Dead of Winter Review

Dead of Winter is the latest game from Plaid Hat Games. Despite not being a huge fan of any of Plaid Hat's games (except for Summoner Wars, which I love), I always get very excited about each of their releases. They always have really interesting themes mixed with neat twists on game mechanisms. Does Dead of Winter buck the trend of disappointment? Would I even ask such an obvious rhetorical question is the answer was "no?" Read on to find out!

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game that takes place after a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the world. Players take control of survivors in this world, struggling to live in this new world. The survivors need keep the hordes at bay and make sure the colony is safe and fed.

In a round, players will roll their action dice. On their turn, players will spend their dice in order to take actions with their survivors. These actions are things like searching locations in order to gain resources or items, fighting zombies, or building barricades. The zombies will keep coming and bad things will keep happening to the colony, until either the survivors complete their shared objective, or the colony's morale falls to 0. 

Sounds simple enough, except that Plaid Hat and Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Vega have added quite a few interesting little twists and turns to make Dead of Winter quite a unique experience. First is the fact that although the group as a whole has a common objective, each player has a personal objective. Each player's personal objective states what the player needs to accomplish in order to win. These objectives most often have a bulleted list that includes the group completing the common main objective, but also some other conditions that must be met that will likely make the group's completion of the main objective more difficult. Even if the main objective is competed, players can only win if they also completed their individual objectives as well. 

The great thing about this system is that there are also betrayer objectives. These objectives require that the game end not because the main objective has been completed, but because the colony's morale has fallen to 0. The game also includes the option to exile players from the game if they are suspected of being a betrayer. This adds a lot of tension to the game, and keeps the players from devolving the game into a mess of "well Idecide on a 'm not going to win, so no one is going to win," which, in my opinion, has been the biggest issue with semi-cooperative games in the past.

A huge source of tension in the game is the exposure die. It must be rolled every time a survivor either moves around town or fights a zombie. On about half of the sides is nothing - which is what you'll be hoping to see each time you roll that accursed die. On the other half are bad things, which cause either normal wounds, frostbite wounds, or even instant death. The fact that players can lose a survivor with a single roll of the die is a lot of fun. 

The last twist in the game is the deck of Crossroads cards. At the start of each player's turn, the player to the right of her draws a Crossroads card, and reads the it. Each Crossroads card has a condition on it, which the reader of the card does not reveal to the current player, unless the player fulfills it. These cards contain conditions like, "If the current player controls a survivor at the Police Station, read the following:" and the rest of the card has a bit of story, and then a decision. The player (and sometimes all the players) then need to decide on their course of action concerning the story, and deal with any consequences that decision presents.

Not a super exciting photo, but I didn't want to spoil anything about these awesome cards!!

This mechanism is brilliant. I know reviews can rely on hyperbole a little too often, but really the Crossroads cards are my favorite part of this game. It creates a weight to each player's turn, since she has to go about the things she wants to do, knowing that she might be interrupted at any moment by the player holding the Crossroads card. Not only that, but the Crossroads cards have really interesting story beats that can create some extraordinary moments for the players. I wish I could say more about how much fun we had with these cards, but I really don't want to give anything away.

In fact, one of the things I don't like about the game is that the Crossroads deck is limited. Don't get me wrong, Plaid Hat have provided 80 Crossroads cards, which is a lot - and a Crossroads card won't even be triggered each turn. And I'm usually the first to call out people who complain about this sort of stuff - how many times are you really going to play this game, no matter how good it is? Despite all that, (and perhaps because the cards are just so friggin' awesome) just the fact that the deck is limited (whether or not said limit will ever be reached by me) makes me want more cards.

I also mentioned how much fun that exposure die is. Well, it can also be painful (which is part of why I love it). Rolling a Bite (meaning instant death) on your first turn can really knock the wind out of you and the group - but having to deal with the consequences of that so early can definitely make things interesting for the right players.

