City of Winter


The Umbra is coming, and the Riverlands are no longer safe. Our family must flee to the City of Winter to find another home.

City of Winter is the spiritual sequel to Heart of the Deernicorn’s indie smash-hit1 Fall of Magic. While Fall had you accompany a mysterious magus across the continent to a land of magic, City instead deals with a family of refugees fleeing a mysterious force that’s sweeping the countryside, and how they cope with resettling in the eponymous city.

Thematically, I think City hits harder than Fall: there’s something smoothly inoffensive and detached about themes like magic dying, while the refugee narrative is something that feels a lot more real, even to those of us living in first-world countries who experience of war and displaced populations is second-hand at best.

But while the theme of the game may be more well-developed, it feels like City is let down by its mechanics. While new mechanics expand play beyond the standard band-of-adventurers trope laid down by Fall, the modifications that Deernicorn have made to the original mechanics feel like they dull or remove some of the most enjoyable loops of the game.

So do the thematic highs match the mechanical lows? If you’re a fan of Fall of Magic I’d say that City of Winter is worth exploring just to see what Deernicorn have done with the system, but the hefty price tag for the full game - canvas matt and all - is a bit of a pill to swallow for a game that I feel doesn’t hold together as good as the original. If you’re choosing between the two, I’d say go with Fall - it’s still my favourite and I think it’s the one I’ll continue to play more of, going forward.

I believe I first encountered Heart of the Deernicorn’s map-focussed storytelling game Fall of Magic at one of the many games on demand spots at Wellington’s KapCon. I can’t remember who was running it, but I do remember instantly being enchanted with the large map, the minimal narrative-first ruleset, and the general vibe of the whole thing.

Since then I’ve played Fall of Magic many times, both as a player and as a facilitator, as one-off sessions at conventions or as multi-session campaigns in the comfort of my own home. It’s rapidly become one of my favourite games. So when Deernicorn announced they were producing City as a spiritual successor to it, I knew I had to get it.

In comparison to Fall of Magic, City is bigger, with more rules, more maps, more cards, and I’d say more variety in terms of play style. I’m not convinced this gets us a better game, but it examines many of the same mechanical elements and themes from slightly different angles, and I have nothing wrong with that.

How does it work?

In City of Winter, each player takes the role of a member in a larger family. Over the course of the game, your family will flee your hometown and journey overland towards the titular City of Winter to try to escape the encroaching Umbra. At each location you will get a chance to show off the traditions you’ve brought with you, as well as being exposed to the traditions of the place you’ve just arrived at. As you travel on, you’ll need to decide whether you stick with your old traditions, or start to shed them in favour of the traditions you’ve picked up along the way.

During a round of play, each player gets a turn. On your turn, you get to pick one of the many scenes from your current location.

An example of a location and its scenes.

In each scene, you’ll pick either to share a tradition that you currently have, or witness a tradition from the location you’re currently at. If you share a tradition, you pick a card from your (pre-existing) hand of traditions, and hold it. If you witness, you get someone else at the table to draw a card from the relevant deck, and hold it. Then, during the scene, whoever is holding the card can play it to introduce that element into said scene. Once the scene is over, either you pass your tradition card to another player of your choosing (if you shared a tradition), or get to add it to your hand (if you witnessed).

That’s the basics of the game right there, although there’s some additional twists. You travel towards the City itself by, at any point, deciding to migrate - in which case you share a scene which shows why your character wants to up sticks, and then you sit out the rounds until everyone else has decided to move on as well. Once everyone has decided to migrate, you slim down your hand of traditions and move to the next location on the board, until eventually you reach the City.

In addition, you may always decide to advance time, closing the current chapter of your adventure. Every time you do this, everyone ages up by about 10 years, gaining a little bit more experience and some additional bonds with your family.

There’s some more stuff around the edges here - the City itself has a whole set of rules for travelling between districts, and the decks of tradition cards vary from location to location (although they’re not always completely different - sometimes you see traditions from your past pop back up like old friends, which is quite nice). But overall, that’s how this game plays.

