For the original version of this review, including images, please see http://www.unpluggedgames.co.uk/2015/08/31/review-co-mix/
In case you hadn't noticed, comic books are a bit of a big deal.
Hollywood adaptations of superhero stories generate massive box office revenues. Sinister entertainment juggernaut Disney recently paid $4bn to enfold comics publisher Marvel in its slithery tentacles. And while physical copies of comics don't generate anywhere near as much money as their big-screen siblings, they're increasingly being recognised as a medium for powerful storytelling.
As a gamer, there's a good chance you're already aware of this. There's a long-established link between these two outposts of geek culture, and games like Marvel Dice Masters, Heroclix, and Heroes Wanted have all explored the realm of people with their underwear outside their trousers. Even less well-known titles like Kill Shakespeare, a fantasy adventure mashing together characters from the playwright's work, have been getting the cardboard-and-plastic treatment.
But while games based on or inspired by comics are nothing new, until now there's never been a game that lets you create comics of your own.
Co-Mix is storytelling game for three to 10 players by Italian designer Lorenzo Silva. It puts you and your friends in the shoes of comics creators like Stan Lee, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman as you compete against your friends to tell the most interesting stories using a set of cards laid out in sequence like panels on a comic book page.
Each round of the game sees players dealt a hand of 12 double-sided cards, each featuring a piece of artwork to incorporate into your story. Over the course of three minutes you'll do your best to string together images in an order that makes some sort of narrative sense, and to construct a story around them. When time runs out, everyone tells their story to the rest of the group.
Say, for example, we'd thrown together the following page:
co-mix pageWe might tell a story about a criminal who's arrested the night before a big heist, but who manages to break out of jail. He thinks he's free and clear, but he's tracked down by Captain Katana! They fight, and the hero ends up falling over the edge of a roof, but our villain pulls him to safety at the last second. The Captain can't bring himself to apprehend the man who's just saved his life, so he walks away, allowing him to pull off the audacious robbery.
Each player in turn gets a chance to tell their story, then the group uses face-down tokens to vote on which they thought had the best narrative structure, the biggest emotional impact and the greatest degree of originality.
It's here that it becomes clear that Co-Mix isn't just about creativity. If the group votes for your story as the best in any of these categories, you'll score some points. But you'll also pick up points for each of the votes you cast which turns out to agree with the group consensus. It's more of a board game simulation of MetaCritic than an exercise in pure storytelling.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. It means that winning is largely about being able to read the other players around the table. What sort of elements are likely to appeal to them on each of the game's three levels? You might be tempted to cast your vote for the comic accumulating the biggest pile of your opponent's ballot tokens, but each player also has a set of "meh" tokens to place on comics they didn't like, making it unclear who has done well or poorly until voting concludes and all the tokens are flipped over.
With great power...
This voting system turns out to be reasonably intriguing, and it's not the only thing that Co-Mix has going for it.
The card artwork is colourful, engaging and varied. On a typical round you'll have a collection of characters, landscapes, objects, vehicles and action scenes to play with. They represent genres including pulp-noir, superhero adventure, horror, fantasy, romance and science fiction. It makes for some genuinely interesting combinations, and the fact that many of the cards are open to interpretation means there's a lot of scope for off-the-wall ideas.
But strangely enough, that's also one of the places where the game most noticeably falls short.
Creativity is a difficult thing to incorporate into a game. By nature the creative process is open-ended, while a game is constrained by a set of rules. For a game to function on any meaningful level, it has to put some sort of restriction on the players.
Some games manage this very well. Dixit forces players to convey information in hazy, ambiguous ways by punishing them for being too obvious. The hot new supernatural mystery game Mysterium gives players a rigidly set collection of data points and forces them to use context to hint at what they're supposed to mean. By comparison, Co-Mix just seems a little too ill-defined. You can use that card showing a prison to represent a literal prison, or the justice system in general, or even just the vague feeling of being trapped.
The game does attempt to address this. At the start of every round, players agree on a shared title for their comics, and in theory everyone's story should have something to do with the suggested theme. But titles like "Pull the Plug," "The Stranger" and "Catastrophe" are themselves open to a huge degree of interpretation. In the end it feels less like a game than it does a set of writing prompts.
Another problem is the suggested player count.
If you believe the box, Co-Mix plays between thee and 10 players. Look at the rules, though, and you'll find that for higher player counts, you're meant to divide into teams of two. This instantly causes problems if one member of the team is more forthcoming with ideas or more forceful than their partner. The three minute time limit on story construction doesn't give much time for collaboration, and it's very easy for one player to lock their partner out of the game.
It also makes the process of voting and calculating scores longer than it needs to be, and you'll find yourself wanting to get the arithmetic out of the way and get back to telling stories - the part that's actually fun.
Our review play group reckoned three players would be too few for a rewarding game, but anything over four or five people at the table is probably too much. Co-Mix has a very narrow sweet spot, and it suffers considerably when you try to go outside of it.
Another annoyance is that some of the artwork is needlessly sexualised. The premise of this game, along with its colourful presentation, make it one that I'd love to play with kids. The pointless inclusion of gratuitous cleavage shots makes this difficult, even if it does pretty accurately reflect some sections of the comic book industry.
On many levels, Co-Mix is a nice idea. It's certainly pretty, and it engages a creative part of the brain that many games just ignore. But it also has some serious shortcomings, and in the end it left us feeling about as disappointed as the latest Fantastic Four reboot.
Colourful and varied artwork
Intriguing vote-based scoring system
Awful team variant
Pointless cleavage shots
Sinister entertainment juggernaut Disney
Oh, that's right... easy to pick on the little guys, right?
Great review, thanks. I had been pondering this for a while but maybe the gameplay is as vague as I had feared.