Playtest Report: In Frankenstein’s Wake

Hi everyone,

After far, far too long, I have started making good on the prizes for the challenge. Last night I brought the winning games to my Wednesday story-games meetup, and I ended up facilitating a game of In Frankenstein’s Wake for 4 players in addition to myself.

The Short Summary

The flavor of the game was well-received and had a high “cool!” factor. We were all impressed with the pre-generated characters. However, the amount and depth of the board-game elements in the rules made it difficult for us to see where the roleplaying aspect had any legs, other than the fact that it is nominally a role-playing game. At the end of our first scene of play we ran into a rules situation that I could not solve using the text as written, and also had no intuitive “right” answer. We then spent a good hour or so dissecting the game as it’s presented in the text, coming to a general consensus on a number of points:

  • This is either a great board game with un-needed narrative elements, or a cool roleplaying game that needs to be rebuilt to emphasize the “roleplaying” (specifically, character identification/fidelity and the creation of a narrative through play).
  • The characters have no way to mechanically affect each other, which is part of the “why should I roleplay?” problem.
  • While the pre-generated characters are interesting and mechanically “balanced”, they also have no explicit hooks or any way to personalize them to the players for any given session of play. Everyone expressed a wish that they at least had a paragraph description or backstory that the players could use as a basis for characterization and decision-making in play.
  • The game needs a flowchart showing how the results of scenes impact other scenes. It was one of those things that makes total sense once you synthesize the information, but to verbally describe how the scenes fit together was difficult and took a couple goings-over.

Rules Issue

The first scene was a Funding scene, where the other four characters were all present. The two players who had chosen their lowest stat collaboratively framed that a rich minor nobleman was holding a dinner at the university, and it was known that he was looking for an excuse to donate money to anything that would put his name on it. I played the nobleman (Baron Gunter von Booring).

We decided that it would be easiest if we started with one person and then went around the table, with each person narrating their characters actions and pulling in dice for traits. People narrated various amounts of traits on each of their “turns”, adding from 1 to 3 dice to their pools. Once we had gone around the table once, we kind of stalled, as we didn’t know if we should keep going or not. Everyone had made their initial pitch to the nobleman, and it felt weird ending there (as we could have kept on going into more detail), but it also felt weird going through another go-around of Traits, as it would mean that everyone’s character would be acting very erratically in a very short amount of time. Keep in mind, it was generally accepted that the optimum strategy to win a scene was bring in as many Traits as possible.

Finally, I said that we should roll and move on with the game, as I wanted to at least get through one “week” of play. I felt strongly that there needs to be more guidelines as to when a scene ends, either with mechanical stops or with someone specifically given that power – otherwise, it becomes an arms race between whoever wants to just keep on narrating in Traits.

Anyhow, we went to the dice, and the basic rolling and re-rolling went fine. However, once everyone had re-rolled, we still had two characters tied at 3 successes. What happens in this situation? Does it mean that nobody “wins”, and everyone has to Burn a Trait if they want to get anything out of the scene? Does it mean that they both get their margin of victory over the next highest score? Is there a tiebreaker of any kind? I spent a good 10 minutes scanning the rules, and found no mention of this situation, which I would think is pretty mechanically likely in multi-player scenes, given that players will tend to use similar amounts of traits and each dice is a success 50% of the time.

Once I re-read (and re-explained) the rules for burning a trait in a Funding Scene, there was a collective “huh”. Basically, everyone in the scene decided to Burn a Trait, and got a higher score than the “winners”, which, while noted in the rules as a viable strategy, seemed just weird.

Play stopped at this point, as we began the conversation with the results bulleted above.

Summary

So, I was actually really surprised that the game stalled as hard as it did – on reading, it hangs together very well. Frankly, the biggest issue was the question of “wait, why are we role-playing again” – literally, “whats my motivation?” Which was hilighted by the tie-breaking rule issue.

