Our Last Best Hope
(Please note: This is a review based on a playtest draft of the game, not the final product.)
By Mike O'Sullivan
Our Last Best Hope (OLBH) is a successfully-Kickstarted new project fromt he creative people over at Magpie Games. OLBH is a story game about a disaster that will destroy the world and the brave few that can stop it. Magpie were kind enough to send us an early draft of the game to play.
Gameplay begins with the playgroup deciding on the broad strokes of the disaster that we're working to avert. First you decide on the Crisis itself, the big crazy event that's looking to make humanity extinct. This can be anything from a meteor striking the earth to a zombie uprising. Our group decided on a global pandemic.
From there you decide on the Complication and the Plan. The Complication is an extra wrinkle in things that makes it even harder for your crack team of world-savers to stop the apocalypse. The Plan is the thing that you'll need to accomplish to stop the Crisis and save the world.
Players follow that up with creating their characters. Characters are composed of lots of little details like his or her Role in the team, some personal items or beliefs, and some assets that you add tot he team. You're even dealt a Death Card that, should you be able to get your character to die in such a fashion during the game you'll earn some much needed currency that could mean the difference btween saving humanity or watching it end.
Finally, players create a deck of threat cards, each card representing a minior issue that could stand between the team and the completion of their plan.
The game is played in two acts. During each, play goes aroudn the table round-robin, with each player's character taking the spotlight on their turn. The spotlight player gets to narrate a little bit of action, some personal detail, and interact with any other PCs or NPCs they feel like. As the scene comes to a close one o the other players picks one card from the threat card deck and plays it, introducing a new problem that the team needs to work together to resolve.
Resolving threats in OLBH means engaging with the game's currency. There is both a dice currency that is used to ressolve smaller threats drawn from the threat deck, and a story point currency that gives you more dice to help fight off those threats. You gain more story points by using your character's belifs and faults in play.
All of this leads up to confronting the Crisis itself. The Crisis is represented by a pile of dice that gets built up by the threats that you encountered during the earlier stages of play. Any heros that haven't died yet get to work together and build a dice pool to roll against the Crisis pool, with the winner deciding the ultimate fate of humanity.
OLBH shares some crucial DNA with a couple story games. It's a little bit Fiasco, but it's also a whole lot Universalis.
Like Fiasco, much of the game's setup is concerend with creating situation. You ahve to detail the world that the characters are in, what's going wrong, and what they plan to do to stop it. You work with the other players at the table to create relationships with your characters, histories that draw you closer together.
OLBH adds something to the Fiasco formula that is really interesting. Play characters in OLBH are much more detailed. Players are asked to think of things that their character has brough with them on the mission, or things that they've left behind. This leant to a sense of ownership and understanding that makes a crucial difference: Fiasco games are all about putting your character into danger, whereas OLBH is about saving people. Having those details feeds into your desire to save the character, and hopefully the rest of the world too.
Once you get into playing through the story you've confronted witht he OLBH's mechanics and currency. Both work in a way similar to Universalis, the classic storybuilding game from Ramshead Publishing. Unfortunately, OLBH lacks Universalis' elegance.
Threats are resolved by roudns of rolling dice pooled together by calling on player character traits and assets that the team share. Simple enough, that the issue comes from threat resolution being tied into the endgame mechanic, but in ways that are very hard to see on your first or second playthrough. Earning crucial story points can be very confusing, and there are so many things that you can spend them on that it lead to analysis paralysis at our table a number of times. It was very hard to judge the usefulness of character elements like Death Cards and Story Cards and how they would impact play.
None of this is helped by the bland names that all of the game elements have. Story Points, Story Cards, Threat Cards, Assets. These elements are all important to the game, but their names make them seem pedestrian and evoke nothing of the danger and excitement that the game is about.
Our playtest experience was also seriosuly hampered by a lack of lists. Games like Fiasco find their speed of play, and a lot of what makes them fun, in their lists and how they impact and guide play. The packet we received from Magpie didn't have any list packages with it. Without them, things ran really slow. Magpie Games assures us that the final version of the game will include a number of lists and sample armageddons that will decrease gameplay time significantly.
Our Last Best Hope has some truly fantastic ideas in it. The way it blends Fiasco-style round-robin story play with strong protagonism and a sense of ownership is really cool. The mechanics do feel a bit too arcane and opaque to make this work as a "pick up and play" game. It feels like there is just a little too much here, too many gears whirring away and it holds the game back from really letting itself rip.