Thursday, 10 December 2015

Meeplecon Game Reviews (reviews)

I went to Meeplecon over the weekend. But hark! I hear a question, echoing from the depths of time...

"Hi Ivan! This is the ghost of Ivan past."

Okay... Like from my childhood, or ten years ago, or what?

"Nup. Last week. What the hell is Meeplecon?"

I see. Board game con. In its third year. Held in Preston (Melbourne's north) last weekend.

"Gotcha. That's 'last weekend' from your timeline, yeah."

Yeah. So you'll go there this Saturday. Cost you a tenner.

"Cool. How was it?"

Good. Wanna hang about for the game reviews?

"Nah, I'm off. Spoilers, etc."

Fair enough. I'll talk about it anyway to these other guys.

Where were we? Ah yes! The games.

I started off about midday with some boardgames, moved on to the exhibited dexterity games, and then to social party games for the evening. I'll go through them pretty much in chronological order.

Between Two Cities
A clever tile-drafting game where you build two cities, one with the player on your left and another with the player on your right. You end up gaining the value of the lesser of your two cities.

It's a clever hook and makes for a fine balancing act. You are at once collaborating and competing with the other players which gives the game a very positive and sporting vibe at the finish.

It does have a steep learning curve (the scoring rules are very important to know from the outset and take some time to explain) but the game itself is pretty fast and intuitive. And the "gentlemanly" nature of it makes it a delight to play with no hard feelings at the end.

Escape From Atlantis
This game got a gushing review from the Shut Up & Sit Down crew (they review board games and stuff) which meant we got people to play quite easily. It has also been around for over 30 years and it stands up very well.

A hex-based game, your handful of little dudes start on a sinking island and try to swim or sail to safe harbour. But terrifying sea monsters and sharks and whales live in the water ready to bugger up your dudes. Added to which, the island is not only sinking but about to blow up, And your dudes all have secret values that you might lose track of during play. Oh no!

It's a load of fun. The pieces are vibrant and the gameplay is tight. But a special mention goes to the tiles. As the island sinks the beach tiles get removed, followed by the forest tiles and then the mountains. The designers could have left it there but instead they decided to make the forest tiles taller/thicker than the beaches, and the mountains are bigger again. It's an obvious representation of the shape of the island and made us all go "Ooh, nice," as we imagined the water rising.

Dead of Winter
I've been wanting to play this for a while and had the good fortune of having two old hands play with us who recommended exchanging the Crossroads story cards with the app which they'd conveniently brought with them. It was a good choice.

Dead of Winter is a post-apocalyptic survival game where you try to maintain a small community trapped in a frozen zombie nightmare. You'll have several survivors who'll go out scavenging or stay home and man the barricades whilst the game itself tries to screw with you all.

It's presented beautifully and the stand-up pieces are a treat. The expansive cast and the random events of the Crossroads deck/app add depth  to the experience and offer good replayability.

The best part of the game for me is that you can get most of the way through the game and do quite well, but then the whole group decides to start throwing spanners in the works. This inevitably screws up everyone, but the train wreck is so fun to watch that you end up joining in.

Secret Hitler
Secret Hitler is a tactical bluffing game of vote-passing and secret identities. It fits somewhere next to the Resistance on the shelf, but is a different beast again.

I'm exactly the type of person you want playing this game. I'm like the guy who rocks up to the poker table with a wad of cash and no idea what the suits are. I don't play Secret Hitler, it seems; I get played, and played like a damn fiddle.

It was a simple printed set, but did the job well. Even so, I'd like to try it again. I'm a little concerned that downtimes between turns can get a bit laboured, so I want to test that further.

Dexterity Games
There were a large collection of wacky dexterity games available and most only took a couple of minutes. They were a great tonic to the more complex games in the main hall and required little knowledge to play.

  • Nelly: A balancing game where you put turtles on top of a hippo called Nelly. Run out of turtles and win. But it's a lot harder than that. Nelly's back is very slippery and it seems hard to balance any more than two turtles up there. A cute game, but I probably wouldn't buy it.
  • Lift It!: A building game where you use a little plastic crane to stack various plastic shapes atop each other. Cards determine the construction you'll make along with a time limit. The big draw is attaching the crane to your face and bobbing your head madly to try to build your design sans hands, but you don't get to do that very often. Not quite as fun as it looked.
  • PitchCar: A racing game where you flick wooden token cars around a track. Simple and surprisingly addictive, but the opportunity to customise your track adds a challenge for those looking for more. Very nice.
  • Bugs in the Kitchen: There's a bug in the kitchen and you'll need to adjust a maze of cutlery to entice it into your trap (but not your opponent's trap). But the real charmer is the funny little hexbug; a battery-powered roach that jiggles and shimmies about the maze you make, sometimes in the most silly of ways. Alas, hexbug needs a bit of work and tends to get caught in corners. The idea is great and my opponent and I fell in love with hexbug himself (we called him a boy), but sadly hexbug needs a better design. Really worth trying at least once.*
  • Riff Raff: Another balancing game, this one involving a delicately balanced sailing ship that is incredibly pretty. There are a helluva lot of pirate ship balancing games, but this seems like one of the few designed for older players. The variety of balancing pieces is fantastic and the ship itself is striking. Quite the challenge, too.
  • Flippin' Frogs: My favourite of the dexterity games, Flippin' Frogs sees you launching rubber frogs from little catapults at the branches of a spinning tree, which is precisely as fun as it sounds. You only have a limited time to get your frogs up there before the tree snaps up its branches, potentially dislodging your frogs in the process. I loved this game. The little rubber frogs look silly and are thoroughly non-aerodynamic, whilst the tree sometimes seems actively malicious. 
* Hexbug: an element of a game that manages to be the most satisfying and charming part of the experience despite being utterly incapable of achieving its design function.

There are dozens of different card sets and names for this game (we were using the Ultimate Werewolf set) but I tend just to call it Werewolves. It's a great game and a classic staple, but it also has several fundamental problems.

The first is player elimination, which is not so bad with a dozen people and a more intimate environment, but it can be frustrating in a 20+ player game. It's entirely possible to wait all day for a game, sit through a fifteen minute rules brief, get five minutes in and be eliminated with no further interaction. That can suck. And in an environment where I can wander off and join another game almost instantly, it doesn't make me want to hang about and meet all these awesome new people (and isn't meeting people part of what makes this hobby great?)

The second (related) problem is what I tend to call the Big Brother effect and it simply means that the more interesting and entertaining people tend to get eliminated early on, leaving the second half of the game a bit boring for the eliminated players who now serve as audience.

There's one other issue and that's the downtime. Night scenes interrupt the flow of the game and introduce regular pauses of silence between the more exciting day scenes. Certainly the Night scenes are interesting for those with special powers (such as the werewolves, the seer and the bodyguard) but it's simply a tense "loading time" for humble villagers.

Regardless of these problems, Werewolves remains a classic experience and if you do manage to survive (or better yet, actually win) then you honestly feel like you achieved something (I did manage to survive and win and it was the best game of Werewolves I've ever played. I've also never felt such a personal vendetta against the werewolves.)

But where Werewolves fails, another game shines...

2 Rooms and a Boom
This is the social politics game that has knocked Werewolves for six and keeps everyone involved at all times. In a lot of ways, 2 Rooms and a Boom is the convention game of 2015.

The basic premise is simple and the game takes about fifteen minutes. Everyone is given a card with their hidden role on it, separated into Red and Blue factions, and then the players are randomly assorted into two rooms. The rooms get to exchange players at regular intervals until the time is up and the Red Bomber explodes. If the Blue President is in the same room as the bomb, Red Team wins; otherwise the President survives and Blue team are victorious.

The game is often a tense standoff of secret card revealing, bluffing, deduction and political double-dealing which rewards both the loud scene-stealer and the quiet observer alike. Multiple other roles can be introduced (including grey factionless ones) and all of these extra roles change  the dynamic of play.

I've yet to encounter an officially produced deck (though one does exist) but it is incredibly easy to whip up your own. You can even just use a deck of playing cards. Mind you, I would like to have the actual product, even just to support the game designers.

The problems concerning player elimination in Werewolves don't happen here as players aren't eliminated but rather just relocated, which is always an exciting opportunity. You're never a spectator while playing 2 Rooms and a Boom unless you want to be, and even then you're engaged in the game, watching, listening, and learning before finally choosing your moment to make a play. It's very good.

If 2 Rooms and a Boom has one outstanding issue, it's getting players to adhere to the time limits, especially when selecting hostages. The hostage process is easy for people to bugger up, and I think an impartial timekeeper/mediator is essential to the game. Without that person, things can get a bit cumbersome.

But don't let that throw you. 2 Rooms and a Boom is a great experience and the perfect way to meet new gamers at a convention. And it's fast enough that you'll play at least twice.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Rocky Road Warriors (ruleset)

Debuting at PAX Aus this year was my brand new edible wargame; Rocky Road Warriors!

Rocky Road Warriors is a real-time wargame played with sponge cake/lamington vehicles decorated with Tiny Teddy crew members, marshmallow wheels and any other yummy things you want to put on them. Teams of two battle against each other for supremacy of the post-apocalyptic glazed highways.

The game is fast, exciting, chaotic and wildly entertaining.

The rules can be found here (EDIT: hopefully working this time)

As a special treat, Mr Aaron Lim filmed a playtest of the game at the Games Laboratory Incubator meetup (you can also see other clever games that were being demonstrated). See the footage here.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Tiny Teddies Go To War rules (ruleset)

By popular demand, here's the ruleset to play edible wargame Tiny Teddies Go To War as played at PAX Aus. (EDIT: I've been having a bit of trouble making the link work, but it should be fine now.)

I would like to point out that these rules are different to those played the previous year as the game should constantly change. There is no one way to play and everyone who has run it before has used different rules.

Nevertheless, if you want a starting point or are just too busy to make your own rules then you are more than welcome to give these ones a whirl.

For those of you interested in the rules for Rocky Road Warriors or Entree Invaders, rest assured that they will be coming soon.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

PAX Aus 2015 and edible wargames (sampler)

I'm in the middle of a weekend at PAX Aus running edible wargames and having a blast. If you yourself are reading this after having met me today, Hi! I had a load of fun today and hope you did too.

