As I mentioned in a previous article, I got the opportunity to interview the founder of Plaid Hat Games Colby Dauch about one of their newest games, Dead of Winter, and about how they consider women as they go through their design process. I also got the chance to talk to Isaac Vega, one of the designers of Dead of Winter, who’s working on a new game called Ashes.
One of the things I really appreciate about Dead of Winter is that the mechanics are very simple, but the game itself is incredibly difficult. I think this is an essential quality of co-ops. If I’m playing a co-operative game with my friends and it’s too easy, I get bored.
Beyond the mechanical workings of the game, Dead of Winter’s theme is poignant and harsh.The players control people who have managed to survive the zombie apocalypse. As you can tell from the title, they’re trying to make it through a harsh winter. It’s more than likely that one of your characters will die, whether it be from exposure to the cold or a zombie bite. There’s a super objective, and then every player has their own secret objective. In order to win the game at all, the group has to complete the super objective. But if you want to win personally, then you have to complete your own secret objective – so there can be no winner, one winner, or multiple winners. Oh, and one of you might be a betrayer, which adds some tension to an already difficult game.
The crossroads card mechanic just adds to the drama of the situation. The player who just finished their turn draws a crossroads card before the next player begins their turn. Then, if at any point the criteria on the card is met during the player’s turn, the card activates and they have to deal with it. Many of these cards are heartbreaking choices: like, should we take in this mother and her newborn? But if we do, then we need more food. And if we don’t have enough food at the end of this round, someone dies, our morale goes down, and we’re closer to losing the game.
I mentioned to Colby that I also love another of their games, Mice and Mystics, which is a co-op dungeon crawl with mice as the main characters, and how all of their games feel very different. While he agreed that mechanically and thematically the games are very different, he argued that they’re way more similar than they first appear.
“At their heart, they’re both games that say something about people, they’re both games that tell immersive stories, and they’re both beautiful games. Those are all things that we want Plaid Hat games to be about. We want to be the Pixar of board gaming, if not on that level of success, at least in that determination to tell great stories and constantly improve and advance the medium.”
The women characters in both Dead of Winter and Mice and Mystics are pretty kick-ass. I’ve never thought to myself that one of the characters is purely there to be objectified. Every woman has her own set of skills and contributes to the game just as much as the male characters. In Dead of Winter specifically, logically none of the women are scantily clad, because it’s WINTER. They’re all wearing appropriate clothes that would help them not freeze to death.
“I love a kick-butt woman. That’s a tale that I really like. It’s in Mice and Mystics. People will often say, ‘Well, I think Tilda and Nez like each other.’ And that’s very against what we’re trying to do. Tilda isn’t there to be a love interest. I know that’s something that’s important to Jerry, and I think that shines in Dead of Winter as well. There’s a good balance of male and female characters. We started writing our rule books with both the feminine and masculine pronoun used; one part we’ll use feminine, one part we’ll use masculine.
To be honest, I used to think, ‘most of our audience is men, so that’s who we should appeal to.’ But we’ve never gone cheesecakey with it. And my mind has definitely been changed drastically over the last couple of years. Part of that is the success of Mice and Mystics. It really calls out to the fact that there really are so many female gamers out there who are looking for cool stuff that isn’t the cheesecakey, bikini chainmail stuff that’s so pervasive in this industry. Having those female gamers give us feedback and show up at the booth and talk about how much they love the game…when it’s abstracted, looking at the audience and percentages, it’s easy to forget that human element.”
Colby then went on to say that he thinks the game they’re currently working on, Ashes, an expandable (instead of collectible) card game, will be a fantastic feminist game. He told me that the majority of the main characters are actually women. When I started asking about the game’s backstory, he turned me over to Isaac Vega, who’s currently designing the game. Isaac started off by telling me about the world he created for the game:
“Players take on the roles of Phoenixborns, demi-gods and protectors of this world. These characters are the great saviors of their civilizations. Before they came into existence, the humans were plagued by monsters like chimeras that took away their lands and forced them to live in walled-off cities. When the Phoenixborns came, they fought off the chimeras and freed the lands for humans to take over once again. But the time of peace was short-lived. A prophecy arose that if one Phoenixborn was able to absorb enough Ashes of others, they would ascend into full gods, and take mastery over this world. This, as well as humans’ greed for land, fueled the War of Ashes. The great cities now fight among each other, each one of them with a Phoenixborn at its helm, and you will decide who will rise and who will fall to ashes.”
It’s a competitive card game where the players battle each other. Right now, they’re playtesting the game with two players, but at launch they hope the game will be for 2-4 players. They’re focusing now on the two-player version to make sure it’s balanced so that the game is ready for tournament play at launch.
There are six different characters in the master set of the game, and four of them are women, which super excites me. Here’s a peek at two of them.
Jessa, also known as the Blood Witch, has a voodoo vibe. She lives in a forest where all the leaves of the trees are blood-colored and the bark looks like it’s bleeding. Isaac said she’s kind of like Ursula from The Little Mermaid because people come to her with their problems, but there’s always a price. Many people are terrified of her, and stay the hell away from the woods. But because of the prophecy, she’s now coming out of the woods and attacking.
Saria is another main character. She’s prim and proper in a very Victorian way. She’s a seductress who uses illusion magics, which means she can bring out really interesting units.
Personally, I’m super excited to not only see so many women as main characters, but also to see women of color in the lineup. None of the art is gratuitous or overly sexual. Sure, Jessa is showing some skin, but she’s not in a sexy pose. Her garb makes sense with her backstory. Check this art out of women in armor:
Female armor that makes sense! Look at how awesome it is! The women in this game look like they’re really going to kick some ass, and they wear armor that doesn’t leave them comically exposed to injury.
“I really wanted to represent our characters in a different light. I didn’t want scantily clad women just wearing whatever and throwing magic spells. I have chicks with giant hammers fighting in cool armor and spiked stuff. They’re amazing. I love strong female characters, and I just think it’s time to start representing women in our industry a little bit more realistically. We have some badass girls who are here at our cons doing awesome things, they’re really big fans, and I really want to see more fantasy representations of interesting characters who are not just sex symbols.”
Plaid Hat is hoping to release Ashes in the next 6-9 months, which would coincide nicely with PAX East. Depending on how playtesting and production goes, it might not be out until Gen Con 2015.
Bonus – here’s some more beautiful art from the game! The artist, Fernanda Suarez, is the same one who worked on Dead of Winter.