Oh yes, social media. Should do some of that. It seems I haven’t actually blogged since the start of the month, which is about two hundred years in Internet time. And, thinking about it, the very fact I consider blogging to be an effective form of social media engagement does suggest that in terms of an on-the-pulse understanding of maintaining a platform in a post Web 2.0 era I’m about as up-to-date as Benjamin Disraeli. But, anyway, blogging is happening. And because nothing has especially leapt out to excite, intrigue or annoy me lately blogging about board games is happening. And because we are only four and a half months from Halloween and I am bad at themes blogging about zombie-related board games is happening. I mean, actually, obviously Halloween has nothing to do with it. But somebody mentioned on Twitter that they’d picked up Dead of Winter and so I thought I’d talk about that. And since I have at least once other board game in which zombies feature heavily I thought I’d talk about that as well.
For what it’s worth, zombies and Cthulhu are basically fighting this weird shadow war for complete control over all board games ever. Like it’s genuinely quite hard to find a board game franchise that doesn’t include either a zombie variant or a Cthulhu variant or a zombie-Cthulhu variant (my personal favourite example of this phenomena being the card game Smash Up which has a Cthulhu-themed expansion called The Obligatory Cthulhu Set). As it happens, while I’m not sure who’s winning the larger war in board games as a whole, Cthulhu is definitely winning in my personal collection. Possibly I’m just less bored of Cthulhu than I am of zombies.
Anyway in this blog post I’m going to be comparing and contrasting two zombie-survival themed games which have essentially the same premise (there has a been a zombie apocalypse and you control the survivors in a co-operative scenario) but diametrically opposed playstyles. These games are Zombicide and Dead of Winter. I should probably mention that both these games are getting on a bit now. Zombicide has approximately sixteen million expansions, of which I own zero. While Dead of Winter has recently been updated with what I think the video games’ industry calls an “expandalone” – that is to say an expansion that can either be played on its own or be combined with the original game. I don’t own this either. Although I seem to recall Shut Up and Sit Down saying that the expansion to Dead of Winter (which I think is called The Long Night) is basically the same game but slightly better so you should probably prioritise buying that over buying the base game if you’re inclined to buy either.
Normally when I do blog posts about multiple board games I just do a bit about the first one, then a bit about the second one but because DoW and ZC are so similar and so different if feels more practical to me to do something more side-by-sidey. Let’s start with who you are.
Who You Are
You are the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. In Zombicide you are a ragtag band of … I’m not quite sure the best way to put this … possibly B-movie stereotypes. You’re an irate office worker with a brace of Uzis or a roller-skating waitress with a chainsaw. In Dead of Winter you are just random people like a school teacher or a soccer mom or, slightly more bizarrely, a mall santa or a dog. Everyone loves playing the dog. It is pretty much mandatory to make the dog your party leader if at all possible. In addition to casting you as rather more down-to-earth characters, DoW differs from ZC in that each player represents a small band of survivors rather than one. You start off with two and acquire more as you progress through the game or, alternatively, you acquire less as everyone dies of frostbite or of being bitten by a zombie or of being shot because they might have been bitten by a zombie.
As might already be apparent (and, to be honest, as was probably already apparent from the names) ZC is a cheesy, schlocky shoot/slash/burn-em-up in which the aim is to rack up as a high a zombie kill? re-kill de-unkill count as possible, while pursuing whatever objective your scenario gives you. DoW, by contrast, is a srs business game about running away and being scared of zombies which are more of a looming menace or an environmental hazard than an enemy. To put it another way, DoW is the kind of game where you can say with a straight face that the real enemy is human greed. I mean, mostly with a straight face.
Since I’m talking about who players play in these two games now is probably a good time to talk about the slightly weird space the player occupies in a game of DoW. In ZC it’s very straight forward: if you are playing Josh the Hoodie you are Josh the Hoodie. You decide what Josh the Hoodie does, you carry the stuff that Josh the Hoodie carries and if Josh the Hoodie dies you are out of the game. And, actually, when we play it at home (especially if we’re playing with Ducky) we play with two characters each so that you don’t have the problem of being stuck with bad character (Ned the Survivalist is especially rubbish) or of getting eliminated early and having to watch your friends have fun with zombies without you.
