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2013 Windhammer Prize reviews - Part 2: Flawed Gems

Windhammer Prize

Well I’m back again with part two of my reviews of the annual worldwide Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook FictionThis part covers the entries that (I considered) had aspects of greatness but also significant weaknesses (10th to 6th place on my list). Part one is here and covers (my rating system and) the entries I judged the weakest entries and part three (those I considered this year’s best) is coming in the next few days…

-I’ll also note that considering I scored 69% for Kieren Coghlan’s entry and today’s list starts at 70%, that entry should probably be grouped with these. But I liked the breakdown of 14th-11th, 10th-6th and 5th-1st… So there ;) Oh and if you suspect that I had difficulty in splitting this batch into a given ranking, you’d be right!

 

The Lindenbaum Memory Palace (Stuart Lloyd)

DESIGN – 7.5

STORY – 4.5

WRITING – 6.5

CLARITY - 9

PLAYABILITY – 7.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 70% (10th place)

 

What I liked: Educational aspect. Potential for the Memory Palace idea to be incorporated into a future work or "sub-genre of gamebooks".

What I didn’t like: Wasn't particularly fun or interesting (except if I was setting out to learn the basics of photosynthesis, as opposed to playing a gamebook).

 

Okay this is blatant speculation and quite possibly I’m way off the mark here, but here’s my theory on how this entry came about:

Stuart Lloyd had a problem. He loved writing an entry for the Windhammer competition each year (and seeing what others thought about his ideas etc), but he simply didn’t have the time to do a proper entry this year… He also had to write an exam on photosynthesis for his Science class at Abbot’s High School. Then he had a brainwave: why not combine the two tasks and “kill two birds with one stone”? Brilliant!

Well, in the mind of this reader at least, not quite. It certainly would have made the photosynthesis exam more entertaining for those who had to sit it, but for the “gamebook audience” it struck me as having little value unless you happen to have wanted to learn the basics (the very basics) of photosynthesis, or wanted a quick primer as to what a “Memory Palace” was…

There is a good idea for something here, I’m just not convinced (yet) that that something is a gamebook. But maybe there’s scope to expand on the Memory Palace concept into a “sub-genre of gamebooks”. Even so, a paper-based version has its limitations (which a hyperlinked PDF would get around), but putting the links at the end of the document simply meant that they were unlikely to be referenced (and I suspect they were unlikely to be referenced anyway, unless you really wanted to learn more about the topic as opposed to enjoying a gamebook). But given that the Windhammer rules prevent hyperlinked documents, this isn’t something I can score Stuart down for (it’s a shame entries can’t be hyperlinked, as that would make reading them a lot easier!)

There’s no real story here beyond "you have an exam, and a dream about the exam, now here's some questions for you to answer and characters/situations to help you remember them by." You start in a room that’s just a hub by which you access a list of other rooms in any order you choose until you decide you’ve had your fill of the experience (and presumably move onto another gamebook). Your main guide throughout this is a dwarf, for no apparent reason other than the author likes dwarfs (okay “dwarves” according to the spelling Tolkein invented that seems to have become the norm now). And you collect coloured gems for each question successfully answered, again for no apparent reason other than the author liked gems (and is reminiscent about the gem collecting in Deathtrap Dungeon as he mentions in his Youtube explanation of his entry here, which at least was part of the story in that gamebook). The writing is adequate for its educational aspect, but seemed to lack imagination for the most part and could have benefited from a more thorough edit with numerous minor typos like missing or wrong words and punctuation.

The minimal amount of rules to contend with here is clearly presented, as are the scientific explanations given and the way in which the questions were posed, with one exception: the question “Where will this sapling get the materials to one day become this mighty tree?” I thought could have been more clearly put as “Where will this sapling get most of its mass to one day become this mighty tree?” –The sapling of course gets “materials” from all three sources given as options, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I was being asked about where most of the mass came from, as opposed to which source provided the highest number of different materials say. (I failed that question and would have complained that the question wasn’t clear if I’d lost marks because of it haha).

Also, the super-nerd in me just has to point out that the process of photosynthesis (or what is a form of photosynthesis otherwise known as the “Calvin cycle”) as described here is a dramatic simplification. Some eighteen years ago, I studied biochemistry at university, and although I don’t recall most of the specific details now, photosynthesis is a much much more complicated process than the impression conveyed here. Have a look here and you’ll see what I mean (where it even mentions that “Hexose (six-carbon) sugars are not a product of the Calvin cycle. Although many texts list a product of photosynthesis as C6H12O6, this is mainly a convenience to counter the equation of respiration, where six-carbon sugars are oxidized in mitochondria.”). -I get that for the purposes of a “gamebook”, readers needed to be spared all that detail, but still, I do think that the interests of educating people about science are not best served by pretending that things are simpler than what they are (it’s part of the problem I think with the disconnect between people and climate scientists for instance, where people can be mistakenly led to believe that it can be understood in simple “lay man’s terms”; shit we still don’t even understand gravity properly, but I digress).

Overall, I think that The Lindenbaum Memory Palace is a novel attempt at turning an exam on the basics of photosynthesis into a gamebook, and one that is quite playable for what it is. Stuart is to be applauded for trying something different here, and fortunately it is quite brief (to minimise boredom and repetition of concepts), but ultimately I think this is more suited as a class-exercise for high school biology students than it is suited as a gamebook to entertain readers.

As Stuart corrected me following my last post, he and Kieran are the only two who’ve entered the Windhammer Prize in all six years that it has run, so that alone is a commendable feat, and I look forward to what they’ll come up with next year.

 

 

 

 

Tipping Point (Andy Moonowl)

DESIGN - 6

STORY - 6

WRITING - 8

CLARITY - 9

PLAYABILITY – 6.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 71% (9th place)

·         Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards

 

What I liked: Writing is powerful and well-delivered and the rules are clearly presented. 

