Review: Once More

In Short…

Once More is Mendel Schmiedekamps game of reincarnation and the journey of existence. You play a group of Shades, souls who move through boan after boan, leading their many lives in order to determine where they will eventually end up. The game seems solid enough, though I wonder if moment-to-moment play is rewarding enough to warrant playing through the entire cycle, from start to finish.

Incorporation of Images

The images are mostly used to illustrate individual Boan, and while they are used well enough in those places, the fact that there are so many more Boan than images makes their inconsistent use less than effective. This is one area where the contest structure is somewhat detrimental to the game, and it probably would have been better for there to be more images in this one instance. That said, the images are used appropriately and tastefully, and the game is certainly built off of them.


This is another game that I’d need to take another read-through before starting to play, in order to figure out the resolution mechanics. They seem like they hang together fine, but they’re fiddly enough that my brain will need to see them in play before I really get them. That said, I really like the Boan’s (and I’m impressed by the amount of them included in the game!), and I feel like they give immediate and solid situation for play. It strikes me as one of those games that would probably take a couple of stages before everyone really got on the same page, but once that happens it would roll right along.

I really appreciate the guidelines for creating your own Boans, as I feel that that would be essential for playing the game more than once.


The game seems solid, but I wonder if there’s enough action from Boan to Boan to warrant playing through the entire game from start to finish. That is, I don’t really have a sense of how long it would take to play the game. It seems that, if you’re essentially playing through one or two Boan a session (if each Stage is basically a scene, it seems thats about how many you could get through in one 3-4 hour block), it could take a while to get through a convoluted Boan path. And, since the mechanical structure is the same in each Boan, I wonder if there’s enough fun in simply engaging in that process over and over again to supplement the narrative and drive play along all the way to the end.

This is a vague concern, but a real one. That said, I don’t see any reason why a group that’s really grooving on the theme and narrative content that they’re generating wouldn’t have a great time going through the entire game.

Further Thoughts

This one is really hard for me to get a sense of without actually playing it. It may also just not really be my thing. I think having a section of the text that explicates how Mendel sees the game going on the macro scale would be helpful to seeing how its all supposed to flow, and I think a running example of a group of shades going through a certain Boan cycle, tied into the descriptions of the Boans, would be really helpful as well.


Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Review: The City at the Edge of Sleep

In Short…

The City at the Edge of Sleep is Mike Addison’s game of dreamworld adventure and identity creation. I really dig the Event framework and how the mechanics of the game really shape the position of your character relative to the setting and situation. While I have a couple of severe reservations (mainly about Shaping rolls), I think that this game had a lot of potential to shape up (heh) into a really great short-form story game.

Incorporation of Images

I really like how the game was very much written from the images. It’s a bit hard to explain, but as I read the text, I had a very strong sense that the images and the text were integrated, like they had grown out of each other. The fact that the images were chosen before the text was written means that I think Mike did a fantastic job using them to inspire his game. It’s not that the images are used particularly well in a graphic design sense, but they really show the world that he describes in a useful fashion, and I think it’s great.


I’m a big fan of constrained/delineated time structures for play, and I think the Event framework gives a strong backbone to the three-act structure of play. While Events may not be implemented as well as they could be, they serve to give needed structure to what could otherwise be a very chaotic playspace. I was reminded of Don’t Rest Your Head for a number of reasons (theme being the obvious one, though this game certainly takes a different tack on the genre), but one of them is that the initial character questionnaire in DRYH serves the same purpose as Events in CatEoS (hows that for an acronym!), but from the opposite side of play.

In any case, the Events give me some solid ground for running this game right out of the box. That said, I feel like the exact structure and scope of Events may need to shift (be either looser and vaguer, or more solid and specific) in order to drive play in a more meaningful fashion, but thats a big question for playtesting.