Dead of Winter is a great game. There is a lot going on in the game, but not so much to make the game a slog. As the players internalize the rules, the narrative of the story really starts to shine through. The tensions of the individual objectives, the Crossroads cards, the exposure die, and the fact that its a pretty tough cooperative game to begin with all make for a seriously engaging experience.

The first time I played Dead of Winter was with my lovely wife, who is a seasoned gamer, and my dad, cousin, and sister - all three of whom have played some of "my games" in the past but need some encouragement to sit down with one that isn't Wits and Wagers or Telestrations. Right after we lost the first game, we started talking about the stories of our survivors, and what we would do differently when we played again. We didn't have to wait long to find out, because we played again the very next day. And after losing a second time, we set it up to play again...twice. We were up playing Dead of Winter well past 2 AM, laughing and dying horrible deaths.

Dead of Winter is the very definition of an immersive experience. My cousin, usually a "too cool for school" type, started reading the Crossroads cards in character, and was pushing all of us to do the same. We all started making up stories for our survivors about their motivations and why they always seemed to fail so miserably. Based on those memorable experiences alone, I can't recommend this game highly enough. 8.5/10.

Top Ten Games That I Want to Play More - Summer 2014

There are all kinds of different Top 10 lists that you can make, but I thought that it might be fun to make a list of the Top 10 that I want to play more.  What could be simpler?  Recently, my biggest struggle in gaming is actually getting playing time - which means that there are a lot of games that I sit around wishing I could actually play.  So, why not write up a list of the games that have been staring at me from my closet!

Now, there are multiple reasons these might be on the list - maybe my gaming group doesn't like them, maybe I don't have access to a copy of it for some reason, or maybe it just hasn't worked out for some reason.  Anyway, here's the list of the...

Top Ten Games That I Want to Play More


10. Game of Thrones: LCG

I am in love with Living Card Games. I think they're amazing. I regularly buy the Lord of the Rings: LCG and Star Wars: LCG. But, I think that the decisions in Game of Thrones are at least as interesting as in either of those. Unfortunately, it hasn't clicked with any of my regular gaming friends. This one has gotten so bad that I've had to put a moratorium on buying any more packs until it actually gets played regularly. (Now, let's see if I can actually stand by that buying ban.)

9. Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game

So, with the release of Dark City, Legendary went from being a fun game that I would play occasionally to one of my favorite solo games. In the base game, you basically never lose to the game - but with Dark City mixed in, you can definitely be slaughtered! The main thing keeping this from being higher on the list is that I do get to play it solo regularly enough that I'm not in major withdrawal.

8. Clout Fantasy

A great little dexterity game that I never got around to reviewing is Clout Fantasy. The biggest downside for Clout was its release method. It is a "collectible throwing game." Aka, you have to buy packs to get the chips that you want. (Blech.  They were significantly overpriced too - like $1 per chip!) However, now that the game is not actively made, prices have dropped, and it's one that I really enjoy. Having to build armies and teach people how to play is what has kept it from being played more often. But, seriously - you get to throw poker chips strategically. How would I not like this?

7. Star Wars: LCG

What makes Star Wars get rated above Game of Thrones on my want to play more list? Simple - I keep spending money on Star Wars! What motivates you to play a game more than spending money on it? In fact, I have two new force packs that just arrived in the mail making me itch to play it more... (don't worry, right after I finish writing this, I may be tweaking my decks).

6. City Hall

A year or two ago at WBC I got to play City Hall, and I really liked it. So, why haven't I been playing it more? Well.... it doesn't exist yet! Fortunately, this title got signed by Tasty Minstrel Games, was successfully Kickstarted, and the publishing of it is just about done. So, I'm hoping to finally bring this game to my table!

5. Battlestar Galactica

Whenever people discover that I like board games, they always ask me what my favorite one it. Honestly, I don't have one. But, if I was forced to pick one, then BSG might win. All I know for certain is that if I haven't played BSG in a month, then I'd be up for a game if the right situation came along.  And I haven't played BSG in almost a year, if my memory serves!

