2023 IGF nominees: the RPG bonanza
Wednesday, January 25, 2023
Now, my usual habit is to lay down a stream of posts reviewing all my favorite nominees. And honorable mentions. And other IGF entries which I feel like reviewing.
However, this year will have to go a little bit differently, because I've already posted about a lot of the entries! So these posts will have a lot of "see previous review". Sorry about that.
Anyhow. You may recall that last year I had mixed reactions about the slate of entries. Lots of games doing great things, but few overall favories.
This year? Too many overall favorites. Seriously. I could name a dozen games that made my "game of the year" list. And I will! But let's take them one group at a time.
The first standout group of games: awesome narrative RPGs.
Of course I'm using "role-playing" in the sense derived from tabletop RPGs. You have stats, you have ways to improve your stats, you're dropped into a world full of stat-based challenges. You may also have to scrounge money (or whatever) to buy food (or whatever). Stuff like that.
Games like this stand or fall on their game mechanics. Sure, we've all played D&D, roll 16 on a d20 to hit armor class 4... But that's just the start of the road. How does the gameplay suit this particular story? Are you rolling for results or for options? Is the game about luck, planning, or negotiation?
- Citizen Sleeper
- I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
- Betrayal at Club Low
- The Pale Beyond
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. I played a review copy of Roadwarden. The Pale Beyond is not yet releaseed; I played the public demo. The other games, I had already purchased by the time IGF judging began.)
- by Jump Over the Age -- game site
Far-future RPG using the "plot clock" concept. You're cheap mind-clone labor trying to make your way in the slums of deep space. Start by sweeping the docks; watch for your chance.
The setting and writing are delightful -- a run-down space-station full of social strata and people trying to make their way. ("People" of course includes robots, AIs, mushrooms...) You've got lots of branching plots to explore and limited resources to explore with. Everything is about building relationships and communities.
The dice system is of the sort where you roll first and then decide what to apply the dice to. And every major goal requires many turns, with explicit count-down or count-up clocks to surface how you're doing. This may seem weird to D&D grognards but it works really well. You constantly feel that you're on the brink of ruin (so few dice, and some of them were bad rolls!) but you've actually got a lot of latitude to shape your destiny and avoid an ignominious early death.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
- by Northway Games -- game site
Far-future RPG about a bunch of kids in a newly-established planetary colony. You land at age 10; play through age 20.
This somewhat suffers from being a school simulator. You (realistically) don't have a lot of control over your life in the first few years. You basically go to class to grind skill points and then see what story pops up. The planetary exploration scenes are the only sections where you can play for specific story goals.
But the story that pops up is always engaging. Your life is a well-rounded, interesting group of kids in an agreeably cozy (though not perfect or stress-free) society. So I was happy to play. Also, the mechanics are very nicely done. You beat challenges with a simple card-chaining game, but the cards represent everything you've achieved in the game so far. You really feel like you're building your adult self out of your teen experiences. Plus, you know, opportunities for smooching.
- by Moral Anxiety Studio -- game site
Narrative RPG in a D&D-ish fantasy setting. You wander, keeping the roads safe for travel and doing people favors. Lots and lots of favors.
I found this more impressive for its depth of implementation than the story per se. The peninsula is loaded with quests, but not of the typical "kill N rats" style. Every one is a hand-crafted story: finding a lost pouch under a bridge, spreading the word about a plague, bringing offerings to an altar. At the same time, the game has a few systematic mechanics that run across many stories. Your health, hunger, and filthiness are general stats (though in a coarse-grained "lots/some/none" way, not a fine numerical scale). Your trust level in various villages is significant and can be shifted in various ways.
The result is that you wind up juggling an intricate web of quest requirements. This is tactically interesting! Except I found it tactically sort of tiring instead. It was a lot to keep track of. The in-game journal is great at showing your current goals and knowledge, but it doesn't really show immediate needs. I found myself doing a lot of "Go to village X, oh yeah, the mayor doesn't trust me, how do I make nice with her? Eh, I'll go somewhere else."
(This is where Citizen Sleeper's plot clocks really help. They're not in-character but they sure make planning your choices easier!)
The story bits are all well-written but I didn't find the world or the characters particularly engaging. The game makes a point of letting you flesh out your character and background with periodic questions, which is nicely paced but still didn't grab me.
As a piece of craft, this is certainly up with the other games in this post. But after about two game-weeks of play, I decided it wasn't for me.
Betrayal at Club Low
- by Cosmo D -- game site
Comedy heist caper in the surreal cosmos of Off-Peak City.
Mechanically this is pretty solid. It's an RPG with a fast-paced dice system. Try a thing; roll for results, maybe good maybe bad; results affect the next roll. You have various ways to tweak the dice but you have to deploy them judiciously. No single failure is catastrophic but too many ends your run. Runs are meant to be pretty quick (30-60 minutes) so you can try repeatedly and learn your way through the heist.
I love Off-Peak City as a setting; I loved the earlier (adventurey) games from Cosmo D. But I had trouble getting into this one. It just felt too hard. I had to use all the easy-mode settings to make any progress at all, and even then I got a non-optimal ending.
I think you're supposed to make multiple runs, learning more about Club Low each time, until you finally triumph. But I generally don't replay games. So I was left somewhat unsatisfied.
On the up side, pizza dice. Pizza dice. Genius idea, or genius idea with pepperoni?
The Pale Beyond
- by Bellular Studios -- game site
A crew of doughty sailors heads south, trying to reach an earlier expedition lost in the ice. But, oh no, you're trapped in the ice yourself! And where has the Captain gone?
I only played a bit of the demo. But it looked like a really neat worker-placement sort of RPG. You can distribute your crew to various weekly tasks: shoveling coal, scouting the ice floes, hunting for food. But of course the crew members are people with personalities and story arcs, not just skills and stats. You're continually having little encounters with them. If you lose their trust, things may go very badly.
Looking forward to the full version.