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Game Review: Maschine Zeit

Welcome to post #300. THIS! IS! ALCHEMY! *boots Edward Cullen into a bottomless pit*

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

I’ve written previously about a little game called Maschine Zeit. It’s about time I did up an official review of it, in the spirit of promoting it, and if I were to sum it up it one word, it’d be “atmospheric.”

In any form of horror-based narrative, any situation where we’re to be put on edge if not scared out of our minds, there needs to be the element of the unknown. We fear what we don’t understand, and we can’t understand what we don’t know, or can’t predict. Basically, effective horror uses the unexpected and springs it on us, whether it creeps across the floor inexorably with stringy hair across its eyes or latches onto us for a mouthful of brain as we round a corner. If we see it coming, it’s not scary.

Maschine Zeit gets that. Boy, does this game ever get that.

The year is 2110. The Machine Age has begun. Humanity is, for all intents and purposes, on its way out. A series of events have put the bulk of the population back on their heels, trying to get their bearings. A population control method, moving people to giant space platforms tethered to the Earth, has not worked as planned. Among the other disasters, gamma radiation bathed the stations and killed most of the people there. This ray burst had two other side effects now coming to the attention of the curious, the adventurous and the insane on the planet below. One, the radiation has changed some of the metal on the stations and given it almost supernatural properties. And two, rumors abound that the radiation has caused the stations to be haunted with strange bio-mechanical beings that were once human. This is the story of Maschine Zeit, the game of ghost stories on space stations.

A lot of tabletop games have one person laying down the tracks of the plot, while the players decide how quickly and with what sort of engine they’ll proceed down those tracks. It’s an effective method for telling collaborative stories, be that one person called a Dungeon Master or a Storyteller or what have you. In Maschine Zeit, the Director might have some plot ideas, but they are not in control of the story. More accurately, they have just as much control over the story as you would as a player. Its system supports ensemble work, a true collaboration of creative minds. No one character is more important than another, and the Director does not impose their ideas on the group.

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

The way the game is designed, every character has a goal, and achieving that goal leads to a moment in the spotlight. Instead of the timing and circumstances of those moments being entirely up to the Director, the players take steps along the way in their journey through still, decaying sci-fi environments inspired by Pandorum or Dead Space. Not everything will go as planned, of course, but when thing are at their darkest and most terrifying, there’s a chance, built into the game’s narrative structure itself, that a player in that situation will seize control of it by saving a fellow player or destroying the monster-thing with an ingenious trap or uncovering some forbidden truth or getting that bit of magical metal to do exactly what they need it to do. Arriving at those moments, taking the reigns of the narrative and watching the dice fall into place as fate agrees to allow that moment happen, is the very essence of Maschine Zeit.

It’s not a game for everyone. It requires thinking on the spot and its subject matter and atmosphere are not for the faint of heart. But if you find yourself interested in this vision of our future, drawn to the mystery of the stations or just curious about how exactly the aforementioned moments work, check out Maschine Zeit. It’s available today (6/22) on, bundled with an introductory adventure for a bargain price. You can do a hell of a lot worse if you want an experience that blends horror, science fiction, and tabletop gaming in a way that you will not soon forget.

Maschine Zeit Update

There’s quite a bit going on over at Machine Age Productions you might want to know about. They have a shiny new website and, if you like unique and fun tabletop games with original concepts, you can get in on the ground floor of Maschine Zeit.

They’ve begun a kickstarter, a cool little way to make sure the game gets a print run. Any contribution you can make will help them get real, tangible copies into the hands of potential players and Directors, not to mention ensuring the game’s mastermind, David A Hill, show up at a convention in a cocktail dress. It’s just as awesome as it sounds.

If you’re still not sold on the idea, or are as yet unsure as to the game’s premise, look no further than this little promotional poster I put together:

The stations were meant to save us. Millions of us went there.

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

Millions of us died there.

Now the stations hold secrets; both miraculous and terrible. Intrepid explorers from all over the world are going up there to look for answers, or profit, or loved ones.
What they are finding, some say, are that dead men do, in fact, tell tales.

It’s time to tell yours.

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

A role-playing game of ghost stories on space stations.
Coming in May 2010 from Machine Age Productions

Maschine Zeit: “I’m gay for Twain.”

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

In Filamena‘s Maschine Zeit game, I’ve put together a completely manic and caustic combination of Hunter S. Thompson and Spider Jerusalem. One of the groups in the game, the Independent Media, operates under the collective moniker of “S.L. Clemins” as a measure of protection. This guy, though? Don’t go in for that.

(Warning: adult language incoming.)


You want to know about the stations? Let me tell you about the stations. They’re the gift that keeps on giving. Earth has an overpopulation problem? Build stations & fill them with warm human bodies. Gamma-ray burst blow across the planet without making anybody Hulk out? Say the stations protected people and thus justified the investment of money and blood required to put them up. Still having energy problems? Stations have magic metal that’ll fix it. Ghost hunters running out of prisons and castles? Hey, the stations have ghosts too!