I had a lot of people asking where they can get the rules for Tiny Teddies Go To War, Entree Invaders, and Rocky Road Warriors so I've directed them/you here so you have somewhere to look for them when I put them up after the weekend is over.

In the meantime, last year's rules can be found here, but I think that this year's ruleset is much improved since then.

Regardless, there's nothing stopping you from whipping up a set of silly rules and giving it a try yourself. That's what many other people before me have done and I hope you do it too.

I'd love to play your version.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Which #threeforged finalist will be the winner?

The public voted and the top five threeforged games have been decided. The judges will be assessing them and deciding on a winner by the end of this weekend. So this is the last chance really to discuss them before anonymity is lifted.

The selection is interesting and a little surprising, which is to be expected from the voting method. I’m not sure how many other people read all 102 games before voting but I think I’m probably in the minority. There were some games that I totally expected to see represented that haven’t made it (Conspiracy and Cowards comes to mind) and the final selection is not what I would have banked on. Nevertheless, all five finalists are good products and worth assessing on their own merits.

But of the five, which should win?

Or more importantly, which ones won’t?

Anthill – The Outsider

Of the five finalists, Anthill is the one I’m most surprised to see reach this far. I think I can see why it did, though. Post-apocalyptic settings are very popular at the moment and focusing on a mutating ant colony is a refreshing perspective on a genre that could quickly play itself out. The focus on protecting the Hill (and the colony) provides fertile ground for good stories and the method for location construction looks like fun.

The PC statistics are ant-appropriate and the character sheet layout is elegant. The list of mutations is comprehensive and the game is largely ready to play. Maybe a sample adventure or a list of threats (ant-agonists?) could have been included, but these are minor oversights.

So it’s clean, elegant, simple and interesting. Great.

But it won’t win, and the major reason is the system. Anthill uses a task-based percentile system that feels archaic and uninspired when compared to modern gaming design, and particularly when compared against the other four finalists. Furthermore, there’s no real reason to have a percentile system here. Increments occur in 5% steps, meaning a d20 roll could do the same job and probably do it better. Anthill feels like it’s stuck in the ‘80s.

Anthill also suffers from an escalation problem. Simply rolling a skill (successful or not) puts you one quarter of the way to improving it, which feels like short-sightedness on the designers’ part. But I doubt it would be a huge problem as I don’t think many games of Anthill would last further than the three-session mark at most.

It isn’t that it’s a bad system. For what it is it’s balanced and clear. You always know what you should be rolling and you won’t get lost. It’s functional and polished. It isn’t broken in any way, and that’s possibly a saving grace. The other games in the top five don’t have as clear a system and it could gain traction on that.

But it’s boring. It doesn’t challenge you or add anything new and interesting. Anthill might have a great idea but it misses out on making it about the best parts of setting. Pheromone communication and the caste system are briefly mentioned and I’d love it if it was a game that took Automaton’s approach, encouraging you to act in certain ways because of the hive-mind or marking areas to affect the behavior of NPC ants. That would have been awesome.

But Anthill missed that opportunity. And it’ll miss out on first place, mainly because it needs a more interesting narrative core mechanic to elevate it above its competitors.

Last Year’s Magic – The Party Game

There were a lot of wizardly “Potter” games. There were a few party games. There were a decent amount of performance-based games. Last Year’s Magic trumped in each category.

It’s such a fun pitch! You play grumpy old wizards sitting in a pub arguing about magic; what spell to cast and which ingredient would be best in Grumblybum’s Elixir and whether eye of newt is really necessary if you’re adding that much wing of bat. It’s silly clean fun and so very accessible. It begs for props such as pipes and tankards and fake beards. If you’ve got a fireplace and candles you’d be remiss not to light them up.

Characterisation is key to Last Year’s Magic and as you read it you can’t help but giggle and think how cool it would be to be in full swing playing this. You can imagine your mates jumping into character and firing off witty banter all with a couple of mulled wines and hearty ales to get the creative juices flowing.

There’s even a great little character creation mechanic to warm you up where you interpret a playing card to decide on what kind of wizard you are, which is awesome because it also introduces you to the idea of the cards and suits and their connection to fields of magic. It’s leading you in to the system to come. And it feels fun and vibrant and it’s helping you roleplay and not getting in the way.

But then it does get in the way. And all the cool imagery about the witty banter and funny characters gets a bit lost as you try to maneuver around it.

Last Year’s Magic falls for the same problem as many of the other performance and party games in the competition did (I’m looking at Ad Libitum Absurdity, It Is Forbidden, Mixtapes and Mistakes, Psychic Detective Agency, and State Cinema among others). And that problem is that at the most critical, interesting and exciting moment of the roleplaying the system stops you to check something. It’s like someone’s grandmother popping in to check if everyone’s okay and then it’s hard to get back in the groove because you’re afraid that you made too much noise last time and you’ve got to tone down because you might interrupt her knitting.

And that’s not what Last Year’s Magic is about. It’s about guffaws of laughter and witty asides and in-jokes and sheer uproarious nonsense. For that you need a system that inspires and assists that and then lets you loose to play. And it should be something simple likes props and pipes and tavern stuff. Maybe magical ingredients or spell tomes or even the way you drink your beer or whatever. You could have magic backfire forcing you to drink from the other side of the cup or dance a jig whenever somebody says “cummerbund” or something.

And that’s why Last Year’s Magic won’t win; because it has so much charm and possibility and then drops the ball. The base mechanic is simple enough and has a nice idea, but when you read it you can’t help but say, “I’d change that.”

Which is fine! That’s totally in the spirit of Threeforge. You could even call this game the spiritual winner of the contest in that regard because it gives you something not quite ready that you know you can turn into a brilliant night of entertainment in about 1000 words and a bit of tweaking.

But the judges will be looking for a finished game with a system that supports the gameplay. And Last Year’s Magic gets outclassed by its competition. Where Anthill’s system is boring, Last Year’s Magic’s system is just plain distracting.

Children's Radio Hour - The Gauntlet

It’s no surprise to see Children’s Radio Hour among the finalists. It’s a great game and the concept of a radio show suits the style of tabletop roleplaying so well (I wish I’d considered the connection long ago). It has a one-hour format and encourages- nay, enforces roleplaying in its structure.

And it looks so damn professional, too. It’s like a boardgame where you print out booklets and give them to the players and each of these booklets contains all the rules you need. It has checkboxes for you to track your goals and bold letters to define game terms. Whenever you need to know what to do when, say, you draw a Thing card, you just look on your sheet and it’s right there with clear instructions as to what to do.

Everyone has different agendas and can reward other people for roleplaying in a fun way, but the pressure is on to perform because if you break character or fail to keep things interested you can get Dead Air tokens which can screw your show. You can even get cancelled, which is a great idea, forcing you to work together to make a story no matter how much you fail at your personal goals.

It’s a great, great game with clean, crisp design and it’s ready to play.

But are you up for it? Are you even up TO it?

You have to seriously ask it because Children’s Radio Hour is incredibly intimidating. It runs over an hour with set periods two to three minutes in length where you have to roleplay entirely in character. Which doesn’t sound so bad; it sounds challenging but fun. But once you’ve agreed to that all of these other factors come into play, like writing on cards and introducing elements for kids you know in the audience and did that guy just mention a unicorn because I want that in the story so I need to pass him a chip but let me just check because it might have been a different kid and OH SHIT IT’S MY LINE but I missed the question and I’m stammering like a bloody idiot and I’M GOING TO BREAK THE GAME!

Children’s Radio Hour is like some kind of dare for people to prove their roleplaying cred. You sit down, start the clock and see how far you can get before someone screws it all up. Or a dodgy TV show where you all get thrown into a shark pool and your job is to desperately tread water and hope that someone gets chomped before you do. It raises an eyebrow and asks if your group is really good enough to play it and then says, “I didn’t think so,” when you fuck it up.

There’ll be so many times where you screw up and you just hate yourself for it because you’re letting everyone down, and other people will flounder and you’ll wince and watch them die in front of you in ego-crushing gamer shame. It builds disappointment in yourself and resentment for your friends.

That’s not what you want out of a roleplaying session. You want to build something together with friends, not afraid of being involved because you might become the guy everyone remembers as the one who couldn’t think up a rhyme for “hopscotch”. VHS Fury and State Cinema both dealt with similar concepts to CRH and they never fostered such a critical experience.

And though Children’s Radio Hour won’t win, it won’t care. It’ll take another puff on its elegant cigarette stem, toss its beret haughtily and mutter that genius is never truly appreciated. If a group ever manages to play a full hour it’ll probably break down and cry.

The Rending of the Veil - The Shiny One

So Anthill won’t win. Last Year’s Magic won’t win either and nor will Children’s Radio Hour. So which one CAN win it?

Well, The Rending of the Veil can. It’s got a good shot.

The first thing you notice about this game is the stunning photography on the front page, but the rest of the game is equally well-designed. The first couple of pages explore the setting and the writing is great. It draws you into this science-fantasy blend and lets you know the high stakes involved in the story you’ll be playing in. And then it hits you with the whammy; your characters will be uber-powerful entities trying to save it.

This game basically lets you play Gandalf or Merlin, a being of incredible power trying to goad humanity into defending itself from a terrible evil. Your abilities are so powerful that you’ll try to find the subtlest ways to use them. And then at certain moments you’ll toss aside your cloak and reveal your true majesty, performing legendary deeds hardly understandable to mortal men.

There were a few other games that allowed nigh-boundless reality-shaping (most of them cyber in genre) and where they all failed was that they gave all this power and freedom and didn’t offer any constraints to give direction.

The Rending of the Veil succeeded by offering a world to play in, and what a great world it is. Not only is there the introductory history but there’s also a map (there were so few maps in the contest!) and it looks really awesome. But the map is not just a bit of flavor, it’s a storytelling tool. You drop dice on it and where they land tells you what plots are going on there or whether Winter has seized it. And you wander from town to city to ancient ruin trying to prevent Winter, rallying noble men and women to your cause.

It’s so much fun, and it doesn’t matter that it’s a little incomplete. It stands well enough that you can plug it onto another system if you need to. Or you can just spend a night treating it like a board game.