What I didn’t like: System is marred by unbalanced combat and unnecessarily complicated by a lot of different dice rolls. Absence of substantial story and motivation for your character and some outcomes are railroaded.

 

So it looks like here is the start of my digression from what was collectively judged the best entries, considering this entry was judged in the top six (5th if the order given means anything) and yet I only ranked it 9th.

Andy Moonowl (who it seems is also known as Andy Robinson) provides us here with a simple but “rpg-like” character and rules system, that even provides rules for mass battles (which is cool though sadly I didn’t get far enough to try that aspect out). The story begins with a powerful and compelling intro that is very well articulated and delivered, and lets us explore a world in an almost open fashion…

That’s about where the wheels begin to fall off this gamebook cart, although as far as I could tell, the writing remains solid throughout. But I’ll elaborate now on its faults (and spend more time on this than its strengths, as the faults for me were sufficient to prevent me playing this more than once after fairly quickly finding my death)…

Firstly the system is unnecessarily complicated by A LOT of dice rolls, and not only that but different kinds of dice (D4s, D6s, D8s, D10s, D12s and D20s). For example, one of the two battles I had required me to roll four D4s, two D6s and one D8, and compare each of them separately against my armour each round – and that’s just the enemy rolls. Having to spend 10 minutes rolling 30-50 different dice and tally each one just to resolve a combat is not something that I think any rpg system should aspire to, let alone a gamebook system which should aim to be even simpler. Yes all those different shaped dice do look cool (especially when you have a whole stack of them in different colours), but aside from the usefulness of two ten-sded dice that can be used as percentile rolls and maybe D20s (the D20 system had its merits I think), I consider that most of these funny shaped dice are really just an unnecessary “gimmick” started by TSR (I think it was) when they called them “dragon dice”. You see for all those different dice, they don’t actually add anything significant that you couldn’t otherwise achieve with multiples of D6 and/or modifiers to D6s. For instance instead of a D4, you can just have D6-1, instead of D8, you can just have D6+1, etc, or for a larger spread of values you could have say 4D6-4 to get the same range as a D20 etc (though in such an event you’d probably just simplify 4D6-4 to 4D6, or even just 2D6 if possible and re-calibrate the scale). Even then, I think you still want to reduce the dice rolls further: for instance when fighting seven opponents, you don’t want to have to roll for each one of them, you just fight them as a collective opponent. All of these things that would have simplified combat have been disregarded here (is it really that important to have a bunch of identical opponents that you fight at the same time with different hit point values and damage dices? I doubt it).

Then there’s the issue of combat balance which I found to be lacking here. Having barely survived my first fight (which I note simply occurred because I decided to find a marketplace first before setting off for adventure), I was railroaded into a second fight without any chance to avoid it and promptly got slaughtered. This was enough to put me off trying again…

There may well be a substantial story here, but I didn’t see much evidence of it. My brave warrior arrived in the Caer Linnaroth with no real idea of what he was there for or even who he was. I agreed to become a tax collector as it seemed that was what I was supposed to do for the story, and then having helped myself to some of the King’s treasure (I needed it more than the King did, besides the King expected me to risk my mercenary life for free, so screw him!) I then figured I’d head straight for a marketplace to get some decent equipment before I got slaughtered. The guards at Lennua Market didn’t like the sight of the tax collector’s outfit the King insisted I wear, so I tried to go in as a normal traveller instead, at which point they attacked me. I barely survived but was forced to return the way I came anyway, whereupon I was promptly killed on the next section by an apparently “random” encounter.

So yeah, such railroading of outcomes and unbalanced combats put me off playing this one again… But apparently a lot of people enjoyed this so maybe I was just quite unlucky with these choices. However I think this experience does reinforce the idea that a “good gamebook” needs to be fair and balanced for all possible paths: it only takes one bad experience along a given path for a player to dismiss the whole thing and not bother trying again (regardless of how fair and balanced the other paths may in fact be).

 

Any Port in a Storm (Robert Douglas)

DESIGN - 7

STORY – 8.5

WRITING – 6.5

CLARITY – 6.5

PLAYABILITY – 7.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 72% (8th place)

 

What I liked: Compelling epic story, with excellent characterisation and humanisation of the "baddies".

What I didn’t like: Numerous logic errors that can occur in the narrative. Writing suffers from frequent errors, including missing/added words, incorrect tense use and punctuation.

 

Were it not for the writing and logic errors, I think this entry could have been one of the best in the competition, and even without that, considering the awesome epic story here, I’m a little surprised that it didn’t get a Commendation Award anyway. Comparing this entry with the one Robert Douglas submitted for last year’s Windhammer, Nye’s Song, I only gave this one 3% more overall, but if anything I think it’s a more substantial improvement (owing largely to being more playable in my judgement). And as an aside I also recall that I did assure Robert that I’d provide more detailed feedback on what I perceived were the writing flaws with Nye’s Song but never did. My apologies Robert! But in consolation, I have made some fairly detailed edit notes this time around in anticipation that you might want them, so just let me know if so J

Design-wise, this was an interesting and effective entry, and I was quite surprised at just how long/epic the story is here (I got to the second last section on my first attempt, whereupon I cheated just to see the “ultimate ending”). Combat is nicely handled (with some issues around clarity mentioned below) using a “Lone Wolf style” matrix. The narrative did seem a bit “railroaded” at times, but within the constraints of the Windhammer competition this is probably forgivable as there’s a lot of story to get through here: there was a few occasions where I thought I’d almost reached the end, only to find it kept going!

