Review: Dead of Winter : A Crossroads Game

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TABLETOP GAME REVIEW:

DEAD OF WINTER

Written by Anatoli on April 12th, 2015 at Anatoli’s Game Room

Let’s take a look at the zombie survival game Dead of Winter!

Dead of Winter is a co-operative game set during a harsh winter topped of with a zombie apocalypse going on. Each player controls a small band of survivors, they all share a common location known as “the colony” and from which they launch raids into the surrounding 6 locations to scavenge for resources in order to complete the various scenarios that make up the story and main objective of each game. There are a lot of story cards so don’t worry about recycling them anytime soon of your first play.

A scenario may for instance be that all players need to outfit one of their survivors with a gun and have enough food as a group to leave the zombie infested location behind and find a new safe spot somewhere else. Along the way there will of course be frostbite, zombie bite, possible starvation, raids, helpless survivors that just use up resources, hard choices to be made and the possibility of one of the players to be a traitor with his own agenda.

Let’s begin with the survivors, there are 30 different survivors in the game, each with their own stats and special rules. Some characters may have an easier time finding items, others may cook food to feed your people, some are good at killing etc. They also have a “hierarchy” number which determines the order in which they are killed should a location be overrun (lowest number dies first!).

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Players start out with a couple of survivors, but can get more for their own sub-group as they explore locations. Oftentimes while exploring you stumble upon additional characters – and in those cases there is often a “helpless survivor” that is represented by a small token.

Helpless survivors do nothing to aid you, on the contrary they eat food and make it more difficult to keep up with objectives. Oftentimes you are given the choice to leave them behind or in some other way get rid of them at the cost of a hit to your morale but reality is tough in the zombie apocalypse and often it is worth doing just that!

Your characters may die during the game in several ways. Moving between locations you roll a “exposure die” which comes with blank sides, but also wounds, frostbite and a zombie bite mark.
Each character can take 3 regular wounds before getting killed. Frostbite works as wounds, but each turn that your frostbite is left untreated you get an extra wound! Should you roll a zombie bite then your character is instantly lost, and additionally, any other character located in the location to which you were heading is at risk of getting infected by the zombie virus as well. To prevent the infection you will have to sacrifice and kill people.

Stats in the game, are beside the hierarchy/influence number printed on each card divided between Search and Fight. And here we come to the next game mechanic that I really like, skill dice. Each player has a number of six sided dice depending on the size of their little group. At the start of each turn you roll the dice, and they make up a resource pool. If a character has fight value of 5+ it means that you must discard a 5 or a 6 from your pool to perform that action. This can limit what you can do each turn, but dice can also be spent freely on other actions such as building barricades to prevent zombies from entering locations. Some items that you find can boost your characters in skill and abilities.

Your colony is constantly craving food, and for every two survivors, and helpless survivors, in your home base the players must pay 1 unit of food. Should you not have enough food the colony starves and you get a lowered morale, if the morale drops to 0 you lose the game. Beside weapons and food you will also find other items such as medicine and junk which can be used for healing and rerolling dice. The downside of using items however is that the colony has a junk pile of used cards. When that pile reaches a certain point you lose morale. You also lose morale when random events force the players to come together and solve a common goal and fail doing so. You lose morale for killed survivors, and of course for taking certain actions that may not be very nice or pleasant such as throwing people out in the cold to die or turn your backs on them as you find them in locations you are visiting.

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Around now would be the perfect time to talk about the defining aspects of the game, crossroads cards and the traitor feature.

The crossroads cards are drawn at the start of each players turn. The player next to you draws a card and read the text to himself. Should you, during your turn, do something that triggers the text – the game pauses and the crossroads card is resolved. This adds a great layer to the game, implementing random events and tough choices that players must make. Oftentimes these cards also add a lot of atmosphere and theme to the game.

A player can end up starting the game being a traitor. This happens after the main objective has been revealed, each player then gets an additional personal goal – and in each game you shuffle in 1 traitor card. The traitor may or may not be part of the game, but the mere thought adds paranoia and questioning of other players choices. Did a player just bring back a bunch of people to the camp to starve you all out or was it sympathy ? Why is someone constantly walking to the gas station and searching for cards with gas canisters on them when you should be focusing on other stuff? The players may vote to exile players they consider to be traitors – this is similar to features found in a favorite boardgame of mine – Battlestar Galactica. However, I think that the traitor feature in Dead of Winter is harder to play than the cylon infiltrator of Battlestar Galactica.

In Battlestar Galactica you would, as the traitor, play it cool and ruin resource gathering every now and again, sometimes even helping players to pull suspicion away from you. In Dead of Winter it is harder to be subtle when your traitor card requires you to build a shelter in a location that no one in their right mind would be focusing on at the moment. What I did not like about the traitor in Dead of Winter and why I prefer to play without it (there are several variants, and playing without a traitor is one) is that the game itself is hard enough without someone sabotaging the main objective for some petty reason that imo did not make sense half of the time.

Now if you want to play with the traitor, things are not hopeless. You can still keep playing after having been exiled, you just don’t take part in the main board/colony and your group keep to themselves trying to finish your “traitor objective”. I understand why the featuer of a traitor is in the game, I just don’t like it very much and really prefer to play the game as a straight co-op game for which you can compensate by playing the increased difficulty side of your mission cards (they are two sided).

The components for the game are good, the main board is very pretty, the six small locations that you raid look great as well as do all the cards. Player characters are both fun, cool and intersting, with cardboard stands unique for each of the 30 characters. Zombies come as cardboard stands, though in only 3 versions, and tokens for when you run out of zombie stands.

Caroline really likes this game, I too find it to be quite good. She said that she likes the absurd situations where you suddenly discuss when or how to sacrifice people, sending people on suicide missions to that you don’t have to feed more mouths or just making crazy choices on the crossroads or crisis cards. The game is really heavy with theme, and it comes through really well in how the game plays and the decisions you have to take. What I like the most is that it is a game with rich theme and good depth – but without a million components and player turns play fast. It takes a few minutes to set up and a few minutes to clean up, sometimes I shudder at that aspect with games that have grown out of control (Arkham Horror comes to mind) and it really means much to just pick the box from the shelf and play it within minutes. I also like the mechanics of the dice, both action dice and the exposure die. Likewise the crossroads cards and other features such as noise attracting zombies, zombie overrunning and killing characters, how zombie infestation can spread in a location etc. They are all good rules and play well. There is also a ton of crossroads cards, personal missions, main objectives, traitor cards and game variants to allow you to keep the game fresh and tailor the experience to your liking – that’s always a plus.

Dead of Winter, a solid game.

I give it 8/10
Caroline rates it 8,5/10