Board Game Night - Fiasco

Number of players: 3-5 (best: 4)
Playing time: 150 minutes
By: Jason Morningstar / Bully Pulpit Games
Rank on BoardGameGeek: Not considered a board game

One type of game I very much like, and which we play far less often than we'd like (because we're either too many players, or from lack of time/ability to concentrate) is story-telling games that fall somewhere between tabletop RPGs, and social board games. Unlike board games, they have few components and an open-ended result; unlike role-playing games, they don't normally have a strict rules structure. They're about telling a story as a group, period. My favorite of these is Fiasco, which I've talked about so often on this blog, it has its own label. But while I've described some of the game sessions we've had, I haven't really talked about the game proper. Let's do that.

Fiasco is a storytelling game where each player is expected to play out scenes, in character but around the table - no stage required - in a story about people whose ambitions exceed the grasp of the cleverness they nevertheless believe they have. Big plans, small minds, all the makings of a fiasco. The game presents itself as a gameable version of a Coen Bros. film, if that's a reference you understand. Each game has three phases of play. In the Set-Up, the group selects one of many "playsets", leaflets that present a setting with randomized options for character relationships, motivations, places and objects. A pile of dice is thrown; the numbers rolled then restrict the players' choices. Each player has a relationship with the players on their left and right, and may share motivations, locations, etc. Once choices rich in possibilities have been made, each player gets a scene with whoever they want, going around the table twice. At the end of every scene, a player involved in the scene gets either a white die (a good result is expected) or a black one (the opposite). After this first "Act", players roll on the Tilt table which imposes some destabilizing elements that MUST occur in the second Act, and each player gets another pair of scenes. At the very end, each player's black and white dice are used to guide the final montage using an Aftermath table.

That last feature is the only one I don't like, nor fully understand. It would make sense to me that the more black dice you have, the more wretched the character's final fate. That's not the case. What really screws a character over is getting too even a result. I don't get it. See House Rules for what we do instead. Otherwise, Fiasco is simple and elegant, and even if you can theoretically use the same playset over and over, there's really a wealth of official and unofficial playsets that insure every session will be completely different. The dice mechanic serves many purposes, both random and strategic, but also having an effect on the mood as a kind of countdown clock for luck running out. As the white dice dwindle, humorous despair sets in. And don't worry about your acting or improvisational skills. I've played this with people who didn't think they had the stuff and they had a great time AND contributed well. The game structure does just enough to support those players without hampering those who really do have the drama gene.
The game books are written with a lot of style, never too shy to use expletives and pop culture references, just like the movies the game is trying to emulate. The artwork generally evokes 60s spy and caper graphics (the font is even called Hitchcock) and is in line with that aesthetic too. As for what few "game mechanics" there are, the dice pool is probably the most "thematic". The random nature of the choices open to the players, the way players are forced to give each other bad luck, and so on all play into the existential comedy that is Fiasco. Everything in fact encourages you to angle for the worst possible result. No one "wins" Fiasco; it's about putting your character into hot water and watching him or her boil or drown. It's grotesque entertainment.

Though they have printed Fiasco core books, companions and playset collections, it's all available in pdf (or ebook) format online. The core rules are a mere 10$, I think, and the playsets are free. There's even a site where you can find dozens and dozens of them (mostly in English, but other languages are represented). I've even written a couple. Most scenarios fall under the heading of thrillers, crime capers, politics/espionage and horror, but you'll find Fiascos for superheros, science-fiction, fantasy, My Little Pony, you name it. Since the game has no physical basis, the one thing you'll need to provide is a large number of dice in two colors (or at least a batch of white ones, and a mix of colored ones).
House Rules and Expansions
Whenever a special rule is required of a setting, it'll be included in whatever playset requires it. Extra stunt dice might indicate a murder at the old cabin in the woods, for example, or be required of a superhero who wants to accomplish a major feat. The most commonly used of these expanded rules is the Soft Tilt and Soft Aftermath, which you can pull out for lighter games where characters are unlikely to die. The Soft tables play on more comical misunderstandings and are less "criminal"; a good addition.

As for house rules, those who do not like the Aftermath table regardless can instead opt for straight bad luck/good luck descriptions of events in the final montage based on dice color alone. For each white die, something good happens in the epilogue; for each black die something bad. Another house rule I use is when gaming with 5 players (the optimal configuration is 4, and it's hard to stray from that without the game being too short and simple, or too long and complicated), and that's turning 2 players into a pair. These players are always together and play as a unit, getting their turn together. Think of partnered police officers or a cameraman/journalist duo, for example. This prevents the game from getting out of control, while allowing more people to play.

In conclusion: Directed improvisation that always provides a fun experience. They say you can't have a bad game of Fiasco, and while I wouldn't exactly put every one of mine on the same footing, I'd have to say the same. An easy download and you're ready to go. Also check out the excellent episode of Table Top on YouTube where they play a 1970s Disco Fiasco. LOADS of fun.


Anonymous said...

This sounds cool (although I'd probably be scared shitless to play act in front of everyone); the choice of genres reminds me of GURPS (though I don't think there's a GURPS My Little Pony ... at least, not yet).

So, if one team can be a duo, does that mean that you could theoretically have eight players (i.e. four teams of two)? Or would that be too unruly?

Mike W.


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