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Dead of Winter Review

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Hidden traitors are an under-used and under-explored game mechanic. This may be because the formula was near-perfected by Battlestar Galactica back in 2008. A slight clumsiness around traitor selection, complex rules and a 3-hour play time were the only significant downsides.

Dead of Winter is a very obvious love letter to BSG, which attempts to fix its shortcomings. Taking on such an acclaimed game and trying to improve on its formula is a tough proposition. Dead of Winter succeeds … most of the time.

The title is based on the hackneyed zombie apocalypse, with added snow. It’s path trodden smooth by the passage of too many previous games, but the upstart succeeds in carving out a niche for itself. The setting is well realised with good component and evocative mechanics. Every time a character moves without fuel, they risk exposure to frostbite and worse: the hungry dead lurking in the darkness. With potential peril at every action, play exudes a real sense of risk.

Each player has a team of two survivors, which can increase as strangers arrive at the colony, and decrease as they succumb. These teams must pull together to achieve a randomly selected goal such as stockpiling food and weapons for escape, or to fully barricade the colony. This is in addition to basic survival: each turn, surviving colonists must be fed, waste cleaned and the growing herd of zombies culled. Failure to do these things results in the whole group losing.

But this isn’t the co-operative game it sounds to be. All the players also have secret individual objectives they need to fulfill as well as the group goal. It might be to stockpile food, or to be in charge of the most survivors. So even if the main objective is met, few, if any of the players will win. Some of these objectives, however, let the player win if all the other players lose. So there may be one or more traitors in the mix: or there may not.

This uncertainty drives the Dead of Winter experience. There’s a very similar crisis mechanic to BSG. A new one is drawn each turn from a bland, identikit deck, and cards are played faced down to try and accumulate enough of a resource like food or fuel to avert it. Putting in the wrong kind of resource counts negative, allowing betrayers to wield their nefarious influence.

Cunning players can use the possibility of no traitor to make it look like everyone is pulling together, before springing a trap at the last minute. The struggle to balance ongoing crises against fulfilling the basics is tough enough to make this work as a co-op. The threat of treachery on top makes for a taut, challenging game.

To get more resources for survival and warding off crises, players must move around locations like the school and store. Each has its own deck of cards, so medicine is a more likely find at the hospital, and precious weapons can be turned up at the police station.

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The core game mechanics take up only a few pages of simple rules. Length varies with the objective, between about 90 minutes and four hours. But you know what you’re getting, because the goals are divided into short, medium and long play times.

There’s an amazing amount of narrative and excitement brewing inside this compact framework. There are downtime issues as the player count increases, but there’s always plenty to argue and discuss. There’s enough information to make informed guesses, but rarely enough for certainty. There’s also the addition of the crossroads deck, events that are drawn by someone other than the current player, and which can trigger depending on what actions are taken during the turn. It’s tight, lively and engrossing.

So what’s not to love? Almost inevitably for a game so light on rules, yet so reliant on social interaction, the mechanics sometimes collapse under the weight of all the arguments.

The worst examples are all related to secret objectives. Which is a shame, seeing as they’re one of the games’ main unique selling points. Some of them are much harder than others. So if you’re dealt one of these, or you see it drifting out of reach, it’s tempting to try and get yourself exiled. This is the rule that allows the group a vote to get rid of suspected traitors: anyone kicked out gets a new “exile” objective. That’s an attractive proposition if your own is out of reach, but succumbing to temptation is gamey, and breaks the implicit social contract of the table.

There are also many occasions when a sudden tweak by a traitor can completely put the game out of reach for everyone else. That would be find if it could be planned for, anticipated, maybe mitigated against. But in reality it’s just a twist of fate and timing. It can be very frustrating to suddenly find the game collapsing around you through no fault of your own. More so when anyone with the good fortune to have a betrayal card is the beneficiary.

How badly these issues will affect you is dependent on your group. It’s a game that very much demands to be approached a certain way, to be played as a shared experience rather than by the strict letter of the rules. Of everyone understands that, and can be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain, it works most of the time. But just one player who wants to exploit the loose rules framework in search of a win can ruin it for both themselves and everyone else.

I find the game entirely worthwhile in spite of these flaws, especially if you stick to the short objectives. Cramming so much thrill, so much debate into ninety minutes once everyone has the rules down is an incredible draw. And if the rules let you down, well, it’s only ninety minutes lost, most of which were still pretty exciting. As the playtime stretches, you find yourself wishing you’d picked BSG instead. But if, like me, three hour gaming slots are in short supply, Dead of Winter is a fantastic boon, and an often cracking game.

City of Horror Review

City of Horror art

Zombie board games tend to focus, like the films they emulate, on the players surviving by putting up barricades and beating the undead to death with whatever they can find. But if you’ve seen enough horror movies you’ll know there’s a second string, a darker theme where cooperative groups mercilessly pick the weakest member to sacrifice to the shambling hordes so that the others might survive. That’s the grim base on which City of Horror rests.

