Kemuel's Place

A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.

All I wanna play right now: Tragedy Looper

One of the main reasons I started this place was so that I’d have somewhere to ramble on about games I really like without inflicting too much of my insufferable enthusiasm on unfortunate friends and passers-by, which isn’t really how I’ve been using it thus far.

Here we go.

Tragedy Looper didn’t convince me at first, but it turns out that this was because we were playing it wrong. We misunderstood something quite important, which is easily done to be fair, because it’s fucking complicated. There is an absolute mountain to climb before you will fully get your head around all the paranoia, intrigue, goodwill, roles, incidents and characters (and which of the above are and aren’t related to one another), but when you do.. oh wow.

Tragedy Looper’s a Japanese board game which sorta defies classification. It’s about time travel, detective work, bluffing, and in its final stages ends up vaguely resembling a demented kind of Chess. Every game follows a scripted scenario over the course of a number of days with one player acting as a Mastermind trying to complete a nefarious deed or two, and the other three attempting to stop them any way they can. The players start out in a state of abject confusion with no information about what the Mastermind’s win condition is, or what role any of the characters on the board will play in the script. By watching events unfold, they must begin to deduce what’s going on and try to successfully intervene. Or, like, just lose their shit completely in a fit of blind panic.

That guy was alone with the girl when she died. The other dude died alone apparently at random. Nobody who goes to the hospital comes out alive. The Shrine Maiden appears to be chasing that Schoolboy. A suicide was presaged on this day. Oh. dear. god.

Maybe the protagonists will play their movement cards to try and keep the murderous guy and the girl apart, maybe they’ll attempt to keep the suicidal dude’s spirits up by reducing his paranoia, maybe they’ll try and stop anyone going to the hospital by forbidding them by moving at all. And maybe it’ll be all for nothing when a bomb goes off and everyone dies anyway.

When the Mastermind completes their objective, they announce that the loop is closed, and time resets itself to the beginning of the first day. The Protagonists can then share their thoughts before everything starts again, trying to work out what the fuck just happened to them. I forgot to mention that throughout all this the Protagonists are not allowed to communicate with one another, which to begin with is every bit as insane as it sounds.

If the Mastermind wins the requisite number of times, the Protagonists get a chance to guess the identities of all the characters, and if they fail that, it’s game over. If the Protagonists even once manage get to the end of the number of days listed in the script without the Mastermind winning, then that’s it, they win everything.

The stakes are high on both sides, with every completed loop bringing the Protagonists closer to failure, but simultaneously providing them with more vital information about the roles of the characters and the Mastermind’s intentions. The Mastermind is utterly reliant on surprise, feeling the tricks up their sleeves dwindle as they listen in despair to the players’ discussions bringing them closer and closer to the mark.

All this writing has been a bit dry so far, because conveying the atmosphere during this game whilst giving a clear explanation of how it all works is actually really difficult. So much of the game hangs on lack of explanations, the lack of clarity in the chaotic events which occur. As the Mastermind it is utterly hilarious to simultaneously kill three characters, using three different means, and watch the players reaction of complete and utter WHAT THE FUCK as they desperately try to decipher which one was the key to the loop rebooting, and how they can go about averting it the following time.

The scripts I’ve played so far (and there are ten in the box to begin with, with guides for making your own) have all been broad enough to offer the opportunity for plenty of red herrings, and because the Protagonists don’t know what or even how many win conditions the Mastermind has, separating the truth from the decoys is a nightmare. All they have to help them is a forewarning of which days the special Incidents will occur upon, and the knowledge that roles of characters in the script will conform to one or more of the Plots written on their reference cards. No sign of a Serial Killer? Maybe the “Shadow of the Ripper” plot is not one of the ones that’s active. Pretty sure that guy’s a Conspiracy Theorist? Maybe we’re playing with “Unsettling Rumours”. He just placed some intrigue counters on the hospital.. does that mean it’s about to explode?

The design is just masterful. To begin with all the players are trying to do is gather information- work out which roles are active, which each of the characters on the board are playing, and what the Mastermind’s objectives are. But as the loops tick by, the nature of the game subtly changes. By the last loop they probably know who the killers are, they know whose lives they need to preserve; but can they actually do it? Can they prevent the Mastermind from moving all his pieces into place? Keep the Police Officer away from the Office Worker on the day of the murder? Stop anyone being left alone with the Doctor? Prevent the Boy Student’s paranoia reaching its limit on the day of the suicide? Chess. Sorta.

It’s such a nightmare to initially learn, though. Hopefully you’ve got a reasonable idea of how it works from my writing, but in practice you need to get your head around exactly what Paranoia tokens will do, why they’re different to Intrigue, and how someone could theoretically be the culprit of the “Murder” Incident, but not the “Killer” role. Three separate characters might die, one killed by the Killer, one killed by the Serial Killer, and one killed by the culprit of the  Murder, and they’d all be under completely different circumstances with different clues as to which was which. I’m not entirely convinced the cheat sheets with every single role, character, incident, plot and subplot listed on them really help with the inevitable information overload here, but they’re sorta essential to the players’ detective work.

Learning shouldn’t take more than a single full game, and over the course of that game you’ll learn the characters and roles in play inside out, but that’s still a couple of hours of your life that you need to invest before you even start to get the best of it. It should go without saying I think it’s totally worth it, though. If only because I am in sore need of more people to play with so I can stop Masterminding and try the player side out for once. It’s fun pulling the strings, but the pressure knowing that a single slip-up will cost you everything is a bit intense, even if you do start out holding all the cards.

So yeah, give it a look! Or like, at the very least, don’t get that deer-in-the-headlights look when I start yelling at you to let me teach you. I just wanna play moar..




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