The Quiet Year

TL;DR: The Quiet Year is a deep, interesting, fun map game. If you like post-apocalyptic story-style games that aren’t RPGs, you need to own this game.

Last year at GenCon, I wound up pretty much by mistake ((It wasn’t by mistake, really. I was at a meeting for Games on Demand, and the award ceremony was held there.)) at the Indie RPG Awards ceremony. As I recall it, the game The Quiet Year seemed to be nominated in pretty much every category, and it won the Most Innovative Game award. That made me curious, so I went out and found it the next day on the exhibitor floor.

Now, you can get a .pdf version for eight bucks, but Indie Game Revolution had a great little bagged set that had almost everything you need to play:

  • Rules
  • Deck of specially printed cards
  • Reference card
  • Little skull beads to use as contempt tokens
  • Six d6s to use for project dice
  • A funky-cool burlap sack that holds it all

The only things missing were something to draw on and something to draw with.

The drawing is important – the game is all about trying to build a post-apocalyptic community ((Really, it doesn’t need to be post-apocalyptic, but that’s the default. And you get to decide how soon after the apocalypse it is, and how wacky things are. Is it Road Warrior, Thundarr, or Adventure Time?)) in the one quiet year you have between major crises. And to show the community building and the progress of your little group of folks, you draw it all on a map.

Anyway, after many months of trying to fit the game in ((One downside the game has is that it is only for 2-4 players. That means it doesn’t fit at a lot of my game nights, because we often wind up with too many people.)), I got a chance to play it last night, and we had a blast.

Here's our blank map and the pieces of the game laid out before we begin.

Here’s our blank map and the pieces of the game laid out before we begin.

Now, I tend to put together little kits for games like this, so I can just grab the organizer pouch I keep them in and bring it to an event, so I stocked it with a cheap coilbound book of sketch paper and a set of coloured markers, along with a few index cards (not shown) and some writing pens.

While you need index cards and something to write/draw with and something to write/draw on, you don’t need to go as deep into this as I did. But I figure that if we’re going to be drawing stuff as a major part of the game, let’s do it right.

Anyway, the rulebook is written in such a way that the facilitator – there is no GM for the game – reads the overall description of the game, and then everyone takes turns reading the rules sections. This works very well, takes maybe 15 minutes, and keeps everyone involved and thinking about the game. To start, you decide where your community will be situated – seacoast, forest, abandoned shopping mall, an old military installation, ruined subway tunnels, whatever. This is one of the few communal decisions of the game. Once you have a very general idea, each player takes a turn drawing one detail on the map.

The way this happens is kind of important – each person decides their own detail based on the general location, and draws it on in turn, explaining what they’re adding to the others. There is no discussion, no debate, no consensus – when it’s your turn, it’s your decision. You’re not allowed to ask for help or suggestions, and others aren’t allowed to offer. This is a theme that carries through the entire game, and I’m going to be coming back to talk about it a bit later.

After the basic map is drawn with each person’s detail, each person decides on one resource that will be important to the community. This can be basic stuff like food, arable land, clean water, shelter, etc., or it can be something a little weirder – old books, scrap metal, energy crystals, mutant hogs, whatever. Then, in your second communal decision, you pick one of your resources to be abundant, and all the rest to be scarce. This gets written down on an index card, and each player then draws a symbol on the map to represent their resource and its abundance or scarcity.

So, here's our starter map. details we added were the cove on the seacoast, the neaby caves, and the abandoned cottages along the road. Resources were abundant old books (a bookmobile up on blocks), scarce shelter (holes in the walls and roofs of the houses) and scarce clean drinking water (nearby freshwater source is an almost-empty pool in the nearby cave).

So, here’s our starter map. details we added were the cove on the seacoast, the neaby caves, and the abandoned cottages along the road. Resources were abundant old books (a bookmobile up on blocks), scarce shelter (holes in the walls and roofs of the houses) and scarce clean drinking water (nearby freshwater source is an almost-empty pool in the nearby cave).

And now the game begins.

