Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Tragedy Looper

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A tragedy has just occurred (usually someone is dead). You have a time machine and you can reset time back to before the tragedy. You want to prevent the tragedy. However there is a mastermind orchestrating the whole business, and despite your best efforts, things still go wrong and the tragedy still occurs. You can reset time again using the time machine, but you can only do this a limited number of times. Your objective is to simply prevent the tragedy. Failing that, after the tragedy repeats for the last time, you have one chance to guess the secret roles of every character in the game. If you get this 100% correct, you win a marginal victory.

In Tragedy Looper, one to three players play the protagonists who need to prevent the tragedy from happening. One other player plays the mastermind, who needs to trigger the tragedy loop after loop. The game plays for a predetermined number of loops, each loop starting at the same point in time, and having a fixed number of days, unless the tragedy occurs early. One day corresponds to one round, in which the mastermind gets to play three cards face-down on three characters and/or locations, and then the protagonists get to do the same (but not necessarily on the same three characters / locations). The cards are revealed simultaneously and resolved by the mastermind. The mastermind and the protagonists get to use the characters' special abilities where possible and if desired. Finally the mastermind checks for whether an anticipated incident occurs. That's all there is to a round - card play, triggering character abilities, and triggering an incident if applicable.

The game from the perspective of the mastermind - upside down. The board consists of four locations. There are only six characters in play in this learning scenario.

Here are what you can do with the cards. You may move a character from one location to another. The protagonists may increase the goodwill level of a character. When the goodwill level of a character reaches a certain value, the protagonists may use his or her goodwill ability, which is usually useful to the protagonists. The mastermind may play cards to increase the paranoia level or the intrigue level of a character or a location. When a character reaches a certain paranoia level, if he happens to be the culprit of an incident, the mastermind can trigger this incident. A high-enough intrigue level can also allow bad things to happen, depending on the scenario being played. The protagonists and the mastermind have cards that prevent the other side from manipulating the goodwill, paranoia and intrigue levels of the characters and locations. The tricky thing is sometimes you may end up wasting a card play trying to prevent something which your opponent is not trying to do in the first place. Movement can be tricky too. When both sides try to move a character to a different destination, he will end up going to the third unexpected location.

Four characters are at the hospital now - the shrine maiden, the office worker, the doctor and the patient. There are now two goodwill tokens on the doctor, which means the protagonists can trigger one of his character abilities. There is one paranoia token on the patient. His paranoia limit is two. If he gets another paranoia token, and if he is the culprit of an incident, he will be able to trigger the incident.

Some of the mastermind's cards.

How does the deduction come into play? Everyone gets this one reference sheet which lists down all the possible plots, subplots, incidents and roles in the game. In each scenario, only a small number of plot, subplot and incidents are in play. They determine what secret roles are in the scenario, and also what constitutes a tragedy. The mastermind knows exactly which plot and subplot are in effect, and which character has which secret role. The protagonists do not know these, but they have the full list of possibilities. They do know the incidents which are in play and the days on which they may occur, but they do not know who the culprits are, i.e. who are the characters who can trigger the incidents by reaching a certain paranoia level. The mastermind needs to make use of the plot, subplot, incidents and secret roles in the game to trigger the tragedy loop after loop till the end of the game. The protagonists need to work out all this information so that they can use it to prevent the tragedy. When bad things happen, the mastermind only needs to tell the protagonists that they have happened, but need not explain who triggered it or which incident led to it. These are for the protagonists to figure out from reviewing all the possibilities on the reference sheet. Throughout each loop, the protagonists need to try different things so that they can gather as much information as possible, which will help them in the next loop, and hopefully eventually help them completely divert the flow of events from the tragedy.

This is the reference sheet that you need to mull over. It lists the possible plots and subplots in play, the possible secret roles in play and their abilities, and details of the expected incidents. This page is for learning scenarios. The other side is for standard scenarios and is more complex.

The mastermind has a challenging job. In his storyteller role, he is responsible for making sure all the rules are played right and effects applied correctly. A small mistake can completely invalidate the deductions made by the protagonists and spoil the game. In his game player role, the mastermind needs to make sure the protagonists lose every single time. This becomes increasingly difficult as the protagonists learn more about the scenario and start taking steps to preempt the various events that lead up to the tragedy.

Some of the characters. The rich man's daughter (middle) has a paranoia level of 1 (top left number) which means she goes bonkers quite easily. The boss (right) on the other hand is a cool guy and only becomes vulnerable to the mastermind when his paranoia level hits four.

The Play

I bought a copy of the game and brought it to Boardgamecafe.net. Coincidentally Ivan had also bought a copy and brought his copy. We had both expected to teach others to play, and to play mastermind for the first learning scenario. Since we both knew the solution to the first scenario, we could not both be in the same game playing this scenario. One of us would be a protagonist. So we decided to play the second scenario instead. I played the mastermind while he led the team of protagonists. Our other two protagonists were Dith and Wai Yan.

