Well the annual worldwide Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction is over for another year… It’s been running for 5 years now by the awesome Wayne Densley who it must be said deserves a lot of credit for cultivating a re-emergence in gamebooks: together with others such as Tin Man Games who’ve featured a few Windhammer authors in their titles too (and some of which I myself have helped to produce).

I think it’s fair to say that the 2012 Windhammer Prize has demonstrated the huge diversity of gamebook goodness out there, the healthy level of interest and that there’s plenty willing to have a go. I imagine it’s also the case that there’s been more interest, votes and certainly more entries than ever the Windhammer Prize has had before. I want to congratulate all involved for putting in the effort to complete an entry and submit it for public scrutiny. You’ve all done gamebooks proud!!

It’s my first time to enter though, and funnily enough entering has meant that I’ve paid more attention to it than ever before. I reviewed all 22 entries (some in more detail than others), scored each according to my own criteria and wrote a few comments on each. Having done my own reviews and ratings in such detail (and in more detail even than I’ve provided to the authors themselves) I figured it would be something of interest to those who’ve had any interest in the Windhammer competition…

But I’m in two minds about publicising my thoughts. I appreciate the efforts of anyone who completes a project and is brave enough to release it to scrutiny, so I’m conscious of causing insult or discouragement, both of which are not intended. It’s even more significant when you consider that for some of the entries I’ve either worked on something the author has previously done, are currently doing, or may do in the future.

So this is a VERY important disclaimer, that you could say is common sense but given “common sense” isn’t necessarily very common, I feel compelled to state here as it applies to anything I ever say (and as far as I’m concerned, anything anyone else ever says about anything too):

Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one… Some opinions have more weight than others (typically if they are more respected or have a larger mouthpiece to broadcast those opinions), but judgement of whose opinion has more weight than another’s is (partially) subjective conjecture and ever will be.

So please keep this in mind as you read my comments below. -All of this is simply my own subjective opinion based on what I consider is important and what I’ve experienced. (And quite a number of others, including some of the other entrants I’m about to critique, have arguably more experience than me).

*Phew* Now that that’s out of the way, I can proceed to offer my thoughts honestly and hopefully without causing offence or coming off as “I’m the best and you’re all sh*t” haha.

So in order to rate and rank the Windhammer entries, I came up with my own rating system (that one day if I ever get around to it, I could apply to ratings and rankings of gamebooks in general), based on what I considered is important. -Understanding the motivations and preferences of the person doing a review is as important (I think) as the review itself, so if you want more background on what I think gamebook design should aspire to, I wrote an article on it here.

I like putting numbers on things, to make them quantitative, but this has its limits too. Scores and ranks give the illusion of being definitive, but the score and rank you give for something can vary on any given day. -Even now I’ll look at these scores and think “hmm that score was a bit harsh” or “gee maybe I gave them a bit too much there”…

Anyway I scored each entry according to five categories, where I gave a score out of 10 for each category, and doubled the total of these scores to give an overall “percentage”. The five categories, weighted equally for the purposes of my score, are as follows:

DESIGN - The mechanics of the gamebook. Is it innovative? Is it an idea that works well? Is it fair? Is it too linear or too random? Is it too easy or too hard?

STORY - The plot of the gamebook and the setting created for it. Is it an interesting story? Is it too clichéd or predictable? Is the setting detailed and vivid? Is the setting consistent within its scope?

WRITING - The quality of the writing in the gamebook. Is it well edited? It is efficient? Evocative? Accessible?

CLARITY - The clarity of the gamebook. Are the rules clearly explained? Are the game mechanics as they are used through the gamebook clear? Is the action being described and the potential consequences arising from differing choices apparent?

PLAYABILITY - The playability and replayability of the gamebook. Is it fun? Does it lend itself to repeat playthroughs of the gamebook?

