Monday, September 12, 2005

This is your Life (or not)

That's Life! is an abstract little game that at times seems to be vaguely trying to channel Tutenkhamen, or perhaps Cartagena, but in the end feels more like Parcheesi. You have three pawns you're trying to move around the board by rolling dice. If you are the last to leave a tile in the track of life, you get the points associated with it, which can be positive or negative (these come in runs - negative at the beginning, positive in the middle, and then negative again at the end). For some flavor, each of the tiles has a fairly unmemorable illustration of a life event, value-judged to a numeric score. Most points at the end wins.

My feelings for this game morphed during playing. At first, I felt that it was going to be a clever little game, very light but with a few interesting choices. Not of much interest to the "serious" gamer except perhaps as filler, but something to play with family or friends. By the end I had become disenchanted. I think it centered on the very powerful "clover" tiles which, when captured, allow a player to turn a negative tile into a positive one. Because of the "last one who leaves gets it" mechanic, you have very little control over whether you can score those tiles ... but you do have a lot of control over which of the other players gets them. Since the game doesn't generally allow you to exact a quid pro quo, this sometimes (although not usually, to be sure) becomes a major but essentially arbitrary game element, never a good feature of a game in my opinion (I can enjoy randomness; but arbitrariness turns me off). And it also should be mentioned that the theme is a classic paste-up job.

Passable filler, but not a game I'm likely to play again.

Fiese Freunde Fette Feten: In general I have a soft spot for Friedemann Friese's wacky games, because even when they don't quite work (which is a little too often, unfortunately) they tend to make some or all of it back on the engaging themes and artwork.

We can dispense with the underlying game in FFFF pretty quickly: it doesn't work, quite. You are trying to fulfill life goals (like, say, being single and bitter). The goals you are trying to reach tend to be fairly specific, and the "life events" up for bid each turn (like overeating or joining a cult) tend to leave you fairly limited options for reaching them. So it seemed to me that you tend to be left with options that are a bit too constrained for the game to be engaging on the decision-making or game-tension end.

The game is still fun though, because of the somewhat bizarre hedonistic lifestyle your avatar gets put through. Let's just say that very few of these events would rate a positive number in That's Life!. You're not trying to make it into the school play or become CEO; you're trying to ruin your health, gain weight, do a lot of drugs, join a cult, enhance your level of depression, have lots of anonymous sex, become a game designer, that sort of thing. The deck of "event" cards up for auction is great (and with great illustrations - the fact that the titles are all in German almost doesn't matter that much), and the plot of your virtual life unfolds in entertaining, humorous, and plausibly implausible ways.

The possibly significant downside is that this really requires the right group of people. Anyone trying too hard to win will kill the entertainment value of FFFF. One might make this argument for any game, of course, but an occasional problem with 2F games is that they are fundamentally thematic, light, fun games that can nonetheless encourage over-thinking. Fearsome Floors was particularly problematic, and while FFFF isn't that bad, there is still a minor issue here.

Anyway, the bottom line was that I enjoyed FFFF, and would play it again with the right crowd. It's still a gimmick game – not something I'll play more than a few times, and probably not something to try to sucker any humorless right-leaning friends into – but for me, the gimmick works. Apparently Rio Grande is going to do an English version, and while that's nice, I've also heard that the game may be toned down. I don't know, but it seems to me that if the characters in the game lost their edge, so would the game.

For some of your characters in FFFF, possibly the best solution to their problems would be a game of Kablamo!. This is a game that, ah, simulates Russian Roulette. Everyone has a revolver. You load it with bullets. Seriously. These bullets can either be a Kablamo (you're out of the game), a "click", or a bullet with some sort of action on it. These actions are usually swapping the positions of bullets in various people's revolvers, revolver malfunctions that cause them to skip a bullet or misfire or rotate the wrong way, that sort of thing.

Now, there would be no game here without one additional detail: once bullets are loaded into a revolver, they cannot be inspected by anyone. As chambers are unloaded and reloaded, revolvers spin, and confusion and tension mounts, the game becomes fun (and is even somewhat thematically evocative as you wonder whether the next bullet is live or not).

Kablamo! is not a top-tier game. To the extent that it's more game than activity, it's definitely a memory game (although with so many unknowns you're going to lose track of things pretty quickly), so you'll know whether or not that's for you. And it's an elimination game, albeit one that's fast-moving and pretty short. But I can always like a game for trying something interesting and novel and executing on it well; Kablamo! is definitely not one of the by-the-numbers game designs that make up most of a year's releases.

It's certainly true that some (and that includes Kim) will find the theme tasteless. But, with all the violence usually sanitized or cartoonized out of European games (to an extreme degree it seems to me sometimes), the shamelessly violent Kablamo! – with its giant and just realistically-rendered enough bullets and revolvers, and with actual rotating game-boards, combined with the wacky action bullets – is to me oddly appealing. It's like Nuclear War, but more of a game, more fun, a lot shorter, and relying on actual gameplay for humor value instead of just funny card texts.

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