Yesterday I had the marvelous opportunity to play a game about societal collapse.
Downfall, by Caroline Hobbs, is a very finely polished game about destroying a civilization. Players collaboratively create a world that’s flawed by design and that flaw is the source of its own unmaking. The game is designed to chronicle this unspooling of societal thread from a particular point of view. The game makes a character in the story the lens of all the action revolves around. This character is appropriately called the Hero. Now what's important and cool about the hero is that they are a character who is trying to reform the flaw and doomed to fail.
In terms of design, mechanics, and structure, Downfall has a very sleek finish. The game’s mechanics and order of operations felt perfectly intuitive. For example, we played with 2 complete newcomers to Downfall and our facilitator was very experienced with this system. By the time me and the other newbie had come up with our first steps our brains were leaping at how to interpret these results, which was exactly what was to happen in the next part of the creation process. Boom. That is awesome intuitive game design. Rules and design working in a natural way to channel creative thought and motion.
So every game of Downfall starts with coming up with our society. The game calls this societal place the haven. The haven is the variable-scope term for the doomed community and is all about a central flawed idea. The three of us went with Nationalism as our flaw and things really started coming together in the following steps when we started coming up with the symbols and traditions of our haven.
We took turns imagining symbols and cultural traditions that stem from the societal flaw. We came up with this It country with a symbol of a snake and a bear at odds with one another. It was some sort of autocratic regime with a centrally planned economy with a very strong tie to it's past. When you are born, you’re heavily pressured in picking a name of one of the founding persons of the nation and upon adulthood, given a cog. This cog is your economic participatory symbol. Each exchange imprints on it proof so the older you are, the more worn out your cog becomes. This centrally planned economy with symbols of snakes and bears everywhere and many small cogs working in harmony definitely made us start thinking of some crazy Russian Big Brother, Industrial Revolution like location.
Stemming from this industrial revolution autocracy, for entertainment, I came up with the Waltz being invented in our country with a midday hour of dancing being customary. (Even factory workers had this hour off to put on their fancy shoes and dance!) Our societal elements at this point just began to fall into place. It quickly became clear we’re looking at some very proud, traditional nation that has a sort of “clockwork” like society that espouses punctuality, efficiency, and planning. The time is somewhere around the late 1800’s and our haven became the eastern European country of Allevastia.
Following the creation of our haven and society, players create the 3 character points of view of how the society is viewed. While the game is always shown through the lens of the hero, opposing the hero is the fallen that is a character who strongly believes in the flaw and the Pillar that is the neutral entity who represents the common folk.
Drawing once again from our pool of traditions, our hero was Anastasia the Speaker. Speakers were a tradition we came up where teachers behave sort of like mentors and tutors of ancient Greece. To be a Speaker, you must be one of privilege. All Speakers have a pedigree that connects you to the founding members of Allevastia. It’s a career path for these political elite who dare not actually enter the political realm. Anastasia became a strong, proud woman and former Waltz-winning Miss Allevastia many years ago. She is kind of described as a curly blonde haired Phryne Fischer.
Our game’s fallen was Andrei, who worked in a prestigious, but morbid tradition of our country—death panels. Our country enjoys economic equilibrium through tough population control. Andrei is a “Director Of Passing” in the region that Anastasia works in. Andrei and Anastasia have a past, you see. Anastasia used to date Andrei long ago when they were young in the same rural village, but as they grew up, Anastasia chose to become a Speaker instead of wife to Andrei and their love turned to embers that never really went away. Our game began with Andrei and Anastasia rekindling their love, but Andrei was married but his wife was infirm. Very taboo. In fact, it was a secret. Now it’s the Fallen’s job to introduce consequences to the Hero’s actions as we’ll see later on.
Our third character, the Pillar, was Sveta. Sveta was a seventeen year old student of Anastasia. She’s very smart and impressive dancer. Sveta’s duty is to reflect the feelings of the average citizen. With our bonfire set, we’re ready to begin burning.
Our match took the form of an unusual amount of people failing their health interviews and receiving the shiny brass cogs that mark you for death. It’s never known when your brass cog means you’re called, but it’s always less than a year. Among those who failed was Sveta’s father. A few days later, more folks got bronze cogs, including 2/3rds of her class of students. Students! Getting marked to die! There has to be a mistake somewhere.
In the meantime, smoke from the factory chimneys begins to increase. People are now normally asked to work shift-and-a-half time. Something behind the scenes happening.
Anastasia spoke with Andrei (who signs off on these death cogs) about this and Andrei was quite tight-lipped about the affair. Anastasia felt deep down that this must be a mistake and that Sveta’s father and her students were fine! Andrei only mentioned that he loves his country and his job and he does what he is told. Anastasia continues to poke and prod into the reasons for these cogs in order to save her students, but the last straw comes during an evening gala event when Anastasia and Andrei are dancing and Anastasia’s efforts to review the documents and records gets stonewalled by Andrei one last time. This was the moment Anastasia began to take matters into her own hands. This is when Anastasia went from reformer to rebel.
Determined to save the lives of these children, Anastasia travels incognito to the Capital. She abandons her job as Speaker in order to save them by getting to the bottom of this in the Capital. She gets in contact with a politician whom Andrei used to know who agrees to meet her in the train station.
After traveling east for a few days, she gets to the capital city and sees soldiers assembling and goods and supplies being taken off railcars. The bear and snake symbols of her country are being washed and changed to be only Snake. She begins to put the final pieces together after talking to her contact, but the contact betrays her and takes her into custody thinking she might be a Bear spy!
She was detained and finally vetted enough to go back home with a handler and responsible for helping detect Bear party sympathizers. She bumps into Sveta at the train station home and finds out that she was unable to save the children or Sveta’s dad. Sveta is more disappointed Anastasia missed their funerals and her marriage. Her home city seems so distant from the warlike capital. News travels slowly and unevenly in Allevastia.
Our game ended with vignettes about the fighting. Anastasia’s, Sveta’s and Andrei’s town began to modify the country’s symbols with just snakes, Bear founding father names became illegal, and the world marched on like clockwork.
This game was super fun! The way our problems blended together felt like a Russian literature retelling of 1984. I really appreciated how our group deliberately left the internal strife vague. The Bears and the Snakes were at odds in our country and fighting was breaking out. Was it a civil war? Political coup? Political purge? Downfall is a very remarkable game and I cannot wait to play it again.
In my opinion, Downfall feels like a really cool take on the game Polaris using some newer, modern game design tools as found in games like DURANCE. I can't stress enough just how much fun this game was to play and how great and clear the rules and writing are.
Downfall should be releasing in the next few weeks. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of it when it becomes available!
I hide in a cubicle all day until the night time where I play RPGs and other games and stuff.