Adam Porter
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With thanks to publisher for use of image

Winter Tales catches the eye - this game is astonishingly beatiful to look at, with a large box depicting twisted fairy-tale characters in their own dark Narnia, here called Winterland. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is recalled frequently in the creepy drawings. The concept of a story-telling boardgame is intriguing. This game passes the first test that any boardgame must if it is going to survive in a crowded marketplace: it makes you stop for a second look.

Winter Tales is produced by small Italian publisher, and group of friends, Albe Pavo. Their previous titles, Munera: Familia Gladiatoria, Sake and Samurai, Beer and Vikings, have all been
beautifully illustrated thematic fighting games with an element of card drafting. Whilst wildly different in tone and gameplay, Winter Tales still fulfills that description and so fits comfortably into the Albe Pavo family, not least because of the characteristic stunning artwork by Jocularis.

So what is a story-telling board-game? We have seen titles before where the game tells the players a story (Tales of the Arabian Nights, Mansions of Madness, Mice and Mystics). We have seen games where players play cards (or dice) to inspire storys and develop ideas (Once Upon a Time, Rory's Story Cubes). Our RPG playing cousins have a long history of rolling dice to determine their characters fates, scribbling on bits of paper as they do so. But, we have rarely seen anything like Winter Tales: a card-driven story-telling exercise; where cards are not just inspirational images, but also resources to be horded, spent, bid, and bluffed with; where location on the lavishly illustrated map is not just a reminder of the story's setting, but also indicative of devious strategic maneuvring, as one team tries to bring their enemies down.

I urge you to watch Albe Pavo's promotional video. It is a stunning piece of work, which captures the feel of the game and hints at its depths in just 2 or 3 minutes.
http://boardgamegeek.com/video/15439/winter-tales/winter-tal...

EDIT: EARLY PLAY DISCLAIMER: I have only played this game a small number of times, but there is currently only one other review on BGG, and I hope it is useful, to purchasers and publisher alike, to get some early opinions out there.


With thanks to BGG User Nicola G for use of image.


Very Brief Summary of the Rules

Players form two teams of opposing factions: the Winter soldiers (Snow White, White Rabbit, The Wolf etc.) who are a tyrannical power suppressing the Fairy Tales, and maintaining permanent Winter in the fairy tale land. The afore-mentioned Fairy Tales (Alice, Tin Man, Pinocchio etc.) are a resistance-force trying to overthrow the regime. If there are an odd number of players, one player takes on the role of "Writer". This is a neutral role, who controls several characters of each faction. He wins the game if he manages to force it to a draw.

The board illustrates key locations in the town: a nightmare factory, a cemetary, an overgrown park, a mansion, an abandoned puppet theatre. Players move their characters around the board, spending cards to do so, maneuvring to be in the best position to undertake Quests, and to prevent the opposing team from doing the same.

On a player's turn, he can invoke a new Quest (placing a token in a location), or undertake an existing Quest with one of his characters. Other nearby characters may then activate, out of turn, and join in with the Quest, either helping the acting player, or working against them. All players involved in the Quest play cards from their hands depicting abstract images. They tell a story as they do so, inspired by the images. The faction who plays the most cards wins the Quest and describes the conclusion.

When characters move through spaces containing an enemy faction character, their opponent may try and battle with them (if they are the Winter side) or trap them (if they are the Spring side). Both traps and battles work like sub-games, where players play cards against each other trying to overcome their enemy, describing the conflict as it occurs. The players must be wary of using too many cards, because this will limit their prospects for completing Quests later in the game. Hence, these sub-games are full of bluffing, and push-your-luck. In traps, the Spring player hides a number of cards under his character card, and his opponent has to play his cards blind to ensure a victory (hence either side might over or under-spend depending on what he thinks his opponent might do). A battle is more of a straight-up "I play a card; you counter it" affair, repeating until one player succumbs.

When a set number of Quests is completed (3 in a standard game) the epilogue ensues. At this point all players have a chance to play all their remaining cards, describing the climax of the story. The total number of cards played by each faction, during the epilogue, gives each team a score. 3 points are added to this score for each quest completed by that faction, and the highest scoring faction wins, describing the eventual outcome of the war.

The rulebook repeatedly stresses that the game is about collectively creating a fabulous story, NOT about winning and competing. Clearly, strategy is a key factor in driving the storytelling, but it does not override the obligation to make sense, or the desire to create an engaging narrative. One player is determined Arbiter at the start of the game, and has the nominal responsibility of helping players make sense, where they are struggling.

