The Jasper Effect

A curious thing happened when I released Until Dawn into the public’s hands. Players started playing poorly on purpose. Their backs to the wall, their shotguns empty, their cabin breached, they would look down at their faithful German Shepherd, teeth bared in anticipation of ripping some zombies to dusty shreds, and say “No, Jasper. Sit. Down. Stay.”

Until Dawn swarms you with enemies. The deck is almost entirely undead, and drawing one means spawning its rotten body right outside one of your windows. The most punishing aspect, though, is that most zombies force another draw from the deck, often chaining multiple cards together. Instead of one boney arm crawling out of its grave, you often end up summoning entire graveyards at once.

This is, pretty obviously, directly correlated with you losing.

Jasper puts a stop to this nonsense. His presence keeps those pesky undead off your lawn, nullifying their chaining ability and keeping their numbers low. Early game he only delays the inevitable, or buys you time to correct a mistake. Late game, however, he can keep a half dozen walking corpses from showing up right at dawn, giving you the time you need to survive that last turn. Good use of Jasper wins games.

But Jasper can die. Jasper will often die.

Like all characters in the best zombie movies, his plight isn’t as interesting without risk. In Jasper’s case, using him as described, and then drawing a particular card, means watching as the Screamers and Scratchers haul his body off into the dark.

So some players stopped using him. So as not to put him at risk, they would barricade the windows, put their backs to the door, and do their level best, often failing, to defend the cabin on their lonesome while leaving the Jasper token nestled snugly on the rug. Who’s a good boy?

The behavior puzzled me until I played At Your Orders!, the expansion to The Grizzled.

In The Grizzled, you and your comrades do your best to survive the horrors of The Great War. There are no battle lines, no supply chains, no conquering, no flags. Victory means getting yourself, and your friends, home alive, though likely scarred.

At Your Orders! adds the ability for a modified win. When the time is right to push to the end, players can chose to win the normal way, winning the war and finally heading home, or they can loosen the restrictions on themselves and make winning the war easier, but every one of you dies in the attempt, even if successful.

Mechanically that latter option is a win. By the definitions set forth by the game, you and your friends have succeeded and can log this play with a big “W.” But it damn sure feels like a loss. And though there’s no reason not to take the easy route, I’ve never tried it. There are dozens of games we’ve lost that we might have won had we resigned ourselves to death, but we’ve refused; not because of what the game does when you make that choice, but because of how the game feels when you do.

You don’t get a secret ending for surviving through the night with Jasper alive. There are no leaderboards. I don’t enter your name into a drawing. But the choices we make aren’t always born from pure logic, sometimes we’ve got to go with what feels right in our gut.

Those players weren’t playing poorly. They just had a slightly different definition of winning.