Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: Wilderness of Mirrors

Review: Wilderness of Mirrors by John Wick
John Wick Presents
Rating: ★★★

Wilderness of Mirrors is a very easy to dive into game system that simplifies the spy genre and shares narrative power with the player.  The game system was created in response to the idea that most other spy games out there focus too much on the details (like what damage this or that gun deals) rather than the inherent characteristics of a spy show.  And that, frankly is where this game excels in.

The game is a d6 game, which makes it immediately accessible to most gamers.  There are six Areas of Expertise to conisder, which reflect different key areas a spy tends to be good at:  leadership (which is called Saturn), handling violence (called Mars), social misdirection (Mercury), getting the gadgets/tools you need (Vulcan) and stealth abilities (Pluto).  The traits have ratings of one to five, and players have a set number of points to spend to purchase their stats.  The system approaches this by making it expensive to buy a wider range of stats and cheaper to specialize with less.  

Areas of Expertise
Those who have the highest rating of each AOE in the team is considered an Expert of that field.  This grants them the chance to use special moves which can only be invoked one per session.   Saturns can have a roll rerolled, Mars can instantly kill a target, Mercury can lie so convincingly it is automatically believed to be true, and so on and so forth.  Each expert move can only be used once in a session, so if there are multiple Experts in a team, only one of them can use the move in the mission.  This is intentional, and I'll explain why further below. 

Planning is Part of the Fun
But what is interesting is how this game makes the Planning Process part of the fun, and removes the weight of coming up with a complicated caper to resolve from the game master's hands.  In this game, the game master simply declares an objective (which is called The Assignment) and the players get to expand on the mission during the Planning Process.  This reminds me of those scenes in movies like Mission Impossible (as well as the much more better television show, Mission Impossible) and movies like Entrapment.  The more complicated and cool the players make the mission sound, the more Mission Points you get to award them for the task.   The Team Leader is the one who allocates who gets how many dice.  And these points are important because they allow you to boost your rolls to get Narrative Control.

What?  Narrative Control?
Yes, unlike most games where the roll you make determines if you succeed or fail, in this game it merely determines who gets to say how things resolve.  There are four possible results, with two giving either the player or the game master full narrative control, and two others where one or the other has the option to veto a detail in the resolution given.  This means as a player, you can declare you fail to shoot the target holding the folder with the confidential papers, but instead hit the window that shatters and temporarily blinds everyone as the strong winds scatter the papers all around you.  Yes.  It allows you to make things cooler.

And for the most part, this works very well.  It gives players the fun of making things interesting.    For most gamers, that means learning to trust the others in doing stuff to make things cool, rather than to mess things up.

And That's Where Things Get Shaky
Well, because the television series Alias and Nikita was also a huge influence to John Wick in creating this game, the game also pushes the idea that you cannot trust each other in the mission.  Anyone can be a double agent, and so the system rewards players with Trust Dice (basically extra dice) whenever they do things that complicate or to quote the book itself, "...whenever he does something that actively sabotages another player" and frankly this makes me worry.  While I know what he means is to mess them up in the appropriate manner the genre expects, there's a delicate line between players making a fellow player have trouble and players just making the other player have less fun.  

But with the right players, this really works very well.  You get players who will throw out complications without messing up the fun for other players.  You have scenes that catch everyone off-guard that works to enhance the moment rather than mess it up.  

The fact a particular Expert move can only be used once per session also puts pressure on the agents.  Say two agents have the Mars Expert move, both are aware that one of them has to use it before the other does, and that really gives the game a very different feel from others.

I was a HUGE fan of Leverage so...
Sadly no.  While yes it can be played to give the feel of the show, I think a different game would better reflect the show's atmosphere.  Because in this game, the uneasy sense of whether or not you can trust the others is so inherently part of the game which directly contrasts how in Leverage the team more often than not trusts each other at such a deeper level.    But hey, you can always just ignore the Trust Dice and the game still can work in having a feel like the show?

Anything else?
The game also offers three variants on how missions get more challenging as time passes.   And these variants do nicely give the tense growing feeling of having to finish the mission before the shit hits the fan, so to speak.

So yeah, if you're looking for an easy to dive into spy game, this is a good one to try unless you have issues with Narrative Control being in the hands of the players.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: The game masterfully captures the feel of a spy show.  The Expert moves give the game a cool touch that doesn't leap far away from the genre.
Crunch: Wonderfully lite that allows players to literally jump in and try the game.  Admittedly, though, I feel its lite-ness however also limits it in a huge way.  The understand that during the Planning phase the Mission Points earned reflect the bonuses gained from using them, but there is no bonuses gained when players improvise and use new things.   So like if the Hitman decides to use the fire hose to loop around the guard's throat, then the water pressure to break his neck, he still only uses his Mars + Mission Points spent to make it happen.  I guess I would have added a secondary system, similar to Style Points from John Wick's Houses of the Blooded, to reward creative ideas that are not necessarily against another player.
Layout: Loving the look of the book big time.  I have to admit it charmed me big time and reminded me of the opening sequence of the movie Catch Me If You Can.  But then again, I've noticed there's a new version on Drivethru from the one my friend got me.  So I'm not sure how different a direction it has taken in that area.
My favorite part: When players finally use the Expert Moves.  It just has that wonderful special feeling to see them go for it.  And it made me smile so huge to see them loving that moment as well.
What I wish was better: The dice system as I mentioned above in the Crunch area.  I wish there were rewards for creativity that did not necessarily make things harder for other players.

Do you accept the Mission?
Available at Drivethru RPG.
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