DoW is a bit different. You are assigned two characters who form a band of survivors and you select one to be the leader of your band of survivors. But these characters can all get killed and you can carry on playing the game. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones where pretty much everyone you’re paying attention to when you start off is dead or missing by the time you get about halfway through and they’ve been replaced by a bunch of other randoms. What’s weird about this is that the game is never quite clear who you (the player) are. A lot of the time it seems like you are supposed to identify with your party leader and some of the personal missions you can have specifically require your party leader to have certain items or be in a particular state. But since this character can die without your mission changing the player occupies this weird limbo position where they’re simultaneously an accountant, a dog, a fire-fighter, and none of the above. Almost as if you’re some kind of perverse possessing spirit that leaps from host-to-host as they die, maniacally forcing them to acquire petrochemicals and books in pursuit of some otherworldly motive that remains largely mysterious even to yourself.
It’s probably testimony to how well-structured a lot of DoW is that this quite significant issue of identification doesn’t get in the way of the immersion more than it does. When you’re actually playing the game you really do get swept up with thinking “oh my gosh, I’ve got to find two more cans of food and a handgun, then somehow contrive to get all my followers killed” without getting hung up on the details of who “I” means in this context.
Conversely, ZC, although it makes you identify with one character, doesn’t really give you much space to put yourself in that character’s shoes. Playing Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress never feels like being Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress. It feels like, at best, controlling Wanda the Chainsaw Waitress in a slightly cheesy videogame.
What You Do
Because the zombie survival genre is so narrow (and it’s quite bizarrely over-represented for something as narrow as it is, I actually own another zombie-survival game just called Zombies! which I’m not discussing here because I haven’t played it in over a decade) the things you do in zombie survival game are always the same. You scavenge for resources, you fight or run from zombies, and you engage or not with the weirdly specific noise mechanics that these games always have.
One of the things I find interesting in comparing these two games is that because of their very different takes on their very similar genre one will tend to be detailed where the other is abstract and vice versa. In ZC everything plays out like (and this is going to involve me listing a bunch of games and game genres that you may well not be familiar with so please bear with me) the old Hero Quest or the more recent Descent or the kind of tabletop Dungeons & Dragon that you play on a battle map with grid-based movement. Your characters have stats for how far they can go and how good they are at fighting zombies. You move grid-by-grid or room-by-room, you track things like range and line of sight, and every single turn you track where every single zombie is going and who it’s trying to eat. DoW, by contrast, abstracts these things out massively. The board is divided up into a number of locations, each represented by a deck of cards and you move between these locations by a simple “move” action, during which you roll a die to see if you get wounded or, worse, bitten by a zombie (or, indeed, by the biting cold of the never entirely pinned down bit of the world in which you find yourself). The game takes on, and again this hard to say with an entirely straight face for a narrative form constructed entirely from bits of coloured card, an almost dreamlike quality. The policeman goes to the library and is bitten by a zombie. The pilot goes to the school and finds a can of beans. The dog goes to the police station and has a surprisingly detailed conversation with an NPC.
But there are other areas in which DoW is very specific while Zombicide is quite vague. Each location in DoW is a defined place. You go to the police station to look for guns and survivors. You go to the hospital to look for medical supplies and, well, survivors. You go to the school for food and books (books are kind of a thing in the game and are possibly slightly OP). When you search a location in DoW you are searching a custom deck of cards that evokes the feeling of that specific place, right down to the fact that if a character gets killed at a location in DoW, all of their equipment gets shuffled into that deck. So you can find things that belonged to your fallen comrades but you have to actually find them, rather than just picking them up like you’ve done a corpse run in World of Warcraft. In ZC, on the other hand, you can just search anywhere that’s not an empty street and you search from one deck that’s got the same stuff in it and virtually all the stuff you find is either weapons, stuff that buffs weapons, zombie ambushes or supplies that are only used in some scenarios. You can find food supplies in Zombicide but they never do anything. They’re at worst dead cards and at best plot tokens. Food in Dead of Winter is a real thing. You need it to feed your colony of survivors and, as you rescue more and more people, that becomes more and more important. So important that you might find yourself asking difficult questions about whose survival is really necessary for the good of the colony.
