|Fog of Love (2017)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.24]
Fog of Love is easily the most original and innovative game that I have on my shelves. It’s not that it has a unique theme, although short of the Yahtzee style life-simulator CV I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything even close in the tabletop space. The mechanics are distinctive, even if they’re made from relatively familiar parts. Its originality is more than that though. This is a game that toys with the basic conceptions of winning, losing, and what games can really tell us about ourselves. It’s a game that was designed to win a non-gamer over to the cause of analog play and I can’t imagine a more confident neophyte entry into this increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace. Fog of Love is genuinely something special.
Before we get into any of that, I’m going to gush about the production values – this is a gorgeously produced game. It’s exactly what I’d imagine a board game by Apple would look like – something immaculately packaged in exactly the right way to elicit a satisfied sigh as you open the box. You don’t lift up a lid, you insinuate the interior out of its gently nestling cover. You open it up and you see enticing foil packs containing future game scenarios, and a set of heavy chips that feel weighted with implication. They’ll make each of the decisions you take in the game feel correspondingly significant. There are plastic boxes containing dozens of small discs, each of which will be carefully placed on the command console of the board. That in itself wouldn’t look out of place as the dashboard of Sagan’s Ship of the Imagination. It’s not unusual that games are full of beautiful components that leap out from the table at you. It’s more unusual that games come in a box that is as satisfying to open as the packaging of a new iPhone. Even the aesthetic is supremely clean and elegant – a masterpiece of understatement that again just oozes a sense of confidence that is remarkable.
Fog of Love is so perfect an example of the User Experience of thoughtful box design that it’s actually enough to make a cynical asshole like myself instantly suspicious. ‘Why so lovely a box? What is it about this game they’re trying to hide?’. Such things can be a magic trick designed to draw the attention away from significant flaws in the design. In this case though – no. Fog of Love is as immaculately designed in its game systems as it is in its presentation and as a result it’s not getting away from Meeple Like Us without scads of lavish praise. It’s ambitious not just in terms of its originality but in also terms of the risks it takes with the game itself. Ironically given the packaging this is not a game that fits neatly into a box.
It’s not strictly a strategy game, although it certainly has enough of that to keep anyone interested. It’s not a roleplaying game although if you played it without taking on the perspectives of your characters you’d find it a much shallower experience. It’s not even easy to define by its player model – it’s not really competitive but it’s also not co-operative. It’s two players, but it’s not a duel. It’s collaborative, but you’re also not strictly speaking a team. It’s not a simulation because it’s too story-focused. It’s not a story-telling game because it’s too simulationist. It bills itself as a romantic comedy generator but I’ve seen comparatively little comedy in it. I’m not sure how to classify Fog of Love and it’s much stronger a proposition as a consequence of that difficulty.
Enough of that, let’s talk about how it works. Each of the two players in the game are going to assume the role of a person warily circling around a serious relationship with another person. You’ll have an occupation that you choose from a handful of options. You’ll have a set of ‘trait goals’ that define what it is that is fundamental to your personality. If the personality you have expressed at the end of the game is compatible with your trait goals, you’ll get extra happiness. These might be an individual balance in a particular trait, or one that is based on the shared sum of traits in the couple. That, as you might imagine, makes things interesting because those trait goals need not be compatible. In fact this is a more viscerally satisfying game when the couple is at odds with each other.
You’ll also have a set of features that are assigned to you by the other player. They represent those elements of your personality, or your physical presence, that were most noticeable to the other. When you assign a feature, you also say a little bit about it – that’s a common feature of much of the game. The first thing you do in Fog of Love is character creation, and that sets the scope of the roleplaying from the start. You feel an instant connection with your avatar because of how colourful the traits are and the intimacy of that exchange of first impressions. This is one of a number of lovely and innovative design feature that create a light touch incentive for you to begin playing about with the themes of the game. It’s important here too that the game starts the tentative process of distancing you from your character by making sure both of you are aware of the fictive convention of play. Fog of Love is not just a game, it’s a shared experience of emotional inference and shadowy understanding. Achieving the necessary distance in those circumstances is critical in ensuring the game doesn’t flip from ‘Hugh Grant vehicle about a secretive watchmaker’ to ‘real life argument about your relationship with your in-laws’. In Fog of Love you often need to explain and justify your decisions – and those decisions can be hurtful to your imaginary romantic partner. You’ll often need to roleplay and discuss the impact and few people necessarily trust that the Devil’s advocate didn’t take on the job for the plausible deniability it offers. Hidden in the background of every discussion can be the implied question of ‘Is that would you would do in these circumstances?’.
