?I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.? ? Marlon Brando, ?On the Waterfront?
Contenders is a roleplaying game about professional boxing. Rather than focus on the glitz and flash of the pay-per-view superfights, Contenders deals with the seedy underbelly of the boxing world. Characters are desperate and downtrodden, with no means to escape the hand that life has dealt them but the ring. It?s something like film-noir, with the squared circle representing the struggle to overcome pain, fear, and personal demons and ultimately achieve a better life.
The game is different from the majority of roleplaying games in a few key areas. First of all, it uses playing cards to resolve conflicts rather than dice. Maybe it?s the D&D gamer in me, but the idea of drawing cards just isn?t as appealing as rolling my trusty dWhatever and praying for a good result. To the game?s credit, though, the card system is very easy to use. In most cases, all that matters is the color of the cards drawn: red suits are successes, black suits are failures. I miss my dice, but the cards work just fine for their purpose in this game.
The second difference, and probably the most profound, is Contenders? lack of any kind of Gamemaster. Instead, each player takes a turn running his or her character through a chosen type of scene. Scenes are divided into categories, and each allows you to improve your fighter and / or advance his storyline in different ways.
For example, a player may decide that, during his scene, his Contender is trying to get extra work to earn money. The outcome of the scene is determined by the drawing of cards, and the player?s character is affected depending on whether the scene was successful or not (he either earns money, or he fails and instead earns a point in his ?pain? stat). Once the outcome has been determined, the active player roleplays his scene while the other players take on the role of the NPCs. What exactly happens is up to the active player, as long as it correlates with the results shown on the cards.
Finally, Contenders is a roleplaying game with a clear ending and a means to win or lose?sort of. There is a built-in endgame, which is reached after a character achieves a certain score in his reputation stat. At that point, you must determine whether your character achieved his dream (whatever that was) or whether he succumbed to his demons and failed to realize his goals. There is a means in-game for players to hinder the success of other players, so in a small way the game is competitive. In the end, though, it?s not about whether your Contender wins or loses, but about roleplaying the journey he takes to get there.
Since the game of Contenders is about professional boxing, there is of course a system for resolving fights. Basically, a player selects his overall strategy each round and tries to score more successes than his opponent. A player can try to play to his character?s strengths, and fighting options range from conservative to all-out aggressive. It?s fairly simple, but the level of strategy should keep things interesting and exciting from bout to bout.
All RPGs are about conflict on one level or another, and the strongest conflict in Contenders is the battle of the fighter against himself. Every scene, whether it?s a boxing match or a visit to an ailing mentor, has a built-in mechanic that reflects a fighter trying to build up the positive in his life and reduce the negative. Along the way, there are opportunities to use the negative to try to achieve success, but that path is a dangerous and generally self-destructive one to follow.
LIKED: The main strength of Contenders lies in its clear focus on its central conflict. It?s primarily a game about people in a bad situation trying to overcome their personal shortcomings and achieve success in a brutal, gritty setting. The secondary conflict, the boxers vs. one another, generally feeds and supports the first.
There aren?t a lot of rules, and what few are here either serve to advance the main conflict, or help to create the story structure. The designer did a good job trimming the fat, giving us a sleek and simple game engine that does what it?s intended to do.
DISLIKED: Before it was revised, this book was written in only 24 hours. At times, that fact shows through in the final design. The graphics and flavor bits of Contenders are already pretty sparse. If you trim them down, you?re left with a very bare-bones game. While I praised this fact above for its affect on the game mechanically, aesthetically Contenders looks a bit rushed. I think the layout and final presentation could have used some additional polishing.
There were a few instances where the game could have abandoned its ?less is more? approach and given the reader a bit more info. Early in the book, the book says that all you need to play is pencils, paper, and a deck of playing cards. Not until way later in the book does it mention that two jokers need to be left in, and it never does mention how often you should shuffle the deck. Problems like this are minor, but they could both be avoided with a little more clarity and better organization.
Finally, I wouldn?t recommend Contenders to inexperienced roleplayers. While the game itself is fairly simple to learn, a lot of it involves cooperative story-telling and improvisational acting. A bit more guidance on how to effectively do this would have ensured that new gamers weren?t overwhelmed, and that the beer-and-pretzels crowd had a bit of a helping hand to keep them going.
[THIS REVIEW WAS EDITED]