Card Game Review: Kill And Laugh In MACHINE OF DEATH

For tabletop gamers with a morbid sense of humour. So: tabletop gamers.

Tabletop gaming is a great, oft-ignored tributary to the mighty gaming river. It fosters communication, teamwork, warmth and friendship. Gathering friends to hunker over a table packed with cards, figurines or other little objects is a more intimate experience than any online game can deliver. I play tabletop games weekly with a group of buddies and I recommend you do the same if you want a life as fulfilling as mine.

Machine of Death is a card game based on the book the same title. Written by noted webcomic authors Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), David Malki (Wondermark) and others, the book was published last year, followed by its user-submitted followup This Is How You Die. They're short story anthologies set in a world where there exists a machine that can predict cryptically - but with one hundred percent accuracy - the manner of your death.

How to convert that concept into a game? By casting players in an occupation fast becoming hoary in video games: assassins. Because how do you assassinate people in a world where they know how they’re going to die?

The answer lies in interpretation. The example held up by the authors is that your death card could read “OLD AGE,” and you’re killed by an old guy in a Buick. Just as easily, you could get “LETTER OPENER” and be killed by someone who just opened a letter. Who, in our experience, also happens to be the Wicked Queen from Snow White. It’s all in how you decide to twist the given information.

Mechanically, the game functions like a complicated improv scene, with several pieces of information determining how your target is to be executed. You’re assigned a dossier describing the target - their fears, desires, and other attributes to be exploited. Targets must then be killed in the manner matching the Machine’s prediction, and the hit must be carried out with three randomly-selected items, like “a musical instrument” or “an event or social situation”. When the items and their uses are defined and the plan finalised, success is determined by dice rolls against player-defined difficulty levels.

If any phase fails its roll, the plan must be re-improvised using a new random item - within ninety seconds. This is where the game is at its best, as players must think rapidly and circuitously to make their mark dead.

Obviously, the real goal isn’t the assassination itself, but to make the process as amusing as possible. Crucial to the success of any Machine of Death session is creativity and wit. It works best with a group of intelligent, funny storytellers who can let the ridiculousness flow through them. My group (made up of members of the Court Jesters improv troupe) thrives on this kind of game. For example:

We were in the old west. Our target, canal baron Jarrod Lombardo, was fated to die by rail. All we had was “a disguise,” “something that doesn’t exist” and “the ability to talk to ghosts.” Capitalising on Lombardo’s fear of horses, we conjured the spirit of a dead one, getting acting tips to apply to our pantomime horse disguise. The idea was to chase Lombardo into a Road Runner painted tunnel, out of which a train would emerge to kill him. But the dice roll failed on the pantomime horse, so we were forced to use some steampunk gadgetry to lure Lombardo (exploiting his love of shiny brass gears) into the path of the oncoming train.

A unexpected delight in Machine Of Death is the way its targets form little mini-narratives. The mission booklet offers campaigns written by a range of webcomic authors - there’s a Shakespeare campaign, one with robots, one about big oil, and so on. These campaigns cap sessions at a comfortable length and make for a satisfying narrative journey.

There’s an alternate “Psychopath” mode resembling Apples To Apples or Cards Against Humanity. A rotating Killer player declares a weapon with which their targets must be killed. The rest of the players play death cards that fit with the weapon. The Killer picks their favourite connection, that player gets a point, and the first to reach an arbitrarily-defined number wins. This mode feels like a deflated balloon in its vanilla form; we added compulsory narratives to add challenge and to invent more bizarre death scenarios.

Machine of Death doesn’t entirely click. In many ways its improvisational puzzle-solving is similar to Infinity Dungeon, but with more rules and structures that often feel like obstacles to creativity. That the success or failure of a hit depends on arbitrarily user-defined difficulty feels a little cheap. Psychopath mode has potential, but requires additional input beyond the suggested play style to make it truly enjoyable. But there’s a great concept at its heart, and a lot of gallows humour to be enjoyed.

You can’t buy Machine of Death directly just now, as they’re still filling their Kickstarter backer obligations, but you can pre-order the next batch. It’s as close to a Final Destination game as I can imagine - contriving unfortunate deaths from whatever is at hand. It’s the quality of players that make it a Final Destination 2 instead of a 3.