There is little doubt that children are some of the most creative, most imaginative, most wonderful storytellers around. To them, things don’t have to make logical sense or adhere to a cohesive set of rules. The more children lack in understanding about the world at large, the more they fill those gaps with their own fanciful and unpredictable explanations, and sometimes their simple ability to process reason can cut through the Gordian knot of how most adults perceive the world to provide some very sound advise. Yes, how a child can comprehend things can be entertaining, and at times, even enlightening.
Adults telling stories as kids, though? That can take a very different path.
That’s precisely what happened in our most recent playthrough of The Siblings Trouble, a 2-4 player narrative-driven co-op adventure game. In it, players are whisked away into a fictional setting where they act as siblings about to head out on a parent-free escapade of mischief and who knows what else.
The game starts out with each player at Home, and introduces you to the siblings, known as Danger, Mischief, Mayhem, and Adventure:
Or, in our case, the catty eldest sister Sissy, the brooding preteen Pyro, the easily frustrated Chrissy and her overly-tightened braces, and Alex, the youngest brother who was both fascinated with everything and foolishly too brazen for someone his age.
If that’s any indicator, you should know we were in for an interesting ride…
Every game of Siblings Trouble is set up the same way. First, each player gets a character with a unique ability, a corresponding die, and an Treasure card in their possession to start the game. Then, the story deck is set up.
The game provides a number of Location decks that form slightly associated piles of dangers in the area you’ll be exploring. In the case of our destination, being the Hillside Caves, Location cards correspond to various underground dangers like trolls, dwarves, and giant spiders. Think of them as little mini-bosses. Every Location deck also comes with a Boss – the final confrontation and climax of your escapade. Bosses guard an Epic Treasure, which is what you’re really after in the end.
Using a set arrangement, you mix a scarce handful of these Location cards with Path cards. Path cards represent either Events that happen to you as part of your journey, such as finding weird tracks or being cursed, or Search cards, representing the odd places you find yourself in or a specific object to encounter. These would be things like finding a weapons cache or ending up in the graveyard.
Also included in the mix is a random Big Secret card. This card ties together the connection between the Boss, the Epic Treasure, and why the players are on this adventure to begin with.
Every time a card is revealed, the active player must describe what the group is seeing or encountering, including things like the type of room you’re in, that cool item you just found, or how freaky that monster is. As a result, the entertainment value of Siblings Trouble is largely dependent on this narrative component. This is by design; the game is mostly about giving you the tools to tell the story, guiding you through it through a series of card-based checkpoints.
Once set up, a playthrough of Siblings Trouble uses a scant 12 story cards, give or take random Encounters. Indeed, this game isn’t intended to be a four hour D&D session. Depending on how involved you get with each Encounter card, Siblings Trouble can be over in 5 minutes, or it can become a solid 45 minute tale. Most of the time though, it seems to find a happy medium at around a half hour with a full complement of four players.
That said, our most recent adventure was closer to that 45 minute mark because it went ridiculously off the rails story-wise, and that we really played up the in-fighting that anyone with lots of siblings knows happens when you attempt to do, well, anything.
It went a little something like this:
Card Number 1: The four siblings started off the adventure by finding a cave in the hill near our house. We wouldn’t have found it at all if Chrissy hadn’t fallen down and gotten her braces stuck on some tree branch somehow. We were going to leave her behind to check it out, but she chewed through it or something. So we all headed in together.
Card Number 2: The first card encountered was a Laboratory. In a hill. First thought from the group: secret meth lab. So…yeah. We were off to a good start.
The Lab was a Search card, which requires a dice roll. Search rolls can cause you to find new Treasures, draw more Event cards, or go into more detail about the card you just revealed. I got the latter option, which has you describe an electronic item in the Lab. I described what turned out to be an electronic scale. For weighing…things. I get yelled at for touching things.
Card Number 3: A Mysterious Place. Another Search roll causes lisp-bound Chrissy to encounter a mysterious object in the Mysterious Place. Of course she touches it, which causes her to get shorter and grow hair on her feet. Chrissy is now a braces-filled Hobbit-like creature. Her and Sissy proceed to fight. Pyro broods.
