So if you haven’t checked out the Major Fun book review for Machine of Death, I’ll give you a moment to read it here…
[whistles through teeth…]
Take your time. It’s really good. The book, I mean. Go read it too.
[pulls out iPad and plays… er… does some research…]
Oh hi!! So now imagine a story-telling game based on the premise of The Machine of Death. Wicked cool, right?
You didn’t read any of the previous stuff did you. [Sigh] OK, so in a nutshell, a machine has been invented that, with only a drop of your blood, will predict how you will die with 100% accuracy. You get a piece of paper with some words on it: “steamroller” or “autoerotic exsanguination” or “French press.” Doesn’t say when or where. Doesn’t give any more details. And the machine might be said to have a highly developed sense of ironic humor so “French press” might mean a coffee maker or a bunch of Parisian journalists or perhaps a riot at a particular World Cup soccer match. Try to avoid your death and you’ll just find out how devious the universe can be.
The answer is always the same. The answer is never wrong.
In the game, you play a company of assassins. The Machine has made your profession very tricky, especially when your target has consulted the Machine. You are given four targets and a handful of items that must be used in order to bring down your intended victim. As a group, you have to come up with a plan that would make Rube Goldberg proud and then change it on the fly if something goes wrong.
The base game is cooperative. Each target comes with a description that provides your troupe of killers with a location and some personality quirks that you can use to your advantage. You also get your target’s Machine of Death card as well as three Black Market Gift cards that you must use in order to “establish the truth” about your target (learned that particular euphemism from Tim Power’s excellent novel Declare). The gift cards are redeemable for things like “something that floats” or “fancy pants” or “a public domain character.” All players work together to come up with a plan that utilizes all of these items.
For each Black Market item involved, the group must assign a number to it that indicates how likely it is to succeed in the plan. 2 means virtually guaranteed and 6 is nearly impossible. Once the plan is set, the group starts the 90 second timer and starts rolling the included die for each element of the plan. If each element is successful, the target is killed. Huzzah! If any element fails (you roll lower than the assigned number) you must draw a new Black Market item, discuss how it will change the plan, assign it a difficulty, and then roll for it again.
Your original plan can take as long as you like but once the plan gets going you have only 90 seconds to make changes. This keeps the action moving and adds a level of urgency to the proceedings.
You win the game if you eliminate all four of your targets. You lose if you run out of Black Market cards (you start with 20) or if you fail to kill a target. Along the way you can pick up special cards to help you, but the basic mechanic stays the same: come up with a plan, assign difficulty, roll for results.
There are also several alternative games that can be played with the same cards. Some of the variations are competitive. Some are more like a traditional role-playing game. One is a party game like Apples to Apples. This party game was popular with our large group. The variations are quite distinct which demonstrates two things to me: the strength of the concept and the considered design-work of the creators. If your group has never played a story-telling game before, start with the party game. Ready for some more role-playing but without the pressure? Play without the timer for a while. We had fun coming up with elaborate plans in much the same way that we would have fun building a city out of boxes and toilet paper tubes.
The story-telling game takes a very specific mindset to make work. It is much more about telling a funny story than winning or losing. In some ways it reminds me of an activity like writing an exquisite corpse. It also reminds me of collaborative role-playing games like Fiasco in which the dice are there to shake up the story-telling rather than win or lose a fight.
The Machine of Death is morbid and often bizarre but also Major Fun.
2 – 4 players (many more with some variations). Ages 15+
Machine of Death was designed by David Malki ! and is © 2013. The game is produced by Bearstache.