Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 29 September 2013

An Afternoon Tea Game

Lords, ladies, gentlemen, and other yet to be enlightened folks, there is an Empire – an Empire of Steam! – to be upheld and protected. Founded on Her Majesty’s faith in the computational advancements of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, in the engineering developments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, and in the technological travel possibilities of Henri Giffard’s steam powered dirigibles, all culminating in the creation of Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis in the midst of the Atlantic, this Empire of Steam is a wonder of the age! It is an age that the Ministry of Computational wish to uphold – and who knows to what ends its Ministry Men will go? Whilst Great Britain enjoys her ‘Steam Age’, Europe is undergoing La Belle Époque, France recovering in the wake of Bismark’s unification of the German States and the Americas has entered a Gilded Age that see the USA’s North American Space Exploration Board in a race for the Moon with Canada’s Hudson’s Space Company – as advised by Jules Verne! This is the setting for Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks: Cracking Adventures in the Empire of Steam, a roleplaying game of Steampunk pulp published by Modiphius Entertainment through Chronicle City.

This is a polite little game intended to be played and run with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of manners, preferably in the comfort of the sitting room with tea served in bone china, a neatly filled cake stand, and the company of like-minded friends. The game is light enough that in the absence of character sheets – sadly something that the game does indeed lack – and dice, a gaming group could use as something as simple as napkins and a suitably marked sugar cube! Alternatively, simple paper, a pen, and a single six-sided die per person are sufficient.

As much as Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is the game title, each element is an Attribute integral to a character in the game. ‘Cogs’ covers a character’s technical, mental, and knowledge skills; ‘Cakes’ his personality and social skills as well as your social standing; and ‘Swordsticks’ his physical and combative skills. For each Attribute a character possesses a single descriptive trait as well as a value at +2 or +3. Two are set at +2, the other at +3. A character also has a Foible, not a flaw in game terms, but certainly something that might get the character in trouble or provide a plot hook for the GM to use. 

‘Derby’ Ned Billingsgate
Cogs: Fast Hands (Can empty a pocket in a thrice; open a lock just like that; and fan the Aces!) +3
Cakes: East End Urchin (Knows his way around the rougher parts of London; sometimes mistaken for other urchins; knows how to charm the charitable) +2
Swordsticks: Slippery as an Eel (Can get out of trouble if he has to and avoid blows; slips easily into buildings) +2
Background: Ned Billingsgate is an orphan, abandoned on the steps of Mrs. Miggins’ College for Wayward Foundlings, a baby farm and orphanage. Eventually it turned out that the education in the orphanage was less about books and more about thievery and burglary. Ned became adept at both, yet like his brothers and sisters, he would be beaten by  Mrs. Miggins if he did not bring enough home. So he ran away to make his own life. He acquired the nickname ‘Derby’ from the hat he wears.
Foible: Cares for his brothers and sisters at Mrs. Miggins’ College for Wayward Foundlings

Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is mechanically very simple. To undertake an action the player and the GM agree as to the appropriate Attribute and applies its modifier to the result of a single six-sided die. If the result beats a given target, two for Very Easy, three for Easy, four for Medium, and so on, then the character will have succeeded. A roll of one is an automatic failure, a roll of six is an extraordinary success. If a character lacks an appropriate Attribute, then he always has a +1 modifier. The system is simple and fast as is combat which uses opposed rolls for most situations, the loser has to reduce one of his Attributes by one.

As written, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is designed to be picked up and played with the minimum of fuss. Within a page or three, the game has explained the basics to the rules, and within five pages has presented three ready-to-play characters and a scenario to run for them in a single afternoon’s tea. In ‘Time Flies By’ the staff of the Bedfordshire Gentleman’s Parcel & Post must deliver a package to St. Pancras Station via the Midland Railway. It would appear to be a simple enough task were it not for the dread Steam Train Pirates! The book also includes several scenario seeds as well as a lengthier scenario, ‘Devices & Designs’, in which the adventurers must track whoever broke into the British Museum.

Physically, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is a slim black and white volume illustrated in an engagingly mannered style by Geof Banyard. The book is solidly written and has a certain homespun quality to it. There is good advice for the GM, the background is nicely thematically presented, and there are lots of examples in terms of characters and actually Cogs, Cakes, and Swordsticks Attributes. Yet, as a game, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is lacking something, and that something is a menace, a threat, and perfidy even… It is perhaps a little too polite.

Politeness counts for a great deal though and Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks: Cracking Adventures in the Empire of Steam is delightfully easy to pick up and play possessing manners and elegance in its lack of complexity. Above all, it is a charming and proper little game that deserves a little more background and a lot more danger!