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This month’s game was Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour’s Dead of Winter (2014), a game I’d chosen as the first of our ‘big’ game evenings.The game sees players take on the roles of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, fighting for survival in a desolate urban landscape. In keeping with the currently-dominant principles of the zombie-genre (think The Walking Dead) its human protagonists find themselves battling both the living and the dead, working together to protect their colony while pursuing their own, often contradictory, agendas. In short, this is achieved by the use of asymmetrical victory conditions that require players to work towards both common and personal goals (unless there’s a betrayer amongst them, and that’s always a possibility). As such, Plaid Hat’s semi-cooperative horror fest seemed to be the perfect game with which to launch the group, trading on the insecurities of our as-yet unformed real-world relationships.

The reasons for introducing the game went beyond the curious parallels it shares with our work as a nascent research group. In my current work on board games, in which I’m exploring the specific affordances of analogue games, I’ve become preoccupied by the relationship that pertains between the tactile elements of the game (its components, its board, and the print ruleset) and the game as played. In other words, my concerns are with where exactly the ‘game’ takes place – on or off the board?

Watching and participating in the games of Dead of Winter we played was useful in formulating my thoughts. Or at least it was helpful in generating more, and hopefully more precise, research questions. Thus my overall concern to account for the dynamics of tabletop gaming (let’s call that my research ‘objective’) might break down into a number of more manageable ‘aims’ on which my thoughts are becoming just a little clearer…

  • What is the relation of player to playing piece (these come with helpfully-suggestive names such as ‘token’, ‘standee’, ‘meeple’ and ‘figure’)?
  • What is the role of the board in constructing the game world?

As might be expected, the primary function of the token is to indicate the relative locations of the players’ characters on the board. A secondary function is thematic – in Dead of Winter the playing pieces are fully illustrated, gesturing towards the stock characters of zombie culture. In both cases, the game’s components serve to differentiate between player and piece. In terms of location they signal the different spaces of the game world (in which the cardboard people are moved) and the world of the player. In terms of theme, the ‘fully-drawn’ characters make clear the distinction of player and character, forestalling any easy immersion in the game world. All of this prompts a further question, namely:

  • How does the game world relate to the world of the players?

While the physical components of the game signal a distinction between player and character in Dead of Winter, the space between these two ‘worlds’ is bridged by the game mechanics as the paranoia and mistrust one assumes must be part of a zombie-infested city is recreated in the real-world relationships of the game’s players who wonder throughout about the motivations of their fellow gamers. This blurring is captured well in two of the in-game cards which collapse the world of the game and that of those playing the game. The Crossroads card ‘Sleep’ triggers ‘If a player other than the player reading this card yawns,’ while the ‘Megaphone’ invites requires real-world actions (‘When placing this card in the waste pile shout what you said into the megaphone.’)

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There’s much more left to do with these ideas, and I’d very much welcome comments on any of this, but for now I’m left with a healthy fear of my once generous-seeming colleagues and a clearer sense that the tactile mechanics of analogue games afford them certain unique possibilities.

Paul Wake