Tim on (table)Top

Tim on (table)Top : Doomtown and the Merging of Theme and Mechanics

Setting: Monday. This Monday. Or whichever day you’ve decided to read this.

It’s your study, which I imagine to be quaint and seasoned with the ticking of an unseen grandfather clock. Various knick-knacks and instruments of edification adorn the walls, each one bringing to mind the sound of a cash register going ka-CHINK whenever your eyes glance over them. Let’s put a lot of papers, big important stacks, upon your mahogany desk. You have just sat back to relax with whatever your (expensive) drink of choice is, when suddenly there is a rumble. Oh no! Your important papers are madly flying about the room, landing in completely unorganized piles. This is inconvenient.

Then a train smashes through your wall, sending an aforementioned unseen grandfather clock briefly into your field of vision before exiting an up-to-this-point unacknowledged window. Wearing what can only be described as an utterly stereotypical cowboy outfit (complete with cow print chaps), yours truly (Tim, hi, how’s it going) exits the smoking train. I lock my hands around your shoulders.

“TIM!” you manage to sputter, dropping your expensive drink upon your expensive carpet, “Where have you been?! We’ve been wasting away while awaiting your words which flow like honey!”

“There’s no time!” I respond, smacking you across the face for your silliness. “I must speak to you…about Doomtown: Reloaded!”

Doomtown: Reloaded, for those who haven’t seen the wonderful SUSD review, is a collectible card game in which players bounce around the “Weird West” town of Gomorrah, building properties, striking rich in mines, recruiting dudes, inventing mad gadgets and, of course, gunning down any prospective threat to their complete control of the bustling town. Think Wild Wild West meets Netrunner, but with a psychotic gang of demonic clowns thrown in for good measure. In fact, while I still carry the burned brand of Blue Sun scarred into my left cheek, I have actually grown to think that Doomtown surpasses Netrunner on one specific front: its use of mechanics to reinforce the theme, and vice versa.

When I talk about mechanics and theme, let me clarify that I’m speaking about the rules of the game and the story that game tells. In that sense I can envision using the words “narrative” and “theme” interchangeably, as controversial as it might be to do so.

At certain points, Netrunner does a fantastic job of melding these two concepts. Take, for example, the card Day Job. Mechanically, the player spends one click and two credits (players on the “runner” side get four “clicks” with which to perform various actions – typically each action costs one click) to play the card, then spends an additional three clicks as part of the card’s added cost. They then gain ten credits at what is effectively the cost of their whole turn. Thematically, however, your runner is in desperate need of a large jump in funds, so they decide to throw on an ill fitting suit and spend their whole day working for “the man.” It provides them with a decent jump in money, but they’re so worn out from doing junk work that they can’t even bring about the energy to check out a pop-up window, let alone make a deep run into the latest Jinteki research and development center. I would also be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that the latest set of expansion cards, the San-San Cycle, seem to be continuing this trend of thematic mechanics.

But I’ve typically found over the course of all the previous expansions that most of the cards aren’t exactly clear on what’s supposed to be happening thematically in the game. Take the card Eliza’s Toybox as an example. Mechanically, once the Corp rezzes the card for four credits they can spend three clicks (their entire turn) to rez any card free of cost. Mechanically this is something of a fantastic card, allowing the Corporation to rez expensive ICE (cards that act as defensive measures against the runner’s hacking attempts) or assets for free. But thematically?

I earnestly struggle to grasp what exactly’s going on here. Eliza’s Toybox is described as “the preeminent purveyor of high-class debauchery on the moon.” Rather explicitly, it suggests that this is place where you can go to buy sexbot bioroids (a type of android made by corporations that also turn up as Upgrades and ICE)- which, okay, but you can use this shop to rez non-bioroid things as well. And even with the bioroids that it can rezz, I genuinely question whether you would find a Zed 1.0 on the shelf of a sexbot store, given that images of major advertising campaigns like the Adonis and Eve suggest that sexual ideals haven’t become that accepting. So what is happening? Why does the corporation need to spend its entire day focusing on a moon sex store in order to get other aspects of its portfolio working? I suppose one might argue that the corporation is leveraging its customer records to acquire different goods…finalizing plans that had been put into place earlier and announcing their success to the world…

This amount of filling-in-the-gaps in order to fit the card into a narrative contrasts sharply with how sharp and seemingly simplistic Doomtown’s theme comes out of its rules. The recent big box expansion, for example, introduced Union/Confederate mechanics, which added the keyword “Union” or “Confederate” to Dude cards, dependent upon which side they served during the Civil War. These cards are unable to share the same deck (be in the same gang). The sole purpose served is solidifying theme (which will only get stronger as more Union/Confederate cards are released), deepening our understanding of the world of the weird west. Or take the existence of “Boot Hill,” a discard pile that you place your “dudes” in if they’re legitimately killed in a gunfight. Place a dude in boot hill and you are now mechanically unable to play any copies of that card left in your deck.

Why?

Because he’s dead, duh.

This work between mechanics and theme extends even to the combat system, the place where mechanics are usually laid most bare. In Doomtown, players form their posses and utilize different cards (such as pointing out that the sun is in the eyes of an opponent or pistol whipping a man unconscious) to help make the fight a bit more manageable for their side. Once that is done, each player “draws”….up a hand (ha ha ha), taking into account the strength of their posse and its effects over how many cards they can draw and redraw. From there they make the best poker hand, and decide casualties based on how much better the winning poker hand is compared to the losing one.

How perfect. How sweet. How thematic. Even when the game requires you to distance yourself from the story (by making you perform an action as a metaphor for the gunfight going on in the game), it does so by making you play Poker…a game widely associated in America with frontier life and originating in the 19th century. And because your combat is still reliant on a healthy amount of probability and chance, every gunfight turns into this with barely any effort (something Quintin Smith noted in his review).

Depending on how many people we recruit for our charity event, I may just pull out Doomtown and see if we could attempt a four-way fight to the death between everyone…but for the time being, I believe I’ll just keep enjoying the various stories I am able to cook up each week during my playgroup.

“And that’s that!” Tim exclaims, brushing some drywall off your shoulder. Plopping himself down into your previous occupied chair, Tim surveys the destruction about him while aimlessly rolling his spur along your desk.

“You, uh, you should really clean this up, you know?” he says, leaning forward. “Especially since I plan to be here for a while.”

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