Published Gamebooks I've worked on:

Some writing communities I'm involved with:

2013 Windhammer Prize reviews - Part 3: The Cream

Windhammer Prize

 

So here at last we come to what I judged to be “the cream” of this year’s Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction. This part covers the entries that I ranked from 5th to 1st on my list. For my reviews of those I ranked 14th to 11th, see Part one and for my reviews of those I ranked 10th to 6th, see Part two.

These five entries below I considered all brilliant in their own way, eminently readable and more than compare favourably with published titles, some of which are considered classics in their own right. That there are so many amazing works coming out of the Windhammer competition I think is testament to how good writers in this scene are getting at delivering quality stories, compelling gameplay and pushing the boundaries of what gamebooks can be. I heartily congratulate you all (and just maybe, might be a little jealous haha).

But of course, as I’ve stressed before, these reviews represent just my (humble?) opinion. And I think it is certainly true that for any work, any work, they’ll always be someone that loves it and someone that hates it. So just because I didn’t rate your work so highly, doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t, so take heart! Just by being willing to enter and share your work with the world (and expose it to the judgement of others), puts you ahead of all the others who wanted to do such things, said they were going to do such things… and didn’t. (And that includes me!) So gamebook writers be proud of what you have achieved! J

 

Moreau (Zachary Carango)

DESIGN – 7

STORY – 8

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 7.5

PLAYABILITY – 8

MY OVERALL SCORE: 79% (5th place)

 

What I liked: Excellent writing with interesting, distinctive characters and situations refreshingly without a moralistic overtone. A fun adventure using a diceless system.

What I didn’t like: System itself is unclear in its implementation and has a weapon table that makes no narrative sense. Railroading of choices make adventure arbitrarily difficult.

 

As many (most?) of you probably know, Zachary’s Final Payment entry won last year’s Windhammer competition, and I quite agree it was astoundingly good (I gave it 88% overall with 9.5 for Story and Writing, and placed it third overall – only because I voted for my own entry and Paul Gresty’s Ookle of the Broken Finger got my other vote).

So I was expecting great things from Zachary this year, and he did deliver… Well mostly. The writing is as excellent as ever (as I’ve come to expect from Zac) and virtually faultless (not sure why I *only* gave it 9 for Writing now, but it mustn’t have blown my mind to quite the same extent as the masterpiece he produced last year I guess), and there was only a single typo I noticed. The story is well introduced (Zac sets the scene before introducing the rules which is also a very effective way to draw the reader in), and has an excellent mood/tone with interesting and distinctive characters. There is also a great sense of fun/abandon in some of the situations (e.g. the drinking game on Section 12) which is a refreshing change from what I would call “overtly moralistic” themes where you are penalised for not following the “righteous path” (for instance a particular gamebook I may have happened to edit comes to mind where you are heavily penalised for having a drink or two).

I really like the idea of a diceless combat system too, and whilst it does “work” and seemed sufficiently balanced for the most part, it’s not without (what I perceived) to be significant issues. One of these issues, namely the weapons table, I found to be so ridiculous that it made no sense to me at all and actually broke the immersion of the gamebook for me somewhat. To discuss why I had such an issue with this weapons table, let me paste it here:

 

Weapon Listing:

Machete ($0 Damage 5)

Magnum ($500 Damage 10)

Assault Rifle ($1000 Damage 15)

Rocket Strike ($2000 Damage 20)

Mortar Barrage ($4000 Damage 25)

Napalm Inferno ($8000 Damage 30)

 

Now for some reason never really explained you spend money for each attack (and it’s never explained when you are supposed to spend this money nor whether a spend is only for one attack, one battle, or permanent). -The only explanation given for why you spend money for each attack isIn addition to the machete and guns you carry on your person, the Vulture is equipped with a variety of powerful support weaponry. The stronger the weapon, the more expensive each use will be.” (The Vulture mentioned is your salvage ship). How this money is spent, nor why it should be on such a ridiculous scale in the first place is never explained, and I’m talking ridiculous in terms of both comparable costs and damage (as I believe will be quite obvious to anyone looking at the above table).