Card Number 4: Pyro reveals the first Location card, which is a Scraggly Spider. Location monsters have a Star Value that must be met to defeat it. This is done by the player rolling their dice for a Star Value, though it can also allow the player to use their special ability or have an Epic Fail. You don’t want Epic Fails: you lose the fight immediately. Players can also temporarily raise their Star Value by discarding and describing how they use a Treasure to aid them, and / or they can spend any bonus Star points they may have picked up along the way for being awesome at their job.
Pyro needs to beat a 5 for the Spider, but he rolls poorly, then gets mad that he didn’t even want to come here to begin with. If you roll below the monster’s number, you can call for a Sibling Assist, where another player comes to your aid. He has Sissy do it, but she rolls an Epic Fail – she’s useless that one – and she in turn needed to be bailed out by me. Should a player fail normally, they have bad things happen to them and are sent Home. The next player has to face the same card, and the player sent home has to explain how they snuck out to rejoin the team as their action the following turn.
In any case, the Spider is defeated, but Pyro is mad, and Missy and Sissy fight about how equally useless they each are. On the plus side, when you defeat a monster, most of the time you either roll the Treasure die or draw a Treasure. Pyro gets to roll, which gives him a -1 Star. Pyro hates life.
Card Number 5: The Big Secret is revealed by Sissy. It turns out that an even bigger spider is at the end of our quest, and we have to face it because it’s guarding…Sissy’s diary. She really doesn’t want that getting out in the open, though it’s still unknown how it ended up in this weird creepy Lab-Cave. Now that the Boss is revealed, its Fear effects take place throughout the rest of the game. That is, a number of cards have Fear effects, which make the Boss more powerful when you face him.
Card Number 6: We double back out of the weird mysterious dead-end place that made Chrissy into a Hobbit, and take a left through the Lab into a Weird Kitchen. The Fear effect on the card makes me describe a strange food, which turns out to be some weird bubbling yellow liquid in the sink. I’m not sure it’s actually a food. It smells like that spider we just defeated. This is one messed up Lab. I roll the Search die and add even more Fear to the Boss. I hate this place. Chrissy is saying it’s all our fault we’re in this mess.
Card Number 7: We turn a corner and Chrissy encounters a Handsome Troll. To reduce his threat, she describes how great his butt is. We’d be more worried about Chrissy if we didn’t think she had issues, but she goes on at length about the troll. She rolls and gets her special ability, letting her draw a Treasure from…somewhere. She does this twice in the room, then uses one of her trove of items to defeat the Troll, but she gets to draw yet another replacement Treasure from her Treasure roll.
After watching her confrontation, I remark that I don’t think it was a troll, but that scraggly, skinny guy, Creepy Eddie, that we sometimes see wandering around downtown. Chrissy doesn’t want to hear it. She may be in love. It just may be with Creepy Eddie the meth head. Sissy and Chrissy fight about poor life choices, which makes sense, considering we’re like 12.
Card Number 8: Pyro reveals an Event card, A Strange Sound. A Fear effect makes the Boss scarier, and Pyro explains why he isn’t afraid of that sound, which sounds a lot like mumbling about burning things. He gets to get rid of his -1 Star token, but I start to worry that he may need counseling later. He’s heading into borderline sociopath territory.
Card Number 9: Sissy reveals another Event card, which are Tracks. She describes them in detail to give everyone a +1 Star Token, tying in how there seems to be some organization to this weird Laboratory hillside, but that the tracks don’t seem entirely human. They lead off around a corner and away from the Lab. She suggests we follow. I say I’m up for it. Sissy says it could be dangerous. Chrissy says no one likes her, not even Mom. Sissy and her argue. I try to intervene. They both tell me to shut up. Pyro sighs loudly.
Card Number 10: We follow the tracks to a small tunnel out of the Lab, and we run right into a Dwarf Miner. Or at least he looks like a Dwarf. He also looks a little like Chrissy now. She says some mean things about me I won’t repeat. The Dwarf is blocking the way, only partially paying attention to our presence. He seems to be staring off at nothing. The girls start arguing the futility of the quest in general, talking about how it’s just a stupid journal. Sissy insists we need it back, as if it affects all of us. We’re pretty sure she just roped us into it because she’s the oldest.
While that’s going on, I pulled out some crackers from my pocket (hey, I like to eat), finally catching the attention of this, well, let’s keep going with Dwarf. He raises some shovel or pole at me. It’s hard to see because it’s dark. I counter with the broom I’ve been carrying around as a weapon. We clash Star Wars style. I should have lost, but this guy is oddly weak – only now having a 3 Star Value. I surprisingly knock him out and draw a new Treasure card. I’m impressed with myself. No one else cares. I hate my siblings sometimes. We move on.