There are some significant logic errors though that caused me to deduct points from design rather than story. In particular there is the plot device where you get five words (each from a different place) which you are required to assemble into a sentence to figure out where to turn to. This is fine except that you don’t need all five words to figure out the section you need to turn to (you only need a minimum of three of these words), which in turn is also fine except that the section you turn to then assumes you obtained all five words. This creates the potential for some strange story outcomes, for instance in my case I had four of the five words and yet on the section I’d turned to, I was having conversations with five different characters that I’d saved / were allies: only four of which I’d actually met previously (and stranger still, the narration described the fifth character I’d never met or saved, actually saving me: whoops). But there are a number of other logic errors too, for instance having the narration use a character’s full name when you’d only learnt their last name, sudden references to practices or the names of things that you hadn’t learnt yet, and a reference to having to find/save someone that you had (possibly) already found and conceded you couldn't save. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of design / story packed into this entry, so for the most part you can just choose to ignore the anomalies.

There’s also some issues with clarity of the rules and their application. The key for the combat matrix has “SD” rather than “ID” for instant death, and the example given is wrong. There’s a few places where the narrative asks whether you have a pistol or not, but there's only a mention of a "pistol" (other than a “flare pistol” which is an altogether different item) on Section 65, where it doesn't state that you pick it up – so I assumed I did. And there’s at least one case on Section 31 where the narration doesn’t clarify what happens if you neither roll over a given number nor under it. Lastly, the mention of Strength loss (and modifiers like this) in the text could be made to stand out more, e.g. by making them bold or something.

Story-wise, this entry was awesome. I really liked the way the story progressed (and continued on for so long), with some excellent characterisation, moments of graphic horror and sophisticated humanisation of the *cough* “baddies” *cough* (I originally used a more specific noun in place of “baddies”, but that’d be a bit too much of a spoiler I think). I did personally find the attempts at humour a bit “hit and miss” (particular in regards of the pointers to comments being in sarcasm), but that could just be my personal preferences more than anything else. There’s also a lot of different characters here, which in addition to the phonetic way their speech is presented, sometimes makes the story a little hard to follow. Also, from a certain point of view I guess some of the story borders on being a little ridiculous, but I take it that’s part of the point. It all comes to a satisfying conclusion anyway and is challenging without being impossibly hard.

And lastly, the area I think needing the most improvement in this entry, is the quality of the writing (and fortunately I think if anything this is the easiest area to address). To me it looks as if the only edit done was a straight spell-check, which isn’t going to detect missing / wrong words or incorrect punctuation that occurs quite frequently throughout this. There’s also a lot of “telling” rather than “showing”, which is generally a no-no in story-telling unless the protagonist has the ability to read others’ minds (which they certainly don’t in the case of this story). But despite all the flaws, I think that this entry is a ripping yarn that is well worth your time (and I enjoyed it more than any of the other entries I dubbed the “flawed gems”).

 

Dirty Instruments (Sahil Asthana)

DESIGN - 6

STORY – 8

WRITING - 8

CLARITY – 7.5

PLAYABILITY – 7

MY OVERALL SCORE: 73% (7th place)

 

What I liked: Fleshed out, complex world. Solid, efficient writing.

What I didn’t like: Flawed combat system, random rolls determining crucial choices or outcomes, and loops where the player can be stuck in a series of identical fights. Supposed dark "adult" content also seemed quite tame.

 

This entry has the disclaimer: “Warning: This adventure includes explicit violence, coarse language, and adult situations which will not be suitable for all readers.” which filled me with (what turned out to be false) hope that this was going to be a dark gamebook with “adult” content. Unfortunately I was left quite disappointed and wish that there hadn’t been such a disclaimer to build up such expectations as it’s probably not necessary and in my judgement at least, an exaggeration of the content here. The violence in Robert Douglas’ Any Port in a Storm entry was more explicit, and especially so in Nicholas Stillman’s Gunlaw entry which also contains far more “adult” content than this does. The only genuine moment of “adult content” I found was one scene where you save a ten year old child from prostitution (which mercifully in this case isn’t anything explicit and could probably be read and understood by a teenage reader I think, without issue). The coarse language was also censored in Dirty Instruments – it was somewhat ridiculous to read “fuck” replaced everywhere by “fruck” (and I hope this wasn’t censorship on behalf of the competition organiser). Even Kieran used the word “mindfuck” in his Windhammer entry without batting an eyelid. I’ve read Young Adult fiction that’s got more “adult” content than this. Which of course is fine, assuming the author wasn’t trying to warn people about its content: it’s a bit like trying to tell someone who’s a fan of movies like The Exorcist and Hellraiser that they better not watch the latest Harry Potter movie or something, because it’s too scary. I should also add that I had in mind doing a Windhammer entry based on my horror novel “The Dark Horde”, which if you’ve read that you would know what I mean when I say that that would have definitely have been something with “adult content”, so now this just gives me more motivation to do that next year (and hope that it doesn’t get banned from the competition as a result haha).

Anyway, gripes about the lack of “adult content” aside, what we have here is a well-fleshed out world with solid, efficient writing that I personally thought occasionally lacked a little description and only contained two typos that I could find after reading through to the end and exploring all I could (and with A LOT of cheating to avoid broken loops as I’ll get to below). The rules are well introduced in the context of the story (i.e. you get story and make choices first and then the rules as they become relevant rather than the other way around, which is a great hook). But what lets this whole gamebook down though is the design, which was quite bad in some ways, but given the story and writing were so solid, I cheated to get past them anyway (rules, what rules!?)