That’s tricky territory and we’ll cover it in more detail in our accessibility teardown. Suffice to say though that this is maybe my favourite part of the entire game because of how effortless it makes the job of breaking the ice on a genuinely novel boardgame experience.
‘The first thing I noticed about you’, said Mrs Meeple, ‘Was that you were wearing very strange makeup. Really odd makeup. Makeup that made me think that you were someone interesting that I might like to get to know better’.
Character creation here isn’t just a perfunctory and grudging ‘You wore makeup, now you give me a feature’. It’s the collaborative construction of a mismatched pair of hopeful lovers with distinctive character traits. You can visualise them because of the story chunk you get when the traits are allocated. That in turn incentivises you to get creative with your response.
‘We’re called Juggalos’, I said. ‘My makeup is important in stressing my deep and abiding love for the Insane Clown Posse. ICP defines who I am as a person and it’s important that you are happy with that’
The features represent what was noticeable at the time of meeting, but if you don’t want them expressed heavily in the rest of the game you are given plenty of opportunities to mitigate or explain them away as temporary aberrations. No gameplay systems are provided for this – it’s all down to the shared space of storytelling. A feature is offered, and accepted or deflected as is appropriate for the character you have in mind.
‘So, tell me about your occupation?’, she asked.
‘I’m an Internet celebrity. I make all my money online. I’m a pretty big deal.’
‘How interesting! Tell me about your Youtube channel?’
‘It’s called Terminally Funny’, I said. ‘I go into hospitals dressed up like the Death from Discworld and tell the terminally ill that I’m a Deathogram. Then I film the results on my phone. It’s a really popular show, it gets a minimum of thirty hits a week’
‘That sounds… wait, thirty hits a week? You can’t make money from that!’
‘Oh, most of my money comes from the vexatious lawsuits that I file against the grieving for not paying the Deathogram bill. Or even just from people paying it out of the estate. If you hit people when they’re vulnerable they might not even look at the invoice too closely’
You also, as a result of the trait allocation system, get a chance to set the tone of the story to come. These are the first establishing shots that frame the entire game session. They can be light and whimsical. They can be genuinely romantic and occasionally erotic. Or you can play off of them like you’re assigning traits from the deck in Cards Against Humanity. You can build this consensus through the discussion you have at this stage and that carries on for the rest of the game. You don’t get these features deeply incorporated from this point on but you’ll find many causes to reference them if you like.
That’s why you might be roleplaying an ambitious news anchor with flabby legs that slept his way to the top (Mrs Meeple), or a sexy blonde bombshell in a wheelchair (me). You might be an athletic meathead wearing high-heels or a sweet-talking guy who has a self-done tattoo on his forehead. You get some control over who you end up with but it’s important here to roll with the roles. After all, you need to get into the frame of mind that you’re not simulating your real relationship with the person opposite – you’re simulating the relationship of people that don’t exist. That’s easier to do if you don’t fight against the characterization that is sometimes imposed upon you from without. This is a beautifully consensual and collaborative way to build your characters. I didn’t invent the emotionally insecure Juggalo or the newsman using sex as a career advantage. We invented them together because of the give and take in the process. A trait is offered, and its importance to your character is framed by your reaction.
You can probably see here where the game starts to ask quite a lot of its players – it requires inventiveness and some flair for improvisation. You’re going to be freestyle rapping your relationship and it’s important that you’re both in sync with the beat.
Each of you is also responsible for tracking your satisfaction which goes up and down as you resolve the scenarios of the game with which you are presented. You may find a compatible couple riding high on happiness, every action they take producing more as they move forwards in harmonious compatibility towards their mutual happy ending. You might find, as we did last night, that you are trapped in such a toxic relationship that your happiness meter never goes beyond single digits and you’re left actively sabotaging your partner as the only way to escape the relationship with a win. And in the game too.
