25 August 2012

Our Last Best Hope: Part 1 - Review

This is the first part in an ongoing series on Our Last Best Hope. Part 2.

Our Last Best Hope, by Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games, is a cooperative story game which emulates the disaster movie genre (e.g. Armageddon, The Core, Deep Impact, Sunshine, Dawn of the Dead, etc.). It can handle groups from three to six people (though I would consider the "sweet-spot" to be four or five). The session for four people we played took three hours, but that included dinner and introducing the players to the game. We figure that a future session would take around two hours, which is exactly what the book claims.

As a cooperative story game, there is no GM, but there are still two roles to be defined a the beginning of the session: Captain and Supply Officer. The Captain should be the player with the most experience with the system and willing to take something of a leadership role. They will be responsible for setting the stage and choosing Threats when no one else is available. The Supply Officer gets to control the flow of Story Points, acting like the banker for Monopoly, but also as the final arbiter of access to group resources. Ideally the group will be making these decisions as a whole; if not the path ahead will be a very rocky one. Also, the Supply Officer has the role of portraying MIMIC when no one else is available.

MIMIC is the first artificial intelligence and contains the sum total of humanity's knowledge. This does not mean they cannot be wrong or are infallible. Whenever you want further information, you will consult MIMIC (and whoever is portraying them for that scene). It's a very cute way to give every player a stake in developing the story and have something to do even when not directly involved - MIMIC is typically played by someone not taking part in the scene.

To start the game you need to define the story you will embark on by selecting a Mission, which would be the setting for the story. Space, snow and zombie apocalypse are the Missions discussed in detail with extensive examples. Following the Mission you define the Crisis: what exactly is going to end the world? Then the Limit: what makes your group the only one that can tackle the Crisis? Finally, the Plan:  How are you going to fix this?

Strong themes that are easy to fit things into are recommended here. A failing on our part was, perhaps, to provide too much detail without real discussion as to where we wanted to go with the story. It worked out well in the end, but it occasionally felt like we each may have been trying to tell a different story at different moments. As the session went on, we started to work more to make the story a coherent one and were more explicit about what we wanted. A second play would likely go much smoother as the system would be almost entirely in the background; the focus would be on the roleplay and addressing each Threat.

There are two types of scenes within Our Last Best Hope: Spotlight Scenes and Threats. Spotlight Scenes are the interludes between Threats which will reveal more about the characters in fleeting quiet moments. When you are in the Spotlight, you get to choose at least one other character to be present in the scene and then give an outline regarding what you want this scene to be about. These are also the opportunities to reveal more about your character, by your choosing or not (everyone has a Secret), and provide the primary opportunities to generate more Story Points. The scene will come to a dramatic close when the next Threat erupts, which must be dealt with immediately or the Mission is doomed!

Threats are something that cannot be avoided and is occuring right now. Running out of food is not a good Threat; it will take too long to have serious repercussions, but running out of air needs to be addressed immediately. Having interesting and relevant Threats is an important aspect of the game and will be one of the main external sources of drama. When a Threat is announced, one character must volunteer to take the Threat. They suffer the primary consequences of the Threat, for better or worse, and are the lead for choosing resources to bring to bear against it, often asking for help from others in the crew.

They are another chance to roleplay during times of pressure, bringing out other aspects of your character than the things that matter to them, including what they brought with them and left behind. Using these Touchstones generates additional dice against the Threat, while facing Fears generates Story Points, but at the cost of making the Threat worse. Failure against a Threat will cause Harm and success will reduce the effect of the Threat until it is eliminated entirely. When the Threat is resolved, the player that took the Threat will get to write a new Threat and play proceeds as normal. Threats also present the timing mechanic of Our Last Best Hope and just because things are going great in Act I, does not mean everything will be rosy when you round the bend to Act II (which we found out the hard way).

Story Points are the primary currency that you use to resolve Threats, through skills, assistance from others, or by bringing an Asset to help. You start with two and the group has access to two more per player, and can gain more throughout play. There is a finite number, but unspent Story Points won't help anyone and hording them can lead to serious trouble down the line. Maintaining the flow of Story Points is vital to the long-term success of the Plan. 

The Threats worked really great to bring everyone back together after what could be some antagonistic Spotlight Scenes. To get through each Threat you have to work as a team and carefully measure your resources. This entire process goes a lot faster than we had anticipated; with four players we did a total of six Threats before Act I came to a close. We were probably too conservative, which resulted in never failing a single roll, but being in a very bad position at the end of Act I. It's definitely a balancing act and it can be rough to really anticipate how things will turn out; planning for the future is difficult when there are problems demanding your attention right now and the future will hardly matter if you cannot get there. That is particularly true once you move to Act II and things get real

One of the most innovative and genre defining elements of Our Last Best Hope is the Death Card. This is very important and will strongly shape Act II, the endgame, and define the story arc for most of the characters. Your Death Card details a general situation for you to die; e.g. "...at the hands of another". If you are going to die and don't want to, you can cheat your death for a time, but if you are going to die and it fits with your Death Card, you can confirm the death to some significant mechanical benefit. You also have the option of choosing your fate at any time: dying during a Threat to save the day. Even after you die, you can still participate in the story through flashbacks, selecting Threats, portraying MIMIC, and see that the Plan succeeds.

Our Last Best Hope is a really great game for a evening with some friends. It doesn't take long to put it together and there can be some great moments to come out of it, no matter how disjointed things are - it's your mess that you all shared. The only criticism that I can levy against the game is that it doesn't read very well. The pieces just didn't click right away in my head and I generally enjoy these kinds of abstractions. That being said, once you start putting things together at the table, it just makes sense. As well, there are QR codes on the bottom of pages with key points of gameplay. When you scan one of these codes, it will send you to a Youtube video that gives a brief talk about that particular item. This is pretty fantastic, but they weren't all up for us yet (sad panda). I have been assured by the author that videos will all be complete by 01 September, when the game releases. A very neat thing about Our Last Best Hope is how it bridges the boardgame and roleplaying-game styles, which means that it may appeal to different people and even grow the hobby. If you like cooperative story games, do yourself a favor and pick this game up.

Up next, the setup for our session.