For starters, the D6 combat system here is quite flawed. Combats quickly become almost pointless for being impossible to lose (and conversely, impossible to win if you start out with low combat stats). –Mind you, I think this same criticism applies to the Fighting Fantasy system (as I’ve stated before), but millions of readers have been able to overlook this (by taking SKILL 12 as the rule), so this is something that one can overlook…

The biggest sin in the design here though (IMHO) is numerous cases where random rolls determine your choices and outcomes: some of which you need to make in order to complete missions and without any actual player choice involved. The worst of these I think is the one that almost caused me to give up on this entry (I’m glad I didn’t as there is a great story and writing here). I reached a kinda “inevitable” situation early on in the gamebook where I was playing my assassin as, well, someone just doing their job, that consequently got me stuck in a ridiculous recurring loop of repeated combats I couldn’t avoid. Basically what happened (trying to avoid spoilers) is that I was being paid to go kill someone, so when I found him, I simply did what I was being paid to do (as any good professional assassin would right?). This and the character I’d chosen (the first one listed who seemed to have the best combat stats) meant that I was now a very Wanted man. A bit more happens and then you get onto your second mission (which takes up most of the gamebook) and this is where the design is unforgivably flawed. You get to a point on Section 54, where you have a choice of six sectors to travel to. Four of six of these sectors will guarantee that you get into a fight with the authorities that recognise you (due to your Wanted stat) unless you have a particular item that you cannot possibly have gotten yet. It gets worse: once you finish the fight, you are then directed to a random sector, even if it’s the same sector you were just in (why it is random makes no sense to me, especially given the damning effects this has). If you randomly rolled any 4 of the 6 sectors where this event triggers, you have to do the fight all over again and then roll for another sector and hope you roll lucky this time. The first time this happened, I had five consecutive (and identical) combats before finally escaping to one of the two safe sectors… I didn’t find the item I needed there and then had the fight with the authorities happen twelve consecutive times (I just cheated to skip these combats as it was becoming quite ridiculous by this point) and finally figured out how and where to get the item I needed to avoid this broken loop again. Hopefully you can appreciate why I call this an “unforgivable” flaw in the design (which is a shame as otherwise this was a mostly excellent entry).

My only other gripe was that there was also a lack of clarification about whether you can have item-modified scores above 10 (I assumed yes, otherwise these items do nothing if your stat is already 10 as some of mine were). All in all though, this was a solid entry with what would otherwise be very good playability that is hampered by over-reliance on random rolls and badly designed (and frustrating) loops. At times it reminded me of Zachary Carango’s Final Payment from last year’s Windhammer entries (which I considered amazingly good and gave an overall score of 88%), so if you liked that you ought to enjoy this one too. Just be sure to visit sector E first!

 

The Scarlet Thief (Ramsay Duff)

DESIGN - 7

STORY – 8

WRITING – 7.5

CLARITY – 7.5

PLAYABILITY – 7

MY OVERALL SCORE: 74% (6th place)

·         Winner of one of the two runner-up Merit Awards

 

What I liked: Great story that is very detailed with a well thought out world.

What I didn’t like: Walls of text and information overload make for a dense and difficult read.

 

I have to admit, this review will be short as I only skimmed the surface of this one and didn’t get anywhere close to finishing it. It’s not that it isn’t good; it certainly is (of course I can say that now, since I know it won one of the Merit Awards!), it’s just that the way it was written made it difficult for me to get into it, and ultimately I gave up and moved on to something else (with apologies to the author for saying that).

It’s probably a matter of taste, but to me this entry is a fine demonstration of exactly how not to start a gamebook, or any story for that matter. The first paragraph is packed with information (descriptions and names of things) and it doesn’t get any easier from there. It’s followed by a newspaper article to cover stuff relating to the story (which does strike me as a “lazy” way to divulge story but anyway), and then another dense paragraph of mental musings to cover further events (again this struck me as a “lazy” way to divulge story), and then another radio announcement to cover further story. If you get this far then there’s quite a good punch as the story (and how it relates to you) actually kicks in…

I was reminded of DMing Dungeons and Dragons modules “back in the day” which apparently thought a bunch of players would be happy to sit through (and take in) pages of “boxed text” before they got to do anything. Sorry Ramsay, I think you lost me somewhere on the first page and it was only at the end of all fourteen entries that I came back to this to try and persevere and still couldn’t L

The rules are briefly (but clearly I think) explained at the end of the intro and the design seemed fine (from what little I evaluated) and then you’re hit with yet more long sections of exposition and “railroaded” action where you just read what happens and occasionally get to make a choice. It is an interesting story and detailed world, but ultimately this seemed to me to be more novel than gamebook. (There’s perhaps an irony, even hypocrisy, in such a statement since I am aware that some have said exactly the same thing of my gamebook “Infinite Universe", but I don’t believe I went to this extent, though of course you may disagree! Anyway it does reinforce in my mind that such an approach has its drawbacks).

Anyway, obviously a lot of people enjoyed and got into this more than I did… Maybe some day (when I have an abundance time: i.e. probably never) I’ll come back to this to give it another try as I can certainly see that it’s written to a high standard with a lot of effort put into the world. But sadly for now, I’ll just have to leave it there…

 

My next post will cover the five entries (four of which won awards) that I considered “The Cream” of the competition. Until then, hope you've enjoyed my reviews to date!

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Recent Comments
Brewin
Thank you for your comments Nicholas! You make an excellent point in regards to the disclaimer for the Dirty Instruments entry tha... Read More
Sunday, 17 November 2013 04:58
Brewin
Hi Sahil! Yes as Nicholas pointed out, the disclaimer may have been at Wayne's direction, and now that you've commented it sounds ... Read More
Friday, 22 November 2013 06:14
Brewin
Forgot to reply to this one... Sorry if you feel I was unfair in my review Andy, but I stand by everything I said above (which is ... Read More
Sunday, 16 February 2014 06:12
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2013 Windhammer Prize reviews - Part 1: The Could-Have-Beens

Windhammer Prize

Once again the annual worldwide Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction has concluded and winners have been announced. Now in its sixth year, the standard of competition and the level of interest generated is a credit to Wayne Densley for making this all happen, Wayne having this to say on it:

In the six weeks of the voting period the number of visitors attending the competition webpage more than doubled over last year, with a commensurate increase in downloads and voting numbers.