Now that I’ve done over 850 words for this blog post already, I best get onto the actual meat you came for (and yes this will be a loooong post: 22 gamebooks is A LOT to get through in any level of detail):

For lack of a better idea, I’m simply going to rank the entries from what I gave the lowest score to, to the highest… Makes it a bit interesting for the reader that way I hope, by saving the “best” (as I deemed it) ‘till last. So here goes:

Hwarang and Kumiho (Leidren Sweever)

DESIGN - (Did not evaluate but probably quite high)
PLAYABILITY - (Did not evaluate)
MY OVERALL SCORE: 43% (22nd place)

As far as I’ve figured out, this entry is one of two entries (along with Dating a Witch) penned by members of the Bulgarian gamebook community. I can’t claim to know much about this community, except I hear that it has been a thriving gamebook community for some time now, and despite gamebooks going through a lull elsewhere (not so much now but a few years back yes) they’ve remained popular there (and as an aside, I note that Lloyd of Gamebooks seems to have a bit of a following there too; even if I can’t find the exact link now!) All of this is a real shame when you consider that the English translation for both these works is so poor: it really ruins the chance for these works to thrive when you can barely read/understand what’s written for the mangled translation. I appreciate the effort that all authors put into their gamebooks, and this certainly shows a lot of effort, but I just couldn’t commit myself to struggle through it when I could barely understand it. It would be great to see someone with bilingual Bulgarian and English skills that could translate this work properly (and others of the Bulgarian gamebook community) as I think given the right attention, these works could really shine and we’d all get to enjoy them!

The Enchanted Windmill (Bert Van Dam)

PLAYABILITY - (Did not evaluate)
MY OVERALL SCORE: 50% (21st place)

This entry was another that I felt was undermined by mangled writing to the point of making it unreadable: for me anyway. What little I read of it (and I must admit I didn’t read much) reminded me of a friend of mine’s writing who is well-meaning and has great ideas, but has a very poor comprehension of the fundamentals of written communication (you know like what a sentence is etc). I’m assuming here that Bert Van Dam’s first language is English, which if so means (I think) he really needs to get a better command of it for his work to be appreciated. As it stands I got enough to see that there are some great ideas in this work (a somewhat “Fabled Lands” kinda open and looping design), but I didn’t read it based on the poor writing. A case of wasted potential for me.

Dating a Witch (Ivailo Daskalov)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 56% (20th place)

I at least gave this one (a little bit of) a go. But sadly, the outcome was the same as the above two entries: I couldn’t read it. It’s not that the writing was that badly translated (and looking at the score I gave for writing and contrasting that with the score I gave for others’ writing, I think I may have cut this author some slack considering English isn’t their first language), it’s more that I found it difficult to immerse myself in this story given that it is almost(?) solely based on dialogue with your date. The design is interesting, but by being very focused on the singular aspect of the dialogue between the two characters, there is little else to draw you in if this doesn't get your interest. And it indeed failed to interest me (partially because I wasn’t able to relate to the characters) so I didn't persevere with this very far. Despite that it seemed reasonably well-structured and the clarity seemed ok, but the playability of this one was low for me personally.

Golem Gauntlet (Simon Chapman)

DESIGN - 5.5
STORY - 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 59% (19th place)

Unfortunately, I found this to be an overly difficult gamebook with unclear choices where the wrong choice resulted in instant death (what I shall call “instadeath” choices from here on) and a lot of outcomes where the reader is forced along a narrative path determined by the author (what I shall call “railroading” from here on, where the reader is put on a set path like a train). The story does however have an interesting central concept that has a lot of (largely unrealised) potential and has good characterisation of the villain. The writing did strike me as a little “amateurish” and rough, but I thought it was pretty good over all without doing anything special. The lack of clarity (and fairness) in choices and implementation of rules greatly hurts playability for me however, and a result I didn’t persevere very far through this… But enough to die three times on different paths whilst still in my first form.

