I totally failed to print this review in time to have any impact on Sam Fraser’s awesome Kickstarter campaign. Never the less for the sake of closure I’d like to sheepishly finish it out now (in October).
— Draft circa sept 2, 2014 —
Summer break is done and its time to start taking gaming seriously again! I can’t think of a better way than to joyously promote my friend Sam Fraser’s excellent project: Rogues to Riches.
I first played this game with a group of strangers at an open game night at Quantum Frontier on Robie Street in Halifax. Sam was teaching people to play with a simple prototype deck of beautifully illustrated cards. But besides the cards, it was still pretty bare bones. I think, to keep score, we were using a bowl of roasted almonds. This proved to be a serious handicap for someone with my will power since I couldn’t stop my self from eating some of my points before the game wound up – thus severely impacting my final ranking.
The premise is simple: Each player is a wealthy dilettante burglar in a steam-punk toned alternate Victorian era city. The burglary is motivated by pride and bragging rights more than any other reason. The game play is even more elegant. On a turn a player describes how they would use certain arbitrary equipment to assist in a heist at a location ‘guarded’ by another player. The group then decides whether the attempt succeeds or fails by voting – the votes are added to a die roll and fate decides!
Sam introduced this to me as a story-telling game. I was originally skeptical of his usage as my views were constrained by conventions of the “story-games” crowd of game design (many of which are discussed on this blog). But I was wrong. Story-telling is exactly what Rogues to Riches is about. Or perhaps telling tall tales is more accurate. Since in order to convince other players to vote in your favour and allow you to get the loot, you have to pitch a fairly far fetched explanation of how you would totally be able to subdue a hungry tiger with an umbrella. Or traverse a barbed-wire moat with only a bear costume and a collection of mechanical beetles. It’s a challenge of advocacy and facts and logic are not on your side. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels describes a an element frequently left off the periodic table called ‘narrativium’. It’s the element of the universe that causes “million and one chances to crop up nine out of ten times”. Rogues to Riches oozes narrativium. A good session of this game consists of a group of players competitively cooperating to goad each other into coming up with outlandish fallacious but irresistible arguments.
I stopped to think about something there that I’ll have to talk to Sam about soon.
Back to the review.
I think R2R is an important game because Sam is deliberately challenging the division between competitive and cooperative gaming. There are points (in the form of gold coins) and loot and there will be a winner a lot of losers at the end of the game, but without beating you over the head, the game is very clearly nudging players to practice ‘giving’ in the sense that improv actors and comedians use the term. In lots of modern role-playing games there is talk about shared authority and stuff suggesting that GM’s and players subvert the goal of winning to the value of a narrative . In R2R this proposition is right out on the table. Once the story telling starts, everyone enters into a negotiation. The player whose turn it is makes a pitch. The defender counters, and then the rest of the players are pulled in as their vote is sought. Being an ungenerous and unreasonable defender taints the pool from whom you’ll be seeking votes on your turn. Giving in too easily, or voting too liberally in favour of feeble stories, gives away points to your competitors. So its got a fundamental prisoners dilemma at a subtle level. All these considerations teach people to be more fun to play with and therefore teach people to play games better. The skills / attitude demanded by R2R can make people better at playing all games!