My first date with Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice coverBreaking the Ice is a two-player, romance-themed game by Emily Care Boss. In Breaking the Ice, you tell the story of a couple’s first three dates.

I played Breaking the Ice last weekend, on Valentine’s Day. Now I’m going to talk about it.

How it works

As I mentioned, there are two players. First of all, the two players collectively generate the characters who are going on these dates. They do this by means of a Switch (that is, finding something different between the players and playing a character with the other player’s trait) and then brainstorming character traits based on the characters’ favourite colours.

Once characters and setting and genre and such have been decided, the players take turns narrating what happens on the dates of their characters. The “goal” is to increase their mutual attraction and their compatibilities. The narrator (the “Active Player”) does this by describing things that:

  1. deepen their attraction;
  2. make the date go well;
  3. make the date go badly;
  4. play into their established compatibilities; or
  5. reference the Active character’s central character conflict.

That’s basically it, in a nutshell. If you want to know more, I suggest you buy the book. (Link at the top of this post.)

When Elliot met Ken

First of all, I don’t like the Switch mechanic. It’s really cool, in theory. It forces people to play characters that are, in some way, not like themselves. For new roleplayers, that’s probably very powerful, but none of the people in my circle are new roleplayers. We are all well versed in playing characters who are not like us. For experienced roleplayers, it’s actually slightly limiting, because to play with the same person multiple times you are forced into using the same Switch or Switches over and over. If I was playing this game again, I would seriously consider skipping the Switch stage entirely.

In my particular game, I also found another problem with the Switch: I was playing with someone who is exactly like me. I played this in a group of six people (two couples and two spares—I was a spare), and we randomised the pairings to try this game out. The person I played with is an old friend. We grew up near each other, we’re the same gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, political belief, height, weight and hair colour. What were we supposed to use as a Switch? Well, in our case, we lucked out because he is in a relationship and I am not. That’s a fantastic Switch, but it has story implications: in the game, my character had to already be in a relationship with some third party before going on these dates. Again, this Switch is not really replayable.

But it worked out this time. I ended up playing Elliot, a closeted gay man in an unhappy marriage to a bigoted wife, who begins an affair with Ken, a struggling artist.

Okay, complaints about the Switch aside, I had a fantastic time playing this game. We told a great (adorable!) story and had a lot of fun.

But…

The story of Elliot and Ken was very much a modern-day rom com. It ended exactly where a rom com has to end: with the two of them getting together and agreeing to try a life together (after Elliot divorced his bigoted wife). But we never saw the bigoted wife. She wasn’t an actual character. She didn’t even have a name, she was so unimportant. The story we told was a rom com, but it was really only a few choice scenes of a rom com. The main obstacles were removed “off-screen”, between dates. There’s not much depth there.

And here’s another thing: there’s no real way to “lose” this game. I mean, there’s no way for the characters you’re playing not to end up together. This works if you want to tell a story about two characters who you know will be in a relationship at the end, but not so much if you’re interested in drama or tension or character conflict. This is not a drama game; it is a rom com game. There is no “will they”/”won’t they”. They will. It’s preordained.

Remember, narrating bad things increases Attraction, no matter how bad those things are. In our game, we got round that by making the bad things primarily external to the characters and easy to resolve: somebody else shows up inconveniently, an untimely accident like dropping ice cream on your nice trousers, etc. We played using a rule that the bad thing needed to drive the two characters closer in the end (or at least no further apart), but that rule doesn’t appear anywhere in the book.

What does the game do well?

The game let us tell a very specific story in an enjoyable way. It would be good for encouraging new roleplayers (although Active players narrate events rather than acting out their own character, for the most part).

But I don’t think the game would work outside its very narrow scope. The book claims that it could be used to treat The Empire Strikes Back as a series of dates between Han and Leia. It might be able to do a few key scenes (1 on Hoth, 1 in the Falcon, and 1 on Bespin leading up to the carbonite freezing), but even then it’s a stretch and it certainly wouldn’t capture everything else going on around them.

It might be possible to hack the game to do something else. For a comically mismatched buddy cop movie, for example, maybe you could replace the Attraction stat with Trust or Camaraderie. To introduce an option of not ending up in a relationship, maybe introduce a way of decreasing Attraction (someone suggested using Fate dice, which might work) or of increasing a new separate trait called Animosity.

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed playing the game. I mean I really had a blast. I could see myself playing it again in some very narrow circumstances… but in general I don’t think it’s going to get in my gaming repertoire. I’m most likely to use it to play out the backstory of two romantically involved characters in other longer-running games, but even then I think there might be better options for that.

So that’s my first review. There’s more I could say, but I think I’ve rambled long enough. If you’ve played this game, or especially if you’ve used it to do something other than a rom com, I’d love to hear your views on it in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “My first date with Breaking the Ice

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