Eric, there’s at least one, and possibly more, really cool games in here. I think you should try playing it, if you haven’t, and keep a critical eye on whether the mechanics are doing what you want them too. I also have a whole list of more specific feedback to email to you soon. I really want to play the game thats lurking in there, but I feel like it’ll take some significant re-assesment and playtesting to, as it were, stitch it together.

Published in: on June 28, 2007 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

And The Winners Are!

Once again, I apologize for my tardiness in getting all of this done. But, finally, all votes have been counted and all scores have been tallied. Here are the winners of the 2007 BibliOdyssey Design Challenge!

Best Integration Of Images: The City At The Edge Of Sleep, by Mike Addison, with a total average score in the category of 8/10. Followed by:

  • Troll Lands (7.8)
  • Once More (6.8)
  • In Inordinate Fondness & Dark Explorations (6)
  • Friends or Fortune & In Frankensteins Wake (5)

Most Playable: In Frankenstein’s Wake, by Eric Boyd, with a total average score in the category of 8.5/10. Followed by:

  • An Inordinate Fondness (8.3)
  • Once More (7)
  • The City at the Edge of Sleep (6)
  • Friends or Fortune (5.5)
  • Troll Lands (4.6)
  • Dark Explorations (4)

Best Overall: In Frankenstein’s Wake also had the highest score in the category, with a total average of 7.25. As a game cannot take more than one title, the next highest was a three-way tie! The City at the Edge of Sleep, An Inordinate Fondness and Once More all received a score of 7. As City at the Edge of Sleep is also ineligible, the official winners of this category are both An Inordinate Fondness, by Mark Villianatos and Once More, by Mendel Schmiedekamp! The other scores:

  • Troll Lands (5.6)
  • Friends or Fortune (5.5)
  • Dark Explorations (5)

Congratulations to Mike, Eric, Mark and Mendel! I look forward to playing your games!

The individual pages will be updated with their scores and review links real soon now. There’s also a thread at StoryGames to talk about the winners, and the contest in general.

Thanks everyone!

Review: In Frankenstein’s Wake

In Short…

In Frankenstein’s Wake is Eric Boyd’s game of the race for Dr. Frankestein’s students and hangers-on to accomplish the Promethian task of creating life, in the wake of the Doctors disappearance. The game incorporates boardgame elements into a rotating competitive scene structure, reminding me heavily of The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach (which Eric notes as in inspiration in the design notes). I found this game well-written, conducive to it’s stated goals of pick-up-and-play-in-one-night, and just well-done overall.

Incorporation of Images

While the cover image certainly shows the inspiration behind the game, I found the rest of the images to be less interesting. They’re placed throughout the text to break it up and further illustrate the theme, but I didn’t find them particularly remarkable. I enjoyed the character portraits, tho they weren’t part of the image set – I’ll be making a note of Eric’s reference for them as well!

Playability

The rules text was remarkably complete, from a full intro and “what is this game about” section, to well-explained rules and useful examples, to a number of reference charts and visual aids. Not to mention the Materials deck. The game is written to be almost pick-up-and-play, and between the pre-gen characters, the reference aids, and the clear rules text, I feel like I really could run this game at the drop of a hat.

My only quibble is that I feel like there may be a problem with violations of the “Czege Principle” – that is, that it is almost always more fun/interesting/meaningful for someone other than you to be providing adversity for your character. How the game currently works, I can definitely see a good amount of scenes that you frame for your character, and then that you win, and you win narration for it. I feel like these scenes would be flat compared to the scenes with a mix of people framing, winning, and narrating.

Overall

This game is very strong out of the gate, and I definitely want to play it. My only concern (other than that of adversity not being potentially strong enough, as mentioned above) is that the dice differentiation may need to be either stronger or weaker. As is, the only reason to use high dice is to win narration, which may or may not really be worth having so many kinds of dice. It’s one of those cases that it may be worth streamlining the system down to one kind of dice (probably d6) and figuring a different thing for determining narration, or expanding the things that can happen with high (or low) numbers. It’s one of those playtesting things, and depends on how much more or less complex Eric wants the game to be.