We started off a little clumsily. I had forgotten that some of the characters were not allowed at certain locations. E.g. the patient was not allowed to leave the hospital at all. When I played a movement card on him, I wasted one valuable action. The card had no effect. Scenario 2 had 4 loops, and each loop had at most 5 days. I was a little sloppy and hadn't planned ahead carefully how to defeat the protagonists in each loop. Baaad idea. Lesson learnt - it is not easy to improvise a clean murder plan on the spot. In one of the early loops, I allowed the protagonists to last all the way to the fifth day. That was too much information leaked to them. Was I mastermind or masterfoot?! As they learned more, it became harder and harder for me to get things going. They knew who the culprits were and made sure I didn't place enough paranoia tokens on them. They knew the danger locations and made sure I didn't place enough intrigue tokens on them. I tried to feint, placing paranoia tokens and intrigue tokens on unimportant characters and locations, but I wasn't sure whether they fell for it. I had to keep a straight face and nod thoughtfully no matter how they teased me.

Not only the protagonists needed to examine the reference sheet meticulously to look for possibilities. As the mastermind I too had to read it carefully to make sure that the feints I made made sense. If they didn't make sense the protagonists would easily see through them. As the mastermind I must try to keep the possibilities open. If a bad event could be caused by many different things, that was good. That meant the protagonists still had much work to do to narrow things down. It is a dilemma when deciding whether to make use of a powerful character ability or a powerful event. These can help you quickly trigger the tragedy, but they can also give away much information. It is not easy being the villain!

As the third loop dragged on, I started to get more and more uneasy. Ivan, Dith and Wai Yan had worked out many details. They knew who to watch out for, which locations to guard. They had even forced me to reveal the secret role of one of the characters. Thankfully his was only a minor role. Still, this was very useful to them because they had one less character to worry about. As I combed the reference sheet desperately for other ways to trigger the tragedy, I suddenly realised I had missed out the special ability of one of the secret roles in the game. It was a very handy power which I had neglected thus far. I used it, and successfully triggered the tragedy for the third loop. Now was the critical moment, the final loop. If Ivan, Dith and Wai Yan could figure out what I had done in the third loop, they would be able to easily prevent me from applying the same technique in the last loop. There were other ways I could try to trigger the tragedy, but they were not easy to pull off. Even if the protagonists didn't work out what I had done in the third loop, if they inadvertently rearranged the positions of the characters on the board, I might miss the opportunity to make use of that character whom I used in the third loop. It was a nail-biting moment for me.

They didn't figure it out! I pulled the same move on them, and then crumbled in relief. I did it! I was lucky. My oversight of this particular role's ability had diverted the protagonists' attention away from it. If I had made use of it earlier, I would surely have aroused their suspicion. It was an "Ahah!" moment for them when I explained what had happened.

There are some face-up action cards next to the board. These are powerful single-use-per-loop cards. Once used, they are set aside face-up until the start of the next loop.

Wai Yan, observer, Dith and Ivan. Mr Observer had played this scenario before, and when he saw my situation, he understood how precarious it was.

The Thoughts

I had a great first session with Tragedy Looper. It's a deduction game so when playing as a protagonist you need to do a lot of logical thinking and investigative reasoning. It's a complex puzzle to figure out. I imagine this type of gameplay may not be interesting for everyone. One thing good about the investigation you are doing here is it is an urgent, live situation. You are not a detective arriving at a crime scene where clues are laid out for your leisurely examination. You are thrown into the middle of a crisis and the clock is ticking while you try to gather clues and prevent the tragedy. You need to remember that your ultimate goal is to prevent the tragedy, not to completely solve the case. It is possible to save the day without working out all the details. Events can unfold rather differently from loop to loop, so you need to be on your toes, trying to guess the intention of the mastermind.

If playing as the mastermind, I think it is roughly half about executing a script, and half about participating as a competitor. You do know the plot and subplot in play, and the secret roles in play. They are your arsenal of weapons to trigger the tragedy. Playing the mastermind well means you need to prepare well, planning ahead how to defeat the protagonists in each loop, and preparing response actions for situations that may come up. If you do all these, it can feel like you are just a storyteller following predetermined procedures. However it is not possible to anticipate all the protagonists' moves, so you still need to stay flexible and you still need to react to what they do. You need to know when to fall back to Plan B (or C, or D). You can be better prepared than the protagonists because you have more information. You should make use of this advantage. You want to give the protagonists a good challenge.

I like how the tension builds up for both the protagonists and the mastermind as the game progresses. The protagonists get more nervous because they are gradually running out of loops to try to prevent the tragedy. The mastermind gets more jittery because he is gradually running out of options to defeat the protagonists. The protagonists are learning and are preempting his moves better and better with each new loop.

The game comes with 2 learning scenarios and 8 standard scenarios. I've seen the solutions to the first two, so there are eight more to go for me. If I get eight more plays out of this game that would already be worth the money. There are more scenarios that can be found on the internet, and hopefully in an expansion. There is already an expansion in Japanese for the original Japanese version of the game. I now look forward to playing Tragedy Looper again, this time as a protagonist.


TeOoh! said...

On Saturday, this game was on a table during the CON we were in.
It attracted me at first sight when they told me the looping mechanic.

Now that I read your review, I think I want to buy it.
Thank you!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Glad to be of service. :-) Hope you enjoy the game. And remember not to look at the mastermind cards yet when you open the game! Or the scenario details in the mastermind booklet.