4. Age of Empires 3

Since I've moved to Philadelphia, I have found my biggest issue with Age of Empires 3 - the box is too big! It doesn't easily fit (ahem, it doesn't fit at all) in the bag that I take with me to game night. What's this mean? It means I basically don't ever get to play it. And, Age of Empires 3 is my favorite worker placement game (for this current second). That combined with rarely getting to play it means I am really, really jonesing for a chance to get it to the table.

3. One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Most of the games on this list are here because I rarely get to play them. ONUWW (is that right?  Or should it have one "W"?) bucks that trend. I've played this one an estimated ten times over the last couple of months. Yet, I still haven't gotten enough of it. It's just an overall great game. I'm sure that I'll burn myself out on it at some point, but it'll be a while until that happens.

2. Twilight Struggle

This game is brilliant. And I haven't played it in about 5 months. Even then I only played it once. It deserves more.

1. Chicago Express

Yeah, you didn't expect that one, did you? But, honestly, it's the one game that sits on my shelf calling out to me. It hasn't been well received by my gaming group (they should give it a chance!), which has kept it from getting played. I don't know how, but I will soon find a way to play this game.

Honorable Mentions:

There are a few others that I'd like to see on the table a bit more. Specifically, Galaxy Trucker, Navegador, Haggis, and Escape: Curse of the Temple. But, if I can get Chicago Express played, it'll be a good time.  Anyway - I'm sure that everyone has some games that they wish they could play more.  These are mine - feel free to add your own in the comments.

Sushi Go! Review

Sushi Go card game in play

An interesting little drafting game that Gamewright sent my way is called Sushi Go!

In Sushi Go!, each player is attempting to make the best overall Sushi dishes to serve their patrons, in order to become the best sushi restaurant in town!  This consists of three rounds of drafting cards.  The different cards that are taken are worth points, but only if they are played correctly.  For example, Tempura only score points for each pair of them that you have, Sashimi requires sets of three, and Wasabi is only valuable if you draft a Nigiri after you've already played it.  After three rounds of drafting, whichever player has the most points is the winner!

My first pro for Sushi Go! is that I really enjoy the concept of Chopsticks.  Chopsticks are the only card in the game that cannot be worth points.  However, what they allow you to do is break the rules of drafting.  If I have a Chopsticks card in front of me, then whenever I choose which card to keep, I can choose to play my Chopsticks, and keep two cards.  In place of the second card, I pass the Chopsticks card.  Which means that the next player can draft it and get this same ability.  Whereas I initially thought that this was the best card in the game (I no longer think that), it is at least the best new addition to the drafting genre that Sushi Go! incorporates - in my opinion, of course.

Sushi Go card examples
Helpful information on each card
The next pro that I have for Sushi Go! is how easy it is to teach - to anybody. The prototypical drafting game, 7 Wonders, is not terribly complicated, but because of the number of icons and how different cards interact, it can be fairly overwhelming to someone when they are just learning it.  Especially if they haven't had much exposure to drafting games or strategy board games.  Sushi Go!, on the other hand, is really easy to teach to anybody.  One of the people that I played with has only dabbled in board games and had never heard of "drafting."  (Drafting is when you have a hand full of cards, and you select one while passing the rest of them.  You continue doing this until you have a pile of cards that you have selected, which consists of cards from each of the original piles on the table.)  Yet, she was able to learn Sushi Go! within a few minutes, and if she ever had a question, then the cards themselves were generally able to answer it, as all of the scoring information is printed on the cards.

One thing to be aware of when considering Sushi Go! is that it is a bit more tactical than strategic.  What I mean is this - you deal cards off the top of a single deck to make the players' hands, instead of having set cards that are dealt out.  This means that you do not know the available cards.  Therefore, when choosing a Sashimi card (which requires three copies in order to score), you are not even guaranteed that there are three copies of Sashimi available in that round.  Ultimately, this makes the drafting much more similar to a Magic: The Gathering booster draft (where you open packs and have random cards to draft from) than it is to 7 Wonders (in which there are specific cards that are always available each Age).  This isn't really a good thing or a bad thing - some people will prefer it, and some people will prefer to know what is available.

