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Machine of Death Is a Surprisingly Upbeat Storytelling Game About Murder

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...
Photo: Eric Ravenscraft

The 2010 book Machine of Death is a collection of short stories with a basic premise: with a simple test, anyone can find out how they’re going to die, but not when. It’s a clever premise that leads to a lot of interesting stories. In the game of the same name, you play as an assassin in this world, and your job is a lot harder.

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In the fictional world of Machine of Death, a small sample of blood can tell you how you’re going to die, but the responses aren’t always straight forward. For example, you might receive a test result that says you’ll die of “OLD AGE.” Then, later that week, get run over by an elderly person driving a car.

The mysterious death-predicting box has a sense of cruel irony, you see.

It’s that framework that makes this game so creatively fulfilling. Each round, a player is given an assassination target, as well as their pre-determined method of death. If your target is going to die from “KITTENS,” you can’t very well shoot them with a gun. But you could shoot them with a kitten gun that fires rabid kittens at them.

Of course, not everyone in the world chooses to find out their fate, so when picking your target, the game will have you flip a coin to decide whether or not your target knows how they’ll meet their end. If they do, your job can get a lot harder. If someone knows they’re going to die by “HORSE,” you’ll have a harder time luring them to an equestrian event.

You also get a profile of the target you need to kill. The game comes with a small book of pre-determined targets—taken from the webcomics of some of the people who contributed to the book—but you can also create your own characters with their own traits and weaknesses. Getting inside the mind of your target is key to figuring out how to bring them down and complete your mission.

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I’m not sure why T-Rex of Dinosaur Comics deserves to die, but it’s your job to make it happen.
Photo: Eric Ravenscraft

Figuring out how to kill your target within the confines of their fate is half the fun. The other half is the Gift Cards the game gives you to work with. After all, you’re a professional assassin, so you know where to procure useful items with which to do murdering.

Except the stores in this universe are...weird. You can’t just buy a gun. Instead, you can acquire “Something Canadian,” or an item “Created Before 1900.” Or, if you’re lucky, something straight forward like something “5 Letters Long” or “Sports Equipment.”

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With these materials, you can construct an elaborate story about how you plan to kill your target who’s destined to die by “BEING TOO SPECIFIC,” using just a wedding veil, jorts, and your own mother.

If trying to navigate that labyrinth sounds absurd, that’s because it is. And it’s supposed to be! The game has several optional game modes—one uses an independent DM, while another has the team work cooperatively to assassinate a target—but they all require players to determine how difficult the actions they come up with are, then roll dice to see if they succeed.

This means that the game becomes more fun the more creative your tablemates are. It might even lend itself more to a creative writing classroom exercise or a workshop than a typical board game night (unless you have a lot of creative storyteller friends), but that’s the fun of it.

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Plenty of games live and die by the rules, numbers, and details that you can pick apart in the rulebook. Machine of Death is more fluid than that. The minimal dice rolls exist largely to determine whether or not you “win” or “lose,” but otherwise the game gives you free rein to explore whatever wacky possibility for pulling off your plan that you can come up with.

This gives the game that’s ostensibly about murder a light and fun tone. Creating a story about how you plan to kill someone with a “STROKE” by defeating them in a swordfight is satisfying and fun in a way that scoring the most points by landing on the right spaces can’t always deliver.

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About the author

Eric Ravenscraft

Freelance writer for The Inventory.