Normally I try to keep my reviews pretty up-to-date, but recently I’ve been running with a hectic schedule and a release log that doesn’t give me the flexibility I’d like to do long reviews, so I’ve been going through and reading some of the games that have been recommended to me but which I never really gave enough attention or never really gave my thoughts about. This week it’s 44: A Game of Automatic Fear which has fallen under my microscope.
I should probably preface this by pointing out that 44’s not a “conventional” game; it plays almost as much like a board game with storytelling as it does a traditional RPG; each player takes on the role of a Main Character or the Director of a mysterious agency which is replacing people with robots. The entire game is designed with a focus on simple mechanics and loosely defined statistics in order to facilitate the greatest amount of storytelling possible.
At its core, 44 is super simple; players get a number of dice equal to their Quality being measured, bonuses for activating dice from their Reserve, and may suffer penalties based upon their Anxiety or Secrets in order to build up more important dice that are rolled after everyone has finished their turns to see who has “won” the game thus far. The exact mechanics for this are pretty simple, with the highest resulting face (for instance, rolling 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, and 5 results in 5 being the highest) but adding a +1 bonus for each die of the same type counting from that die (in this case, the 3’s would win, because 3+1+1+1=6 which is greater than the single 5’s result).
Naturally, part of the fun of the game is the atmosphere, and 44’s built around atmosphere wonderfully. The rules are based around the concept, though for a large part of the game it’s really the names of Qualities and how they are invoked in play that really determines the feel, and without any real background setting (the book lacks any significant background for Section 44, the villainous organization that can be reskinned according to the group’s taste) the game relies in part upon the narrative built up by its examples, which create a perfect tale of paranoia and intrigue to complement the rules that built them.
Part of the reason I’m so attracted to 44 is that at its core there is a wonderfully solid foundation of game design; I don’t know what was going through the author’s head, but I’d find it difficult to believe that the game wasn’t designed from the ground up with the narrative in mind. Everything in 44’s short 37 pages (except for the few which are devoted to record sheets, the cover, and other such non-game contents) practically screams out the paranoia and atmosphere of the implied 50’s men in black scenario that is the “original” setting of the game, and it’s one of the examples that I would use for anyone wanting to examine a masterfully crafted game.
You can get 44: A Game of Automatic Fear for free at 1km1kt.net.
Disclaimer: I really like 1km1kt and I’ve been lurking or contributing there for years.