Wasabi example in Sushi Go
Salmon Nigiri on Wasabi!
The next thing that you should be aware of is that in Sushi Go!, the game doesn't really build upon itself.  What I mean is that the cards that you build in the first round do not really affect any decisions that you make in the second or third round.  This is not strictly true, as there is a card, Pudding, that only scores at the very end of the game.  (The person with the most Pudding gets points, and the player with the least Pudding loses points.)  However, there aren't prerequisites, cards don't get better, and you see the same options in round three as you did in round one.  Ultimately, if you dealt out all of the cards for each of the three rounds before starting, it doesn't matter if you grab the cards for "round one" or "round three."  There is no difference.  Whereas some people will want a deeper strategic experience where they can be planning ahead, this is the trade-off for how easy the game is to teach.

The only con that I have for Sushi Go! is that I dislike that you play every card - specifically the last card.  I prefer 7 Wonders' rule in which you discard the very last card every round.  One of the reasons that I don't like being forced to play the last card is that sometimes you can guarantee that the person you pass to will score no points (by playing your Chopsticks).  Ultimately, though, whether the last card is helpful or not feels much more like blind luck than strategic gameplay, so I'd prefer that you simply stopped at the next to last card each round.  (Granted, this con isn't a big deal, since if it really bothers you, you can easily just play how you want.)

Overall, I like Sushi Go! a lot, and I give it an 8.0/10.  It hasn't revolutionized anything for me, but I like the addition of Chopsticks, and the ease of teaching the game should help me to be able to keep getting it played.

If Sushi Go! sounds interesting, you should also check out 7 Wonders (obviously), as well as Biblios and Scallywags.

I would like to thank Gamewright for providing me with a review copy of Sushi Go!

Pack O Game Kickstarter Preview

Final art, components, and rules are subject to change.

Chris Handy is a designer I wish had more published work. I greatly enjoyed his 2009 release Long Shot, and absolutely fell in love with Cinque Terre, which came out last year.

So when I heard that he was designing a bunch of small card games with plans of releasing them all in a single Kickstarter campaign, I was very interested. I had also heard that the games were to be released in boxes the size of a pack of gum. When I heard that, I thought that either Chris was talking about huge packs of gum or that I was somehow misunderstanding him. But when the prototypes arrived, I saw that each of the games were, indeed, the size of a pack of Wrigley's. All of the games in this Pack O Games line is the same size, as are, obviously, the cards.

Chris was kind enough to send me 5 of his upcoming games - following are short descriptions and my thoughts on each.

First up - the dexterity game, FLY. In FLY, a game "board" is created by laying most of the cards in the box out in a grid. When the card are laying out this way, they resemble a picnic table - except it is covered in flies. Players take turns dropping a fly swatter card onto the grid. If they successfully cover (completely) any flies while doing this, they take those cards. Each fly in the game has a colored shape on it and players are trying to assemble sets of flies. At the end of the game, each fly that is a part of at least a set of 3 will be worth 1 point.

FLY is not the best dexterity game I've ever played, but it looks great on a table, and is a good time! It is super easy to explain and play - I had a good time playing it with my niece and nephew.

TKO is a boxing game of simultaneous action selection. Each player assembles a boxer made out of a couple cards, and takes an action selection card. Each round, players will secretly place their thumbs on their action selection card choosing either to punch their opponent's head or torso, or block their own head or torso. Both players will reveal simultaneously and resolve their actions. Points are scored for successful punches or blocks, and a player will win a round once she scores 5 points.

TKO is another super simple game, that is definitely more fun than I thought it would be at first glance. Once thing that really adds to the gameplay is that each boxer has a slight advantage in one category. So the decision to either go straight ahead and be a bit more obvious and push that advantage or to try to throw off your opponent and take another path is quite interesting - especially in a simultaneous action game.

