The PG series is a collection of articles incorporating the perspective of my eight-year-old daughter, Lila.
She’s looking over the shelves, her eyes the usual mix of indecisiveness and enthusiasm.
I speak up, “how ’bout What Next?”
“That’s what I’m deciding”, she gives me a quick jab with those brown eyes.
“No, I mean this game, What Next?” I respond.
Her mouth hangs open, patience wearing thin. “This isn’t a game, I’m trying to decide, dad.”
I realize what’s going on and giddily speak up, “oh, heh, have I ever told you about Abbott and Costello?”
It was at this moment that my coolness bottomed out.
This is the most ambitious release from publisher Big Potato. This studio is known for their party games, most notably The Chameleon, an exceptional hidden traitor experience. I’m also quite fond of the underrated Blockbuster, their film trivia entry which adopts the video rental store of the same name as its visual motif. It’s a solid company whose products can be found at Target and other mainstream venues.
What Next? isn’t a party game. It’s a choose your own adventure design which has players navigating a story through a deck of cards. It presents sticky situations with branching options, each decision leading off to different cards and forking narrative. In fact, it’s strikingly similar to Asmodee’s 2018 Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger.
Both games do an adequate job of converting the classic Choose Your Own Adventure series into a selection of cards as opposed to bound pages. However, in my review I seriously questioned the need for the Asmodee title, as it functioned almost identically to the book and was arguably less portable and more bloated than the classic paperback format. What Next? answers this criticism by pairing a branching card-based story with a suite of mini-games, injecting a sense of amusement that extends beyond literary immersion.
It’s much better for it.
Firstly, this feels like an actual tabletop game. The tasks pop up on challenge cards and typically do a good job of vaguely distilling the narrative conundrum to some silly little activity. For instance, if you need to leap atop a moving conveyor belt, you may have to flip a disk with your thumb and try to land on top of a card. There’s quite a bit of variety. In addition to seemingly random tasks re-purposing existing cards and discs, there are a series of main puzzle types utilizing their own dedicated structure.
One such activity has you pulling distinct pieces out of a bag by touch. This hearkens back to one of the processes in the nearly forgotten Stronghold Games release, Space Cadets. In fact, I believe that title was the first to weave together a larger coherent experience from a collection of mini games. It influenced a number of releases, including oddities such as Fungeon Party and Seal Team Flix.
One of my favorite aspects of Flix is the sniper mechanism. This is of course similar to Space Cadets weapons station, having players flick a disc down a long track. Despite how well this mimics ballistic fire, it was nearly impossible to succeed in STF. It felt more like Ray Charles grabbing a Barrett .50 cal and trying to take the head off a squirrel than the competent special forces operative you are in the game.
What Next? does this shooting thing as well with a dedicated mini game. Just like those previous releases, it’s fun and full of drama. It’s also a touch easier, although still fully capable of slicing your emotion jugular.
The single best mechanic is peril. You will occasionally accrue peril when you choose poorly in the story or take unnecessary risks. It’s also often the penalty for failing one of the physical tasks.
When you gain peril, you must place a number of oddly shaped foam blocks onto the peril stack. It’s vaguely Rhino Hero-esque, having you add to an increasingly wobbly tower and hoping it doesn’t fall, for if it does, you lose. The difficulty of this process is all over the place. Sometimes it will feel as though the tower grows unfathomably tall, others it will come crashing down early with Lila shaking her head in disgust and demanding we cheat. They always demand you cheat.
What it does so well is add a degree of tension to the game as there are actual stakes in failure. It undercuts the gentleness and frivolity of the design with a bit of teeth. And that elevates the experience, at least for an adult.
“So, what did you think?” I ask after finishing the first of three included adventures.
“I liked the huge koala, but everything else was kinda boring,” she replies.
My soul, sailing towards the sunset and cutting through a choppy sea with a gleaming knife in its teeth, immediately came to a sudden rest.
What Next? didn’t blow my mind. In fact, I’d choose Space Cadets and Seal Team Flix over it no matter my mood. But the experience was neat and at least novel-adjacent. But Lila was having none of it. She didn’t return for the second and third adventure, so I braved them alone.
She enjoyed the quirky tasks, but the linkages between activities consisting of light reading seemed to lose her. Unlike The Adventures of Robin Hood, the game lacks a serious visual component to anchor you to the shared space between participants. From her perspective it was a few moments of weird fun, followed by several minutes of listening to her dad try to play up the faux drama of some ridiculous but not quite thrilling story. I saw her start to become attached to the “choose your own” elements, taking a few seconds to ponder the decision on what to do next. But it never quite paid off for her and the engagement simply wasn’t there.
This reflects some thoughts I’ve had regarding her affinity for emergent over prescribed narrative. I as well prefer the former, although I’ve really enjoyed well written and engaging stories such as those found in Tainted Grail and Sleeping Gods. But she has little patience to be a bystander. She wants to be in the thick of it, influencing what happens and seeing how that alters the game state with her own eyes. While your decisions certainly matter in What Next?, the feedback occurs in more prescribed story. The distinct paths present didn’t resonate with her, so it simply didn’t work.
I think I was more disappointed than she was.
I want to say I enjoyed my time with this title. It’s a very slick, tactile game with many attractive pieces. The packaging is adventurous with a magnetic flap for a lid, and it presented itself as a mysterious artifact waiting to be explored. I was into it, at least for a brief moment.
The follow-up plays never felt as hopeful or energetic. Despite colorful stories of gargantuan koalas and runaway robots, losing my winggirl dampened my enthusiasm. I moved through the second and third entries quickly. Instead of reflecting and scrutinizing on the finer details of this game, such as its sadly limited content or its creative physical solutions to attaining immersion, I found myself dwelling on my daughter. I suppose that’s not a terrible trade-off.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.