Now consider that each round you choose what attack to employ (e.g. I may have chosen to spend $1000 to do 15 damage with an Assault Rifle in the first round, to then choose to spend $8000 to do 30 damage with a Napalm Inferno in the second round), and then consider that this system is supposed to somehow be applicable in such situations ranging from stamping out a nest of fire-ants, to fighting a lobster man inside a restaurant, and you can hopefully appreciate why I had such a problem making sense of this table in any fashion. I understand that it was probably meant as a parody but even then it still made no sense, even to how the money was spent and affected ammo. I should add that Zachary had similar mechanics (consuming limited resources to influence damage inflicted) in his entry last year, but that made narrative sense there which here I found to be absent… So I found myself reimagining what the rules meant to something like this:

You have a supergun, but it has limited charge (measured in units equivalent to whatever your money is at the time). When attacking with your weapon, determine how much charge you wish to use at the start of each round by consulting the following table:

 

Weapon Charge:

Rifle-butt (0 Charge, Damage 5)

Single Shot (500 Charge, Damage 10)

Burst Shot (1000 Charge, Damage 15)

Spray Shot (2000 Charge, Damage 20)

Super Shot (4000 Charge, Damage 25)

Super Mega Shot (8000 Charge, Damage 30)

 

…At least then I could imagine that it was somehow meant to be a “possible sci-fi” world, as opposed to I dunno, a dream or something where I alternate between firing gun shots and launching explosive onslaughts of mass destruction (that only do slightly more damage) against opponents including ants of all things. Anyway I think I’ve harped on about that point enough (but it really bothered me Zac! What were you thinking mate!?) so I best move on…

Whilst it really was the weapon table that disrupted the experience for me, I did have another issue that comes up as a common gripe for me in gamebooks: The “you can only check one place at a given location before the narrative forces you onward” convention. For me, unless there’s a very good narrative reason (there usually isn’t), this convention only serves to make a gamebook unrealistically and arbitrarily harder, not to mention more frustrating when you know you’re probably going to get screwed over later because you weren’t allowed to check the other places at a given location. (My point of reference is always to imagine it like I’d GM a role-playing session: if I tell my players something that they would complain is unfair – such as being told they can look in the chest or under the bed but not both – then I don’t do it without good reason. Anyway I digress…) So anyway, this gamebook does a bit of that too, and all of these things resulted in me only giving this 7 for Design (despite liking the innovations for diceless combat).

Somehow though, through sheer luck in choosing the right locations in the right order, I did manage to complete this gamebook successfully on my first go. And despite my rants about the design (and in particular the weapon table) I did have a ball playing this because the story and in particular the writing and characterisation were so good…

I never could figure out the safe solution though, even after doing a search for the phrase “The safe clicks open” to see if I could decipher the solution after knowing the answer… Fortunately I didn’t need to open the safe to complete the gamebook (so long as failing to open the safe didn’t kill me, which it nearly did but not quite!)

 

 

 

 

‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

DESIGN – 8.5

STORY - 8

WRITING - 8

CLARITY – 8.5

PLAYABILITY – 8

MY OVERALL SCORE: 82% (4th place)

·         Winner of the 2013 Windhammer Prize

 

What I liked: Well delivered humourous story with great innovations including team selection and integration of various character interactions using “filters”.

What I didn’t like: Quite difficult to obtain some clues, requiring luck and/or guesswork.

 

I actually wavered with this entry a bit. To begin with I thought “this is awesome!” but then settled with “this is very good but has some aspects I don’t like so much.” I mean I can certainly see why it won (having a pretty map and some eye-grabbing diagrams I think helps!) but in the end I decided I preferred the three entries I rated above this. Anyway it is a well delivered story that reminded me of something like Scobby-Doo crossed with Maniac Mansion with a very endearing funny tone throughout (even the rules, with comments like “If you don’t know what a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is, it looks like you’ve got a cave to spend some time in and also a shark to be.” and in explaining clues: “They are mysterious and wonderful.”) The writing was solid, and well edited, but did strike me at times as repetitive or rushed and not particularly evocative. (For instance the phrase “hang out or whatever” comes up four times at differing points). I also thought that the clarity (rules and writing-wise) was fine, all things considered.

