I’m a huge Science Fiction fan. It’s usually my preferred genre of gaming, though I’ve often found it challenging to find others as interested. I like all kinds, from rocket-ships & ray-guns, to ultra-tech utopias, to radiation blasted apocalypses. I first heard about Sarah Newton’s Mindjammer several years ago in an earlier edition. It sounded great, but that version was long out of print and had silly collector prices whenever I found it. But then Modiphius released a new edition using FATE as a base mechanic. I was in. Having been on the periphery of the hobby for a little over ten years, I have little experience with FATE, but I’ve been aware of its growth, and on the surface, it seems like a system I’d dig.
Kurt Wiegel over at Game Geeks gushed about this game, and it sounded like it would be right up my alley, so I was very excited to read it. The game is billed as ‘Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space.’ That sounds great. One of my many frustrations with Star Trek on TV and in film is that, instead of pushing new boundaries and exploring transhumanism, they keep looking backward and trying to widen the cracks in the utopian vision (make it darker, DARKER!!!). So, here comes a game that takes some cues from Trek, but ups the ante, exploring where humans might take themselves as they explore the universe, changing it and letting it change them. Reading about the Commonality and the Mindscape, I could see that there was a lot of potential for some very interesting games. It was also clear there were many different styles of stories to tell within the universe of Mindjammer.
However, the further I read, the less and less enthusiasm I maintained. Page after page, chapter after chapter, I got the feeling that I would never stop reading rules, modifiers, charts, etc. I’m not big on complicated or complex rules systems. I’ve always felt the best thing a game mechanic can do is get out of the way. Story is King. Character is Queen. Rules are pissboy (best when not seen and not thought about). Reading Mindjammer, however, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a rule for everything. Every action, every character trait, every choice, every move seemed to have its own set of numbers and modifiers. I had a similar feeling when I was reading Dungeon World a while back. There are a LOT of rules. However, with Dungeon World, it seemed like they tried to have the rules get out of the way. With Mindjammer, it looks like the rules are the thing. I can’t imagine how gameplay would actually work, if it’s not just a constant discussion of how the rules effect whatever anyone is talking about. I could be wrong. I’d like to try the game. But I’d have to play. At this stage, I could not see myself running it.
The setting of Mindjammer is big. This was one of the selling points for me. I love reading about expansive settings, filled with details and interesting concepts. But here’s the thing. When nearly 450 pages of your 500 page book are taken up to a great extent by rules, there’s precious little space to explore the setting. By the time I finally got to the twenty fourth chapter, the one that actually looks at some of the setting, it felt like an afterthought. Peppered throughout the book there are little snippets and hints of setting, and I think they were the only thing that kept me going at times. Gasps of air for a drowning man. All added up, however, it amounts to far, far too little.
What I ended up with was a rules system so cumbersome I can’t imagine ever using it, attached to a interesting seeming setting, so vaguely described I don’t know what I’d do with it. For gamers with a different approach than myself, perhaps this is the right mix. Maybe if you’re already familiar with FATE, and you’ve got experience using it, the rules part won’t seem so laborious, so much like reading stereo instructions. Maybe. I find myself left with a profound disappointment. What seemed like a sure thing has turned out to be a dud, with almost exactly the opposite rules VS setting ratio from what I wanted and expected.