21 December 2021
This article originally appeared in issue 57 of Tabletop Gaming, and was written by Christopher John Eggett. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
Want to see what's inside the box? Check it out in the below video!
We’ll start with a pitch: how do you fancy 7th Continent, but made by Big Potato? A huge sense of adventure, a branching story filled with choices, a little bit of risk and daring do required – but filtered through the endlessly inventive and party-centric Big Potato fun machine?
What’s Next? is just that. A choose your own path game for one to four players that injects the right amount of silliness and challenge that you would expect for such an outing. James Vaughan – probably best known for Don’t Get Got, which you can read about in this month’s First Turn (pick up the full magazine here) – is the captain of this expedition into the wilds for Big Potato. Let’s see if we’re prepared for what awaits.
“This is a new horizon for Big Potato in terms of gaming. It’s still a party game, but it’s more like a light strategy game than we’ve ever done before,” says Vaughan over a videocall.
“It’s in the style of those Choose Your Own Adventure games. I’ve always liked that mechanic, I like a lot of the games that use that mechanic – and to some extent games like 7th Continent,” says Vaughan, “but one thing I’ve not really liked about it is that you resolve things by picking – ‘I go that way, oh, I’m dead’, or rolling dice – with that D&D aspect that puts a lot of people off. So we’ve tried to completely do away with that.”
The game was originally pitched by the inventor, Ed, at a UK Games Expo speed dating event. But it’s come a long way from that initial flirtation with an idea.
A PARTY OF YOUR CHOOSING
“So we’ve made a ‘choose your own adventure party game’ – and there’s a massive amount of components, especially for us,” says Vaughan.
Which is true, most Big Potato games come with minimal packaging and components – usually with one stand out gimmick (we’re looking at you, squeezy cow from Herd Mentality). Here we have a flickable puck and a pizza slice shaped target zone indicator for playing a kind of curling, a whole pile of stackable rubble known as ‘peril pieces’ that acts as your group’s current risk level (if it falls, you’ve failed), some other puzzle pieces, a whole bunch of cards for each adventure, and a day and night dial.
This dial, which functions as a turn timer, has a function a little bit like some mechanics seen in crunchier RPG hexcrawls. Each turn you tick on the timer one space, “and when we hit night time, everything gets a bit more dangerous,” says Vaughan. Players flip the entire deck to the opposite – darker – side.
Challenges and choices here are more likely to lead to picking out more peril pieces from the bag, and adding it to the small mountain you’re building beside the play area. This is your tower of peril – a dexterity challenge of adding these wonky pieces without knocking the whole thing down.
The ‘night mode flip’ is an elegant way to not only provide a bit more challenge at certain points in the game, but also indicates that there was, truly a different way. The daytime side of card seven, for example, might have been a jolly wander past a clearing – but at night is us blundering into a swamp. While there’s very limited backtracking, there’s lots of different routes to have taken.
“You might be able to finish Koala Cave first time, if you’re not playing with kids,” says Vaughan, “but you’re unlikely to finish others first time – and even if you do, you’re likely to have only gone through ten cards to finish it, and there’s forty in the deck, double sided. It encourages you to back and challenges you to go a different way.”
Each of the adventures: Drums of Koala Cave, The Skyscraper Caper, and Blinky’s Great Escape, come as a double-sided deck of cards. Players take turns reading from the cards and collectively making choices about what to do next.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
We’re joined by Becky McKinlay (head of marketing at Big Potato) to play the opening moments of Drums of Koala Cove – as dexterity challenges don’t really work over Zoom. Vaughan begins setting the scene. Our adventurer is an amateur zoologist who has spent all their time in the lab – and when our mentor goes missing, we know we’ve got to charter a flight to find their whereabouts. You know, it happens all the time.
The writing for the game is extremely well pitched, and straight up funny in parts. There’s nothing like being given a good line to read out around the gaming table (and nothing worse than slogging through bad flavourless text) to get everyone on board.
One of the first dexterity challenges sees us try an escape from the aforementioned swamp sees McKinlay sit on the floor, hands by her sides, and Vaughan drop the card from shoulder height – with McKinlay attempting to catch it. She doesn’t.
This kind of challenge is a mini-game, and one of the four core types in the box. “The mini-games are completely unique for every location and event,” says Vaughan, whereas the other types of game are variations on a dexterity theme. Most of these games and challenges give you a couple of warm-up attempts before throwing you into it. Success and failure lead to different paths.
