Congratulations and deep thanks to everyone who participated in Game Chef 2011, which was definitely both the most productive and least stressful of the years that I’ve been in charge — and some years when I haven’t!
Additional thanks go out to the Shadow Cabal of former Game Chef participants who served as informal advisors this year. Your advice and ideas have made Game Chef better, both for this year and in the future.
The True Winners
Everybody who has completed a game — and, really, also those folks who started something but couldn’t quite finish on time — if you’ve learned something in the process and felt some connection to the other chefs and their games, you’ve won Game Chef in every way that matters. And that’s not just comforting bullshit, but actual honest fact.
A couple anecdotes demonstrate this: All the Game Chef games you’re most likely to have heard of were not winners and most of them weren’t even finalists. Additionally, I gave a pretty critical review to one game when I was a guest judge for Game Chef 2005; that game was The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach and its designer has now been nominated for the Diana Jones Award twice. Likewise, I believe very strongly in Game Chef despite my best showing coming in 2002, when my game was one of six (not 66) completed.
So first let’s congratulate all the games that received fewer than two recommendations. At least 50% of these were one reviewer’s favorite game, which is pretty dang awesome, and these games are odds-on favorites to be more successful and make more money than any of the other games!
Rock on and please keep designing and playing! This is what it’s all about!
The Runners Up
These are the games that received two recommendations, a major accomplishment considering the difficulty of getting indie game designers to agree on anything. If history is any guide, these games will probably be less successful than the previous group, but more successful than the winners! Congratulations!
- Blood, Love, and Rhetoric by Jeff R.
A game of intrigue in the court of a Queen as capricious as she is beautiful, in which character sheets are sonnets composed during play.
- Cardenio’s Daughter, or “Follow the Lady” by Nick Wedig
One moment, Cardenio is a Duke in exile. Then, he is a college professor. Just as quickly, Cardenio is a foolish rogue. Which is the real world?
- Chaucer’s Daughter Lost by Bryan Hansel (Bryan)
Time-traveling Shakespeare kidnaps Chaucer’s daughter, and as ransom, Chaucer must put down his pen. Help quest for Chaucer’s daughter.
- The Night, the Wilderness, and the Power by Paul Edson
A dutiful daughter braves the night and the unknown. What will she risk, what promises will she break to gain her heart’s desire?
- The Trouble with Rose by Todd Zircher
A fast and light romp about exiled Rose and her friends. Players create a tale of drama, tragedy, comedy, and betrayal where everyone has a secret agenda.
- Revenge of the Groundlings by Brian Paul & Danielle Rosvally
Groundlings Unite! With the playhouses closed by plague, it’s up to you and your haphazard memories to perform Shakespeare for the masses!
- The Play’s The Thing by Mark Truman
Actors attempt to “improve” a Shakespearean play by offering Edits to the Playwright during the rehearsal process.
- Exiles of Will by Michael S. Miller
Five minor characters from the canon seek to end their exile and find a happy ending.
- Forsaken by David Miessler-Kubanek (dmkdesigns)
A game about Exiles who seek reconciliation for broken promises in order to change their legacy at home.
- All the World by Mark Nau
A structured story-game for three players, inspired by the form and content of Shakespeare’s plays. Will you live a tragedy or a comedy?
- The Fairy’s Hart by Marc Majcher
A supernatural romance for two. Oberon’s daughter has fallen in love with a mortal man seen in the forest and must win his love without using her magics.
- As I Am Woman by Joel P. Shempert
A Shakespearean woman takes gender subversion to extremes. Play out the repercussions across five acts!
The Doomed Finalists
These are the games that were the favorites of three or even (gasp!) four reviewers, which means they have a chance of winning Game Chef and thus inheriting our equivalent of the Madden Curse. You poor unfortunate souls!
- Daughters of Exile by Steve Darlington
Your Father wishes you to marry. You wish to decide for yourself. Cut a path between duty, love and rebellion.
- All’s Well That Ends as You Like It
by Jennifer Hardy & Matthew Mazurek
Dueling, wooing, vows kept or forsworn, drunkenness, thievery, costumes, identical twins, rightful rulers, virtuous innocents, ghosts, and much more.
