ability to remove elements from other players’ narration strikes me as one that could lead to social problems in the group, so it should probably be handled with additional care than is shown in the current guidelines, where it seems more like a throw-away line, something easily ignored. Resolution is deterministic rather than random (“karma” rather than “fortune” for those familiar with Jonathan Tweet’s breakdown in Everway), with the player deciding whether the youth or opposing side has the advantage in a scene (similar to determining refresh scenes in Bliss Stage, perhaps), but then the youth has the opportunity to invoke skills if they are at a disadvantage. This use is capped by the level of the skill. Once you overuse a skill, you can still invoke it to succeed, but begin to suffer negative consequences, including damage. The rest of the game is full of cool setting information and scene generation guidelines, which include randomly drawing elements from a deck.

Completeness: There is a lot to like here. However, the premise of the game seems to demand that a major focus be on how well the youth (creche-kids) are about to save their own skin (literally) in a city full of robots looking to become more human. Unfortunately, I don’t see any mechanics or guidelines that really hammer on this theme, including guidelines for slowly adding more and more robotic “bits” in exchange for giving up your human flesh. So, while there’s the chassis of a relatively solid game here, it doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of its premise. Additionally, as with some of the other games that build on Polaris and have rotating protagonist, antagonist, and support roles, I feel like this responsibility-distribution framework is kinda half-heartedly slapped onto the game, rather than really fully worked into the game. I mean, Polaris is great, right? We all recognize that. But it’s been 5 years! There are other methods for making GMless play work and, even if Polaris is maybe still the first GMless or “rotating responsibly” game people think of, these techniques have been around long enough now that designers should be developing their own unique guidelines for shared “GM” responsibilities, based on what you want your game to do. Ultimately, you can’t assume that you can just tack on something as important as the way the players approach the game. That doesn’t work for GM guidelines and especially doesn’t work for GMless guidelines because even hippie players typically have their own house style of sharing control rather than doing what the designer wants.

Cookery: Perhaps the best use of skin so far (as a unit of currency), even if it’s underdeveloped.

Conclusion: This is another close call. The lack of emphasis on the theme of becoming more robotic is troubling, but there’s enough here that you could probably playtest it. I imagine that quite a few changes would need to happen immediately, though, which means it’s probably more ready for local playtesting than outside playtesting. However, since this is the last review I’m doing and I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and call it a Finalist.

Now, I'm pretty surprised. I really did think that the tacked on system would cause it to sink, and had it not been last it would have. There is something to be said for being at the end.

Does this make me want to go back over it? Yes, it does. Do I have the time to do that? No, I don't. I've got a whole pile of projects that need to get done before I can get back to Over The Wall.

What does that mean? Well, if anyone wants to do anything with it right now, go for it. If not, this might not see any much change for a while. Of course, I may just freak out and change things for an afternoon.

My favourite part is that he's assumed I've read Polaris. ^_^

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