Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ludorama #2: "Fiasco" by Jason Morningstar

Title: Fiasco
Author: Jason Morningstar
Year: 2009
Price: 12$ pdf, 25$ book+pdf, link
Size: 130 pages

Genre: black comedy; slapstick; crime
Themes: great ambitions and poor impulse control; big dreams and flawed execution; lives that get fucked up by gigantic stupidity

Number of players: 3-5
Player roles: no differentiation; everyone plays one character
Preparation: none
Length of game: 2-3 hours

Rules complexity: low (but you need some big tables)
Resolution: specified number of successful and unsuccessful scenes; player's choose which scenes will be which
Online playability: medium/high

Capsule overview: An easy to understand, quick game about people with big ambitions and poor impulse control. You will go from a tense situation full of potential to an absolute mess in a very short time, as the characters get themselves and each other into more and more trouble. Do not expect happy endings, but glory in the absolute train-wreck that it all will become. The playsets and tilt do a lot to stimulate your creativity, and help you get and keep the game up to speed. Highly recommended. (Based on playing the game twice.)

Detailed overview: A game of Fiasco starts by choosing a playset and creating a situation. A playset is a set of four tables, each detailing 36 items organised in 6 categories of 6 items. One table has relationships, like "Family - grandparent/grandchild" or "Romance - former spouses". One table has needs, like "To get even - with this town, for what is has turned you into" or "To get rich - through tricking a handicapped guy." The third and fourth table define objects and places, respectively.

As a group, you roll a big pile of dice, and then take turns using these dice to assign relationships, needs, objects and places to the characters. On my turn, I might write down the relationship category "Friendship" between your character and mine. I would then take a 3 from the pile of dice, because this playset indicates that "Friendship" is category 3. If there are no 3's left, I can't choose this category. Then you might use a 5 to add the specific relationship "Friends with benefits," which is number 5 in category 3. Again, you can only do this if there is a 5 left.

This way, you'll end up with a situation that is partly chosen by the players and partly determined by the dice. You then flesh out the characters and what they want, and once everybody has an idea about what's going on, you start playing.

Play consists of discrete scenes focussing on one active character. That character's player can either choose to start the scene -- telling what his character is up to -- or end the scene -- choosing a black or white die from the pool in the middle of the table, which indicate failure or success respectively. (Dice are never rolled during scenes, they act only as black/white tokens.) The other players get to do the other thing. Obviously, if you choose to determine how the scene ends, they'll generally narrate how your character is involved in a really stupid plan that you probably don't even want to succeed.

Halfway through the game, two surprising events are determined using the Tilt Table. Some examples of tilts are "Betrayed by friends," "Something precious is on fire" and "The wrong guy gets busted." These events are then worked into the next scenes.

At the end of the game everyone rolls the dice they have collected. You count up the white and the black dice, then subtract the smaller from the larger number. The closer you get to 0, the worse you are off. ("You are probably dead. Other people, probably innocent people, are as well. There is no justice, there is no mercy, everything is utterly, painfully screwed and it is all -- all of it -- your fault." Rolling 0 is even worse.) Happy endings for a character are possible, but somewhat unlikely. Everybody gets to establish the fate of their own character by narrating a couple of short vignettes.

Context: Jason Morningstar is a prolific game designer, as can be seen here. His best known games, apart from Fiasco, might be The Shab al-Hiri Roach, a 2006 game about backstabbing academics and a mind-controlling roach (link); Grey Ranks, a 2007 game about young Polish partisans in the 1944 Warsaw uprising (link); and Durance, a 2012 game about a penal colony in space (link).

More good-humoured than Fiasco, but just as much given to slapstick, is Jared A. Sorensen's Inspectres. Just as bloody, but with even less rules, shorter and a distinct party-game feel is Great Ork Gods by Jack Aidley.

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