If you haven’t played Fall of Magic before, you might think that the above barely sounds like enough to run a game. So I’ll let you know a little secret that you work out quickly upon playing either of these - the game lies only partly in the rules, with the other part embedded in the scenes appearing in each location. In Fall of Magic the folks at Deernicorn did a great job of controlling the narrative flow by ensuring each scene has a set of appropriate prompts - either cajoling more details out of each player, encouraging relationships between characters, or pushing towards resolution depending on the point in the game.

What’s new?

Compared to Fall, City generally has more mechanics. That’s how sequels tend to work. Overall, these mechanics reflect the change in the theme of the game: from a group of travellers touring the land, to a group of refugees fleeing a creeping disaster and starting a new life.

Scenes and prompts in Fall of Magic.

The most obvious change, straight off the bat, is the addition of tradition cards. In Fall of Magic each scene had its own prompt, that the director of the scene (it the player whose turn it was) would need to weave into the scene before its end. In contrast, City of Winter passes this responsibility to the tradition cards. Whether you’re witnessing or sharing a tradition, that card acts as the scene’s prompt. Only one player knows the contents of that card at the beginning of the scene, and it’s their responsibility to ensure it comes out in play.

Another set of smaller changes all combine to give a feeling of character - and party - growth and development. In Fall of Magic, characters are defined by relatively static traits.2 Throughout the game you have a few opportunities to change those traits, or other things about your character, but those opportunities are few and far between and when they come up they feel like exceptions - usually they come about through magic or other weird forces. In contrast, your character starts City of Winter with a number of traditions (things about your culture that resonate with you) and bonds to other characters - either player-controlled or side characters. Over the course of play you’ll get a chance to trade traditions with others (through participating in scenes) and add bonds (as your character ages), altering your character’s outlook, personality, and relationships with others. After a few sessions it’s often interesting to see who’s held onto their original tradition cards, and who’s swapped them out for exciting new traditions.

And finally, of course, this is a game that expressly allows for character death and supplies mechanisms for players to remember passed characters and take up the mantle of a new character, continuing the family. This game has no express end condition - unlike Fall of Magic, where you’ll eventually reach the land of Umbra and do whatever it is that you need to do. You could play this game forever, following the children, and grand-children, and great-grandchildren of those first refugees as they slowly forget the land they came from and their ancestors who journeyed here.

So how does it stack up?

So what’s the impact of these mechanical changes? How does City stack up against Fall? My experience has been that where City of Winter builds on Fall of Magic‘s mechanics, it creates a more diverse experience with greater chance for character growth. But where it modifies Fall of Magic’s existing mechanics, it creates a less coherent experience than we see in the original game.

City of Winter is about refugees fleeing their homeland and building a new home in a new place. To that end, the new rules focus strongly on delivering that experience - of forcing you to choose between what you brought with you and what you find at your new home. The fact that your hand of traditions is limited - that at various points you’ll have to discard down to a set number - really forces you to decide whether you’ll take the new traditions of a place to heart (at the expense of the traditions you’ve brought with you) or to keep to the old ways, effectively rejecting those of your current environment. While other games cover this ground, the “passing time” mechanic lets us explore our characters’ reactions to new cultures not just in the first year of contact, but over a decade or more of exposure. It may be that characters who are initially closed to new cultures find themselves opening up over time, trading old traditions for new, or that those who are initially receptive to new traditions actually find themselves discarding them when forced to choose.

Honestly, the passing time mechanic is one that I think is almost undersold in the game. In our group I’ve seen our players use this mechanic as a chance to step back from actor stance and consider the family from a more netural point of view, allowing us to tell stories that would be difficult or impossible to tell in usual linear scene-by-scene play. We’ve house-ruled in montages once or twice to help flesh out the intervening years, and it always ends up taking us half a session as we talk through everything. Fruitful space for creativity indeed.

The one issue with this mechanic is that there’s not enough spaces on the map where I’d feel comfortable with our family passing time prior to reaching the City itself. The majority of the locations are so travel-focussed (hitching up with a trade caravan, for example, or boarding a ship) that spending several years at that location feels weird and counter-intuitive. I’d initially expected to have the first half of the game be our family caroming from temporary home to temporary home, our first characters spending decades of their lives displaced from any permanent home, some characters even being born on the journey, before finally arriving in the City and claiming some place we could stay for the foreseeable future. Instead we found ourselves migrating onwards as soon as we’d gone around the table once, not necessarily because of impatience, but because it felt true to the narrative.