And if (just if) The Rending of the Veil doesn’t win it might be for that reason. Is it really a roleplaying game? There were a number of games in the contest that seemed closer to board games or card games or deck construction games than roleplays and some people might resent the “board-gaminess” of The Rending of the Veil. But I don’t care as long as it’s good, which this is.

Of the five finalists, this was the only one in my own top five (fifth, if you’re asking). So it would make sense for me to think it will be the winner. And it very well may be.

But I’m betting on…

Field Work - The Charmer

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Field Work will be the winner of Threeforged (though aren’t we all really the winners of Threeforged, truly?)

It’s so damn funny! The format of a regular working day works well and then it gives it a supernatural twist. And that’s nothing new; there are so many games where you play investigators and troubleshooters in a supernatural setting. Where Field Work shines is that it takes all the tropes of those games and satirizes them.

You’re never in fear of your character’s life, and you don’t need to be. The humour of Field Work is that you might have completely screwed a mission, perilously rammed against a door trying to hold off an office full of brain-bug infected accountants, and you won’t be worried about your life; you’ll be worried about how the boss is really gonna rip you a new one for this and you should really speak with Steve about getting some anti-spellware in Lynux.

The revolving GM mechanic was overplayed in Threeforged but it works here, keeping every player invested and entertained. Everyone gets a spotlight and then you get to roleplay together in lunch and debrief scenes, which are absolutely hilarious.

That’s because the game mechanic is incredibly unbalanced. One player will turn up battered and covered in snailman vomit, complaining about how they literally when through hell this morning, but the next player will say they had it easy with an old lady who simply didn’t have the monitor plugged in and then it was an early lunch.

But that imbalance doesn’t matter! It’s crazy and ridiculous and dumb and that’s exactly what Field Work is; a crazy, ridiculous, dumb world where your character is playing it straight trying to earn a living. It’s sitcom material and it fits the tabletop roleplaying environment perfectly. (There’s another game in Threeforged I think can work beautifully next to Field Work and that’s The Hot Seat. Check it out.)

The flavor text makes you fall in love with this game even before you’re a third of the way through the document  and the character creation questionnaire is simply brilliant. There’s so much good work here. There’s even a list of alternative settings in case your group might not be so IT savvy, and they’re all good suggestions.

But the most telling reason why Field Work will likely win is because it has survived playtest reviews with flying colours. Since the games were released, Field Work seems to have been played more than any other game apart from In A Week of Sharks. But of the reviews I’ve seen, Field Work seems to be the one that plays best in actual play, and I’m not surprised. There’s so much to like about it.

There’s a perfect mix of spotlight mini-adventures and multi-PC freeform, mundane quibbles and completely bonkers disasters. It rewards you for playing a fatalistic old curmudgeon instead of a kick-ass super ninja. You might even have kick-ass super ninjas burst into the room right while you’re in the middle of an important download and you need to fend them off only with the knowledge that they’re violating six electrical safety standards. Who doesn’t want to play that?

It’s fun and exciting and dynamic and it makes you want to play it. And why wouldn’t you? It’s hilarious! It never takes itself seriously and it encourages you not to do so either. And for all of that it’s quite clever and professional. It’s neat, without going overboard on graphic design.

I didn’t actually rate Field Work highest of these games when I did my reviews. I rated it eleventh (you can read my reviews in earlier entries). But I have to look at all of them in a different light when you compare them only to each other.

And when you look at them together you end up asking a good question; which one of these games do I most want to play? To which Field Work stands up and says “Here I am!” (possibly pushing Last Year’s Magic back in its seat while doing so).

There’s no arguing with it; it’s just so delightfully charming. It has to win. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

#Threeforged countdown 20 to 1

Well, the Threeforged RPG contest is accepting votes up until midnight on Sunday. I've shortlisted my top 20, but now it's time to put them in order and work out the five I'm voting for.

I've got to confess it's a hard decision. There's been so many excellent submissions and picking favourites means looking for niggly faults in otherwise great games.

I've had to decide that the games I'll vote for are based on personal preference. In other words, they'll be MY top games. I'll try to justify my decisions in the write-ups.

I'll be voting for the top 5 in the order presented below.

(One note: For a long time I was conflicted over whether I could allow myself to review the games that I worked on. Eventually, I decided that I could at the very least review the work of the other designers who contributed to them. I feel a lot happier doing that. Nevertheless, it's only fair to say that one of the games I worked on hit my top 20. As anonymity goes, I won't reveal it, but I also feel obliged to inform the reader that it is not in my top 5, and thus I won't be voting for it.)

20: Transmission
This game has a brilliant setup where the group creates the transmissions from a lost colony. Sadly, investigating the site is not as interesting mainly due to the fact that the framework becomes virtually non-existent. I would have liked more tools to handle this, and the optional conlict rules at the end were an excellent first start. It should also be noted that Transmission is a very simple text document, proving that a good game doesn't have to look flashy.

19: Tales on the Weird Seas
Of all the games in the competition, this is the only one to feel like the designers have opted for a classic Old School approach. Character classes, monster statistics, levelling up, it's all there. The anthropomorphic boat concept is adorable and the theme permeates the document. Sadly, you would discard the system and replace it with something else. 4000 words is a challenge for OSR.

18: The Red Token
There have been a few games that have tackled difficult territory and The Red Token does it best (it doesn't fall for the setting traps that Platonic Mastery did). It explores the nature of redemption and rehabilitation and confronts the player with having to sympathise with a dislikeable protagonist. I applaud the designers for their courage and maturity, even though there is indeed the possibility to run a darkly comedic version of this game. Though the central card mechanic is uninspiring, The "token" mechanic is much better.

17: It Is Forbidden
There are a good number of party games in the competition and many fall for the same problem; their system tends to interrupt the most exciting moments of play. To that end, the reader can't help but note that if they played it they would adapt or replace the existing system. It Is Forbidden falls for this trap, but also could benefit from a lighter approach. I think it would be a much better game if it were comedic. Regardless, It Is Forbidden is a great game and has received many positive reviews.

16: Last Year's Magic
This is my favourite game of the "Potter games", even though it isn't particularly Potter as such. I've found that the better games tend to focus on one small environment/situation/scene and do it well, and Last Year's Magic invests itself in its premise. However, I don't think the rules as written are best for this game and a lighter system would improve it. Still, a Potterish game had to make the list and this is my choice.

15: VHS Fury 
I really wanted to represent the more performance-based games high on this list, such as Ad Libitum Absurdity, State Cinema, or Psychic Detective Agency. However I had to go with VHS Fury, even though it doesn't have the performance aspect. I dislike the central card mechanic, but have to confess that the symbolism of suits here is the best in the competition. The different roles encourage and reinforce conflict between players, which I adore. This game just nudged out Children's Radio Hour for representation here, and I think it comes down to the humour.

14: Timelines
There was a lot of Microscope influence in the competition, but my personal favourite is Timelines. Part of the reason is that it has a much tighter, personal focus than many of the more epic settings. The rippling effect of Paradox is nice, but it could do with a little tweaking (an online suggestion was to stop rolling once a timeline stabilised seems like it would do the trick). It would be easy to draw comparisons with If At First You Don't Succeed, which is also great, but Timelines is tighter.

13: Pony Express
Probably one of the games I've raved about most with my friends, Pony Express is full of charm. I've never been a play-by-mail player but I really enjoyed the handful of games that opted for it as a framework. The Fallen Sky used letters well, but Pony Express embraces the idea utterly. I'm a little concerned that it has just filed the numbers off My Little Pony and I'm not sold on the period setting. Nevertheless, Pony Express is a delight.

12: Automaton
The big selling point for Automaton is the Function Flowchart, which restricts your PC in options available to you due to your programming. That alone sold the game for me. Another great mechanic in Automaton is the challenge of beating a rival NPC party to complete your mission, which adds tension and teamwork to the game. However, the system is a little too simple at heart and I particularly dislike the arbitrary nature of difficulty ratings as presented.

11: Field Work
Ah, Field Work! How I enjoy reading you. You've got a hilarious premise, gorgeous fiction pieces, a solid framework for episodic story structure, lovely character generation questionnaires, and a decent escalation mechanic. But the system is discardable, so it just misses out on Top 10 status. All that being said, I love this game.

10: The Dream Palace
This is one of the more experimental and controversial games in the competition. Some would argue against its inclusion for you don't roleplay at all. It's more of a narrative-building exercise where you collaborate with others to establish connections between random experiences you've had during your day. But what I love about The Dream Palace is how it has the potential to change your life. You might never look at your world in the same way by playing this game. Nevertheless, it could have established more tools for us to work with, and an example of play would have been of great assistance.

9: Spiral Star
There were a few larp formats presented in the competition but none are as ready-to-play as Spiral Star. A one-shot freeform, it could be played in the home or at a convention. Handouts are all supplied for printing and it also contains an introductory speech. The game itself is appropriately simplistic, but I'm unsure how the revolving emotion cards will work in practice. Regardless, Spiral Star is a good larp structure and would play well.

8: Among Humans
My favourite of the play-by-mail games because of the sneaky ability to trap people into becoming GMs to your game. In fact, the whole border between player and GM is blurred here, which screws with the way we look at roleplaying. Other reviews have pointed out the Doomed Pilgrim nature of it, and having now read up on it I have to agree, but it does twist it very well. The presentation is flawed, but has its charm. I'm divided between putting it lower or putting it higher, but I'll compromise for somewhere in the middle.

7: At Any Cost
I quickly got sick of "standard deck of cards"-based systems while reading the games. I had a bit more time for games that used custom cards, but looked poorly on those that didn't give me printable sheets. At Any Cost has wonderful cards and also supplies backs for them. It's like 2-player Once Upon A Time, but adds a competitive edge. Not only  is it attractive, but it looks like a load of fun. I'd like to see a professionally packaged version. Some games have been criticised for being closer to board or card games than roleplays, but I welcome them as long as they're good games; At Any Cost is a good game.

6: The Hot Seat
The Hot Seat is a great counterpoint to Field Work and they're easy to compare. The sheer variety in The Hot Seat wins it for me, as does the voting mechanic (which was explored in Bag-Pulling Game, but finds a niche here). The descriptions of the various departments is hilarious and gets the creative juices flowing. I imagine that this game isn't going to get a lot of attention, which is a shame because it has so much going for it. I wonder if you could combine it with Field Work to somehow make one killer game...

