XP: ANIMAL CRIME

18 May

ANIMAL CRIME by Ben Lehman, art by Jake Richmond is a noir mystery game set in Animal City. We had the opportunity to play this with Ben on May 8th along with On the Ecology of the Mud Dragon. The game follows Marmot Detective as he gradually (and often painfully) unravels a case detailed by the other players.

ANIMAL CRIME offers one of the most enjoyable detective/mystery games out there. It has a lot going for it.

I SMELL A RAT

Let’s get to the bottom of this!

ANIMAL CRIME is a quick play. With a large group and an elaborate crime you can still reasonably expect to conclude play within two hours. A more typical set up will result in about an hour of play.

The art found in the playbooks and in the comic is stellar. It captures the personality of the characters and the setting so effectively that as a player you immediately feel like you know what you are doing. This effect doubles up with the smart pairing of animals to characters to moves, which makes every character iconic and easy to grab onto.

The game text and playbooks offer very clear directions. How you use your character to engage with the fiction is obvious at every step. The moves, though they only consist of a few words each, intersect with the character’s personality in such a way that you will never be groping for what to say.

Even though Marmot Detective can only be killed under specific circumstances you will still feel the hot breath of danger on your neck when things turn sour. Marmot Detective seems to attract misery.

HOT ON THE TRAIL

Much more significantly, there is hardly a question of whether Marmot Detective will uncover clues. Odds are, in any given confrontation Marmot Detective will learn something. The other characters are told to reveal the truth of the matter. This is important. The whole “hide the clue” method of mystery gaming is really frustrating. If you need the clue to proceed, and you want to proceed, why in the nine hells would you withhold the clues? Is checking under every stone in game any fun? Is going around in circles because the players have failed to guess what the GM is thinking meaningful play of any kind? How many dozens of games do we have that do just that? Thank you, ANIMAL CRIME, for being one of the few that gets this right.

However, that is not the best feature. The most interesting inclusion in ANIMAL CRIME is the story form mechanism. When Marmot Detective makes a move it lowers the stat in question, making that move less likely to be effective in future contests. So, Marmot Detective starts off getting some real info, homing in on the crime and the culprit. But as he gets close things start to go bad. The other characters start to take more direct action against Marmot Detective. Just as Marmot Detective gets to the very bottom of it all things are at their worst. To see this in play is simply wonderful.

But that’s not all. Since Marmot’s stats are going down, sooner or later Marmot’s player is going to have to mix things up and try using the other moves and stats. So we get to see more than one side of Marmot Detective. No relying on the single high rank skill here! Additionally, when Marmot Detective indulges in Alcoholism he may refresh one of his stats. Poor Marmot, who must give into vice and drown his sorrows so he can go on. This is, of course, a mechanical reinforcement of character, too.

Finally, you had best be ready for an unending stream of animal puns. You’ll be howling at the moon, I promise.

THE UGLY TRUTH

Compared to this long list of things I absolutely adore about ANIMAL CRIME I have only two quasi complaints.

When it gets down to it, only two players are really playing at any one time. Though this is not mandated by the game in any way the general tendency is for Marmot Detective to learn something that takes him to another character. You can have multiple characters in a scene, and the other players can take up minor characters, but this requires some deliberate attention from the players to make it so.

Now, these last couple of things don’t affect a player’s enjoyment of the game at all. But, the box is large and mostly empty. It gives me the impression of driving up the price, and there isn’t really more game here that various offerings at half this price. Granted, ANIMAL CRIME is a high production value affair. The comic and artwork is slick as hell and everything you need to play, pencils, dice and all is right in the box. But if I had to choose between buying ANIMAL CRIME or buying two other games of a similar scope it would be a tough choice. The detail about the box is only really relevant when you are trying to make that choice.

ANIMAL CRIME is a very impressive piece of work that promotes some dangerously functional play. This will be a go-to game for my spontaneous games for some time, especially with newer or more casual gamers.

Check it out now at http://www.animalcrime.com/.

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