This entry features a simple design with a number of innovations I’d rate from “meh” to “amazing”. At the “meh” end for me is the inclusion of achievements that are only mentioned when you acquire them in the text that don’t seem to serve any purpose (while others are listed at the end), and a couple of puzzles that I thought were unnecessary – one is the “mindbending maze” (which is obviously a joke since the maze is so simple, leading me to question why it was even needed aside from “looking cool”), and the other is the block puzzle on Section 3 that I felt I’d wasted close to an hour of my life to solve for nothing other than a Delicious Chocolate achievement (that does nothing anyway). The use of the map (which is interesting, cartoonish and matching the “vibe” of the gamebook) and being able to select the characters for your team were good innovations, but the innovation I’d call “amazing” is the integration of various character interactions using what I call “filters”.

To elaborate on this point about “filters”, I’ve never seen a static (i.e. what is typically paper-based) gamebook do this, and I’m not sure if Philip realises just how significant this innovation is…  You see there’s a recent innovation that Tin Man Games have started to employ for their digital gamebooks called “filters” (I’m also aware that the excellent digital gamebook Star Breed did a similar thing back in 2010 but on a much smaller scale, and I think quite possibly Inkle’s recent eye-catching digital conversion of Sorcery! has been using a similar idea). In a nut-shell this idea is that you “filter” the text displayed at a given section depending on certain criteria. It’s a great idea for digital gamebooks, meaning that you can do a lot more with the same number of sections, but it always struck me that this was a step away from static / paper-based gamebooks as it couldn’t be done in such cases… Then comes Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club to dispel that concern, because that’s exactly what he’s done. (It just means, by necessity, that he’s listed the various “filters” at the bottom of each section, with icons to mark where they appear in the section text). Wow.

Mind you, Blood Sword (which I feel compelled to add is I think easily one of the greatest gamebook series of all time) written by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson between 1987 and 1988 kinda did a similar thing with its four different player characters – it just had to split the “filters” across different sections given these could be being played by different players, and so limits the cheating (at least in theory anyway haha).

Anyway the further I got into this, the less sold I was on its design. Initially for instance you are travelling to various locations to gain clues figure out where the rival paranormal Academy has made their discovery, but it turns out that many of the clues aren’t obtained through good detective work, so much as being lucky on the dice (which I wasn’t really) or making lucky guesses on where to look, all of which took some of the shine off this work for me. I wasn’t able to get many clues and those I did get were mostly red herrings, leaving me with a case of pretty much having to guess out of nine possible locations, since you aren’t allowed to visit a given clue location twice (on a sidenote, check-boxes are used to track locations already visited which probably isn’t necessary since it’s quite easy to remember where you’ve already been). So I failed my guess and that was the end of my adventure, but I cheated onwards a bit to see what happened then: and it seems to me that the trend of needing luck over good decisions continues…

Overall this work does have numerous innovations and highlights and is supported by an endearing story with humourous writing, but the weaknesses I perceived in its design and writing weren’t enough for me to put it in my top three this year. But perhaps I’m in a minority in this regard as it won this year’s competition… So hey, just ignore me J

 

Gunlaw (Nicholas Stillman)

DESIGN – 8.5

STORY – 8.5

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 8

PLAYABILITY – 8.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 85% (3rd place)

·         Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards

 

What I liked: Good simple character generation and diceless system. Compelling, darkly hilarious, action-packed and deliciously gruesome story, with a hero who has all the attitude and survival instincts of some kinda badass movie (anti-)hero. Strong efficient writing that is imaginative, colourful and sets the mood excellently.

What I didn’t like: The jumpy nature of the story, from often one ridiculous situation to the next, and between differing character perspectives, can at times make things hard to follow. Story seemed to be over quite quickly considering there's a hundred Sections (but maybe that’s because I enjoyed it so much!)

 

Nicholas Stillman did an entry called Swordplayer for last year’s Windhammer competition, which I was really impressed by, not for its writing so much (although it still held up reasonably well on that front I thought), but for its design. It was complicated and amazingly innovative but I considered it lacked story, significant characters and often seemed bereft of detail. Anyway I’m here to talk about Nicholas Stillman’s entry this year of course, but I mention his previous entry because I did not see anything like this coming from him. Not only has he delivered a simple, elegantly designed gamebook that needs no dice, but one backed up by an incredible action-packed story, detailed world, distinctive characters and what I consider is perhaps the best writing of the competition: it couldn’t be more different from what he did last year… Is this even the same Nicholas Stillman!?