The Massacre in Black Scythe (Mikael Bergqvist)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 62% (18th place)

This gamebook had a simple and effective design that required minimal rules and had some good ideas. However the absence of character or world background made it hard to figure out where, when and who your character was, let alone immerse yourself in the story. Whilst I understand that the author of this work was not writing in his native language, I found that the writing was for the most part quite clear and competent, but seemed clumsily expressed on numerous occasions. Logic continuity also seemed clumsy at times, and the narrative struck me as quite railroaded at times. I didn’t persevere very far with this one, but I’d like to look at it again after it’s had some development…

Emancipation (Jake Care)

DESIGN - 6.5 > * Revised to 7 *
MY OVERALL SCORE: 67% > * Revised to 68% * (equal 16th place)

First of all let me say that I’ve really enjoyed Jake Care’s articles on gamebooks. Aside from being a proponent of the page-sized gamebook (an influence that is evident in his very concise Windhammer entry), he’s written some great articles on two-player gamebooks (a topic close to my own heart funnily enough), gamebook linearity and gamebook combat mechanics.

Jake has also said some very very nice things about some of my own works (namely Infinite Universe and particularly my own Windhammer entry that he helped to edit and play-test) that left me quite gob-smacked by the praise… I also did a proofread of Jake’s Windhammer entry prior to the cut-off date and provided feedback, but alas it seems none of this got incorporated (did you get the feedback Jake? I sent it twice), which unfortunately means that I can’t revise his score upward.

Emancipation I found to have a compelling and delightfully twisted story with punchy writing that was only occasionally erroneous. It has simple rules that are generally clear but unfortunately contain at least one link error that should have been corrected (one of the links from Section 12 should go to Section 25 and not Section 26). I also found that contrary to what Jake states in the instructions, it is possible to escape on Day 1 with no items (by reaching Section 21), and even to reach Section 27 on Day 2 but have since been corrected that this was done in error (the full erroneous path that I took to achieve this was: Day One - 1 > 20 > 11 > 13 > 18 > 2  & get Epiphany12. Day Two - 1 > 20 > 24 > 5 > 15 (+12) = 27).

*EDIT: Actually as Torallion pointed out in the comments below, I was misusing the Epiphany12 code here by following the instructions for items rather than the instructions for information, which also means that it is indeed not possible to reach Section 27 before Day 3 as Jake states in the instructions. Looking again at the instructions it seems clear enough I guess, but could have perhaps had key words like item and information bolded or something to emphasise that they're different... Still I probably deducted 0.5 or so from the design score for this, so I've fixed this now that I've been shown to be wrong on this point :)

On the game mechanics side, the items are a nice idea, but I wonder whether the adding to your current section mechanic is really needed in this case… For instance I could only find one place where the Razor was used and only one section where the Epiphany knowledge was used: both of which have their own sections anyway… The only other such item is the Apocalypse knowledge item, which as far as I could tell wasn’t used at all?

Replayability is initially high due to the rapid intensity of this work, but diminishes quickly due to its brevity (it took me three attempts to succeed in this gamebook: dying once by drinking acid and I can’t remember now how I died the other time). Overall, I feel that with a bit of polish and expansion this could really be something special.

The Ravages of Fate (Ulysses Ai)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 68% (equal 16th place)

One of the long-raging debates I’ve had with one of my writer friends (whom is yet to be published I might add and I suspect would change their perspective if they had and had more feedback) is on the use of the “florid verbose” style of writing (which my friend favours) versus the concise “less is more” efficient style of writing that I favour where the “show don’t tell” approach is generally adopted. (I should add in support of my argument that the many conversations I’ve had with large publishers and established authors on this topic endorse my approach over the alternative but anyway): Ulysses Ai does take a similar approach to my writer friend, which as fancy and accomplished as it is, I’m not personally a fan of. Put another way, if you can say something in less words to convey the same thing, then why not do this? I’d rather not have to wade through a lot of what I would call “purple prose” that is prone to tautology and inefficiency, just to get to the actual story. Like music, I think sometimes simple is better than overly complicated “artistic flourishes” just because you can ;)

