Downfall: A Review

Downfall is a 3-player, story-telling game by Caroline Hobbs where you collaboratively build a society or civilization and then tell the story of its destruction through the eyes of three key members of that society.  While that does sound somewhat sadistic on the surface, the game is meant to bring out the deeper meanings behind the collapse of a civilization in an emotional touching way.

Now, I’m not a touchy-feely type guy.  I like to power game.  Give me a +5 Vorpal Sword as a level 1 fighter, and I’m as happy as a clam.  However, that’s exactly why I think this game is something special.  It’s not my regular cup of tea, but it still caught my attention and held it.  Heck, just reading through the rule book was a fun experience in and of itself.  Let me give you a run-down of the three main acts of the game so you get a better feel for how it’s played.

World Building

The first main segment is designing the society which will ultimately fall.  This section is not glossed over by the game designer in any way.  No one treats this part as not as important knowing the end that awaits.  Rather, the rules are written in such a way that you are encouraged to go into detail about this tragic setting.

You start by designing the Flaw that will bring about the destruction.  There are several suggestions given for flaws from the obvious (greed or nationalism) to the subtle (love or selflessness).  The Flaw sets the tone for the whole game.

Next, you define the physical setting using random Elements to spark your imagination.  This part could be particularly useful if you are creating your own RPG setting.  The mechanics employed are simple but effective at drawing forth a unique physical place.

Finally, you dig deeper by defining traditions in the society.  These traditions usually flow out of the Flaw and may not be evil or even morally gray by design.  They are, however, traditions that the Flaw can easily corrupt and twist right in front of the general population without anyone raising the alarm.  The rules have you put traditions in categories that are important to the society and even ask you to create symbols of those traditions to further flesh out the history of your newly created world.

With the society itself defined, let’s talk about the main characters of the story.

Three Points of View

The Hero of the story is a person in the population who recognizes the Flaw and fights against it.  While we know the Hero is destined to lose, he or she is still one of the few who see the truth of that coming destruction.  Players are asked to think of the Hero’s occupation and what Tradition they oppose because through that corrupted Tradition they discovered the Flaw.

Opposing the Hero is the Fallen.  This is the antagonist of the story but not necessarily the mustache twirling evil doer.  For whatever reason, this character supports the Flaw.  Maybe they believe it’s actually the right thing to do or maybe they are just selfish.  Regardless of their motive, the Fallen has some relationship with the Hero that can drive role-playing forward.

The third character is the Pillar who is your run of the mill citizen.  They are all about not rocking the boat, but their inaction may very well push the downfall of society closer and closer.

Total Collapse of My Heart

With the characters defined, each player then takes on the role of one of the characters in different scenes to flesh out the story of the fall.  Characters are then rotated between the players until we finally discover how society fell.  This is the actual role-play portion and can take as long as you like.  There are character sheets and such to pass around, but you now get the gist of the game.

What I Like

I love the world building aspect of this game and the connections is asks you to make as a player between the world, the characters, and the theme of the game.  Many board game designers talk about making sure the mechanics of the game mesh with the theme, and the game mechanics here force you to keep coming back to the Flaw, the theme.

I also like that there are several suggestions (about 20% of the book) for how to take this into different genres whether fantasy, sci-fi, or modern.  Those suggestions sprinkled throughout the book really helped me to think about different Flaws that would be fun and challenging to play.

What Could Improve

Honestly, I’m not sure what mechanically could improve this game.  I’m a game tinkerer by nature, and maybe it’s just that this game is outside of my wheelhouse, but I think it flows together really well.  The only I would really love to see is some better art (which there is no way you could expect Ms. Hobbs to do on a small Kickstarter budget) and some more examples of Flaws and Traditions that flow out of those Flaws.  I know many people don’t want examples because they feel they keep coming back to those ideas, but I enjoyed reading this rule book so much and thinking about the game that I wanted more examples.

Overall Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Downfall to all types of gamers.  If you’ve never had the chance to dive into a more story-telling type game, this is a great one.  If you’d rather get your feet wet in story-telling games with a more familiar one, I would recommend Follow first, but Downfall would not be a bad place to start either.

I’m a Math teacher by trade and training, but due to budget cuts, I was forced to teach Language Arts and Social Studies along with Math last year.  Using this game as a basis, we dove into a writing project learning about different forms of government and how their Flaws can be ingrained in the character of their society.  I was really happy with the idea of the project, but I think a true Social Studies teacher could have pulled it off better.  You’re welcome to check out the project I built and use it yourself if you’d like.  That should tell you how much I believe in this game, so check out Downfall!

If you give this game a try, I’d love to hear how it went, especially if you’re new to the story-telling type games like I am.  Also, if you this game helped you build an awesome world for your next smash hit RPG campaign, drop me a line.  I always love hearing your stories as well.

Until next time: keep playing every role!  This time as a creator with Downfall!