Machine of Death

machine of death gameSo 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.

01 AwardThere 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.

Book Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death CoverI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy 🙂

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories about People Who Know How They Will Die
Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, & David Malki !
Bearstache Books, 2010

This book review is also a preview for an imminent Major Fun Game Award. Many books get made into games. The mark of a good game is one that can be played and enjoyed without knowing anything about the source material. That is true for Machine of Death. I loved the collection of stories and found that my experience with the book enhanced my enjoyment of the game; but I was the only one of our Major Fun play-testers who had even heard of the book. [Spoiler alert: the game is Major Fun.]

Thematic anthologies like Machine of Death are probably the literary equivalent of a knitting circle. This is not a pejorative. I’m using knitting circle to substitute for any hobby, or club, or niche activity. Short story anthologies that focus on a theme or genre appeal to those people who are already going to be drawn to that specific theme. I have a fondness for post-apocalyptic speculative fiction so it should come as no surprise that I have a an anthology on my bookshelf called Brave New Worlds that is a chronological collection of dystopian fictions. Anthologies generally preach to the choir or serve as a teaching instrument for those of us with an academic disease.

Machine of Death breaks out of some of these constraints. It’s not purely a work of genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. It is also not a narrowly defined thematic category like “coming home” or “abuse” or “race relations.” I suppose the broad category could be “death” but that doesn’t really do the stories justice. Machine of Death became the #1 seller on Amazon in 2010 not because there is some popular “death fiction” subgenre (although I bet morbid curiosity certainly helped) but rather because there is a deep curiosity about how people choose to live.

Machine of Death ComicThe core concept comes from a comic strip written and drawn by Ryan North (one of the editors). In the strip, a chatty T-Rex describes a machine that can predict how you are going to die. The machine is 100% accurate but it does not tell you where or when. It reports the how of your death with (usually) just a few words: “car wreck” or “love” or “hydra-colonic malfunction.”

By this time you’ve read the strip I’ve provided so you get the picture. Ryan and fellow writers Matthew Bennardo and David Malki ! solicited stories based on the idea of the machine and the rest is history.

What makes the collection more than just a one note joke or (worse) a collection of snuff-stories, is the focus on the knowledge of death more than the actual deaths. A machine such as this would shake the world to its core but in ways that would be subtle—more like a very low musical note rather than an earthquake. Once a machine like this exists there would always be a tension between knowing and not knowing. And given the machine’s rather ironic sense of humor, the word “knowing” should be always be set in quotation marks. The stories do a fantastic job of exploring the angles and intricate folds of this “knowledge.” They are often funny and dark. Sometimes oblique. Sometimes poignant. But always thoughtful.

In many ways the collection reminds me of all the best conversations I had in college and graduate school. Those late nights and lazy weekends when we would try to look into the future or love or death or evil. The Machine of Death is about death and dying but only if you focus on the one thing that all of us already know is going to happen. In the meantime, we have to live and the best stories in the collection are the ones that reveal something about our living world—something taken for granted until we get a glimpse of the end.

Will Bain
Major Fun


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