[Note: this is a review of the paperback edition of the game.]
Our Last Best Hope is a GM-less game wherein players take on roles as part of a crew who have been sent on a mission to save Humanity from certain doom. DOOOOOOM! It takes inspiration from such disaster movies as Sunshine, Deep Impact, The Core, Armageddon, and so on and so forth. It's designed for between three to five players, and is supposed to be playable within about two to three hours. I wasn't timing our session the first (and so far, only) time I played it, but I reckon that's about right.
There is no specific setting for Our Last Best Hope, instead the game comes with three Mission playsets - similar to Jason Morningstar's Fiasco - which provide a list of story elements for players to use to build their own setting, which include Crises ranging from the traditional (a giant meteor is on a collision course with Earth!) to the bizarre (the moon is hatching! We actually used that one, it was AWESOME); Limits, which are reasons why your team are Our Last Best Hope; Complications, which will force the team to make an important choice early in the mission; and finally, a list of Threats they might encounter along the way and Assets they can use for mechanical advantage when confronting these Threats. Unlike Fiasco, though, you are not limited to using the options given in the playsets, these are provided more as suggestions to help springboard your own ideas, or to fall back on if you're feeling creatively blocked. The mission playsets available in the core rulebook include:
Space - this covers classic space disaster scenarios like Armageddon, Deep Impact and Sunshine.
Snow - wherein the Crisis is either plunging Earth into a new ice age, or the team have to brave Arctic or Antarctic conditions to reach the Crisis)
Zombie Apocalypse - the world pretty much already ended, but you're trying to stop a new Crisis from wiping out the remaining survivors.
Additional Mission playsets are available in an expansion book, which I'll review seperately later on. For now though, let's talk about how the game itself works.
As mentioned earlier the game has certain simlarities to Fiasco, such as the use of playsets to build a setting, as well as the splitting of the game into two Acts, and the use of white and black die which cancel each other out in rolls. Aside from these similarities though, Our Last Best Hope is very much its own thing.
For starters, setting design and character creation are handled seperately, with players selecting specific roles within the team which each have their own mechanical effects, and two Touchstones: something their character brought with them on the mission, and something they left behind. These can be used up during the game to assist in rolls, which brings us to the conflict resolution mechanics of the game.
Each character has a spotlight scene, during which they get to free roleplay, which are followed by Threat scenes. In Threat scenes, something intervenes to jeopardise the mission, and one of the characters must tackle it head on. Each threat has a difficulty level which determines a number of black dice the character must roll against, which increases between Acts I and II. They only get one white dice to roll, but they can use their role abilities, Assets and other players can join in to add more dice to the pool. But they have to spend story points to do so, and they earn those story points by playing Story Cards which represent their relationships with other crew members, secrets they'd rather the crew not know about, or fears that are likely to come up in the mission. To play these cards, they have to work these elements into the fiction somehow - either during the spotlight scenes, or the Threats themselves - and only then do they get the story points in exchange.
In confronting these Threats, they risk harm - which adds to the difficulty of future rolls - and even death. Death is not only a possibility, but a feature of the game, with each player being dealt a unique Death Card. At any time they can choose to play these cards, either assuring their death immediately or deferring it until later, and are rewarded for doing so by gaining extra dice for the crew in the final roll against the Crisis pool.
The Crisis has its own pool of black dice representing the difficulty of the final roll to stop it, and this pool can either be increased during threat rolls, or counter-balanced by purchasing white dice to oppose it. The pool is rolled twice during the game. Once at the end of the first Act, to determine how the Choice the crew must make at the beginning of Act I affects the mission, and again at the end of Act II to determine how well they succeed (or how spectacularly they fail) in stopping the Crisis.
The mechanics are really well thought out, evoking the themes of the disaster genre, those of heroic sacrifice, of gaining strength from friendships, of setting aside differences and confronting one's own personal demons for the greater good of Mankind. The mechanical rewards given for playing Death Cards and the jump in difficulty between Acts I and II make it very likely that some of your characters will HAVE to make that heroic sacrifice at some point in order for the mission as a whole to succeed.
The Story Cards ensure that your crew WILL find strength in each other or be at odds with one another, that you WILL have to face your personal demons in the form of your secrets and fears. Even the Touchstones, mentioned earlier, add thematically to the game, especially the things that were left behind as they can be used in flashbacks to remind your character just what it is they are fighting for.
At the end of each section, the book offers suggestions on how to vary gameplay for advanced players, from adding new character roles, to varying the game difficulty or length, which may make future gameplay more interesting once you've got a bit of experience playing it already.
In addition to the book itself, there are a couple of useful resources that can be downloaded off of the website at http://www.magpiegames.com/our-last-best-hope/ in the form of printable Death Cards (assuming you can get your printer to print to card, mine refuses to do so) and character record sheets. The character record sheets are particularly helpful, as they not only give you something to write your names and Touchstones on, but also include a description of your role ability, and quick reference guides on threat resolution. The site also promises free PDF Mission playsets in early 2013, but we're in late 2013 now and there's no sign as yet. Such is the way of these things.
The book itself has a rather minimalistic design style, with illustrations portraying different characters in sillouette form. The text is organised into sections reflecting each phase of gameplay: Mission Prep, Act I and Act II and there's a quick start guide for players to reference during play. I'll have to admit though, something about the order in which the game mechanics are laid out seems a bit off to me. Even the quick reference guide seems a little difficult to read at times, to the point that I actually typed up my own reference guide just to get things clearer in my mind. Page references were also misleading at times, like the page reference telling you to 'see Playing MIMIC on p59' which is actually on p59.
The inclusion of QR Codes and URLs linking readers to Youtube vids explaining the mechanics as you read through the book is an inspired touch, and definitely helped improve my understanding of the game system; it's just a shame not all of the videos loaded for me, though I'm going to assume that's an issue with my internet connection rather than the videos themselves, until I hear otherwise.
I loved our first session of Our Last Best Hope and really look forward to playing more of it in the future. The system is perfectly tailored to the disaster genre, and it's also refreshing to see an RPG that actively encourages collaborative play. As mentioned, it does appear to be difficult to navigate sometimes, so be prepared to flick back and forth through the text quite a bit, but it's well worth the effort. If your RP group is taking a week out, and you need a quick, fun, and emotionally-charged game to play as a one-off, Our Last Best Hope comes highly recommended. That said, GM-less games aren't everybody's cup of tea and neither are disaster movies, so it likely won't appeal to everyone, but you should give it a try at least once anyway.