My Father's Work from Renegade Games allows two to four players to experience life through the eyes of three generations of mad scientists as they strive to complete a unique masterwork, such as "The Creature" (as expected), "Lycanthropic Strength", "Love Potion", "Immortality"... even "A Time Machine", among others. To do so, they'll have to further their scientific studies and experiments with lesser pursuits that will lead to more grandiose discoveries.
They'll dispatch their servants to the nearby town to pick up ingredients from the park for botanical research, the blacksmith for mechanical experiments, and the cemetery for… uh… other pursuits. Meanwhile, back at their estate, they'll be making improvements to their ancestral home, which will gain them advantages, tending to their business for needed funding, and performing experiments, some of which will drive the servants away and the players more and more insane as the game progresses.
Mechanically, My Father's Work is a euro-style "worker placement" game, but one with a massive amount of theme and narrative heaped upon it. The game's designer, T.C. Petty III, confirmed what inspired him. "Yes, 100% for the classic cast of Universal Monsters and Hammer films with Christopher Lee's iconic Dracula. The aesthetic leans very hard on classic, early horror film tropes: Gothic mansion on the hill, lightning strikes, howling wolves, over-the-top horror logo, unnatural noir lighting – the works."
The narrative is delivered via a relatively recent and not uncontroversial innovation in tabletop games: an app. As the game begins, players will first choose which scenario to play through. Three are included in discrete boxes with extra components that may or may not come to the table, depending on the story's path through the players' choices, achievements, and failures. The scenarios provide a narrative backdrop to the players' more immediate endeavors but will also present unique and thematic challenges and opportunities to advance their work. There's "The Cost of Disease," which presents a worsening yellow fever epidemic, "A Time of War" provides opportunities amid conflict, and "Fear of the Unknown" pits the players' unorthodox scientific interests against the fear and suspicion of a population with more traditional religious boundaries.
From that starting point, players largely carry out their work on their own estate board and in the town, represented by a spiral-bound book called the "Village Chronicle." The app instructs the players on which page to use for the town map. The town's layout can change depending on the chosen scenario and what transpired in previous rounds and generations. The app provides further decision points each round and with each successive generation.
"The main storylines are true branching stories, which is something you do not see in video or board games, ever," says Petty. "What that means is that you play three generations of a mad scientist family. When you die for the first time, the story splits and you return as your son or daughter. When you die for the second time, the story splits again. No overlap. So at the least, in each of the three storylines in the box, you're seeing three of a possible seven generations, each with their own story, mechanics, pieces, and game board.
Of course, it can't be that simple. Your choices in the game have different outcomes depending on how the story goes. A token you gain in one game may be a boon but a curse in another game. Characters in the story die. Locations on the board are permanently removed. It's wild how many mechanical and narrative consequences exist."
The advent of app assistance in tabletop games is not without its controversies, as is the case with any innovation. Detractors worry about pushing board games too close to their video game cousins, and others are concerned that the game will be unplayable should the publisher no longer support the app.
While it's true that the app is absolutely necessary to play the game, the second concern is a bit of a worry… but only a bit. I mean, I can still play "Zork" and "Hard Hat Mack" on my brand new Macbook (I'm sorry, my beloved Apple IIe. You live now only in my memory), so I'm not exactly biting my fingernails.
As for the first complaint… of turning the board game into a video game, T.C. Petty shares your concern: "The most important part for me is that the game is played on the table and that the app just makes the storyline more atmospheric and easier to manage. It's perfect for horror. When the story can remember what you did and surprisingly spit the consequences back at you later – perfection. That's more crucial to me than a jump scare from a guy in make-up that tells you to lose a turn."
Indeed, integrating board games with "new" (dare I say "fangled"?) technology isn't really all that new. It was the nostalgia for older VHS board games that served as a secondary inspiration for My Father's Work.
"Do you remember the old VHS horror board games like Harbingers, Atmosfear [a.k.a. Nightmare], and Doorways to Horror?" asks Petty. "One of the early ideas for My Father's Work was to include full-motion video sections where the townsfolk appeared on screen to alter gameplay. The genesis of the app-assisted idea goes back to my nostalgia for those fun, but shitty, games. They were not good."
Besides handling all the general booking and the branching nature of the storyline, the app is packed with narrative, which the players will read through themselves for the most part, but there's an extra treat: each generation provides an introductory narrative that is read by professional voice actors. You have your choice of Ben Maddox or Jessie Tang to help set the mood.