5: The Rending of the Veil
Some concerns have been made about the use of images in this submission, but I figure it isn't my place to be discussing the legalities surrounding such things and to merely review the games themselves. And The Rending of the Veil is a very good game. The science-fantasy background is handled well and gives a neat twist on the powerful archmage/demigod concept. The map central to the game is wonderful and its use of a "die drop" mechanic to determine Winter's influence is superb. Forgeborn was another game using a die drop and introduced the whole idea to me, but I think that Rending is a better overall game.

4: Conspiracy and Cowards
As you read through the 103 games in the contest, every now and then you'll read one that really stands out. Conspiracy and Cowards seems to rocket to the top of everyone's list as soon as they read it. C&C set my benchmark for professionalism in the contest and it was rarely matched on that front. I'm a little awkward about the haikus because they don't seem to match the base setting, but it's a nice touch and I like it. Reviews have been very positive and I think it has a good chance of winning the contest.

3: The Policy of Truth
Another game with a tricky premise, The Policy of Truth is a heavy, heavy game. For all that, it's a simple system; it's just that the setting is so dense. But fear not! The designers have supplied maps, timelines, information briefings and lists of names to help you. Even so, you'll find simple tools to help you design missions on the fly. Stylishly, character sheets are designed so you "redact" irrelevant information, adding a touch of the setting to the basic mechanics. The layout and presentation is astounding and the game itself is perfectly structured. Well done.

2: To Return a Wallet
I quickly grew bored with card games whilst reading the games, and dice games were generally simplistic. I was always happy to find an alternative resolution method and I also loved the games that used physical items as important story elements. So I was overjoyed to read To Return A Wallet where random pocket-stuffings became the central focus of the system. Added to that, the philanthropic nature of the quest is a welcome change to the larcenous nature of many roleplaying games. Simple at heart and immensely satisfying.

1: The World As Such
I get the feeling that I might be the only person who will put The World As Such as their number 1 pick.Critics might state that it isn't a game at all and the harshest might even be a little justified in suggesting that the designers were actively trying to troll the contest. But I disagree entirely. The World As Such is a work that smashes down the fence between roleplaying and art and then gleefully tosses you through the gap. It's a riddle wrapped in familiar gaming terms and designs but refuses to help us decipher it. To read it is to play it, and your approach determines your role. Do you read it as a GM, or a player? Designer or reviewer? Like the contest itself, it says, "Here's what we've built. Now what are YOU going to do with it?" But it isn't just random nonsense or laziness. There's a great deal of intelligence and talent that has gone into creating The World As Such and it's a treasure to read. You might hate it. I love it.

You can download the games or find out more here

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Highlights of the #Threeforged RPG contest.

Having selected my top 20 of the 103 Threeforged games, I now have to work out the five I'll vote for. But first I think it's time to look back over them and discuss some of my favourite moments.

<Handy links: games can be found here, my short reviews of all 103 games can be found here >

Now it a few reviewers have noted that there are a number of Harry Potter games. Wizarding is a straight up rpg with the Potter serial numbers filed off, whilst Double Potions (currently the most downloaded game) surpasses it by narrowing in to one particular class. Personally I prefer Apprentice Wizard Familiar to either, where you communally play one student and get to interact as his/her familiars. Even so, the best Potter game in my opinion is closer to Terry Pratchett in tone, and that's Last Year's Magic. There's something about bumbling drunk wizards and ridiculous spells that I love.

But though magical high schools were popular so were their mundane counterpoints. Yearbooks in Disgrace goes for a light entertainment vibe whilst High Velocity Times at Space High went for silly. But it was the beautiful Mixtapes and Mistakes that really excited me including a wonderful risk mechanic and a performance style interrogation at the end, though I disliked smash-cutting.

That seems to be a bit of a common fault for the performance/theatre sport games. It's detrimental to your play to have a system that interrupts the scene. It's a pity because a number of these games have brilliant concepts. I love Ad Libitum Absurdity's idea to have non-spotlight characters working only on their secondary goals whilst not commanding the scene. State Cinema's propaganda kaiju and VHS Fury's B-grade variety are both hilarious but are let down by clumsy mechanics. Psychic Detective Agency has constant out-of-character talk, whilst Children's Radio Hour counters the whole problem by introducing set in-character time limits. King of Bones has probably the simplest setting, but the musical system needs work and is really intimidating. Nevertheless, as much as I love all of these ideas I couldn't help but feel that I wouldn't use the mechanics as they are. I'd definitely use the settings.

On a similar note, there are a few big party games that also need work. In A Week of Sharks is great, but the mechanics need more work. On the other hand, It Is Forbidden needs to be streamlined down to fully become accessible. 

I've never been a play by mail player but a few of these games have converted me. Fallen Sky has an awesome letters from home system that overshadows the rest of the game. Pony Express takes it a step further, and if you told me last week that one of my favourite games in the contest is about rainbow unicorn friends who send letters to each other I would have laughed. Among Humans twists Doomed Pilgrim in its own macabre direction and presents itself well.

On the note of presentation, there are some really pretty games. Conspiracy and Cowards is such a professional-looking product and The Rending of the Veil includes a hand-drawn map among its many other attractive design features. But by far the award for prettiest game goes to Gho5t. So pretty in fact that you just can't help but be suspicious that Gho5t is style over substance.

Cards are big at the moment. Microscope-style index cards find interesting twists in If At First You Don't Succeed, Millennia and Timelines. I like them all a lot, but the index thing is leaving me cold at the moment.

Standard playing cards get a lot of use and for the most part are serviceable. The Prophet's Price and The Quantum Haruspex opt instead for Tarot cards but sadly fail to exploit the possibilities. A few games have gone for custom cards, which is fine, but Hound/ed and Zen Flashback Battle Zero sinned mightily in not supplying printable cards to make it easy. At Any Cost, It Is Forbidden and No Myth were much more organised and so trump the lazy ones. Like no giving me character sheets. Sheesh!

Speaking of character sheets, I love the idea of blacking out details on your CIA character sheet in The Policy of Truth. Automaton has an excellent flowchart of programmed options on its sheet. Connections with other characters were often emphasised but none quite so simply as The Reunion which symbolised connections with physical objects at the table. The tactile nature was further explored with To Return A Wallet, where stuff from your pockets can influence gameplay.

There were a lot of mechanics that opened my eyes. House of Hades uses dominoes where the length of your chain determines success. Bag Pulling Game gets credit for the bag mechanic, but The Hot Seat does it better. Shinobi Village has you throwing both hands at once in scissors-paper-rock contests (one for attack, one for defense) which totally revolutionises the way I look at "fist-throwing" game systems. Silver Tongues uses puns for duels and double-entendres for seduction attempts. Forgeborn and Under the Broken Moons use a "die-drop" method of map creation which I've never encountered before but now absolutely love! Aquila also has a circle-drawing method to making maps that is equally interesting, but not quite as fun.

Old-school games are difficult to make in 4000 words, but Tales on the Weird Seas did it in seafaring style (one reviewer referred to it as Disney Crawl Classics and that's pretty accurate). But where Weird Seas went with tradition, others went a different direction entirely. 

Langer Memorial Trauma Centre seems to have a standard roleplay design but has a big twist intended to make a political statement. The Dream Palace and The Mask And The Daydream each have more to do with story and concept creation rather than roleplaying and differ from each other in that one is shared and the other is very personal.

But probably the most controversial would be The World As It Is, which I rank very highly. Seen as frivolous, pretentious and foolish by some, I see it as a piece of art. It's the only game where to read it IS to play it and so much talent has gone into the work. In many ways, the approach here would have improved the highly comical MUSCLE WIZARDS VS LAZER DINOSAURS: TURBO VAMPIRE EDITION. MWvLD didn't need a system - it should have lampooned the whole idea. Both of these games were very refreshing for someone reading all 103 games.

Of course, by saying 103 I'm including the enigmatic Agency, which has still yet to appear...

Monday, 14 September 2015

#threforged RPG contest Top 20

<Handy links: games can be found here, my short reviews of all 103 games can be found here >

If you don't know which games you'd like to check out to read for the Threeforged RPG Competition, why not select some from my Top 20?

I narrowed down all 103 into the 20 that I think are the best and most complete overall products. The groupings are pretty loose.

  • Collaborative storytelling - Automaton, Field Work, Tales on the Weird Seas, The Rending of the Veil, Timelines.
  • Inter-player conflict - At Any Cost, It Is Forbidden, Last Year's Magic, The Hot Seat, VHS Fury.
  • 1 session set pieces - Conspiracy and Cowards, Spiral Star, The Policy of Truth, The Red Token, Transmission.
  • Out of the ordinary - Among Humans, Pony Express, The Dream Palace, The World As Such, To Return a Wallet

Some Thoughts
There's a certain familiarity to a lot of these games. Not so much in the system but in the necessity to make certain things clear.

Fortunately nearly all designers have assumed that the reader has some kind of history with rpgs, so there's little in the way of "what is gaming?" introductions. But there is sometimes time wasted in informing me of what a GM is and the responsibilities involved.

It isn't so bad when the game has restrictions or special rules for the GM, but having some kind of common standard for writing would go a long way to reducing wasted word-count. If the document has a common reference for GM, designers can say, "this game has a standard GM structure, but we call it a Bookkeeper. Bookkeepers have the following rules different to regular GMs. (elaborate from here)." Or "We use a revolving GM system where the player on your left controls X and the player to your right controls Y."

Another would be "Frame a scene and begin freeform play." So many games are spending words on that one. Unless you're going to give me rules for it I don't want to hear the same generic advice I've read in every document so far.

One that is becoming a clear issue is the issue of triggers, safe words, "X-cards" and the like. I get that it's serious, but ideally I'd prefer if the writer assumed I was aware of the issue and got on with the game. I know, I know, it's an issue we need to talk about, but I'd prefer it to be mentioned in the guidelines once rather than in every other game I read. It also makes it a bit awkward for those designers who did assume a mature audience and thus didn't include such advice; they could be seen as being insensitive and that would be unfair.

