Fiasco: Lust, Ice, and Penguin Drumsticks

Friday night was my third game of Fiasco. We had five players, three of whom had never played before – indeed, they hadn’t played any games like Fiasco before. Still, the game is quick to teach to people, and quick to play, so it didn’t slow things down at all.

It can be hard to describe what happens in a Fiasco session: the nature of the game produces convoluted webs of interactions, and makes it easy for the stories to get tangled and non-linear. This is all to the good, as it mirrors the way the movies and books that serve as the source material for the game handle narrative and character. It just makes it hard to sit down and say, “This is the story of the game we played.”

That said, this is the story of the game we played.

We used The Ice playset that comes in the rule book. Actually, Michael had the interesting idea of passing the stack of playsets around the table and having each person eliminate two of them. What with the sets that come with the books and the ones you can download from the site, I’ve got a pretty fair pile of them right now – fifteen or sixteen – and it seemed a good way to narrow down the selection when no one had a really strong desire to play a particular set.

Character-wise, we wound up with a nice mix of scientists, eco-terrorists, and support staff. There was a romance that was falling apart, social and professional rivalry, revenge plots, heavy drinking, home-made pornography, spats over vegetarian cooking, sabotage, and the barbecuing of penguins – not necessarily in that order. As is pretty much required in such a setting, the fuel tanks went up at one point, and someone tried to strand someone else out on the ice to die.

The actual structure of the story was very different from my previous experiences with the game. Throughout the first act, the outcomes tended to be overwhelmingly positive. That left a preponderance of black dice for the second act, plus some very nasty tilt elements – cold-blooded score settling and collateral damage. Overall, it was like pushing a big rock to the top of a hill through the first act, and letting it roll down onto a defenseless (and explosive) village in the second act.

In the end, I was dead – beaten to within an inch of my life, then choking on my own blood in the infirmary. Another player lost a leg and had his life fall apart, while a third went to prison after getting his face cooked in the aforementioned fuel-tank explosion. The character in charge of the base wound up still in charge but with no hope of every getting out, and my nemesis – the vegetarian cook and eco terrorist – flew happily away to her next job.

We all had a lot of fun with it.

I’m starting to figure out a few things about the structure of the game, and the way the different factors in the game work together to make the story work the way it does.

First, the game is very focused on the story. Now, that may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, when we generally talk about story-focused games, we’re really talking about character-focused games. We focus on the way our characters act and behave, and try to build a story around the motivations and desires of our characters. We identify with our characters, and so we focus on what our characters do, and that’s where the story comes from.

Fiasco does things backwards in that respect. You build the situation, which dictates the characters. The situation – the story – is what drives the play, and the characters exist only to serve the story. The nature of the playsets is such that you tend to not identify as strongly with the characters – they tend towards the unsympathetic but fun to play, especially as you drive them towards destruction.

That’s the second thing: at first glance, the game looks like it has some competitive aspects. You can throw strange relationships, locations, needs, and objects on the other players, looking to mess them up. You can toss mixed die colours at the other players, trying to make sure they end badly. That’s the way things seem to go the first game or two.

However, as I’ve played, I’ve found that the competition turns out to be different than you expect. I find myself competing, less to end well, than to end badly in a horribly spectacular way. It’s a competition to get the rest of the players to go “Wow. That’s messed up. Bravo.”

Third thing I’ve noticed is that the most important skill to master in this game is not improvising the scene, or deciding on your character based on the set-up, but knowing when to end a scene. Part of that is not identifying too strongly with your character, so that you can accept that you need to “lose” a given scene. Part of it is learning to recognize the tipping point, where things will turn either to the good or bad outcome.

That’ll definitely come with practice; I know I’m better at it now than I was the first time I played, and I know I’ve still got some distance to go. But mastering this skill makes the game really move along, and will tighten play so as to pull the focus more and more onto the strange, nasty twists that arise.

Fourth thing. The playsets are brilliantly constructed to build in conflict and confusion, driving the game towards meltdown with giddy speed. The tilt that happens after act one certainly accelerates things, but everything will go to hell even without that little extra push. Part of it is the list of options in the playset, and part of it is the expectation of the players, as set by the game itself.

The final thing I want to mention is the way Fiasco straddles the line between board game and roleplaying game. It has all the roleplaying elements you might wish for (except for character advancement and campaign play), but fits nicely into the kind of slot that you usually reserve for board games – it requires no prep, has great replay capability, and fits into a two- to three-hour slot nicely.

I’ve got most of my gaming group initiated into Fiasco, now, and everyone likes the game. It fills a niche that we wanted filled, and it’s just a great deal of fun. Bully Pulpit Games is releasing new playsets every month, which is great support for the games.

Go get the game. Give it a try. You’ll like it.

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3 Responses to Fiasco: Lust, Ice, and Penguin Drumsticks

  1. Barry says:

    “[…] to end badly in a horribly spectacular way.”

    That sounds like my home D&D group.

  2. Alex says:

    This may in fact be the best game in existence to create a horrible zombie apocalypse style game. Is that one of the playsets?

  3. Rick Neal says:

    Not yet, but next month is Hallowe’en, so it’s not inconceivable that Bully Pulpit’s Playset of the Month will be something along those lines.

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