I love a good time travel anime. From the gritty ‘oh my god I want to rip my own heart out and eat it’ twists of Umineko No Naku Koro Ni to the slightly less visceral but no less heartbreaking turns of Stein;s Gate, I love them all. I love the kooky sceptics, the lovable best friends, and the crazed yandere killers.
But most of all, I love the masterminds that always turn out to be behind it all.
Tragedy Looper is a board game that lets you be that mastermind.
Actually, only one player gets to be the mastermind. The other three players get to be the colourfully-haired protagonists in this tale of time-loop tragedy, which I’m assured is just as fun. I say assured, because right off the bat the game limits itself somewhat by insisting that only one player can ever play as the mastermind, for much the same reasons that only one player can ever be the dungeon-master – because they know the plot.
Fair enough, for those of us with perfect eidetic memories that would be a problem, but for the rest of us one quick glance at the mastermind’s handbook is enough to say for certain that ‘nobody could possibly remember all of this!’ I know that, because that’s the exact reaction I get whenever I say ‘hey, does anyone else want to play the mastermind this round? I swear I haven’t just memorised everything that happens.’
A mastermind’s handbook contains everything they need to set up their dastardly plot, and believe it or not, that is quite a lot. First you have a selection of terrible events – a murder, a suicide, a suspicious aura about the hospital, a strange occurrence at the shrine. Then, the game provides you with a selection of colourful characters to puppetmaster your way through the game with. You have the standard selection of schoolchildren with a terrible destiny, plus a host of characters who fit into the respective sections of the game board – a shrine maiden for the shrine, a pervy office worker for the city, and a doctor and patient for the hospital.
Each character has their own motivations and hang-ups outside of their description. This is the ‘role’ that they play in the plot. For example, that innocent looking shrine maiden? Yeah, she’s a serial killer, and every time she’s alone with someone on her square, they’ll wind up dead by the next morning. That hapless patient? He’s your best friend, and if you don’t prevent that horrible incident at the hospital, it’s back to the beginning of the time loop for you.
The protagonists’ role in the game is to figure out which character has which role, and use it to their advantage. They can gain goodwill with characters to get special information that might tip the scales in their favour, but the canny player will quickly realise that there’s as much to gain from sacrificing everyone they meet to the serial killer as there is from dutifully protecting a police officer until they’re able to reveal the culprit of a tragedy.
Plays are conducted by placing cards upon characters, which are then flipped to reveal what that character does or which tokens are added to the character. Paranoia makes a character more likely to be the culprit of a tragedy. Intrigue makes them more likely to be a victim. Goodwill makes them more likely to help the players down the line – if they survive that long. Finally, movement cards allow the players and the mastermind to move characters from one section of the board to another.
This leads to what I think is the most interesting mechanics in the game – players are not allowed to confer about what cards they’re going to put down, and movement cards can cancel one another out. This means that it’s totally possible for the mastermind to set up a situation in which two players will completely screw each other over and basically murder the character they were trying to protect.
However, there are some downsides. For one thing, the rules state that the mastermind’s cards must always be resolved before the protagonists’. But sometimes a protagonist’s card directly conflicts with the mastermind’s card, and must be revealed right away. That’s me being incredibly nitpicky, though. A far bigger problem is that with all this moving around and placing tokens, there’s the potential for things to get very fiddly, very quickly. The game has some bigger +3 tokens to prevent this, but I’ve had multiple games where cards have been so covered in paranoia, intrigue, and goodwill that they’re impossible to read, let alone move around the board.Another aspect of the game that might turn new players off is its apparent complexity. The mastermind has a million things to remember, and although the handbook provides some handy tips to get the ball rolling on this horrorfest, there’s a lot of pressure to balance the game so that the protagonists neither win too easily nor fail too hard.
On the protagonists’ side, there’s the potential for the game to become very frustrating if the mastermind is more about winning than the thrill of the game. There’s even a paragraph on the back of the mastermind handbook that warns masterminds to sacrifice their opportunities to win to create a more satisfying game for the players. If that screams ‘BABBY MODE HAND HOLDING’ to you, I suggest not picking up the mastermind role, because basically all of it is walking players through the game and trying to ensure that they have a fair chance of winning despite the odds being overwhelmingly tipped in your favour. Personally, I find that really fun, but I can imagine that it’s not so great for everyone.
At the end of the day though, Tragedy Looper is a really amazing game. There’s a lot of room for creativity, and even a little bit of storytelling if that’s what you’re into. Depending on the temperament of the players and the level of complexity of the plot, games can last anywhere from half an hour to three hours, and every minute is incredibly fun. You can play the game co-operatively, giving your fellow players hints about what you might do without tipping off the mastermind, or you can be a lone wolf, throwing caution to the wayside to get to the heart of a mystery no matter what it takes.
And if you mess up?
You can always turn back time.