This last weekend I broke away from all the self promotion so I could get my boardgame on. Our appetizer for the evening was Machi Koro, a light, city-building card game with an element of randomness thrown in via two six-siders.
You build your city by paying for cards which represent different industries. Each card has a money collection mechanic triggered by dice rolls. Sometimes the mechanic triggers when you roll, sometimes when the opponent rolls and sometimes when anyone rolls. The winner is the first person to develop all the advanced (middle of the photo) landmarks.
In our Machi Koro game, we played the dickhead capitalist version where players aggressively bought buildings which scored money from other players and not the bank. Money was thrown, curses hurled, but in the end I reigned supreme with a crazy explosive combo that allowed me to buy the two priciest landmarks in back to back turns.
Machi Koro is a surprisingly fun game, easy for novice and casual gamers and still slick enough to satisfy veteran cravings.
But then the freaking apocalypse happened and my shiny, happy city was decimated.
With Dead of Winter, instead of building a city we were wandering around a zombie infested, eternal winter version of one.
The core mechanics were fairly straightforward. Character cards with two basic abilities – search and attack – made up your “team”. Each also had a special ability which usual bent the rules in a unique way. A single die roll was used to simulate wounds. A dice pool (rolled and then assigned to the actions you wished) provided the number of actions for each player.
What took it to rules heavy seemed less like a mechanical issue and more of a “fiddly bits” issue. Crossroads Events, while entertaining, often added a group decision into the mix during each player’s turn. Scenario objectives sometimes had their own mechanics. Wounds were of several types requiring tracking with the copious game tokens. Crises required hoarding certain items. Personal “secrets” often had other hoarding requirements which acted to further slow objective achievement.
It felt like the core game was fairly solid but with a bunch of delaying tactics tossed in (or stretched goaled perhaps?).
Speaking of slowing play…
Each player chooses two characters at the start. These form the basis of your personal gopher squad which you can grow with searches through the frozen hell of a city. At one point we had players with six team members which gave them more dice for their action pool and more special abilities to trigger (thus lengthening their turns…)
Ever since a scarring experience playing DnD in college at a table with a dozen players each with multiple characters in play at the same time, I’ve had a major issue with anything which stretches one minute rounds into literally hours of real time.
But what really sucks in Dead of Winter is when you roll the dice and your first team member bites it simply for STEPPING OUTSIDE and then your second team member follows immediately after with another bad roll for an event card.
Because then you’re the guy at the table watching everyone else play. Your number of actions gimped, you have the option of being the team’s personal gopher and cleaning trash at the outpost (seriously, this is part of the game) or building barricades while they explore the city with their fists full of action dice.
You’re the redshirt, everyone else is Captain Kirk.
Sure, you could wander back outside and try to search for more people to add to your team, but if the random character you are handed, with no equipment (cause you trashed all that when your other guys died) happens to have a shit search roll, you’re better off scraping old zombie brains off the floor back home.
Look, any game which has even the remote possibility of utterly boning you for the audacity of moving has, in my opinion, a design flaw. It’s old school DnD with a jerk DM that tells you to roll up a new character when your first level mage gets gutted by a stray kobold fart. Some people get into that sort of masochistic gaming but me, not so much.
Needless to say we were horribly annihilated within three rounds – three rounds which took nearly two hours. This happened in part because another player, right at turn one, rolled poorly and lost a character which gimped our total number of actions in early rounds. Then, the rest began expanding their teams which meant a nice long wait before my single player’s turn ever came back up. This was exacerbated by the rotation of a first player token which essentially gave people back to back turns so when it reached the character-heavy end of the table, you could safely start surfing YouTube on your phone and not feel rude in the least.
We played a second time and that time we won handily, to the point that at no time did we ever feel threatened. However, despite the crushing win, I technically “lost” because I ignored my secret objective in favor of pursuing the team objective.
Which brings me to the next issue I have with Dead of Winter: There is no incentive apart from bragging rights to pursue the secret objective. This is a co-op game. If they want to have a “winner” mechanic, you at least need to be able to rank the “winners” or name only one overall winner.
The only exception to this is if there is a betrayer in the midst and the way the deck is stacked, the odds of this happening appear to be slim.
Despite my gripes, I really do think there is a good game here. Thematically it’s strong and the complex RPG-esque and resource management tension can lead to some fun gameplay and tense moments. That and the Crossroads event cards added flavor and variety (Sparky driving a tanker truck back to the colony was top-notch…)
Several of us at the table felt the game needed some tweaks. I for one feel like the betrayer should have been a guarantee and/or the “secret objectives” removed from play. True, those secret objectives are supposed to mask the existence of a traitor, but the two I received either had no effect unless a betrayer was in play or required hoarding useful items which were better off equipped on my character so I could enjoy success during gameplay as much as the other players.
Overall, I’d say building the city with Machi Koro was more fun than exploring the apocalyptic ruins. This runs contrary to every gaming and even narrative instinct I have, but sometimes it’s good to be the cut-throat tycoon at the top of the heap. Of course, the ruins were vast, so perhaps they are worth a revisit.