“Around 70% of the time, if you fail a challenge, you’ll end up going a completely different way,” says Vaughan.
Another of the standard set of challenges is the puck-push. Here players flick a puck along a segmented wedge, attempting to land it in the right coloured area, “occasionally you have people pointing their flick at the tower of peril, and you’re like ‘don’t do that’” adds Vaughan.
Other games include Item Search, which involved rummaging through a bag of delicious looking acrylic puzzle pieces – in the hope of feeling out the right one to match the silhouette on the card. McKinlay does this for us in our absence as our hero reaches inside the mouth of a talking tree. And Shape Build, which is also against the clock, and asks players to fill in a silhouette using puzzle pieces from the bag.
They’re all jolly little games, but they’re imbued with the urgency of the Crystal Maze by virtue of the fact that your failure might let the rest of your team down. Except here, you’re not just going to get trapped in a room with a confusing series of pullies and a jungle theme, you’re probably going to add more peril to your tower, putting the pressure on the future. After all, a bit of a nudge with the knee can bring it all down.
A NEW ADVENTURE
“This is going to be the most expensive game that we’ve made,” says McKinlay, as the game retails at around £40. It also displays that this is a bit of a crossover game for Big Potato. Often it’s said the company make games for people who don’t know they like games. Pitching this game at the cusp of hobby gaming, and keeping that original audience on board is going to be the real challenge for the long term success of the game.
We discuss the heavier games that it’s similar to, and the modern classic choose your own death game, 7th Continent crops up repeatedly as a touchstone.
“I love 7th Continent, but it’s got such a high barrier to entry – especially for a mainstream audience. I’ve sat down with multiple people to play it, and it’s very much to do with the people I play with, but they weren’t that into it,” says Vaughan.
Interestingly, there is a solo mode for What’s Next, a departure for a company whose main line is in getting a lot of people in the same room to, frankly, muck about. The game also sets its tone at a distance from the usual hobby titles.
“You see it a lot in choose your own path style games – lots of really stereotypically ‘gamery’ things – and we’ve tried to stay away from it here,” says Vaughan, “we’ve got talking Koala’s with hard hats on instead.”
It’s been a labour of love for the artist, as you can see from these pages – psychedelic pastels offer a sense of a very strange outing where nothing is off the table. You’re very unlikely to have much ground to stand on for any complaints akin to “a dragon can’t do that.”
What’s Next? is a personal achievement for Vaughan too, one that was born out of the extremely weird year we’ve been having.
“This game might not have been made the same without lockdown,” says Vaughan, “I don’t think I would have been able to make the decision maps without being literally locked in my house.”
We ask if Vaughan considers it like an accessible version of 7th Continent, or more like a choose your own path version of an Unlock! game. “I can’t think of many things I can compare it to,” he says, “but with the dexterity element, I don’t know many games that do that – it’s what brings it into its own. If you tell someone that they have to roll a d20, anyone can do it, but it puts some people off. Whereas if you say ‘you’ve got to flick the puck here,’ people are up for the challenge. Also, with this, there’s a lot of replayability in the way that you just can’t with experiences like Unlock! ”
“What’s next?” is the question that we habitually ask designers at the end of nearly every interview, it’s an open ended way of getting a few tidbits of upcoming releases or even little ideas. There will be animated shorts to go along with each adventure to get you started, and a fully exclusive release with Zatu.
Beyond the world of What Next however Big Potato have a few interesting ideas to throw around. Mean Girls: The Party Game is a game themed around the burn book from the popular 2004 film where treading the line of being outrageously rude to your friend is tempered by the fact that you might get away with writing it down. Snakesss is a bluffing-while-blind game with a head-trip of a cover and design by Sushi Go! designer Phil Walker-Harding. Most excitingly is another foray into light strategy with Nice Buns – a dice selection and set making game using extremely cute plastic bao buns as tokens, with a twist. Instead of selecting what dice you want, the person to your left chooses for you. We expect this to be a low key hit that works its way into everyone’s collection.
Until all of that lands however, we’re on the look out for suspicious Koala’s in the bushes.
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You can see more from Big Potato below, with a look at Nice Buns – plus, find the review in Tabletop Gaming Magazine issue 62!