Salt Lake City
There’s No Escaping This Machine
This review was originally posted on Space-Biff!, so if you like the cut of my jib, head over there for more!
What would you do differently if you knew “Swedish Furniture” would be the cause of your death? How would your life change? I don’t know about you, but I’d probably never go near an IKEA again — and that would really suck, because that’s where I spend my lunch hours.
Okay, that was an easy one. How about “Snowed In”? Or “Bad Blood”? Ooh, or what about “Goat Thong”? How in the hell are you going to avoid that?
Possessing a sure knowledge of the cause of your death, but not being sure of the when or where, or even whether your personalized death prediction is literal-accurate or trickster-god-accurate, is the premise of Machine of Death, a collection of short stories from a few years back that first spawned a sequel (This is How You Die) and now a board game entitled Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination. To reduce the concept to its simplest form, the stories revolve around a machine that predicts — with absolute, unfailing accuracy — how its subjects will die. However, the twist is that the predictions are rarely straightforward. For instance, while a prediction that reads CANCER could mean you’ll contract a terminal case of melanoma, it might also mean you’ll die because you took your horoscope too literally. Or something.
The implications of such a machine are far-reaching and metaphysics-bending, especially for professions that already deal in death. Consider how difficult a career as a soldier would be once your opposition assembled a force of nothing but ALZHEIMER’S and OSTEOPOROSIS predictions. Or, as in one of my favorite stories from the second collection (“Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence” by Tom Francis), how would you go about life as a goon in the employ of a mad scientist?
The Game of Creative Assassination takes this idea and shapes it into a question poised for hijinks. What if you’re an assassin? What if you’ve been tasked with making sure Mr. Horminguez dies of CATARACT, and right now, as opposed to when he’s ninety and he stumbles down an open manhole because he can’t see? Well, any assassin worth their salt would shove the man over Niagara Falls or something. Boom, check please.
In the vein of some other games we’ve looked at here on Space-Biff!, like Infinity Dungeon and The Quiet Year, The Game of Creative Assassination works best if you can find a group of creative play-along types, put them in a mood to tell jokes and willfully hinder their own plans, and settle in for a half-hour of hilarious storytelling. If you can, it’s one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long while, and if not… well, let’s not talk about if not just yet.
In terms of gameplay, Machine of Death couldn’t be simpler. You have a target, either chosen from the game’s ample book of scenarios or created from the power of your own imagination. Each target will have four major details: their alias, a like or hobby, a dislike or fear, and a location. So if you were going to (attempt) an assassination of DAN THUROT, for example, you’d fill out one of the little cards that come with the game to say “Intel #1: Likes seducing swimsuit models, successfully,” and “Intel #2: Only afraid of fear itself,” and “Coordinates: The Amalfi Coast.”
Then you draw a random death prediction. BAD SIGNAGE, it says. Okay, cool. Then you flip a coin to determine whether I’m aware of my own death prediction — yep, I am. Then again, I’m not afraid of it either, so it shouldn’t matter too much.
Third, you draw three cards from your “budget.” There are a ton of these that come with the game, but you only get a small deck each game, and there’s a good chance you’ll need the extra cards later. In this case, maybe you’ll draw “Sports Equipment,” “A Public Domain Character,” and “Stuff Your Mother Warned You About.”
With just these three items — and making sure you use all three — you must assemble a plan of attack. So maybe you know I’m fearless and driving along the oceanside cliffs of the Amalfi Coast with a dozen swimsuit models in my convertible (business as usual), so you use a hockey stick to mangle a sharp turn warning sign, have Ivanhoe (public domain, and I’d definitely recognize him) standing in the middle of the road, and hire one of the swimsuit models to distract me by smoking a cigarette in a seductive manner. The idea is that the model will discombobulate me with her smoking, I’ll misread the sign and go into the turn without anticipating its sharpness, I’ll swerve at the last moment to avoid Ivanhoe, and BOOM, paycheck as my convertible explodes on the rocks below.
“Wait wait wait!” says one of your buddies. “But we can totally do this and save the swimsuit models!” Thus the plan grows ever more ludicrous.
And that’s just the first part. After that, you assign each task a difficulty (and hopefully not just say everything is “difficulty two” or something lame like that), then start a sand-timer and roll some dice to see if you succeed at each task. If anything fails, you draw another card from your budget and improvise on the fly — uh, so the swimsuit model won’t smoke the cigarette, so you draw “Something Noted for its Teeth”… yes! You’ll train a killer whale to leap out of the ocean nearby, and—
“Idiot,” someone says, “whales use those flange things to eat plankton.”
“Not killer whales!” you insist.
“Whatever. I’m saying this action is difficulty six!”
I think you get the idea.
If I had two problems with Machine of Death, they’d be small, possibly even negligible.
First of all, as I mentioned above, you really need the right group. Creative, willing to embrace the absurd reaches of their imaginations for a half hour, and ideally not alpha players. Which brings us to the second mild problem: it’s pretty easy for an alpha player to dominate the group, dictating every little detail of the plan, putting down other ideas, arguing about the difficulty assignments for each task, etc. This is one of those rare games where you’re not really meant to focus on “winning,” since strictly speaking, “winning” isn’t as much fun as just letting your thoughts and plans run wild and laughing like a madman when someone screws up their difficulty roll and suddenly can’t think of a “Shiny Thing” to replace the part of the plan they just failed at.
If you’ve got a group of friends like the one I described above, and you like having your ass removed by laughter, Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination is a riot.