Fiasco Role Playing Game Review

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The Basics:

  • No specified age provided (but most certainly not children)
  • For 3 to 5 players
  • Variable play length (single-shot, about 2 to 3 hours)

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading & Writing
  • Emotional Coping Skills
  • Memorization
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Cooperative & Team Play
  • Self-confidence
  • Imagination

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Not tested
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Lie, cheat, steal, and laugh as you hilariously and self-destructively navigate the choppy waters of ambitious plans that go horribly awry.

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek rejected!
  • Child Geek not applicable

Overview

Salvador Dali, a prominent Spanish surrealist painter, once said that “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” I say that ambition without intelligence is like a bird who smacks into a window at high-speed. Ambition can blind a person and drive them forward like a hot poker. While goals are important, one must not forget to stop and observe to ensure they know where they are going and avoid pitfalls.

Fiasco, by Bully Pulpit Games, is not a role-playing game in the traditional sense. It is comprised of a single rule book (just shy of 130 pages) and contains no stats, tables, or enemies for the players to use. Instead, Fiasco is a role-playing system that contains a very small rule-set and lists that builds on a few basic necessary plot components (characters, setting, etc.) and then plays itself out like improvisational theater. Without the stage acting, of course, but with all the drama you can imagine. All that is needed to play the game is the core rule book (discussed here), 4 six-sided standard dice per player (2 black and 2 white, or just 2 different colors), a small pile of index cards or Post-It notes, pens or pencils for everyone, and 3 to 5 players who are comfortable acting as really strange and hopelessly lost people.

In a Nutshell

Fiasco is a single session role-playing game where the players are going to take on the roles of individuals who have a lot of ambition, very little self-control, and a knack for getting into trouble. There is no “Game Master” or “Dungeon Master” who controls the game. Everyone plays a specific character of their own creation that is not good or evil, but most certainly somewhere in between. To what degree the player’s character slides on that scale between halos and pitchfork is up to them. It is important to note that a player need not be familiar with role-playing games to play Fiasco. What is necessary is the ability to simply relax, listen, and be comfortable outside of your comfort zone.

Individuals will act out scenes. They will know who their character is, where they are currently located, and what is going to be discussed. After that, the players get to act out the scene however they like, forwarding the story to the inevitable destructive end. The crash at the end is actually the goal and it should be every player’s sole purpose to skirt that razor-like edge between success and failure as close as possible so plans can unravel with outrageous and often hilarious results.

Sound like fun? You bet!

Preparing the Crash Zone

Note: We will describe the game at a high level here and summarize important points. The core rule book goes into great detail and is very easy to follow.

The first thing the players will do is simply get together around the kitchen or gaming table. There is no preparation needed to play Fiasco, but the group does need to work out some basic structure before the game can be played. This is all part of the game itself, very important, and a lot of fun. Make sure everyone is seated comfortably, has the dice, pens, pencils, paper, and everything else they will need before you set up your fiasco. It will also help to be playing in an area where there isn’t much noise because the players need to be able to hear each other talk.

The first thing all the players will do is select and create their playset. Think of this as the hangers on which the story elements are hung, or if you prefer, the monkey bars you get to mentally swing on. Each playset is comprised of 4 specific parts which are then further broken down into different categories and elements. The game comes with preconstructed playsets and rules for players to make their own. If the players decide to make their own, it’ll take about a hour to do it right and is only suggested for those who are very familiar with Fiasco.

A preestablished playset will have several categories listed under each of the four major parts of the overall story, which includes Relationships, Needs, Locations, and Objects. The categories will be further broken down into six different specific details that are part of that category’s elements. The first thing that all players will do is collect all the dice and roll them to the center of the playing area. This dice pool will be used to build the story the players are going to act out.

The dice are pulled from the pool and attached to a specific element in a category to build the player’s character and the overall story. Once the die is used, it is removed from the pool. Players take turns building the information used in the story until all the dice are used. The information that is selected is written on the index cards or the Post-It notes for easy reference and to keep all the players on track with their character.

A basic playset is summarized here.

Relationships

All the characters in the game are connected to each other, be it directly or indirectly. For example, one player character could be the brother of another and a co-worker of another player character. While there is always some degree of connection between the characters, it need not be overly obvious or even strong. Fate plays a big role in this game and individual player characters are destined to run into each other.

Relationships focus on categories such as family, work, friendships, romances, criminal behavior, and the community in which all the relationships are occurring. For example, in a small town, a small company, or even both. Regardless of the size, complexity, and depth of the relationships created, they are all connected.

Needs

All the characters in the game need something. This is their ambition and what drives them blindly forward with reckless abandon. Needs not be evil or violent, but they will most certainly be selfish, even if the player character strongly suggests that it is for the good of others.

Needs focus on categories that detail the individual player’s ultimate goal. This includes getting out of a situation, getting into a situation, getting rich, getting even, gaining respect, destroying others, and the list goes on.

