Board Game Mechanics is a Shady Baron feature which looks at some of modern gaming’s greatest mechanics. These are the rules that, when you explain them to a group, cause a collective gasp or burst of laughter. They’re the rules and mechanics which we believe, here at Shady Baron, encapsulate everything that’s great about modern games. They’re the rules that hook new and non-gamers, that show non-gamers that board games don’t have to be stuffy or complex or boring. In short, they’re the rules that can tip somebody from being a non-gamer into a gamer.
Generally, to feature here, a mechanic must be simple, elegant and thematic. So no complicated dice rolls and modifiers, no correlating charts and poring over statistics. Here, we’re talking about rules you implement in seconds but which add a wonderful and unexpected dimension to board games. Often they’re very funny.
This week we’re talking about Forest Plum, Dead of Winter’s resident Mall Santa.
Dead of Winter is de facto the zombie game of choice for modern board gamers. It has, in board game terms, several unique and innovative mechanics that make it hugely evocative and fun. For example, it’s a co-operative game — you’re all working together — but it throws in secret objectives that might lead you to act contrary to the group’s best interests. One of those secret objectives might be a betrayer objective, which means that one of your players might secretly be working to undermine you. One of your friends might win if you lose the game.
On top of this, Dead of Winter throws in exile mechanics. If you think a player is a betrayer, vote to exile him from the colony. Exiled players still get to play, but they play the game on the margins, outside the colony and with a different objective to the rest of the group. What’s best about this is that you could have got it wrong; maybe you exiled somebody who was really on your side. Well done, you just exiled your friend.
There are other very nice mechanics in Dead of Winter — the game’s crossroad cards, which force players to make uncomfortable decisions; the zombie bites that can spread through the colony and wipe out handfuls of survivors in a single turn — but those can wait until we give the game a full review. What I really want to talk about is Dead of Winter’s funniest mechanic, which also turns out to be my favourite. I want to talk about Forest Plum.
If you know horror films, you’ll know Forest Plum. He’s the raving cynic, the guy who comes into the film half mad, shouting end-of-the-world proclamations like some street corner evangelist. He spends his time doing not much of anything but undermining the group. He insults people. He goes missing in zombie attacks. He runs away like a coward. He hides a lot. He shouts at other characters a lot. Other characters shout at him a lot. His ideas are always very, very bad ideas. In short, nobody likes him; his death comes as cathartic not just for the audience but for the film’s own characters. This guy’s death comes with a collective sense of relief.
Dead of Winter’s characters have a special ability, which might be that they’re good at searching, or they’re good at fighting zombies, or they can erect barricades to protect the colony. In short, they’re all useful in some way. Forest Plum’s ability is that he improves the colony’s morale if you remove him from the game. That’s right, you can make the group feel better by voluntarily killing the game’s Mall Santa.
That right there encapsulates everything that’s great about Dead of Winter specifically and board games in general. It captures, in one very simple mechanic, one of horror’s most recognisable tropes. Which makes Forest Plum one of Shady Baron’s favourite board game mechanics of all time.