The Machine (Adira Slattery & Fen Slattery, 2020) is a sequential solo journaling game—multiple people can play, but only one plays at a time. Strange thoughts compel a character to build a machine, and the player records their progress and ultimate failure. When the inevitable occurs, the journal passes to the next player, who begins their own story.
Gameplay requires minimal interaction between players, instead emphasizing engagement with the game’s materials. Amongst these components, The Machine weaves an asymmetrical network of identity and interconnection, establishing patterns and hierarchies that coalesce into a compelling and satisfying experience.
The Machine is a Z-fold pamphlet. It is difficult and confusing to navigate as a PDF. It is meant to be printed, not read on a screen. So from the moment you pick it up, the instructions enforce the physical, tactile nature of the game.
The layout is relatively conservative, consisting of a title in an expressive typeface, a consistent serif for the body and headings, and three engravings of historical contraptions. The latter break up text-heavy flaps, adding visual variety while emphasizing the game’s focus, setting the tone, and inspiring the player’s imagination.
The Machine is clearly and concisely written. This is by necessity, since the whole game fits on a single sheet of paper. But it’s still worth noting, as it’s extremely well executed without sacrificing affect.
The Machine’s instructional text poses almost as many questions as it gives directions. This tactic kickstarts the reader’s imagination, but it also encourages them to stop and think rather than just consuming the rules and leaping into the game. The instructions set the tone and pace for gameplay, which consists of transforming prompts into journal entries—itself a slow and thoughtful process.
Another notable feature is that the formal “introduction” is placed as the conclusion. Rather than initially explaining The Machine in metagame terms, the text drops its reader directly into the game’s scenario and begins introducing mechanics.
However, The Machine is rules- and materials-lite, and the mechanics are very non-technical, so the absence of an introduction doesn’t hinder comprehension. If anything, this approach drives anticipation and enthusiasm by moving the reader directly into the game’s substance, and it provides a nice concluding summary: now that they understand how play proceeds, it reminds the player of the materials they’ll need and offers additional guidance on their indirect interactions with other players.
The Other Text
The first player’s first task is choosing a journal. The instructions offer suggestions, from something industrially bound to a stapled sheaf of papers. Players should choose carefully, as the journal’s material characteristics will influence gameplay and create a context for later players.
The journal contributes to the first player’s character; the materials they use will reflect who they are and their attitude toward their machine. At the same time, it will also inspire and inform the design of every player’s machine:
“Take the journal in hand. Feel its pages, its possibility. How does it remind you of the machine you can picture in your mind?”
Character & Plot
Journal in hand, the player then creates a character. The machine (and The Machine) has begun to take shape in your mind, and it compels you to act. The first step is deciding who you are.
Players create their characters by choosing two or three traits that describe their profession and personality. When a player selects a trait, they cross it off the list in the pamphlet (which is passed on along with the journal); no other player can use the same traits. This ensures characters are diverse, creates a definite end point for the game—it’s over when all traits are used—and it ties character creation to gameplay through the act of marking paper, which constitutes the primary mode of play.
Besides a journal and a pen or pencil, players will need a standard deck of playing cards. To create a prompt for a new journal entry, simply draw a card: the suit will establish an affect, and the card’s value provides an abstract event.
Drawn cards remain drawn, and the deck isn’t shuffled during gameplay. Once the game begins, the deck, unlike the journal and the pamphlet, is immutable.
In this way, the discrete cards function like the pages of a book: flipping one reveals a new event, driving the conflict and narrative forward. As much as this mechanic identifies the cards with the journal, it distinguishes both from the instructional pamphlet—the flaps of which are unfolded and refolded rather than “turned” like pages—even as the pamphlet and the journal are related in the act of marking, a process not applied to the cards.
The Machine is probably not a one-afternoon game. You may be seized by inspiration, but thinking about and responding to prompts can (and should) take hours, days, even weeks.
The player is instructed to write only “when you feel the journal calling”—a sharp distinction from the standard RPG experience that demands improvisation and in-the-moment action. Even the ergodic act of writing in a physical journal decelerates gameplay and encourages deeper reflection and contemplation than we usually devote to the act of playing RPGs.
A player’s game ends when they draw their third face or ace. They write about the event indicated by that card and then conclude their journal with a final entry about their failure and downfall. The character is unable to finish their machine, just as none of the players will complete the journal. In fact, they won’t even complete their final journal entry, which must end with an incomplete sentence
When the whole game concludes, the final player has two duties. The first is sharing the record with the other players. Then they must “ensure the journal is lost to the ages” however they see fit to do so.
The Machine is inspired by Martin Molin’s marble machine and the game’s titular object is unambiguously a musical device. But remember: players’ machines (and The Machine itself) are directly identified with the players’ journal. However, this text is, like the images of musical devices in the pamphlet, necessarily silent.
The journal, like the recording of a song, is not the performance of play; the true act of playing is not identical with the static record. Rather, music and The Machine are both experiences that emerge from voices working in concert with one another, and together they create an artistic experience that is purely transient.
When you purchase The Machine, a free copy is donated to the community. Even apart, we can still play together.
Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.
Machina ex Machina: Theoretical Perspectives on Adira & Fen Slattery’s The Machine
At the intersection of schizophrenia, self-replicating automata, and lolcats
Tabula Rasa: a (p)review
An exclusive first look at the groundbreaking rules-minimalist, experience-maximalist TTRPG
Games & Systems
The tradeoff between flexibility and direction, and the pitfalls of thinking about both
Callers, Multilogue, and the GM as Ant Queen
More musings on communication and structure in TTRPGs
One thought on “The Machine: A (Mostly) Material Review”