Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: Our Last Best Hope

I will state this early, I feel bad
THIS COVER is not the cover
of the PDF I bought via Drivethrurpg.
Review: Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman
Magpiegames
Rating: ★★★★

I'm a sucker for disaster flicks.  I love watching a group of people do what they can to save the world, no matter how unrealistic or Hollywood-inspired the method is.  From deep-sea drillers saving us from a meteor, to drilling deep into the Earth's core, I am a sucker for these movies because they have their dramatic touches and crazy moments mixed with action-packed tension and weepy tears.  While my sensibilities favor movies like Deep Impact more, for a role-playing game I can definitely see Bruce Willis' movie translating to a more fun romp.

And so, when I heard about Our Last Best Hope, I was very thrilled!  When I finally purchased a copy at Drivethrurpg, I was even happier to learn the game did not limit itself to just space-related disasters.  The game included ideas for a Snow based disaster (inspired by movies like The Day After Tomorrow, The Grey) and Zombie apocalypse movies.  As I began reading more, I found myself smiling at how the system was written, a tad cautious thinking it would work only with experienced gamers, but discovering my fears were quite unfounded.

So What Is This Game?
The game is a GM-less role-playing experience for you and your players as the only group of people who are in the position to save the world.   Heroic Sacrifice is a major element in the game and to be honest, I doubt one can win in this game without at least two player's sacrificing themselves for the rest of the crew.

Wait, WIN?   You can Win in this Role-playing game?
Admittedly, that caught me off-guard at first.  After all those years of understanding role-playing game is NOT about winners and losers, this game comes out and reminds me of board games like Pandemic and Betrayal at the House on the Hill.  Basically, given the doomsday scenario that looms over the group, the players have to work together as best as they can to WIN and save the day.   The game uses a lot of six-sided dice which needs to be in two distinct sets (Black and White is used as a descriptor in the game, but so long as you can differentiate the two dice sets that should be fine) and I don't kid when I say a LOT of index cards/paper will be needed to keep track of the many Assets, Threats, Story Cards, and the like.  But no, don't get turned off by that statement.  The cards are many because as players, you will want to easily look at the table and see them all when you need to.  Having many index cards allows you to jot down stuff, leave them on the table for all to see and keep the game moving.

So the World is Ending?
Yes, at the very start of the game, you and the players map out The Crisis, The Response and The Plan.  The Crisis is basically the threat the world is facing.  Whatever you choose it to be, time should be of the essence or opportunities to deal with it are tremendously few.   The game nicely has samples starting page 123, and these were a great jumping point for my group in starting the game.   The Response is the explanation to why your team is the one facing the threat, which can range from being the most skilled, the closest, or the only ones who can attempt it for some reason.  And finally, the Plan is something the players can come up with.  What is the group's world-saving stroke?  As long as it sounds plausible and not silly, then you're off to a great start.  Assets are also determined, which reflect items you can use to help you in the mission.

The Game is split to two Acts, with the first Act lasting as long as something called the Event Pool has not allocated a total number of dice equal to thrice the number of players in the game, and Act II only giving each player a single scene before the final roll to save the world is rolled.  Players gain Black dice whenever Threats roll sixes.  Players can save White dice by spending Story Points when they rolls sixes while facing Threats.

The game has players choose from four roles:  Soldier, Scientist, Engineers, and Doctors.  Each role has a specific way of helping in the game, and this way requires the use of Story Points.  Each player starts with a few Story Points (and access to a larger limited pool of Story Points in The Plan) which they can spend in hopes of surviving and stopping Threats, and eventually having enough in the final pool to defeat the final challenge.   

This is where the game reminds me of Fiasco, but gives it a more dice-rolling equals excitement twist which I liked.  In Fiasco, each player has a scene which they can set or resolve.  In this game, each player also gets to set a scene, and state which players are with him in the scene.  These scenes are set-ups to try to use one's Story Cards.  Story Cards are filled up by the players to reflect who in the team makes them crazy, keeps them sane, knows a secret of theirs and can play one of their Fears.  When interacting with another player who "keeps you sane" or "makes you crazy" you can trade in the Story Card for two Story Points.  Whenever the other player wants, she can use your Secret card to force you to reveal your secret, or be the one who reveals it, also for two Story Points.  The Fear card can only be played while a said character is facing a Threat, and this rewards the one who played the card but increases the Threat the character faces.  I know it sounds complicated, but it flows actually very smoothly in play and encourages players to interact, role-play, and come up with smaller stories on how they relate to one another.

What I Brought and What I Left Behind
The game even adds a system to reflect the character showcasing either something important to her, or something she feels she has to live/fight for.  Called Touchstones, these can be anything (Left my son, brought my lucky pack of playing cards, brought my ego, left my criminal past) which when invoked during play fuels the character's actions to survive a Threat.  But just like Story Cards, these touchstones can only be used once, so using them when really necessary is key to playing well.

