[ed. note: Some of our readers have wondered if this review contains spoilers. Don’t worry – NO SPOILERS are contained in these texts. I won’t give away any plot secrets.]
We love solving crime, don’t we? Bad stuff happens, there is a culprit, and we’ve got to deduce whodunit so we can throw the legal book at them and knock them straight into prison. It’s the reason why TV is inundated with crime procedurals, cop shows, and detective stories.
But what if you could not only solve the crime, but stop it from happening in the first place? Enter the world of Tragedy Looper, in which players take on the role of time-travelling protagonists who can enter a cycle of time loops in order to figure out all the details of a crime and prevent it from happening. Only one thing stands in their way; the 4th player, the dastardly Mastermind, who will stop at nothing to prevent the protagonists from solving the crime and saving the day.
How It Plays
In Tragedy Looper, 3 of the players take on the role of Protagonists trying to figure out the plot of one evil Mastermind. They’ll have a limited number of loops to determine who is causing the problems, what tragedy they must prevent to win, and then actually intervene to stop the crime. Meanwhile, the Mastermind must do everything in their power to ensure that the tragedy is not stopped.
The mechanics of the game are actually pretty simple. Each “Script” – a set of plots, characters, and roles – has a set number of loops, and each loop is a repetition of a set number of days. Each day has a sequence of phases – the Mastermind gets to play 3 cards, then each of the Protagonists gets to play 1 card. Each card does a single thing – it can add or remove intrigue, goodwill, or paranoia to a character, move a character, or prevent one of those things from happening.
Once cards are played, the Mastermind reveals them all and resolves them – normally that’s pretty straightforward, but sometimes characters have secret roles or there are other secret elements of a plot that can prevent things from happening as the protagonists expect.
After cards, the Mastermind may have several abilities they can use – again, these abilities are secret, although the results of the actions are not. Then, the players get a chance to get help from some of the Characters. Each character has a special ability that can be unlocked by adding Goodwill (via cards) until a certain amount is reached, abilities that can help the protagonists gather more information.
After all these are resolved, there might be an Incident that occurs. Incidents are the crux of the game – they usually help the Mastermind create the tragedy, and the protagonists generally want to stop them. Incidents only occur if the character who triggers that incident has enough Paranoia. Also, if that character is still alive. Finally, the day ends, which could trigger other effects.
If the protagonists lose at any point – due to the tragedy occurring (usually a key person getting killed), another special plot condition, or they themselves getting killed – the loop ends immediately, everything resets – tokens removed, characters resurrected and returned to their original location, once per loop cards returned – and a new loop starts. Unless, of course, it was the last loop, in which case the Protagonists lose.
If, however, during any single loop the protagonists prevent all tragedies and end conditions from occurring, and they make it through every single day – the loop cycle completes with the Protagonist victory!
The Protagonists do have one backup option – if they can’t prevent the tragedy from occurring, they have one last gambit. If they can discover the secret role of every single character and name them all after the final loop, they can still claim victory.
Scripts are built from what’s called a Tragedy Set – a predetermined collection of plots, subplots, secret roles, and potential incidents. Protagonists then have a sheet with the possible plots and roles and their effects, so as events occur they have the information they need to narrow down the specifics and actually have a chance to put a stop to the tragedy. The game comes with 2 tragedy sets – the “First Steps” set which is simplified for the purposes of learning, and the “Basic Tragedy” set which levels players up the complete game with more plot possibilities, roles, and characters in play. There are 10 pre-built Scripts, but Masterminds can easily use the Tragedy Sets to create their own scripts by selecting plots and assigning roles to the characters of their choice, as well as selecting Incidents and assigning which day they occur.
Circle of Victory, or Downward Spiral?
Tragedy Looper is one of the most unique games I have played in a long time. It is a deduction game, for sure, but it goes far beyond other deductive games in theme and content.
Whereas in, say, Clue or Inkognito, the riddles are predetermined by sets of cards and it is generally a game of logic to deduce what’s missing from your hand and what must be in the other player’s hands, Tragedy Looper feels more like a dynamic game of cat and mouse between the mastermind and the players.
The game rides a precarious rail – a balance between the two teams. Too much in one direction, and the Mastermind could simply toy with the players, running them aground no matter what they do. With the opposite lean, the Mastermind becomes no more than a gatekeeper, a handler of cards who has no real say in the story while the players easily manage the clues and put together a puzzle.
But ride this rail it does, and does it well. Once you learn the game – and not just the rules, for the actual gameplay is far, far deeper than the set of mechanisms that run it – it is challenging and engaging for both sides. It is a dynamic murder mystery that lets players feel much like detectives – seeing the evidence, putting it together, understanding and finally solving – no, preventing – the crime.
The learning curve is quite steep. My first attempt at teaching the game – which was my first attempt at playing the game – wrecked at the station. Sure, it was late at night after a long day at Gencon and everyone was tired, but I failed on multiple accounts that led to confusion and bewilderment. The players got nowhere.
Fortunately this experience informed my next excursion and I was able to start over and do a much better job. Once I understood the game clearly myself I could teach other players, because doing so requires careful guidance. The game is so different that what players are used to or what they expect that to get them in the game you have to carefully walk them through the steps and point out ways they can logically deduce what’s going on. The spreadsheet included with Tragedy Set details is invaluable, but without training it overwhelms the new player with information. You’ve got to take it step by step and as the Mastermind, essentially play the game against yourself the first few times around. I will say that this process is likely a lot easier if at least one of the players is experienced – they can then ease the other players into the game while keeping a handle on the situation themselves, allowing the Mastermind to play their own game.
