Hell 4 Leather is a really cool game.
I’m a big fan of Joe Prince as a game designer – actually, I think he’s one of the most underappreciated small-press designers out there. Contenders, first of all, is a great game. The way it structures play is wonderful. I particularly like how it allows players with vastly different play agendas to play the same game, together, without stepping on each others toes. The cardplay to resolve the boxing matches is tactically interesting and fun to play, and it’s just overall really tight and good.
So, with that in mind, I was excited when he entered my Two Games One Name competition. And he delivered – I actually declared Hell 4 Leather the overall winner of the competition. As I said then:
It’s just the cleanest, tightest, most ready-to-go of the games that grab me. Joe writes good games, and this is no exception.
A lot of contest games start off strong and then peter off towards the end, or have one core good idea that isn’t fully explored. Hell 4 Leather felt ready to play, and the playtesting and smoothing he did since the contest just made it better.
The game is a GMless shortform game that centers around the use of the major Arcana of a Tarot deck (though normal playing cards can be substituted). The players will all play the members of some kind of gang who have killed on of their own. The murdered “leather” (whoever draws the Fool card) goes down and cuts a deal with the Devil in order to have the opportunity to come back and exact his bloody revenge on those who wronged him. At the end of the game, we find out the ultimate fate of ALL the characters – are they saved or damned?
I played the game a couple of weeks ago, in a game where I played the Fool. We were prohibition-era gangsters in Chicago, and over the course of play we determined that my character was just not smart or bloodthirsty enough to take down the folks really responsible for his betrayal and murder.
I was actually surprised by how much I liked the game. From the contest entry, the general premise, and the repetitive nature of how scenes are resolved, I was a little nervous that it would be more of a “windup” game where the course of play is strongly scripted. I was totally wrong!
First of all, you don’t need to write anything down for this game. Characters are discovered and scenes are resolved entirely through the use of the Tarot cards. This was a cool feature.
Second, while there’s a specific scene structure (the game progresses through seven discrete scenes), and the method for resolving each is pretty much the same each time (the Fool picks a card from a set of 2 or more, aiming for the Death card in order to exact his revenge), the game is completely agnostic about the actual content of the scenes. Characters are implied by which card is drawn, but other than this basic sketch, everything else is completely player-driven. In our game, the other players ended up creating such sympathetic characters (my old flame, my ex-con brother) that I didn’t want to cause them harm! It was surprising and satisfying to have such an organic growth of character and relationship.
Third, the game resolves the state of ALL the characters in the end, not just the Fool. So the end of the game is a wrapup where you determine and then described how all of gang end up damned or saved, based on the Fools actions and the events of play. I think that endings are satisfying and necessary, so this was a good design choice in my eyes.
I also dig the form factor (a three-panel glossy brochure), though the graphic design and presentation is a little over-the-top for my taste. I know why it is what it is, but I find it hard to navigate. It’s also definitily one of those one-game-learning-curve games, where I think the first game would be kind of fumbly if the group is coming too it cold. If you have the benefit of playing it with someone who already knows it, like I did, this isn’t as much of a problem.
It’s weird, it’s cool, it’s surprisingly deep, and I think it’s a lot of fun. And it’s cheap (less than 10 bucks). If you’re interested in tight, sleek modern design with a progressive edge, you should check out this game.
And that’s what I think about Hell 4 Leather.