And grim is the word. There are few games more callous than this. It’s not a game to play with relative strangers. It’s not even a game to play with friends that you can’t rely on not to hold grudges. Players control a variety of characters, spread around a zombie-infested city. Each turn there is a vote in each board area that’s accumulated sufficient zombies. Each character in that area gets to vote for who dies, and the character with the most gets eaten. Gone. No second chances, no dice, nothing. Eliminated.

There’s something refreshing about the brutal purity with which the game approaches death. But it also creates an instant rich get richer problem. Once a character dies, the owning player has less characters on the board, and so less votes, which makes it slightly harder for them to keep their other characters alive. You can always play the sympathy card to try and avoid being tossed to the ghouls but the mechanics encourage picking on the weakest. It’s been my experience that players tend to lose all their characters, or hardly any.

So the answer is to try other approaches to negotiation and trading. This is where the meat of the game is to be found. There’s a lot you can trade: promises, which may be kept or broken of course, but also material. Food is worth bonus points. Zombie plague antidotes are required to score points for any surviving characters, their precise value being dependent on whether they’ve used their special ability or not. And every player has a hand of action cards.

City of horror zombies

These action cards and, to a lesser extent, the abilities of the characters, are the primary way players exercise control over the whims of fate in the game. Many kill zombies, or allow you to move them to other locations, some at a cost of making areas of the board unstable to the point of eventual demolition, resulting in further carnage. Others allow you to sidestep the gruesome result of the voting process and other, more minor effects. They can be discarded in certain locations in exchange for beneficial effects.

They’re incredibly useful, and the urge to play them is constant. You only have five, used over four rounds each of which will see several votes. New ones appear on locations occasionally, along with other resources, which are distributed amongst characters there based on another vote, but they’re pretty rare. This sets up a situation in which the choice of whether to play an action card or keep it should create delicious tension.

Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just plain frustrating. The cards are basically your most precious resource and are wonderful negotiating tools. But there’s no way of knowing whether it’s sensible to save them. play them or trade them. The game just doesn’t give you enough information to plan a meaningful strategy with the cards. And once they’re exhausted, the otherwise compelling negotiation loses some of its spice.

You may have noticed by now that although voting to distribute resources seems fairly realistic, voting to see who gets eaten isn’t. In practice the strong and the fast would have a considerable upper hand. So the mechanical link with the theme falls apart. There’s plenty of quality zombie art to compensate but sadly the card it’s printed on is rather lower quality, warping and splitting with worrying ease. There’s a lot of it too since the game uses cardboard standee figures rather than miniatures.

City of horror in play

And without the theme you begin to see that underneath all that gory art, City of Horror is just another twist on the classic cut-throat negotiation game, exemplified by Lifeboats, Intrigue and I’m the Boss. None of those games does much better at presenting a theme than City of Horror does, but they don’t particularly pretend to do otherwise. They’re also a lot simpler and more direct than their undead relative. And, crucially, it’s debatable how much extra game the added baggage in the newer title creates.

We’ve already seen how the voting mechanic leads to a rich get richer problem, and how the use of cards as both currency in deals and board effects backfires. The value of the food and location effects varies tremendously from game to game. The ability you have to move one character each turn from one location to another is unthematic and, since selections are made in secret, basically random. What’s left is the character powers, the fact that using them reduces their score, and the need to collect antidote to score your survivors. That does add a fair amount of interest, but it just ends up compensating for the dead-weight rules.

Not that the game is overly complex. As is often the case with European games iconography has been used heavily to keep things language independent and as is often the case with iconography it’s largely confusing and impenetrable. But that’s a fairly minor annoyance. The game is also fast playing, taking sixty to ninety minutes to complete and that’s a poweful saving grace. You don’t mind too much if your characters start ending up as zombie chow and your game slowly falls apart when you know there’s an end and a re-rack within sight.

City of Horror is not, on the whole, a bad game. I’ve had more fun with it than the tone of this review may suggest. Its collection of mechanical niggles and rather blunderbuss approach to adding new and mostly ineffectual twists and theme to a classic genre are counterbalanced by its sheer, overwhelming nastiness. It’s not often that a game allows you to be quite so delightfully mean to the other players, and that’s something to be savoured. But ultimately while it’s likely to provide considerable amusement for a few games, it has issues enough to ensure either a limited shelf-life or only occasional table time. And in a crowded marketplace and a well-worn genre, that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

Last Night on Earth Review

Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game from Flying Frog

I don’t believe there’s a meme in all of geekdom that’s been used and abused quite as much as the good old zombie. It’s been in films, books, comics and videogames that span the chasm between sublime art to complete trash. And speaking of trash, you’ll find a hundred of them in Zombies!!! which is perhaps the worst hobby board game ever committed to card and plastic. But game-playing zombie fans need not despair, because there are many better zombie games to try. One of them is Last Night on Earth, and the question is: how much better?

