Complex Strategy Drives The Fabulous Fear Machine

The Fabulous Fear Machine Preview

Forget optimism, kids. We live in a world dominated by any number of fears. Climate change, bioterror, out of control AI — these are just a few of the little imps hiding under the comfy bed of civilization. Worse yet, there are any number of people and organizations happy to exploit fear for their own power. That’s the elevator pitch for The Fabulous Fear Machine, a new strategy game from developer Fictiorama Studios.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about The Fabulous Fear Machine is its comic-book art style. Everything looks ripped from the pages of a colorful — albeit gloom and doom-focused — comic. The actual game “board” is represented by a stylized tabletop map made of cardboard. The two approaches work, though I wonder why the map wasn’t just comic-book consistent. No matter.

While we’re talking about aesthetics, the preview is really bare bones in the audio department. For instance, the tutorial featured no sound at all. No music, no voiceovers, no audio effects for the cards being played. This could have been a glitch, because bugs abounded, including a game-crasher that forced me to replay the requisite tutorial twice. It’s clear that this machine still needs some grease and wrenching.

Wheels Within Wheels

All that aside, the core of The Fabulous Fear Machine is not dependent on graphics or art. It’s a narrative-driven single-player strategy game, with a strong emphasis on horror and fear. The scary stuff isn’t personal though, but societal and global.

Although its tutorial does a pretty awful job of sailing players across a sea of jargon and mechanics, the premise is sort of simple. You are a fearmonger, trying to terrorize the population more effectively than other masters of the scary. Blend together a little Sid Meier’s Civilization, Risk, and your favorite deck builder: that’s The Fabulous Fear Machine.

You start with a country, some fictional and some real-world. You place an agent in the capitol, and pick a Terror that you’d like to inflict your population with. These are all mental/emotional fears. So, you want the people to be immobilized by fear of a climate crisis; you’re not actually causing a climate catastrophe. The Terrors are your basic bread-and-butter existential nightmares like the fear of death or a biblical plague. Some “messages” (the game’s equivalent of quests) require the spread of a specific terror.

As the angst spreads you earn Oleum (in real life a highly corrosive acid), which is kind of a cross between a currency and action points in an RPG. Your agent in a country or city is just a pawn. The end goal is to create a region-wide Legend and cause the most mental anguish.

Fearful Nesting Dolls

The above description only hints at the game’s systems, subsystems, and jargon. While I enjoyed the game’s comic art, the Fabulous Fear Machine’s vague and very similar sounding terms for actions and mechanics are both confusing and pretty poorly explained. The challenge of any complex strategy game is introducing its concepts in a slow, methodical and entertaining way. Between now and launch in 2024, this needs to be a goal.

I would never suggest that a creator of games, fiction, or any other media shy away from any subject matter that interests them. The world needs serious, challenging,  and lighthearted entertainment and every shade in between. There’s a dark comic sensibility to the Fabulous Fear Machine that I totally get, and which the developers unapologetically embrace. There’s some silliness, and nothing’s taken too seriously. Some might say that a game in which the goal is to spread misery and emotional anguish — comic exaggeration or not — is just a little too close to the real world. But, to paraphrase the theme song from MST3K, “relax, it’s just a game.”

***Preview code provided by the developer***