Most popular tabletop role-playing systems favor dice to determine whether or not the player’s actions succeed or fail. It was frustration with their arbitrary nature that lead the designer of What Next to create this, his very first game. It’s a cooperative family adventure in which success is determined by a variety of dexterity challenges instead of dice.
There are three adventures of increasing difficulty to choose from: a wilderness rescue, a superhero yarn and a sci-fi escape tale.
What’s in the Box
The box of What Next is noteworthy in itself. Rather than a slide-off lid, it has a gatefold opening with a magnetic clasp. There’s an archway cut into the outer flap with a cartoon mural beneath that introduces your adventure. These kinds of boxes are common for smaller games, but this is a full-sized box and the effect is charming, like you’re being welcomed into a favorite novel.
Within there’s such an eclectic set of components that you could be forgiven in thinking you’d bought a design kit rather than a game. There are three boxes of cards, one for each adventure, each holding three decks of different sizes for locations, events and items. A paper bag holds a variety of blue plastic shapes, another holds irregular purple blocks made of sturdy foam. A drawstring bag holds an even more irregular set of yellow plastic pieces.
In terms of cardboard, you have to assemble three dials, one for each adventure, to track time. There’s also a long cardboard wedge, marked into areas, which goes with a wooden puck piece. It’s an intriguing collection that’ll pique your curiosity to see them in play.
Rules and How to Play
The basic structure of What Next? will be familiar to anyone that’s played an adventure gamebook. A player reads out the narrative text on the top card of the Location deck to set the scene. This will normally lead to being offered a choice which can be a mix of other Location cards to go to or Events to tackle. As a group, you’re expected to debate their relative merits and decide what to do.
In reality, there are few clues as to which is the best choice: part of the game is attempting the same adventure multiple times and learning the optimal paths. This isn’t a problem with the game as the adventures are quite short, and the real meat of play lies in undertaking challenges to overcome problems.
Challenges are detailed on the appropriate card but fall into one of four broad groups. In a shape build, you need to find the right blue pieces to fill in a shape on the card, a bit like a Tangrams puzzle. Searching for things involves dipping into the bag of yellow shapes and feeling around, blind, to locate one or more particular forms. The third is the puck push, where you flick the wooden disc up the wedge, aiming for a particular point.
It’s the fourth group that’s most noteworthy, however, since it involves whatever crazy mini-games the designer could come up with using the pieces in the box. These can range from you throwing cards at other players to trying to knock the bottom piece out of a stack with a quick flick on the puck.
As you might imagine, these challenges vary hugely in difficulty: that last one, for example, feels almost impossible. Sometimes you get practice tries which often serve only to strain the nerves before the actual attempt. Certain members of your group may be better at some challenges than others, which can feed into your strategy. What the challenges never are is dull.
Whoever reads the location card has to undertake the challenge, on rare occasions with a helper. Everyone else gets to watch with bated breath, shouting advice and encouragement. It’s a lovely little piece of gaming theatre, aided by that nagging sense that, even in the surest hands, failure is just around the corner.
When you do fail, the penalty is sometimes missing a useful item but more often it’s adding a piece to the Tower of Peril. This is what the purple foam shapes are for: your first two sit side by side and pieces thereafter have to be stacked on top. They’re all manner of weird shapes and there’s definite strategy space in learning how best to line them up. And it’s an important skill to learn because if one falls, it’s game over for the group.
While this makes peril-stacking deliciously tense, this single point of failure can be hard on clumsier players. That’s especially true if you’re playing What Next? as a family game with children, who might find the tower difficult and losing more difficult still. It depends on the individual child, of course, and it’s otherwise a very good family game.
Indeed it’s clearly written as such, with all three adventures adopting a tone of wry comedy, full of silly ideas and showpiece moments. But there’s plenty to enjoy for all ages, from nods to popular franchises to the occasional hidden gag for adults. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling self-conscious reading out the text since everyone is in on the joke.
Despite the quality of the writing, there’s only so many times you can hear a quip before it gets stale. And repetition is the biggest danger you’ll face during your adventures in What Next. The game tries hard to alleviate this issue. Once every four turns you’ll flip a location card for a different, harder, text and challenge. And the mini-games themselves take a while to master. But some of the charm is lost when you start ignoring over-familiar narratives.
There’s also sometimes a weird sense of artificiality about play. While the mini-games are often a good mimic for the narrative – repairing a compass by making a circle out of shape fragments, for example – it can be hard to lose yourself in the world of What Next. That’s because the group taking on individual challenges is clearly an artifice to get everyone involved. It can be played solo, which offers a more cohesive sense of narrative to make up for what you lose in group dynamics.
Where to Buy
What Next retails for $50 and is available now.