This week, I continue my exploration of Fiasco with a closer look at actual gameplay. For an introduction to the game and the story my friends and I told with it (along with a brief survey of the hunt that led me to it), see Pt. 1: Search & Setup.
Once everyone involved has a clear conception of how the stage is set, play can begin in earnest. A session of Fiasco is divided into two Acts. In the course of an Act, each player is given the opportunity to call two distinct scenes, both of which will directly involve his or her character. The substance of a scene is left for the players to decide—after all, every game of Fiasco is unique—but each one should see needs pursued and conflicts exacerbated in order to carry the story forward. Players will take on the role of their primary characters during the scenes in which those characters appear and also have the option of inhabiting secondary characters if and when they become necessary. The two principal Acts are separated by a brief interlude, the Tilt—I’ll come back to this little dear in due time—and culminate in a short wrap-up phase called the Aftermath that allows the players to tie up any loose ends.
One might wonder at this point how such a freeform creative exercise could possibly satisfy the hardcore gamer in me. Based on my description thus far, Fiasco may seem like little more than a flimsy excuse for extemporaneous theatre. The truth of the matter, however, is that the game engine running behind this improvised free-for-all not only reinforces the dramatic structure of the stories being told and helps pace them appropriately, but also furnishes significant choices and opportunities for strategic thinking.
Remember the dice used as random number generators during set up? They serve another purpose. Required in two different colors, they denote positive and negative outcomes for the active character in a scene. As each scene plays out, designated players decide how they think it should end and choose an appropriately colored die from the central pool to pass to the player who is currently taking his or her turn. Without interrupting their roleplay, players involved in the scene then work toward a resolution shaped by that cue. Does your current turn involve your supposedly reformed gambling addict trying to convince his wife that his sudden desire for her to pick up a full time job has nothing to do with the fact that his favorite team lost last night? If you find yourself in possession of a shiny new white die, perhaps she agrees to talk to her friend at the hair salon about a position or even offers up her secret rainy day fund to keep the bookies off your back. Should your new die be of a darker hue, you’re much more likely to encounter face slaps, slamming doors, and divorce papers. (I have this sudden, strange sensation of political incorrectness.)
Since the central dice pool contains equal numbers of light and dark dice at the start of the game, it guarantees the karmic drama of the story overall. Characters will sometimes behold their desires come true. Characters will sometimes watch in horror as everything blows up in their faces. The spread of these outcomes may not be as fair as everyone might like, but the story as a whole is stronger and more dynamic for them. While it’s not obvious at this point, the die selection described above is also the fulcrum on which the actual game in Fiasco turns. In order to fully understand the integral role of that choice, we need to explore a couple of other mechanics first.
We’ll start, as all good stories don’t, at the end. After the last scene of Act Two draws to a close, but before the Aftermath proper begins, each player rolls all of the dice he or she has collected over the course of the game. The player then sums the values displayed on his or her light and dark dice separately and subtracts the lower total from the higher. This resulting value is referenced on the playset non-specific Aftermath table to determine in broad strokes what type of destiny the given player’s character will face during the Aftermath phase of the game. The catch here is that the lower that resulting value, the worse the fate that awaits one’s character. Thus, if a player has amassed a roughly equal number of light- and dark-colored dice, the numbers rolled are likely to cancel each other out leaving the player completely and utterly screwed. In order for him or her to come out ahead, a player must, through fortune or plot, have heuristically hoarded a homogenous hegemony of like-hued hexahedrons. But how can a player exert any control over the dice he or she obtains?
The answer to that question leads us to the final link in Fiasco’s chain of strategy. When a player’s turn rolls around during the regular Act portions of the game, he or she chooses either to Establish or to Resolve the coming scene. If the player opts to Establish, he or she is allowed to set the details of the impending action: where it takes place, which other characters are involved, what shenanigans are underway, etc. If the player instead Resolves, he or she gains the power to select which die from the central pool he or she receives and, therefore, whether the scene concludes well or poorly for the active character. In other words, a player gets to decide how his or her scene begins or how it ends but never both. Even more interestingly, whichever option the active player picks, the alternate is ceded to the other players collectively. Need your character in a specific place pursuing a specific goal? Great; put him there. Unfortunately, you now have absolutely no direct control over whether he’ll be successful. Already secure two white dice and want another to help your chances in the Aftermath? Then choose to Resolve and listen in terror as your friends proceed to put your character in a ghastly scenario at which you desperately want him to fail.
As is becoming apparent, the game in Fiasco is all about timing and creative story manipulation. Knowing when to Establish, when to Resolve, and how best to scam your friends out of the dice they want is key to coming out on top. There’s a surprising amount of depth and room for imagination in this metagame strategy. (…some of which I haven’t even surveyed. For instance, you don’t always keep the dice granted you during your scenes; sometimes you must pass them to other players. In another example, the Aftermath value you calculate near game-end will vary in significance depending upon whether it represents a light or dark surplus.) Even better, each individual player gets to decide for what objective he or she is aiming. Plot to pry a pretty pile of pallid polyhedrons from the pool (I couldn’t resist doing that again), and your character will revel in the fruits of your labor as he floats unharmed through the chaos to a glorious finale. Take the slightly easier tack of stockpiling dark-colored dice, and see ultimate triumph emerge from unqualified and repeated failure. You can even aspire to crash-and-burn, gathering pairs of contrasting dice in order to assure a tragic and disgraceful end (all the while, nodding and smiling appreciatively as your friends magnanimously contribute to your downfall).
Or you can choose to ignore that dice piece altogether and enjoy simply furthering an entertaining story. The best thing about the game underlying the stories you’re telling is that you don’t even have to consciously participate in it to experience a gratifying session. Choose any of the aforementioned goals or none of them, succeed or fail at it, and you’re still going to have a fantastic time playing. You might even have players in the same game all focusing on different aspects of the experience—some working to sway the dice economy, some focused only on telling interesting tales—but Fiasco still works. It’s a magnificent hybrid of storytelling and strategy, of roleplay and rubric, that can be approached as earnestly or as nonchalantly as each individual involved sees fit. For that reason, Fiasco is maybe the best example I’ve encountered of a game that bridges the divide between different gamer “types;” serious and casual board gamers, roleplayers, story gamers, party gamers, and even non-gamers can all find something appealing in its format.
There is one warning I will offer from experience at this point: the nebulous, open-ended nature of collaborative storytelling can be a mite overwhelming initially to players not accustomed to it. I played with a group of mostly board gamers, and the first few turns of our game were mildly awkward as we all adjusted to the idea of acting out our characters. Players were giggly and hesitant, unsure of what their characters should be doing and how to Establish appropriate scenes. However, the option to Resolve a scene and allow the other players to Establish it for you was a huge help in this regard. Once everyone had participated in a scene or two, the story quickly took on a momentum of its own. So don’t fret if the whole thing seems a bit intimidating at first. Give yourself a little time to warm up to the game, and it will take care of the rest.
Next week, I’ll conclude this tour of Fiasco but not before giving consideration to the two special phases of the game—the Tilt and the Aftermath—as well as revealing the riveting conclusion to the drug-fueled hijinks of Amadiggles and the gang. See you then!
[UPDATE] Click here for Pt. 3: Shakeup & Sign-Off.