Last summer, Level 99 Games successfully Kickstarted today’s game, and it’s now being sent out to backers. They were kind enough to send me a review copy, so let’s take a look at
Power Play: Schemes and Skullduggery is a game designed by John Parmalee and published by Level 99 Games. This is a competitive narrative game for 4-8 players that takes around an hour to play. The gist of the game is that you are supernatural villains, each with a different secret objective that you want to be the first to accomplish. This is a storytelling game in the truest sense of the word – your actions, your goals, and even the items in the environment, come from you.
Power Play comes with eight plastic pawns and 57 cards, as well as an 80-page rulebook and a 44-page bonus scenario book. The cards break down as follows – 4 Agency cards, 7 Common Elements, 24 Supernatural Roles, and 22 Locations. You’ll need to supply pens and paper, as well as at least five dice (more is preferrable).
At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a random Supernatural Role that you keep secret. You’ll also deal a random location to each player, which is kept in front of you. You are the Secret Keeper for that location, which anyone can go to. For your first game, roles and locations are specified in the rules, but usually, it’s random. You’ll also choose a Common Element, either randomly or by agreement (the Briefcase is your first game’s Common Element) , and place it in a random location. Each player then writes down a secret goal. Secret goals are collected and randomly distributed, so don’t make it too easy. There are specified secret goals for your first game so you don’t have to worry about what’s too easy. You can also play with secondary goals that complement your secret goal, and these are also randomly distributed (not used in the first game).
In the first round of play, each player will add a Trait to one of the locations. Traits are simple words or phrases that describe something in the environment, or something about a character when applied to them. Some examples of Traits – Smelly, Abandoned, On Fire, Infested with Rabbits, On the Edge of a Cliff. After adding the Trait, the player declares their starting location, which may or may not be the one they added a Trait to, or even the one they are Secret Keeper for. Once all players have added Traits and declared their starting locations, play begins.
On your turn, you can do any number of Free Actions, followed by one Effective Action. Free Actions include proposing a Trait for a location or character, which must be voted on by all players; moving around within your location; or talking freely with other characters in your location. Effective actions are those which really advance your story. You can take a Short Action, which is something that may take up to 10 minutes to do in real time. This can include opening a safe, killing a mugger to take his gun, or sneaking through a crowd.
Another Effective Action is a Character Action. In order to take a Character Action, you’ll need to reveal yourself to everyone. Characters all have special things they can do – Firestarter can turn into fire or turn something into a bomb. The Shifter can talk to animals or even turn into one. The Creep has a terrifying pet in his backpack, which eats/destroys items and can be unleashed. And so on.
You could also take a Secret Action, which can be a Short or a Character Action. Basically, you write it down and give it to the Secret Keeper for that location, who looks at it to make sure it doesn’t conflict with anything else that has happened there. You can’t do a Secret Action in the location where you are the Secret Keeper, and if you do a Secret Character Action, you must reveal yourself to that location’s Secret Keeper.
You can use your Effective Action to call the Agency. There are four Agency cards, and each one can do something very powerful for you. However, it takes them three turns to respond to your call (tracked with a die). No one else can use that Agency card while they’re on a call for you, and if you call another Agency member before the die runs out, you’ll lose the first one. This can’t be done in secret.
You can also Delay your Effective Action. This is basically a pass. What this does for you is allow you to take a Long Action on your next turn. A Long Action is something that might take an hour in real time, and is usually used to travel to another location.
Power Play follows the Yoda rule – “Do or do not. There is no try.” Whatever you say happens is what happens. If you say, “I kill the Mayor with my knife,” that’s what happens. If you say “I open the safe,” that’s what happens. There are no attempts. If someone feels that you are doing something unrealistic, they can call a Reality Check on you. After making brief arguments, everyone votes. If you win the vote, the action happens as stated. If you lose unanimously, the action does not happen. If you lose but NOT unanimously, you roll two dice and succeed if either is a 5 or 6.
You can also declare a conflict with someone if they do something that directly interferes with your plans. For example, if someone blows up the Briefcase, therefore negating your goal to gift wrap it and drop it in a mailbox, you’d want to declare a conflict. Or if someone kills you, you definitely want to declare a conflict. The other players vote on who has the advantage, then you roll five dice and compare the results to a chart to see what happened.
