Review: Dead of Winter


Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie survival-themed game of resource scarcity. Players each control a band of survivors and take turns to move their survivors around, fight zombies, scavenge resources, and contribute to dealing with crises that affect the “colony” (the group of player-controlled characters and helpless survivors) as a whole as well as ensuring the colony has enough food to stave of starvation. The ultimate aim is determined by an objective card chosen at the start of the game, but this must be achieved within a fixed number of turns, and without colony morale being reduced to zero; and there are several competing problems to tackle at any given time, all of which threaten to reduce morale.


The focus of the action is moving your survivors around the board to fight zombies and search for resource cards. I’ll elaborate on this a bit below, but suffice to say there’s not much to these individual actions – instead, the cumulative effect of small decisions is what decides whether you win the game. Mostly this is a matter of how much effort the group as a whole puts into pursuing each of the various competing challenges. On which subject…

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, DoW is about resource scarcity. This is because multiple and competing pressures require you to burn through (a) the limited number of actions you can take on your go and (b) the limited resource cards available to you. These pressures include:
Zombies. If you don’t kill the zombies, they will kill your survivors. If a survivor dies, you lose morale. Plus you’ve still got a ton of zombies that will likely kill other survivors in future.
Food. If you don’t produce enough food (one type of resource card) to feed the colony, it starves. Starvation loses you morale. Plus starvation is like a wound, it sticks around and sucks away morale over time.
Waste. Every time you use a card it goes in the waste pile. If the waste pile gets too big, you lose morale. You can expend actions to reduce the waste pile, but it’s slow going.
Every turn there’s a randomly drawn crisis which you must feed resource cards to avoid negative effects. Negative effects generally means morale loss or the kind of things that can cause morale loss, like more zombies.
When a survivor is wounded, you can use resources to remove those wounds, which you hope will reduce the chance of their dying and… you guessed it, reducing morale. You can get wounded fighting zombies, but also merely moving locations exposes you to the risk of injury or death.
And finally, there’s always the temptation to use your resource cards to boost your actions, leaving you with less to feed the colony and/or fight the current crisis.

All this is made worse by the semi-cooperative nature of the game. The group have a shared objective chosen at the start, but everyone also has a personal (secret) objective drawn at random. Most players need to meet both objectives to win the game, though there may be a BETRAYER who needs only to meet their personal objective. All this means that there is additional pressure on resources from (a) people deliberately using their resource cards inefficiently because it helps their personal objective or (b) worse, people actively working against the group. Beating a crisis potentially means putting in more resource cards than are actually required to combat possible traitors in your midst.

On top of all this there are some random factors which can further hinder you. As mentioned before, fighting zombies and even movement carry a risk of injury. This is mediated through rolling an injury die, which can wound you, give you frostbite (which is a wound that continues to wound you every turn until you die) or 1 time in 12, instantly kills you and potentially others in your location too as the zombie plague rages out of control. Further, on every players’ turn there is a Crossroads card drawn which, based on a secret trigger, may unleash some unknown effect. The effects can be positive – we once had the chance to eat a horse we found lying around, for instance – but some of them are very negative indeed; one player in our game had two characters instantly killed by Crossroads cards. The Crossroads cards always give you a choice between two options, but sometimes one of the options won’t be available and you just have to suck up whatever nastiness the remaining option gives you.

So, you can gather from the above that DoW is a pretty bleak game. There’s a lot of factors going against you, and not much in your favour. I don’t yet have a sense of what that general sense of the world being against you translates to in terms of win/loss ratio. It did not feel as challenging on the first play as, say, Pandemic. But maybe we got lucky.

It’s worth a quick discussion of how this game relates to Battlestar Galactica. The two games have a lot in common, and I would be astonished if the designers hadn’t consciously built DoW on the foundation provided by BSG. In both games you have people who have their own secret objectives that cut across or go against the group’s objective; you have regular crises that require everyone to contribute cards to meet an objective, but during which it’s possible to secretly work against the group; you have the constant external threat (zombies or cylons) and you have the fight to avoid running out of resources. The two games are similar, but there are also major differences. In BSG the main focus is the crisis cards; they happen once every player-turn and throw in a random factor that makes it harder to meet the target number and easier for a traitor to cover their tracks. In DoW the crisis cards are less frequent and there’s no random factor, so you always know if a traitor has worked against you and, assuming there isn’t, you always know if you’ve beat the target. In DoW you have to work to get the resource cards to beat the crisis and feed the colony, so there’s a constant downward pressure on resources, while in BSG your cards regularly refresh so the focus is more on whether you can make it through the turn without running out. DoW is more deadly, but you get more than one character and if all a players’ characters die then they get a free replacement. In BSG it’s harder to detect a traitor and also harder to neutralise them, while in DoW there may not even be a traitor, but everyone has objectives that cut against the group slightly, while an exiled traitor (or an unjustly exiled innocent) is less disadvantaged and maintains a more constant play experience. Bottom line: if you liked one, you may well like the other, but don’t expect them to be that similar.

Overall I was impressed with DoW. I’m a big fan of BSG and I found DoW to be very similar, but refreshingly different. If you like cooperative play with a soupcon of player vs player paranoia, DoW is worth a look.

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

40 Days of Role-Playing



They say it takes 40 days to form a new habit.  *They* also say 21 days, 1000 days and a lot inbetween.  But 40 Days sounds like long enough to be challenging, but short enough to be manageable.

Inspired by the 40 Days of Dating project I got to wondering what I would like to do for 40 days solid (and be public about doing it).  Well obviously the answer is role playing and I got to thinking how I would also like to spend 40 days creating and role-playing in a shared world. So along with with Admiral Rabalias and Black Rat I will be committing to a tweets worth of role-playing related content every day for 40 days from 7th September 2013.  We will be running the project over on G+ in a specially created community here.

We have drawn inspiration from games like Microscope and Archipelago II for a shared world creation system but also left ideas for character creation and scenes fluid to allow us to experiment with the format.  I have no doubt we will be using the opportunity to micro play test bits of system we have been toying with for a while. I can’t say a great deal more as we haven’t formally started yet but there are already a few posts up discussing rules and admin.

The one thing I can say is that we have chosen a genre of Star-Spanning Cyberpunk.

Please drop by, have a look at the project and read the post on public participation here.

A tweet might not seem very much and I am hoping I’ll write a lot more than that but at the moment my days are erratic, sometimes I have lots of time and sometime my laptop gets soaked in baby vomit and I have to let it dry out.

Mini-Apocalypse World hack

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp.

On a hit, you can ask the MC questions or propose an answer of your own. If you propose an answer the MC will either agree it, agree it with a change or two, or give a different answer.

Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers or your own answer, where the MC agreed it, take +1. On a 10+, ask or answer 3. On a 7–9, ask or answer 1:

• where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• which enemy is the biggest threat?
• what should I be on the lookout for?
• what’s my enemy’s true position?
• who’s in control here?

This is in response to a friend (I forget who – if it’s you, feel free to take credit in comments) who commented that Read Sitch meant the MC spoonfeeding the players tactical advice instead of them thinking for themselves. This allows players to say what they think the answers are, for the MC to correct their understanding (if needed) and for them to still get the bonus.