Despite the flaws, though, those new mechanics give you a broader scoper for play - they generally feel like a net positive. On the other hand, the modifications to existing mechanics feel like they weaken the game. An example: in Fall of Magic, every scene is paired with a prompt. This means that moving to a new location is like Christmas morning, with everyone examining the scenes and their associated prompts and immediately imagining what they mean for their character. Importantly, it also means each scene and its prompt have been written to evoke a specific feeling and push for a certain type of scene in play. Is this helped by the fact that Fall of Magic is, despite the various branches in the path, a linear story with a predetermined narrative cadence? Absolutely.

What City of Winter gives us instead is a system where each scene prompt is either (if you share a tradition) selected from your hand, or (if you witness) pulled randomly from a deck. There’s a good reason for this - it enables the constant tension between holding onto your past or embracing new traditions which reinforces the theme and leads to character growth. But this means three things:

  • First, it means scenes and prompts are paired up pretty much randomly. There’s no chance for the designer to spend hours or days thinking up a really juicy prompt to attatch to each scene in question. Either you have a few minutes to pair up one of the prompts in your hand with a scene at the table, or, worse, you randomly pick a prompt for someone else to integrate into the scene. It also means no “special” scenes such as we saw in Fall of Magic, which would either introduce an element of chance and danger, or give you the opportunity to modify your character sheet.
  • Second, it means that each prompt is less about a situation that comes up in play, and more about a tradition that we see reflected in play. That additional step of thinking up the tradition, working out how it applies to the current scene, and then building that into the narrative, adds friction to the scene itself (and sometimes it feels like this weakens the scene too, as one player tries to shoehorn their card into the scene to fulfil their role in the game).
  • And finally, the rules as written direct whoever is picking the card to only reveal the card when the relevant tradition appears in the scene. Unfortunately that means no one else knows what the scene is playing towards. That means no setting up the scene to direct towards the prompt, no one else at the table being able to play towards said prompt, no chance at dramatic irony until the prompt is revealed.

This isn’t the only modification to rules - but I think it’s by far the most drastic in terms of impact on play. Having played both games back-to-back I feel the play in Fall - specifically the action of picking scenes and then driving narrative in them - was much more fluid and natural specifically because every prompt was hand-written to go with the scene and everyone knew it ahead of time. It let me pick more appropriate and interesting scenes for my own character, and also set meaningful stakes and push towards meaningful conclusions when participating in others’ scenes. In contrast, I vividly remember reaching the titular City of Winter in City, getting settled, and then slowly gaining access to more and more of the city as our characters spent more time there. But even though narratively it was interesting to have new locations open up to us, the only change it made to play were a few new suggestions for scene setting - the prompts (that is, the traditions we could witness or share) largely stayed the same.

In conclusion

As mentioned in the caveat at the top, we’re most of the way through our campaign of City of Winter. We’ve enjoyed our run - the thrill of unrolling the map and seeing our next location, the back-and-forth of collaborative world-building, participating in each others’ scenes as our family’s bonds have developed over time. We’ve arrived at the City of Winter as a group who’s spent decades on the road, set up a new home for ourselves, and given the next generation as much of a leg up as we could. Members of the troupe have found themselves past their prime, having spent their best years on the road, never given the chance to settle down and make a name for themselves. In other words, it’s let us - a group of people who still live in the city they grew up in - tell our own little immigrant story.

But at the same time, it just feels like something is missing from this game. If we take as granted that rules matter, that we use mechanics to enhance the experience beyond just pass-the-stick into something better, we should expect our rules to drive towards the kind of play the designer intends. Clearly the rules in City are doing so - the fact that we’ve naturally fallen into telling immigrant stories with our characters shows that this is the case. But it feels like something has gotten lost in that shift.

City of Winter is still an evocative and interesting game, and I definitely want to play it again several times to see how I can approach the story differently, with different characters and different approaches to its new mechanics. But I can’t see it supplanting Fall of Magic any time soon.

  1. I have no idea how well Fall of Magic did commercially, but I think it’s a smash-hit. 

  2. Which are completely optional - you could go through the whole game without your character gaining any traits at all.