On a different day / mindset, it’s possible I could have even put this second on my list (maybe even first if I was drunk enough). This entry just oozes style and to me is a perfect demonstration of what you can achieve if you just “throw caution to the wind, trust your instincts and let your individual voice shine through”.

The design of this entry, while simple and incredibly effective (including being able to play as a male or female which is a plus), doesn’t even matter so much, because the writing and the story is so good (albeit at times difficult to follow but I’ll get to that). And in many ways this is a gamebook for the “non-gamebooker” who likes action movies and games, but gets bored with reading gamebooks, having to manage rules and trying to figure out a way to the end. It’s darkly hilarious, action-packed, features one of the coolest (anti-)heroes you’ll ever see and is deliciously violent. I listed that it was over so quickly as one of its “flaws” but that could just be because I was enjoying it so much that time just flew. In any case, I can always read it again can’t I? And again…

Certainly this won’t be to everyone’s taste (if games like Carmageddon and MadWorld didn’t appeal to you this may not be your thing) but so many passages in this I thought were just, well, awesome. Here’s just a tiny selection:

 

The mafia cops fire a shotgun through a senior citizen's rear windshield; his brains splatter on the front windshield like cherry pie.

 

Canfield enters a bar called The Hellhole. Nothing ever happens there except liver damage. Apart from the aging slobs embalming themselves, the place looks pleasant with its decor of houseplants. Lisa canes and cacti sit in a bath of techno music, wanting to die.

 

“Y'all look like turds,” Canfield says. The ranger puts a hole in five men at the table and kills the last one barehanded.

Reload. Travel. Like always.

 

Before Ray can flinch, a bullet hits his chin catapulting him over the table without his shoes. Maybe after surgery he'll have a cleft chin.

The city council would have goosebumps for a week, if Canfield let them live. Instead, they all get shot into a slump, spilling their brains on the tabletop. All goes quiet except for a moan from the floor and the patter of dripping blood.

 

Like I was saying, this won’t be to everyone’s taste (but what gamebook is really?) Oh and apparently he’s thinking of doing a graphic and disturbing horror next year (that presumably is a lot darker and more graphic than Gunlaw since he’d been reluctant to inflict it upon the competition yet).

Look out.

(But honestly, I hope he does! I won’t feel so bad being the only one then haha).

The only (minor) criticism that I can offer here is that sometimes the action is coming so thick and fast, and jumping around between different perspectives so much, that it can be difficult to follow just exactly what is happening. That and occasionally I thought the intentionally ridiculous descriptions went so far as to become a little contrived (but that’s a personal judgement more than anything I think), for instance:

 

Canfield's gut doesn't bother tightening up anymore. This posse amounts to short stature diabetics with gynecomasti.

 

Oh and maybe it is a little difficult to get the ultimate ending? To be honest I’m not really sure… I didn’t get the ultimate ending but was having an absolute blast with this anyway so it didn’t matter. Definitely a fun gamebook that’ll leave a lasting impression for a long time. Highly recommended.

 

The Independence Job (Marty Runyon)

DESIGN - 9

STORY – 9

WRITING - 8

CLARITY – 9

PLAYABILITY – 9

MY OVERALL SCORE: 88% (2nd place)

·         Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards

 

What I liked: Awesome Wager system that is simple, strategic, rewards risk and fits in with the world. Compelling story with interesting characters and interaction. Very clearly laid out and hugely replayable.

What I didn’t like: Action seemed a bit rushed on occasion (description too brief).

