Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stuffed Fables

Game designers are artists. And if any proof were needed, one point would be the iterations one sees a designer’s games going through. Like a painter honing in on the best technique for capturing sunlight, we can sometimes see designers honing in on better games. Titles change, new art is commissioned, and major mechanisms can be updated. But the observant gamer still witnesses evolution in a designer’s style. One such person is certainly Jerry Hawthorne. Designer of the popular Mice & Mystics, followed by its major expansions “Heart of Glorm” and “Downwood Tales”, the player gets to see Hawthorne exploring the space of narrative-and-dice-driven action rpg games for families. With Stuffed Fables (2017), the next iteration is even better.

The castle and fields of Mice & Mystics replaced by a little girl's dreams, and the mice replaced by stuffed animals, there is a whole new world to explore, minions to defeat, and story to experience in Stuffed Fables. Board tiles also replaced, it is one of PlaidHat Games' adventure book games. Action and story occurring in a large book instead of on modular tiles, each page represents another chapter in Lumpy, Piggle, Theodora, Stitch, and Flops’ tale. An evil attacking the little girl as she sleeps, players cooperatively try to prevent the girl from waking up by sending her stuffy heroes out into the wilds of dreamland to find and defeat the source.

Cute as cute can be, the six stuffy miniatures are loads of fun moving around the “board”, exploring, attacking, making friends, and solving mysteries. The book high quality, there is minimal possibility of damaging the pages while fighting the dozens of minion figurines which come with the game. Tokens and item upgrade cards are likewise durable. And while the dice which drive the game could have been a class bigger, they come with a nice velvet bag that my children have yet to destroy after many, many games.

So what are the iterations between Mice & Mystics and Stuffed Fables? Beyond the aforementioned shift from modular tiles to adventure book, dice action has likewise become more variegated. Where M&M was driven by five dice, SF is driven by thirty dice: five each of six colors. Players drawing five from the bag at the beginning of their turn, they proceed depending which colors they drew. Some allow for movement or attack, one helps recover hit points, another winds the minion clock tighter, and another is a wild card. The player not required to use all the dice, they are able to give some to other players to help, as well as keep one at the end of their turn for defensive purposes or to use on the next turn. Beyond move, attack, etc., the game also introduces skill tests to proceed past certain points. All in all, Stuffed Fables moves beyond the move-attack, move-attack, move-attack routine of M&M and into territory more variable and enjoyable for it.

The replay value of Stuffed Fables is relatively good for a story-driven game. The adventure book featuring branching story lines, there are pages and chapters that players will skip as a result of their choices and encounters, meaning there is a portion of content waiting to be discovered on a second or third playthrough. The story not a pre-requisite, however, players can simply open the book to a random page or choose a page they want to replay, and go at it. Given most pages/scenarios have their own set of mini-rules (or rules modifications), gameplay is constantly fresh. And lastly, there are 30+ scenarios to play through. And so while playing a chapter a second time may not be as fresh and interesting, there remains a huge amount of content to go through on the first time. Compare to Pandemic: Legacy, for example, and there is roughly three times the “first time” content for about the same price, if not cheaper and with better components.

If I had a hang up on anything, or at least an open question, it would be the storytelling. And I question it from both a technique and quality perspective. The style verbose (heaps and heaps of adjectives) and sentence structure stilted, it often feels as though a teen penned the tale. The only viable excuse I could think of is that such a style builds younger readers' vocabularies. Beyond that, it's often cringe-worthy. And the story itself is serviceable, at best. The reader/player can appreciate that the larger tale has been broken into chunks, the intro, body, climax, and conclusion apparent. At a level deeper, however, cracks begin to appear. Time spent here but not spent there. Major story reveals dealt with in a sentence while vapid dialogue is given many more. All in all, I would have loved to see the story in the hands of a capable script writer. What's available is good, but there is room for it to be much better. And to be 100% fair, my children didn't care one bit—and the game is for them.

In the end, Stuffed Fables is wonderful cooperative game for families. Value through the roof, the adventure book format makes for unique adventure after unique adventure. The high quality components and supporting mechanisms ensure each player likewise has unique powers, and are contributing to the overarching, ever-evolving story in their own way, even if the story is not well-written. Cute and cuddly, players literally beat the stuffing out of baddies, all the while confronting the fears of nightmares and the night. I have also enjoyed every minute with my children painting the heroes. (Lumpy lives up to his name in our house.) Thus, if you and your family liked Mice & Mystics, Stuffed Fables improves upon the experience. I can only wish a sequel will be released which sees Hawthorne take the idea into its next iteration.

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