Fiasco, The Zoo, play report

(This was previously posted on However the quality of writing was so bad I felt compelled to revisit it a month later. I’m saying this rewrite is much better, but I don’t think its as awful as before – if only because I discovered this organizational device called the “paragraph”)

This was a first time play of Fiasco for all of us. We are all familiar with boardgames, and even though I was the one who purchased the game neither I nor my girlfriend, Jean, have any experience with rpg’s. My sister, Vera, has a little experience, but is not a regular rpg’er.

We chose the Zoo because we’re fond of pets and animals. Plus I really didn’t want to things to get too gonzo.

Relationship: Community: Zoo Lover (Jean) and Zoo Hater (Justus).
Needs: To Get Control for Just one Day

Relationship: Keeper: Pachyderm (Jean) and Cats (Vera)
Location: Grizzly Habitat

Relationship: Illicit Animal Smugglers
Object: Secret: One Animal Passed off as Another.

Act One
The game starts with Justus approaching Vera with an idea that could make them a ton of money. They have worked together in the past, and some of the great cats in the baby cats exhibits have already been converted to house cats. However, he has a much more ambitious plan this time and he emphasizes he needs to just get control of the zoo for a day and he can clean house. It is clear he would end up with the lion’s share of the profits, but she would still get a decent chunk of change for her troubles.

Even though Vera has been his partner in crime, she is torn about the enormity of a full scale clearance sale and wanders off to ponder the situation, balancing the risk of losing the job and permanently ruining the zoo against her dire need for fast cash. Not only is she the cat keeper at the zoo, but at home Very is a cat lady and she has a cat who is badly in need of expensive vet attention.

Meanwhile Jean sees Vera in deep thought and walks up, starting a conversation. Jean suspects a smuggling relationship between Vera and Justus, and she casually mentions that she feels the zoo has become infested with unsavory characters. Jean hints she has some really big plans for clearing house and if Vera would help, she’d pull some strings to make sure Vera’s housecats receive world class veterinary care. Even though Vera likes her coworker, she walks away uncommitted, unsure who she wants to work with.

A few days later, Justus confronts Vera, concerned that he hasn’t heard a response from her. He strongly impresses the urgency of the situation but can’t get Vera to commit. At this point Vera is in complete cognitive paralysis, she has two people who desperately want her help, hinting at big zoo-wide power plays, but both potential partners are really cagey about their plans.

Jean notices the conversation between Justus and Vera and she intercepts Justus as he leaves the big cat exhibit. Jean clearly considers Justus is a shady character, especially since something does not seem all kosher with the cat exhibit, his favorite haunt. She does not attempt to hide her contempt for him, but Justus is a cocky bastard and doesn’t even notice. Instead he sees Jean as a potential alternate partner, asking probing questions about the elephants — especially the costs associated with the purchase and transportation of these animals.

All this is happening right outside of the big cat exhibits, so as soon as Vera notices the two of them chatting, she makes beeline to join the two of them. She knows Justus, being self absorbed and overconfident, could easily say something really stupid. Even though Vera does not join the conversation before Justus unwittingly convinces Jean of his ill intensions, Vera does manage to steer the remainder of the conversation into small talk ensuring that nothing overtly stupid or criminal is proposed. Everyone leaves uncommitted – Jean is extremely suspicious of the other two, Vera is still confused about who to help, and Justus happily wanders off with dreams of a new partner in crime.

Paranoia: The thing you stole has been stolen.
Failure: A stupid plan executed to perfection.

Act Two
A few days later at the great cats exhibit, Justus is shocked to find out that one of the remaining prized exotic cats has been replaced with a sick helpless tabby. He freaks out because he had already committed to selling the now-missing exotic cat to a competing zoo! After a moment of complete panic, he suddenly realizes that he never gave them any photos, and realized that he might get away with passing this sick tabby as a kitten of the promised exotic cat.

Because of his previous work with Vera, he knows the zoo system fairly well. However, because he is worried that Vera may have betrayed him, he decides to go solo. He breaks into the zoo on his own, acquires the tabby, and delivers it to the competing zoo. He does a little fancy talking, selling this thing as the top kitty of the exotic cat’s litter, and manages to get the other zoo to accept it!

Even though Jean does not like Justus, she has put up with him in the past. However, this was just too much for her. She knows something is messed up, since the space had gone from an exotic cat to a sickly tabby to just being empty – and the competing zoo is advertising new exhibit with a baby exotic cat! She decides to take action and concocts a sting operation. She begins to floats rumors of a Thai Elephant exhibit coming to town. Not only is it a rare visit, the zoo has acquired a pregnant elephant so there will be a baby elephant coming very soon!