The breadth of diversity in the each year’s Windhammer Prize entries is a wonderful opportunity to look at what others are doing in the gamebook genre, their ideas and design innovations, and to (subjectively) assess what worked and what didn’t. I consider that putting together a (fairly) detailed set of reviews with scores as I present here serves a few purposes. One is to inform others that may or may not have yet read the entries, and present an opinion on their merits (with some slight spoilers I guess but with an effort to avoid that). Two is to assist the writers of the works themselves, by highlighting what I thought were its strengths and weaknesses. And three is to better my own works in this genre, by getting a better understanding of what I liked about others’ works and what I didn’t. Ultimately I think the more we can analyse and critique gamebook works, the more we can all get better at it, which has to be a good thing right?

The winning three entries were announced a couple of days ago (I’ll get to that in due course) and can expect to be seen in a Tin Man Games app sometime soon… Huge congratulations is owed to the winners for this and the three Commendation Award winners too (I’ll name them as I come to their corresponding reviews) and honestly, everyone who put the time into designing and writing a gamebook for this year’s Windhammer Prize deserves congratulations too. You are all to be praised and respected for submitting yourself to public scrutiny and are furthering the cause of creating better gamebooks that build on lessons learnt (well mostly!) and continue to “raise the bar”. Well done!

So once again I have reviewed and scored all the entries, and shall present them in ascending order from what I judged the worst to the best of the crop. I’ve used the same scoring system as I used last year which I’ll reiterate in a moment, but first I want to restate that these reviews and scores are merely the subjective assessment of one individual (like any review/judgement is), and so should be read with that in mind. It’s perhaps stating the bleeding obvious to say that, but I am conscious of how discouraging it can be to have something posted on the internet to the effect that “your work is poor” and certainly don’t wish to discourage anyone (even though I believe I did unfortunately in at least one instance following my reviews from last year). I mainly want to inform, to help others get better at what they do, and get better in the process myself J

Lastly, just consider what score I got in this year’s Windhammer Prize: 0%... I didn’t submit anything so that means that every one of the fourteen entries did a lot better than I did! But hopefully I won’t be making the same concession next year ;)

 

And now, here’s the explanation of my rating system from last year:

In order to rate and rank the Windhammer entries, I came up with my own rating system, 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 play-throughs of the gamebook?

 

For sake of comparison, my ratings of the 2012 Windhammer entries ranged from 43% to 90% with an average of 72% and these 2013 Windhammer entries I’ve rated from 46% to 90% with an average of 72% (so roughly the same sort of spread). I might also add that I’ve made a start of assessing the Fighting Fantasy series in much the same way, with a range of 72% to 85% for the titles I’ve rated so far, averaging 78% (not sure if I should share these views though). But it says something about the quality of the Windhammer entries I think, that a number of them I rated higher than even the classic FF title Deathtrap Dungeon which I gave a score of 85%...

So now without further preamble (think I’ve done plenty of that already), I present my reviews. I’ve broken these into three parts, today’s Part One I’ve called “The Could-Have-Beens” those being those which I consider need a lot of work to be “good” (14th to 11th place on my list). Part Two I’ve called “Flawed Gems” with aspects of greatness but significant weaknesses (10th to 6th place on my list). And finally Part Three I’ve called “The Cream” those being the ones I judged the best (5th to 1st place on my list). In all entries I’ve tried to identify what I liked and didn’t like about it. Parts Two and Three will be posted on the blog here over the next few days…

 

The Thing That Crawls (Matthew Webber)

DESIGN - 5

STORY – 4.5

WRITING – 6.5

CLARITY - 4

PLAYABILITY - 3

MY OVERALL SCORE: 46% (14th place)

 

What I liked: System has some innovations of merit. Generally the writing quality is fine and is the strongest element in this work.

What I didn’t like: An overly complicated system irreparably undermined by unavoidable and unbalanced battles and Section numbers that are erroneous or missing. Story and characterisation is mostly absent, the setting non-descript and the conclusion (having cheated to find it) is brief and unsatisfying. Difficulty of play is compounded by the lack of a character sheet, reference tables that are difficult to interpret, and rules not clearly explained.

 

This entry marks the first time I’ve ever given a score as low as 3 for any entry in any of my five categories. I guess I try to find something good in everything and I’m not sure what it will take for me to score something less than 3, but me giving this entry a Playability of only 3 is about as bad as it can realistically get on my scale. Sadly, it is hard to see how this entry is playable to anyone, and I suspect that it didn’t undergo any sort of testing or revision…

What breaks the experience of this gamebook so badly, rendering it unplayable, is not only that the complicated system is poorly explained and cumbersome, but it is badly balanced against the player making it near impossible to survive without A LOT of luck (at least early on). To make matters worse, references to Section numbers are erroneous or missing, so you can’t even cheat your way through this. The starting section for instance has you fight a creature far more powerful than you (and it’s just a “wandering monster”) or if you’re lucky enough you can go to another Section to avoid the fight, except you can’t as you don’t know what Section that is (the one it directs you to is the wrong one)…

Even getting to Section 1 is an ordeal as you have to (try to) get your head around a complex system that is poorly explained. There is no character sheet to help you figure out what you need to record and even the reference table provided for the resolution of combat is difficult to interpret (and I’m still not sure if I interpreted it correctly). The “paper-scissors-rock” implementation of the combat system, where you match various stats against your opponents in a chosen order to determine who wins each round, has some merit but is overshadowed by complexity, and a lack of clarity and balance.

