Dead of Winter (board game) – Review

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Dead of Winter is a 2-5 player co-operative game with a twist. Set during a bitter winter in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, it tasks players with banding together to meet a variety of objectives. Objectives include things like killing a certain number of zombies, building a number of barricades, or hoarding a certain number of resources. However, each player also has a ‘secret’ objective, and that player only wins the game if they achieve their secret objective, as well as the group objective. Secret objectives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but normally they require some kind of selfish behaviour that makes the game harder for everyone else. Moreover, each game has about a 40-50% chance that a player will have a ‘betrayal’ secret objective, which is something explicitly designed to sabotage the group objective. If other players get too suspicious, they can vote to exile a player from the game, but if they exile two players who weren’t traitors, the game ends immediately.

The secret objective/betrayal mechanic is what gives Dead of Winter its unique appeal, and it is a very interesting concept. It gives the game a kind of ‘meta’ dimension, as the player dynamics go beyond the actual moves you make in the game and can manipulate the way players interpret rules or behave towards each other during the game. It’s an unusually deep and sophisticated system, and the first time you realize how a player’s behaviour was influenced by their secret objective is likely to be something of a mark-out moment.

Each player manages a small team of survivor characters, and it is possible to recruit additional survivors during the game. However, you have to balance the increased capacity you get from having more people against the drain on resources. This is a theme throughout the game: doing anything, even moving, involves risk, and playing the game is a constant trade-off between risk and reward. This tension is an important dynamic and you’re made to wonder whether a player’s potentially reckless behaviour is just down to their personality, due to a secret objective, or part of a conscious plan to sabotage the group’s efforts.

Dead of Winter’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t work well with just two players. There are no secret objectives in a two-player game, meaning a major part of the game’s dynamic appeal is lost. The game is still playable, usually using stripped-down objectives and with more characters per player, but it’s really not that much fun. Ideally you want four or five players to enjoy the game properly. This is a bit limiting, as many co-operative games (like Eldritch Horror) work serviceably with any number of players between two and eight. Considering Dead of Winter’s price tag of £40-50, you want to make sure you have enough interested players to make it worth your time and money. With only two players it’s a much worse game and in my view not worth playing over other options.

The game is well-produced, with substantial character cut-outs and cards that are robust and satisfying to handle. The art style is distinctive; not necessarily the most attractive style you’ll ever see, but appropriate enough to the tone of the game and vaguely reminiscent of something like The Walking Dead. The game is generally well-written, with a large pool of objectives, which come with their own introductions and conclusions, as well as a number of text-heavy Crossroads, or scenario, cards that can be triggered during each player’s turn. Players often have to make a choice during their turn; sometimes this is fun, but occasionally it boils down to ‘do this one massively complicated thing that takes a paragraph to describe and consists of multiple stages, or do nothing’. Considering how long these games often take, I know which option I’ll always go for.

While not as long-winded as something like Arkham Horror, Dead of Winter still generally takes 2-3 hours, and the set-up process is fairly lengthy. Again, if you’re only playing with two players, this is another factor that might encourage you to pick something else instead. But with the right group, a game of Dead of Winter is a unique, thrilling, and potentially disturbing experience.

8/10

Eldritch Horror (board game) – Review

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Eldritch Horror is a tremendous game, but it’s not for everyone. The game has been out for a number of years now, and is best conceived as a refined version of the classic board game Arkham Horror, where Lovecraftian mysteries unfold in a global setting rather than in the confines of Arkham. The game gets rid of some of Arkham’s more onerous gameplay phases, such as upkeep, and closing portals to other dimensions is a bit more straightforward. But the basic feel of the game is the same, as is the objective: stopping one of several Ancient Ones from destroying Planet Earth/the whole Universe.

A few months ago I posted about my first impressions of Eldritch Horror. Most of those still stand, although having played it more I now think that the game does have a good sense of atmosphere. The pseudo-1930 aesthetic is consistent and well done, and the game’s locations and encounters make extensive use of Lovecraft lore as well as wider historical reference points. There is a lot of original game art, with a huge number of card types, and the writing is generally concise, clear, and polished. My one criticism is that there are not quite enough cards for each location, which means that it is very easy by the end of a game to be reading out text for the second or even third time. This does spoil the atmosphere and immersion somewhat. I understand there are several expansion sets which alleviate this problem, but considering the basic game alone will set you back the guts of £50, it’s an expensive solution.