 

This was another entry that surprised me in that I wasn’t expecting the author, Marty Runyon, to produce something this good. You see I didn’t rate his entry for last year’s Windhammer, Academy of Magic - The First Term, that highly (I rated it only 70% overall – which equated to 14th of 22 entries on my scale). But this same entry was one of two entries that won a Merit award last year (meaning that it’ll also be produced as an app by Tin Man Games soon) and I’ve heard from a number of people about how much they loved this entry… Anyway after reading/playing The Independence Job and how much better the writing seemed, and in particular the overall design, I have to concede that I may have misjudged Marty… Either that or he’s gotten a lot better (it’s a shame that he didn’t win a Merit award this year, as to me, his entry this year was a lot more deserving than last year’s, but oh well…)

This entry features one of the coolest innovations I’ve ever seen in a gamebook, and that alone saw it shoot up my rankings. This together with a compelling story, interesting characters and solid writing delivers an awesome gamebook experience.

To address this innovation first that impressed me so much, Marty has used what can only be referred to as “the Wager system” where you as the player accumulate Fortune points depending on how much you “wager” on a particular skill check. Each check specifies the minimum number of Fortune points you must wager; where what you wager determines the difficulty of the roll you must make; as well as what you stand to gain in Fortune points should you make the roll. (E.g. a particular check against a particular skill may have a high ante –that is to say a high minimum Fortune points wager, but “pay 3-to-1” if you make the check, meaning you get three times your “bet” in Fortune points).

What is so awesome about this system is that in one fell swoop it ticks all the boxes of what (I think) a good system should do: It is simple, it is strategic, it rewards risk and it fits in completely with the “gamebook world” presented here. Not only this, but this amazing yet simple innovation (why has no one ever thought of this idea before?) promotes repeat plays of the gamebook: even if you make exactly the same choices in the gamebook, you can still “gamble” your way through these checks (maybe changing your strategy) to see if you can better your Fortune points score. Wow.

Many times these checks affect story outcomes, but many times they don’t (just your Fortune points). This is probably by design though and considering how this still reinforces replayability, it can hardly be considered a “flaw”.

Aside from this, the system is very clearly explained and implemented and offers a very simple character generation process. The story too is designed in such a way that your earlier choices have a significant effect on how the story plays out: affecting not just events but also your relationships with other characters. Oh and it was pleasing to see that Marty has allowed for the reader to play a male or female protagonist here.

I really like the way the story develops, with the introduction laid out in an interesting way, and the story being divided into chapters as events progress and the relationships between characters develop. The writing too is solid throughout and well edited (I only found two typos of note). About the only criticism I can make here is that occasionally the description of action scenes struck me as a bit “rushed” but again, this is a very minor (and somewhat subjective) thing.

Overall this is an immensely replayable, well designed and delivered story that is reminiscent of a lot of “bank robbery” movies in a good way. The system innovations here are quite stunning (and revolutionary I think) and it is only that I was sooo impressed by what I ranked the best entry this year, that Marty didn’t get my top ranking. But now I know better than to underestimate him, and he’ll certainly be one I’ll be keeping my eye on now!

 

Out of Time (Paul Struth)

DESIGN - 9

STORY – 9.5

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 9

PLAYABILITY – 8.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 90% (1st place)

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

 

What I liked: An intriguing and innovative design that is deceptively simple and yet mind-bendingly intricate. Excellent efficient writing that conveys mood and tension, and has great attention to details of people, places and language. Rules and story very clear. Story has some great twists and ideas.

What I didn’t like: Can break the design by repeating a given "loop" to gain infinite Determination. Occasional but minor logic anomaly such as time of day.

 

It turns out I had a premonition about this entry, which is kinda appropriate given the topic(s) it deals with. You see after the entry Paul Struth did for last year’s Windhammer competition, AETHER, I wrote:

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 :)

-The pitfall I referred to here was an erroneous plot device that unfortunately broke the experience for me, but aside from this, I could see what a thoughtful design it was and what an accomplished writer Paul was to boot. Turns out my prediction was right, as Paul has delivered a gamebook so good, so intricate and so compelling, that it’s damn near perfect… But alas, perfection is hard to achieve (and I doubt that I’ll ever rate something much above 90%), and so even in such a stunning masterpiece as I consider this to be, I could find “faults” (not that I have any ideas on how you could even fix these minor flaws in such a deceptively simple but incredibly intricate design, but I’ll get to those minor “flaws” shortly).

