Category Archives: Review

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe
Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humphrey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the Harbour Director and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca
Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes
74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)
  • The rules booklet
  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah
  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)
  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests
  • Cards for the the romance mechanic
  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.
  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules
  • Contingency envelopes
  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code

It may seem a bit of a surprise, given that I write, edit and publish murder mystery party games, but I read very little crime fiction. I don’t really enjoy them, and I don’t find them that useful as inspiration because in our games, the murder is often just one of many different plotlines. Also, in crime fiction the murder plot is often so difficult to unpick that we couldn’t write our games that way. In our games, we can’t rely on the brilliant detective solving the mystery – everyone has to have a fair chance.

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code

So I read very little crime fiction. I don’t even watch that much crime drama on television.

I make an exception for Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, though. Arthur Bryant and John May are a pair of elderly, decrepit senior detectives well past their retirement date. I’ve just finished Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the 10th in the Bryant and May series (although they appear in a number of Fowler’s other novels as well).

Bryant and May head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a much-maligned unit that the Home Office would love to shut down – except for the PCU’s incredible success rate at solving strange crimes that nobody else can solve. John May is procedural and proper, while the Arthur Bryant eschews traditional detection methods and consults with witches, occultists and other fringe characters.

Arthur Bryant is possibly my favourite fictional character: blunt, eccentric, erudite, rude, esoteric – and often laugh-out-loud funny. John May is Bryant’s straight man, and while the rest of the PCU team have their moments, none are as memorable as Bryant.

In The Invisible Code, the PCU are investigating yet another bizarre murder and become embroiled in a sinister conspiracy of silence concerning key government figures. And I’m not going to say more than that, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Each of the books can be read on their own, but there’s a definite sense of time in the later books (from White Corridor onwards) as the PCU relocate to new offices and new characters are introduced.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wouldn’t start with the first in the series, Full Dark HouseFull Dark House chronicles Bryant and May’s first meeting during the London Blitz, but to enjoy it fully you really need to know who the characters are in the first place, as it recreates the Blitz through flashbacks.

So instead, I suggest starting with the second book, The Water Room. The Water Room is quite bizarre, and definitely my favourite of the series – if you don’t like The Water Room then you probably won’t like the rest. I’d then follow that up with Seventy Seven Clocks (third in the series), before returning to Full Dark House.

So as Christmas approaches, you might want to put this on your Christmas list.

Introverts and our murder mystery games

I’ve just finished the excellent book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain. In it, Cain outlines the differences between introverts and extroverts and how society (American society in particular) values extroverts over their quieter brethren.

A couple of characters from The Karma Club
Introverts and extroverts enjoying The Karma Club

Now, I’m an introvert and so I found myself agreeing with much of the book. But I also found myself reflecting on introverts and our murder mystery games. Surely as in introvert I should hate our interactive murder mystery games? Maybe not.

I don’t particularly enjoy parties. As an introvert I find myself stuck for things to say – I’m hopeless at small talk with strangers. And I don’t particularly like large groups. So at a party I inevitably end up finding one or two people to talk to in depth – and then I worry that I’m monopolising all their attention. (Shyness and a dose of guilt – that’s very traditional introvert behaviour.)

However, I love playing in one of our murder mystery games. I have no problem talking to complete strangers in one of our games – it’s as if the very nature of our games (a fake situation, everyone has goals and objectives) removes my awkwardness.

In my view, the key to this is that I don’t have to make small talk in a Freeform Games murder mystery. We make sure that each character knows something interesting about two or three or four other characters – enough to start a conversation with someone else. So instead of making small talk, I’m either trying to find out something or I’m sharing information that I already know.

I’m not sure our games are suitable for all introverts – if you’re painfully shy you might never enjoy our games. But here are some thoughts on casting extroverts and introverts:

  • Introverts often suit characters that other people will seek out. I remember (inadvertently) casting an very shy person in the role of one of the producers in Hollywood Lies – and they found that the actors, screenwriters and directors were seeking them out because they wanted to appear in their movie.
  • I would tend not to cast an introvert in a role that required a lot of announcements or public speaking. Detectives and private investigators tend to suit extroverts because they require the player to meet with everyone – and they often have a solution to read out at the end of the party.
  • Allow time to wind down afterwards. I find our murder mystery games quite exhausting (both when I’m hosting and when I’m playing), and I need a bit time after the game to wind down.
  • Remember that everyone is different – you may know introverts that are happy to speak in public, so please note that these are guidelines only.

You can take the quiet quiz here and find out whether you’re an introvert or not.

The King’s Musketeers

Last weekend Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long game set in the swashbuckling world of Cardinal Richelieu and Queen Anne, of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, of the Duke of Buckingham, Rene Descartes, and Cyrano de Bergerac. I was Count-Duke Olivares and ruled Spain and Mo was Count de Soubise, a scheming rebel hero.

Steve and Mo at The King's Musketeers
Steve (left) and Mo (right() at The King’s Musketeers

The King’s Musketeers is played very much like our murder mystery games – but much, much bigger:

  • The game lasted all weekend, from 8pm on Friday night through to lunchtime on Sunday. The game was broken into five periods each of four hours  (that works out at about 20 hours of game time). Game stopped at midnight each night, which meant it was time to retire to the bar and catch up with old friends. “Time in” was generally about 9.30 each morning, giving scant time to eat and sleep.
  • The game had over 80 players and six “directors” (what we would call hosts).
  • Character sheets could be many pages long – mine was about 7 pages long with many, many objectives and goals.
  • The rules were even longer, and covered duelling, romance, politics, scandal and more. I was particularly involved in the battle rules, which involved moving armies across Europe and into the New World to conquer and defend territories. I didn’t get into any duels, unlike Mo.
  • Each character had various abilities which were broken down into combat abilities (that covered duelling), romance abilities (for when you lost your heart to another) and general abilities covering a range of uses. The abilities tended to be a bit more powerful than the ones we use in our games, and can potentially have a big impact. (For example, I had one that let me break the rules!)
  • The King’s Musketeers was held in the West Retford Hotel, pretty much in the middle of England. With over 80 players and taking place over a weekend, it’s not something that you can really host in your home.

Although there were murders in The King’s Musketeers (several!) it’s not really billed as a murder mystery game. Instead, it’s a kind of “LARP”, which stands for “live action role play” which spun out of the roleplaying games hobby (such as Dungeons & Dragons). In the UK and Australia this kind of LARP is known as a “freeform”, while in the USA they are better known as “theatre style larps”. Whatever you call them, the emphasis is on playing the character in whatever the setting may be – and a murder is optional. At Freeform Games we take some elements of freeforms/theatre style larps and turn them into murder mystery games.

Anyway, both Mo and I had a wonderful time playing our characters – although because the game was so big and we were involved in very different plots, we barely spoke to each other at all.

By some measures we might not appear to have had a good game – by the end Spain had barely half the power that it started with and Mo’s character died on the Sunday. But we don’t judge the game on whether we succeeded in our goals or whether we survived, we judge these games on whether we had a good time or not – and we both had a great time and are looking forward to the next one!