But I certainly hope this one gets more development!

-N

Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 3:33 am  Leave a Comment  

In Frankenstein’s Wake, Reviewed!

 By Guy Shalev.

Ok, WordPress ate my review once, so this one will be shorter…

Image Incorporation:

I’ll begin with what annoys me the most. The pictures which attract the most attention in this game are those of Frankenstein’s students. Those pictures were not part of the Image Set provided by Jake, not one of them.

There were exactly 5 pictures from Jake’s image-set used in the game, and the use of them had been far from optimal as well. While the pictures perfuse the game with the right feel, the headers of the game also do a lot in this regard (Not unlike Polaris).

You’d think the pictures showing scientific procedures involving bodies will be used near the places in the text speaking of bodies (Experiments and Gathering Materials), while they’re seemed to be placed randomally in the text, a poor choice.

Additionally, many of the images are from the sets Jake picked his images, but are different images. You could have taken out the images of Jake and just as easily have used other images, which kinda seems to beat the theme of the contest, where overall the images which should shape the game are those provided to you, and not images of a certain shape and size to be alternated in and out as you wish.

Playability:

The game’s goal is to be complete, like a board-game, a game to be taken out, rules explained in a short manner and for a game to begin, progress and end in one sitting. I feel the game largely succeeds in this endeavour.

I would have liked outlines for creating your own characters, but I understand why you chose not to, especially considering the time limitations of the competition.

I’d have liked more explanation and/or examples of personal Traits being changed, especially to how you use dice from “Negative Traits”, and while I can see you using “Vulgar” to intimidate someone, I would have liked it in the text.

You copy/pasted something which makes little sense, in your search for completion: Conduct Research regarding Burning. If I burn, then I should gain one, because I have no excess successes. I know this is not true, since if more than one player competes on Research, you could have 3 Excess Successes, and the opposition wins with 4, and when you burn you gain 3 Research points. But you don’t know it at this point in the text (and I believe the resolution mechanic could have been mentioned earlier in the text), and thus it makes little sense.

I would have also liked more hand-holding on competing scenes when one Researches for example, because nothing stops me from being in the library and getting what I need while you also get what you need from the library. I can hand-wave it as both wanting the same books or something like that. But I think examples for such occurances is key.

Regarding the board, it’s unclear what many of the boxes should hold, whose. And writing names under each would have solved this problem quite easily.

Unlike the image-set use which I’m not happy with, I feel the game is almost completely complete, and these are my nitpicks of what could be fixed regarding it, and all that could be fixed regarding such that I found.

Overall:

I like the goal of a game you whip out and begin playing, and finish playing in one evening. I also like the theme which to me has heavy influence from My Life with Master and perhaps even “A Night in Lonesome October” by Roger Zelazny, which is one of my favourite books overall.

I think the game can end too quickly and the disparity between players can grow too fast, and that competitively bringing the scenes to head (which end Role-playing and bring about dice rolling) can be detrimental to fun, but can also cause new tactics. But you gain some and lose some when you marry board games and competition with RPGs, I should know.

I’d have liked if the free RP was a bit constrained, and if more advice was given regarding certain scenes (Research when multiple players compete, as noted above).

I really like the Epilogue mechanic containing key-words from the Material cards you use, and it reminds me fondly of the “B Movie” card game which uses the same mechanic for its’ end-game narration.

I am also quite fond that while the dice-size does not matter for success (You have %50 of gaining a success, since any odds is successful), a bigger die increases your chance (dependant on who rolls highest) of narrating the scene’s outcome, while having the lowest die (before rolling anything) decrees who sets up the scene (which can also be used competitively, especially when it comes to refreshing attributes).

I like the spirit of the game, and some of the mechanics. But there are also some things that I think could have been better, regarding feel and regarding mechanics.

Published in: on March 5, 2007 at 5:06 pm  Comments (3)