GTM #195 - Dead Last: Expanding the Concept of Social Gaming
by Curt Covert

Social Deduction games have long been a staple in the gaming industry – and have only continued to gain in popularity, even spawning dedicated event halls at many conventions. Mafia, Are You A Werewolf?, Coup, The Resistance, Two Rooms and a Boom: giants all, with very devoted fan bases and throngs of new gamers jumping in every month. And why not? Each is compact in size, modest in price, accommodate larger play groups, with minimal instruction, and are an absolute blast to play.

So what fuels the passion for this style of game – and why stop at just Social Deduction? Is there a way to take all the best social aspects of the genre and innovate, creating a new take that is more than purely thematic? That’s what designers Matthew Grosso and Andy Patton struck upon as they developed, Dead Last, a new title from Smirk and Dagger Games releasing in June 2016.

The power of social gaming lies in the emotional dynamics, where mechanics fall away to the drama the players create themselves: The Meta of the game. The actions and attitudes of players from hours or even days before can impact play and how decisions are made. You often play the people, more than the game, and you bring into a social game all the knowledge of the other players you have. How did they play last time? How likely are they to repeat their patterns? The relationships of the players at the table and even their actions in a totally unrelated game may be a factor in your strategy with them now. And Dead Last is no exception.

Thus far, most of social gaming has been built on the premise of hidden traitors and the act ferreting them out as a group, served up in a variety of compelling themes. This is where Dead Last breaks off and provides lovers of the genre a new twist. Instead of a social deduction game, this is a ‘social collusion’ game. There is no hidden traitor, but rather an entire group you must conspire with, and ultimately risk betrayal from, every single turn.

Thematically, players find themselves embroiled in a Tontine, an ages-old investment scheme where only the last surviving member of the group receives the substantial payout. The practice was outlawed long ago for their tendency to lead to murder, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t exist. And here you are holding a ticket. But this Tontine is collapsing quickly, as only a few dozen investors remain. So it is kill or be killed. Be Dead Last, and you’ll be rich beyond imagining.

In execution, Dead Last is a game of shifting alliances, betrayals, and murder for profit, where 6 to 12 treacherous players conspire and then vote upon whom to kill each round, in an effort to be the last player standing and collect all the gold. The player with the most votes against them is eliminated – as are any players who did not vote with the largest group. So being aware of the group machinations and/or influencing their vote is critical. That is the fun of the game because absolutely any means of communication is allowed as you plot… a glance, a nod, pointing a finger covertly, flashing their card to others, texting, anything, so long as you don’t tip off your target. If they see you coming, they will ambush one of their attackers instead and live to see another voting round.

A round ends in one of three ways: no one survives and no one gains gold. Only one survives and takes all four gold up for grabs. Two survive and participate in a Final Showdown, a prisoner’s dilemma, where they will decide to share the money, attempt to steal it all for themselves, or take the safe bet, taking just one and giving the rest to their opponent.

Lead designer, Matt Grosso, said, “The best sessions are the ones that develop a narrative as you go [and make for great stories to tell afterward]. Teams form and are eventually shattered by a betrayal. There is always someone who thinks they've figured out a system for winning, but it never seems to last, as pulling ahead in the game quickly turns the group against you.” Co-designer, Andy Patton, added, “It creates a state of playful tension as alliances are subtly made and then overtly broken – and the feeling that they have to keep an eye on everything all at once or they are going to be the next victim.” And they would be right.

Players die quickly and often, and then are right back up to participate in the next round. A wise player will use the momentary ‘downtime’ of being eliminated to their advantage.

“Everyone is engaged the entire time,” said Matt, “I think the thing that really sets Dead Last apart is how it fills the negative space. So much of this game is played between other actions. In fact, players start conspiring before the rules have even finished being read.” Happily, teaching the game takes all of two minutes and that is part of its beauty as a social game for large groups.

“We kept pairing down, to keep the game as simple as possible while still maximizing the room players had to come up with creative strategies to win. We let the interactions between the players – the very reason why the game is so fun in the first place – do all the work,” said Andy.

The result is a delightfully tense, hilariously devious, ‘backstabby’ game that expands the concept of social gaming and delivers the emotional highs and lows that are the hallmark of the Smirk and Dagger Games line. “When I was reading the rules for the first time aloud to play testers, and I caught them already conspiring to kill me as the first target, I knew this was a Smirk and Dagger game,” said owner, Curt Covert. “Not that I let on, of course. I let them come at me en masse, before I Ambushed and took out the instigator of the group instead. This is going to be the game that gets pulled out in the hallways of every convention in the wee hours of the morning, will be a staple of board game cafes, and wrap up board game night at retail stores. We couldn’t be more excited.”

Dead Last releases June 2016 and is priced to sell at just $24.99. With 164 cards, 80 mini cards, plastic stands and a smartly designed organizing tray to keep each player’s Voting cards sorted and at the ready, there is a lot of value in the box.