Each generation in the game consists of three turns, representing the early, middle, and late periods in the players' lives. They go about their research and attempt to make scientific breakthroughs, but at the end of the third round, that generation dies off before a new one begins. In My Father's Work, as in life, you can't take it with you. Resources, money, and incomplete experiments will be lost as players begin the next generation anew. However, players don't start completely from scratch. They will be able to keep one completed experiment that will serve as the basis for completing experiments in the next generation, with the benefit of knowledge they gained in previous generations, provided they had the wherewithal to record that knowledge in their journal.
"Record Knowledge" is an action players can take on their turn, which moves their "knowledge cubes" up several different tracks, depending on the type of knowledge they're gaining. You have the relatively harmless pursuits of chemistry, biology, and engineering, but what would a good gothic experience be without occult knowledge? Advancing on knowledge tracks not only lets players gain the benefit of having that knowledge stored for future generations, but it also provides additional rewards along the way. Occult knowledge, however, while needed for certain kinds of experiments, also comes with a price.
For dabbling in things we were not meant to know, future generations will move up the "Creepy Track," a measurement of how disturbing and suspicious players' actions are to the townsfolk. As their "Creepy" token moves to the right on the "Creepy Track," the "Angry Mob" token moves to the left. Should the twain ever meet, there will be trouble… in the form of fire and pitchforks, no doubt. This puts a damper on the efforts of players to send their servants into town to do their bidding. Even players are prohibited from going anywhere in town when they have raised the ire of the mob… with one exception: players can always go to church to show they've seen the light. With their creepiness temporarily forgiven, they are then free to continue their questionable pursuits.
Servants have been mentioned a few times and will be important to players. Without them, there's simply too much to do. Players also have a spouse, who acts as a servant for all intents and purposes, and a "caretaker"... a monstrous one at that! Because they are so disturbing, the caretaker cannot be sent into town but must remain on the estate to take care of business there. However, there is plenty to do, and a good monstrous caretaker is worth their weight in apfelstrudel. Servants and spouses can become so unsettled by your experiments that they leave you, but your caretaker will remain loyal, eager to pull a lever, charge a Leyden jar, or record whatever blasphemous knowledge you like.
The aforementioned insanity will also drive away servants and spouses and garner players "Compulsion" cards, which aren't necessarily bad. Hyperfocus and single-minded obsession can be assets, at least in mad science. If players can achieve the temporary goals on the compulsion card, they'll benefit, but if they are left with at least two unsatisfied compulsions, the next generation will become saddled with a "Maladjustment," which will saddle players with unremovable penalties and make things generally more difficult. Get those compulsions in check!
My Father's Work, itself, is a masterwork. From the wonderfully theme-rich and engrossing narrative with its branching storylines to the solid worker placement gameplay… to the amazing components! Uniquely shaped wooden tokens for coffins and animal parts, metal gears for mechanical components, and chemical ingredients represented by small glass jars with real cork stoppers. (If you want to see how people customize their glass jars with eyeballs, epoxy, slime, and a host of other crafty additives, just have a roam around Etsy)! Double-layer cardboard estate boards, linen-finish cards, and every other component has gotten "the treatment." My Father's Work is a lavish production, and it's one that might just have been too risky for a publisher in the hobby game market. For mass-market publishers, it would have been well beyond the target price point and completely out of the question. It is, perhaps, a game that could only be realized in its current form through another relatively recent innovation: crowdfunding.
"I thought this game was unpublishable," says Petty. "My first board game [VivaJava: The Coffee Game] was on Kickstarter eleven years ago, so even with this magical new source of crowdfunding, I still thought 'who would be crazy enough to attempt this?' An electronic app, a game board that is a book with more than 60 illustrated pages, enough words to fill two novels – it all seemed wildly irresponsible for me to make. Six years later, Renegade published the game and not only made it happen, but did it in style."
I've barely scratched the surface. There's just so much to explore in My Father's Work, and Petty assures that more is coming. Testing for additional content was underway before the base game was released. We can look forward to more scenarios, more content in the app, more experiments, and more masterworks. In the meantime, there's still so much to explore in the already hefty base game box.
"My goal was to make the mad scientist game. When people talk about a mad science game, I wanted this to always be at the top of the list," says Petty. "l hope it's like a glorious, terrible, gothic onion for players to unravel."
My Father's Work is available from Renegade Games at renegadegamestudios.com.