“The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.”
-taken from the Machine of Death website
Machine of Death (2-5 players, Des. David Malki, Kris Straub, and David Fooden)
I like webcomics. This is no secret. So I remember when Dinosaur Comics had the pitch, and was astounded when the clip art dinosaur’s idea became a book written by the Internet. My disbelief continued when webcomic artist David Malki! announced his idea for a card game, which appeared shortly on Kickstarter. My incredulity reached a Dragonball meme-ish OVER 9000 when the game raised over half a million dollars during its funding period, including some of my own hard-earned money. Is it good? Is it a half million dollars good? Is it fun? Let’s talk about it.
The story of Machine of Death is also the story of its creators, the aforementioned David Malki! (who prefers the exclamation point and I would gladly honor that were I not becoming increasingly anxiety-ridden about knowingly committing punctuation crime so I will stop), humor scientist Kris Straub, and the mysterious David Fooden. It’s the first one, Malki, I want to focus on; he was the visible face of the project throughout the Kickstarter and subsequent fulfillment process. The work I’m most familiar with, the webcomic Wondermark (there! I linked to it again!) is a delightful, breathless comic strip where ideas are proposed and shot down by characters with equal enthusiasm. The “pitch” is king in Wondermark; Malki’s characters toss around theories and new inventions with all the gravity and ceremony of season-opening pitches, opposed only by practicality and their own shortcomings. Wondermark has no one running storyline, instead relying on these exercises in dialogue that veer into absurdity made even better by the artwork entirely collaged from public domain Victorian-era images.
Hang on to that. I told you that story so I could tell you this one.
The last game of MOD I played ended by scaring a Mafioso with a fear of hats into falling off a building, where he was impaled by the outstretched arms of department store mannequins, thanks to a truck we’d parked underneath.
I told you that story so I can tell you about the game.
Like the creators, MOD is a game that focuses on humor and encourages absurdity. The game hinges on a big question: In a world where anyone might know how they are fated to die, thanks to the titular Machine, how are hitmen supposed to function? The answer is something you’ll explore with your friends. Each game consists of four rounds (making one “mission”); each round is one assignment and each assignment must be completed before moving on. For an assignment, you’ll create a target (or find one out of the mission book, which I am only pretty sure is in every version of the game, including the non-Kickstarter kind) which will include brainstorming information like their name, location, something they’re really good at or interested in and something that holds them back (like a fear of hats). You’ll also find out what kills them by drawing a Death Card, one from the ominous pile of cards that is at the center of the game. This is the only thing that can kill the target and might include such things as HOT GIRL or TURNIP or BELT. You’ll also find out if the target knows their Death Prediction: understandably, some people prefer not to. The final phase of planning is drawing some Gift Cards, your inventory of random things you have to use to knock off the target.
Please, get quite comfortable. Things get progressively more absurd from here.
Your inventory of Gift Cards may include SOMETHING CANADIAN, a RAW MATERIAL, and in the best possible scenario, a WEAPON. It’s up to you and your friends to brainstorm a verbal Rube Goldberg machine using these items to kill your target. You’ll also set the difficulty of each piece of the plan, the difficulty being the number you have to roll on the game’s single six sided die for the action to succeed; if you fail during the attempt, you’ll replace that Gift Card with another from your “budget” of 20 cards and improvise anew. Finally, you’ll make the attempt, starting a 90 second sand timer and rolling a die against each card’s difficulty. Failures are resolved as written above with three successful rolls needed to knock off the target; if you can’t do that, you lose. If you succeed ahead of time you’re able to earn some bonus cards - the Specialists - by cleaning up the mess you probably just made.
MOD is a game about improvisation and storytelling. These are exactly the reasons it appeals to me. Hell, I spent four months unemployed once so I could keep doing stuff with an improv troupe. But not everyone enjoys that. And not everyone is particularly good at it. And it’s really irritating to everyone else when those two overlap into one person. The most common observation about Machine of Death is that it “needs a certain group” and this is fair; the best party games are ones that absolutely anyone can play - this explains the enduring popularity of Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity (you know, depending on the age and tastelessness of group). Machine of Death requires a very particular set of skills and interests to enjoy, which is mostly a willingness to sit around, spin a yarn, and yell a lot with friends as you all frantically think of a way to incorporate A PUBLIC DOMAIN CHARACTER into your plan as your third die roll causes all your carefully orchestrated schemes to collapse.
Machine of Death isn’t much of a game, really, it’s a barely-formalized system to tell a story that still has a loss condition. And I’m totally okay with that, because I started playing games so my friends and I would have an excuse to engage socially. I understand it’s a game that people who like being loud and ridiculous will enjoy more than people who like to play games to compete.
And now I can go back to what I said you’d need to hang on to. David Malki makes collages out of Victorian clip art; you and your friends can use this game to make experiences out of disparate elements. There’s variants in the rulebook and proposed online and so far I have not seen anything but encouragement and praise out of the creator. Machine of Death isn’t merely a party game and storytelling exercise; Machine of Death is, like public domain artwork, an opportunity, a toolbox, an excuse to create something and throw around ideas.
Thanks for the review. I think your judgement is correct, in that MoD needs a certain type of group (or for people to be in a certain mood, etc.) I love the idea of the game, but in practice it's fallen a little flat. There are a few aspects to MoD that make it a little challenging:
* It offers a fairly sprawling open set of possibilities. Apples to Apples, Un-natural Selection and even Snake Oil present you with a pretty tight focus to work with as opposed to the open-ended scenario of MoD.
* MoD, like Snake Oil but as opposed to Apples to Apples, is a storytelling game. Some people don't like that. Fair enough.
* The judgement aspect is a bit irritating: having to estimate how likely your plans are. It pulls you back from free-wheeling speculation to making objective judgements.
Still, in the right circumstances, MoD could be a lot of fun.
Personally, I am *terrible* at MoD. I'm not as creative as I thought I was, especially not when there is a sand timer ticking down. So unfortunately I'm not the kind of guy who should be playing this, which is unfortunate because I'm the one who bought it. I do have another group in mind and we'll try it with them, see if they can carry some of the creative load.