Meanwhile Vera is has become a complete wreck over her missing sick tabby. She had found the exotic cat space empty a few days ago. She assumed that Justus had jumped the gun and moved the exotic. So instead of alerting the authorities she had slipped in her own tabby, thinking it was a perfect chance to get it some healthcare. And now her precious housecat was missing! She goes to Justus freaking out about the whole situation and demanding to know where her cat had gone.

In hysteria of the heated conversation, Justus does not realize that Vera had nothing to do with the disappearance of his precious exotic. He still thinks that Vera double-crossed him and refuses to tell her anything unless she gets him some more information about this new rumored elephant exhibit. He hints very strongly that he might know some people who might know something about her missing tabby.

Vera is so distressed about her missing cat that she immediately goes to Jean, blatantly asking for details about the rumored elephant exhibit. Jean tells Vera that the zoo was not planning to publicly announce the elephant exhibit till the baby was born, but casually mentions that the pregnant mom was due to arrive on the grounds soon. This leads to a flurry of further questions from Vera, and Jean “accidentally” gives away the arrival date and location.

After the conversation with Vera, Jean calls the authorities to set up the sting.

The final scene opens with Justus filling out a bunch of insurance forms and yelling at indifferent employees at a truck rental place who are moving at a snails pace. After getting the truck he drives furiously towards the zoo, but he is already late for his appointed rendezvous to intercept the new elephant arrival. However, it turns out that being late is a stroke of good luck. As he nears the zoo he sees a bunch of cop cars in at the zoo loading dock. Looking again, he notices a handcuffed Vera getting shoved into the back of a police cruiser. He realizes that they just got stung, and he just drives past the zoo and avoids the attention of the authorities. As he does a loop around the zoo, he passes the backstage of the pachyderm exhibit. And there, tucked under in the shade, is a cage with his missing exotic cat!

JP: Three burly goons knocking on his apartment door.
JG: Getting a nice promotion for her great work in cleaning up the zoo from smugglers.
VP: Leaving the police station, released due to insufficient evidence.
VP: Getting fired, for her involvement in the elephant and irregularities in the cat exhibit.
JP: Flashback, In the dark of night handing a manila folder with a picture of an elephant to an executive from a different zoo.
JG: At night at the pachyderm exhibit, selling off the exotic cat to the same shady zoo executive.
VP: Starting a job as a janitor at another zoo (the one where her tabby had been sold to).
JP: sitting at a park bench with two broken legs.
JG: Newspaper Headline – “New Thai Elephant Gives Birth to a Baby At Local Zoo!”
VP: Overhearing a couple coworkers talking about the weird case of the new acquisition. A deathly ill exotic cat that has been cured by the vet, but the vet swears it’s just a stray cat.
JP: Volunteering at a local pet shelter and quietly leering at a purebred Siamese cat.
JG: Newspaper Headline – “Baby Elephant Mysteriously Disappears!”

Closing Thoughts:
My sister thought the gameplay was a bit too intense for her tastes. She generally likes to play light board games, and I don’t think she enjoyed the amount of brainpower it takes to participate in improvisational storytelling. I’m not sure how she had the patience to go though a 10+ session campaign with her husband, but that’s love for you!

My girlfriend, who likes to read spoiler scripts to movies and random soap operas had fun with the game, but she expressed concern that with the wrong crowd it would be a dud. However, I suspect that is really just the case with any game, even though the danger of a bad crowd might be particularly acute in this type of open ended game.

As for me, I always have jitters introducing new games, especially one that I haven’t played before. However, it helps that I listened to a few actual play podcasts of Fiasco. And even though it was published before our play, I strongly recommend Jason Morningstar’s demo on the BAMF podcast posted 06 March 2012. That said, its really not a complicated game. The one simplification we did was settling all the relationships before distributing the object/need/location. We did have a couple “magic” dice to choose items that caught someone’s attention instead of 100% following the rules. However, I think it worked out ok. One thing I wish we did in retrospect was to use names — and not our own. I wish we named each of our characters, and also we should have named all the key animals that popped up, it would have added a lot of color to the game. I also wish we had more first person dialogs, we were maybe describing a little too much.

Even so, I think the game was very fun, and surprisingly intense! Coming up with story ideas was a lot harder than it sounded – I was tensed up like I was playing a heavy optimization eurogame! But unlike a board game, but we managed to laugh throughout the whole time. We had our doubts about the plot after the first act – which was a bit overly focused on “court intrigue”. But we conducted the tilt and took a break to let things settle a bit. After coming back to a fresh table, things really got moving and everything came together really nicely, especially the surprise ending! I was very impressed with how a table of unexperienced RPGers, all first time Fiasco players, somehow ended up with a memorable story!