Variety in gameplay comes from the wide mix of characters (there are 14 of them), locations, and most importantly, Quests. The Quests range from bringing down a foe, to spreading propaganda, to falling in love, and hence each game will have a very different tone. The rules also provide 3 optional "modules" which increase the board-game mechanics of the exercise. One module rewards completed quests by giving players additional powers (activate twice, immunity in certain spaces etc.); another module gives each character a unique ability (draw an extra card each turn, first space of movement is free etc.); the final module gives players secret objectives to undertake (win a battle, move from one location to another) which count towards victory conditions at the end of the game. These modules give the game more structure and make it feel more familiar for wary board-gamers.



With thanks to publisher for use of image


Components

The large box has a rather disappointing amount of air in it! But the components we have are top-notch. The board is large and thick, with lavish illustration. The player cards are tarot-sized (Elder Sign, Blue Moon) with beautiful artwork on, and a shiny sheen. The story-cards are mini-European sized, with child-like abstract images to inspire story-telling. These double as resources to be spent, bid, and bluffed with. Each character has a corresponding cardboard pawn to place on the board, and various tokens represent Quests, Powers and other markers. Everything functions well. There is a glossy A4 player aid, which is confusing to use, and doesn't really summarise any of the useful information: character backstorys, Quest types, Powers and abilities, location-descriptions. The rulebook is thick and of high quality, but the content, while lovingly produced with many great examples, is full of typos and grammatical errors. Many rules are not explained very clearly, and it is quite a chore to make sense of it all. This is the problem with translating rulebooks to English, and the curse of many other board-games, so I can't hold it against the publisher too much. Most of the necessary information is in there, and the gameplay is so fluid and open to interpretation, that house-ruling certain things feels natural anyway. On the table, the game looks beautiful.



With thanks to publisher for use of image


How well does the theme hold up?

It's all theme. The mechanical elements of the rules support the story-telling and prevent it becoming sprawling and random. They never jar with the story which is being told though, and the whole thing clips along at a decent pace. Clearly, it is a game which is MASSIVELY dependent on the players involved. Players who are unwilling, or unable, to open themselves up and be spontaneous, imaginative, and generous, should really not even try it. They will kill the game for the other players. As with all story-telling, this game demands players who will say "Yes, and...." (the old improvisation mantre), accepting the other players' offerings and building on them. In my first game, a player introduced a magical amulet, only for me to wade in with my own character and toss it into a furnace, destroying it. This is a classic example of how competitive players shoot down other peoples ideas, trampling all over them, and preventing the story moving forward. I should never have done that, but should have found another way to counter, moving the story forward, and maintaining the possibility of that amulet playing a significant role in the narrative. The game demands that the players keep this sort of generosity in mind, and leave their competitive board-gaming nature at the door.

Complexity

There is a lot to go through at the start of the game. Not only do we have to cover background of characters, setting, and individual locations, but the rules will be entirely alien to most gamers. It becomes a long rules-explanation, with lots of questions asked. Once the game is up and running, it isn't complex, but for many players is it daunting. The struggle is not the complexity of the rules, but the fear of making yourself look stupid, or unimaginative, or revealing something embarrassing about yourself with your chosen story ("Why did you interpret that card as a tutu? Are you some sort of cissy?"). Expert strategic board-gamers may not have the qualities and traits to put their egos aside, and prevent these sort of obstructions. "It looks like a tutu. Deal with it."

The modules introduce extra rules, and ironically, this makes the game more manageable for newcomers; not more complex as you would expect. This is because the modules themselves are cleverly designed to be very simple board-game staples, which are intuitive to more traditional gamers. Suddenly, the players have a better understanding of what to do on their turn, and what they should be aiming for. The extra rules don't even add much to the rules-explanation, because they're so familiar. In early games, I have included the Power Module, which gives rewards for completing quests (you can explain this as it happens); and the Skills Module, which gives each character a special ability (these are really simple stuff). I have left out the Secret Objectives Module, because this requires a working understanding of the other rules. I will introduce this in later games.



With thanks to publisher for use of image


The Luck factor

The only luck is which story-cards you draw, and these are so open to interpretation that it has little impact on gameplay. Quests are drawn randomly at the start of the game, and it's unclear from the rules whether later Quests are also randomly drawn, or chosen freely. I favour the random interpretation, since some seem much stronger than others in the rewards they offer, so they would always be chosen first by a competitive player. There is an element of guessing what your opponent is going to do (especially in battles and traps) but there is no chance element here. The victory or failure is dependent on the players' actions. Overwhelmingly, the game is driven by the players' imaginations rather than any significant luck factor.