Nevertheless the story here is well-developed, although the characterisation struck me as a little contrived at times, and commits to me what is the mistake of assuming too much: unless your characters have mind-reading abilities, one character cannot know what another is actually thinking and can only guess at such from their actions. In other words, I think when writers start to describe what another character is thinking, rather than leave that interpretation open and just describe their actions (like would be the case if you were watching a movie say), then they are making what I consider to be an “amateur mistake”. But having said that, plenty who’ve made this “mistake” have gone on to be very successful indeed, so it comes back to personal preference to a large degree…

Aside from this, the design of this gamebook (and related to this its playability) suffer greatly for a very linear design where there is exceptionally little actual choice and most outcomes are determined by dice alone or what your initial items were. I also found that the action was sometimes unclear (not helped by the long-winded “artistic flourishes” of description) and that the chronology of events was at times inconsistent, but the rules themselves were clear and simple. For me however, this gamebook has low playability, owing to large walls of text and little actual choice, and in fact I lost motivation to even finish on my first play-through. Which is all a great shame as this has the elements of an extremely powerful story/experience.

Nye's Song (Robert Douglas)

STORY - 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 69% (15th place)

This is another entry I didn’t finish as I was put off by the design (there’s only one more left that I didn’t finish, so most of the remaining reviews are more comprehensive in this regard). To me, and I’m sure there’ll be a few thousand (million?) that will disagree with me on this, but the Fighting Fantasy system has never been a particularly strong one. Yes, yes I know, I LOVE Fighting Fantasy and all it’s done for me, but I perceive that it remains a fundamental flaw in the system that your starting stats can doom you to almost certain failure. That you can start most Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (well okay most of the ones that I’ve read, which is basically the first twenty-odd) with Skill 7 and/or Luck 7 and basically be screwed before you’ve started is a BIG problem with the system. That you can start with between 7 and 12 Skill dramatically affects combat difficulty for instance (fighting anything more than 2 Skill above you means that it’s approaching an impossible win, and for anything more than 2 Skill below you is approaching an impossible win for them)… So I guess when I see the FF system being used in a gamebook that’s not a FF title, I tend to think “Here we go again, I wonder how broken this one will be”.

And unfortunately in the case of this gamebook, I found that to be quite broken indeed. As if the FF design wasn't already harsh enough with respect to starting stats, in Nye’s Song you also have constant Luck checks (each of which reduce your Luck by 1), including in combat to avoid using an AV shot or die. It’s almost as if this was written with the assumption that you’re starting with Skill 12 and Luck 12, in which case you could probably navigate this gamebook quite easily: anything much lower and you might as well save yourself time and frustration and just cheat…

Okay enough picking on the design (I have good reason to though I think), the other elements of this work I was able to gauge less (given I only played once with Skill 9 Stamina 15 and Luck 7 and promptly died quite quickly and declined to try again) but I will say that I see great potential in this work (mainly the game mechanics let it down) which is well-written but for the lack of the story not really being explained, and the use of unexplained terms, and the sudden and unexplained change of action at times: all of which hinder immersion. Gee I haven’t said anything positive really yet have I? I did like the writing and story honestly; I gave each of them 7.5 out of 10; it’s just that the negative aspects come to mind more as I write this… The rules themselves are quite clear, albeit based on a flawed design as I’ve argued above. I think this really could be awesome with a bit of tuning :)

Academy of Magic - The First Term (Marty Runyon)

DESIGN - 7.5
STORY - 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 70% (14th place)

I can see Marty has tried very hard with this (and like us all, really wants to win!) but it has for me, a number of issues… The character generation process I thought was very cool and innovative, and that there was a nice strategic element in ability/skill checks although these weren’t clearly explained (does spending ability/skill points lower subsequent checks? This makes a big difference and I assumed it didn’t). Gameplay seemed balanced enough to avoid player frustration (and it’s great to see that there was play-testing for this, which no doubt helped) but I found that the results/outcomes of choices/rolls were often “railroaded”…