- Forsooth! by Sam Liberty & Kevin Spak
Players each control a small cast of characters to improvise a play of Shakespearean scope without a GM or storyteller.
- Globe Records by Mike Olson
Several shakespearean characters transplanted to an early-’90s-style prime-time soap opera set at a recording label in Los Angeles.
- A Midsummer Night’s Scheme
by Nat Barmore (woodelf) w/ Caitlin Doran
Exiled faeries compete to prank mortals they care for, in order to regain favor at the Summer Court.
- The Lost Years by Matthew Nielsen
A Game of Shakespeare and time travel. Characters cast out of the Bard’s plays must choose between their mission and their personal desires.
Daughters of Exile by Steve Darlington
- Dr. Walton says: I am drawn to his clever concept, though it seems much more born from sci-fi film than from Shxp plays. The presentation effectively employs quotations from key characters and plays, as well as apt and articulate allusions a couple of times. The use of constables and clowns and curses feels Shxpn. But here is a major problem for me: though his list of female names reveals familiarity with the host of women characters in the plays, it is not clear to me that the traits identified really match the characters presented in the plays. At this point the Shxp names seem more like window dressing than based on the true nature of the cast in the plays — a disappointment.
- Master Chef says: Overall, I’m more positive on this game. I think dad read each line of the table as representing a single character, not names, curses, and blessings that you mixed and matched when creating daughters, but his concern still stands, I think, because you could easily generate a Juliet that was “Wicked” and “Musical,” for example. In my mind, the main difficulty on the game side of things is that so much of the wordcount is spent on describing different aspects of the setting that it’s less clear what the daughters actually do: what play actually consists of. If the daughters are rare and often traveling alone to avoid notice, how do the PCs interact with one another? How is play structured? Who determines what the next scene or focus of play is about? In some ways, I really like that this is an outline of a game that players can build on, something like Ghost/Echo or Lady Blackbird, but I kinda want less description then — if the players are going to be responsible for putting the game together — just a sentence or two on each important bit of setting and the instruction to cut loose and have fun with it. Or, if that’s not what’s intended, maybe some more concrete suggestions on what to do once play begins. A few more specific thoughts: If numbers below five are frustrating to play, why create a rule that makes them pretty common? What happens if you fail to make your roll? You can’t violate your programming? So…nothing happens? Or you have to do what people tell you to? What happens to daughters who have violated all their programming? They become NPCs, but what does the GM (there is a GM, right?) do with them? I’m not sure the tension between wanting to rebel and wanting to avoid violating all your programming is an interesting one because it’s unclear what violating all your programming actually means. Finally, it’s the GM’s job to make the PCs fall in love? How do they do this? What do you do with the enemies and foils? I feel like, if some of the extensive description was cut down, some of these more concrete details could have been addressed. Overall, though, a very strong submission (that’s already being played, excitingly enough!) and one that gets major props for trying something outside the Elizabethan milieu, which was much more common in this year’s entries than I was expecting. In our recent phone conversation about the games, both dad and I thought that, for this game to move forward, it might be better to cut free of most of the Shakespearean trappings and just go for it. I’d definitely be interested in playing it sometime, in any case.
All’s Well That Ends as You Like It
by Jennifer Hardy & Matthew Mazurek
- Dr. Walton says: For some reason I am partial to what Hardy and Mazurek do. I like their wide range of characters, their list of locations and their prop elements — all of the things that Jonathan and I brainstormed about 2 weeks ago when we were imagining the facets that one would need to consider in order really to craft a Shxp-style narrative. It seems to me that they reveal a wide breadth of knowledge of the plays. I count something like 13 references to the comedies, 13 to tragedies, and a couple to the histories.
- Master Chef says: This fascinating board game / rpg hybrid reads like a cross between The Dance & the Dawn (Game Chef 2004!) and Kill Doctor Lucky, with a bit more complexity involved. There are a large number of emergent properties at work here, based on the interactions of the characters, their goals, and the board, so it’s hard to imagine exactly how the game will play out without attempting it, even more so than some of these other games. A significant amount of playtesting will definitely need to happen, including perhaps significant adjustments to all of the major elements. Just eyeballing it, some aspects of the board — such as the strange alcoves on either side of the forest and beach — might never get used, and I agree with most of what Daniel Wood says in his extensive and excellent review of this game. That said, the designers get many things oh-so right, which is difficult in this type of game where you attempt to cram elements from a wide variety of Shakespeare plays together. Often the jumbled results don’t really seem to go together, but this game makes it work, feeling more like a cohesive whole. Still, especially with the title, it might be stronger if it concentrated on just the comedies and romances (semi-comedies) and got rid of the witches, for example. But maybe not. In any event, a very strong entry and one that I’d love to watch or play.
