I have Tragedy Looper from Z-Man games which I actually obtained before the con, but I brought it along as it seemed like this would be a good chance to get it to the table. And late on saturday night, after I realized my copy of the DC Deckbuilding game was missing cards so we couldn’t play it after all, I pulled it out and studied the rules one last time while my friends were taking a break to stretch their legs, save their car from parking garages, and get more beverages.
Tragedy Looper is a very interesting concept to me – the idea is, something terrible has happened, and the players have gotten themselves into a time loop to figure out what happened and put a stop to it. At least, all players except for one – the Mastermind, who is trying to confuse and mislead the protagonists so they fail to stop the bad stuff from happening.
So the idea is, there are certain tragedies that the Mastermind needs to pull off, and generally a few different ways he can make it happen. The protagonists need to pay careful attention to what the Mastermind puts his attention to, not to mention what happens that triggers the loop to end, so they can put a stop to it. Fortunately they get multiple loops, which they’ll need to be sure they can tie off loose ends.
I’ll have to play the game more to give more solid opinions, but one thing is for sure – it’s a beast to learn. The mechanisms are simple; each round, the Mastermind gets to play 3 cards, and then the other 3 players get to play 1 card each. The mastermind then resolves a number of effects based on the cards played (with the protagonists getting a chance to use certain character abilities, maybe, to help them out), letting the protagonists know the outcome. The cards can move characters, or prevent, add, or remove goodwill/paranoia/intrigue. Goodwill can help trigger helpful character abilities. Paranoia can trigger bad events that helps the mastermind, and intrigue may also affect the results of certain incidents. Protagonists have to figure out which characters or actions are triggering bad stuff and put a stop to it.
The difficult part is that there are a lot of possibilities that players have to learn and remember. Characters have special abilities which are hard enough even though those are visible. They also may have one of a number of secret roles which could affect things. Scripts – the story behind a single game – are made up of plots, and there are a few possible main and subplots which could be in play, each with their own potential secret roles and overall effects. Oh, and there are a list of incidents which could happen each with their own trigger and result. Players have to at least have a cursory knowledge of all the options and will need to pay close attention to the situation – especially which characters have paranoia or intrigue and what specific effects are triggered and how they work – in order to deduce the truth. There isn’t a lot of leeway for the Loopers to screw up, so they’ll have to figure out every threat the Mastermind has in order to cause bad stuff to happen.
Still, the game is interesting, and I think the dynamic between the mastermind and loopers can be pretty cool. Unlike, say, Clue where the result is set and players must deduce based on slowly gathering information, the Mastermind can throw in misdirections or do misleading things to throw the loopers off the scent. And then it all resets and the loopers get another chance to stop it. It’ll take a few plays but I think the game will ultimately be pretty interesting to unravel.
It certainly didn’t help when I accidentally read the “Story” of the first script, which is supposed to be a little more simple to help players learn, but then I gave away a lot of details so we had to go to the next script. However, it IS kinda cool that once you have the game down, you aren’t limited to playing pre-set scenarios. You can assemble your own scripts by picking from the available plots and creating your own timeline of events, as well as assigning the characters to secret roles as you choose, allowing you to create mysteries that even experienced players won’t have memorized but without having to write scripts from scratch.
I played one of the protagonists to Wolfie’s mastermind and he taught us how many different ways there are for the time traveling heroes to lose in one game. Each time through he played his cards a little bit differently and ended that loop with a unique trigger. This is just one of the many great things about this game. And there’s a lot to like here. But during my first game I also experienced varying degrees of frustration. Perhaps it was the fact that we started playing so late at night or perhaps it was due to starting with a slightly more difficult scenario. I went back and forth between thinking it was conceptually brilliant but in actuality often far too overwhelming. My hope is that eventually becoming familiar with the game system would alleviate the aspects that I found to be aggravating and leave a deductive masterpiece. Regardless, I can safely say that this is hands down one of the most innovative games and probably the best deduction game I have ever played. That’s not to say that I’m itching to play it again but I do think it’s an excellent game and at the very least an excellent idea.
So let’s start with what I thought was brilliant about Tragedy Looper. The protagonists have two different objectives during each game. First they have to figure out what’s even going on – which characters are causing the events, who the key players are, and what plots are in play. This is the deduction portion of the game and the mastermind has the ability to make things very difficult for the heroes. He has some objectives that he is working towards (ending the loop) but there is plenty of wiggle room to give out some red herrings along the way. What’s particularly interesting is that since the mastermind can end the loop in several ways he can play his cards in a completely different way from one loop to the next and still defeat the heroes, he doesn’t just have to play variations on the same scheme each time.
Imagine that the heroes were able to piece together what is going on or at least enough of it to stop the mastermind. At this point they still need to actually execute a plan to successfully complete the loop with the mastermind listening in on their strategy. Even with perfect information it’s still possible to lose which means that the deduction portion is only part of the game. This isn’t to say that scenarios aren’t eventually solvable but in the limited amount of time that you are given it is very challenging to come up with a viable solution. One of the key aspects to making this possible is the fact that the heroes can only discuss strategy before the loop starts so they need to depend on each other to make good decisions once the loop is in motion. Every player is important and has to make their own meaningful decisions without one player bossing the others around. Even with a solid plan going into the loop you will need to react to what the mastermind does.
Now on to some of the potential downsides, remember I’ve only played one learning game so hopefully a number of these things won’t be a factor after becoming familiar with the system. The most aggravating thing for me was the sheer amount of information that you need to absorb and keep track of. Even with the help of a player aid there are still an overwhelming amount of things to consider: the plot, sub-plot, and characters are all cogs in the puzzle and you don’t even know which ones are in play at the start of the game. I understand that deducing this information is essentially the core of this game but I found the system to be somewhat unintuitive. I do commend them for giving the mastermind a bounty of options to challenge and confuse the heroes. And it’s the very fact that he has so many options that keeps the game interesting and challenging. However I wish it was simply easier to parse the available information. When the mastermind puts some paranoia on a character it could have any number of implications that require you to review all the characters, major plot events, and possible sub-plots. It’s very possible that I was overcomplicating things but once I got to the third or fourth loop and tried to remember key events from previous loops it was simply too much for me to wrap my head around. Fortunately you have a whole team of players trying to do just that. And hopefully, just maybe, you can piece things together by working together rather than needing to process every bit of information by yourself.
I really want to like Tragedy Looper and perhaps on my next play everything will snap into place and it will become the amazing play experience that I’m envisioning. It’s great when a game comes along to challenge you and cause you to think in a new ways. For me that’s exactly what Tragedy Looper does so well and even if I don’t get to play it again I will never forgot my single absorbing, fascinating, and devastating defeat.