I find that not only does this entry “fail” on the game side of things, it “fails” on the book side as well. There is virtually no story, no character background, no characterisation and the setting is quite non-descript (do you want to go East or West? Such choices!) I cheated to find the ending just to see if it actually had much of a plot and found that the conclusion was brief, unsatisfying and to me, seemed quite pointless.

The one redeeming element of this work is that the quality of the writing itself is fine, albeit with the occasional typo, but struck me as uninspired for the most part.

 

 

Redundant! (Alessandro Viola)

DESIGN - 4

STORY - 4

WRITING - 5

CLARITY - 6

PLAYABILITY – 4.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 47% (13th place)

 

What I liked: The idea of managing Rage and Frustration levels has potential. Writing is quite punchy on occasion.

What I didn’t like: Everything seems to either be boring, frustrating, rage-inducing or potentially game-ending where most choices seem to boil down to simply guessing or rolling the right option and regardless of what you try to do, you seem to be constantly berated for trying to do anything. Story is sparse, with little apparent point (apart from reinforcing that everything sucks and you hate it all), with no endearing characters (including the one you play) or any depth to them. Writing is mostly mired in clumsy/awkward punctuation, and erroneous tense, verb use and sentence construction. Action and world details often not sufficiently clarified.

 

E-42, the name by which the character you play in this is known, is not a happy camper. His job sucks, his work colleagues suck, the world he’s in sucks, his parents suck… Basically everything sucks and he hates it all. Unfortunately that also sums up my sentiments about this entry.

This gamebook for me mainly presented a challenge for me of how long I could endure it for. Given a threadbare world and no motivation, you merely try to get through a day of work without either “leaving” (having your brain burn out by your Frustration stat getting to the same level as your Rage stat) or “snapping” (losing control of your body in rage by having your Rage stat get to twice your Frustration stat). Most choices you’re presented amount to either random rolls or blind choices, and on the occasions you actually can exercise some degree of choice, this malicious gamebook seems to only berate you for trying. Everything you do only seems to either increase your Rage or Frustration. Try to speak to someone? Nah they hate you so you can gain Rage. Try to help someone? Nah they don’t appreciate it so you gain Frustration. Get to a meeting late? Get ridiculed and gain Rage. Get to a meeting early? Gain Frustration as you interrupt a meeting already there and get ridiculed. Even simple tasks like taking a shower, trying to travel to your meeting, and actually being in a meeting, are all exercises in Rage, Frustration or both. And it didn’t make sense to me that you needed to keep increasing your Frustration to reduce the risk of having a Rage meltdown and vice versa for Frustration. This idea has potential, but not with this implementation (although it needs to be said that it was at least easy to follow the rules).

The time schedule worked reasonably well and was usually (but not always) clear, so at least that is manageable. It was unrealistic however, for instance you have one meeting scheduled at 00:27 and another a minute later in another room. Seriously, who has one minute meetings? Most meetings I’ve had drag on more than 35 minutes, which is the entire length of the time schedule given here.

What story there is seems to have little point other than to reinforce the point that everything sucks and you hate it all. There are no endearing characters in this work, including the one you play, and none of the characters seem to have any depth or personality really – they’re apparently just there to make your life more miserable.

The writing itself is occasionally quite punchy in its delivery, but mostly mired in clumsy/awkward punctuation, and erroneous tense, verb use and sentence construction. In addition, action and world details were often not sufficiently clarified.

So ultimately, while this gamebook was “playable” (unlike the entry I gave 14th place to), I found that it was an unenjoyable  experience. I was actually wanting my character to die so I could end playing this gamebook sooner than it did, but maybe this entry will present a worthwhile challenge for some?

 

 

Merchants of the Spice Islands (Chan Sing Goh)

DESIGN - 6

STORY – 5.5

WRITING - 6

CLARITY - 5

PLAYABILITY – 5.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 56% (12th place)

 

What I liked: Design shows promise. Some aspects of the setting demonstrate sound knowledge. Sentences are easy to read.

What I didn’t like: A lot of record keeping and cross checking, and railroading of choices at times. Story shows a lack of understanding of the setting, particularly in the case of 1790 Sydney which makes the whole premise of the story implausible. Writing lacks descriptive elements, characterisation and significant plot. Neither buying nor storage of cargo are adequately explained, which is a crucial flaw considering that this is the central aspect of this work.

 

From a design point of view, this entry shows some promise, casting you as a spice trader in command of a ship and crew as you travel across South East Asia collecting and selling spices, and having adventures and misadventures along the way. The text is clearly laid out, making for an easy read, but the rules are not clearly explained. This I found to be particularly damning in regards to the rules for buying and storing cargo; the central premise of this work. For instance when you have the opportunity to buy spices, you have a list of options like this:

Cargo             Quantity Available                  Price

Clove                           7                                  5 Silver

Nutmeg                        3                                  5 Silver

-So does this mean I can buy 7 lots of Clove for 35 Silver? Or is that 5 Silver?

Your ship has only fifteen cargo spots (seventeen if you’re playing a British trader) but the rules don’t explain how these are to be used either. E.g. if I purchased 7 lots of Clove above, does that fill one cargo spot? Or seven?

Aside from the rules being unclear, they’re also quite cumbersome as they require a lot of record keeping and cross-checking of tables. Considering the theme of this gamebook, the detailed record keeping is probably fine, but the placement of the rules and tables could be made more accessible. For example it mentions on page 2 about forming your landing party and what base crew stats are, but the crew you select are only listed three pages later and you have to jump between the pages to get all the details you need to record. And the current European buying prices for the spices you acquire (a table you need to constantly refer to, to figure out what to buy and sell) is inconveniently buried at the bottom of page 8.

