Saturday, May 29, 2021

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stuffed Fables expansion "Oh, Brother!"

Stuffed Fables is one of my children's favorite games. Occasionally when dear ol' dad sleeps late, there have been Saturday mornings he awakes to find his son at the kitchen table in the middle of his own, custom scenario—figures, tokens, and cards scattered, figures standing and down, minions sometimes becoming friends. When I told him the news an expansion had been released, he literally squealed with joy. Let's jump into “Oh, Brother!” (2021) and see if it was worth the glee.

The little girl of Stuffed Fables is several years older and now has a younger brother. Where she was the backdrop of Stuffed Fables, he is the backdrop of “Oh, Brother!”. The two have separate bedrooms, but their stuffies still get together to drink brandy and smoke cig—ahem, sorry, laugh and play at night. The boy's two favorite stuffies are Pokey, a unicorn, and Manny, a Conan-esque action figure. It's during one of their midnight rendezvous that the stuffies notice something strange: little, mechanical bed bugs emerge from beneath the boys' bed and start stealing all of his plastic toys. The plastic being taken somewhere into the Fall, it's up to the stuffies to get to the bottom of the mystery and stop the theft.

Like Stuffed Fables, “Oh, Brother!” layers the concerns of the boy on top of what the stuffies do in the Fall. Where the little girl was growing older, learning how not to wet the bed and deal with nightmares, the little boy is learning how to have confidence in himself. Confidence something Manny is not lacking in the masculine least, getting his accessories back feeds into the boy's development. The designers also sneak in a few elements of contemporary culture wars. Nothing heavy-handed or extreme, there is indeed a huge amount of rationale behind the fact 'action figure' is just a term to make boys feel comfortable with the fact they are playing with a doll.

In terms of what players get in the box, there is a full complement. At a high level, the box contains roughly 70% of what is in the base game. There is a new, full-sized adventure book with five new stories. There are all new sets of encounter cards, item cards, specialty tokens, and story cards (in legacy order, like the base game) All the same plastic quality, there are three new boss figurines, ten minions, and two heroes—all begging for your kids to paint. From top to bottom, the expansion fits what a player would hope for from a major addition.

I had issues with the writing in Stuffed Fables, and with “Oh, Brother!” they are not improved, and may have even taken a step back. Perhaps my sensors are too delicate, but the cringes while reading seemed to come every couple of sentences. I get that Hawthorne was likely trying to expand young players' vocabularies. (At the beginning of every scenario kids are asked to read, not adults.) At the same time, he is not helping them understand how subtly powerful language can be. More often a lot more can be accomplished by understanding what is written between the lines than what is in them—the spaces the brain fills without the need for words. Tons and tons of adjectives and run-on sentences actually make the reading experience disjointed, and sometimes a chore. Put the text in front of any high school English teacher and the red ink would flow.

I also had issues with the story of Stuffed Fables. While doing the big things right, a number of the intermediary elements were hit or miss. I can't help but feel “Oh, Brother!” doesn't improve this either. While several of the scenarios are among the best the IP offers, the purpose and direction of the story is not always clear. The final boss is the best example. In many ways he just appears, foreshadowing minimum at best. And the fight itself juxtaposes comedy and, well, fighting—a relationship that does not complement itself. Tack on the fact the fight is insanely annoying—ahem, difficult, it makes for a bad note to close things off.

My gripes about writing aside (as to be expected on a blog devoted primarily to books, I suppose), recommending “Oh, Brother!” is quite easy. If you and your family played all the way through Stuffed Fables and are looking for more content, the expansion delivers in spades (stuffing?). It's 100% worth it. My kids didn't care about the quality of the writing. They loved getting two new heroes, and a whole new book of adventures to send the stuffies on. And that is the measure that counts.

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