Contrarian Corner: Retread of Winter

*The statements made in Contrarian Corner do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Dice Tower or Dice Tower News. These are my opinions, in the grand tradition of gamers arguing about the hobby, and are just as likely to be brilliant and insightful as they are misguided and wrongheaded. Reader discretion is advised.

Winter of Discontent

The 2014 Golden Geek Awards were recently announced, and while I thought a lot of the nominees and winners were great choices (for the most part- I’ll save that for another Contrarian Corner), I was SHOCKED that Dead of Winter won for most innovative game. It wasn’t just nominated, it won! For innovation. Dead of Winter. Yes, that Dead of Winter. The game that owes practically every design element to Battlestar Galactica. Innovative. Innovative?!


Now before I dive into this unbelievable failure of board game award-giving, I have a bit of a confession to make. I like Dead of Winter. I have Dead of Winter. I helped playtest it while Plaid Hat Games was developing the game, and while it’s true that playing the same game over and over did burn me out at the time, I respect it for being a challenging cooperative experience with a fun traitor mechanic and evocative theme. It’s a fine example of Amerithrash (I get $1 from Tom every time I say that), but in terms of innovation, I put it right above SpongeBob Monopoly.

Merriam-Webster defines innovative as “introducing or using new ideas or methods” and “having new ideas about how something can be done”. In board games, we know that innovation is more of a continuum than a binary state. Game design stands on the shoulders of previous designs, developing ideas found in other games or other systems of play to achieve something novel. Some games are very innovative, others less so, and outside of straight theft there’s nothing wrong with being on the lower end of the innovation continuum. That said, just as NASA isn’t knocking down my door begging me to lead the next space mission, nor should Dead of Winter be winning awards for innovation. Please save your torches and pitchforks to the end.

Here Be Zombies

There’s no theme in board gaming that is less innovative than zombies. The overuse of this post-apocalyptic storytelling device in popular media is pervasive to the point of complete saturation. There are more zombie games than there were snakes on Samuel L. Jackson’s plane. There are more zombie games than Original Ray’s Pizza places in New York City. There may even be more zombie games than stars in the sky. (That’s just science.)

Crossroads Most Traveled

If Arthur is writing a Contrarian Corner piece about Dead of Winter and Mars was in retrograde, read the following…

Let’s get the Crossroads Cards out of the way immediately. They’re not new. They’re just not. At their core, Crossroads Cards are just situationally-activated event cards. If you’ve played Descent 2nd Edition, the Overlord player has a whole hand of these. They’re called Overlord Cards and they allow him/her to do nasty things to the heroes when they do certain things. How about Magic the Gathering? Many Interrupt spells have situational and/or conditional triggers as well.

But Crossroads Cards offer choices! Okay great. Tales of the Arabian Nights has an entire tome of situationally-activated events that offer choices, albeit nonsensical ones that might leave you confused and married to a ghost. Battlestar Galactica, with its “Admiral/President/CAG/current player chooses” flavor of Crisis cards, covers the same ground as well.

Everything Else

What’s left when you take away the theme and the Crossroads Cards is Battlestar Galactica with a different coat of paint and a slightly shorter play time. Hidden loyalties, a traitor (frakkin’ toasters!), crisis events that are fulfilled with the correct cards and sabotaged with the wrong ones, locations to move to and activate, a morale track that is lowered by character deaths, variable win/loss conditions depending on personal objectives…if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactica need to get a room.

So how did it win? Like all contests, popularity and awareness are everything. Dead of Winter benefited from a ton of hype around those entirely unoriginal Crossroads Cards (which will apparently make appearances in future innovation-resistant games). Thanks to great marketing and earned media from our favorite voices in the hobby, Dead of Winter was nominated in no less than four Golden Geek Award categories, earning runner-up honors for two of those categories and winning the other two. Quite a sweep.

That’s it folks. Rant complete. Snarkiness aside, I congratulate Plaid Hat Games for their well-deserved success with Dead of Winter. They didn’t rewrite the book on cooperative games (obviously), but in the tradition of iterating on the stalwarts that came before, they did an excellent job of designing an experience that draws players in and has them telling stories days after the game ended. Is it innovative? No. Should the Golden Geek Award voters be ashamed of themselves? Probably not. Should the English release of Tragedy Looper have won that award (or Alchemists if you’re being pedantic about release dates)? Yes. Am I going to get off my soapbox now? …See you next time on Contrarian Corner!