Despite containing enough minor problems to fuel an entire convoy of nitpickers, Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game did the impossible by making me care about the zombie apocalypse. Scratch that — it made me care about my family of ragtag survivors. I cared enough to support their pill addiction, or reconstitute an entire library of books, or sometimes burn the very colony that had accepted us with open arms. All that zombie stuff was just the backdrop to its all-too-human tale of greed and selflessness. The real focus was always squarely on the people. It’s surprising how many zombie games don’t get that right.
Now there’s a new Crossroads game by the name of Gen7. At least it claims to be the heir to Dead of Winter’s throne. Other than a few patchy scraps of heraldry, I’m not convinced.
Before we talk about my doubts over Gen7’s dubious claims, it’s important to note how it strides onto the stage with a showman’s swagger. In other words, the setup is killer. Yes, there’s double meaning there. But I’ll return to that.
You and some friends are the seventh command staff of a generation ship, hundreds of years into your voyage and still decades from arrival at a distant star. Super cool, right? Already I’m picturing Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora minus the boring parts. How do you maintain such a monstrous endeavor, both mechanically and socially? Who’s in charge, and what does that mean? When something breaks, how do you fix it? When someone breaks, or grows ambitious or restless, how do you fix that?
There are a thousand possibilities on such a voyage, and every single one of them seems like a perfect fit for the Crossroads system as laid down by Dead of Winter. Here’s your mission; here’s your private ambition; here are interruptions. With the stage set by divergent goals competing for your attention and behavior, the game can melt away and let its players’ personalities rise to the fore. That was the lurching heart of Gen7’s predecessor, after all.
Instead, Gen7 does something else. A whole lot of something elses. And nearly every one of them is so totally oblivious to what made Dead of Winter a success, both as a game and in terms of popularity, that it’s frankly staggering.
I mentioned the setup, so let’s begin there.
In Dead of Winter, the game’s central conundrum was established through competing goals. Your colony of survivors had a long-term objective, like collecting virus specimens or keeping everyone fed despite waning resources, which needed to be accomplished or your ramshackle town would collapse. Your personal group of survivors had a second goal, concealed from everybody else, which was invariably selfish — the need to hoard lots of gasoline, an obsession with magazine collecting, or even that you were a traitor to the colony. Meanwhile, every round featured a more immediate goal, like raiders or a passing herd of zombies, which needed to be addressed with relative haste.
Because everybody was pursuing multiple goals at once, you were always on the lookout. If Geoff was spending entire days at the police station, why hadn’t he found any weapons? Was he the traitor, or just obsessed with guns? Surely nobody is that unlucky. Cue a round of bitter accusations, a failed vote to exile his crew, and an ensuing grudge between your groups.
Gen7 continues this tradition, but taken to the wildest possible extreme and then cut off at the knees. It’s like a kid who loved Christmas, grew up and decided to dress like Santa all year round, but didn’t show up to the actual year-end Christmas party. Fanatical and anticlimactic both at once.
Here’s why. At the outset of each scenario, you’re given command of a barracks, along with its goal. The biology team wants to keep the biosphere running, the scientists care about keeping the computer defragged, that sort of thing. Then you pull out the campaign book — more on that in a moment — and read the scenario’s overarching goal. Then you reveal the first round’s crises, little tasks that must be accomplished otherwise the ship will degrade.
That’s three categories. A main goal, a personal goal, and two, three, or four immediate goals all at once. But Gen7 doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t even know this thing has brakes.
Everyone receives four more personal goals, drawn and drafted at random from two separate decks. Don’t worry, you can pick up even more during mid-session officer meetings. No, that isn’t a joke. And then, in spite of holding enough objectives to smother a medium-sized child, the second scenario adds another deck that spits out additional personal goals every round. If you’ve begun to lose count, I suspect that’s intentional.
In Dead of Winter, those competing goals were intended to divide your attention and loyalties. In Gen7, I’m convinced they exist to distract you from the fact that very little matters.