Well for starters, compare the box of Last Night on Earth with that of “generic zombie game #346”. Notice anything different? GZG #346 will certainly have some low-grade pop art on the front. Last Night on Earth, by contrast, features photo-based art of actors and actresses in costumes and special effects makeup. It’s a striking and realistic look (realistic enough to terrify my children) which is carried on throughout the card art. There’s also plenty of well-sculpted plastic miniatures of heroes and zombies inside the box and a pleasingly gloomy modular board. The photo art isn’t to everyone’s tastes: some people think it looks tacky. Personally, I love it and with the other high quality components I felt compelled to list this as one of the five best looking games ever made.

There’s also a CD in the box which is allegedly filled with “atmospheric” synthesizer music. A most unusual gimmick, but the less we say about this the better.

So we’ll move swiftly on to the game play. The rules are pretty simple. Usually one player is the zombie master and four heroes are distributed amongst the remaining players. Zombies move one space per turn and spawn continually at the board edges. Heroes can choose either to move or, if they’re in a building, to search for items. They roll a dice to determine movement, a mechanic that seems to be frowned on nowadays but which works perfectly well here since they can still choose to move any amount up to the dice roll, and get to see the dice before they decide to move or search. So there’s enough choice to keep things interesting. Combat is highest dice wins. Heroes roll more dice but need doubles to actually kill a zombie, otherwise simply fending off the ravenous undead and leaving it to fight another day. That’s the essence.

Last Night on Earth in play
Given the rules are so simple then, you might be surprised to find the internet littered with extensive FAQ’s about the game. The reason for this is that each side gets a substantial deck of cards with varied and colorful effects to put into play that modify the core concepts of the game in various ways. There are weapon cards for the heroes, and they’ll need them if they hope to kill zombies rather than just survive their attacks, and lots of event cards for both sides. Most add appropriate narrative and are exciting to use, such as an effect that suddenly traps a hero in a dark building full of zombies, or another that boards up windows and doors to limit zombie movement. A few are also silly such as the titular “Last Night on Earth” card that causes a pair of mixed-gender heroes to lose a turn. Mix in these card effects with a unique power for each hero in the game, and it appears to be a recipe for confusion.

So if the rules and cards and powers together end up as a chaotic mess, that makes it a bad game, right? Well, frankly if you’re stopping this game every few minutes to look up an official ruling for a card effect, then you’re playing it wrong. This isn’t a game where you should be examining rules minutiae to gain the upper hand. It tells a wild and thrilling narrative arc, and tells it well. It’s about throwing dice, slapping down cards, making zombie noises whilst exulting at the highs and complaining at the lows. Given that it usually plays in 60-90 minutes, the time frame fits the mechanics pretty well. If you can relax, play from the hip and just go where the ride takes you then most of the time it’ll take you on an exciting session of horror themed board gaming.

That probably makes it sound like a zero strategy game. And while it’s pretty lightweight, there’s a little more going on here than some people seem to give it credit for. Oddly this has very little to do with card play and management as is often the case in these sorts of games. Mostly you’ll play cards as you get them, or engineer situations where you can use them. No, the strategy is all positional. One of the more unusual and interesting mechanics is that the central outdoor squares are bigger than the indoor ones at the board edges, so you can cover more ground in open areas. Moving across the central area thus become a rather fraught exercise for the heroes. The zombie player has to try and distribute his undead to catch heroes dashing from cover to cover in a hideous parody of tag whilst being mindful of a rule that forces his pieces to attack adjacent heroes. It’s not too difficult, but it’s not entirely brainless either.

Last Night on Earth - some zombie cards

To improve both replayability and the storytelling angle of the game, it offers a variety of scenarios. The basic one just sees the heroes needing to rack up a certain number of zombie kills before a turn limit expires but it’s tense and fun for all that. Another sees the open center of the board replaced with a manor house which the heroes must defend for as long as possible, and that makes the most of the tactical side of the game. The rest are problematic because they all depend on the heroes drawing certain cards from the deck to win, so sometimes they’ll do it easily and sometimes it’s impossible depending on how the shuffle goes. Thankfully there are several very good scenarios you can download from the publishers website to replace those annoying search based ones and retain the replay value and variety offered by a scenario based game.

Genuine scares aren’t something that a board game can offer. You need to be too much in control of your fate and in possession of too much information when boardgaming to make fear a realistic possibility. Last Night on Earth therefore wisely aims at the tackier end of the zombie market and pulls it off extremely well indeed. From the shlock-horror artwork to the twist and turn game play and the B-movie narrative of the scenarios there’s a ton of fun to be had with this. It doesn’t always work: games occasionally run long and exhaust the value of the strategically lightweight gameplay, and sometimes the cards and dice don’t work their random magic and the game falls flat and lifeless. But mostly it does work, and the cheap afternoon horror matinee unfolding on the table before you will, like cheap features everywhere, suck you into its box of bad taste delights.