Another good inclusion to a reference sheet would be the standard dice abbreviation (2d6, 1d20, etc). Fortunately most people did assume readers had that knowledge.

But one final one is pronouns. Everyone tries hard on this one but there's still some awkwardness. My recommendation for a standard is simple; refer to players as female and characters as male. "Alice wants Brian to climb the wall. She rolls a success and he scrambles up."

If you use the standard there's no need to mention it unless you're shaking it up for some reason.

I don't mean to offend anyone there, because including such detail helps make the game a full product and is actually useful for newer players and maybe the previously ignorant. But maybe we can avoid repetition of basic rpg conventions and concepts by having a game reference document available alongside the submissions.

But what should be included? 

#threeforged RPG contest (even more thoughts)

Games can be found here

My short reviews of all 103 games can be found here

I've just finished reviewing the last game on the list. It's been a bit of a marathon getting through them all, but incredibly rewarding.

The results at the end sit at:
12 meh games
40 OK games
50 Contenders
and one n/a (no download available).

My next step is to reassess the Contenders and decide which 20 will step up into Elite status. I'll select my top five from there.

What you should be looking at

  • Collaborative adventures -  Anonym, Automaton, Fear of the Dark, Fetch This!, Field Work, Gho5t, Imperial Measure, Magical Mystery Tour, Tales on the Weird Seas, The Clinic, The Quantum Haruspex, The Rending of the Veil, Timelines
  • Could be a board/card game - Aquila, At Any Cost, Forgeborn, Game of the Gods, 
  • Performance framework - Ad Libitum Absurdity, Last Year's Magic, Psychic Detective Agency, State Cinema, Ultranormal Encounters
  • Interplayer conflict - A Hard Goodbye, Dark Secret, Friends of the Venom Spider, If at first you don't succeed, It Is Forbidden, Mixtapes and Mistakes, Space Problems argh, The Hot Seat, The Perfected City, VHS Fury.
  • One session set-pieces - Conspiracy and Cowards, Life As It Was, Children's Radio Hour, Millennia, Spiral Star, The Policy of Truth, The Red Token, The Reunion, Transmission
  • Different approaches - Among Humans, Fallen Sky, House of Hades, Langer Memorial Trauma Centre, Pony Express, The Dream Palace, The World As Such, To Return a Wallet

Don't be put off a game just because I haven't raised it to Contender. Some of my favourite moments and mechanics were in games of OK or meh rating.

One of my key criteria for deciding if a game makes it to Elite status is if it's a complete product. There are a lot of Contenders which aren't quite as finished or polished as they need to be to be at the top of the class, so that will be the first thing I'll look at.

But not right now. right now I'm gonna take a nap.

#threeforged RPG reviews (all 103 games)

There's just over a hundred games in the Threeforged RPG Design contest and my plan is to vote for my top five. To do that I needed to read 'em all and make a shortlist.

I graded them betweenContender, OK, and Meh. Once I worked that out, I whittled the Contenders into a final 20 of Elites. I'll work out my Top 5 from there.

You can find all the games here if you want to get them yourself.

Here's what you're in for, kids.

Reviews (all 103)

(untitled - 1522): Napoleonic-era journey through magic-ravaged Europe. 
Someone’s pet system is used here, but I’m afraid it’s nothing special. The basic idea is interesting enough, though not appealing to me. Discard pile. 
Best bit: the set journey with days on the road between cities clearly presented. 
Verdict: meh

(untitled - 1566): scientists discover a new phenomenon and try to work it out. 
Gorgeous idea where you are randomly chosen to be a scientist or the elementals they’re studying. Uses cards to resolve narrative conflicts and does so in an interesting way. For all that, it could have been fleshed out a bit more. 
Best bit: the evolving tactics that only get noticed after you’ve been playing for a while. 
Verdict: OK

(untitled - 15124): mystical magics masquerading amid the mundane. 
Modern-day magical game where you battle to keep the mundane world from dimming your magic. A centerpiece is how technology and magic are opposed, but the core system is mediocre. Not terrible, but not great. 
Best bit: the growing list of technical devices that have special rules for your character. 
Verdict: OK

10 Million AD: Long-abandoned Earth is threatened by the return of humanity. 
A fascinating premise with a fairly simple storytelling tool that focuses on the tactical combat of the game. The Trust mechanics (being interpersonal) interested me more, and the limitations on the MC were cute, but I wasn’t sold. Nice images, though.
Best bit: “refreshment scenes” where you can heal as long as someone reveals something new about their character. 
Verdict: OK

20.6 Miles: Napoleonic era subterfuge around the Dover area. 
Interesting setting pitch that could work most elsewhere. Some good interpersonal debt mechanics, but overall fairly dry. Nice fiction set-pieces, though.
Best bit: double crossing an ally. I’d like to see more of that. 
Verdict: OK

A Hard Goodbye: “Every time I try to get out, they drag me back in.” 
Solid effort throughout. Evocative game attributes, minimal die rolling, and workable rules for running a three act narrative. Fits the tropes of underworld drama nicely. Very usable and interesting. 
Best bit: The simplicity of Hooks versus Outs and the struggle against the Organisation.
Verdict: Contender

Ad Libitum Absurdity: Washed up actors try to break their typecast role. 
Definitely hooked me in as a brilliant concept, though I’d tweak it a bit. The theatrical improv aspect could be elaborated to ditch the die mechanics whilst maintaining integrity. 
Best bit:  I like having secondary goals that you follow whilst being supporting cast. That can be developed. I like it a lot. 
Verdict: Contender

Agency: unknown. 
To date, this game has still not eventuated. Apparently someone forgot to add the file to the email submission (d’oh!) May still appear. 
Best bit:  If it doesn’t eventuate, I’m gonna make a fake review of it. 
Verdict: n/a

Alien Passion Disaster: Alien species are developed through narrative card play.
I kinda like the card-based idea this thing is going for, but I’m just not getting it. And I can’t quite work out how to “soil” the cards. Far too complex to find interesting, and it breaks its own “Golden Rule” in that it isn’t funny. Said “okaaaaay” a lot while reading this and eventually skimmed it. 
Best bit: The idea of marking playing cards, though fucked if I know how you do it. 
Verdict: meh

American Heroes: Star spangled superheroes try to save America.
Started out like a hilarious rpg parody, but quickly got bogged down in lists of power mechanics. Whoever had the sense of humour was a legend. 
Best bit: the overly bureaucratic method of selecting seniority that perfectly lampoons democracy whilst making perfect sense on a second reading. In fact, the first two pages were awesome. 
Verdict: meh

Among Humans: survive as a monster in a human world.
Online "forum roleplay" in which commenters GM the results of your narrative. Commenters also join factions to ruin you in different ways. It’s possible to start playing right now.
Best bit: "for one player and the internet"
Verdict: Elite

Anonym: Secret agents protecting (and occasionally abusing) the True Names of powerful entities. 
Great concept unapologetically running with a Lacuna/Unknown Armies vibe. I’d like some more examples of Nomen powers, but it’s a pretty decent effort on the whole, and a sweet idea. 
Best bit: the real-time character creation instruction sheet. 
Verdict: Contender.

Anthill: Mutated ants struggle to save their colony whilst trying to understand their changing place among it. 
thoroughly workable idea and a boring but respectable percentile system. Really pretty character sheets and a good selection of funky mutations. Not bad at all. 
Best Bit: clean, elegant character sheets and other reference documents. 
Verdict: OK

Apprentice, Wizard, Familiar: Capricious spirits helping you cheat on your Hogwarts exams. 
Collaborating on the tale of one central character is a treat and the game mechanics are appropriately simple. Good rip on Potterism with a cheeky twist. 
Best bit:  the highly entertaining spell components.
Verdict: Contender

Aquila: Dynastic politics and power games in a constantly developing environment. 
Seems to end rather abruptly, but a very interesting game. The base mechanic is so-so, but there’s enough interesting elements included to raise the bar significantly. Nice to see a contents page, too. 
Best bit: the circle-drawing island creation mechanic that helps you build the game’s environment together. 
Verdict: Contender

Arcane Engines: People gifted with the ability to warp reality struggle against The Man and their own power. Simple take on an old idea using a deck of playing cards and some broad strokes. Not entirely my cup of tea and could do with some more flavor. 
Best bit:  bit: the more you change the scene, the closer you get to reality-whiplash. 
Verdict: OK 

At Any Cost: 2 player storytelling game using custom cards. 
More like an alternative to Once Upon A Time than a true rpg, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact that you are competing over Anchors is a lot of fun. 
Best bit:  Excellent printable sheets for all the cards. Top job.
Verdict: Elite

Automaton: AI detectives race their human counterparts to solve robot-related crime. 
My initial caution soon gave way to respect. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Useful GM tools for tracking the progress and corruption of the human investigators is handy and the AI castes are well presented. 
Best bit: the wonderful map charting the current status of your AI and the actions it can take. Very smart. 
Verdict: Elite

Bag Pulling Game: Combat-based fantasy revolving around drawing tokens from a hat (or bag, as it were). 
Not a lot of meat here, but kudos for trying something different. A light system with a focus on collaboration in fighting. 
Best bit:  the fact that flaws are called Baggage (because the game uses a bag, yeah?) 
Verdict: meh

Bakehouse Brawl: Mix two parts WWE with one part Iron Chef.. 
A great concept let down by a lack of useful rules. The cooking aspect barely gets a look-in other than to add flavor (see what I did there?) but the descriptive text is worth a laugh. 
Best bit: encouraging non-participants in a fight to be the commentary team (which would have been a prime opportunity to give them GM powers). 
Verdict: meh

Blue Shift: When life dumps garbage on you, make garbage-life. 
An entertaining little romp on a HoL/Low Life scale with a core system that allows you to use random dice. Not entirely workable, but a fun idea. The artwork doesn’t entirely suit the content, but nice to see some colour. 
Best bit: the description of how galactic refuse can create life. 
Verdict: OK

Bootleggers: Firefly gets the Apocalypse World treatment. 
Seriously, there’s a lot of words wasted here which could have been replaced with “we’re playing Firefly”. It isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really get me wanting to venture into their “Big Ol’ Black”. 
Best bit: the cute little Blackjack-esque mechanic that makes every roll a risk.
Verdict: meh

