We were missing our fourth intrepid adventurer for last night’s Forbidden Lands game, so I busted out Plaid Hat’s Gen7. It’s the next board game in their Crossroads series, the first being their two Dead of Winter games. While we were playing, I could not help but notice how much playing Gen7 feels like playing a freeform tabletop RPG.
There are important differences, so don’t go buying Gen7 thinking it’s the next Montsegur 1244. What I’m talking about is a strain of boardgame design that evokes emotional responses via many of the same evocations that RPGs have been doing for a while. The methodologies are merging and we’re getting some interesting stuff.
The first time I experienced a strong story-feels vibe from a board game was playing FFG’s Battlestar Galactica. In that game, there are one or two Cylons hidden among the human crew and nobody knows who is in which faction. Players in both factions wind up paranoid and panicky while they try to outmaneuver each other and signal which side they’re on. Yes, fine, I’m sure there are plenty of players who reduce the exercise to pure social deduction. Nobody I play with does that.
My favorite BSG moment was playing with my niece. She was, oh, probably 14ish at the time. We had a table of 6, which is perfect because you have two Cylons hidden around the table. Her character started the game as President, which is a vital role for both the humans and the Cylons: humans need their President to make human-friendly calls about various crises that arise during the game, and the Cylons need their evil toaster President to screw over the humans and smile the whole time.
But our President’s player is 14, right? And it’s her first game. And oh boy has she gotten swallowed up by the game’s paranoia. So has everyone else! There comes a point, after she’s made a couple not-optimal calls that have left the humans worse for wear, I turn to her and say “I’m not sure if you’re a Cylon or not. And I’m pretty sure I can’t get together enough votes to get a new President. But you’re bad for humans no matter what, so I’m gonna vent you into space.”
This is me, telling my 14 year old niece, that she’s bad at her job and she’s better off dead than screwing things up for humanity. She’s horrified that I can even think that, much less do it. If that’s not pure storynerd drama fuel, I don’t know what is.
Gen7 reminded me quite a lot of the BSG board game experience. In Gen7, you play the commanding officers of a generation ship hurtling through space toward Epsilon Eridani. It’ll take hundreds of years and many generations to get there. The players are the seventh of, I think, 14 generations (??) that will live and die on the ship before it gets to where it’s going. And of course something has gone wrong.
The killer app of Gen7 is the Plot Book. It’s a branching-narrative game, with eight possible endings. The game lasts exactly seven sessions. Each session is probably 2-3 hours long. We played the first episode last night, and it took about 3 hours. Lots of that is because the game reveals itself as you play, so the rules are scattered between a rulebook, a rules reference section, and rules cards that are being added to the table every session, legacy game style (think Pandemic Legacy or Betrayal Legacy.)
The Plot Book essentially stands in for a live facilitator. The branching approximates simple if/then decisions along the way, much like some larp scripts mandate that certain events will take place in the course of the session. The point isn’t to solve the plot, it’s to experience the events as they are revealed. We’re playing to find out.
In our first session, we were told (via box text read aloud) that we’d just awakened from cryosleep, there’s some minor problems with our robot helpers, and we needed to get our round of ship management started. It’s a learning session, so just completing one round of play is how it starts.
Gameplay comes down to addressing a number of crises, drawn from a large-ish deck, while pursuing our own secret objectives. The tension between cooperating to keep the ship operational and pursuing our own goals feels similar to the structure of some freeforms and larps I’ve done. You know, the ones where you have a stated role (the commander of the fortress, the head of a religious sect) and hidden questions you’re working toward answering in play.
The Plot Book introduces wrinkles to this tension, further stirring the pot. In our game, near the end of the first session, we’d had to decide by vote whether to disengage our ship’s AI from running our life support, or carry on with our normal operations. Do we trust HAL? That was our first branch, and (not trusting our AI, nosiree) we ended up taking our AI offline. Doing that introduced new and interesting pressures, further drawing us away from our own goals.
Pursuing our own goals have a tangible payoff in both “stars” and “merit.” Stars buy you perks, which you’ll accumulate across sessions. Merit helps you gain new ranks (think 3:16!), which allows you to hold more perks and gives you more votes when crew votes come up. If you end up “top officer” (i.e. earn the most Merit), you also get to be the “star” next session. The point of that is to give you more draws from the Crossroads deck, little narrative decision points that impact you, or the ship, or future events as you start adding new secret cards to the various decks in play.
On the table, fully laid out, the game looks like it’s going to be a worker placement thing. And it is, basically: on your turn, you’re choosing how to deploy your faction’s (barracks, which are responsible for various ship operations: data, robotos, manufacturing and biology) colonists, a small pool of d6es. There are “seats” all over the table where you can send your colonists, as well as a growing list of crises that require sets of colonists as well as external resources to solve.
If someone deployed such an elaborate set of dramatic and procedural inputs in a freeform game, it’d be an utter failure. I mean that’s obvious and uncontroversial. But if you get past the elaborate stuff — most likely by internalizing the game’s procedures to the point where it’s all pretty smooth, much like we do with complicated RPGs — the feels are right there, waiting to be felt.
I was about to tick off the “obvious” differences between feels-forward board games and feels-forward roleplaying, but every time I came up with one, I had to stop and think about it.
Shared Imagined Space (SIS): This is the big one. Like, when you’re playing BSG or Gen7, the crises that arise don’t really fictionally “matter.” I have an operations goal I’m trying to achieve called, oh, “population census” or whatever. The name doesn’t matter, you’re not “actually” rooting around in computer records, I’m not play-acting any of that and having a scene around carrying out my census duties. But what I’m doing looks less efficient to my fellow players than, you know, jumping on that busted generator down in engineering that’s threatening the whole ship with permanent disaster. The SIS isn’t about exploring the fiction, it’s about exploring the relationships between players and that imagined space is very much shared. And if we’re really being honest, I think we can point to lots of RPGs (larps, freeforms, all of them) where exploring relationships matters more than exploring fictional elements.
Characterization: There’s no mandate, or even suggestion, that you come up with a distinct character for your role. And yet you still have a role. Gen7 does the mouse-cloak color thing where you get a little character ownership early on, by naming your character. You’re also assigned a relationship with one of several NPC cards, which impacts certain Crossroads cards as they come up. Again with the honesty: Many, maybe most times, at a tabletop RPG session, characterization is pretty weak too. Like, fine, you’re a moody elven hunter but not really. You’re just Joe the Roleplayer, being Joe.
But what about the stoooory: Since events are advanced by movement through the Plot Book, no, there is no facilitator shaping events into meaningful drama. But there’s still definitely drama as players argue about things like whether to trust our AI or whether to let our chems lab get damaged because, hey, I’ve got better things to do with my time. I can feel the edges of meaning as those arguments happen! This is where games like Gen7 feel a whole lot like scripted freeforms/larps: we bring meaning to the events that are going to happen no matter what, and driving “the plot” isn’t the point.
In the end, though, Gen7 is not an RPG. It is mechanically so elaborate that most of my bandwidth was taken up trying to work out my play in terms of efficiency and advancement. (Side note: I’m also aware of freeforms that use similar bandwidth-engaging tricks to distract, misdirect or focus the players.) You can’t really explore the fiction in an RPG-y way. But it definitely licked a bunch of emotional and intellectual spots that get licked in similar ways when I’ve played feels-forward freeforms that have similar constraints.