As far as I’m concerned, the stations are, have been and always will be so many tons of next-generation bullshit at the end of really, really long tethers. It’s the only reason they haven’t stinking up the planet.

I mean, yeah, we had to get some people off of the surface. We had way too many people and way too little usable space & consumable resources. Of course none of the old methods would go over that well with most governments. You ever try pitching the idea of putting a bunch of people from a given nationality or ethnicity into a little room and filling it with gas, for example? They’d tell you to go fuck yourself, and rightly so. For one thing, gunning people down’s a lot more fun.

What it boils down to is that everything about the stations is a lie. “This will solve the overpopulation problem.” They didn’t. “They’re completely safe.” Well, obviously they fucking aren’t. And now we’re to believe there’s magic metal up there and that it’s protected by ghosts? I’m as inclined to believe that as I am that the reason the stations came to be in the first place was a natural occurrence.

Basic premise of the world, folks: Everybody’s full of shit. I’m full of shit, you’re full of shit, and the corporate goons who sent all those good people to die up there are definitely full of shit. Maybe there really are ghosts on the stations. Maybe it’s one hell of a mass hallucination. Either way, it’s something I won’t buy stock in unless I get to see it myself. Not that I’ve got any chance of that. My last four steady jobs all ended because people who once considered themselves sponsors of mine, if not employers, did something embarrassing, tried to cover it up and got fucked over a cactus because they insisted on hiding it from one of the most annoying and thorough investigative journalists who ever stuck a cigarette in his shit-spewer and asked the hard fucking questions: Me.

I’m willing to entertain any theory about what’s happening up there, how things got up there and what the future holds. Just don’t throw a fucking hissy fit when I point out how illogical, unsubstantiated or thoroughly retarded your theory might be. Throw ’em at me, Internet, and I’ll knock ’em out of the park and when they break your mom’s window I’ll do more than go in there after it. If you get my meaning. And I’m sure you do.

By the way, guys, it’s “Clemens.” Samuel Langhorne fucking Clemens. Sure, all of you can be friends with this ‘Clemins’ guy, but me? I’m Samuel Langhorne fucking Clemens’ secret gay lover. And he really hates people misspelling his name. I really respect the work he’s done. The work you all have been doing? Eh, it’s hit or miss.

You’ll be hearing more from me, especially if you folks have the balls to throw ideas my way. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of, unless you’re afraid of me fucking you in the ass. I mean, if you’re all S.L. Clemins, you’re close enough for my tastes, and let me assure you, I’m very, very gay for Twain.

Maschine Zeit: A Preview

Courtesy Machine Age Productions

Here’s a few of the reasons why I’m excited by Maschine Zeit, and you should be too.

Good Scary Writing & Scary Good Writing

The best horror stories do not rely on jump-out in-your-face scares. They don’t base themselves entirely on bloodshed or gore. The effective use of stillness and partially illumination of the unknown cause for a much more tense and compelling atmosphere than the tactics employed by your local haunted house attraction. Maschine Zeit is definitely in the “stillness of the unknown” category. The writing and pacing sets the stage for the kind of flashlight-gripping terror that used to define the kind of storytelling experiences that would have Hitchcock nodding in quiet approval as the rest of the audience screamed bloody murder.

Characters That Are People, Not Just Stats

The character creation system, which I’ve tested a couple of times, has a flow to it that puts the personality of the character front and center rather than putting it behind a wall of statistics. While the stats are certainly there, Maschine Zeit again sets itself apart by actively encouraging players to min-max their characters. Instead of having player aim at being good at everything, this system ensures that the character can accomplish certain tasks with dramatic flair and apparent ease while other characters take on other roles. The shy, intelligent James Sunderland type might be good at figuring out puzzles but he’s not going to be as accurate with a pulse rifle as Duane Hicks. It might seem a bit counter-intuitive at first to players of other tabletop RPGs, but it fits right in with the atmosphere of the game and gets you into your character a bit more adroitly than sitting at a table rolling dice over and over again, praying to Gygax for the best stats possible.

An Apocalypse We Can Believe In

One of the best things that Maschine Zeit has going for it is the way its world is grounded in reality. Even as things begin to turn towards the surreal and supernatural, there’s a tone of voice that has the player thinking “Yeah, that could totally happen.” This grounding makes the events over the course of the game that much more visceral for the players. Combined with effective use of the game’s narrative structure and characters that feel more like real people than fantastical archetypes, this realistic foundation of Maschine Zeit’s world and its stories make for a unique and immersive tabletop experience that can be very difficult to find.

But find it you can, thanks to the genius minds behind Machine Age Productions. There are plans for us to play through a scenario tonight, and tomorrow might find me doing a postmortem on both how the game plays and how the characters fare.

Unless of course all y’all would rather I talk about Dan Brown or something.

Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ’emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?

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