The other thing I want to touch on is Shaping rolls. I have one huge reservation about how they work, and thats that the GM chooses which traits you use. I think this is a problem mainly because the GM has a lot of explicit power in this game, and the players relatively little. Making something that is both historically and intuitively a huge player choice (how their character addresses a problem or conflict) something that’s ALSO under the domain of the GM treads dangerously close to, and perhaps over, the line between “active participant” and “passively being entertained”

Finally, I think that Shaping could have more “texture.” As is, it’s a little flat, especially when the rest of the game is mainly free narration. I think making more mechanical toys to play with when Shaping would make the process of play that much more grabby.


I really like this game, and I want to play it right now. I’m a sucker for this kind of game (I’m a big DRYH fan, for example), and the procedures of play hit a lot of my play preference buttons as well. Other than what I’ve mentioned above, there’s one more thing that would really make play of this game more fun for me, and that’s an increased attention to character development. I’ll expand below, but the bottom line is, I really hope you dedicate some time and attention to developing this game, Mike. I really like it.

Further Thoughts

So, I think that the three-act structure is keen, and I think there’s more room to develop within it. Three-act stories tend to involve characters that go through definite and clear character arcs within them (think of, like, all good movies and plays) Right now, the only character development mechanism in the game is the gradual regaining of memories, which is cool, but is really mostly an exploration of backstory. It certainly informs the game you’re playing, but it’s also all stuff that happened in the past, not right now.

The opposed scores for your character stats are a good germ for this, I believe. I think that having those scores shift over the course of play would both help add texture to the resolution system (which I think is good), and serve as a focus for paying attention to your characters actions and Shaping. I can see cool things happening with either you changing your stats, maybe at the ends of Acts or as the result of failed (or successful) Shaping rolls, or for your stats changing as the perceptions of others change. Maybe it requires a Shaping contest to change, or preserve, your stats. Anyhow, I hope this makes sense, and that you put some thought into this while playtesting.

And you will be playtesting it. Oh yes. Oh yes.


Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 1:34 am  Comments (1)  

Review: Troll Lands

In Short…

Troll Lands is Guy Shalev’s game of generational myth-making, rising from the linkage of the characters to the Troll that is both the creator of, and literally is, the land on which they live. While the game contains a number of interesting mechanical pieces and themes, I found the text difficult to parse, and the most interesting bits of the game (to me) had relatively little “screen time.”

Incorporation of Images

I think that the images of trolls were well-placed in relation to the troll=land concepts, and they really gave me an image of how to conceptualize the Trolls in play. I appreciated the use of the maps to illustrate the abstract nature of Trolls literally fighting over territory, but I had a hard time seeing the information in the images that the captions pointed too. That is, I didn’t see how the red and blue lines made trolls, but that is quite possibly just me not getting it – I often have difficulty seeing those kinds of things in images (like, I’m really bad at 3D pictures where you have to focus beyond the paper, and such).


This is one of those games that, if I were to play it, I would definitely need to sit down with the text for a little while and spend some dedicated time parsing it. The text isn’t particularly dense, but it is organized poorly (I would see rules references and be all “huh?” until a couple of pages later, stuff like that), and I think some more dedicated explication of how play should look at the table would go a long way towards filling in the gaps I saw between different sections of play. Also, I had to read the main resolution mechanic (based on Liars Dice) a couple of times, and I still don’t think I really understand how it works. I also have absolutely zero experience with Liars Dice as a thing, so perhaps I just need to do it a couple of times.

I loved how Troll/Land creation works, but I have one big question – how do the minus dice work (like, in the options that say +3 red dice, – 1 Blue dice, and so on)? Does that mean that you have to already have Blue dice and you subtract one? Or, if you were to take Blue Dice, you would get one less than usual? Or, what? This is a significant stumbling block to play, and would need to get answered before I could sit down with the game.

The generational aspect of the game really appeals to me, but I wish I had a better sense of what kind of scope actual play should be taking. Like, should each Season have one scene per player? Per character? More?

Finally, I really appreciate how the GMs role in the game is sharply defined and given currency, and I think that the situation creation rules are rockin’. Especially the Goals thing. Thats great.