Forsooth! by Sam Liberty & Kevin Spak
- Dr. Walton says: Of the ones I have reviewed, this is one I can imagine wanting to play, and actually being able to play. The game involves the ingredients obviously and clearly and thoughtfully — the group is made up of exiles, the notion of nature is fundamental to character creation and motivation, and the notion of making or forswearing oaths (character goals) is at the heart of play. Plays are both quoted and alluded to, but even more essential to the game is a basic knowledge of the Renaissance stage practice — soliloquies and asides are central to game play, blank verse gets extra credit, applause at the end of a scene is the road to victory, players are even given Elizabethan-style theatrical strategies for moving play along (calling for lines, interrupting with messengers, setting up duels, foreshadowing future events). In this game the theme is not a surface treatment but deeply integrated into the conception of play.
- Master Chef says: I feel like my dad captured much of what is so strong about this entry. Game-wise, my biggest concern is the lack of support and guidance for creating good Oaths, which are the core of what will drive plot and character behavior in scenes, and a lack of guidelines for the group to get on the same page about what type of play is being performed. Really, these two concerns could really both be addressed by having stronger guidelines for Oaths, because the content of Oaths will really help structure everything. Still, I wonder a bit about how things like “revenge” and “duels” looks in both comedies and tragedies. The duel in Love’s Labours Lost, for example, or the wrestling match at the beginning of As You Like It are pretty different from the climactic duel at the end of Hamlet. But maybe it would work to have the tone of the play be emergent, as long as the players didn’t take things too seriously and kept a good sense of fun and melodrama. My only real mechanical concern is the vagueness in the description of conflicts, how they arise, and how you resolve them. Resolution is tough, one of the hardest things to design well, so saying things like “inevitably conflicts will arise between the characters” just isn’t enough. Why would they arise? How and when do they arise? How do you know when something is a conflict and not just a witty back-and-forth? Overall, though, a very strong entry and another one I’m excited to play at some point.
Globe Records by Mike Olson
- Dr. Walton says: The game reveals a good understanding of a few plays/characters, and it transposes some of the named characters in directions different than their original settings and traits. This one is clever in its updating of characters and relationships to a specific modern moment in space and time. I really like what his does with Nature as an element of personality/behavior rather than the more literal Forest location. But it seems to me that the focus on 6 characters in a specific place and time is such a narrowing that it would ultimately prove to be a limitation in the game.
- Master Chef says: This is Mike’s second Game Chef finals in a row, having placed 2nd last year for his Die Hard-inspired game Action City. His design chops are likewise very clear in this game, which reads like a mash-up of Mouse Guard and Primetime Adventures, with some fun plot-generation tables to boot. Here, though, while I love the Empire Records-esque premise and the modernization of Shakespeare ala Ten Things I Hate About You/“O”/She’s The Man/etc., the combination of a bunch of different Shakespeare-inspired characters doesn’t really work that well, I don’t think. Once Juliet is married to “Romeo’s brother, Othello,” the game’s made a shift to being more like Clone High and less like a movie that Julia Stiles would be in. That’s fine as a design choice, but it makes the Shakespearean elements more like color on a solid soap-opera game and less the focus of what’s going on. Unlike dad, I’m less worried about the focus on a specific group of characters, but I feel like I’d be more excited to play this game if it moved either further away from Shakespeare (as I said about Daughters of Exile) or more towards being analogous to a specific play. Much Ado seems like a good candidate for the latter, actually: conniving half-brother, faked death, bumbling cops, could have a pop-starlet named “Hero,” etc. But I would also play it as an homage to movies about the rapidly-disappearing record stores that were once such a fixture of young people’s lives. In any event, I’m totally confident that Mike can turn this into something really compelling and solid.
