Stuffed Fables is called an ‘AdventureBook Game’. This is the first of its type from Plaid Hat Games. When you open the box and see a big spiral book full of stories taking up more space than anything else, it might immediately bring to mind Above & Below or Near & Far. The box cover alone, however, makes it clear we’re dealing with kid-style stories, and likewise the game follows a simpler (read: more linear) path than either of those two.
The directions are easy: Read the book. Passages in italics are story for the current bookkeeper to read to the group. Regular text involves gameplay. Don’t move forward from the section you’re on until something in the game tells you to do so. As long as you know a few core rules, that’s all you need to run the whole thing.
Let’s split this between the gameplay and the storytelling.
—Gameplay. Every character has its own set of abilities, although each starts with the same amount of stuffing (health) and hearts to power their abilities. Characters usually have at least one ability that nudge them towards using certain types of items, though they can use anything they want.
You start a turn by drawing five dice from a bag. White dice potentially give you extra stuffing. Black dice are threat dice, which can trigger enemy minion turns or other negative effects. Other dice can be used for actions specific to that die’s color, or for a few general abilities not connected to a color (mainly movement or storing dice for a later turn). Non-boss enemies have one hit point; beat their defense with a roll and you KO them, earning a button that can serve various purposes later. Bosses have hit points equal to the number of players in the game, but you hit them the same way, by rolling higher than their defense. Other icons on the board can give you other stuffed animals to talk to, merchants to deal with, or push the story forward.
The gameplay is about as good as it needs to be for a game like this. The best mechanic is the ability to choose how many dice you roll to attempt specific tasks. In most cases you’ll want to roll as many dice as you can, or (if for some reason you have a pile of dice you can use) at least enough to just about guarantee success, but having the option not to do that and instead take multiple shots at a task with worse odds is good and I’m glad they offered it. Needing specific colors of dice for certain tasks, but having to pull dice from a bag each turn, is a recipe for annoyance, but the ability to save dice for later, or give friends dice to use on their turn, does a fair bit to alleviate issues created by randomness. Skill tests and group tasks can be failed, but you should usually have a much better than 50/50 chance to succeed.
Perhaps the highest praise for the gameplay is that it’s good enough while also not overshadowing the story that is the selling point. Speaking of which…
—The story. When we opened the book, the first thing that came up was, do we actually have to read this kiddie garbage to each other? Once the gameplay aspects came in, though, we got over that, and everyone read without feeling weird about it by the end. It’s also a little darker than someone might expect—not original Grimm Brothers level, but not shiny happy Disney stuff either, no matter how the first page of the story book might read. The first story revolves around the animals retrieving the blanket of ‘their’ child from little spider monsters with doll heads. If you look at the little spider monsters with doll heads and don’t buy into the creepiness that exists here, you’re probably not going to buy into the whole theme. And those are the lowest-level threats.
More generally, if you can buy into stuffed animals coming to life and running around (which is a relatively common idea), you can perceive the threats to their well-being. Yet stuffed animals don’t die; they can give stuffing to each other, including if one of them hits zero. Having all the animals flatten out (literally) is a loss; we didn’t get anywhere near that point, but the idea of it feels pretty sad.
It can feel odd to be an adult, reading these stories to other adults, but they’ve written and paced it all in a way that lets you get into it. It helps that the art and miniatures are really nice, so you know exactly what characters are running around the maps.
—The overall. Pretty good gameplay, solid story. Sounds like winner!
Playing through a story is enjoyable. You go through the process, have a good time, and think, man, this is fun, I’d like to do this more. Then you get to the end and… nothing. There are different endings available depending on how the story plays out, one better than the other, but once you hit the ending, that’s it. There are eight stories available; like a legacy game, there’s not much point to playing them multiple times unless you’re trying to introduce someone new to it, but there’s no legacy aspect. Nothing moves from game to game. I mean, you could house rule it so your characters keep their items, but they’d become incredibly broken.
It feels a little odd to criticize the game for only having eight stories to play when Time Stories starts out with only the one, and that’s quite popular. The difference I would draw between them is that Time Stories is a mystery to be solved, so once that happens you naturally wouldn’t have a reason to play it again. Stuffed Fables is a game that makes you want to keep seeing new stories, just like you would want more work from an author you like, with sufficient gameplay but not enough to make you want to re-run anything. Some people may get through all eight and decide they got their money’s worth; others will think there should have been more. I have no good advice for how to decide which side of that line you’ll fall on. It helps if you enjoy crisp art and excellent miniatures. That’s all I’ve got.
Score: Six crawly doll heads out of eight.