What's with all these Threats?
At the end of every scene, a Threat Card is drawn (and the game provides ample suggestions for threats, while all players contribute more Threat cards as each card is played, keeping the deck of bad things that happen colorful and interesting) and the player or players in the scene must resolve it, or die resolving it.    This can be done by using Story Points to tap into one's Abilities, as well as use Assets and have other characters help you out.  Given how all Threats in Act I start with three dice, and in Act II start with five, it would not be uncommon for deaths to rack up to halt the threats.

So if people keep dying..
... the game keeps running.  How?  We have Death Cards which players draw randomly at the start of the game and when at a point where they will die, can use the Death Cards to cancel the death, stop the Threat that was to cause it, and in a later opportunity then die using the method as described in the Death Card they had drawn.  This allows characters to describe their acts of self-sacrifice (or at times, stupid deaths) to try to help increase the chances of winning the game.   Using a Death card adds more dice in the Event Pool in favor of the players.

In the end of Act II, the accumulated dice are rolled and based on a table in the book, the final resolution on how the Mission went is revealed.  (This reminded me a lot of Fiasco in how the resolution at the end showed what happens in the story overall.)

So if so many Player Characters die, why is this Fun?
Because the game is working on the disaster flick premise!  In such movies, the characters are all (in their own ways) finding ways to survive and save the world, but things don't always work in their favor.   But even with the mix of personalities, differences in political, religious, social and emotional views, the strength of the human spirit tends to be the rising point of unrelenting hope in the story.  And this game has a system that very nicely encourages such behavior.

Lastly, there's the three meta-roles in the game.  The Captain, the Supply Office and MIMIC.  The Captain sort of acts as the pseudo-game master, who can help resolve any disagreements system-wise during a scene.  The Captain usually is a role played by the person who best understands the game (or owns it). Being a meta-role, this role is retained even if in the story, the said character dies or is removed from his post.  The Supply Officer handles all the Story Points, and allows the rest of the players to focus on their role-playing even as the Story Cards are cashed in.  This also keeps the Captain from having to focus on exchanging cards for Story Points.  And finally we have MIMIC.

MIMIC is the Massively Integrated Multipurpose Informational Computer that the players can refer to for information, assistance and the like.   For Space Missions, imagine it to be like Mother in the Nostromo, or HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey.  The role of MIMIC passes on to the player who is not part of a scene, which allows everyone a chance in answering any questions and requests for information that the players might need.  This allows everyone to have an even bigger role in forming the game's narrative, which is fun!

A Refreshing Way to Enjoy Panic
Our Last Best Hope successfully portrays the atmosphere and feel of a disaster movie, even if the group is laughing and screaming bloody murder during scenes.  The way the Threats keep coming, the way MIMIC's trustworthiness and reliability is always questionable, and the way dying does feel like its the only way to help the others succeed all work well together in hitting the game designer's desired feel.    The sense of heroism is there, but not in the way superhero games do so.  The sense of tragedy is present, but not in the manner that dark modern horror games accomplish it either.

The game succeeds in delivering a new experience and quite frankly, a very enjoyable one at that!  I recently ran this game with six players, three of which had never played a role-playing game before, and they had so much fun I already have to prep a new game for the coming week.  This game works well for "come in, sit down and try this" sessions and while I don't see this working for a long term chronicle, I do see this as a pleasant option groups can embrace to take a breather in some weekends, or to try something new yet memorable.

(Oh and I'm not sure if its intentional, but it seems an earlier version of the game can be seen in Magpiegames' website.)

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: An absolute blast!  To be quite frank, this game is very well done.  It captures what it aims to do very well.  And thanks to the Kickstarter supporters, the game on the onset already offers three approaches you can enjoy.
Crunch: Very tricky at first, given how dice that go to the Event pile suddenly are not part of the comparison on whether or not a Threat is defeated, but one very quickly gets the hang of things.
Layout: I love it.  However, some issues.  MIMIC's page, for example, tells the reader "We'll talk later about who plays MIMIC during a scene (See Playing MIMIC, pg 59) when that very page is page 59.  And as I mentioned above, WHERE IS THE BEAUTIFUL COVER!??! The PDF I purchased via Drivethru rpg had the singles and spreads, but neither had the cover.  I know it was part of the download as a JPG, but I really wished it was the first page of the PDF.  And I really got frustrated that pages in the PDF reader did not match the pages shows in the book itself.  I guess I had hoped the PDF version would have adjusted the pages to match the PDF reader's pages.
My favorite part: Death Cards.  It is a lovely concept to be honest.  One which I can see getting System Shopped for other games.
What I wish was better: Roles.  I wish the game offered more roles than just the four roles.   And perhaps a better explanation on Harm would have been nice.  It took my group a while to realize how just a bit of Harm really tilted the game very quickly towards Threats winning, given they could never be removed permanently.


But yes.  Do yourself a favor and BUY this game.
It is absolutely worth every cent.

Our Last Best Hope is on DrivethruRpg.




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