The ideas for the Academy are well-developed but lacking in descriptive details, and as for the writing itself, I found that it was reasonable but suffered from occasional significant issues, such as mangled sentences that don’t make sense. Despite these issues however, I found that this gamebook was quite playable considering there are lots of possible outcomes on any given playthrough. For the record, I only played once and managed to obtain a “bare pass” at the end (my Final Score was only 2: accusing Ollinor as there didn’t seem to be any other cuplrits hinted in the story which didn’t help) with the following initial stats:

Might - 5
Move - 5
Mind - 6
Mien - 5
Animation - 7 (6 for Mind + 1)
Destruction - 9 (6 for Mind + 3 for Major)
Conjuration - 7 (6 for Mind + 1)
Phantasm - 7 (6 for Mind + 1)
Enchantment - 8 (6 for Mind + 2 for Minor)

A Knight's Trial (Kieran Coghlan)

DESIGN - 6.5 > * Revised to 7 *
MY OVERALL SCORE: 71%(13th place) > * Revised to 72% *

Sorry Kieran. I really wanted to like this but… I really didn’t like the design in particular. Okay to back up a bit, and put this into context, I’m really not a fan of the "Livingstone-esque" design of “the one true path”. I think of all gamebooks like a role-playing game (the “original” pencil-and-paper role-playing games that is, not the way in which that term is bandied about now) where the author is the Games Master and you’re the sole player. Anything such as “instadeath” outcomes, “railroading” of events/story or insistence that there’s only “one true way” to succeed, diminish the experience for me. (And when writing gamebooks myself, my inner compass is guided by imagining what my more picky players would do if I tried to pull any of these stunts in an adventure I GMed to them: if they’re liable to throw the dice in outrage and refuse to play the adventure any further, then that’s a bad thing).

And so it is that I find A Knight’s Trial fails at this same test. Even after repeat play-throughs (six in all) where I’d learned when to duck rather than attack, to go left rather than right, etc, I STILL kept dying. The giant centipede combat on section 5 was one example of a fight that you couldn’t avoid and yet requires a good deal of luck to get past with enough Life Points left to have much chance of surviving past subsequent fights that typically just get harder. I actually gave up in frustration, which also made it hard for me appreciate the other elements of this work: though I did cheat to the end just to see what happens. * EDIT: It's worth adding I think that Kieran has since commented below that "The (admittedly limited) playtesting I did showed someone with a Combat (Skill) of 5 more likely to win than lose if they do all the right things." - even if I'm not convinced that that is actually the case (but in the absence of number-crunching to figure this out, I guess I should take his word for it).*

* SECOND UPDATE TO THE ABOVE POINT Well Kieran has crunched the numbers now (see comments below), and based on this I agree that he has indeed vindicated his claim that "someone with a Combat (Skill) of 5 more likely to win than lose if they do all the right things" (well on 2/3 occasions anyway and with the right items). It's still tough, but not "unfairly" so (and part of the appeal of gamebook such as this is that they're challenging). I probably docked 0.5 in Design for my score on this, so I'll rectify that now :) *

The story itself I found to be engaging and had good mood and characterisation, but seemed to lack world detail or significant sense of plot to me (until the very end kind of: which I liked but found a bit underwhelming and lacked explanation). * EDIT: But to qualify that a little in light of Kieran's comments, I must admit that in the course of replaying this multiple times and just trying to get past some of the battles, I largely missed the subtle hints Kieran was introducing, and due to skimming through to the ending, missed noticing that they became more overt towards the conclusion. * The writing is solid but I found it contained occasional typos, clumsy expressions or confused action. This work also seems to me to “recycle” some of the ideas from Revenant Rising, such as books flying off shelves in a library, traps where emotions take over you in rooms, taunting voices, even an amulet hanging over a hole. (I also feel compelled to add, just to put this on the record, that I’d argue I probably know more about Revenant Rising than anyone else save Kieran himself: since I not only edited it and rebalanced it, but I wrote or rewrote a substantial number of passages in that too -you’d be surprised perhaps to learn how many, but that’s a big tangent haha.) * EDIT: On these points about similarities to Revenant Rising, Kieran has since commented below that "the voices and emotional changes have a very different source and purpose than in that book so I'm going to excuse myself for those" but otherwise was in agreement about the library book attack and the amulet hanging over a hole scenes *