I would have liked to see this entry win, but it doesn’t matter so much as it won a Merit award anyway, which means that it’ll be available as an app before long and readers around the world will get to see just how good it is. It’s (IMHO) one of the most ambitious story designs I’ve ever seen and the amazing thing is that it actually works. Did you “die” because you made the wrong decision, failed a check or didn’t have a particular item? Don’t worry, you don’t have to “reset” the gamebook back to the beginning and start over: that’s actually just part of the story and yes, things will be different the next time around. Death is not the final destination here, no it’s just part of the journey… But even such a description doesn’t do justice to what Paul has achieved here, so take my word for it (if you wish!), you’ll just have to read it for yourself and see what I mean…

So to get a little more specific (I’ve hardly said anything about it yet have I?) this is an amazing story that starts off great and just gets better. There is great attention to detail here; including the setting, historical places, dress, terms and language; great setting of mood and tension, great interweaving of thought-provoking philosophy into the story, and great mind-bending twists that when they came, left me gob-smacked with just how impressive they were. It is obvious just how much work went into not just the execution of this story but the careful and intricate way in which it has been constructed… I was reminded of something like the novel Playing Beatie Bow crossed with The Time Machine crossed with By His Bootstraps (particularly the later which I highly recommend if you enjoyed this gamebook anywhere near as much as I did).

In terms of game system there is very little here (not that that matters at all in this case), but what there is, is very clear. You have a single Determination stat to track, and on the rare occasion that there is combat, you are given all the rules you need then. This is a cerebral experience not an action-orientated one.

But even in something as good as this, there are what I judge to be “flaws” (I know, I’m a harsh critic, but hey, nit-picking is my job here right?). On the design side, it is possible to “break the design” by repeating a given “loop” to gain theoretically infinite Determination (this will make sense if you’ve played it), and sometimes due to the way you can move between sections, references to the time of day aren’t always accurate or consistent. But really, it’d be nigh impossible to avoid such minor anomalies in the context of a hundred sections, so this is a very minor flaw all things considered. Oh and it doesn’t really invite repeat plays once completed successfully (apart from being so awesome in the first place), but that’s really only because it doesn’t “end” on the first play-through.

There’s the occasional instance (well two that I found) where things weren’t completely clear (where the narration states on Section 12 that you have Czech crowns that weren’t previously mentioned, and on Section 30 where the church attendant apparently says the same words as before –and yet that was in a different language, but maybe that was intentional). And the only other thing I can criticise is that occasionally I thought the writing did a bit of “telling” rather than “showing”, but that can be interpreted as a matter of style as much as anything else.

Overall this is an exceptional piece of work that ranks in my mind as one of the most ingeniously constructed gamebooks I’ve ever read. Like those classic movies with amazing twists, I almost wish I could erase my memory just so that I could read this for the “first time” once more and be amazed all over again J

 

So that concludes my (highly subjective) evaluation / reviews of this year’s Windhammer entries. It is interesting to note just how few of them dealt with the “standard fantasy tropes” that were so prevalent in the days when a good adventure often meant a dungeon/castle/cavern etc filled with treasure and monsters just sitting around for a brave adventurer to come along and slaughter. Honestly, I can only think of this as a good thing, and to see how far gamebooks have come; the great innovations and awesome story-telling; means I think, that gamebooks have a very bright future indeed.

 

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed my dribble, I mean thoughtful commentary!

 

P.s. For further reading, Crumbly Head Games have also done reviews of this year's Windhammer entries, which are broadly consistent with mine I guess (but as you'd expect, there's some differences in opinion) and I'm aware of at least a couple of others who have plans to do the same, but I'll provide links here if and when they do…

Continue reading
Recent Comments
Brewin
Thanks Paul! I think you're right that I definitely need to revisit The Scarlet Thief and give it another go! And yes I agree tha... Read More
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 01:15
Brewin
Cheers Marty... I guess some good came out of my review from last year then Well done on a fine achievement!... Read More
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 01:31
5162 Hits
4 Comments

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!

Continue reading
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
5055 Hits
8 Comments

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

Continue reading
Recent Comments
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
15147 Hits
2 Comments

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

Continue reading
Recent Comments
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
5784 Hits
10 Comments

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!!

Continue reading
Recent Comments
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
10932 Hits
14 Comments