Locations

All the characters are located in a central place. This “place” need not be a single room, a single house, or even a single block, but it certainly can be. The location establishes not only where everything is taking place, but also defines how the characters are related to each other. For example, if everything is happening in a small town, then everyone is part of the same community with different jobs that also define their social status. If the location is a business, then the players will be either peers, subordinates, or bosses and maybe nothing at all to each other until later in the game.

Locations could be anywhere. Main Street USA, Wall Street, on the road, in a specific residence, or in a hotel room.

Objects

Objects are key items that are going to play a major part in the story. Some of these objects might help with the character’s needs and some might be exactly what the character never hopes to find. Think of objects as props that will come into and out of the story that the characters can use to either gain an advantage or used against them as blackmail. It all depends on how the story plays out and how they are used.

Objects could be anything such as cars, a storage shed full of old photos, various weapons, information, jewelry, or even another character such as a dog.

When done, the players will have a detailed structure that will help them define their player character’s boundaries, locations, goals, dreams, and relationships.

Playing Out the Fiasco

The game is played out in two scenes. An entire game session is summarized here.

fiasco_structure

Act One

In act one, the players will take turns getting their characters into scenes with each other. This is where the playset comes into play and helps defined how the character’s know each other. As such, there is no need to “introduce” the characters to each other unless the scene suggests it. The first act is also about foreshadowing and the players get to introduce objects, drop hints, and allude to future events. Characters will “grow” through this processes and their individual characteristics are going to get bigger and louder.

Players will decide to establish or resolve a scene on their turn. If they establish a scene, the player creates it, but the other players get to decide if the end of the scene will be beneficial or harmful to the player’s character. If they resolve a scene, the player gets to determine the outcome. Dice are taken from the central pile and the first act continues until half the dice are used.

Why are dice important? The dice are like a game clock and will signal how close the game is to being completed as the number of dice available to all the players in the center begins to dwindle. As the plot and craziness increase, the dice in the pool decrease. The dice also represent good and bad luck, happiness and misery, and success and failure. The dice, if you recall, are of two different colors. One color, determined by the players before the game begins, represents the “good stuff” and the other color the “bad stuff”. Players will be collecting these for their character and will be used to decide their fate.

The Tilt

The tilt happens at the end of the first act and only after everyone has had a chance to act out their character. So far, the players have been in control and have been guiding the story, making plans, forming teams, and establishing roles. But all that planning and scheme is about to be kicked in the knees and brought down to the floor. The tilt introduces new and disruptive elements to the story.

The players will now roll the dice they have in front of them and do some math by adding up the dice values and determining if the overall value is in their character’s favor or against them. The player who has the highest valued negative outcome and the player with the highest valued positive outcome will each get to choose a new element to add to the story. The dice in the center are now rolled and used just like the players are making a playset, but there is one very big difference. The playset describes the lives and locations of the characters and what they know. The new elements that are added in the tilt are meant to be disruptive and destructive. For example, if the players are in a story that is taking place in a small company, a new tilt element that could be added is a young administrative assistant that will suddenly put a lot of strain on two of the character’s preestablished relationship, if you know what I mean.

New information is written down, but the die the players have collected do not go back into the central pool. This is also a great opportunity for everyone to take a break because most first acts take about an hour or more as players get into their characters and set the scenes.

Act Two

The second act plays out a great deal like the first act but the new tilt elements are now included. This means all the scheming the players have been doing in act one are about to have the proverbial monkey wrench thrown into it. Keep in mind that the players are trying their hardest to make the story as interesting and as ridiculous as possible. Tilt elements should not be avoided!

The dice are also assigned and given in the say way as the first act. However, the final die is “wild” and can be either good or bad. Like most of life’s situations, this could result in a near miss or a spectacular crash that the players’ didn’t see coming. Regardless of how the dice are used, each player should be leveraging what was learned and discussed in the first act to help make the second act. Plot points should be carried over and strengthened.

The Aftermath

Now it’s time to see what fate has in store for the player characters. All the dice the players have collected are rolled and used to resolve the player character’s final act. The core rule book is again consulted and gives to each player a brief summary of their character’s fate. This could be a terrible and horrific death or winning the lottery. But most of the time it is somewhere in the middle.

The players now take turns and use one of their die to describe what their character is doing based on their character’s aftermath. The rules suggest you think of this as something of a montage. If you were watching a movie, this is the part of the film where you see all the characters doing something all at once, their individual choices leading them in different directions or straight into each other. When all the players have used their dice, the game and story is over.

To learn more about Fiasco, the game publisher has a preview you can download.

Prediction

I have had some success with another single session role-playing game named Forsooth with my adult friends, but the game was found to be to confusing for the Child Geeks. Too many shifts in the story, confusing characters, and odd behavior.

And that was with Shakespeare.