I suppose another way to put it is that DoW very specifically evokes survival horror, right down to a surprisingly not boring focus on logistics and micromanagement (genuinely one of the most important actions a character can take in the game is to tidy up the colony because if you let things get too trashed people start to lose morale and that’s when the zombies win). Zombicide, as the name suggests, is unabashedly splatterpunk. It’s grab your chainsaw and see how many zombies you can carve up before you go down.
What Happens To You
This is sort of part two of “one game is specific and the other is abstract”. In Zombicide one thing happens to you and it’s zombies. You spawn new zombies every round, there are different types of zombies, sometimes they come up through the sewers, sometimes they jump on you while you’re trying to find a gun in a sofa, and there’s a megazombie that you can only kill with a Molotov cocktail. They pay a lot of attention to what’s going on zombie-wise is what I’m saying. The zombies of DoW, on the other hand, never even attack you. They just gather outside places in increasingly large numbers or manifest through the roll of the movement die when you check to see if something bites or wound you as you try to go from the petrol station to the hospital. Ironically this lack of focus on zombies makes the zombies a lot more threatening. Because instead of thinking “how are we going to deal with those six zombies at that T-junction and can we use your Uzi and my katana’ you’re thinking “oh my God, they’re coming.”
Where DoW does get specific is with everything else. You have to keep track of food, you have to keep track of waste, every turn you get a crisis you have to resolve which requires everybody to pull together and share resources in different ways, and every turn you (or rather the player to your right) draws a card from the Crossroads deck which represents one of about bajillion specific narrative encounters that could be triggered by some event that might take place on your turn. These triggers might be something very general “if there is a survivor at the colony” or something incredibly specific like “if the soccer mom is at the school.” They can be something completely random like “if someone at the table yawns.” These cards are mini choose your own adventures. You get given a scenario complete with flavour text and, in some cases, dialogue, then have to choose between one of two options, often horrible options. These scenarios are sometimes haunting (“your character finds her zombified child at the school, do you respond by burning the whole place to the ground, rendering it inaccessible for the rest of the game, or do you remove her from the game to represent her moving into the school and defending it with her dying breath”), sometimes logistically interesting (“do we agree to help protect the police station, trading resources now for a more difficult victory condition later”), and sometimes just a bit too self-consciously edgy (“do we kill and eat this fat guy”). And maybe it’s just me but whenever a game tries to get me to do something morally reprehensible in order to provoke a cheap emotional reaction or an artificial moral quandary I tend to respond by enthusiastically doing the most horrible thing possible.
I should probably add that I’m genuinely not sure whether my reaction to the edgier Crossroads cards is the result of a flaw with this game’s writing, all games’ writing, or my personality. Basically I just react really, really badly to anything I perceive as self-consciously edgy or trying to blow my tiny mind. For what it’s worth, the “do you eat a fan man” thing especially pissed me off because it combined a number of quirks of this kind of thing that I really hate. The choice is specifically “add a helpless survivor to the colony” (helpless survivors are always bad, they’re just a drain on resources) or “add five food to the colony” (food is always good). So mechanically it’s not an interesting choice. The only reason to choose the mechanically worse option is because you have genuinely engaged morally with the cheap, shonky, really problematically fat-shaming scenario that this (I will admit uncharacteristically) hackily written game card has put in front of you. And I really, deeply resent that. In the real world (or, even, for that matter in a tabletop roleplaying game where I had more than those two absurd options) I would not choose to randomly eat a fat man under pretty much any circumstances. But then, in the real world (or in a tabletop roleplaying game that wasn’t being run by a complete jerk) I would assume that just because somebody was fat that did not make them so fundamentally worthless that their only possible contribution to our society was as a food supply. So, in those kind of situations, I choose the game mechanically optimal solution in order to clearly signal to the game developer who I have never met, will never meet and has no way of knowing what choice I made (or, if they did, would not necessarily interpret it as I intend them to) that I have refused to engage with their bullshit.
