Publisher: Z-man Games (2014)
I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Terry Gilliam movie as a child as I was equally horrified and enamored. I was left feeling awed, intrigued, and slightly disturbed. Tragedy Looper mimics that experience perfectly; it’s one of the most unique and evocative designs to hit the market in years. Just like those six dwarves and their time hole map, I can’t get Tragedy Looper out of my skull and the hours of lost sleep are starting to pile up.
In a general sense, the only real comparison I can attempt to make when discussing this game is to liken it to Zendo having its way with Two Rooms and a Boom producing a disturbed illegitimate anime child. The central idea is that the Mastermind has a puzzle that the rest of the players are trying to figure out by poking and prodding with care and deliberation. It’s a one versus many game in the same vein as Descent, but this is all about deduction. The plot is Groundhog Day meets Final Destination, although the acting isn’t quite up to Bill Murray standards and the plot is a little more thought provoking than incorporeal death seeking out a group of teenagers.
The players are time travelers and will be trying to prevent tragedies from occurring. If they can survive a Loop (extended segment of game time) without a member dying or one of their scenario loss conditions triggering, they win. The Mastermind is the “bad guy” who wants to feast his eyes upon the sorrow and pain of the masses lapping up their salty tears with a wide grin. Guess which position I gravitated toward? No contest.
A plethora of characters for the Mastermind to torment.
Each session of Tragedy Looper consists of playing a scenario. The base game comes with ten scenarios that are broken down into two intro entries and eight basic. The downside is that you can only participate in a scenario as a Protagonist if you’ve never played it before as otherwise you will know the active Plots and Roles which you must discover as your primary goal. You can, however, play as the Mastermind repeatedly for a given scenario which provides for a degree of replayability if you can get the game in front of multiple groups. Because replayability as Protagonists is naturally limited by the mechanics, this release puts a strong emphasis on creating your own content and dedicates quite a few pages to instructing you how to do so. I’d place good money on user created scenarios popping up in short order on the web as this game will take off.
So each of these scenarios has an active Plot, two Sub-Plots, and several Roles dictated by the above. All of this is hidden from the players, although they have a reference sheet which lists the possibilities of each. Plots/Sub-Plots/Roles all dictate the ways in which the players lose, causing them to have to abort the loop and re-set the game to its beginning state as they travel back in time. Players are given a finite number of Loops to work their way through the puzzle and if they can survive just one time – they win.
The play-space consists of four small mounted boards that make up the locations of the Shrine, Hospital, School, and City. Each of these locations may have different characters such as the Girl Student, The Shrine Maiden, The Police Officer, etc. These characters and locations are what both the Mastermind and Protagonists will be manipulating. The Mastermind will use hidden Roles associated with some of the characters to cause the players to lose. The Protagonists will manipulate characters special abilities as well as deciphering the moves the Mastermind makes in order to narrow down what characters have what Role. Manipulating these characters is done via card-play, as each player simultaneously places a card face down on a character or location while the Mastermind places three. You’re trying to move characters to locations or place resources on them to trigger events or unlock abilities.
The four locations that comprise the board.
Tragedy Looper’s core rules are actually pretty simple. You can tear through the rulebook and have a good understanding of how to play the game in short order. However, the actual emergent qualities of deducing, playing well, and ultimately achieving victory are quite obtuse for a beginner due to the odd-ball nature of the game and its lack of reference to any other flagship mechanisms in the hobby. With that being said, taking on the position of a Protagonist is relatively easy once you have a turn or two under your belt and understand how things interact and strategy intersects with mechanics. Tackling the Mastermind is an altogether different story as my first couple games I had an astoundingly difficult time juggling teaching, facilitating, and playing to win all at once. This isn’t Descent or Mansions of Madness where you’re employing tools to attack or slow down the players and tactics are relatively straight-forward. No, you must take an active-hand in attempting to conceal your roles and work to end the Loop without giving away too much information. Not playing well can drastically alter the game as the players can easily swoop in and glean far too much from a single loop.
The quality of the experience is directly tied to a competent Mastermind in this regard. The main requirement will be familiarity with the hidden roles and how they interact with each other. The first couple of times you play will be clumsy and awkward like a teenager fumbling with the clasps on his first bra in a failing effort to exude cool. Experience will quickly provide an adequate remedy and after the two learning scripts you should be well on your way to providing an enthralling and challenging affront to the rest of the table.
The Mastermind plays a card on the Boy Student and on the School location.
Once you overcome the rough introduction and cut your way through the tepid jungle you will discover that Tragedy Looper is one of the most interesting designs to hit the industry in years. The first part of the game is like an avalanche of “AHA!” moments as you gather information based on the Mastermind’s moves and you feel like you’re working your way through this maze desperately making headway. The second half occurs once you’ve discovered a large portion of the hidden information and you’re in full prevention mode, trying to keep the Mastermind from closing the loop typically by killing off important characters. At this point you’re tearing down the walls and making your escape in full flight, no longer stuck in the quagmire of indecision and subterfuge.
This reciprocal information gathering giving way to a clever battle of wits as you try to bluff and deftly maneuver with clever card play is immensely satisfying. The Mastermind cannot take things easy and is always on his toes, trying to prep the scene for an oncoming tragedy and push the world an inch closer towards ruin. The Protagonists will not yield that inch and you become locked in a battle of will. You will quickly approach the end of the scenario and the tension will ramp up as each action is amplified and focused upon.
All of this works because the payoff at conclusion is astronomical. A successful Mastermind will feel proud of his ability to misdirect and intelligently utilize characters to achieve what he wants in non-obvious and sometimes devious ways. Protagonists will be hit with this tidal wave sense of accomplishment due to properly untangling the threads forming the structure of the tragedy. The game has this uncanny knack for eliciting clever play and slamming a high five into your open palm in congratulation. Tragedy Looper wants you to find your way and it will be waiting there at the finish line to celebrate.
This is a strange and compelling game that needs to be recognized. If you can break through the wall and become familiar with the inner workings, this thing sings like a turbo-charged V8 drinking NOS. I’ve thought about Tragedy Looper every single day since my first play and it’s eating away at my conscious like a parasite wreaking havoc. Snuff out your curiosity, grab this before it goes out of print, and have your mind blown like the first time you saw Kevin terrified as those strange dwarves pushed through his bedroom wall.