Number of players

The game plays with 3-7 players. Several people have requested a 2 player variant, but it hasn't been very forthcoming. It would be hard to keep the game from becoming "I play a card; you play a card". Tit for tat, which would result in frequent draws. The mechanic which introduces a neutral player, at odd player-counts, is ingenious. The neutral player takes control of characters from both factions, and can activate his characters in favour of either side. He wins if the game is a draw, so this player acts as a strong balancing force ensuring that no team completely overpowers the other, while at the same time being fully involved in the action. I would even go so far as to say that the game is probably better with odd-player counts for this reason.

Will my non-gamer partner and friends enjoy it?

That will depend enormously on the group. This is not a game which sits comfortably with any traditional group. RPGers might not like the flexibility of the card play, over dice-rolling. Equally they might find the strategic board-movement limiting. Board-game players might struggle to open themselves up and be spontaneous. Non-gamers might struggle with the complexity of the rules. But find the right group of generous, enthusiastic, imaginative players and the game will shine! This might be kids, partners, friends, or gamers. Only you will know who to ask. That said, I was wary of buying this game; unsure if I would find willing players. Other board-game fans have been extremely keen and I don't think I'll have a problem in the future. My girlfriend has even expressed an interest in playing it, although I'll believe that when I see it...



With thanks to publisher for use of image.


What other games is it like?

There is no doubt that Winter Tales is unique. Whether it is unique in its self-proclaimed status of being "the first true social storytelling board game", I might question; although there aren't many.

Let's start with Dixit. This fabulous card-game is often described as story-telling, but it really isn't. There is no narrative, and no obligation for players to come up with more than one word per turn. However, Dixit does share Winter Tales' mechanic of playing a card to inspire you with a theme, motif, or statement. Dixit is a great party game, for many players, and one of my favourite games, but it doesn't have the depth of Winter Tales.



Dixit


Dixit was followed by Fabula, from the same creators. I have not played this game, but it does look like we are approaching Winter Tales territory here, with character pawns, back-stories, and images to provoke story-telling. The artwork in Fabula is equally as astonishing as that in Winter Tales, as you would expect from the makers of Dixit. Fabula differs in that it requires a games-master of sorts, who decides which story is the best and awards points. The game has often been derided for the bad feeling this creates, and the inherent subjectivity.



Fabula


Storm Hollow (previously called Story Realms) is another lavishly produced story-telling board-game, perhaps aimed at a more family market, utilising a games-master. This game is upcoming and looks promising, but we will know more on release.



Storm Hollow


Tales of the Arabian Nights is another type of story-telling board game, but this more closely resembles a "pick your own adventure" book than the other story-telling games. Here, you get to make small decisions, which dictate the paragraph read out from a massive tome. Hence, the game tells the players a story, which is the reverse of Winter Tales.

Many American-style thematic games offer up a "story" as players move around a board, rolling dice and fighting monsters. The recent Mice and Mystics makes quite a feature of the richness of the story, but really the players don't have much more control over events than they do in Mansions of Madness, or Heroquest.

Once Upon a Time is a the classic, lauded, story-telling card game. I have no experience of this. I do enjoy Nanofictionary though, which is a slightly silly game of making up short-stories using cards describing characters, locations, and events.

Story-tellers could also look at StoryWorld cards. These are not a game-system, but they are beautiful cards with lavish illustration, intended to be thrown together in a random mix, and used as inspiration for group story-telling.



Story World Cards. http://www.storyworldcards.com


Perhaps Winter Tales has most in common with the GM-less RPGS which have arisen over recent years. Microscope, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, and Fiasco, all lend themselves to one-off evening adventures with all players involved, and no necessary prep time, or GM. These are well worth a look. Do, in particular, is far simpler mechanically than Winter Tales.

Positives:

- Truly original
- Extremely creative
- Very social
- Variable game-length
- Brilliant artwork
- Quality components
- Great setting and characters

Negatives:

- Needs very careful selection of players, in order to work
- Long rules explanation and unintuitive
- Poor explanation of rules in rulebook
- Poor grammar and typos in rulebook
- Poor player aid
- Would be good to have more story-cards: the same images come round quickly.

Is it a keeper?

It's a one-off. There's nothing else like it, and for that reason alone, it should be in many gamers' collections. However, it could remain on the shelf for a long time if no suitable players are around, so gamers should think carefully before purchasing. With the right group, it is an experience unlike anything I've seen in a board-game, and really quite astonishing.

