Posted on July 23, 2009 by spikexan
Malcolm Craig is a lunatic who loves his games. That single fact establishes him as one of my favorite game designers. I had the pleasure of meeting the kinetic Craig at my first GenCon where I picked up the then-fresh a|state. A few years down the road Craig brings us a new game he calls “something of a follow-up” to Cold City. He may not put much faith in urban dwellings (cities in all his games are filthy, vile things), but his ability to weave a story isn’t to be ignored. Just to prove this, Hot War was recently nominated for two Ennie Awards (Best Writing and Best Setting). Let’s take a look at the respectably large (204 pages) game.
Paul Bourne’s illustration, photography, and graphic design makes the full version of the book shine. Aged pages not only depict the rules, but some of the halted stages in London’s demised during the game’s time period (the early 1960s). Familiar British sites like Big Ben and Parliament take on a new look as they are rendered into decimated versions by the artist’s expert hands. Most of these pieces are treated like the works from various photographers and allows scenes of demented monsters, former testaments to architectural glory, and pitiful humans.
Instead of offering a dense timeline of events, a handful of public notices (designed like subway posters for the most part) perfectly detail London’s collapse. Various game aids at the back of the book are great as well. Neither version of the character sheets will drain a printer’s lifeblood and the materials on the sheets waste nothing. There is also a primer for new players that lays out the game in one page (this is not a game about “leather-clad, neo-barbarians with crossbows” just to be clear. It’s important enough for Craig to mention it twice in the book).
This primer is an excellent tool for conventions or pick-up games. I think my single favorite piece of art is 199’s “Your Papers Please Sir” subway poster.
The book is broken into seven chapters of varying importance to players and game masters.
Chapter One (Introduction) is a brief (pages 8-17) overview of the setting, a glossary, and the infamous “what everyone needs to play” list. Craig’s style here (and mostly throughout) is very conversational. You feel like he’s laying this out for you over drinks at a bar (or pub, I suppose).
Chapter Two (The Hot War) seems brief only because it is the strongest section to what the game is about. Craig takes some sneaky shortcuts that work in order to make the game stop at 204 pages instead of 402. One, Hot War looks at what happened in London (and a little bit outside of it) during these events. There is no section on Canada, Australia, or Peru. The setting is post-war London. Two, he establishes how badly things have gotten not through a detailed chronology like Godlike offered (although I did love it), but instead it’s through a series of one page props. It’s a fabulous idea that not only gets the job done, but is visually stunning. Three, he plays with the same idea through diary excerpts for those readers craving a story.
Chapter Three (Creating Games and Characters) is obviously character creation. In a|state, Craig used a more traditional approach to character creation. The character sheet was a detailed bear akin to a Call of Cthulhu sheet. He switched gears with Cold City and appears to be holding pace. It’s the kind of sheet required for the collaborative gaming Craig now seems more fond of sharing. He talks about this a little bit in this chapter by referring to “Closed Games” and “Open Games.” Hot War is a wide-open game.
Characters in this game have three Attributes (Action/Influence/Insight), Traits (make your own traits like “makes enemies howl in pain”), Hidden Agendas, and Relationships. The latter three can be negative or positive things, which ties into game play. There are loads of set-by-set examples starting in this chapter for those unfamiliar with collaborative role-playing. The design of character creation is simple in practice. What will make it hard for players is coming up with juicy details for their characters.
All in all, that’s an excellent problem for gamers.
Chapter Four (Playing the Game) details Scene Framing, Conflict Resolution, and how to build Dice Pools. Everything runs off of D10s for Hot War. Let’s assume you’re taking part in a physical conflict, which will involve the “Action” attribute. Let’s give the Attribute a rank of 3.
This is the number of dice you get initially; however, traits and hidden agendas and relationships (good and bad) can add dice to this pool. Other factors like tools and player-suggested options can add even more. It sounds like a great thing to use everything on the character sheet, but what you risk rolling for is truly risked. Those things that give dice and potentially be taken away if the roll is bad enough. Even a good roll can go South is the highest die rolled is one of those “negative” aspects of the character. To keep track of these, Craig suggests different-colored dice for the positive and negative characteristics. You want to roll high in Hot War. Ties are interesting in that tied dice eliminate each other on a one-for-one basis. Say two players roll three dice apiece. One rolls 1,9, 9 while the other rolls 8, 8, 9. The first player wins the contest (by a little) after his nine takes away his opponents. The first player still has one nine remaining.
The level of success is determined by judging the distance between the rolls. In this case, the distance is brief (nine to eight). This minimal system works well and quickly establishes successes and failures.
Chapter Five (Organisations) turns back to the setting as groups in Hot War are described. There are a handful of groups broken down between Civil, Military, and Police organizations. Most have a few paragraphs to them as Craig wants each gaming group to only have a broad look at the setting so that they can in turn make it as specified for their personal group as possible.
Chapter Six (London and Beyond) does the same but instead picks out locales that players may find useful for inspiration. It’s not the Rand-McNally tour guide to London. Craig’s view of the city is surely his own and maintains the book’s feel.
Chapter Seven (Appendices) has about every other thing the author felt like throwing into the text. He shares films, tv, books, and games that helped inspire aspects of Hot War. I know some readers feel like this isn’t needed in games; however, I like seeing the seeds of games. This was wholly welcome for me. Next, Craig details what he calls “useful websites.” After that, he turns to game aids, which I’ve already covered. Finally, Hot War closes with a clear three-page index.
I usually find something in games that irks me, no matter how small. Hot War may be an exception to this trend. I can’t say it’s a perfect game, but I personally love what Craig tries to do with this setting and the mechanics. I shouldn’t say “tries to do” because I am fairly confident the right word for most would be “does.” The “traditional” gamer in me would liked to have seen mechanics more like A/State, but it would have created a different beast altogether.
Anyway, I can hardly get into reviewing unwritten games.
My scores for Hot War are:
Layout: Four out of Five Dice (the printer friendly version fully requires a bookmark)
Artwork: Five out of Five Dice (unique artistic take. The fall of London never looked so
Writing: Five out of Five Dice (Craig makes sure you are both entertained and educated
in terms of the game)
Overall: Five out of Five Dice (this is my second game to earn this score, but Hot War does indeed earn it. I’m very interested to see how it fairs with the Ennies).
Review by Todd Cash