‘Hey, we’re alone – let’s have sex in the outdoors!’, your character proclaims.
‘What? No, gross’, says the second. ‘Sex? With you? God, no. You? Eurgh.’
Here you’re not making the decisions you would make – instead you’re making the decisions that best allow you to meet your trait goals at the end of the story. As such, you’re presented with choices during the game that will often, but not always, result in you pulling in different directions. ‘Yes, I want everything from IKEA’ versus ‘I’d rather live in a hovel and donate the money to the poor’. When the choices you make are compatible, your happiness will tend to increase. When choices clash, your happiness will tend to decrease. In all circumstances what you choose has a strong possibility of influencing how heavily you are expressing your various traits and that in turn creates moments of tension when those traits clash against the goals of your partner. You’re never allowed to collaborate on decisions, although you’re certainly encouraged to roleplay the reactions. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the roleplaying isn’t just a flavourful contrivance – it’s the key thing that drives the game forward. If Fog of Love had a neat genre into which it could fit it would probably be a kind of area control game, except the main game mechanism is affection denial. That part is strong but not strong enough to bring out the value of the game. Fog of Love needs you to put yourself out there by throwing yourself into it.
Your end goal here is to attempt to achieve one of the destinies that you have in hand. That’s much easier said than done because they will cycle in and out of contention depending on the choices you make. A decision you take to increase your sensitivity might result in you losing the only destiny you had a chance of achieving. In the process that make it more likely that you’ll have the happiness needed to achieve another if you get a chance to claim it.
You’ll be working your way through a love story as part of the game, and the box comes with a few of these as standard. They set up what is essentially the plot of your romcom – maybe you are high school sweethearts, or a committed couple of DINKs. There aren’t many of these scenarios, and we’ll get to that, but they exist primarily to shape the direction of the story by setting the tempo of the game. You each hold a number of scenes in your hand, and they might be sweet, serious, or full of high-octane tension. The chapters of the game tell you how many cards you’re going to play before a chapter transition and from which decks you can draw replacement scenes. As such they create a dramatic arc that begins sweet and loving and eventually becomes ‘knife fight in an Asda carpark’ and maybe back again. You might spend a comparatively blissful chapter of six cards in the warm glow of new love before ending the game in a sixteen-card charnel house of hate and anger. This is a beautiful system for ensuring nobody is permitted to stay in their comfort zones – hard choices are coming and you don’t get the option of deferring difficult discussions until one of you is conveniently on their deathbed.
In turns, you play down a scene and then secretly make the choices indicated with the pleasingly tactile choice discs. Some cards let you both choose, others put a choice on your partner alone. In all cases, there will be consequences for what you pick when the decision is revealed.
Some cards are secrets, which you ferret away under your board without revealing them. Your partner will either need to trust they’re not going to be a problem or ferret them out with their own furtive actions. Some cards are reactions that let you change decisions with the benefit of hindsight. Others are situations that put multipliers on the risks and rewards of the scenes that follow. It’s a versatile toolkit for giving just enough reasons for tension that the game has challenge as well as occasional moments of levity salvaged from the train-wreck of a failing relationship.
‘Let’s go on a romantic cabin retreat’, you suggest, doubling the personality impact of the next scenario that gets played.
‘Sure, sounds lovely. Oh, by the way, I’ve been cheating on you with your best friend so let’s talk about that when we get there.’