The story too is very weak, lacking descriptive elements, characterisation and a plot of any significance. Choices are at times “railroaded” (for instance following a fight in which I lost 3 of my 4 landing crew, I would have liked to be able to go to a marketplace to get more crew members, but instead the narrative forced me onwards towards almost certain doom if I was to get into another fight).

The biggest failing story-wise though, is the premise of the gamebook which shows ignorance of the setting being described and is consequently quite implausible. The story has you start in Sydney, Australia in 1790 you see, where step out of the pub “The Iron Ale” where you then head to the docks to inspect a merchant vessel you’ve just purchased from an old Captain “wanting to retire in New South Wales.” Before setting sail, a man present at the docks gives you a list of the going rates for spices in Europe and advises you to apply for a Company Trading License here in Sydney…

Now all that may sound fine if you don’t know any Australian history. But even a small amount of research would establish that the premise of this story is implausible. You see in 1790, Sydney was only a two year old penal colony with a population of about 1000, about 800 of which were convicts. These wretched souls from the “First Fleet” struggled with a food crisis that only began to be alleviated with the arrival of the “Second Fleet” in mid 1790 (mostly more convicts and various officials to maintain law and order). Actual trade only began in 1791 and the first “free settlers” began arriving in 1792. (1788 is the year cited as the year in which the nation of Australia was formed; then just called “New South Wales”; but this of course ignores the fact that Aboriginal tribes had called this land home for at least 50,000 years before that and were systematically wiped out by the British colonisers through dispossession, disease and violence and reduced to a fraction of their original number within a few short years). –But this gamebook seems oblivious to any of those historical details, and describes events as if you were in an established city with a vibrant trade… Whoops. As far as I could tell though, the historical details of the South East Asia region at the time (outside of Australia), and the details of the nature of trade and rivalry between European seafaring nations at the time, is at least accurate, but I didn’t investigate too far on that to be sure…

As far as the writing itself went, it was okay and clear, but lacked description and characterisation, had some punctuation and sentence errors, and did a bit of “telling” over “showing”. Overall, despite some good historical knowledge of South East Asia and European trade rivalries and generally quite clear text (but not rules), I found this to be quite an arduous and boring gamebook and I didn't persevere with it.

 

 

The Experiment (Kieran Coghlan)

DESIGN - 7

STORY – 4.5

WRITING - 8

CLARITY - 9

PLAYABILITY – 6

MY OVERALL SCORE: 69% (11th place)

 

What I liked: An interesting "philosophical thought experiment" that is clearly presented with solid writing.

What I didn’t like: Too short, and your choices make no discernible difference in the outcome.

 

Here you play a character that has gone to see Dr. Mullan for “the experiment”, and during this experiment Dr. Mullan concedes that “I'm the authorial voice of someone who didn't leave himself enough time to do a proper entry for this year's Windhammer competition.”

At least you’re honest Kieran ;)

What we have here is less a “gamebook” than it is an exceedingly brief "philosophical thought experiment" on free will and choice with particular emphasis on gamebooks. For what it is, it’s actually fine, it’s just that it’s over in five or so minutes with no real need to read more than once, as regardless of what choices you make (including stat choice), the outcome is the same. Sorry that’s a spoiler I guess, but it does strike me that it is a significant flaw to have a “gamebook” about choice and free will where in this case, your choice actually doesn’t seem to matter. That this is the case, seems (to me) to somewhat undermine the points the author was trying to make about the existence or absence of free will. I could agree with many (most?) of the points raised, but some of the conclusions I thought were inaccurate generalisations, for instance the assertion that Strength is generally more important than Intellect in gamebooks, and the statement thatSince every choice has a cause, free will itself does not exist. Gamebooks offer alternative choices, but the choices made are the only choices that reader could ever have made.

But leaving philosophical objections aside (the philosophical debate on free will is quite intractable besides, although I would argue that the existence of quantum reality disproves “Laplace determinism” but that’s a big tangent), the writing itself is solid and well-edited without being anything special. There is no real system to speak of, but in this context I think that’s okay. However the absence of any real story doesn’t leave the reader with anything that they can immerse themselves in. I like the philosophical musings this work prompts, but I think the way in which this was done in Paul Struth’s “Out of Time” entry was far more effective and interesting.

Overall, I think of this as a good intermission between other gamebooks that will keep you entertained for a few minutes but little more… Kieran's entry was short and by his own admission rushed, but I think if I'm not mistaken, he's the only one who has entered the Windhammer Prize every year that it has run (quite possibly Stuart Lloyd has too, I'm not sure EDIT: Stuart has informed me that he has indeed entered the Windhammer Prize in every year that it has run), so he's doing a lot better on this front than the rest of us! (And in addition he has a number of other published gamebooks to his credit, including the excellent Revenant Rising which I helped to produce, so he's certainly got a good track record!)

 

 

So that’s my wrap of the “Could-Have-Beens”, those being the entries I judged the weakest entries (and of questionable playability). Things only get better from here, so stay tuned for Part Two of my reviews - the “Flawed Gems” - in the next day or two J

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Brewin
Thanks Kieran! Such a detailed and thoughtful reply deserves a detailed, or at least thoughtful, response... Which I can't do at p... Read More
Thursday, 14 November 2013 13:24
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The Way of the Tiger Kickstarter (Guest post by David Walters)

The Way of the Tiger gamebooks (original covers)

I have a special guest post for you today, from David Walters who is an author of both novels and gamebooks, and something of an “oriental expert” if I may call him such… He’s also written the prequel for an iconic gamebook series from the eighties, The Way of the Tiger, that was written by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson who were prolific gamebook authors “back in the day” and between them wrote many of the greatest gamebooks of all time (IMHO), including Duel Master series, the Falcon series, Talisman of Death and Sword of the Samurai for the Fighting Fantasy series, plus contributions to the Fabled Lands and Virtual Reality series among others… That’s seriously a lot of kudos!

