There’s No Board Games Like Show Board Games
I’ll confess, I agreed to play Roll Camera! on the strength of its title pun alone. Because it’s about filmmaking, you see, and also it’s a dice game. Brilliant. Now you know the secret. Hook me with a next-level pun and your foot is already in the door.
Thank goodness Malachi Ray Rempen didn’t stop there. He also happens to have created a game that on more than one occasion made me exclaim with delight at its subtle moments of clever design.
There are three versions of Roll Camera!, and two of them are the portions that show above the surface.
First, there’s the dainty getup. The box that opens on a hinge on one of its short ends, letting it slap closed like a clapperboard. The plastic insert modeled after a film canister. The cards, covered with what appears to be up-illustrated versions of clipart Screen Beans. The whimsical text on the problem cards. You dropped the key to your trailer into an open sewer! Ha ha. How zany. What will you do next? Put together, the whole thing screams “cute.” Twee, even. This is movie production as slapstick comedy, a sequence of errors, a bunch of buffoons given a sixty-million-dollar budget, Vin Diesel, and an entire golf cart crammed with studio notes. Whether they produce the next Fast & Furious spinoff or the naught-awaited sequel to Babylon A.D. is anyone’s guess.
Layered beneath the cutesy getup, though, there’s a surprisingly adept cooperative dice-rolling and worker-placement game. The pitch is solid. You have a script. You have a long-overdue production. You have a budget, a few remaining weeks, and five story beats that need filming. Meanwhile, problems keep cropping up. Yes, that might include dropping your trailer keys into an open sewer. Or the wind machine goes berserk and spins your sets around. Or your actors practiced so much screaming that they lost their voices.
But those reruns to the first layer — the cutesy stuff — are diversions. What’s important is how they affect your efforts to finish your movie. That besewered trailer key means you can’t spend dice on your character’s personal actions. The wind machine periodically rotates the tiles in your set. Hoarse actors can’t act. Every round opens with a new setback. It’s up to you to roll the dice, then carefully use them to avoid becoming a Hollywood cautionary tale.
To be clear, this second version of Roll Camera! is serviceable more than anything else. In many cases, the faces on your dice don’t matter all that much. Problems can be solved with ease until some twist forces them to pile up, at which point the game becomes one bottleneck after another.
The main process is threefold. Nagging at the background are those problems, which demand pairs of dice to resolve. Meanwhile, you’re also spending dice to build the appropriate set for your movie. Each scene — there are three available at any given time — requires a particular arrangement. So you spend cash to place and rearrange tiles, hopefully avoiding troublesome spots like, say, a dim corner that always requires a lighting die to function. Other spots can save money during filming, or increase the quality of your final product, or even force you to draw yet another problem. Before long, Roll Camera! settles into a predictable rhythm: solve problems, arrange a set, dump a ton of dice onto that set to film your scene. Repeat five times and you’ve produced a movie. Whether it gets a wide release or shows in select theaters depends on how many quality stars you managed to invest in it.
As I said, it’s serviceable. It tends to get long in the tooth, especially around its paunchy midline, and on more than one occasion I’ve zoned out while playing it. That doesn’t happen during good games. Nor does that happen during bad games, mostly because I’m too busy grousing about one problem or another. Roll Camera! doesn’t have the type of problems that are easily groused about. It’s far too functional for that.
Here’s the good news. Every time I’ve zoned out, Roll Camera! managed to raise me from the dead. And it’s thanks to the game’s third version. The one lurking beneath the surface. The genuinely clever one. The one that would have made for a brilliant game if it had been given some extra room to stretch.
The first stroke of brilliance — apart from that killer pun of a title — is that you aren’t necessarily trying to make a good movie. You’re trying to make a memorable movie. In most cases, that means making as many good decisions as possible. Shooting scenes on high-quality sets, ensuring the scenes are the proper type for your script, or, in a pinch, rewriting the script to match what you’ve got. The usual game optimization stuff.
If that sounds like too much effort, maybe you’d like to create The Room instead? Bottoming out your movie’s quality also counts as a victory, transforming your flick into a “so bad it’s good” cult classic. Don’t mistake this for a cop-out. Even the most noble disaster requires careful planning. Avoiding good sets, ensuring your script is gobbledygook, carefully managing your quality stars because you can’t “spend” quality that you don’t have. Roll Camera! is a challenge wherever on the spectrum of classics you decide to fall, and it only gets more amusing when your co-players have differing ideas about what kind of film they’re trying to produce.
These conflicts come to a head whenever you hold a production meeting. Which, pro tip, you should do almost every turn. By spending a single die, everybody is allowed to toss a single “idea” card into a pile. Then the active player goes through that pile and decides which cloud from this brainstorming sessions holds a silver lining.
Like the problem cards, ideas are often cutesy. More importantly, they build ornamental bridges that can spring you from the most thoroughly painted-in corner. On the verge of going bankrupt? Hey, as long as we aren’t shooting a scene, let’s not use any electricity today! Hey, let’s double the caffeine content in the craft services coffee to make everyone work harder! Hey, let’s sell part of our set to collectors! For every problem, for every shortage, there’s a solution straight out of an off-Broadway musical about off-Broadway musicals. The trick lies in dredging it from the deck, holding it, and enacting it at the proper moment. It captures those panicked scenes almost perfectly, when two overworked protagonists stay up drinking and somehow settle upon the answer to all their woes.
Except, of course, that in Roll Camera! the woes keep on coming, and coming, and coming, until their tempo is less that of a comedy and more like a dirge.
These instances of brilliance aren’t quite enough to save Roll Camera! from its longer stretches, for much the same reason that comedies usually roll their credits at ninety minutes rather than three hours. It isn’t a long game, but it sits awkwardly between picking a serious fight and slapping itself in the face with a pie. Such madcap antics are appreciated, and dull an otherwise humdrum experience. Unfortunately, they can’t quell it altogether.
On its own rating scale, I can’t tell whether Roll Camera! falls shy of “not bad” or “so bad it’s good.” In either case, it’s barely short of the mark. Malachi Ray Rempen clearly has more on his mind than yet another gameplay clone. Next time, I hope the brilliance overshadows the ordinary instead of the other way around.
A complimentary copy was provided.