So yeah, I guess I’m harsh on this as I thought that Kieran could have done so much better (but take heart Kieran it’s just my opinion on this particular work, and I note that others have already endorsed your entry with their vote!) The design seemed unbalanced to me, and lacked useful items, healing and fairness in some cases. The rules were simple and clear, but the directions / choices given sometimes seemed to lack detail or were inconsistent. That I found the design frustrating (requiring max stats, "the one true path" and a lot of luck to succeed) hurt playability for me.

* EDIT: Just to qualify the above comments a little, Kieran has since pointed out (see comments below) that whilst he was trying to incorporate the elements of "a Livingstonian dungeon adventure", particularly with regards to adopting the "one true path" design, that "there is actually a bit more freedom than that - it doesn't matter if you go left or right at the start for instance". *

And since this was one of the first entries I read (I read the ones I thought would be the strongest first in case I didn’t get through them all), I actually compiled a good deal more notes I haven’t shared (more than any other entry I think), so I’ll list some of the other “important nit-picks” here:

…I actually wrote a few more comments (which I’m happy to send you Kieran if you want), but I think I’ve done enough “nit-picking” on this. Besides I’ve spared everyone else the same level of scrutiny I think, so I should give Kieran a break since he did do a good job in many respects and besides many people like the "Livingstone-esque" paradigm (I guess it gives you a sense of satisfaction if and when you finally do conquer it, and this I suspect would be no exception).

AETHER (Paul Struth)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 73% (12th place)

This was actually really good I thought, but the ending ruined the experience for me, and caused me to downgrade my ratings… I’ll get to that in a moment.

For want of a better place to put it, I played with the following starting Skill levels:

Premonition - 2
Direction - 2
Finding - 3
Reading - 4
Blessing - 3

The design is an effective one that mitigates "bad luck" somewhat and has some interesting section mechanics. It also features a very interesting story with good writing that is clearly explained… until the ending.

I got to the ending (or close to actually) on my third attempt, but what I consider to be a “broken ending” that I discovered there left a bad impression and I didn’t play a fourth time. Basically there’s a plot device at the end revolving around spiked punch (and whether you had or hadn’t drunk it). Trouble is, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, before being told that you fail because you drank the spiked punch, there’s actually only one section, Section 93, that even mentions the punch. I didn’t go through Section 93 on my play-through, and nor did I have the code letters W or P (that would have saved me from the punch), and yet I could not proceed because the narrative suddenly told me that I was dead from drinking punch earlier that was only just mentioned at the point I died… I was like “Whaaat?”

I felt this was all a huge shame considering this “fatal error” could have been detected through better playtesting and were it not for this, it would not only be a highly playable gamebook, but one of the best entries in the competition… Oh well Paul, I really look forward to what you’ll come up with next year: providing you avoid such a pitfall next time, I’m sure it will not only be awesome but could quite possibly win :)


Okay now I’ve reached the halfway point, I’m going to pause here and cover the 11 entries I put into my top half next time… I’ve spent longer doing this than I intended (partly out of wanting to do justice to the entries and explain myself) and need to get onto some other things…

As I stated at the start of this post, I think it’s always important to consider that all opinions are subjective, and the personal motivations and preferences of the person making an assessment. And my opinions are certainly no exception to this! (So please, take everything I say with a “good dose of salt” as they say).

Lastly, and I’ll probably say this again at the end of my second post on the Windhammer entries, please let me know if I’ve said anything you consider erroneous/inaccurate and I’ll amend accordingly (being human, I’m quite fallible after all). And of course, I welcome any comments/thoughts on the above!

To be continued (quite likely after the winners are announced, but oh well)…

Click here for Part 2