Some parts of this game I really want to play (Troll/Land creation, Myth-changing throughout the ages), but my overall difficulty with parsing the text, and the fact that there’s a couple of rules questions that I would need to get answers for before playing, kills that buzz to a degree. There are some really cool bits in this game, and I think it really needs some playtesting to see exactley what should stay and what needs to go. I also wish that I could play a Troll, maybe not all the time, but under some circumstances. Maybe the first Generation of play could be with Troll characters, which set the ur-myths that your human characters respond to in later ages?

Further Thoughts

Hrm. Most of my thoughts are in the Overall for this one.

Guy, if you haven’t, I think you should check out Bill White’s Ganakagok. It has a similar season-based play arc that works really smoothly in play, and I get a similar mythic vibe from your game that I get when I play it.

Also, if I could play more Troll, I would be all over this game. More Troll!


Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 12:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Review: An Inordinate Fondness

In Short…

An Ordinate Fondness is Mark Vallianatos’s game of person-sized insects exploring and theorizing about the artifacts of lost human civilizations. Definitely quirky, and with some very cool mechanical bits to it, it seems to me that it needs a stronger sense of focus in order to tighten it up.

Incorporation of Images

The game is obviously inspired by the image set, but I was sad to see all of the images in question clustered onto one page. While using them as inline pictures would have interrupted the well-designed page layout, I think that they could have been imagined as half-page or full-page spreads with accompanying text giving examples of how the insects misinterpret the human artifacts that they are interacting with in the images.


The mechanics aren’t terribly complex, and the running examples in the text are fabulous and helpful. I love the fact that cards are used both for their values, and also to represent the “stats” of the different body parts of the insects. Very thematically elegant.

The game is short-form enough in scope that the lack of an endgame state or win condition makes me go “huh”. Perhaps some kind of upper limit on Status or something involving total theory acceptance? I don’t see enough meat on the bones of the two-phase system to sustain more than a couple of rounds of it, without a definite goal to be aiming towards.


What a cool weird game! While I don’t see any reason I couldn’t play it, there are two areas of possible improvement that would make me more likely too. The first is an endgame state, as described above, to give a concrete goal to be working towards throughout the game. The second is that I don’t see much reason to roleplay in the Exploration phase, as is. The interactions between the insects are fairly minimal, and as each person only has a couple of things that they need to narrate in the scene, I fear that thats all that those scenes would consist of. You can see one of my thoughts to address this below. Overall, I liked the game, but I’m not really interested in playing it without something more to give me a tighter focus for play.

Further Thoughts

I had one thing that I thought of that would address my concern with Exploration scenes, and also introduce an overarching theme of tension that could easily get tied into an endgame scenario. That is that, maybe, lower-status characters could change cards with higher-status AFTER they are all revealed, by narrating how they use those respective parts of their bodies to alter the conflict in their favor (I bat his head aside with my wings, making him dizzy so he’s more attractive prey to the ants!). I think that this would provide something cool for having low status, would complicate conflicts (in a good way), and would provide grist for competing agendas in the Theorizing scenes.  I just fear that the game as is is too far towards the “parlor narration” style of game for it to be interesting to me.


Published in: on March 14, 2007 at 2:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Review: Friends or Fortune

In Short…

Friends or Fortune is Dave Cleaver’s game of a Dutch sailing voyage to the far east. An interesting blend of full-on storygame style and boardgame-like presentation, I found myself intrigued by the game, but not convinced that gameplay would have the results that Dave had in mind when writing the game.

Incorporation Of Images

I found the inline images, from Adam Dray’s image set, to be nicely enough placed in the text to break up the pages of text. The game was certainly inspired by the images, with the emphasis on the “inspired” and not as much on the “image.” However, I totally and completely love the map that tracks the ships progress, either to its destination or to its destruction. It’s something that makes me want to put it on the table and play with it, which is great.

I think further development should definitely include finding portraits of 16th and 17th century sailors and using them in the background of the crew cards. And popout ships.


The rules are simple enough and clearly explained. Most of my questions about them would require some playtesting in order to answer, I think. I have one over-riding concern which cuts right to the heart of the game, however – where’s the tension? I see no consequences or payoff (flip sides of the same coin) at the end of the game for the choices and sacrifices made during the game. It is left ambiguous in the text whether one or the other result (destination or disaster) constitutes “winning” the game, and with the board-game element of the map, I found myself searching for these kinds of concrete, game elements.