Once a player has completed their secret goal, they declare themselves to be the winner. If everyone agrees, that’s the game.
COMPONENTS: There really aren’t a whole lot of components in the game. You get eight plastic pawns and 54 cards. Though you need dice and paper as well, these are not included. I don’t begrudge that – it’s a way to keep costs down, and the people who will enjoy this game are those who probably have lots of extra dice lying around. Index cards are recommended for keeping notes about Traits, Secret Actions, and other things going on, but scraps of paper work just as well. In the original press for the game, it looked like they were going to include some dry-erase cards and space on the location cards for notes, but those apparently got scrapped at some point – not sure why.
The cards themselves are tarot sized – about 7 cm wide and 12 cm long. The locations, roles, and Common Elements all have different backs, while the Agency cards are double-sided. Art is sufficiently evocative – it’s done in a pretty rough style to emulate pulp fiction type drawings. There are illustrations of the characters that just give some flavor – the illustrations are not intended to define the character. The locations are simply colored cards with a rough map and a red circle. Where there is text (on the roles and Common Elements), you can usually understand what is going on. Traits are in [brackets] to differentiate them from other effects. The cards are pretty good quality and slick. I don’t know anything about sleeving, and I don’t know if there are tarot sized sleeves, but it’s not really a game where you need it. The cards are mostly just there for convenience rather than essential gameplay. The pawns too are just to help you know where you are. I substituted in some Meeple Source meeples for the pawns when we played, and they worked well.
The last thing I want to talk about is the rulebook. While it isn’t necessarily easy to find the rules you need (it is 80 pages after all), the book is very well laid out and does a great job providing examples of play. You also get good examples and bad examples of types of actions. For example, “I attack The Mayor” is not as good as “I kill The Mayor with the gun.” It is well laid out, I just would have liked a better summary of the rules at the back of the book. The last page lays out how Reality Checks and Conflicts work, but no description of possible Effective Actions.
Overall, I give the components a thumbs up even though there aren’t very many of them.
THEME: The story here is that you are a super villain with a secret objective. This objective has been given to you by The Agency, which is some mysterious organization that is controlling the show and providing support to you and your opponents. There’s not really an explanation as to what they are, but it’s not really important. In fact, the theme itself is not super important, but not in the traditional Euro sense. This game has no set narrative story, nothing prepared ahead of time (other than the beginner game and bonus scenarios), and everything that happens comes from the mind of the players. The theme is very loose, and contributes to the free-form nature of the experience. Basically, the theme is whatever you make it out to be.
MECHANICS: This is a storytelling game at its core. It’s competitive, but players are working together to create a cohesive narrative. Reality Checks and Conflicts are a big part of the game to keep things grounded. The voting system in place is used as a check to make sure one person can’t just nuke a plan because it interferes with his path to victory. Of course, I have found that voting really needs to be structured. An example: in my first game, I was the Shifter and had taken a secret action to transform myself into a bear while I was in a bathroom. Everyone else showed up in my location, so I burst out and attacked the player who was the Gatecrasher. The Gatecrasher was unarmed, and didn’t really have much in his defense except that he said he was going to fight back so I didn’t win out of hand. Two people voted for me to have the advantage, and then the other two (after seeing what the others said) voted against me to keep the odds even. I ended up losing thanks to a bad roll. A bear attacking an unarmed man with the element of surprise, and I failed. Call it sour grapes if you want, but it just served to convince me that voting needs to be simultaneous, or at least needs to be blind.
There are things you can do on your turn, and part of the game is deciding how you want to use your Effective Action. By using Short and Long Actions, the game becomes grounded in some sort of time. It’s unrealistic to expect that a player could plant explosives in every room of the Empire State building in the same time it would take you to kill a mugger. The ability to also do Secret Actions is a good way to make sure you can plant the seeds to help you succeed in the future. Having Secret Keepers means that you have a check against someone saying, “Yeah, I did that three turns ago.” At the same time, it is a little odd that you can’t do anything in secret at the location where you are a Secret Keeper. I wish there was some way to get around that – generally, you won’t be wanting to do much there.