Children’s Radio Hour: Entertain the kids or get the axe.
One hour game format which only allows certain times to speak out of character at the risk of Dead Air. A roleplaying challenge with Nordic gaming sensibilities. 
Best bit: ready to play sheets and the strict timing structure.
Verdict: Contender

Conspiracy and Cowards: Viva le revolution! 
A highly polished game about usurping power. Playbooks, maps, GM tables and index cards are all available and elegantly presented. Really good game. 
Best bit: where many other games say “add complications and agendas” this one gives some simple tools to help you. 
Verdict: Elite

Damned: Political manoeuvrings in Hell. 
Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but the design is appealing and clean. You play demons who want to advance in rank but further details are thin on the ground. 
Best bit: welcome examples of potential plots. 
Verdict: meh

Dark Secret: Three act narrative where a secret identity is exposed. 
Great little game with superb layout. Almost ready to go, though needs some fleshing out on a couple of important Associate archetypes (bit lazy there, guys). Other than that niggle, one of the best. 
Best bit: fluid, simple storytelling techniques understandable to veterans and newbies alike. 
Verdict: Contender

Double Potions: Make a potion; pass the class. 
More Hogwarts humour here as you and your classmates try to complete a potion whilst engaging in Munchausen-esque banter. The final verdict of “Professor Snoop” seems highly arbitrary, though. On the whole, I prefer Apprentice, Wizard, Familiar. (Note: most downloaded game at this time). 
Best bit: Snoop’s caustic chart for grading your work. 
Verdict: OK

Eat at Joes: Alien witness-protection in a ‘50s Earth diner. 
High concept, but low on playable rules. Heaps of suggestions, but needs a more solid framework. Completely random scales for character creation with minimal examples for ratings leads to too many unanswered questions. 
Best bit: nice archetypes for NPCs for a GM to chuck in at a moment’s notice.
Verdict: meh

Faery Wedding Reception Party Game: Fairy court game with card mechanics. 
Sets itself up like a freeform larp where you build the characters on the fly, but doesn’t quite nail it. Would work better as a tool to help create a larp rather than a game in itself, especially since the setting and system would take quite a long time to explain to a group. 
Best bit: the narrative Keys that reward you for acting in character. 
Verdict: OK

Fallen Sky: irradiated western survival drama
Great setting and a cool card mechanic about deck turnover. One of the few card games so far that takes some deck-construction game concepts. Not the most brilliant system, but looks intuitive once you get the hang of it. Worth checking out.
Best bit: randomly assigned letters from home that help build your characters in-game. Could be explored in more depth, but is a fantastic idea supporting an equally interesting game
Verdict: Contender

Fear of the Dark: kids fight against the darkness whilst avoiding being put back to bed.
Really cute game with a built in time mechanic. Does what it sets out to achieve with aplomb. Would be a heap of fun to play, especially as a teenager character.  
Best bit: Having a charm that helps against the darkness, such as teddy or your favourite book. 
Verdict: Contender

Fetch This: revenge and rebellion against your human overlords.
Sparsely ruled game with a fun sense of humour. Best played lightly and the system is appropriate, largely relying on not wasting all your dice or else you’ll get caught. Examples are inspiring and cute.
Best bit: the freedom to play as a goldfish, even though that would really suck
Verdict: Contender

Field Work: ”Have you tried turning the tentacles off and on again?” 
Hilarious take on the supernatural investigator genre. Having everyone else act in various GM capacities during your scene is a great idea and the framework of a working day totally nails this form of roleplaying. System is minimal and discardable, but the storytelling techniques are well made. 
Best bit:  The hilarious fiction pieces. 
Verdict: Elite

Flashback and Fate: changing the past to achieve the future.
Microscopesque exploration of history design where you get to alter the timeline so that you can lead the story toward your goal. I wasn’t huge on the core mechanic and found the game a bit dry before long. 
Best bit: core principles of the game stated right up front. Appreciated.  
Verdict: OK

Forgeborn: creating magic items for mighty heroines (or heroes) to save the world. 
This is fantastic. I really enjoyed reading this. Strongly board-game influenced, you get to create it together. Nicely arranged and clear rules. Very different, but a brilliant addition to the toolbox. There’s a lot of ideas here that you’ll steal for home games.
Best bit: dropping dice on a sheet to create the map. I applauded the screen reading that. Genius! 
Verdict: Contender

Friends of the Venom Spider: power, manipulation and insects. 
Political power struggle using the insect world as a metaphor. Could lead to some heated Diplomacy-esque resentment around the tabletop, but only if you’re playing to win. And you want to play to win. A good Spider is what can make this game special. 
Best bit: The character creation quiz is a good twist. And the confrontational spider image on the cover lets you know that no holds are barred.
Verdict: Contender

Galactic Arena: intergalactic Olympics with Earth’s reputation on the line. 
Simple card customization engine, but could do with just a bit more in the way of examples and templates. Some printable cards would step this up a rank. Bit of fun. 
Best Bit: personal goals, which could have been more influential. 
Verdict: OK

Game of the Gods: mythical adventures where you build the pantheon of deities. 
I’ve always liked the classical hero-god politics of the ancient world, and this game captures the divine pettiness well. Printout charts and simple tables for resolutions are good game design and the whole package is ready to play. Bravo. 
Best bit: the nice use of having the twelve face cards of your deck being indicative of each of the twelve gods you’ll be creating. Clever.
Verdict: Contender

Gashlycrumb: trapped in the minds of Victorian schoolchildren haunted by the ghastly Umbrellaman.
Not sure if this game actually requires the “trapped in the mind of another” aspect, but the system supplied for it is solid. The charts aren’t clearly explained, but the options on them are great as storytelling tools. Some endgame options and ideas would have been nice. Macabre little read and could be a bit of fun, especially if the role of the children was explored more. 
Best bit: the wonderfully creepy Umbrellaman who serves as antagonist to the game. 
Verdict: OK

Gho5t: digital exploration of Emergent Intelligence. 
Token sharing narrative game set in a cyberfuture “network” with a simple game engine, but the true power is the gorgeous presentation. Open source cyber-wallpapers have been used to startling effect, though the system doesn’t slack off to ride the coat-tails; it calls shotgun and pulls its weight. 
Best bit: the very first time you open the document and go, “Ooh…” 
Verdict: Contender

High Velocity Times at Space High: high school antics in spaaaaace. 
There’s a lot of appeal in playing Futurama High School (as I’m calling it) and the mechanics try not to get in the way (roll d12s because they look the spaceyist, indeed). Some tighter GM tools would have been welcome, but a good effort. 
Best bit:  thumbs up, thumbs down mechanic for popularity contests.
Verdict: OK

Hound/ed: 2 player cat and mouse chase. 
One player is the Hound; the other is the Hounded. Play cards to gain narrative control and see who gets gobbled up. Uses a custom deck of cards, though you have to design them yourself. Printables would have raised the bar. Would make a decent packaged card game concept.
Best bit: a lot of these games have left the parameters for story options too wide, so I appreciated solid card enforcements (“You flee the Hound. How?”) 
Verdict: OK

House of Hades: finding meaning in the world of the dead. 
A dark, spooky journey with the novel approach of using dominoes. Very exciting. Lovely character creation and use thereof with a satisfying endgame. Loving the gothic horror vibe and the resolution method alike. Great work. 
Best bit:  they call the dominoes “bones” in a game about the dead. Ha!
Verdict: Contender

If at first you don’t succeed: fuck it up, fix it up.
Groundhog Day style time loops encourage you to fail your objectives so that you can come back and fix them later. Playable in multiple genres and the list they offer is exciting and ready to play. Takes a simple Microscope basis and improves on the design. Much more elegant than it looks. 
Best bit: the backwards timer of game sections fits the theme and is refreshing for a reviewer. 
Verdict: Contender

Imperial Measure: Make enough to last one more lifetime.
Use your experiences and memories of previous lifetimes to earn enough credits to pay the Empire for another one. I like the concept and the simplicity of the game. I would like to see more options to overcome challenges than the two presented, but both of them are excellent. 
Best bit: totally different rules for different types of risk-taking.
Verdict: Contender

In A Week of Sharks: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
Party game in the Werewolf mould but with a giant man-eating shark called Vescor. Rock, paper,  scissors mechanics for a social environment and a good selection of scene cards help you tell a tale on the fly. A couple of tweaks and printable cards would raise this into Contender ranking (and it so deserves to  be one). I love it, but it just misses out.
Best bit:  Vescor always wins when he wants to eat someone. Chomp! 
Verdict: OK

It Is Forbidden: culture clash and escalating tension. 
No dice, no cards, no randomisers. Perfect party game and handy educational tool about identity and prejudice. Best played with a lot of people and great for social gamers. A brilliant alternative to Werewolf/Mafia. 
Best bit: you’ll always have half the room opposing you and the other half backing you all the way. 
Verdict: Elite.

