Thursday, March 13, 2014

TABLE TOP THURSDAY: Machine of Death

How are you going to die? That is the premise of the book I bought a few years ago. A machine tells you the manner of your death. Granted it can be a little vague. Old age can mean what you think it means or it could mean that you are mowed over by an octogenarian who feel asleep at the wheel. Written by noted webcomic authors Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), David Malki (Wondermark) and others, the book was published a few years ago, followed by the user-submitted follow-up This is How You Die more recently. I fell in love with the original and raved about it quite a lot. Basically it is a set of short stories and illustrations that range from the tragic to the humorous. So worth the read.

When E saw on Kickstarter that they were trying to fund a game version of the book, he had to let me know . And then he was kind enough to get it for me, because he is that cool of a guy. We received it a bit ago, but haven’t really had the time to play until now.

The premise of the game is this: Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination is a storytelling game set in a world in which a machine can predict how a person will die with 100% accuracy with only a small blood sample. However, the machine delights in being vague and twisted. A card reading "Old Age" could mean you die in your sleep at age 120, or it could mean you're run over tomorrow by an elderly driver who forgot to take his pills today. Players of the game take the role of assassins, who must use the various tools at their disposal -- from storytelling to a slew of items available from specialty Black Market shops -- to create a situation in which a target is killed in a way in line with their Death Prediction. The Machine of Death Game uses this basic idea, of assassins working in a world were cause of death is known to create various game modes.

The General Gameplay of most modes works like this:
• A target is assigned, and given certain details (including Death Prediction, and possibly extra details like a favourite food or crippling phobia).
• Players – assassins – are given Black Market Gift Cards. This is their inventory, what they have to use in order to accomplish their goal: killing the target.
• Players use the Gift Cards to devise a plan.
• The plan is greenlit, either by a Chief player, or via consensus, depending on game mode.
• The timer starts and the plan is put into action. This is represented by dice rolling to beat a "difficulty score." An unlikely plan hinging on a single item may need to roll a 6 for that item, but a rock-solid intricate plan may need to only roll a 2 for all Black Market Gift Cards used.
• The plan is revised, in case of failure of one or more dice rolls. The details of this portion vary greatly from mode to mode, but involve either replacing Black Market Items, creating a new viable plan with the existing items, or calling in "Specialists"
• The target is either killed or escapes. Again, depending on mode, this is either the end of the round or the game.

Game Modes:
•Head-to-Head Mode that's very similar to Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples. There's a judge ("the Chief"), who decides whose assassination plan is the best, and gives them a chance to try it out. Designed for 4+ players.
•Co-op Mode, where you players are a team of assassins, and have to come up with a plan together to kill targets that the group comes up with.
• Co-op can be diced further: you can play individual rounds, or Mission Mode, where targets are predetermined and have different levels of difficulty. There's also the more strategic Chief Mode, where there's no timer, but the Chief can rate your plan's likelihood of success and let you take risks on whether it'll work or not.
•Cutthroat Mode, where players can actually assassinate each other (should you want a more competitive version)
•The Day Off Mode, which isn't about murder at all but rather draws upon your bevy of assassin skills to accomplish tasks like "opening a stuck jam jar" and "transplanting a tulip bulb." 

We sat down to play after a quick read through of the rules. You are assigned a dossier that has a Cliff Notes description of your target including little factoids such as what fears or desires you can exploit to get your target exactly where you want them. Our guy loved college football and driving cars. Check. Then we find out whether he knows how he is going to die. Luckily he did not. Then we grabbed our three cards of tools we had to use to kill our target. Of course we would get a walrus. Our first scenario first involved getting our target to a football game where the mascot, the previously mentioned walrus, would “accidently” crush our target. But then we decided what about getting him to a race track where the car that would ultimately kill him had the Walrus mascot on the hood. As we formulated our truly demented assassination plot, we all began to laugh. Not enough time. Need to change tactics. It became an improve version of a Final Destination film where our twisted little minds could not help but giggling like little school girls. We had 90 seconds to do all of this. So thinking on the fly is very important.

Once we had our bearings, our scenarios got crazier and involved a TARDIS, and a ROCKET LAUNCHER. Whee. One of the great things about the game is your Mission booklet has a few targets all within the same realm and range from the Old West, Dinosaurs and Robots. The mini descriptions of each of your targets is great : Always wears a tie, loves gears. Even after you have successfully murdered your target the game doesn’t end. Any time left on the clock we spent dealing with the aftermath of the murder and getting the chance to get more cards which would help in the next set of missions.

My Thoughts: Its collaborative storytelling at some of its best, though admittedly there may be some kinks and quibbles (Such as when you have someone else defining how hard a task can be it can be problematic. It was a great game for all of us to play and since we are all a bit snarky and demented when it comes to killing our people, I just had fun. Now that we know how to play I am excited to break out the expansion pack and play some more.

4 out of 5 d20s.

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