Each game turn represents a week of your year, and is represented by a card you draw on your turn. The cards are divided into seasons – hearts for spring, diamonds for summer, clubs for autumn, and spades for winter. You shuffle each season separately, then stack them in the above order. So, you’ll draw all the spring cards, then all the summer, then all the autumn, and then the winter cards. One of the winter cards ends the game, so you may draw only a single winter card in your game or, like us, you may draw the game-ending card as the last card in the deck. The point is, you never know when the game is going to end, once winter begins.

Each of the cards has instructions, usually a choice between two things that happen or two questions to answer. These help flesh out the story of your community, sometimes making good things happen, sometimes bad things, and sometimes neutral things. After picking your event from the card you drew, you add a little drawing to the map to represent it, if applicable. Then, each project on the go advances towards completion by one week, and then the player gets to take one of three available actions:

  • Discover something new. Tell a little story about something new the community has discovered, and draw it on the map.
  • Start a project. Say that the community is going to start working on a project and what the project is. Discuss with the other players to determine how long the project is going to take, from one to six weeks, and set a die on the map showing the number of weeks left in that project’s duration.
  • Hold a discussion. Ask a question or make a statement. Each player gets a chance to weigh in with a sentence or two. Then it’s done.

Discovering something new adds an element to the map, and finished projects also add elements to the map. After a season, the map starts to fill in, as does the story of your community.

Here's our little community at the beginning of summer. There's been sightings of ships at sea, and a bad omen comet, and we've had a soldier move in. We've also fixed up the houses (still one week to go on the last one), found a generator and got it working, built a way to get to the birds nesting on the cliffs, and met the neighbours one town over. in addition to the house repairs, we've got two projects on the go - a scouting expedition down the coast, and a watchtower being built on the cove.

Here’s our little community at the beginning of summer. There’s been sightings of ships at sea, and a bad omen comet, and we’ve had a soldier move in. We’ve also fixed up the houses (still one week to go on the last one), found a generator and got it working, and met the neighbours one town over. in addition to the house repairs, we’ve got three projects on the go – a scouting expedition down the coast, a way to reach the birds nesting on the cliffs, and a watchtower being built on the cove. Oh, and there’s big bitey sharklike things in the cove who will eat us if we’re not careful.

Each season has its own rhythm and flavour. Spring is all about learning who you are and what’s going on. Summer is about putting down roots and getting things done. In autumn, things get harder and tenser. And winter kicks the crap out of you.

So, that’s the way the game goes. But let’s talk about some of the subtleties.

I mentioned before that most decisions ((The exceptions are project duration and when to add or remove an abundance or scarcity, based on events in the game.)) in the game are made by the person whose turn it is, without discussion or debate or consensus. I don’t know about you folks, but that kind of limitation on table talk is tough for me, and for a lot of my group. Especially because, in this game, we all want our little community to succeed. So, building consensus and making group decisions seems like the way to go, right?

But, as the rules point out, that’s not how communities work. Parts of communities make decisions that affect the entire community, often without discussion, engagement, or approval. That’s what happens in the game. If the card you drew gives you two choices, and they’re both bad, you get to pick the badness you prefer. Others may not like your choice, or the choice of a project that you started, or the fact that you didn’t listen at all to what they said in the discussion you called.

This allows factions to form in your community, and disagreements to enter the story. When someone feels that something someone else has done is upsetting to part of the community, or ignores you, or just basically pisses you off, you take a contempt counter – one of the little skull beads. These show that part of the community is not happy.

These have no mechanical effect ((I thought, upon reading the rules, that some of the cards might trigger on certain numbers of contempt tokens or something, but nope.)); they’re just visual indicators that all is not milk and honey in your little town. And I found myself considering my contempt tokens, and the reasons I had taken them, when making decisions, meaning that they fed back into the game, but not in a directly mechanical way. This, to me, is very cool.

Things are progressing. We're trading with the woodcutters to the south, and paying tribute to the Sea Kings. There's been a scandal in town as our soldier ran off with one of the town girls, abandoning our half-trained militia. We've got a garden in, found a ruined hospital down the coast, and set up some fishing nets, as well as our watchtower and our egg and bird source.