See my other reviews at http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/146115/europhile-reviews-a...

I can't resist posting a brief synopsis of last night's game:

Granny Dorothy heard of a glimmer of hope buried within the cemetery, and made her way with Alice to search for this mystical aid to the resistance. While Alice fought with the big bad Wolf, who was lurking in the graveyard, Dorothy dug up a grave releasing an almighty phoenix which flew up into the sky. Various Winter soldiers set about a capture attempt on the powerful Tin Man, but were frequently distracted by the sight of the phoenix and the fear that it might bring on the end of eternal Winter. The Tin Man fought strongly incapacitating Snow White by entrancing her with a mirror reflecting her own beauty, while Pinocchio incapacitated the Wolf by placing a bag over his head. The phoenix eventually came to Earth and revealed itself as the figure of an old man in a wheelchair - the tyrant Mangiafuoco. All hope of Spring was lost for the Fairy Tales. Snow White finally dragged herself away from the mirror and remarked, "What have I missed?"


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Great review and very helpful for me. I have been on the fence about buying this one since it came out. I wasn't sure how well the boardgaming bit and the storytelling bit could work together here. Your review provides some answers. Thanks.
 
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James Derbyshire
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Adam, where did you pick this up? We played it at Essen and enjoyed it but ultimately passed as we weren't sure we'd get it to the table. I think we possibly could now but can't seem to find it anywhere. Typical!
 
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Adam Porter
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I got it from my FLGS, Rules of Play in Cardiff. They had their first stock in last week. Maybe this means other stores will start to stock it over the coming weeks. Unfortunately, I don't think Rules of Play do mail-order. But you could contact them. http://rulescardiff.wordpress.com
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Kim Williams
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Adam78 wrote:
I got it from my FLGS, Rules of Play in Cardiff. They had their first stock in last week. Maybe this means other stores will start to stock it over the coming weeks. Unfortunately, I don't think Rules of Play do mail-order. But you could contact them. http://rulescardiff.wordpress.com


We've managed to buy games through the post from them - they just charge their in-store price plus the actual cost of postage for the item. You just need to email them.
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Paul S
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DARK IN HERE, ISN'T IT?
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Really good review, thanks. And with a birthday not far away, I can feel some hints coming on...
 
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thanks for this wonderful review, Adam!
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thanks for the review. I have just two game mechanics feeling questions, since you've played the game:

1) as I understand it, cards only inspire stories, but as they represent abstract things, the cards played are not checked for being connected to anything being actually said, are they? I mean, if ti wasn't for the story, the mechanics would be just playing a number of cards and counting them in the end of each quest to compare with a number of those played by oponents?

2) if it is the story that keeps the game running, is there any mechanism to reward better, more imaginative or interesting stories? or is it just always a number of cards, which can not necessarily have anything to do with the story (see question 1))

what is your feeling on the subject? where there any abuses of cards play in your games?

Oh, and one more question:

3) given that the subject of the game, quests and characters is fixed (winter fighting with spring), were your game plays and stories very different from one another? is there a tendency to reference stories from game two with those from game one, if a set of players is the same? finally, is it possible to tell a story a little of the winter/spring main theme?
 
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Adam Porter
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spadovsky wrote:
thanks for the review. I have just two game mechanics feeling questions, since you've played the game:

1) as I understand it, cards only inspire stories, but as they represent abstract things, the cards played are not checked for being connected to anything being actually said, are they? I mean, if ti wasn't for the story, the mechanics would be just playing a number of cards and counting them in the end of each quest to compare with a number of those played by oponents?


One player, usually the game-owner or most experienced player, is named Arbiter at the start of the game. If the cards played do not make sense, the Arbiter has the responsibility of mentioning it to the other players, and helping them to come up with a logical justification for the cards. There is no point in playing this part of the game very competitively - bad feeling would be sown, and the story would suffer, destroying the experience all round. If a player played a card they couldn't justify within the story, and argued that they should be allowed to play it anyway, that player would not be buying into the ethos of the game at all, and should not be invited for a second game! The rulebook repeatedly states that players should help each other out, and that the cooperative goal of telling a great story always overrides the competitive goal of beating the opposing team. This is quite a leap for your average board-gamer, and moves the game more into a story-telling exercise (close to theories of improvisational theatre). You must play this game with the generosity of spirit to be willing to lose the game, if that creates a better story.