A Midsummer Night’s Scheme
by Nat Barmore (woodelf) w/ Caitlin Doran
- Dr. Walton says: The authors understand very well the play that serves as the inspiration for the game. Not only the leading character names but the situation of the game is the essence of one plot thread in Shxp’s Dream — the accusation that mortals and faeries are involved romantically. Shxp’s play also offers faeries of more than one nature — playful, innocent, mischievous, sexual — a trait that appears in the game. One attraction of this game to me is that — much like MND — it invites appreciation and even participation by children; I can imagine (because the creators have imagined) kids finding fun in this game with encouragement from family members. What seems to me as a rather narrow focus could prove an advantage in getting play started, particularly with younger or less theatrically experienced performers. What I miss in this game is a direct reference to (or encouragement to create) characters such as the rude mechanicals, or to explore same-species relations that are so important in MND — Oberon and Puck, the shifting romances and rivalries among the four mortal lovers.
- Master Chef says: I agree nearly 100% with the reviews of both Dev Purkayastha and Mike Olson, who had lots of constructive comments on this game. It’s very well-structured and clear, but I feel that the central mechanics are not quite right for a game in which you essentially vie for the approval of two NPCs. Clearly you need something other than GM fiat as a judge of the pranking, something that takes into account how the prank was performed, and I’m not sure what that is, but the current resolution is not serving the premise as well as it could. My other concern is the dearth of opportunities to interact with the other players during the game, through group pranking or attempting to spoil other faeries’ pranks or reveal that they do, in fact, love their charges. Turn-taking is a fine mechanic, but interaction — and not just with the GM — is part of the core of what makes games enjoyable as social activities. Additionally, as Dev says, it seems like you ALWAYS want to forswear something, so perhaps that should be worked more into the core of things. Overall, though, this was a strong take on a very popular Shakespearean topic this year — the faeries of Midsummer Night’s Dream — and I hope that, with some additional mechanical focusing, it can deliver a great experience at the table.
The Lost Years by Matthew Nielsen
- Dr. Walton says: In some ways this seems the most creative — a “high concept” game. I can’t quite see how it would play — not enough detail for me. But this author clearly knows enough about the playwright to build a whole game on a key moment of biographical lore. The direction to focus on stylistic genres is thoughtful and seems promising — and the insight that tragedy is marked by deceit, comedy by banter and benefit, and history by attempts to preserve the status quo is really quite compelling. The quick references to alternative bits of Lear or Macbeth or R&J or Tempest or Hamlet show some knowledge of the plays — though those details are rather limited in terms of quantity. The magic/faerie section feels just a bit tacked on.
- Master Chef says: When I called my dad to talk about the finalists, this is one of the ones we discussed the most, along with Daughters of Exile. It’s such a fantastic premise, has a number of strong elements going for it, was one of the submissions that really took Shakespeare somewhere different rather than hewing closely to an Elizabethan tone. That said, we ended up feeling like we weren’t sure what to do with this game, despite the great set up. Dad mentioned all the various things that Shakespeare has been rumored to have done during the lost years: serving in the army, living in the far north, etc. And, at the very least, it seems like this game would work better if it provided some ideas. It’s time travel, right? So maybe all these things are true to a certain extent! But having a list of options, at least to base the bad guys’ attacks around, would be helpful. We also felt like having Shakespeare protected by his own characters might be a bit too over the top. Why wouldn’t he just be protected by visitors from the future, perhaps working in tandem with the Walsingham conspiracy. Even playing secret agent Kit Marlowe seems a bit more gripping, though — I admit — secret time-traveling agent Dogberry would be pretty fun too. Overall, though, I was very pleased with this game (as a long-time Continuum fan) and would love to play it someday, whatever direction the author decides to take it in.
Having reviewed all the finalists, Dr. Walton and I have collectively decided that the winner(s) of Game Chef 2010 are:
All’s Well That Ends As You Like It
by Jennifer Hardy & Matthew Mazurek
- Forsooth! by Sam Liberty & Kevin Spak
Neither of these games is perfect, of course, and both need significant work, but as alpha drafts they stand out for embracing the theme of Shakespeare, being very solid and functional as games, and being brave at attempting new things.
Congratulations to both sets of winners, all the excellent finalists, and all participants. Thanks to everyone involved for a great year of Game Chef.
See you next summer!