Fiasco is not going to be playable with our Child Geeks. I can see the game being playable with teenagers, but for anyone in grade school, Fiasco is not a game you should introduce. Not because it is overly complex, but because the game’s entire goal is to act out good and bad people in horribly odd and ridiculous situations. That’s hard for a Child Geek to grasp, let alone act out. Fiasco also uses story elements that are highly sexual and violent. All in fun, mind you, but not at all appropriate for children. As such, we are going to state that Fiasco is not applicable for the Child Geeks.

Which is not to say you couldn’t play Fiasco with children. In fact, you could create your own playset that is built around a school with basic school life elements included. A councilor or a drama teacher could very easily tailor a preexisting playset or design one based on a known issue or story. This is a game about the imagination so anything is possible. But the goal of the game is to put strange characters into strange situations to reach strange outcomes. The game is all about poetic justice, that might or might not include a justifiable end to a player character’s behavior.

Teaching the game to adults won’t be an issue. In fact, this is a game you can teach as you play it. As the players get more comfortable with their character and the game, things will get easier. The rules for Fiasco are exceedingly straight forward and allow for a great deal of creativity within a well-defined but flexible boundary. This is a very important point to make as Fiasco could be seen by some to be nothing more than just a couple of lists and an objective that offers nothing to suggest standardization or rules. While there is very little of either in the game, the way the acts are played out and the playset elements introduced, all the players know everything they need to establish and build a solid story. The only thing missing is the player’s imagination.

When I pitched this game to my wife, she said the following to me.

“You play the weirdest games, Cyrus.” ~ My Wife

Yes, I do, but this is one I’ve been wanting to play for a long time and have been told nothing but good things about. Exciting! Let’s see if I can get some friends together and host a fiasco of my own.

Final Word

Fiasco is not a game for the Child Geeks. We’ve established that. Fiasco is also not a game for the squeamish or the easily insulted. The game is dripping with dirty politics, inappropriateness, and dark humor. Oddly enough, it is all brought to the table by the players and is no fault of the game itself. But since the game more or less demands that the players act out scenes and play their characters like they were in a Coen Brother’s film, you know things are not going to be PG. So, here’s a good test. If you can watch a series of Coen Brother films and feel pretty good about it, then Fiasco is going to be enjoyable.

Fiasco is also not for the hardcore role-players. In fact, fans of epic fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and any other genre of traditional role-playing games will be disappointed as there is nothing in the game to suggest continued play past the one game session or additional character development. While a hardcore role-player will enjoy the player interaction, they will feel confined by the plot points and might be unable to break past the idea that their player character is not going to win anything. Very challenging, but no treasure other than the experience itself is waiting at the end of the dungeons in this game.

The Gamer Geeks very much enjoyed Fiasco, but not the Parent Geeks. The Parent Geeks thought it was a bit too strange, a bit too intense, a bit too morbid, and a bit to violent at times. They also didn’t particularly like being put into or talking about situations where sex, drugs, or both were included. But your game need not include either and it is up to the players to determine the level of violence and perverse hedonism in their game.

Act One and my wife and I play out a scene - I was a young office manager and she was my boss - so, actually, we didn't really pretend much

Act One and my wife and I play out a scene. I was an office worker and she was my boss. Very little acting was actually involved…

This puts Fiasco in a strange spot. If it isn’t for the hardcore dice chuckers and not meant for any random person on the street, who then is Fiasco meant to be played by? That is a question I’ve been asking myself since reading the rules and one I have not yet been able to answer. I don’t think you can put a label on a person and say, “hey, this type of geek would love Fiasco!”, but I do think you can identify such individuals using some basic criteria. For example, players must have a very creative imagination, be willing to take risks (in story form), be familiar with stories like the ones being played out, be a good speaker, be a good actor, and enjoy being the center of attention, but also a team player in the background. That’s a tricky list of criteria to match but does represent what I would consider the best type of person to play Fiasco with.

So, I don’t know…theater majors, maybe? While that might be true, I’m not one of them and I love Fiasco. Regardless, Fiasco is not a game I would just recommend to anyone because it certainly isn’t meant for everyone. Like Pistachio flavored ice cream, the game will taste either wonderful or horrible on a player’s pallet, polarizing their feelings about the game instantly.

I, for one, love Pistachio ice cream and Fiasco. It is wonderfully creative, wicked, and hilarious. The hardest part of the game is finding others to play it with.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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3 Responses to Fiasco Role Playing Game Review

  1. Pingback: The Fiasco Companion Book Review » Father Geek

  2. Jake Was Here says:

    For what it’s worth: Bully Pulpit Games also publishes a companion volume, appropriately titled The Fiasco Companion, which includes additional play sets, advice from gamers who’ve played Fiasco on how to make a session more exciting, and — most germanely — suggestions for building more kid- and teen-friendly play sets, to recreate the high-school-panic atmosphere of teen films such as Mean Girls, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, and all the John Hughes classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

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