Card Number 11: We step over the miner and Chrissy races ahead, tired of not being the center of attention 100% of the time. She runs right into a Goopy Slimy Area. We all laugh at her. She blames me for not paying attention though – for some reason. Chrissy gets a -1 Star and has to roll the Search die, which reveals the Fellow Traveler result. The Fellow Traveler is an NPC that must be described and who comes with 3 Treasure cards that players can collectively trade a Treasure they possess with. It turns out that it’s our youngest sibling Ricky who had been following us and was picking up stuff he saw along the way that looked familiar, including a Book Safe and a Spray Bottle.
It was at this point that Sissy realized that the items Ricky and Chrissy had were all items from her room. As was her journal. She demands to know what the deal is. Chrissy confesses that for the last couple weeks she was letting random people walk off with stuff from her room in exchange for $20.
She asks if Pyro and I knew about it. Pyro shrugs. I told her it was $20 each – that’s a lot of money. Sissy at least now understands why she kept losing things, but she’s furious. I try to explain we didn’t know it was by creepy people who lived under the nearby hill. That…didn’t seem to help.
Card Number 12: We get out of the goop and through a series of winding tunnels before we open up into a room where we finally find the Bloated Spider Boss. Pyro is out front and not happy about it. The Spider has a Star Rating of 16 (7, plus a 9 point modifier from the player size to keep him big ‘n scary), and his Fear effect says that for each Fear counter that’s been built up, the group has to put -1 tokens on every Treasure we carry. It’s explained that they’re all a bit harder to use because they’re covered in goop. We probably shouldn’t have stopped there to hash things out.
For a Boss fight, each player is involved, adding in their narrative contribution to the fight and rolling their dice. After each of us explain what we throw at it, we handily defeat Spidey. We were a little surprised a giant spider went down so easily, but we figure it was a bit slow from all the Laboratory fumes. Which was probably true. I remark how I think that Creepy Eddie was trying to make something using venom from the spiders in the cave, but no one is listening to me at this point. Pyro has collected Sissy’s book but is refusing to give it back at the moment. She’s once again furious. Or still furious. I’m not sure. Chrissy is finding the whole thing hilarious. Though she probably won’t once we get home and she’ll have to start shaving her feet from now on.
And so concluded our adventure. After defeating the Boss, each of us are allowed to take one Treasure with us home for the next adventure, and we have to explain why. Then, of course, we have to explain to our parents where we were. Each of us took something weapon-related, except for Pyro, who seems to be wanting to random Sissy’s book back to her…
Such a tale of action and sibling infighting is just one possible story available to you with this game. Truly, The Siblings Trouble makes you feel as if you’re part of Gordie Lachance’s crew in Stand By Me or you’re another one of Mikey’s and Co.’s Goonies. These are stories of adventure, danger, teamwork (usually), and perseverance. With the right mindset going into them, the game has the right mix of mechanical framework and narrative freedom to let you tell your own short tale with ease.
However, the game’s one caveat is, like most storytelling games, the enjoyment factor is entirely dependent on player input. Siblings Trouble is a worthwhile card-driven RPG with a light touch and short play time, but it won’t bear much substance without actually acting it out. Yet its mix of brevity and structure plays to its strengths. While it will certainly scratch that narrative itch that roleplayers always have, it’s simple and accessible enough for family adventures with children. It’s short nature even makes it manageable for people who have trouble immersing themselves into storytelling games.
Like any good tale of coming-of-age fiction, every playthrough of Siblings offers a wide berth of possibilities; where the story goes and how it’s interpreted is entirely up to the players. To that end, Siblings Trouble works best with a full 4 players, though 3 works well too.
In ours, it got dark really quickly…but that says more about the play group than it does about the game. Still, even as warped and twisted as our adventure turned out to be, Siblings Trouble kept us on a set path.
Even if that path was to a creepy spider venom drug lab and back again.
If you’re up for your own short stories of adventure, The Siblings Trouble can provide you with the Marauder’s Map of materials to get you started over on its Kickstarter. The rest is up to you.
Photo Credits: Siblings Trouble rulebook images by Pencil First Games.