Story. It’s all about story.
Games now are either dry as Nevada or plump vessels packed to the paper mache gills with prose. Comanauts is the latter of course, offering a stick and asking you to swing away. It almost convinces as anecdotes and adventure peek from the breach. Almost.
Perhaps Jerry Hawthorne bit off more than he could chew. The success of Stuffed Fables really set this one up for prosperity but instead it’s met with a reckoning.
The story is not the problem. The mystique of the name beckons you in and the ensuing narrative provides. This is a cooperative journey where the players delve into the not-quite-lucid mind of Dr. Martin Strobal. This significant scientist is in a coma and the world’s survival relies on a return of his consciousness. Problems of the regular variety.
So we dive into the abyss and attempt therapy. Our goal is to heal this broken man so that he can heal the broken world.
The universe we enter is one of fantastic locales and twists. They’re split into a number of comazones, each possessing their own setting and flavor. One area may be a grim town in the wild west, while another boasts light-cycles in a TRON-like fever dream. The weird knows little bounds and is visually displayed with artistry in each large page of the spiral bound adventure book.
What’s even more exciting is that you literally play on these pages. The artwork is broken down into larger areas for you to frolic within. You can mosey your standee down the street to question a woman, a woman who is gazing at the man strung up on the gallows in quiet terror. This isn’t an actual woman, however, but a latent psychological facet of Strobal.
Allegory rides the wind as some heavy material is tackled across the multitude of venues. Trauma, grief, and abuse are all explored in an abstract manner as you confront and eliminate powerful bosses ruling over each zone. The illustration and graphical veneer is always light and relatively fluffy, but those sobering themes are lurking in the shadows quietly brooding. This is wonderful as an overarching emotional tilt while the game explores nooks and crannies of the id and ego.
Facilitating the mental expedition is the dice system plucked straight from Stuffed Fables. You draw dice of varied colors from a bag, each allowing you to perform a certain type of action. You can convince bystanders, jump over crevasses, and fight goons and thieves. You’re at the mercy of the draw and occasionally those damn dice just won’t abide. While mechanisms are provided to fish desirables from the discard pool, often enough they won’t be available and you’re stuck with little or nothing to do.
The appeal as an alternative to a more standard action point system is undermined by this surprisingly frequent inhibiting of agency. It’s an outright shame as there are juicy moments amid the chaos.
One of the strongest facets is pulling black protagonist dice from the bag. These little devils are placed on a sideboard and build up, eventually activating the enemies in play or bringing in new ones. This mechanism evokes a similar pressure to the threat system found in Myth. It establishes an underlying tension at play as your safety is always in jeopardy.
Unfortunately that strain is often undercut by sheer monotony. The one key factor linking the page-to-page journey is tedium.
The storybook concept is lovely. Your first handful of minutes with the game are sparkly and everything feels really open and exciting. After 10 minutes or so on a page you’re long past expired.
This system suffers from a combination of insipid pace and shallow scope. There is simultaneously too little to discover and far too much time required to discover it. Each comazone section offers five minutes of solid fare to chew on while forcing you to spend 10 in the milieu. An entire session of play can take up to two hours as you scour multiple areas searching for the specific key region of this session. This offends and clocks in at roughly double what it should.
So your mind wanders. Others at the table will debate the merits of launching a team of comanauts into the grey folds of your own squishy dome matter.
The intended experience is one of campaign. There’s no tearing up of cards or those other dastardly legacy elements, but you do place a sticker on the various Inner Demons you defeat and remove them from the deck before playing. With each success you’re awarded a couple of paragraphs from the back of the book, the text tucked away like a whispering mote floating in the cognitive murk.
Multiple sessions will have you return to comazones you’ve explored previously, grinding out the environs like a Dwarven sprite fed by a flurry of mouse-clicks. Campaign play it desires but campaign play it did not receive.
Comanots, your story is sterling but I will not pay your ransom.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Sometimes it’s gotta hurt.
You nailed it
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This pretty much describe how I feel about Stuffed Fables. The story promises to be wonderful, but each page you play doesn’t deliver enough, and the overall arc of an entire chapter falls kinda flat.
One of the reasons – in Stuffed Fables that is – is there’s too little to do. You rarely fight a lot of enemies, and you don’t have that many story spaces to visit. The result when I play with my kids (6,5 and 10) is that we always end up arguing. I didn’t quite understand why because it’s not something that happens often when we play games, but it is simply because of the lack of stuff to do. That makes every little space important enough to argue over, and that doesn’t make for a particularly good experience when playing.
Also, great article. As usual you give one a great idea of what it’s like to play the game rather than just explaining the rules.
Thanks for the comment/kind words Mads. That stings a bit as I was kind of curious about Stuffed Fables and possibly playing it with my daughter (5). Maybe best just sticking with Haba games for the time being.
When I just play with my son (6,5) we usually have a good time. Because we focus on the story and not on the game. But also, I think, because the added amount of game for more players doesn’t really scale that well. For instance you’ll have more enemies (though too few to make it challenging), but you still have the same amount of story points to activate no matter the number of characters.
Haba is great, but we have had a lot of fun with DungeonQuest (old combat rules), Castle Panic, and Lord of the Rings (Knizia) which we started playing when my son was 5.