It’s more strategic than simply acting in alignment with your own goals though because there are cards that give you opportunities to self-improve, or at least change. There are cards that force your partner to swap out a trait goal, or wipe some of their accumulated traits clean off the board. You might have guessed someone is trying to express the shared extroversion of the couple while your character just wants the world to leave them alone. You could fix that situation by working to adjust your own traits, trying to change the traits of your partner, or simply washing away the painstaking personal development they’ve worked towards. Lots of the destinies in your hand require the couple as a whole to be relatively equivalently happy – some of them though… well…
If you’re striving for a relationship in which you are the dominant one, you need to be much happier than your partner but ensure they’re not so unhappy that their only way out is to break up the relationship. Equal partners need closely matched happiness, or at least closely matched unhappiness. Unconditional love is focused on your partner’s happiness rather than yours. Honorable exit is a breakup that is met when the relationship as a whole is completely incompatible with your personality. In all cases, you only have those destinies that are compatible with the choices you’ve made through the game – if you meekly go along with everything your partner says you won’t be able to be dominant. If you focus on yourself rather than the relationship you can’t be equal partners, and so on. Sometimes your decisions in game create a kind of epiphany moment for a character where they are suddenly compelled to act against their established behaviour because a moment of insight permitted them a destiny that they had otherwise been denied. You build a real connection with your Little Cardboard Person because you can see how cruelly they are being denied their own chances at happiness because of the selfish actions of the asshole across the table. You become invested in these struggles because they’re not simple, shallow choices that are made isolation. Fog of Love beautifully models the cumulative effects of compromise and coercion without ever being blunt about its impact. Despite offering only broad stereotypes for decisions these play within a context that is surprisingly sophisticated and reflective of real nuance. It’s a remarkable achievement.
You can see I’m sure why this is such an interesting game brimming over with innovation and originality. I can think of nothing like this with the possible exception of And Then We Held Hands. Alter Ego, a video game which I referenced in the review of CV, comes relatively close but even then it lacks a gaming framework upon which it could have hung its storytelling vignettes. Fog of Love gives you a game and a collaborative roleplaying experience all in one immaculately designed package. There’s very little to criticise in how it’s put together as a game.
However, I’m still going to focus in on that ‘very little’ because it does have a considerable impact.
Fog of Love doesn’t skimp on scenes – there are over a hundred of them in the box and while they’re not all especially interesting none of them are filler. They cover an admirable gamut from the trivial to the traitorous. They encompass the happy and bright side of life but occasionally shroud it in bleak darkness and betrayal. Each card has a different weight of importance depending on your character and as such you might approach the same scenario a different way each time you encounter it. It’s as good a design of story beats as you could hope for in a game like this.
But there are still only a touch over a hundred of them and ,many of them will come up again in many stories. Each of the foil story packs you open adds a few new story elements into the deck but at a glacial pace. You might not even see them when you play through the chapters. As such, Fog of Love will occasionally feel like someone put the Groundhog Day DVD on a scene shuffle. All that changes in a lot of games is the order and the specific emphasis you put on choices. That’s enough to make sure the game is replayable but not enough to make it feel consistently fresh. All that shiny chrome and mystery will erode rapidly and all you’ll see at the end are the gears they leave behind.
That’s an issue compounded on occasion by the cards themselves which often offer no real incentives for players to make meaningful decisions. You’re usually choosing a set of traits goals at the start of the game that will impact on three of the six possible personality elements. You’ll often find yourself with long stretches of scenarios coming up that don’t impact in a useful way on any of the ones you’re tracking. When you need a particular thing to happen there’s a reason to be invested and to roleplay the story. When you don’t you’re far more likely to approach it mechanistically and that is to a considerable detriment in the game. There’s only so often you can enthusiastically roleplay a visit to IKEA if your character has no strong opinions on cheap but functional Swedish furniture.
Now, you won’t see all of these scenes in a single play-through and there will be some you haven’t seen even as you reach the finale of the final pack in the box. There will still be surprises that come after you’ve played it five, ten or twenty times. It’s just that it doesn’t take too long before these new story beats start to feel like extra scenes in a director’s cut of a movie you’ve already seen too often. Sure, they were an injection of novelty into a well-traveled experience but how much of that thrill will survive its transplantation into mundane familiarity? By the end of the final scenario in the base box of Fog of Love I already had some scene cards that I would have cheerfully never encountered again. Sure, each card is a tool in a toolkit of subtle manipulation but if you don’t need them they’re not adding much to your experience other than padding.
That’s a problem, but importantly judging by the program of expansion I saw in the box it’s a problem that will eventually be fixed by time. I assume future expansions will come in the form of story packs that you gradually fold into the game and the accumulation of enough of those will do well in diluting the corrosive impact of predictability. Whether that’s genuinely going to be enough to eventually elevate Fog of Love into the highest echelons of the gaming stratosphere remains to be seen. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. It’s boldly experimental and very successful in its attempt to do something no other game does. If it never got another expansion over its entire lifetime it would still be a great game. I’m extremely hopeful we can expect more from it as time goes by.