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Subject: A Story About A Game Without Rules, An Object, Or Content rss

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From my title, you'd think I completely hated Story War. I don't, but I don't love it either. Let me ramble for a bit here about how Story War failed to live up to it's Kickstarted pitch for our family.

The Pitch: From the Story War Kickstarter page, here's what got me to send some money their way:
Each turn represents one battle between two teams of players. The setting is defined by a randomly drawn Battlefield card. Players then look at the Warrior cards and Item cards in their hands and try to come up with a clever strategy. Once every player has played their Warrior cards face-down, everyone flips their cards over simultaneously. Then players must quickly describe, in an open discussion, how their team would defeat the opposing team.

Each battle is moderated by a judge that rotates every turn (similar to Apples to Apples) so the shared pop cultural context of everyone in the room is very important! Harry Potter fans might play the Basilisk card differently than Percy Jackson fans. Pokemon fans can cite obscure typing match-ups to explain why you can't punch a bird. Dungeons and Dragons players will often overlay D&D rules onto the game - don't even try to convince a D&D-playing judge that the Giant can defeat the Dwarf!

Players are also free to make stuff up, as long as they can be convincing! Everything is being moderated by a judge so if your opponent claims their character is unrealistically powerful, you can challenge that claim. Once a challenge has been issued the judge has to immediately decide whether or not it's a valid move. This means your characters are able to do anything as long as the judge lets you get away with it! The player acting as the judge and the grouping of teams changes after every turn, so the social dynamic is always shifting! Each battle ultimately evolves into an organic story and a memorable shared experience.


Background: I've played Story War with my game-loving family five or six times so far. It's still sitting out in our stack of active games, so it might get a few more plays before going on the shelf. So a handful of plays, two kids under age 10 and two adults. Whatever that's worth to you.

Components: I know some people care about this, but in general a card game doesn't need to do a whole lot on this front for me. I dislike how thin the cards in 7 Wonders are because you're constantly moving them around and picking them up. That's not a concern in Story War since you only really touch a fraction of the cards each game and the only "playing" you do with them is set them on the table once and then gather them up. The box is sturdy and shiny and has terrible cover art, which brings me to...


Pictured: Standard box art (left) and Deluxe edition. I don't know what's in the Deluxe edition because I was too cheap.

Artwork: I kick-started (I refuse to make Kickstarter into a new verb) this game because of the pure passion and enthusiasm of the creators. The main game artist is prolific and dedicated and I just plain don't like his art. It's cartoony without being playful but also not serious enough to convey any weight to the figures on the cards. The closest thing I can think of that the art in this game evokes is that in "how to draw cartoons" books. All the pieces are there and there's no questioning the technical ability, but it lacks any flair or life. I also really hate that fat-legged imp thing with the pointy nose featured so heavily on the cover of the box. If you're going to theme your cards around fantasy and storybook tropes, why not use something vaguely recognizable from one of the countless stories in the public domain? I can at least say that the colors on the cards are nice and vibrant.

Rules: There are none. OK, there are a few rules. The rulebook is pretty flimsy and still has room for some comic strips and examples. Since the cards have nothing on them but a word or two, the book doesn't have to refer to the cards by anything other than the color on the back. Red cards are characters, blue cards are items, and green cards are settings. You play with three red cards and two blue ones.

There are some nuances depending on the number of players, but the basic flow of the game is:

1. One player is the judge. That person flips a green card.
2. The other players play a single red card.
3. In turn, they make their arguments
3a. A single blue card can be played at any time by each player
3b. If you are "wounded" (negatively impacted in some way), you turn your character card sideways.
3c. If you are "killed" (eliminated from the story in some way)...everyone argues because the rules don't really address this due to the final argument prospect.
4. Everyone gets to make an uninterrupted final argument to the judge
5. The judge judges. Whoever wins the battle collects their red card as a point, all other cards get discarded. Replenish your hand and repeat.

The only real rule that has had any impact on our games is that "The argument must be logical", although even that rule is open to interpretation. Unlike Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game, there's not a strict prohibition on rambling. We supplemented by giving the judge a little more power, which helps direct the flow of the game.

Gameplay: I dunno...maybe "rules" and "gameplay" are the same thing. I don't think so. In a game like this where the rules are lacking, you have to hope it's made up for by the gameplay. Sadly, Story War also doesn't really fit my definition of a game although it does technically have rules and a winner is decided by a test of skill. There's no long-term strategy though, or tactical use of items. The only skill rewarded by this game is that of arguing, with actual storytelling cast aside as a result. There's a (yet-to-be-published) official variant of Story War putting the characters in a courtroom situation, which seems to me to be the perfect application. Even in a friendly game, the path to winning requires such aggressive arguing that one child ended up crying in an early game until we established the transitory nature of our story characters.

We came back to the game several times though, so there was something there at least. The Kickstarter project promised us Apples to Apples with more dynamic interactions, right? It never really panned out. Despite our best efforts, we have yet to make a linear story from match to match let alone within a single match. We play a lot of Tell Tale, Rory's Story Cubes, Once Upon A Time, and other storytelling games and rarely have difficulty tying everything together. It just doesn't happen in Story War though. We've had a few fun skirmishes but even the most clever arguments seem to leave someone upset as "logical" gets stretched to new limits.

A game like this should be immediately fun and not need multiple house rules by the end of the first game. In trying to create something open-ended, Story War only succeeds in reminding us that rules are part of what make a game fun. The other storytelling games I mentioned either have clear rules that allow open storytelling (Once Upon A Time), or simply forgo all rules and embrace that they're nothing more than creative cues (Tell Tale).

Verdict: For everything negative I've said about Story War, I still have positive feelings about it. The creators are passionate and appear to be in it for the long haul. The production quality is solid and despite me not liking the art there's decent attention to detail. At the end of the day though, while it's fun to come up with "what if" battle discussions there's not enough structure here to engage our family. We don't need a $20 game to argue about who would win in a fight between Puss In Boots and a Fairy with a sorcerer's stone (obviously, the fairy), and you probably don't either.

Our family will break out Apples to Apples 10 times out of 10 in favor of Story War, which is really too bad considering the enthusiasm of the creators. We'll keep Story War on our shelf for now and I can see my son getting it out to play with his friends a few times, but just this weekend they were essentially playing Story War while riding bikes - and they didn't even need cards and were allowed to use licensed characters!
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Nick Meenachan
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Delray Beach
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KILLER QUEEN: BITES THE DUST!
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Very good review, though you were far kinder than I was in my review.

Ultimately, the best thing about this game is the art. I'd love to see someone take the art and homebrew an actual game around it.
 
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