It’s a problem with the core gameplay loop. At first the basics don’t sound so bad. You open each round by rolling your dice, with different sizes representing variably capable workers. You then take turns assigning those workers to tasks around the ship. Visit a lab to gather resources, then go somewhere else to gain cards and accomplish an objective, or handle a crisis, or pick up more objectives. Much like running an actual generation ship (y’know, maybe), there are countless details competing for your attention at any given moment. The loop is incredibly simple — pick up resources and dump them elsewhere — but there’s so much going on that it can feel like a laser show being blasted into your eyes.
But here’s the thing: because you’re chasing a solid half-dozen objectives at any given time, it’s easy to forget that, well, most of those objectives don’t actually need to be met.
Oh, sure, it’s nice to meet them. You might as well, given how easy it is to remain on top of everything. Most objectives award merit, and some will even subtract merit if you don’t accomplish them by the game’s conclusion. Merit is valuable for, uh, secret reasons, though since Gen7 is a cooperative game it’s not always easy to say what those reasons are beyond “end-of-mission upgrades.” Certainly nobody is beating anybody else, even if someone has proven themselves the most meritorious human to ever voyage into space. Meanwhile, handling crises certainly sounds important, but only in theory. Meet them or fail them, Gen7 doesn’t seem to care. Either way, you aren’t ever in real danger of losing. In fact, I’m not sure losing is even a real possibility. And that’s because Gen7 very much wants you to read its story.
In some ways, the campaign book is the canker lodged in Gen7’s belly. Thanks to the game’s obsession with its own branching narrative, there’s no room for significant story beats like traitors or failure or meaningful gameplay. Where Dead of Winter provided a framework and proceeded to let you spin your own tale — and succeeded so completely that I still remember particular moments even four years later — Gen7 is content to let you fill in one or two blanks. Not even that. This is not a legacy game, after all. More than filling in blanks, you’re passing time between exposition. If this were a video game, it would be cutscenes interspersed with busywork.
To be fair, the story isn’t… entirely awful. There are twists, some obvious and others unexpected, and very few of its setting’s details make even a lick of sense, but the writing isn’t the worst I’ve seen in a board game. My group survived by reading it in funny voices. Just wait until you hear my impression of Adam. He appends swear words to the end of every sentence. And my rendition of Geoff gasps like a cartoon falling off a cliff. We laughed until our faces hurt, though not for the reasons Gen7 was going for.
Then again, nothing in the story is a laughing matter. This is extremely Serious Business. To answer my earlier grousing, amassing merit and accomplishing certain objectives is important because it slowly provides your characters with new abilities, while failure can eventually dump you into a lame losing scenario. Neither solve the problem that you’re still playing Gen7.
The game’s other narrative opportunity is found in those titular crossroads cards, and even they seem mishandled. Whenever you place an officer (an eight-sided die), somebody draws a card, checks to see if it triggers, and then places it back underneath the deck. That’s the usual course of action. Sometimes you get to read little snippets and make a decision, but they trigger infrequently and tend to do very little. Often, their sole contribution is modifying the tally of the next vote. The less said about that, the better.
That attitude is hard to sidestep in Gen7. It’s almost impossible to find any detail that hasn’t been fumbled in some way. Dead of Winter’s colorful characters, meaningful self-driven narrative, and inter-player tension have all been completely stripped out, replaced by a bland resource movement game, a pile of objectives that barely matter, and a campaign book that’s having more fun playing in its own corner than with the other children. In our efforts to reach the end of its campaign, I came to dread each new session. We weren’t struggling to survive. We were simply bored. More than once, someone suggested that we intentionally tank an objective just to see what would happen. Of all the perils of interstellar travel, we succumbed to listlessness.
Upon completion, the campaign book invited us to explore some of its seven other endings. No thanks. Instead, I skimmed the whole book in ten minutes. It was the best time I’d spent in Gen7’s company by an unhealthy margin.
All in all, Gen7 is a severe disappointment. Its box is heavy with components and sealed envelopes and ideas, yet so few of them land with any impact. Its predecessor’s personality and treachery and even trademark crossroads system are either absent or misused. Gen7 bears the same subtitle as its forebear, but none of its sensibilities.
If you’re the sort of person who scrolls to the bottom paragraph out of laziness, I recommend that, if you absolutely must purchase Gen7, that you then launch it unplayed into the depths of space.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. Remember, the value of a good critic isn’t only in what they sell you, but how well they protect you.)
A complimentary copy was provided.