This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
Motion Pictures is a deckbuilder that hides its genre, by very carefully and precisely paring down everything that’s become accepted about deckbuilders: hand size, shuffling, discards, scoring. It is in a way a haiku of deckbuilders. If it was delivered by a bored teenager only half-paying attention, because they are too busy playing with their phone. Yes, I’m talking about you, Shannon! Will it kill you to put that thing down?
The first thing to strike you about Motion Pictures is that the cards do not look great. While that kind of superficial complaint is easy to dismiss, it does manage to temper both the appeal of the game as a whole, as well as the appreciation of its design. For a game that drapes itself in the most visual of modern art forms, it’s both surprising and disappointing that the visuals might be the game’s Achilles’ heel. (Because they’re Greeks, see? The designer, the publisher, the myth… I’ll link to a youtube video later, that will explain it all.)
As film producers you try to put together the right crew (i.e. play cards) to complete projects (i.e. collect other cards), that will give you victory points (i.e. VP) at the end of the game. So far, so elevator pitch. In what is an amusing, little “spot-the-reference” game, the projects you complete have illustrations that bear an eerie resemblance to posters, scenes or promotional material of well-known film and TV entries. From Doctor Who to Jurassic Park to The Godfather to Τροχονόμος Βαρβάρα* – Admittedly the references are not so much references, as casually traced artwork, but that’s beside the point.
Unfortunately, the choice in art direction does not lead to a sense of charming recognition that makes you feel like a big name in Tinseltown. Instead it makes the game look cheap and lazy. Which is a shame. Because the game’s design is solid (if flawed). Every time I sat down to play it, I was surprised at how quickly it was over. The importance of the decisions I’ve taken in the first few turns only became apparent to me in hindsight. If only I had only bought this card, it would have paid off in later turns. If I had discarded that card, my hand would have been even leaner in the end game. Since your deck rarely reaches twice your hand limit, every single card in it counts.
Yet Motion Pictures can be played so casually, with long-term consequences of your actions barely noticeable, that you might come away thinking that there is no meat to this game. Its presentation adding to this impression of it being a barely average deckbuilder.
Buying new cards or pledging cards to a project are simple decisions. But they subtly change the flow of the game, its dynamic and most importantly the breadth of options available to you. Just like any good deckbuilder does. Why then is this delicate gem so overlooked? Why aren’t ther more people talking about it?
Because while the subtleties and intricacies of timing and deck composition are apparent to anyone who pays attention to the rules, they are also easily overshadowed by what I can only describe as a blatant oversight during the game’s development: the player with the laziest strategy is no worse off than the smartest play you can come up with. Sheer luck of the draw puts you on an equal footing to a player strategically putting together their deck. You can rush the game by simply completing the cheapest projects available to you, possibly even scoring additional points at the end due to having the most projects, or projects of a genre, etc.
Although you can choose to play subtly and cleverly, just going for the lowest hanging fruit each turn is just as competitive. This simple fact ultimately hollows out whatever tactical or strategic appeal the game has. It is too easy to complete projects with your starting cards, even towards the end of the game, to make deck construction all that necessary. If the right projects show up on your turn, there is little incentive to think ahead. No reason to consider cards in the market. No need to jettison dead weight cards.
To be fair, it is always possible that an unexpected strategy completely upends a game’s design. Approaching the game from an unusual angle might mean that the design’s careful arrangement of incentives and limitations simply misses its target. In Motion Pictures, though, you can do what you’re supposed to be doing in the dullest and most obvious way, and still have a shot at winning. None of the intricate decision spaces ever open up for you, and the game just patters along and then ends. Generally painless, but without much to remember it by.
* – That is a lie. There is no reference to this milestone of cinema. And I am outraged by this omission. OUTRAGED!