Umläut: The Game of Metal

One of the most entertaining games I’ve played recently has to be Umläut: The Game of Metal, the collaborative storytelling game of competing metal bands. We played this game at Stabcon in Stockport this year, with four players, the ideal number according to the rules.

You start by making up a band, giving them a name, sub-genre, membership and setlist, then distributing seven points between the three performance traits of Technique, Stagecraft and Power.

Over the course of the game these figures can go up and down, as the band also accumulates scores in Cash, Fanbase, Ego and Hope. Ego is the double-edged score; there are circumstances in which a high ego can benefit the band, but let it get too high and you risk the band splitting.

On the grounds that the your band didn’t have to be any sub-genre of metal, and the first time I played the game at last year’s Stabcon Phil Masters ended up winning the game with an avant-garde French pop band, I came up with the band “Clown Car”, whose genre wasn’t metal at all, but “Neo-Prog My Arse”.

They started out with the following membership

Sharon, prog diva
Nigel, poet and audience frightener
Kevin, keytar player with cape
Vlad, bass player, with too many strings
Bob, guitarist, with too many necks
Brian, drummer, who’s also in 17 other bands

I could use the usual disclaimer stating that any resemblance to any members of real bands is pure coincidence, but somehow I don’t think you’d believe me.

Their songs just happened to contain a lot of software testing in-jokes, with songs like “Blue Screen of Death”, “Object Reference Not Set To An Instance Of This Object”, “Clown Car Abandoned In A Field” and “It Works On My Machine”.

I distributed the starting Performance Traits in the ratio 3/3/1, which seemed about right for a somewhat theatrical prog band, good technique and stagecraft, but a bit lacking in oomph.

Their rivals included the “Agricultural Thresh Metal” of Iridium Tractor, with their mascot Flossy the sheep, and The Risen, a band of zombies of famous dead people.

Having created your bands, gameplay is divided into scenes, going round the table with each player choosing a type of scene for their band. You can have work scenes, describing an episode in the character’s day job, rehearsal scenes in which the band improve their performance stats, publicity stunts in which the band try to drum up support, and so on. In most scenes there’s some kind of conflict, which is resolved by drawing cards; the player with the most black cards “wins” the scene, but the player with the highest value card gets to narrate the scene.

In this game we had things like the great brussels sprout avalanche of Sainsbury’s (a work scene). We also had a situation with members of two different bands having day jobs at the same software house, and a project going pear-shaped saw a conflict scene in the shape of a very fraught team meeting, followed by a split scene as Clown Car’s lead singer emigrated to Hawaii as part of the fallout. That’s what happens if you let Ego get too high.

The key moments are the Gig Scenes, where a pair of bands play co-headline gigs and try to blow each other off stage by accumulating the most Glory over the course of the three rounds of the gig, using the same card-based mechanism, and what strikes me is just how well the rules mirror reality. For example:

At first sight, many people assume that the best way to play is simply to load all your performance traits into Technique, and play Ballads at every opportunity. The theory is that since you’re always drawing loads of cards during the attention check, you ought to pretty much shut your opponent out. Even if you don’t manage to get any Glory (because your power is low and you only get one Shred from the Ballad), you’ll eventually get lucky and score one or two and your opponent has no chance to score anything.

In practice, not only is this very boring, but it doesn’t actually work. Even if you draw more cards during the Attention Check you can’t guarantee your opponent getting a lucky draw and beating you. They get one good Attention Check and they’re usually going to get a whole lot of Glory because you didn’t really put anything into Stagecraft.

I’ve been to gigs where that is precisely what happened.

The game ends after a set time (we set this as three hours after the start, since the game was in a four-hour convention slot), after which we trigger the endgame, which take the form of a final round of gigs scenes involving all the bands. Clown Car, with their new lead singer Tracy blew Iridium Tractor off stage, but even that wasn’t quite enough to win the game for them.

But saying that, the game isn’t really about winning or losing, but telling an entertaining story. At the end of the game the band with the highest score in Fanbase is the most successful (Did you end up touring stadiums? Did you let it go too far? Or did you never really get beyond the toilet circuit), and the band with the lowest Ego relative to their Hope is the happiest, even if they never did make it big.

As a game and a rock fan, Umläut: The Game of Metal is one of those games that demands to be played as soon as you read the rules, and makes for both a highly entertaining game and a suprisingly accurate view into the world of rock’n'roll.

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12 Responses to Umläut: The Game of Metal

  1. John P. says:

    Yes, I enjoyed Umlaut, even if Iridium Tractor was robbed – buy they’ll be back! But next time, please remember the summary sheet so we aren’t crowding over the book and maybe it would be worth developing some sort of record sheet because I have my suspicions about the numbers of one of the other bands involved. But it was still very funny to play.

    Cheers
    John

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I will remember to do that. Big problem was my printer died before the con, so I couldn’t print the .pdfs out

    Agree with you about making the performance traits more visible (So you can see at a glance who’s the weakest band, who you want as your support act). How about dice of different colours with the top face representing the current value?

  3. Peter Crowther says:

    I was rather surprised at how well Töxin did, given I’d never played before. The obvious strategy of maximising total cards drawn (=playing “Balanced” all the time) seems pretty effective. There are some good checks and balances built into the game that should stop anyone getting too far behind; notably that support-act gigs are by far the most effective use of a turn, so if a band gets behind they’ll be targeted as the support act and build back up relatively fast.

    And the moral of the entire story is to never, *ever* piss off a developer ;-) .

  4. Peter Crowther says:

    P.S. What’s wrong with having 5 strings on a bass? ;-)

  5. Tim Hall says:

    You think basses stop at five?

  6. Peter Crowther says:

    I know they don’t – my fingers do, however :-) .

  7. Tim Hall says:

    What about a Chapman Stick, which has ten strings? Even six-string bass players are scared of them.

  8. John P. says:

    I can’t even manage the five buttons on Guitar Hero ….

  9. Peter Crowther says:

    Fascinating things – one of our guitarists used to bring one along to gigs and would occasionally play it. He eventually concluded that he couldn’t play both Stick and guitar, as one required short fingernails and the other long fingernails.

  10. John P. says:

    That Chapman Stick reminds me of an instrument my parents brought back from Zambia when they worked out there in the 60s. It is a length of bamboo, about 1 metre long and 8cm diameter, with wires strung along its length around the outside, about 15-20 of them IIRC. Small wooden chunks under the wires at each end raise them clear of the bamboo and are used for tuning. No idea what the correct playing style is for it though.

  11. Peter Crowther says:

    John – I believe the correct playing style for such an instrument is intermittent use of wire cutters. But like a double-necked guitar really.

  12. John P. says:

    Thanks Peter.
    Or fit a power drill to the end and you get a rotary cheese cutter, Gromit!