Play-Review: Microscope

Last night at our Go Play SF Bay monthly event, Jesse Coombs brought Microscope, by Ben Robbins. It’s a GM-less history/world-building game, sort of like playing out a history book and documentary all at once. I really dug it, and wanted to post some thoughts now having played it.

Microscope Actual Play

Result of our game (click for much, much bigger)

In Microscope, you make a vast history, which is generalized by the entire group at the beginning. We chose something like “Rise of the AI” (I forget the actual wording). Then we defined our beginning and end eras — broad strokes of time that begin and end our history. We picked “The Dawn of AIs” and “The Dusk of Humanity” as our beginning and ending points. Describing them briefly, we were saying that none of our huge story takes place before the AIs come into being or after humanity bites it.

However, we don’t set how long those periods, or “eras,” are. And we don’t set how long of a time it is between them. After that, we make some elements to go in those eras, called “events” — smaller points in time where something noteworthy happens. Or we make new eras. We each get to make one thing at this stage. I was playing with five people total (which the game doesn’t advise, and it felt slow initially, so I can see why), so we made up things like “The Boiling Sea” era and “The First AI makes itself known to the world” event. With a bit thrown out, we have enough context to play.

Each round of play — once around the table, with the starting player of that round, or “Len,” going twice and getting a bit more privilege, has a “Focus.” That’s the thing that everything made during that round has to relate to. The first one was “The Boiling Sea” — one of our eras. During each turn, you have one of three options:

  • Make a new Era, and place it anywhere in the timeline — the portrait-oriented index cards at the top of the picture above
  • Make a new Event in an Era, and place it anywhere beneath that Era, anywhere in that Era’s timeline — the landscape-oriented index cards underneath eras.
  • Make a new Scene in an Event, that will be placed physically underneath the Event after the scene is over.

The choice is interesting to me, because you’re given effectively two options: declare a broad element of the world (eras & events), or play out a moment in time (scenes). Scenes are short, where you decide what the scene is about by what question it will answer, decide on the characters and your initial thoughts about that character in the scene, and play out until you feel the question is answered. Short and to the point.

There is a resolution mechanic, but we never used it. It’s a player resolution thing (if I understand it right — the game was explained to me, and I only bought my PDF of the book this morning), not a character one, so it’s about settling disagreements at the table.

The game is achronological. That’s really fucking neat. As long as you don’t invalidate something already created, you can make eras, events and scenes anywhere in the timeline.

Another interesting part is how the game talks about authority. It explicitly forbids in many situations players helping one another. Now, I don’t know if that’s to promote and interesting social dynamic or if Ben’s having a “show me on the doll where players trouncing on one another touched you” reaction, but the effect was neat. I wouldn’t play like that all the time, but I like the idea of bringing that into other collaborative games.

The first round was pretty slow, and I initially thought “Microscope is meh,” but I’m glad we gave it a couple more rounds, because then I got jazzed about it. I’m totally looking forward to playing it again. It does require a fuckton of index cards, though. That said, you can use the cards to preserve the state of the game, and play again later.

There’s a lot I’m not talking about, regarding the Palette, light and dark tones (the empty & filled in circles), things like that. If you want more in-depth, there’s always googling. :) Or, if the game interests you and you don’t mind $10 for a PDF, give it a try!

Why Microscope is Noteworthy

The hot bit, for me, was how it handles the different choices. If you’re in a moment where you don’t want to roleplay, but want to make up a new factoid and play writer-room, you can make that choice. If you’re in a moment where you want to play something out, you can do that. And if you want to do both, you have to make a choice of what’s more important to you, which contribution pulls stronger at you. The idea that you have very, very different story-crafting roles during your turn is pretty hot. I look forward to more games exploring that.

– Ryan

P.S.: I should note that Microscope will also be a text I critique, because there was a text element that…well, that’s jumping ahead.