Keeping Counsel: courtly politics and narrative bribery.
I really was liking this, but it feels unfinished. The endgame seems lacking and the number system could be minimized. Not to say this is bad – it’s really very good and I love the voting system in principle. But it just doesn’t make the cut.
Best bit: bribing other players with advantages so you can maintain narrative control. 
Verdict: OK 

King of Bones: jazz musicians trying to keep on side with the Boss. 
Using music as a key game mechanic is a really hard idea to pull off and this game almost gets it done. The set pieces with the Boss are fertile roleplaying ground, but the system doesn’t quite reach the target. A bold and valiant effort. 
Best bit: the Boss, who is never completely happy. 
Verdict: OK

Langer Memorial Trauma Centre: gruelling shifts as an overworked night-watch doctor. 
Original setting with some things to say about the nature of healthcare. I almost lost a bit of interest when they brought in some system mechanics, but the GM-only section put it into perspective. A good brainfucker that takes an artistic approach to game design.
Best bit: the big reveal. 
Verdict: Contender

Last Year’s Magic: boastful old wizards argue over drinks at the pub.
I love the “box” here, and the Munchausen style of play. Easily done over drinks in dressing gowns. Fun party game if you strip out the deck (or replace it with more specialized set of cards). Easy enough to get a grip on and a load of good, clean fun. 
Best bit: coming up with preposterous excuses when your magic goes haywire. 
Verdict: Elite

Life As It Was: childhood after the adult apocalypse. 
A dark premise about growing up the hard way. Simple system with ready-to-run character booklets of minimal length. The archetypes are great, the system is solid, and it seems to work well. Probably won’t hit my final selection, but worth a second look. 
Best bit: the dark reflections of each of your advantages. 
Verdict: Contender

Magical Mystery Tour: Sell out or stay true to the music. 
I love musical band games. This one follows a ‘60s band as they struggle between pursuing their muse or falling into the corporate machine. The two GM method is a good touch and the Virtue/Vice system allows for good customization and conflict, but there could have been a better core system than “roll 2d6 and add appropriate”. Surely there could have been something more inspired. 
Best bit:  Simple, clear instructions and just enough options to kick your creativity into gear without getting in the way. 
Verdict: Contender

Millennia: Playing through the mythic ages of a history.
More Microscopey goodness, but this game offers so much more variety. Playing as world-building titans is a different experience to playing rulers of nations later on and the rules wisely change as the various ages are introduced. Has a great sense of flow and direction offering a wide range of storytelling techniques. Intelligent and interesting.
Best bit: like a series of mini-games that all flow together nicely. It could have become chaotic, but has been reigned in beautifully. 
Verdict: Contender

Mixtapes and Mistakes: college party goes wrong. 
Subject matter may be too much for some, but a great little game where taking risks saves you from dying but raise your chances of going to jail later on. A simple freeform game and a good structure. Swapping and stealing Risk tokens from other players looks like fun. 
Best bit: the dying player gets to become the detective handling their own death. 
Verdict: Contender

Muscle Wizards vs Lazer Dinosaurs - Turbo Vampire Edition: well, someone had some fun. 
Almost like the three game designers said, “Fuck the contest; let’s get shitfaced.” The humour is out of control and is honestly quite a laugh. However, it should have maintained the same tongue in cheek attitude to game design (“draw a picture of you being a FUCKEN BADASS” would have done the job). Unlike many other games, this never needed a working system and should have spent the time keeping the giggles going. 
Best bit: the funniest of the funny games and essential for those of you who’ve already read a lot of the games so far.
Verdict: OK

No Myth: the consequences of planning for the wrong apocalypse.
You need more than a setting, a couple of working rules and some nice ideas to make a fully working game. The conflict resolution is baseline and the storytelling tools comprise of a page that is all advice and no actual help. 
Best bit: very useful resource cards keep this out of “meh” territory. 
Verdict: OK

Platonic Mastery: philosopher-wizards of classical Greece try to counter the atrocities of the state. 
Great idea with an odd die mechanic. Deciding on the sins of your culture is a good hook, though I feel like the game isn’t quite finished. Can do with some polish, but doesn’t require much.
Best Bit: the callings that state not only what you see as a crime but what you plan to do about it. 
Verdict: OK

Pony Express: My Little Pony the online roleplay. 
I’ve only recently begun looking at the world of online text-based roleplaying, though I’ve seen few systems that could make it work. Pony Express, however, has got the problems covered. I probably wouldn’t play it with the setting supplied, but I’m prepared to give the “friendship is magic” train a ride. 
Best bit:  the use of keywords to influence the story and use your abilities. Really good narrative tool.
Verdict: Elite

Psycheball: cyber sportsmen risk their minds for glory.
Sports games have never been a big thing for me, but I like the league aspect. I also can’t see a lot of reason not to use regular sport rather than mundane ones as the central concept, and the rules don’t feel cyber, either. It’s a neat clean work, but doesn’t have the X factor. 
Best bit: playing through the matches in mid-session mini-games. 
Verdict: OK

Psychic Detective Agency: improv theatre with psychic cops directing the scene. 
The line between roleplay and improve theatre can be real thin at times. Central mechanic here is improv theatre, but with the added framework of different psychics responsible for establish the past, present and future. Less theatrical players might baulk at it, but it’s a good little improv game. (Not sure about using the term American Freeform, though…)
Best bit: unashamed theatre game core. 
Verdict: Contender

Q: a tale of the recent war against the monsters. 
Would take a little bit of setting up, but could be a great experience. The concept is nice, but the mechanics don’t excite me at all. Still, holds its own in the narrative department. 
Best bit: The Dungeon Crawl Classics-like joy of having multiple characters that can die in horrific ways.
Verdict: OK

Salt Crown: Spanish Civil War superheroes. 
Very simplistic game that is more interested in the effects of war than the superpowers you possess. Sadly another great idea let down by a boring game engine. The text could have given us more flavor and the criminally overlooked piece of history the game deals with seems discardable or easily replaced. 
Best bit: the unique subcategories given to character attributes. 
Verdict: OK

Sandbox like: simulating old-school campaigns in a fraction of the time.
There’s very little in the way of Old School Roleplaying/Renaissance in this competition, but Sandbox Like is giving it a try. Some of the rules seem unusual (what’s with Clerics getting screwed for hit points?) and the game became a bit too dry after a while. Not as good as Forgeborn.
Best bit: the simple index card method of creating your map
Verdict: OK

Shadow of Ares: colonial space drama. 
I haven’t encountered any outright bad games so far, but someone did fuck this one up a bit. The setting, timeline and locations are fantastic, but the system is awful and the writing for the most part is abominable. At least one of the earlier contributors did some great work, but the final product is the worst I’ve seen so far. Sorry guys. 
Best bit: really good alternate timeline and some great flavor excited me at first. 
Verdict: meh

Shinobi Village: long forgotten island of ninjas adjust to the modern world. 
A lot of passion went into the setting, but it just isn’t for me (though I like the graph showing the inhabitants and their relationships.) The rock-paper-scissors mechanic is a bit tired (apart from fighting) and the structure of play is a bit too loose. 
Best bit: the novel idea of throwing one hand over your heart (showing defense) and the other extended (as attack) for combat. Brilliant addition to “throwing fists’ mechanics. 
Verdict: OK

Silver Tongues: bluff, boast and baffle your way to success. 
A storyteller’s game at heart, Silver Tongues uses a gambling mechanic to tell stories. However, the framework seems a bit arbitrary and there’s a lack of focus that can’t be excused as a byproduct of allowing freedom for creativity. 
Best bit: the dueling mechanic where the person to come up with the most puns wins, and a similar seduction mechanic that utilizes double-entendres, lift this game a ranking.  
Verdict: OK

Space Problems argh: star trekkin’ with a possible traitor that even the GM doesn’t know about.
For such a simple looking game there’s a lot of good work here. The traitor mechanic is great and the basic system is fine. But the true beauty is in the charts that help you make quick space encounters on the fly. Countdown clocks denote mission priorities and party collaboration is key. Could have done with a helpful sheet of “clocks” for the GM. 
Best bit:  three alternatives for the traitor’s goal, so you can never be sure if there’s one at the table or not. 
Verdict: Contender 

Spiral Star: larp one-shot with some strange happenings on a yacht. 
Great little scenario with a perfect box that you can run in your own home. Simple layout and intuitive play are bonuses and the essential custom play cards are all provided. Ready to play with a bunch of friends in your own home. Perfect con or party game. 
Best bit:  knowing your Horrible Doom ahead of time, but trying anyway. 
Verdict: Elite

State Cinema: Entertaining the One True State with propaganda of the leader.
The concept here is hilarious and darkly entertaining. Some of the simpler elements are wonderful, but I dislike interrupting scenes in their height to bring in randomized dice resolutions. These should be worked out either before the scene or in another way. Likewise the family scenes could have been smoother. Needs a bit of work to realize its full, glorious potential. Regardless, I love it.
Best bit: three different players get to blindly collaborate on a picture of the despotic ruler.
Verdict: Contender

Tales From the Vasty Deep: troubleshooters on the space frontier. 
Starts off with a cute premise and then falls flat discussing a game system that is little more than bare bones. Uninspiring. 
Best bit: playing the actual good guys. 
Verdict: meh

Tales on the Weird Seas: anthropomorphic boats OSR adventures. 
There aren’t many “classic” roleplaying games in the competition (the word limit is one reason) so this is highly welcome. A simple system, it lets you take a standard D&D style adventure and replace the humanoids with Tubby the Tugboat. Built with kids in mind, but would be just as fun for adults. 
Best bit: includes its own monster manual section! 
Verdict: Elite

The Book of Armaments: tale of a weapon and those whose hands have wielded it. 
Great setup and revolving GM process, but the card mechanics are a bit dull. Everyone would have a lot of fun playing the Weapon. Decent, but not A-grade. 
Best bit: Comprehensive example of play. 
Verdict: OK

The Clinic: medical institution horror. 
It’s unclear just how many of the evils of this setting are purely in the minds of the PCs, and the confusion is perfect for the setting. Yes, No, And, and But largely comprise the narrative mechanic with some card trading going on as well. Works, but feels like it’s missing something. 
Best bit:  rewarding PCs acting in accordance with the Clinic’s inaccurate hypotheses.
Verdict: Contender

The Coven: dealing with the Devil. 
Texas Hold ‘Em mechanics where you can succeed despite your hand if you let the Big Bad fuck you up. A great idea that would work in conjunction with something meatier, but is unfinished. I like the central mechanic but the package isn’t quite there. 
Best bit: the tense bargaining scenes where tabletalk provides the central entertainment. 
Verdict: OK

The Deep: the deepest space, the darkest place. 
Space exploration where the universe meets the edges of the world of nightmares. Although play mechanics are simple, the game relies far too heavily on the GM’s ability to create stories and gives her few techniques or tools to help her. The core mechanic is dull, too. Fine from the player POV, but annoying for the GM. 
Best bit: you get to haunt your old party members if you die and get the ability to screw them over. 
Verdict: OK

The Dream Palace: exploration of story through the connection of the unconnected. 
With the right group of players this could be awesome. You each take a moment of your day, jam them together and find meaning in them. A total stoner experience in some ways, and I could see a group of players becoming really close over time. Much deeper than it appears. 
Best bit: could possibly change the way you look at the world.
Verdict: Elite