The curve for learning the game is steep, but anyone who gets through it is rewarded substantially. The game is a mind-bender, a brain-burner, a dizzying array of clues and events and it is ever so interesting.
I love the concept – time travelers, entering a time loop to go back and fix a crime. They’ve only got a few details to start, and they can only deduce more by watching events unfold. How great is that? The players watch the crime as it happens, with the Mastermind’s shadowy reach playing subtle tricks on their minds and influencing the day’s outcome. In the first loop, they know nothing, or at least very little. Then they see something happen, so in the next loop they stop that, and another thing happens so in the third loop they must stop both things, and so on. But is there enough time to wait for every possible bad ending to unfold? Why is the Mastermind placing Intrigue on THIS character? Why didn’t the Goodwill stick on THIS character? Is the Shrine Maiden the serial killer or is the Policemen?
So far, savvy players have the ability to deduce all the details if they are careful and pay attention. Once they know what’s going on, they can much more easily predict what the Mastermind is doing and play the right cards to counter his or her actions. However, mistakes or forgotten details may lead to tight spots – spots where players must guess without knowing for sure, or take risks that could result in failure. Players only have to succeed in a single loop – if all tragedies are prevented, the loop breaks and life continues. But that is far more difficult that it sounds, as a savvy Mastermind with throw in misdirections, red herrings, and false leads. He will disguise his plots as other plots. He will throw uncertainty into character roles, and he’ll do seemingly random things that one day turn out to be nothing, or be the key to preventing the final Tragedy.
If it’s not clear by now, I find this game exciting and engaging. It’s the most interesting deduction game out there. It is so unique and the hours this game takes – yes, a full game can take a couple hours – just fly by. There’s a lot to deduce out there.
I also love the basis for each script – the Tragedy Sets. Even once players are well-versed in a Tragedy Set, new scripts can be built from them because they never know which characters are which roles, or who triggers what incidents. Plots are mixed and matched with varying and unique outcomes ensuring that you don’t just play through the storybook and put the game away. You’ll be Sherlock and Moriarty game after game and each game is fresh and requires a new outlook. Just like the Resistance, you can’t bring your preconceptions from one game into the next, because that trusted ally might just be the spy (or in this case, the Killer) on this go-round. And yet the Tragedy Sets prevent custom scripts from going totally off the rails, and those who wouldn’t be up to writing something from scratch have an excellent framework to easily build a script out of. Choose plots, choose characters, assign roles, assign incidents. That’s all you have to do for a fresh new mystery.
The Tragedy Sets also allow the game to be easily expandable. I’m sure Z-Man games will be releasing full expansions soon – the board seems designed to have swappable locations, and new characters would be no sweat to add – but I could see PDFs of new Tragedy Sets being distributed, not to mention the most hardcore fans able to release their own PDFs to share with the community. They even have extra cards, tokens, and an “extra track” on the board for players who want to get outside the box.
I guess I should talk about the components a bit – the components are the worst part of the game. The tokens are all dull, dark colored symbols that don’t stand out very well. The card quality is fine and the cards themselves are easily digestible, but the Goodwill abilities on characters are difficult to read, and the Paranoia limits are also dark and easy to miss or read wrong. Fortunately the spreadsheet that lists all the information again, so it’s playable. I just wish it were a bit larger, clearer print. The artistic style (and for that matter, the convoluted and often high-body-count plots) is decidedly anime, as you may have seen from my photos. Even if you’re not an anime fan, you can focus on simply deducing the mystery, so I don’t think that should get in the way – you’ll spend more time staring at the spreadsheet than anything else.
Despite the lackluster components, the game itself is engaging and satisfying, especially for fans of anime and mystery-solving. The convoluted plots and high-stakes battles lend themselves well to the anime aesthetic, and players will feel like they’re characters in their own action-packed anime series. And while the components may be lacking, players can still immerse themselves fully in the game, imagining themselves wielding powerful weapons like the Katana Real or using cunning detective skills to solve the mystery at hand. Overall, while the components may leave something to be desired, the gameplay and anime-inspired atmosphere make this game a must-try for fans of the genre.
Okay, moving on. You know what else is great about Tragedy Looper? When you get familiar and really get into the game, there are so many ways to approach even a single challenge. Let’s say you’ve got a Serial Killer running around killing people randomly, and the actual Killer who targets specific people, based on the Mastermind’s actions of course. Well, the players can try to out-guess the Mastermind and prevent paranoia and Intrigue from being placed, so as to prevent the Killer from making his move – or, they could just use the Serial Killer to kill off the Killer and avoid the issue entirely. Perhaps morally dubious, but certainly a gameplay option. With the number of incidents, characters, and roles in play, the protagonists have multiple paths to thwart their enemies. Protagonists can even turn incidents – which are usually bad for them – to their advantage if they manipulate the board correctly.
This isn’t necessarily a “gamer-only” game – the mechanisms themselves are simple enough – but you’re going to want to find people who like to think, who want to solve mysteries. This game is by no means casual or light, and it will require serious deduction and coordination of effort on the part of the protagonists. I wouldn’t recommend trying to bring any kids into this game unless you plan on walking them through everything and just letting them play cards as you instruct them to.
The whole game is packaged neatly. The focus is on the mystery and deduction, not the mechanisms, and that’s what makes the game so engaging. The Mastermind will be at his wits end trying to mislead the players and leave just one more thread hidden to use in the next loop while still managing to close this one; the players will be frantically going over the information they have to figure out who is who and what is what and how to stop it. The possibilities are limited to prevent everyone from being totally overwhelmed, but dynamic enough to keep the game exciting, interesting, and unpredictable.