I'll start with my synopsis: Ribbon Drive is a GM-less game about characters on a road trip. The setting, characters and tone of the game are all determined by the musical playlists the players have prepared in advance. It's a good, solid game for when you're looking for a fun break from the norm; co-op storytelling best suited to a relaxed Saturday night with a good playlist and a good drink. Rulesmongers and munchkins need not apply.
I bought this game because my friends and I were looking for something a bit different than the normal Fiasco or Poison'd game to run on the nights between campaigns or on the weekends when we get together and hang out. We were looking for something we could all enjoy, something for just sitting back and telling a story, something that didn't require a lot of work or pre-planning, and something that went nice with a beer or cocktail in hand. Low key was the key here.
Ribbon Drive only hit three out of our four requirements, but that's not a bad thing.
Something we all could enjoy: Check!
This game is huge hit with our friends that like storytelling games. Not so much with the ones that enjoy lots of crunchy rules bits. This is because it's a really rules light game. They're a bit vague to read, but make a strange amount of sense when you play. Just be sure to have the book handy your first time through and it'll all be okay. The hardest part for us is remembering to bring in obstacles. Most of our games tend to have fewer obstacles, and we like it that way, but that's going to depend a lot on your play style.
Something for sitting back and telling a story: Check!
Ribbon Drive is great for telling a story, but whether you're laid back and sipping your drink or sitting on the edge of your seat screaming at your friends is going to depend on the music you're listening to. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH! Your game will vary wildly depending on the playlist. For a bit of illustration, one night we where we played two games, we started with two wildly different playlists. The first playlist, entitled "Lost Love," was meant to tell the story of two lovers breaking up and getting back together again. It led us on a melancholy roam across Southern Europe trying to help our best friend and brother to get over his lost love. Our second playlist was a mixture of speed metal and dubstep called "Madness" that started with a road trip of convenience to the funeral of a mutual friend and ended in a cocaine-fueled rampage across New Jersey. Part of the joy of the game is seeing how everyone reacts to your list and takes it in ways you never even dreamed of.
Something that doesn't require a lot of pre-planning: Nope!
I need to be clear: getting your playlist right can become a labor of love or, in my case, an obsession. A playlist done right will provide an amazing guide to crafting your tale, but a poorly done list will quickly turn a game south. I highly recommend spending a decent amount of time putting your playlist together and then giving it at least one listen through before you debut it. We've found that good playlists take anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete, including that initial play through. We all agree that when you spend time working on it, rather than taking a few minutes and stuffing whatever looks good onto the list, you end up with a much better game. Having a few playlists ready made and available is a good idea for nights where you want a "pickup game" of Ribbon Drive.
Something that goes nice with a beer or cocktail in hand: Check!
It's rules light, doesn't require a lot of intense strategy or math, and has simple characters that can be scribbled on a Post-It note, so it's a good game to play when you're drinking. It's not a Beer-and-Pretzels game like Kobolds Ate My Baby, but being a bit buzzed can put you in the relaxed state of mind this game encourages. Just be sure to consume your adult beverage of choice responsibly, assuming you're of legal age. Also, don't drink and drive, at least not in real life. Stay home and play Ribbon Drive instead.
The PDF itself is nicely laid out, with good font choice, nice contrast and use of color. The images are a bit distracting and feel quite random, but don't really hurt the presentation per se. Your mileage may vary. Multiple formats are included for various devices, which is a nice touch. All in all, well worth the asking price (at the time of this review and when I bought it: $8.00).
Occasionally, it seems a bit pretentious with the writing, wanting to be about living in the now, ignoring the past and forsaking the future, all for the sake of a transcendental road trip. Don't let it throw you off, it's not as pretentious as it pretends to be. We've run all sorts of games using the same basic rules: love stories to murder mysteries, Blaxploitation to shagadelic 60's super spies. It's all in the music you show up with.
We've played Ribbon Drive many times with groups ranging from three players in an intimate setting (completed in just over an hour) to an epic nine player adventure that took most of the night (around eight hours, not including the dinner break) and we've learned a few things along the way. Here are our tips and tricks for Ribbon Drive, presented in no particular order.
1) The more players you have, the shorter each individual playlist should be. Everyone has crafted a list they're proud of and wants a chance at having it played. The more players you have, the less likely you are to detour (switch lists). By keeping lists shorter, more music gets played and more people can shine.
2) They say 3-5 players, but you can do more, so long as you a) be sure to keep play moving smoothly, b) are prepared for a longer game, and c) are okay splitting the party. This is a road trip game and we've discovered that while cramming a bunch of characters into an 8 passenger van has a certain appeal, dividing up between two or three smaller vehicles makes for better story telling. We've used various plot devices (CB radios or walkie talkies usually) to keep the cars in contact and it can make for fun drama when the person talking isn't relaying the right message to the other car. Also, if you're playing 5 or less players, only take one car. Trust us.
3) Do not use Youtube videos, multiple CDs, or other things that have to manually be changed for a single playlist. It will completely destroy the game. You want to be able to set and forget, and much like real driving, too much messing with the radio will make distract you from what's important.
4) Don't bring printouts of the lyrics to the game. Do make sure to have a few cell phones or laptops where the lyrics can be referenced if needed. Our experience has been that slavishly reading the lyrics means you miss a lot of the point of the music itself. Listen first, read second.
5) The car is a character in its own right. It should have as much detail as any one of the PCs, if not more. Give it a make, a model, a color, even a name if that's what your characters would do with it. It's going to be the one near constant piece of scenery in the story and it will make a huge impact. Going to California in a faded VW camper van will give you different story than road tripping in a silver Porsche Panamera with custom rims or a black Chevrolet Suburban with dark tinted windows. At the start of each scene clearly state where everyone is in the car, or if outside of the car, where they are in relation to the car. Be specific as to who's in the driver's seat, who's got shotgun, and who is in back snoring. Don't forget to determine whose car it is and who has keys at the outset. This comes up over and over again, more than you can possibly imagine.
6) Expect your list to be played differently than what you imagined it. Everyone will react to your list differently and will have their own ideas as to what it means. Embrace it, let the other players show you a different side of your music. DON'T BE INSULTED OR ANGRY IF THEY DON'T "GET IT." It will just ruin the game for you and probably those around you. I've spent the majority of my life working in sound design and production (including six years as a professional DJ) and I have yet to make a list that gives me the exact game I want. That's okay, because that's not the point. The music is a guide, not a prison.
7) Lastly, make an effort for the music. If possible, play the music on a good sound system rather than off of a cell phone's tiny speaker. At the very least, steal those old computer speakers your parents have lying around and use those. When a bunch of people are talking, it's easy for the music to get lost. Set it at a comfortable volume where you can hear it and can still hear the person across the room from you. Pick one person to be in charge of the music, preferably the music nerd. Let them do what they do best so the rest of you can enjoy the game.