The End: all alone in the night. 
There’s an awkward moment here when you realize that you know how to set up this game, and you know how to run the midpoint, but actually starting the game is totally unclear. Uses a FUDGE lite mechanic, but not sure what really to use it for. Is it a survival drama? A reflective soul journey? Lacks focus. 
Best bit: the opening, where you work out what caused The End.
Verdict: meh

The Hot Seat: an infernal day at the office. 
Corporate politics in a company owned by evil powers. Uses a token and hat system that seems like it could work well (though I can’t quite pinpoint when they change value). Making characters in an interview process is perfect for the setting and the hidden agendas create inter-player conflict quickly. 
Best bit: the hilarious different departments and their sinister motives. 
Verdict: Elite

The Mask and the Daydream: adventures in your own subconscious.
A one-player game that feels more like an exercise in creative thinking and mind-mapping. Has a few good motivators but very little in the way of tools to help you daydream effectively. I admire and respect the ambitious idea at heart here, but I don’t think it achieves what it sets out to do. Largely, you can replace the entire game with the phrase “daydream and use some kind of creative outlet to express it.”
Best bit: a truly one-player game (though maybe not a game at all)
Verdict: OK

The Perfected City: family politics and the duels that define their struggle. 
Conflict scenes dominate this game and are given the majority of attention, which is a welcome change from “make up any scene” game design. Mechanics are a simple voting system where you give advantage to your preferred storyteller. Crisp presentation, though what’s with the big blue boxes? 
Best Bit: detailed culture that someone has spent a lot of time on. 
Verdict: Contender

The Policy of Truth: CIA handlers and their Iraqi agents try to influence Baghdad in September 2004.
Brave choice of subject matter that could have become too dry or deep, but it has been handled perfectly and is constantly engaging. A two-player game at heart, though could be adapted for more. The sheets, handouts and other tools are professionally presented and the minimal mechanic suits this game. One of the best games made in the contest. 
Best bit: CIA-style character sheets where you run a black marker over everything that isn’t true. Brilliant!  
Verdict: Elite

The Prophet’s Price: fulfilling destiny using the Tarot.
There’s a lot to like about using tarot cards to help you tell stories, but this game simply feels incomplete. Conflicts and base mechanics are largely hand-waved off and the techniques used to interpret cards are almost non-existent. Maybe that’s intended to make a comment on the traditional use of such cards, but that’s probably a stretch.
Best bit: you don’t need to be familiar with the cards to play.
Verdict: OK

The Quantum Haruspex: cyber-wizards repair holes in reality. 
Microscope meets Dixit with a tarot deck. Always nice to see an attempt to use a tarot deck, but a little tired of “interpret as you will”. Core mechanics consist of consensual interpretation with a revolving GM. The basic world idea is a bit more interesting than the other VR settings I’ve read, but it still just feels like an excuse to include anything.
Best bit: dropping just enough guidance to use the tarot deck without stifling imagination.
Verdict: Contender

The Red Token: Can you be forgiven for your atrocities? 
An exploration of guilt and redemption, it uses a basic voting mechanic to decide on the endgame. I love that it focuses not on if you are able to complete a task but on the morality behind your choice to do it. Could be confronting or an absolute riot. 
Best bit: the game ends once each player has contributed a major vote to the story.
Verdict: Elite

The Rending of the Veil: sci-fi meets fantasy in an epic tale of transformation. 
There are many submitted games which can be set any a variety of places, but The Rending of the Veil is one of the few to supply a full workable setting (though it does give a lot of scope for customization). There’s a lot of intuitive ideas in the setting and characters are given great power. The mechanics are simple and effective and the supplied map is a treat. Really good game and brilliantly presented.
Best bit:  The map which is integral to gameplay. 
Verdict: Elite

The Reunion: a damaged family is brought together, or falls further apart. 
Family drama where discovering secrets can help you on the path to reconciliation. Has one of the best methods for creating connections between characters that I’ve seen (though the die rolling should be optional). Good game for casual gamers and veterans alike. 
Best bit: placing common items between players to symbolize their connection to each other.
Verdict: Contender

The Spirit of Nations: defending your culture against invasion and destruction.
One of the few games to readily admit that is a mechanic that you can add to another game of your choice. Well done, guys. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. However, I don’t really know why the game went for a “lower dice is better” mechanic.  
Best bit: ”Use this in conjunction with your favourite system.” 
Verdict: OK

The World As Such: subversive take on the art of game design. 
Absolutely brilliant! Takes the idea of roleplaying games as artform and then totally scraps any notion of needing to be a game at all. In some ways this is a game about interpretation and can be played with any number of people. Maybe it isn’t a game at all, but a form of freestyle jazz only understood by gamers and poets. 
Best bit: the S. Morgenstern-esque conceit underlying it all. 
Verdict: Elite

Through the Woods: lost children seeking their way home.
This really looked like it was going somewhere, what with each suit being trumped by another and the appealing concept, but it falls flat. Yet one more game that encourages you to roleplay but never quite gives you the right tools. Nicely presented, but some poor syntax lets it down. 
Best bit: the trumping order. 
Verdict: OK

Timelines: time traveller uses butterfly effect on own lifetime. 
Playing different versions of the one character at odds with each other is a pretty funny idea and conjures up a lot of Rick and Morty-style shenanigans. Good use of Microscope principles but keeps things directed with a linear timeline that can break if you stretch it too much. 
Best bit:  having complete autonomy over the scene you’ve travelled to because you’ve seen it before and know what to do this time.
Verdict: Elite

Titanomachy: ancient Greek gods develop their ascent to primacy. 
Follows the gods as they consolidate their power through gaining followers. Develops from affecting lone believers and on to nations and entire cultures. Sadly, there’s no framework really for storytelling, so this is yet another gaming aid and not a full game. Pretty good work, though. 
Best bit: the big ol’ list of powers. 
Verdict: OK

To Return a Wallet: doing the right thing is harder than it looks.
A game for one player and multiple GMs. Such a simple idea but an utterly inspired one. Players and GMs use the stuff in their pockets to affect the story and the example lists are excellent. Fitting somewhere between competitive and collaborative play, this game is a delight. 
Best bit: finding out how important your trivial belongings can be.
Verdict: Elite

Transmission: finding out what happened to a space colony.
A simple text document, but a great game. First part of play has you creating transmissions from a lost colony; the second part has you examine the colony’s aftermath and draw conclusions as to its fate. Could be used for a variety of forensics set-pieces.
Best bit:  a non-conflict game, but the optional action rules are really good and not just tacked on for completion’s sake. 
Verdict: Elite

Twilight Hotel: mysterious happenings in a quaint setting.
Great method of setting up with characters being introduced to the game by checking in and being shown to their rooms before being brought together for dinner. Keeps the locked-box mystery tropes coming and I love how you silently signal your intentions or support by moving the position of your dice. Sadly, for all of its charm, it remains a discardable paperback and not a masterpiece. 
Best bit: the sweet use of hotel terms for various game elements. 
Verdict: OK

Ultranormal Encounters: interrogating amnesiac abductees. 
I’m not too sure on the system but it seems okay. However, the idea is fine and the floating narrative framework is accessible and solid. There are a lot of example playbooks to use, too, giving some direction for participants. 
Best bit:  includes tools to help you design your own playbooks, which a lot of games have neglected to do.
Verdict: Contender

Under the Broken Moons: post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy.
A really cool setting and a die-drop method of map making excites me, and I really like that your core traits are Savagery, Science, and Sorcery. But they seem largely unexplained with Sorcery being entirely thrown under the bus. Could have been great, but instead is just plain good.
Best bit: the explanation of what’s really happening. 
Verdict: OK 

VHS Fury: a B-grade movie studio employees try to make the best films they can. 
A four-player game ideally played with a timer. Presents competition well, but also encourages collaboration. The arguing and bidding mechanic is clever in that it has both long and short term tactics. A clever game in many ways but keeps the focus on fun.
Best bit: the four character types have links to the visual look of suits. 
Verdict: Elite

Village Council: “trump-making, trick-taking, rpg butt-kicking.” 
The document ends with a note stating that the game is unfinished, and I’m glad that was admitted. The card game that forms the heart of the system isn’t my style, but I appreciate the idea. The symbolism for the suits and Seasons is nice, but it seems like the storytelling could lose immersion in such a tactical game. 
Best bit: the idea that you’re running various guilds and institutions. 
Verdict: OK

Voyage of the Promethean: 2spaceship tale of failure and desperation. 
There’s so much good work here that it’s a shame that it doesn’t all come together. Character Roles are dealt with nicely, Plot Consequences and Skill Tags are both neat, and Mood mechanic is funky, but it leaves me a bit baffled. The individual parts are excellent, but it becomes a bit of a sprawl. One of the crunchier narrative games. Needs some printouts, too.
Best bit: a positive mood helps you use benefits, but a bad mood lets you draw on your flaws. 
Verdict: OK

Wizarding: another Harry Potter game.
Largely guidelines and advice for running a Harry Potter game, but the tools provided are scarce and there are other, better examples of this type of game in the competition. The system left me bored, as a whole. 
Best bit: collective dice pool that diminishes as you get into trouble, amping up the tension. 
Verdict: meh

Yearbooks in Disgrace: high school hijinks. 
Sets itself up as a rebellious coming-of-age tale, but it seems to be more encouraging of playing by the rules. The Gain/Strain mechanic is really good and fits well with the ability to add or reroll dice. The four character scales are a good template for the traits for any “school-days” rpg. But it needs a bit more direction and polish. 
Best bit: Gain and Strain. 
Verdict: OK

Zen Flashback Battle Zero: supercharged duel between two old foes. 
A Last Airbender/Dragonball Z setup, this game is a two player card battle. The twist is that the history of the two characters fighting is only revealed during play. More card game than true rpg and could have gotten a much better grade if it supplied printable cards. Pity. 
Best bit: the possibility that you could end up realizing you’re fighting over nothing.
Verdict: OK

My next step is to select my Top 5 from the Elites. I'll probably write that up.

Pleasee let me know if you found this useful. To all of you currently enjoying the #threeforged ride, hope you're having as much fun with it as I am. 

Special thanks to Alan for the neat review chart available here. You rock, tiger.

All authors (and their drafts) can be found here.