Your observation of the card-mechanics is correct. You could play this game as a VERY SIMPLE card battling exercise, with no story attached at all. It would be incredibly tedious.

spadovsky wrote:

2) if it is the story that keeps the game running, is there any mechanism to reward better, more imaginative or interesting stories? or is it just always a number of cards, which can not necessarily have anything to do with the story (see question 1))

what is your feeling on the subject? where there any abuses of cards play in your games?


There are no mechanisms to reward better, more imaginative, or interesting stories, since these are competitive and subjective concepts. All players are working cooperatively towards this goal anyway, so the impetus is on the team to help each other out, build on each others offerings, and create the best story they can, even without reward. The number of cards played dictates success or failure for the characters, but the hoots of laughter, or smiles on the faces of your fellow story-tellers is the mark of success for the players.

There was not a single abuse of the cards played in any of my games so far, by any player. But, I picked my fellow players very carefully! I know several board-gamers I would never play this game with, because I'm pretty sure they would try and play it competitively, making up nonsense to justify their card-play. Just be selective about who you play it with!

spadovsky wrote:

Oh, and one more question:

3) given that the subject of the game, quests and characters is fixed (winter fighting with spring), were your game plays and stories very different from one another? is there a tendency to reference stories from game two with those from game one, if a set of players is the same? finally, is it possible to tell a story a little of the winter/spring main theme?


I have not played this game many times, but I can't see this being a problem. There are so many combinations of characters, locations, story-cards and players, each with different features and personalities, that the stories should never be too similar. The quests are very different in tone: a quest about establishing friendship, or falling in love, feels very different to a quest about armed retaliation against a foe. Searching for an artefact feels different again. Maybe after a while you'll be wishing for new characters, but there's nothing stopping you making up your own, and I suspect expansions will follow if the game is successful. (There's a teaser image on the Albe Pavo website already, suggesting an expansion is in the works.)

With regards to the story of the game, this is an extract from the rulebook:

"Following the victory in the War of Autumn, The Regime of Winter has clutched the Land of Fairy Tales in its cold grasp. Fuelled by hate and fear, Winter aims at extinguishing the flame of Love and the light of Hope under a blanket of snow and the never-ending chill of a winter night. In the winding alleys and the small houses desperately clinging to the hillside, frightened Fairy Tales move in the shadows, knowing they cannot allow all Hope for the future to be snuffed out by the cold and ready to fight to drive Winter away and let Spring come again.

Leaning on a hillside facing east, protected from the fierce, cold winds blowing from the mountains, the town was home to Fairy Tales and Dreams. But one fateful day the Regime came and gripped in its evil clutches both homes and people: the cold and the darkness are now snuffing out the flames of hope and love. Citizens lurk through the narrow alleys swept by the cold northern winds, trying not to draw on themselves the cruel attentions of the Soldiers of Winter. However, Fairy Tales are staging their resistance, working in shadows to allow for the return of Spring."
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Andreas Tullgren
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Great review!
 
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Adam Porter
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Elake wrote:
Great review!


Thank you, I hope it helps now that the game is getting a wider distribution through Fantasy Flight.

I have been surprised by how little discussion there has been on this game's forum since its release, but I guess it just isn't a widely known title yet. I genuinely feel this is one of the most interesting new releases of the last couple of years and deserves huge success.

Once the game becomes more widely available, I would love to read synopses of other players' games - the scope for creating fantastic stories is immense with this game.
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Kris Rhodes
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Would kids generally like to play a game like this, you think? I can see the graphics are a little dark, but is there actual _mature_ content in the game?

I myself have a kind of nervous secret desire to play games like this--but I know I would be terrible at it. (I can say "yes and" just fine--but what would follow the "and" would typically be extremely stupid.) But hey, if I'm playing with my own kids, they'd hopefully be too busy having fun to notice that I'm not a very good storyteller...

The kids in question are, let's say, 8 and 10. (Actually younger but I am estimating the age level of games they can generally play and enjoy.)

Both love to read and love fantasy.

Edited to add: Well I just read this explanation of the characters and the setting. It's probably a little much for my youngest to remember, (the settings), and the electro-therapy by the mad hatter may be a little too violent for the young'ns. On the other hand, I could modify these elements.

I don't know. I don't know.

If it's $65, that'll be too much for the risk I think. Anyway, thanks for the excellent review!
 
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John Cosgrove
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Adam, great review and a difficult game to review well. Your willingness to really communicate your experience and to spend time on the comparisons really made this work.

Thanks mate.


- Omni
 
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