Review: Power Play


Once upon a time, there lived a person with a plan. That person was you, and that plan would finally achieve what you knew you’d been destined for all along: greatness.

Perhaps you’re a scientific genius, or a villain born with a destiny. Perhaps one day you woke up an simply decided it would be fun. Or maybe you just had to wait until your some-assembly-required doomsday device arrived in the mail.

Whatever the case may be, today is the day. It’s time to make your Power Play.

The [Power] Play’s the Thing…

Power Play is a unique narrative game that combines the freedom of an RPG with the simplified rules, structures, and goals of a board game. It also happens to be competitive.

I’ve been mulling over this game for a long time, trying to figure out what to say about it. It’s not necessary a bad game; it’s playable, and definitely possible to have fun with. I just wonder that it might be stuck between two worlds, unable to find a real audience except for a small niche.

Admittedly, the niche that finds this game will probably completely adore it.

It’s a little bit hard to nail down the premise of this game, because it’s so open-ended. Basically, there is some thing – a Common Element in game terms – and you, along with the other players, have a goal that revolves around it. Each player’s goal is different, but somehow you must accomplish that goal with nearly complete freedom.

It’s the key to all my plans!

The structure of the game comes from minimal components and a set turn structure. There are location cards which define sections of your city you can visit, and character cards which give each player a clearly defined super ability. The Common Element comes from a a third set of cards.

On your turn you declare an action and how it resolves. You want to kill the Mayor, you say “I shoot the Mayor with my gun and he dies.” There’s no dice roll, no cards to play, no real possibility of failure, as long as you’ve already established that you have a gun. Other players can interject with a “Reality Check” if they believe your action should be impossible for some reason (for example, the Mayor would have secret service nearby that would jump you the moment they saw a gun), and after a few very brief arguments for and against, the players vote.

You can also do “secret” actions, which are written down and kept by the secret keeper of your location, unknown to anyone else. The secret keeper can only verify that your action is legit, and you can’t do any secret actions at the location you are secret keeper of.

If you want to do something that takes a little longer – a normal action is supposed to be something you can do within about 5-15 minutes – you can “delay” one action and on your next turn do something that would take a couple hours of in-game time.

Somewhere in this city lies your destiny…

Everything hinges on what the game calls “traits,” which can be assigned to players, items, locations, non-player characters, etc. and so forth. Traits are notarized by [brackets]and can be added at any time for just about any reason. There are two ways to establish traits: you can formally propose one, and then there’s a vote. Majority or tie establishes the trait as true. For example,  You might propose that something is [under surveillance.]to give it a little extra security, arguing that an important artifact wouldn’t just be left lying around. Or maybe you think Central Park could have a [Festival] where the [Mayor] is [Giving a Speech] because you want it that way. It’s up to you to convince the other players it should be true.

Alternatively, you can establish traits through your actions. Buy a gun from the gun store? Now you [have a gun].  You shoot the mayor with your gun, he’s now [dead]. You could find a [shotgun]behind the bar which you use to shoot a few [zombies]and if your action isn’t cancelled by a Reality Check, that shotgun is now fact.

The open-ended nature of these mechanics provide a lot of opportunity, but they come at a price. The rules are simple, but the game is complex and even confusing. You can learn the rules without really learning how to play the game. And, I would argue, the game puts too much of a burden on the players to self-correct.

A narrative game usually emphasizes a fun story with twists and turns, humor and drama. Board games and even RPGs provide a clear structure with rules and components to keep things on track with what you can and cannot do. This game lands somewhere in the middle.

In its ideal form, you could end up with a clever twisting tale with players setting up schemes, attempting to foil and roadblock each other, and ultimately watch as someone’s plans finally come to fruition. I think that very few groups will have the necessary commitment to get to that place.

The loose structure and outcome-based action system are simply a challenge to fully grasp. Every obstacle must come from the players minds, but every solution comes from the players minds as well. Even the goals come from the players – each player writes a goal at the start of the game. All the goals are shuffled and dealt out again – which means things can easily be skewed. If someone writes a goal that’s too easy? Immediate imbalance. Too hard? Same. Personal grudges outside of the game can easily affect voting, so even if you have a good argument for why some element should have trait [x]you might get voted down.

Then there’s a question of scale. There’s a page in the rules about what technology players should have access to, but once again it falls to the players to determine where exactly that line is. Futuristic technology (or large-scale weaponry) should be out of line, but speculative high-tech spy gadgetry isn’t. So is an exploding pen too much? If the explosion has to be limited, how big can it be? What about X-Ray or Heat vision?

The players are free to answer these questions as they choose – but some players aren’t going to like that. They’re going to feel shafted when their idea is considered too much for the rest of the group when the player to their right just got something close. It’s all subjective.


You can be a superhero

It can also get hairy when players are interacting – especially near the climax when everyone’s getting close to fulfilling their plan, and perhaps just trying to get their hands on the Common Element. There are rules for resolving direct conflicts, but the results-driven action mechanism becomes especially confusing. If I punch Steve and he drops the briefcase (and loses the vote and/or die roll to determine if he can counter my action) and I grab the briefcase and run away, is it too late for him to come after me? Can’t he jump in a car and chase me? How do you resolve a car chase with actions that are supposed to be about 10 minutes of time?

Again, it’s not impossible to solve, but the waters get a little murky.

I also find that every time there’s a vote – a proposed trait, a Reality Check, whatever – it removes players from the narrative of the game.  You’re supposed to resolve these as quickly as possible, in about a minute overall. But the writers of this rulebook clearly have never met my nerdy friends. We can go on for hours arguing about simple aspects of Spider-Man’s superpowers in the latest movie. You think we’re just going to be able to make short arguments about why our character should be able to do our thing without going back and forth? And if we cut off the discussion, someone’s going to feel a little slighted.

And yes. It’s up to the players. That is a blessing and a curse. If your group can handle the completely open-ended nature of the game that is also competitive, you might find it worth working to grasp the system.

You can call these guys for extended help

I will give it this: a second book in the box contains 10 scenarios that give you a little more setup and direction. Maybe that would be a better way to dive into the game, working your way through those, but it doesn’t completely eliminate everything I have trouble with.

It certainly is a unique idea, the whole action mechanism where you just declare what you do and what happens. If you’ve got everyone in the right mindset, I imagine you could have a fantastic experience. But I find it’s too disorderly and causes too much frustration. It doesn’t encourage the players to work to create a cohesive, exciting narrative, and it’s not structured enough for a clean competitive adventure game. By keeping its foot in two camps and trying to land somewhere in between, it’s not quite as immersive and playable as it could be.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of Power Play.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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