Contrary to what it initially sounds like, Microscope is not a science game. What it is, however, is completely different from anything else I’ve ever played or even really experienced. It’s actually hard to sum up in a simple description, but I’ll try. Microscope is a pencil and paper game of world-building and creative role-playing. It is called microscope because throughout the course of the game you zoom in and out of various aspects of the world from the wide view of the universe to a close-up on a particular incident that may have changed the course of the civilization. Sound intriguing? Sound confusing? That’s how I felt at first. Let me tell you now why I think everyone should give microscope a try.
The game begins be defining the large scale of the universe that you are going to explore over the course of the game. Microscope suggests things such as “the rise and fall of a civilization”, and in my most recent game, we decided to explore the dual civilizations of dragons and men until the eventual destruction of both. You create a one-line description of your world and then give it a starting point and an ending point. This is determined by the group as a whole.
Next, the individual players get to determine elements that either belong in the world or will not be permitted in the world. These can be anything, for example, our world of dragons and men had a “pony-based economy” on the “yes” list, however, “taxes” were on the “no” list. A previous game I played included Pandas, but not extra-terrestrials.
The final part of the set-up includes creating events within the world. Each player gets a chance to define an event within the starting-ending points of an era that can be either light or dark. One of the eras produced in the dragon game was the rise of the age of the penguins. This was followed by the switch-over to the pony-based economy. Other eras could include periods of uprisings or the reign of a great leader.
After this, your world is pretty well defined, in the larger sense, but the details are still quite fuzzy. Time to zoom in.
Creating the World
At this point in the game, it’s time to flush out basic ideas in the world. Each player gets a turn to choose the “focus” or area of interest for the round. Then, within a round, each player gets to add something to the game related to the focus. Although the focus remains the same, the magnification and resolution can change dramatically here. A player can add an era to the game, changing the tide of history. A player could add an event within an era that gives more clarity to that event and describes a detail of the world.
Finally, a player can allow the rest of the players to figure out where the game goes by role-playing a scene. Typically, a scene is designed to answer a question such as “who killed the Governor”. Players are asked to take on specific roles that must appear in the scene, and then they improv dialogue within those roles to determine what happened. The scene ends when the question is answered. This is highest level of zoom that the game takes on.
Why It’s Fun
I love the creativity aspect of this game. The entire thing is built by the players, and almost anything is on the table (unless, of course, someone placed it on the “no” list). It’s very interesting to see how a world comes together, piece by piece. Also, there is both a level of autonomy and a level of interactivity within the game. During your turn, you get to make basic decisions that cannot be contradicted by other players. However, during role-play scenes, players get to work together to discover what happened in the world.
One of the things I like about Microscope is the simplicity. All you need is some index cards or post-it notes and something to write with. Everything else is done through the imagination of the players. There are no special pieces or game boards or figures. There is just one simple book to walk you through the details of following the game.
An idea that my husband once had was to play a game of microscope with an RPG group. The group would create the world together, and then play a D&D or Pathfinder game within that created world. It would be a good way to brainstorm for a creative writing project. I would like to try it with a college class in some way to get them to think outside the box and work together to solve problems.
Where To Get It
Microscope was made by Lame Mage Productions. It can be purchased in print or PDF from Indie Press Revolution or Amazon. To make the game even more portable, there is an app for iPhone and iPad that gives you the ability to track the parts of the game digitally, which would be great for playing on the go.
I’ll bring my book to PAX East, so if anyone wants to set-up a game, let me know!