ZC doesn’t really have anything equivalent to either the crisis cards or Crossroads cards in DoW. It does have scenarios which differ from game-to-game which give you a different map and different things to do on it but it’s still basically run around, find the chainsaw, kill the zombies.
How You Win
Both games provide you with a variety of different scenarios. In Zombicide these scenarios change the structure of the map quite fundamentally. You might be trying to get from one end to another, trying to hold out against a wave of zombies in a fixed location, trying to rescue survivors, obtain resources, or just kill ‘em all and let zombie god sort them out. An interesting feature of ZC scenarios is that they’re not all designed for the same number of players. Quite a common problem with multi-player games, especially multi-player co-operative games, is that it’s basically impossible to design a game that is equally challenging with any number of players. ZC addresses this by genuinely having completely different boards and objectives when they are two of you compared to when there are six of you. Even better, although the scenarios have a recommended number of players, there’s nothing whatsoever stopping you from playing with more or fewer characters than are recommended if you want to make the game easier or harder.
Scenarios in DoW are less impactful in some ways. They essentially provide you with a victory condition you must achieve before you run out of time or morale. This can be acquiring a certain amount of a particular type of resource, killing a certain number of zombies, building a certain number of barricades and so on. It gets more complicated, however, because as well this central scenario every player has their own personal agenda, meaning that DoW is actually a semi-co-op game rather than full co-op game.
This is the point that I realise that I should have explained this concept much earlier on.
So if you’ve read a lot of these posts, you’ll know I really like co-op games. I am not fundamentally a competitive person. It’s not that I think everyone should get a trophy or taking part, it’s just that I don’t really give a shit about trophies. As a result of this, I play and therefore have reviewed quite a lot of co-op games so hopefully you’re all familiar with that concept by now.
Semi-coop games are, well, there’s two ways to think about it. You could think of them as midway between cooperative and competitive, but I actually don’t think that’s quite right. I tend to think of semi-co-operative games as being a step past co-operative games rather than a step before. Perhaps it is just my personal experience of explaining the whole concept of co-operative game to quite competitive people but I’ve found a surprising number of prospective players have quite a lot of difficult getting their head around the idea of a game that nobody wins. And I think semi-co-op games are a conceptual leap further. They’re a genre of game where (at least in the case of DoW although there are other ways to do this) you can’t win on your own but you can lose on your own.
Essentially every player in DoW has a hidden agenda, as in they have a card that is called their agenda and it is hidden. If you don’t complete your agenda by the end of the game, you lose even if everyone else wins. Now if you are a colossal dick this means that you deliberately hold the game to ransom until you get what you want. If you’re not a colossal dick then usually this means that you still hold the game to ransom until you get what you want but it’s an emergent property of your split focus. The whole gameplay loop of DoW is balancing the quite complicated needs of the colony against your personal agenda. For example, your agenda might require you to be holding three food cards but at the same time the colony needs food and, indeed, might even have a food-related crisis going on. So you suddenly have to ask yourself “am I willing to risk all of us losing the game in order to make sure I have the food I personally need or am I willing to risk losing on my own in order to help achieve a collective goal that other people might not be as committed to as I am.” Which, when you put it like that, does make it sound a lot like life.
The cool thing about this mechanic is that it feels very thematic. The kind of zombie story it’s emulating is driven by tension between characters with differing motivations. I mean, I know all stories are driven by tension between characters with different motivations but it’s specifically the kind of horror scenario where the cop and the lawyer getting into an argument about whether to shoot the guy who might have been bitten by a zombie is a more important plot point than the zombie attack that precipitated it. Basically the personal agenda makes you behave selfishly in a way that fits the genre.
Which leads us to the story of how I completely tanked a game of Dead of Winter.