As is, I see little reason for the Companion to push for saving sailors, as there is no consequence for killing off your crewmates, other than fictional onces that each group may or may not impose. Basically, I see little reason for anyone to play hard and push for hard choices, as there is no difference in the end (again, unless the group is grooving on a certain kind of play, which may or may not be being affected by this game in particular).

Finally, I really, really wanted Ghosts to have a bigger role in the game, especially with the link between nautical tales and ghost stories.


I dig the concept, but I fear that the lack of mechanical tension in the rules will lead to lackluster, “parlor narration” style play, with little staying power. I love that it’s designed for three players and how Bonds and Anchors work, but I don’t really see an overarching reward cycle or mechanical engine for dynamic play. I see the potential for a really strong narrative boardgame here, but playtesting certainly needs to happen to see if my concerns are on the mark.

Further Thoughts

Production model: Small boxed set, fold-out map, glossy character cards, booklet with the rules, one-session play set of rules in addition to “full” rules. Hells, yes.

I really think you should take a hard look at why people should be making hard choices for their characters. Where’s the motivation? What’s the payoff? The rules are there to shape the interaction around the table, and right now I see the interaction being un-driven. If the people are into the material and their characters anyway, then they’ll have a good time – but what if they’re not?

Also, make Ghosts a bigger part of play. For me!


Published in: on March 13, 2007 at 1:59 am  Comments (1)  

Review: Dark Explorations

In Short…

Dark Explorations is Tad Kelson’s game of exploring lost civilizations that came before the Long Freeze. A self-described “simulationist-styled” game, it is built on a modified version of the d20 system. While the system itself seems perfectly serviceable, I found myself disappointed that the hints to the background and setting were completely un-expanded upon, leaving me with little desire to play the game.

Incorporation Of Images

The image set that Tad received obviously inspired some kind of world in his mind for exploration to occur in; unfortunately, that world didn’t end up making it to the page. The images that he includes in the document serve to show glimpses both of that unexplained world and of the society that the characters come out of, but again, other than a couple of captions they are unexplored.

I wish that the images could have been used to seed game mechanical information that would both expand the range of options open to the players, and create “setting nuggets” for the group to wrap their game around. The city symbols and the map image both had enormous potential for this kind of treatment, in particular.

The game is clearly inspired by the image set, but fails to build upon it in a productive (to me) manner. I have some thoughts on how to do so, to follow the category breakdown.


As mentioned, the resolution system for the game is built upon the OGL d20 system, which is proven in play and perfectly serviceable. I was intrigued by the advancement system, which said something interesting about the game world (again, see below).

Unfortunately, the system pretty much leaves off at task resolution and stat advancement. [Warning: theory-type talk ahead!] In a sim-style game, mechanics can be extremely important and effective ways to communicate the “Dream,” or the actual thing that play of the game is meant to simulate or celebrate. The limited skill list that is presented to us, and the fact that there are more Physical than Spiritual than Mental statistics are both little hints to these kinds of things (i.e. the world of the game emphasizes Physical action over Spiritual and Spiritual over Mental, and so on).

So, the theme continues on – I have little hints to what I’m really interested in, but nothing meaty to sink my teeth into. While I don’t see any reason you couldn’t sit down and play this game (with experienced gamers, at least), I also don’t have a reason to want to play it, mechanically.


I was really sad when I was done reading this game! The first page and the images gave me tantalizing little hints of awesome adventure setting with underwater travels and crazy buried cities, but the text itself gave me nothing to latch onto! I need a couple of things in order to hook me into a game, in general; a strong sense of what the characters do in the game (“explore” is too vague, sorry); and/or a colorful and evocative environment in which they interact. I want to play the game that this game promises is out there, somewhere – but the game text itself isn’t that game.