HUE is the colorful game of, well - colors! All of the cards in HUE are made up of regions of colors. Players will be placing cards from their hands in order to manipulate the size of the color regions on the board. Each player will be given 6 cards to start each game, but the game will end once each player has played 5 cards. The card remaining in each player's hand will determine which colors will score for that player. Players will look at the 3 colors on their last cards, and will score a number of points equal to the biggest continuous regions of that color on the board.

The twist of having to score a card of colors that you don't get to actually play is really interesting enough, and makes for a great game. Chris did add one more wrinkle to the gameplay, though. At the beginning of each game, players are also given a card with 3 colors on it, (like the rest of the cards), but this one has a skull on the middle color. When this card is played, whatever matching region the skull touches is not counted when looking for the biggest region of a color. HUE is great. It is colorful, simple, cutthroat, and just great to play. It gives the players some control, but still keeps things random enough to prevent players from overthinking. Games are quick, nasty, and fun.

TAJ is another colorful game - this one involves voting and light negotiation. In it, each player is given a card which indicates which color carpets will score positively - as well as which colors will score negatively. The additional wrinkle here is that each carpet is made up of 3 colors - a 3 point color, a 2 point color, and a 1 point color. The rugs cards are all lined up, and a scoring card is placed above the line, over 3 of the rug cards. Each round, a player will propose switching one of the cards under the scoring card with another rug card, not under the scoring card. Players will vote on this switch, executing it if it passes, and removing one of the rugs from the game (and not making the switch) if it does not pass. Once the game ends, the players reveal their scoring cards, and add up their positive and negative points!

TAJ, just like a few of the other games I've gotten to try in this line, is a very subtle game. With its bright colors, small box, and few components, it seems like there can't be much there - but TAJ will surprise you in how strategies will emerge after a couple plays. Despite having a fair amount of think, TAJ also had my friends and I standing up and screaming at each other (all in good fun) after a few of the votes. In my book, that is the mark of a great game.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to save the best for last. GEM is my favorite game of the Pack O Games that I've had the pleasure of playing. It is a game of auctions, bluffing, and borrowing that is so simple, yet so clever. In it, players use coin cards to bid on gem cards. Sounds simple enough, right? First, the auctions are "once around" so once you bid, you're done, and the last person to bid basically has the choice of either giving the card up to the current highest bid, or buying the card for one more than the highest bid (assuming she has enough money). This makes each auction really intense - especially since money is so tight in this game already. Second, during each bidding round, players aren't necessarily bidding on any particular gem - they're really bidding on the opportunity to choose one of the gems still available for themselves - so the winning bidder will pay, and then choose any of the gems still available for themselves. Lastly, each gem card has two sides: leveraged and invested. I thought of these states as similar to mortgaged and mortgaged properties in Monopoly, but it isn't really the same. Once players win some gems, they can use them to pay for future auctions. However, gems won are flipped to the leveraged side, and in order to spend the value of a gem, the value of a gem's leveraged side must be paid, to first flip it to its invested side. Sounds confusing, but trust me - it isn't.

If the auction round was over, this player could spend her coins to flip either of the two gems cards she has to the invested side. These could then be used for future auctions, or would be counted in final scoring (if the game was over).

At the end of the game, players will score points for each invested gem they have won, with big bonus points going to those who have the most of each type of gem. GEM is easily my favorite game of the ones I've played. It is just as small as the other games in the line, but really has the feel of a full game. The decisions of which gems to go for, when to deny the other player's, and what you can afford to reinvest are all sooo difficult and all soo much fun.

If these games sound like ones you  might enjoy, go back Chris' Pack O Games Kickstarter now!! He also has 3 minute how-to-play videos up on the page!

Each game is only $6 including shipping to the US - and there's a special Early Bird level that is only good for the rest of today!