Again, I should say that I know people who would deliberately wreck the colony if they thought they weren’t going to make their personal agenda. The game does actually have a hidden traitor mechanic which I’m personally not a fan of – basically it is possible for one player to be actively working against the colony, so where most people’s victory condition is “get these resources and have the colony survive”, one person might have the victory condition “get these resources and have the colony destroyed.” I have to be in quite a specific mood to play a hidden traitor game and I especially dislike hidden traitors in otherwise co-operative games that are already quite difficult. I think what particularly bothers me is that because (as we’ll see from the anecdote that I’m currently failing to get around to sharing with you) it’s fairly easy to lose the game by accident it means that the traitor doesn’t really have to do anything except not pull their weight. I’ve often found that the most effective strategy as the hidden traitor in that kind of game is to just kind of tune out and not give a shit which isn’t massively satisfying.
And, to continue this digression within a digression within a digression, I should say that I do understand why the traitor mechanic is in DoW. And admittedly I’m sure part of the reason it’s in DoW is that some people just like traitor mechanics. But I think a bigger reason it’s in there is that it reinforces the hidden agenda mechanic by making sure that people have an incentive to be cagey about what their agendas are. I suspect the whole challenge of balancing the colony’s needs against your own would be way easier if everyone could just be open and upfront about what their needs actually were. If you could say “I’m absolutely happy to help with this crisis but I need to hoard some food so I’m not going to put in as much as I could, but I’ve got fuel that we might need later that I can use to help out Steve who has told us that he needs fuel and books” then you’d be able to make more efficient use of your resources, be a whole lot less paranoid and bring things to a mutually satisfying conclusion much more effectively. But if you introduce the possibility that somebody actively wants the colony to fail then suddenly Steve’s request for three cans of petrol and a shotgun for his own personal use gets a whole lot more suspicious.
Sorry that got off topic. The point I was making was that I personally feel it is out of the spirit of the game for anyone bar the traitor to deliberately tank the colony even if they know they aren’t going to make their personal agenda. And, again, I’d add that I know people who would play differently and whose attitude would be “well, if I’m not winning, no-one is”. I no longer play board games with those people. However, if you do play in the spirit of the game, you sometimes accidentally do exactly the thing I just said you shouldn’t do deliberately.
In one particular game, we’d made that deal with the police station to keep it clear of zombies in exchange for some guns early on (a deal that had been deftly negotiated by the stunt dog because that sort of thing sometimes happens). My personal agenda required me to have a gun of my own, but as we’d been divvying up the weapons I’d found it very hard to make a case for giving a rifle to my lily-livered accountant rather than, say, the solider, the ninja or even the bloody dog. This meant that in the final turn of the game everyone was feeling pretty positive because we’d met our group objectives, kept the board basically clear of zombies and colony morale was pretty high. Everyone was positive except for me. Because I was freaking out because I didn’t have a gun. I kept asking people for guns and they kept saying “why do you need a gun, you’re an accountant, and anyway we can shoot the zombies from the top of the school.”
It’s all right, I thought, I know there’s loads of guns at the police station. I’ll just go there and find one. Now the game has a rule which means that when you search at a location you can draw pretty much as many cards as you like but every card after the first generates a noise token and each noise token has a 50% chance of attracting a zombie. So off to the police station goes the accountant, who begins rummaging around looking for guns. He finds handcuffs, he finds the tinned food that apparently everyone in this town lives on. Finally he finds a firearm. It’s fine, I think, yes I’ve made some noise but it probably won’t attract too many zombies and, anyway, we’ve already beaten this scenario so everything’s fine. Then I realise I’m getting some quite odd looks from the other players. Then I realise that I’ve been making a load of noise at the police station and that because of that deal we made earlier if we don’t keep the police station completely free of zombies we lose the game. We had, in fact, quite scrupulously killed all the zombies at the police station on a previous turn and had (which I had forgotten) been quite carefully not going there in order to avoid attracting any more zombies to it.
We—or rather I—attracted more zombies to it. We did not win.