Things are progressing. We’re trading with the woodcutters to the south, and paying tribute to the Sea Kings. There’s been a scandal in town as our soldier ran off with one of the town girls, abandoning our half-trained militia. We’ve got a garden in, found a ruined hospital down the coast, and set up some fishing nets, as well as our watchtower and our egg and bird source. A set of three flags appeared mysteriously down in the southwest, but then some yahoos put up flags meant to represent us. They had the the bad-omen comet on them, though, so we burned them down. That uncovered a pit of flints. We’ve also found some useful ores and an abandoned listening post in one of the caves. The projects on the map right now are repairing an old warehouse for shelter and building a fence around our garden. It’s been a busy summer, and now we’re moving into autumn.

Another interesting thing is that it is totally possible to “win” this game by gaming the system. In our game, we spent a lot ((Like probably 70%.)) of our turns starting projects. We shored up the weaknesses of our community, worked to acquire more resources, and all the reasonable gamerly things you do make your community the best it can be.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s no victory condition. Every game ends the same way – the Frost Shepherds arrive and the game is over. You don’t know if you survive the encounter. You don’t know if you can survive the encounter. You don’t even know what the encounter is, except that it ends the game and the story of the community. There’s no way to “beat” the Frost Shepherds. They show up, and the game is over.

Thus, it became apparent during play that the real way to win is to make the most interesting story of the community. You follow the storylines that emerge from the events of the game, and use them to add interesting challenges and dilemmas to the game. It’s all about the story you tell before the game ends. And that means that, like an author, you will decide to do horrible things to your community, because that’s where stories come from.

Harvest is in, and the Grange is fortified, thanks to the efforts of the Parish. We lost a lot of folks in a vicious storm at the end of autumn, and we also found a shallow grave with the body of the girl we thought had run off with the soldier. Currently, we're working on using the flints and wood we've traded for to make some weapons. We've also substantially improved our water source.

Harvest is in, and the Grange is fortified, thanks to the efforts of the Parish. We lost a lot of folks in a vicious storm at the end of autumn, and we also found a shallow grave with the body of the girl we thought had run off with the soldier. Currently, we’re working on using the flints and wood we’ve traded for to make some weapons. We’ve also substantially improved our water source, trained up a militia, and got the houses wired to the generator (which is running out of fuel). Now begins winter.

So, The Quiet Year was a very different play experience from pretty much any other game we’ve played. It built an interesting story for the community ((And we all agreed it would be an interesting world to run an RPG in, once we’d built the community.)), and created an interesting, colourful artifact of the game – the map.

The restrictions on table talk – designed to make sure that each person makes their decisions without input or influence from the others – were especially tough on me. I talk a lot during games, bantering and expressing my opinion, and doing my best to help people, because I’m usually teaching whatever game we’re playing. A few times, I had to clamp my hands over my mouth when I realized I was trying to persuade someone or suggest something. But the result of the rules is worth the effort.

The Frost Shepherds showed up on card 52. They can appear on any of the (potentially) 13 winter card draws, but we got the whole season out of the way before they arrived, just before the next spring. So, a full Quiet Year.

The Frost Shepherds showed up on card 52. They can appear on any of the (potentially) 13 winter card draws, but we got the whole season out of the way before they arrived, just before the next spring. So, a full Quiet Year. Things were going well, with food and power and a smelter and fortified building. We even had uncovered old songs and music to help the winter pass, and were going to be hosting a summit between us, the Sea Kings, the Woodcutters, and the Biker Consortium next year. Oh, and it turned out the dead girl’s father killed her to keep her from running off with the soldier, so we put him in jail. Outside.

And that’s how our town ended. We had an amazing time playing, and want to play again. The two choices on the cards – as well as the wide-open starting state of the map – gives the game great replay value. And because it’s card-based, it would be simple ((Which is not the same as easy.)) to set up a different set of events for each of the cards and add variety.

The big catch for me is that four-player limit. To be fair, I can completely understand why it’s there – this game would get unwieldy pretty quickly with more players. But it does mean that this game may not get the time in our game rotation it deserves.

One of the coolest aspects of the game is that, at the end, you’ve got the map to remember the game by. Here’s ours.

For some reason, we did not name our settlement. We'll have to remember to do that next time.

For some reason, we did not name our settlement. We’ll have to remember to do that next time.

I recommend this game very highly, if you like games that generate stories and post-apocalyptic settings. You can order it here. And you should do that now.

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