It’s been a while since I got the late night inspiration to do an experimental tabletop game review. While our group still meets every two weeks, I must admit it is only when I encounter a game that falls just short of its mark that I feel really inspired to review and critique it. So, that brings us to our latest installment – The Quiet Year.
The Quiet Year is a story game, not really a role-playing game. It comes from a decent pedigree – the author is also responsible for the seminal Monsterhearts, a popular Apocalypse World hack. It is part of the sub-genre of story games that revolve around drawing a map in order to tell the story of a place, in a similar fashion to Dawn of Worlds. It has a very simple setup – there is a post-apocalyptic community who have just emerged victorious and driven off an undefined enemy called The Jackals. There will be one year of relative peace before similarly undefined Frost Shepherds come in the winter and the game ends. You and the other players will determine what happens in that year to this community.
Notice I did not say you are playing members of this community. In fact, the rules make it very clear you are not. You are instead supposed to be the disembodied advocates of the community and its members, its prevailing thoughts, but at no point do you play out a scene or track a single character too closely. This game is about the players growing and exploring the community and its landscape together.
What happens during each week of the year is determined by a draw from a deck of cards, each player getting a turn. On your turn, your draw dictates what happens to the community and you decide how to implement it. Sometimes you are given a choice – either a project fails but you gain a needed resource, or a project succeeds but you lose an important resource. Other times, you are just given an outcome and decide how to implement it.
Also, the active player can have the settlement start up projects, discover something new on the map, or hold group discussions – the only time other players are allowed to give input.
Yes, the game actively forbids you from engaging in table talk with the other players about what you are going to do. The first way to get players input on the possible path of the settlement is to use your action to call for a discussion and positing a question, and even then, each person talks in turn and cannot say more than two sentences. Other than that, the only feedback the other players can give is non-verbally signalling their displeasure with what you have done by taking Contempt tokens from the middle of the table.
The designer does this with the intent of showing that community decision-making and group activities are actually quite sloppy and it is hard to really get a feel for what everyone thinks comprehensively. In large groups, it is easier to tell that people are unhappy than to find out why. Human interaction is messy.
The game does create a map and chart out the story of a community as they engage in projects, solve problems, find things that are scarce and deal with shortages. The deck draws are interesting but generic enough you can make anything happen – working ‘the weakest of you dies’ or ‘marauders approach’ is possible in any situation of desperation.
In real play, the limited communication clause is more respected in its transgression than in its enforcement, and it takes a disciplined group of role-players to keep restrained. But, the Contempt tokens to give a good way of ominously but abstractly expressing that not all is well and strain is rising within the group as to the decision that have been made.
What Doesn’t Work
The main weakness of the game is the very lack of definition that makes it possible to be so adaptable. Things can get very odd, very quickly, since there is no GM on board to guide things and people are banned from communicating their displeasure or objections fully. Not only the tone but the metaphysics and assumptions surrounding the game world can rapidly go into the realms of what I would call High Weirdness, where fantasy, science fiction and just plain Fortean elements mix together. In our game, bandits armed with old Russian army equipment and abandoned bunkers hidden in hillsides mixed with psychic healing magic priests and zombies, mainly because of the predilection and prejudices of various players naturally pushing things according to their tastes.
The game taken on its own does not establish a common tone or shared fantasy very well. The tips in the rulebook make mention that the ‘weirdness dial’ should be pretty much set by the mid-game, but in our game, it rapidly became a mess long before that. As is the weakness of most GM-less games, you have to start out with a strong consensus as to the type of game and world the story is being told in before you can begin, especially in a game that forbids you engaging the person making additions and changes to the world that might violate your notions of the shared fantasy.
This outlandishness can contribute to another weakness – the lack of emotional investment. The rules encourage you to not focus on individual characters but advocate for the entire community, but that means each individual player is just a nebulous opinion or will floating amongst the community’s population. For a game that wants us to care and ask hard questions and talk about what happens when communities are faced with crises, it would be better if there was more for our emotions and interest to hang on.
Also, the game and its events table are not hard enough on the community. Many in our group were expecting a rapidly worsening situation especially as summer drifted into autumn and the winter approached, but the random events of the later seasons were not much worse than the ones before. There was a feeling early in the game of establishing hopes and goals only to see things destroy or hinder them as the seasons got more harsh, but this was not supported by the events themselves. If this is supposed to be a somber post-apocalyptic setting, a bit more fatalism and unfair brutality might be called for. There were several points in the game where our players thought the citizens of our community had it far too easy.
Tips for Playing
It’s not in the rules, but I would lay out ground rules as group for your universe before you start drawing the map. This can be as simple as agreeing to a movie or book you’d like the world to mimic – such as Road Warrior – that players can build upon and use as their baseline. Or, you could take a page from games like Microscope and have players say elements that they want explicitly allowed or banned from the game – yes to magic, no to super technology. And allow for objections during play on the basis of those agreed on elements and that alone, e.g. “I don’t think radioactive clown zombies really fit the tone here, Bob.”
Also, actively restrain yourselves as players to think small and personal. Realize how little a group of eighty people trying to survive can actually accomplish in a year. And make an effort to define personalities and groups as you go along, not just when they are specifically called for in the event. Keep track of them, make them more human without exclusively following what particular set of characters. Many of the later events involve people dying – it works better if these people had names and histories to the group before they did.