Despite being a simpler game than Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror still has an intimidating number of rules and mechanics and a sigificant play time that will be a barrier to entry for some. For those unfamiliar with the archetype, Eldritch Horror is a co-operative board game that can support 1-8 players, but is best played with about four or five. Each turn or round consists of several phases: an action phase, where you can travel, prepare to travel (!), try to acquire items, or rest; an encounter phase, where you get a location-specific short narrative event with one or more tests (dice rolls against your attributes); and a Mythos phase, where you read a longer card which usually results in the game making life more difficult. Finessing a new player through an entire turn without losing them can be a challenge/game in itself, as some people will eventually glaze over while you’re explaining one of the many arcane rules; and leading an 8-player game with six people who’ve never played it before is exhilarating and exhausting. Considering that not all board games aficionados are necessarily known for their people skills, it’s an interesting one.

But, for every friend who rolls their eyes there is one who will love the experience, and if you get a group of people together who are prepared to learn and get into the rhythm of the game then Eldritch Horror is an unbeatable board game. We had two epic 8-player games around new year, one of which we lost and one of which we won, but both of which were a lot of fun. It is very satisfying to develop a collective strategy and work together to win against the odds, and investing several hours in a game like this is a great bonding experience.

You really have to be prepared to put the time in, though. While a game with 2-4 experienced players can be over in a couple of hours, a game with more people or where you are constantly explaining everything can easily take over four hours. The challenge goes up in proportion as more players are added to the game, but that’s not really balanced if hardly anyone knows what they’re doing. In many scenarios (or most if your friends have jobs or kids), it’s not feasible for a big group to commit that length of time to a game, making this something for special occasions. More than once we’ve had to abandon games simply because people have had to get home to sleep before work the next morning, or just go to bed because they’re too tired/drunk. But as I say, those occasions are made up for by the times when it goes right.

There are a good number of investigators for players to choose from, and while some are stronger than others, most of them have their niche. There are only four ‘bosses’ in the default game: Azathoth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath. They all have a different emphasis, but the latter two feel too complicated/difficult for most new players. If we get into the game more, and play with more experienced players, we may track down some of the expansions which provide new Ancient Ones to go up against. It’s a bit of a shame that so many of the antagonists in Arkham Horror are not present ‘out of the box’, but as I said, the game is so hard and unforgiving that nine times out of ten you’d probably end up just using the easier ones, anyway.

In short, this is one of those times when the final score doesn’t tell the whole story. In the right context Eldritch Horror is an absolutely fantastic game, but if you approach it with the wrong expectations it is guaranteed to kick your ass.

9/10

Pandemic (board game) – Review

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These diseases almost look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

There are a lot of co-operative board games out there. For those occasions when you don’t have five hours to spare (cf. Arkham Horror), Pandemic is a good choice. Pandemic is one of the more commercially successful board games around and has and garnered quite a lot of critical praise. The reasons for its mass appeal are obvious: you can play it in less than an hour (a quick game can be over in less than thirty minutes), and it’s playable by a relatively wide audience, including those who recoil from a game of Eldritch Horror in, well, horror.

Part of Pandemic’s broader appeal is that its premise is immediately accessible. The world is under threat from four different diseases and it’s up to the players to cure them. Each player gets an investigator and some starting cards, and takes it in turns to perform actions to treat infected populations and travel around the globe, building research stations which can eventually be used to cure diseases. Each turn involves several phases: an action phase, draw cards phase, and ‘infection’ phase, which is the game’s chance to make things harder for you. When drawing cards there is a chance you will draw an ‘epidemic’ card, which causes more infections and ramps up the difficulty. There is a mechanic whereby repeated outbreaks in infected cities can cause a chain reaction, and a succession of these can cause you to lose the game. In reality, you have to be very neglectful to let this happen, and after a number of games we have never even come close to losing by this method.

Pandemic is not a particularly difficult game, and the main threat comes from running out of cards. Indeed, that’s the only way we have lost (once in about ten games), and the game’s strategy really revolves around trying to find the most efficient way of curing the diseases before the cards run out. This ‘card economy’ aspect of the difficulty is quite well balanced, but I would have liked there to be a bit more threat from infections. As it is, the best thing to do is just keep your head above water while ‘curing’ diseases, as otherwise you will run out of time, and if you’re out of cards then you lose even if there are very few infections on the board.

The investigator characters are a bit unbalanced, as well. One of them, Operations Expert, is extremely useful as he can travel anywhere on the board and build research stations anywhere for a trivial cost, making it easier for other investigators to travel as well. Another character, Researcher, has the ability to trade any city cards anywhere. You need to spend city cards to cure diseases, and to trade them both investigators usually need to be on the same city depicted on the card they are trying to trade, which is painstaking and time-consuming; but this one character trivializes the whole mechanic. Having either of these characters is a massive advantage, and having both basically breaks the game’s difficulty. There are ways around it, but it’s not ideal.