Most of the mechanics serve to keep players honest in a game where there is no gamemaster. The rules, however, make a point to let you know that your first game will be kind of clunky. I can attest to that. The rules also make a point to tell you that it’s important to keep the game moving, and not get hung up in the details. I can agree with that as well – our first game was mostly spent in clarifications and adding little Traits everywhere. Also in arguing – each player involved in a Reality Check or Conflict is supposed to make a brief one sentence statement, then the vote, and you move on. It’s just something to be aware of when you play. Roleplayers in particular will want to make a bigger deal of things than they need to be.
One more thing – I do like the Yoda rule. I should say that this is my term for it. But it fits – you do, or do not. There is no try.
STRATEGY LEVEL: This is not a game about luck. Sure, you’ll get a random goal and a random character, and there are some dice rolls. However, the game is more of a mental exercise to try and manipulate events in your favor. You have to formulate a strategy to try and accomplish your goal. For example, my goal was to gift wrap the Briefcase and drop it in a postal box. Therefore, I made sure to propose that there was a Post Office in the Office Park long before I got the Briefcase, just so I’d have a place to get my supplies and mail the thing. Of course, it was never relevant because I was a completely ineffective bear (I wanted to start ripping people’s arms off, and kept losing the conflicts). So you have to be thinking ahead, but you also have to respond to things that are going on. There is the ability to make deals with other players in your location, but nothing is binding, so be aware of that as well.
ACCESSIBILITY: This is a tough game to explain to people. It’s just very different from most games out there. As mentioned before, the first game or so will be clunky until you really understand the mechanisms. So there’s a learning curve. Plus, the free form nature might boggle the mind of some people who really like a lot of structure in their games. The ability to succeed at everything and the concept of not getting hung up on details may boggle the mind of players who do roleplaying games. I’d say that this is a game that lots of people can enjoy once they get into it, but I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to non-gamers – a lot of foreign concepts in this one.
REPLAYABILITY: This game probably has infinite replayability. I haven’t been able to test out that theory, but since you’re only limited by your imagination, you should be able to play this forever. You can make your own characters, new scenarios, and even get really creative with your goals. And with different people playing, even a game with the same setup is going to be completely different. I’ll never see another game where the Briefcase was handcuffed to a patient in the Hospital, whose bodyguards’ heads exploded thanks to some exploding gum given to them by the Firestarter, who then set the patient on fire to obtain the Briefcase just before being transported to the Office Park by the Gatecrasher, who was then attacked by a bear before being shot dead by the Faceless Man while the Mimic killed a police officer and stole his car and the Tank cornered Firestarter in a burning trailer as Firestarter put the Briefcase in a safe and then held on as a propane tank exploded, burying her and the safe 10 feet underground. Never again. And I’d be surprised if it ever happened to you at all.
There is a book of nine bonus scenarios included in the box which will help with replayability. But there’s nothing to stop you from coming up with your own. Or even your own characters. Or Common Elements. Or other new mechanisms. This is a system, and will provide as much enjoyment as you want it to.
SCALABILITY: The game is playable with 4-8 players, with the introductory scenario being 4-6. Length may be a problem with more players as you’ll tend to have more arguments. Fewer players might make for a quicker game, but I would imagine that the chaos of an eight player game would be epic.
FOOTPRINT: You don’t need any space for this game. All you need is space for everyone to sit. Each Secret Keeper can be responsible for keeping up with the information in their location. This makes it very portable, and something you can play just about anywhere. Though I wouldn’t play it on an airplane or in an airport – somehow, I think the theme does not lend itself well to those situations.
LEGACY: There are a number of other storytelling games out there, and this one is unlike a lot of them. Tales of the Arabian Nights and Agents of SMERSH are good games, but the stories you tell are already written – they’re just going to come out in a different order every time. Once Upon a Time, Gloom, and Aye, Dark Overlord! are comparable in their free-form nature, but they all have cards to play. Power Play is unique in that everything comes out of the players’ heads.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I believe that it is. Everyone I played with enjoyed it. What you’re getting is a system to create your own experiences, not really a big packaged game. You have to know the audience – the game is very loose, and if players are going to run screaming without structure, they should maybe try something else. I know that I had a lot of fun with it, and it definitely creates an experience worth remembering. Thanks for reading!
Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing the review copy of this game!