Further Thoughts

Tad, you should check out Ron Edward’s Mongrel, if you don’t know it, as an example of a game that gives you mechanics that show you how the game world works just from how they interact with one another. I think that you can attach game system information to (for example) the images in your game in order to fill out the world without having to spell out a whole “setting chapter,” or anything like that. I hope that makes sense!

I know that you didn’t manage to get everything into your submission that was in your head, but I definitely think that it would be worth re-visiting and fleshing out in every dimension.


Published in: on March 13, 2007 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Troll Lands

The major difficulty with this game is organization. Both the text and the structure of play feel disconnected. For example, the Toll-scale interaction doesn’t seem to match the Story Teller’s adversity. As part of this effect, Troll Lands seems like a cluttered design with exceptionally interesting pieces (the use of Troll dice in the character level) combined with difficult to manage aspects (like the creation of the Troll).

Image Use: The images feel directly tied to the game. The feel of the trolls really comes across, and the maps add a surprising touch to it as well. The only minor quibble is that the placement of the images doesn’t always seem to match the text.

Playability: The core of the game seems largely playable, but there are many small mechanical bits which I suspect will cause more frustration than they are worth. For example, the complexities of troll / land creation or role selection seem to contain enough checks and procedures to require a few iterations to finally meet the requirements. Especially since under role selection is isn’t clear whether or not there is exactly one role per Troll die, and then what happens if that Troll loses its die in the Troll scale. In addition, the Troll scale only occurs once, before the character-scale even occurs. This seems largely unnecessary, as it only serves to require a re-working of the character roles selected (due to the gain or loss of a Troll die from the Tribe’s Troll).

The modified liar’s dice mechanic seems to work fine, especially with how Troll dice can modify it. Although given the need to challenge to win, I’d be wary about extending it beyond two players. It is the halo of other mechanics and odd balancing rules that sinks the playability. Also, the text itself doesn’t point out that the goal of the characters is too get coins to keep their tribe safe and healthy for the next 5 years. It’s essentially included as an aside. In many ways the reading of the document felt as though it was written in the chronological order of the design process.

Overall: There are some very good elements sitting within this game. And I’d be interested in seeing how a liar’s dice based mechanic can evolve. Even the trolls and tribal structures are evocative and compleling . But there seems to be an accretion of superfluous mechanics around all of this that I’d have to break through just to play it.

Suggestions: The main piece of advice here is to go back and start tearing things out. You have a core that can be powerful – the characters and the coins for each of the tribal needs. If that’s what you want to go for then cut out anything that doesn’t support that. And if it doesn’t directly support it, then make it optional or otherwise remove the need to pass through the tangents before the core of play is experienced.
– Mendel

Published in: on March 9, 2007 at 6:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Friends or Fortune

This game feels incomplete, not in the sense of something being left out, but as though it were a piece of another game. Specifically, the game is about making only one decision, iterated a significant number of times. This has potential, but I do not feel that the consequences for that decision were sufficiently explored – and interesting consequences are the only way to avoid the game play from feeling simply repetative.

Image Use: This is a category where I’m fairly split on this game. On one hand, the ship map is evocative and well-done. On the other hand, that is the only image which deals with sea journeys and travel. The rest feel tacked on, and if anything detract from the feel of the game as a whole.

Playability: The functional playability of the game is largely limited by the lack of examples and inspiration. We will tend to have 9-10 challenge scenes, each of which will place the ship and a sailor at risk. Giving no basis for coming up with these challenges, is a recipe for creative burn-out for the players framing the scene. Likewise, some examples or even some direct mechanics for the endgame, especially ghosts would put some meat into the decision to let a fellow sailor die. That being said, the mechanics and game structure is clearly described, and offers the opportunity for a potentially interesting game, albeit a narrow one.

Overall: I liked the core of this game, but I felt there needs to be more too it. Specifically having a ‘make a friend’ scene followed by a ‘choose to save that friend or the ship’ scene is asking for boring repeatition. Especially as the outcome of that scene is binary, and produces a random effect on one of two status charts. There is a detachment from the consequences, which makes them less meaningful, and ultimately trivializes the decisions the game is based upon. I suspect this can easily be fixed, but it is a serious problem with the game as designed.

