Dawn Review

A friend of mine recommended the Battlestar Galactica board game to me years ago, back when it was in print and I was new to the hobby. At the time it was a beast to wrap my mind around, with a long rulebook and so many components to manage. But even while trying to comprehend it all, the “crisis” system made perfect sense: you have a certain goal to meet that requires various skills and everyone pitches in to assist (or sabotage) however they wish. Over the years we’ve enforced “fast crises”, where we create a brief time limit for discussion for thematic and logistical reasons, and still the system remains engaging. It’s literally everyone pitching in to help in an emergency.

Dawn creates an entire game out of this system, stripping away everything else you’ll find in a 3+ hour game of BSG and replacing it with a sleek 45 minute experience. You begin with a hand of cards with suits and symbols that make them more or less useful to the various tasks you’re trying to collectively accomplish. These take the form of buildings you can construct and challenges against threats. The buildings give you points; the threats may do nothing, or they may destroy buildings or give you hand-clogging wound cards.

As a cooperative game, Dawn is fairly easy to win. The challenge comes with the possibility of a traitor (here called a “scoundrel”). Each round every player must secretly discard one of their cards from hand. If, at the end of the game, your discarded cards contain treasure chests (the currency that helps you build buildings) totalling more than 7, you’re a scoundrel, and you can only win if the non-scoundrels (called “allies”) don’t meet a certain point threshold and you have more stored treasure than any other scoundrel. A wrinkle in all of this is that you can swap cards in and out of this discard pile on your turn at will. It’s entirely possible that you spend the entire game trying to help out and only turn evil in the very last round when you see a chance to get the solo win. Or, as in my first game, you could go down the path of darkness fairly early on and only switch back to helping out at the last moment when you realize that’s your best chance at victory.

The fact that the traitor mechanism is voluntary and relatively easy to move back and forth between creates some interesting incentives that I’m not convinced fully work. The game relies on at least one person taking on that role at some point, as if everyone cooperates, a victory is simple to accomplish. This means that people need to value winning alone over winning as a group. Whether or not that happens is highly dependent on the people around the table, though I think with most groups there’s going to be someone who wants to create a bit of chaos.

If you get to essentially choose when you start working against the group, you’d think you’d want to wait until the last possible moment to become a traitor so as to not arouse suspicions. The problem is that the point threshold for the allies winning the game adjusts based on how many allies remain at the end. If they’re close to winning in the latter parts of the game, someone abandoning ship, in many ways, makes it easier for them to win.

So, then, if you’re going to do it you need to pick a good moment to make it count, which is probably determined by turn order. Since you perform all of your actions for the round in one go on your turn, going last holds immense power to sabotage a round. Of course, if you do that you’ve immediately outed yourself as a scoundrel. Though, since there’s no real way to punish exposed scoundrels a la the brig in BSG, there’s not a huge penalty for being out in the open with your scoundrel-ness.

The heuristic for being a scoundrel, then, becomes relatively simplistic: try to push people into making poor decisions early on and then drop the hammer the round when you feel you can do the most damage and try to cause enough chaos through the end of the game.

If the soft reveal of a scoundrel causes others to also pivot towards the evil path, who wins among them is mostly a function of luck, with the advantage going to whoever committed to being a scoundrel earliest, as the winner is whoever can stockpile the most treasure icons, drawn randomly from the deck.

Compare all of this to BSG, where cylons can effectively hide while pursuing their goals in more creative ways. First, they have more of an opportunity to subtly manipulate the group into sub-optimal decisions because there are simply more decisions to make outside of crises. Second, the two random cards that are added to the result of all crisis checks gives additional cover for cylons to sneak in negative cards  In Dawn, to hide your sabotaging cards over multiple rounds you’re going to have to essentially mimic someone else’s decisions (as everyone can see who contributed to a given task, just not what they contributed), and doing so while maintaining a plausible explanation for why that’s a strategic decision is going to be difficult.

I think there could be some fascinating games of Dawn hiding in there, where people do manage to manipulate the group as scoundrels before they’re fully exposed, I just don’t think it’s going to be relatively common. We didn’t have a bad time playing, and indeed I’m more down on it than any of the friends I played with, as I couldn’t escape comparing it to other games, like BSG, that formed a core part of my introduction to hobbyist board games. What Dawn has going for it is compactness, both in terms of physical space (the box is actually appropriately sized for its contents) and time. But by stripping away everything outside of the core mechanism something is lost. 

I see people in the board game space frequently talk about how they wish for games that are shorter versions of other games they like. The sentiment is understandable; time is valuable and as life goes on finding the time to sit down for multi-hour games seems to become a more and more difficult task. But sometimes the size and length of a game is core to its experience, and nothing will be able to replicate it more efficiently. Thinking otherwise is a “content” mindset.

There’s a scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker where, after fighting and begging and pleading, the three main characters settle into a sort of peace. The camera frames them from a distance as they sit on the damp ground, half-huddled together. After a few seconds of silence it begins to rain, the water falling through holes in the ceiling of the ruined building they’re in, landing in a puddle in the foreground. The shot holds still, and for three minutes we witness the arrival and departure of this rain shower. As we watch, waiting, the shot stops being about the transmission of a piece of information (“it begins to rain”) and begins to be about the experience of sitting through a rain shower; it stops being about the fact of the thing and starts being about the thing itself.

Score: 5.5/10

The Thoughtful Gamer is entirely funded through support from people like you. If you enjoyed this, please consider chipping in a couple of dollars a month on Patreon.
Become a patron at Patreon!

Share this post

1 thought on “Dawn Review”

  1. Ah that’s disappointing! It seems like there is a really nice game here, hiding behind some rules tweaks.

    Maybe adding a random card as you suggested for plausible deniability, and having the points threshold be fixed, would be enough to make it work really well?

    As with all games, incentives make or break the game.

Join The Discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.