The underlying concept to this game seems simple: you set up a situation in which things will go wrong, disasterously so, and then play it out as a collaborative story-telling game, taking the part of the main protagonists. That's straightforward enough, but bolted on is a complex resolution mechanic that jolts you out of storytelling mode to administer - while giving structure to what could otherwise dissolve into chaos around the game-table (as opposed to in the situation you're playing, where you WANT chaos!) it detracts from the interactive no-holds-barred narrative flow of the game.
Designed for 3-5 players (no GM required) and to take about three hours to play out, even the design process is very structured. Called The Setup, you start by determining when and where the game will take place, and then insert relationships and details to engineer your situation. But it's not done by purely throwing out ideas until your mix feels explosive enough to begin, but through a system called a Playset. As a scenario-design system, it's quite a beautiful mix of creativity and randomisation. Each Playset comes with lists, you see, and once you have chosen a published one or made up your own, you roll a whole bunch of dice and take turns to choose items from the lists, each time using a die that's rolled the appropriate number. Key to the procsses is ensuring the involvement of each player's character, by creating a relationship between him and the characters of the player sitting to either side of you, even before everyone has decided precisely who their character is going to be. The concept is sound, but it can be a bit pedantic in detail, mechanical in its requirements which are stated quite precisely. Care has also to be taken that you don't actually start to play the game until you have everything laid out.
But once you have, it is time to start. Whilst this is collaborative story-telling, it follows a prescribed patter than is very precise - and, being a GM-less system, everyone playing has to buy in to the artificial constraints or it will get away from you. Each player takes a turn when his character is in the spotlight, in which he gets to either set the situation or decide the outcome for his character - he cannot do both. Everyone else contributes to the part of the turn that he does not choose. The outcome can either be good or bad from the character, just what that means is decided by the player. The act of decision is handled by dice - but not by rolling, just by picking one of two colours, preselected to mean good or bad. In the first half of the game, the player gives the die to someone else.
Dice are important, and potentially intrusive, in this game. As well as being used in the Setup, you place four dice (two each being 'good' and 'bad') per player in the centre of the table once you start to play. (Unlike some story games, you really do need to be round a table to play this one!) As described above, one is handed to the spotlight player to resolve his scene; and once done is given to someone else in the first half of the game and kept for the second half.
For this is a game of two halves. Once each player has had a couple of turns in the spotlight, you stop for the Tilt. This time, dice get rolled and the mathematics can get a bit complex - this game might be best played sober. Each player rolls whatever dice he has in front of him, which may be ones he retained during his turns and ones given him by other players during his turn, and of either colour. The two people who get the highest results with dice of each colour, calculated via a formula, choose the Tilt elements - things which are disruptive, which will send what is already an unstable situation headlong into... well, fiasco.
It's recommended that you take a break at this point. Things have probably got quite intense, and you might want a chance to think about what you intend for the rest of the game... and you'll want to be making sure that everyone is having fun (even if their characters are not!). Then, on with the second half of the game, played pretty much like the first part only this time you keep all dice handed to you during your turns and the game ends when all the dice in the middle of the table have gone. The last die is 'wild' in that it can be good or bad for the final spotlight character irrespective of what colour it actually happens to be, the players decide. But then it reverts to what it is to determine the overall flavour of the endgame, the Aftermath.
To begin the Aftermath, roll all the dice in front of you and perform a calculation - just like the Tilt at the halfway point. Then you consult a table to find out how the game ended for your character, and the whole group tells their tale. It is supposed to be a quick montage, rather than the more involved and interactive bits that came earlier, with players making one observation per die that they have about what has happened to their character.
That's about it as far as the rules for playing the game are concerned. Generic tables for Tilt and Aftermath are given (you can have Playset-specific ones but it's not necessary to derive them unless you think it will work better) and there are a few optional rule tweaks you might want to try out. The rest of the book consists of sample Playsets (a nice southern town, the wild west, a suburban community and in an ice-locked research station) and an extensive example of the game in play.
Overall, it's an intriguing mix of free-form storytelling within some tight constraints that keep it focussed. Working better once all involved are familiar with the mechanics, they can still sometimes intrude to a level where they threaten the willing suspension of disbelief, pull you back out of the story into the real world of a group of people around a table. If you enjoy intense character-driven games, but don't want a long-term relationship with your character, and have a group willing to collaborate within a formal structure, this has great scope for some epic evenings.
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Reviewed: 15 August 2010