That said, the limited number of cards available does still put you ‘on the clock’ and this aspect of the game’s pacing is enough to give it a tactical feel, and debating the best course of action among yourselves is the best part of the game. On the whole, it is a relatively deep strategic experience for the limited time you invest, and certainly a good introduction for those, by age or inclination, not suited to playing more ‘hardcore’ games like Eldritch Horror.

The game can be picked up for £25-£30 and is pretty reasonable value for money. As the game is fairly streamlined, the box is not particularly full, and the limited character art is rather basic; but you do get a bunch of rather appealing transparent coloured ‘disease cubes’ which essentially look like tiny plastic cubes of raw jelly. The game’s success has inspired a number of expansions, as well; next time we’re on holiday with friends we might look into picking one up, to freshen the experience a bit. But Pandemic is definitely worth a go if you’re looking for a co-op game you can play with almost anyone and which won’t take up your entire evening.

8/10

First Impressions – Eldritch Horror

We marked Halloween at home this year with our first game of Eldritch Horror. The game is widely described as being in the same style of Arkham Horror while being more streamlined and accessible, which is why we plumped for it. Arkham Horror is great fun but famously complex and I have a short attention span.

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See how many beers you can get through before the game starts. I only managed one

Eldritch probably is more streamlined than Arkham Horror, but on first impressions not by much. Our two-player game still took us over four hours, much of the first hour being taken up with setting things up and going over rules. While an experience of playing Arkham Horror helps speed things up, there are still many game-specific mechanics to get to grips with. Our first turn took ages, but once that was taken care of the game did start to pick up a good steady rhythm. The game took us hours but most of it flew by, and it was only by the last half hour or so that we wanted it to finish. It’s good fun and I expect the next go will be even better.

The rulebook recommends selecting Azathoth as the Ancient One if it’s your first go, so that’s what we did. I assume there are fewer mechanics in play when contending against Azathoth, making it better for new players; the trade-off being that if the Idiot God wakes up, it’s an instant game over. This made for a dramatic finish as I’ll describe later. Overall there was a good sense of urgency and balance between gearing up our investigators, and closing gates and solving rumors and mysteries (solving three of the latter being the win condition).

As there were only two of us, we deliberately chose what seemed like well-balanced and independent investigators (the Shaman and the Expedition Leader). As the game progressed we noticed that not all stats in the game are equal, really, with Influence and Observation seeming particularly important in making progress towards victory. On the basis of one game, combat felt less important than Arkham Horror, but that may be simply because we were playing against Azathoth who seems to rely less on powerful minions. Similarly, currency has been abolished in this game, but instead there are travel tickets to worry about, so resource management has not been done away with completely. Clues are also central to the game and are handled a bit differently to Arkham Horror, meaning the investigator who can trade clues with anyone on the map is probably overpowered. Indeed, if we had used that investigator we would have won. Yeah, we’re using that one next time.

So, yes, we lost. In dramatic fashion. We had just solved the last mystery, and just needed to get to the end of the turn to turn over the final mystery card and win the game. The ‘Doom’ track was on 2, having started at 15. However, the ‘Mythos’ card we had to pick at the end of the round advanced the doom track to 0, meaning Azathoth woke up and we were all devoured and the world destroyed. It was somewhat frustrating to be thwarted at the last moment but kind of awesome at the same time; and this certainly points towards a well-balanced game. We had even made a choice a round or two earlier which, if we had done differently, may have helped us win the game–or it may just have resulted in one us being devoured. It’s that kind of game.

With a price tag of £50 Eldritch Horror is a significant investment but so far it feels like money well spent. Like Arkham Horror, the game is well produced, the art is creepy, and the pieces feel robust and satisfying to hold and use. There are a lot of cards and you really do need a lot of space to set everything up. Moreover, the board is landscape orientation rather than portrait like Arkham, which is a disadvantage for large groups as some people will be looking at it upside down. Also, I know it was only one game, but already I miss the sense of place that you have with Arkham Horror. Eldritch Horror is global in scope, and I understand why they made that decision, but at the same time you lose the dense atmosphere of mystery and dread that was peculiar to Arkham.

So, we’re looking forward to another game next weekend, when we may have a go at an Old One who is more ‘forgiving’ (surely not the right word) than Azathoth.