Trouble Boys and Trigger Men: A Capers Review
What I love most about the indie gaming community is its originality. While the mainstream publishers like Wizards of the Coast or Steve Jackson Games boldly go where they have mostly gone before, the indie community is trekking to the unexplored reaches of the imagination. Ultimately, I think, this is the very essence of what tabletop gaming is all about: imagination and creativity pushed in a million different directions, just to see how far we can travel. Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we don’t hit our mark or capture the vivid play in our minds, but the attempt and the journey are almost always worth it.
I found this to be the case with BAMFies Judge’s Select Award Winner Capers, a new gangster/noir themed supers game from Craig Cambell and the folks at NerdBurger Games. Like its predecessor Murder & Acquisitions and the upcoming Kickstarter success story, Die Laughing, Capers is a strongly themed take on the classic Supers Genre, taking us deep into an alternate Prohibition Era gangsterland, probing into the sins of the roaring 20’s and the abuses of great power— and what happens when it comes with far less responsibility. This is a rich concept, full of both historical and fictional material to draw upon, which helps set it apart from the mob of Superhero systems rioting across DrivethruRPG and the rest of the tabletop gaming market.
The Capers core system is simple, clean, and inventive. Centering around rules-light structure and a clever playing cards mechanic, Capers allows fast-paced action that mirrors its themes and tropes. The “gamble system” is truly exciting, adding an element of fruitful tension to nearly every action, while simultaneously capturing that “mobsters” motif that drives the game. Capturing a system that plays alongside your genre themes is no easy task, but Campbell and company do a fine job here with Capers’ gameplay. Not only are the rules unobtrusive, they are honestly fun and immersive, allowing for Storytellers to run a story, and not just a game.
But there is a downside to not having the resources of WOTC backing your design team. While Capers does have many unique ideas and executes its game very well, there are signs that resources, like many of its indie-game siblings, were a significant hindrance. Layout and design or the book itself struggled to capture the game’s feel. Instead I was reminded of a more basic version of the Dungeons and Dragons page design. Also, the art felt almost too cartoony to capture the pulse of the genre’s setting. Where I pictured the noir styles of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain book covers, I was instead greeted by illustrations that felt off from the grittier tones of the book itself. Design and art set tone for a game, which is a common struggle for small gaming publishers across the boards. And while I wholly contribute this to resource constraints, these style choices pulled me out of the mood of the game
The other, perhaps more sincere issue I had with Capers was that it seemed to struggle to find itself a bit. It seemed to be debating its own identity as being either more comic book or more noir, and I think suffered a bit on both accounts. The powers system was left generic, which I can understand as it offers more room for the players and Storytellers to forge their own game, but I think with such a stylized theme, truly diving into the setting and genre would have made the game stand out all the more. With classics like Dick Tracy, the Shadow, The Phantom, and the works of Bob Kane’s Detective comics to pull from for inspiration, I feel like Capers sacrificed originality for generalized appeal. With such fantastic research done for the later half of the book’s introspection into real world crime and setting, this game misses a bit on capitalizing on a unique, true supers-noir experience.
Luckily, these drawbacks don’t completely incapacitate the game. With its mechanics and open-endedness, gaming groups are free to really forge their own paths and create the 1920’s romp of their own design. And the games focus on flipping the scene and playing the “bad guys” is a fun take, which I know from experience many players are craving to let loose their inner villain. And with a current price tag for both the pdf and hardcover edition, Capers sure beats forking out $40+ per book of other big-name, less original content. And while I don’t see this game replacing our core superheroes system of choice, it is a fun excursion worth checking out.
Final Grade: B
While it ain’t hittin’ on all eights, this hooch is still worth the scratch.