 

Anyway David has enlisted my help to help promote the Kickstarter program currently underway to not only bring the The Way of the Tiger gamebooks back in full hardcover glory with all new colour art, but with the never-before-released seventh book to complete the series (and to address the cliffhanger that’s at the end of the sixth book), and with an all new prequel written by David Walters himself, who is quite a prolific and talented author in his own right (speaking from personal experience of having read some of his works!) –Not to forget, he’s also helping to write the seventh book too!

The hardcopy copies of these new The Way of the Tiger gamebooks are being produced by Megara Entertainment who also produced the Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories Deluxe Gamebook last year (which also happened to be one of the best-produced gamebooks I’ve ever seen: the presentation and artwork was exquisite and the writing and design by Paul Gresty was nothing short of superb!)

So without further preamble, I give you David Walters:

 

The challenges in writing a prequel to an already established series:

I’m David Walters, and I was tasked with writing the prequel story to the Way of the Tiger books, a series of six ninja gamebooks set on the world of Orb. I came across a few challenges as I undertook the task, the main ones of which I’ve explored below.

Avoiding future payoffs

When writing a prequel I had to take care to avoid ‘stealing the thunder’ of significant scenes coming up in later books. For example as book 2 Assassin! ends with a dramatic one-on-one fight with a ninja, the prequel had to avoid single combat against such a foe otherwise it would devalue the later fight. This rule applied whether the reader has read the original series already or not – the series should work as a continuous whole and thus unnecessary repetition and similarity should be avoided.

Original Author preferences

Fortunately I was dealt a pretty free hand when it came to plotting the prequel, but even so I had to be absolutely true to the direction of the original series creators. I gained some freedom setting the story on the Island of Plenty which had only been partially explored in the other books. It was an area I had worked extensively on for the Way of the Tiger Role-Playing game (with Mark Smith’s oversight) so I felt confident I could write a lot of detail in that was in alignment with his view of Orb.

An issue of scale

It was important to me that the prequel should be appropriate to the scale of the other books in the series i.e. it should not introduce the overly powerful adversaries or grandiose story arcs too early in the series. If there were problems with scale it may lead to a feeling of disinterest in later books. In the prequel the reader can learn about Avenger’s earlier missions, and how Avenger’s ninja skills were honed through experience.

Limiting Crossover

Although some readers may prefer a prequel to be fully cross-referenced by the existing series, it was clear to me that series should not require any rewrites to make the prequel ‘fit’. This also meant I should limit any rules changes affecting later books (such as not granting an improved punch modifier) so as not to change the pre-existing gameplay balance of the other books. It was also important to limit interactions with characters from later books so that they still worked as originally intended.

 

EDIT: David Walters continues Part 2 of this discussion on Stuart's "Lloyd of Gamebooks" blog and Part 3 on Scott Malthouse's Trollish Delver blog.

 

 

The Way of the Tiger Kickstarter is running until 1st November. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1615043334/the-way-of-the-tiger-gamebooks-new-collectors-edit?ref=live

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Brewin
Hi Richard! A pleasure to have helped promote a good cause! And as for the links, I like to provide background and references for... Read More
Wednesday, 02 October 2013 03:50
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Thoughts on the 2012 Windhammer Prize entries - Part 2

So I’m back again with my top 11 Windhammer Prize entries. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, I’d suggest reading that first as otherwise some of this may be out of context (in particular that this is just a single opinion which can be given more weight than is fair: especially considering not many have shared their thoughts on each entry yet) :)

Sigil-Beasts (Karalynn Lee)


DESIGN - 7

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Brewin
Thank you Stuart for your valuable comments on this, however I feel that perhaps you are a little too harsh on yourself (even thou... Read More
Sunday, 11 November 2012 01:21
Brewin
Take your point on this Stuart, but I'd still argue it seemed counter-intuitive (to me). -I reckon I could scoop up two amulets in... Read More
Sunday, 11 November 2012 01:29
Brewin
Thanks Karalynn! As I'd indicated above, you're obviously a very talented author, and I suspect that your next gamebook will be mu... Read More
Sunday, 11 November 2012 08:16
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Thoughts on the 2012 Windhammer Prize entries - Part 1

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!!

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Brewin
Ahhh I see now... Thanks for clarifying for me Torallion, I was totally mis-using the Epiphany12 code by following the instruction... Read More
Tuesday, 06 November 2012 06:34
Kieran
Thanks for the review of A Knight's Trial, Brewin! I must admit I wasn't greatly pleased with it myself and did briefly consider n... Read More
Saturday, 10 November 2012 17:30
Brewin
Really interesting to read your thoughts on this Kieran! I'm personally reassured by knowing that whatever you do, some will like/... Read More
Sunday, 11 November 2012 00:27
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The Book That Ignited my Love of Reading and Writing


There is a book that I credit as being the one, more than any other, that makes me the writer I am today, that opened my eyes to a whole world of fantasy, and what was at the time an entirely new genre. A book whose authors were my childhood idols, a book I must have read over twenty times. A book whose influence was so profound, that my first novel’s last third pays homage to its genre, and is actually featured in a chapter of my second novel (including extracts). A genre that I now work in to produce titles of my own and those of others, and where I have the amazing privilege and honour to be working for one of the original authors himself: a dream that my childhood self would simply have been unable to believe...

 

***

 

To read the rest of this post, and find out how you can enter to win up to $200 in Amazon GCs, 10 signed books, swag bags and more, check out Fiction Frolic, where 10 authors strive to raise 1,000 books for charity in 3 weeks, all in celebration of All Hallow's Read!

 

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