Suggestions: Two ideas spring to mind. First, increasing the depth of the decisions – one way could be to allow the sacrifice of an anchor as a means to influence the outcome, perhaps re-rolling a die, saving the sailor but sacrificing the friendship, or letting you roll and add another die when you save the ship (sacrificing the anchor you connected with that sailor).  Second, the appearance of randomness can be removed – consider if you have a pool of 10 NPC sailors, and under each is a face down card from 1 to 10, which is how much that sailor contributes to the journey if they die. You would be able to look at that card after you befriend the sailor, and you still roll to determine loss of seaworthiness. But now the decision is one based on some definite knowledge versus a gamble. This even fits the traditions of sailing, with the ill-fortunated sailors being considered the cause of a journey’s ills.
– Mendel

Published in: on March 9, 2007 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  

Dark Explorations

Review of Dark Explorations

Incorporation of images

Tad did a nice job drawing inspiration from the images to imagine a post apocalyptic world in which survivors of a great freeze are beginning to explore the ruins locked beneath the ice. Because the draft says little about the process of exploration or what the characters may find, the images take on even greater significance. By the way it was classy to include the full credits for the photos.


The game system is a modified D20 that is level-less, class-less, and feat-less and merges combat into skill checks. It seems like it would work fine. The draft, however, provides little support for the game’s premise of sub-ice exploration. One of my favorite lines in the text is that “Eventually the characters will come into conflict, be it with wild predators, insane madmen, savage natives, what have you.” But these potential encounters and conflicts are not mentioned again, given statistics, or otherwise reflected in the system. If I were GMing the game (and the premise is indeed interesting) I could make up ways to create NPCs, creatures, and invent frozen civilizations and dangers, but it would be more convenient to play D20 gamma world or some other D20 variant that includes tools and content that would help structure play. I guess that there is a small chance that this game is a Lacuna-style product that intentionally leaves blanks so that each group has to invent their own form of play. If so then my comments are misguided. It seems more likely that this is a first cut at an interesting concept and needs fleshing out of the setting and exploration risks and rewards to fulfill the promise of the images and game premise.


The draft has a workable, slimmed down D20 variant and an interesting premise of exploration. These two sides never really connect, however. Besides a skill of archeological techniques, the system doesn’t engage with themes of post-apocalyptic societies, frozen wastelands, or buried civilizations. Still, it’s a cool idea that hopefully can be further developed.

Published in: on March 8, 2007 at 5:15 am  Comments (1)  

Review of “The City At The Edge of Sleep”

Image Incorporation:

The images were definitely an inspiration for this game. They are well placed in the text, however I wouldn’t classify their use as extraordinarily evocative.

Most Playable:

I have several major problems in the rules for this game.

1) Shaping rolls – All actions in the game basically come down to the shaping roll. The shaping roll has 3 major steps before the dice are rolled. The player declares their action, the GM chooses which of the player’s traits would apply to the roll, and finally the GM chooses a difficulty number. My problem occurs in the second step. The traits define the Shaper’s personality, so the GM’s choice of traits acts like a judgment of the player’s chosen action. I think this would be a far better mechanic if the player could announce the traits, thereby showing how they view the actions of their characters.

2)Betting Self – The mechanic to gain memories involves the betting of Self on a roll. Unfortunately this process increases the difficulty of the roll. I think that given the dice mechanic as it is, this would prohibit a player from betting Self on already difficult rolls as this would push the chance of success prohibitively low. So as a player the only time to bet Self is on rolls that are already fairly easy to achieve. Perhaps this was the intention of the author, but to me it lacks any real punch.

3) The Act and Event structure – The Act and Event structure looks like a railroaded story. The second Act especially presupposes that the players actually decide to save the City and pursue the means to do so. The game advises the GM that they may have to occasionally push the players towards the conclusion of the Act.

Best Overall:

I really don’t have a desire to play this game, but it is within the spirit of the contest.

Published in: on March 8, 2007 at 2:22 am  Comments (1)