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April 1, 2020

Harvey O’Brien, Playing with Dead Things V

by Conor Heffernan


There are a lot of zombie games. I’ve only scratched the surface here (and hopefully infection will follow). At our 2019 conference, you may recall that before my paper on Train to Busan, I put up a picture of some of the games from my collection. I have quite a few (I’ve also got a few postapocalypic non-zombie Mad Max style games, but that’s another story). Maybe next time instead of designing our zombie manager, we can play one of these games. If I were to pick one, it would be Dead of Winter (2014), designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vega, another popular zombie game that has produced numerous expansions and spin-offs of its own.

Dead of Winter has you playing the leader of a group of individuals within a larger colony made up of groups run by other players, all of you trying to achieve short term goals to benefit ‘your people’ but also sustain the colony itself, which requires collective action. The game is built around a collection of core mechanics including risk reward, deck building, action selection, variable player powers, and resource gathering, but also favours narrative by virtue of some clever additional elements that work very well together to create a dynamic play environment in which you both experience the story world and impact upon it.

The bulk of the game is about the searching buildings in a nearby abandoned town in deep winter which is, of course, overrun by walkers, and returning the required items in secret to a communal supply, keeping a few things for yourself, of course. You move your people (and yourself) from location to location trying to avoid the wandering zombies and also frostbite, but as you search the buildings (drawing cards from a deck located in each building) you generate noise (indicated by tokens which pile up and reach a critical mass) which draws them on to you. Because the buildings are specific locations such as a Sherriff’s office or a drugstore, what you’ll find in them is seeded to favour particular kinds of supplies, though you are still as likely to find junk (the actual name of the cards). It is a classic risk/reward mechanic where by you can search for longer and maybe find what you’re looking for, but if you stay too long the dead will break through your barricades and start chowing down on whomever got in last. You can end up killing not just yourself (and your group then needs a new leader), but others from other groups. You can also get bitten while you forage, and then carry the infection wherever you are moving to, bringing more death. There are medical supplies that can cope with frostbite, but zombie bites, not so much. You run through characters pretty quickly, and the game is constantly on the move. However, every death causes a drop in morale, and as likely as not, it is this which will end the game for everyone. People simply give up hope.

 So far, so familiar. One of the unique selling points of the game is the ‘crossroads’ system which the company, Plaid Hat Games, intended to roll out across various themes. Dead of Winter was such a hit, though, that there has only been one other game Gen7 (2018), designed by Steve Nix, with the ‘crossroads’ label, though there have been several expansions to Dead of Winter itself, including the substantial addition of Dead of Winter: Warring Colonies (2017), designed by Gimour, Vega, Colby Dauch, and Timothy Meyer, which enlarges the world even further and allows up to 11 people to play. The crossroads system is built around large a deck of story cards featuring plot content tied to in-game events that may or may not trigger. Players draw these cards not for themselves, but to monitor the actions of the player beside them to see if the triggering condition arises. If it does that player gets to read out a situation for the active player, who are presented with a choice or a moral conundrum of some kind: pretty much as you’d expect in this kind of story space – hungry survivors in need of shelter and precious food who could maybe help or just drain your resources, aggressive raiders who will definitely just take what they want if you don’t stop them, an opportunity to recruit valuable new allies (including a pretty cool dog who strangely seems to be able to carry weapons and sometimes finds himself in unlikely story situations involving conversation, but that’s another story), and various other bits of extended, flavourful narrative that generates an in-game story experience that’s never exactly the same from game to game.

Storytelling gaming is a whole genre unto itself, with free-form and structured narrative both in use, and that’s before you even step into the murky world of RPGs (role playing games). Again there are games that offer RPG lite or approximate experiences like Arkham Horror by Charlie Krank, Richard Launius, Sandy Perersen, and Lynn Wills, which has gone through three editions (significantly revising core gameplay) since first publication in 1987 or Posthuman(2015) by Gordon Calleja which has just had one major revision in 2019. There are even a couple of games based on The Thing or on the original novella Who Goes There?, which concentrate on investing you in your character and building their story, only to find it may abruptly end, or, in the case of the Cthuhlu-themed games, give way to insanity, which brings its own challenges.

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