To this day, I feel quite ambivalent about this anecdote. It’s so contrary to the way I normally play games that I’m actually quite embarrassed. My embarrassment is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that several of my fellow players actually thought it was a pretty cool and thematic ending: just as the plucky band of survivors think they’ve driven off the last zombie, the accountant, who has been getting more and more freaked out, finally snaps, having quite heavily foreshadowed the fact he won’t feel safe unless he’s got a gun, runs off to the police station and, in his moment of triumph, pulling a pistol from out of a locker that he’s noisily crowbarred open, attracts the attention of a fresh wave of zombies with which the beleaguered encampment is unequipped to deal. Fade to black. Roll credits. Fin. And from a game design perspective what I really liked was how well the game had drawn me into its fiction. It had made me behave like I was a character in a zombie movie irrationally pursuing a personal agenda to the extent I lost sight of the wider problem. But I can also see how that kind of ending could have been really annoying if my fellow players had been in a different sort of mood or had different priorities. Basically I think it was okay in that case because I really had just forgotten that my going for the gun could actually make us lose the game. In a different session, with a different group of people, in a different context I could have just been making a rational choice to put the game from a state in which everybody would definitely win except me to a state in which everybody including me had about a 75% of losing and a 25% of winning.
To put it another way, I can see that there’s a fine line between “genre appropriate response to thematic game mechanics” and “dick move.”
I’m aware I’ve talked more about DoW than I’ve talked about ZC and that’s because Zombicide is a simpler game. I will say that I’ve actually played ZC more often that DoW for roughly the same reason that I’ve watched Carry on Cleo more than often than I’ve watched The Seventh Seal. Zombicide is a straight forwardly fun, light-hearted co-operative game that I will quite often pull down if I’m not sure what else I want to play. The conversation usually goes “do we fancy killing some zombies” “yeah go on then.” I think ZC might also be slightly more robust to variable player numbers, partly because it’s so bubblegum, meaning it’s fairly easy to pick an appropriate scenario, run floating characters if you want to, and have a laugh chainsawing zombies whether there’s two of you, or six of you. Also Ducky can control a character in Zombicide, whereas she finds it quite hard to keep track of her hidden agenda in DoW.
For what’s it worth, I’m a little bit hesitant of recommending either game to a casual audience. Zombicide is straight forward and fun and beer and pretzelsy but it’s also seventy quid on account of all the models it comes with, and is quite strongly pitched at an audience which invests in tactical movement, levelling up and racking up sweet kills. And I suspect part of the reason our group finds it quite light is that we’ve all played it enough that we’re used to its idiosyncrasies because actually the game involves quite a lot of moving parts. You need to move every zombie at the end of every turn in the right order, keeping track of line of sight, sound and zombie type. There’s a whole non-especially-necessary level up system. It’s not exactly a gamer’s game but it is, I think, very much a nerd’s game. Basically I think you have to really like zombies to really like Zombicide. But I guess, as I’ve said several times, the clue is really in the name.
Dead of Winter very much is a gamer’s game. It’s very intense and quite … it feels patronising to use the word sophisticated … but sophisticated is the only word I can think of that’s appropriate. It’s not that it’s especially mature or dark or nuanced, it’s just that the mechanics intersect in sufficiently opaque ways and involve what I tend to think of as quite high end gaming concepts. I really do think semi-co-opt is an especially acquired taste and, actually, I know a lot of people who like DoW much more in theory than in practice. People who like co-op games are likely to find the hidden agendas (and especially the traitor) unappealing, people who like competition are likely to either be annoyed by the cooperative elements or to actively undermine them. Don’t get me wrong, the game is really, really good at being what it is but what it is, is a game that very strongly captures the feeling of being in a very specific zombie survival scenario. Out of all the game I own, DoW is the one with which I’ve had the most variable experiences. If people are into it, it can be a really good, really intense gaming experience. If people aren’t into it, or are just having a bad day, it can be a frustrating nightmare.
So yes. Get Zombicide if you want to spend the best part of a hundred pounds on a slightly fiddly but quite enjoyable game where you kill loads of zombies. Get Dead of Winter if you think your gaming group will like the kind of thing it’s doing. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, most people recommend getting The Long Night before the base game.