DEAD OF WINTER: A CROSSROADS GAME, Plaid Hat Games, 2014
14+, 45-210 minutes, 2-5 players, Co-operative
It's called Dead of Winter because it's set in the dead of winter, you see, and the chances are that by the end of the game all your characters will be dead. It's clever like that. And I'm not kidding, you'll probably lose this game and you'll love it regardless. This is a brutal mind-messing zombie co-op like no other because it tells a really compelling narrative and forces you to make difficult choices in between. To use Plaid Hat's words, "Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means players are working together toward one common victory condition - but for each individual player to achieve victory, he must also complete his personal secret objective. This secret objective could relate to a psychological tick that's fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or (worst of all) vengeance against the colony!"
|There's too many damn people! And not enough food!|
How does this play out? Each player gets to choose a couple of characters from a random selection of four cards (more on them later). In each turn, players first reveal the crisis, which is a shortage of cards that need to be set aside, such as medicine, fuel or food. While at times players may deliberately choose to not fulfill the crisis in order to complete other objectives, it's rare that you can do that a number of times in the game because the game punishes you. Each player rolls action dice and places them in their unused action dice box. Good rolls can be used to search or fight zombies, bad rolls for putting up barricades or cleaning out the waste in the colony before it becomes a toxic problem. That's right, you have to even manage your shit pile. Once every player has taken their turn, you pay food according to how many characters are at the colony. And if you don't have enough food for them, starvation sets in and that's a whole other world of trouble. Not long after, you start adding zombies, and this is where a real balancing act needs to be achieved. Do you send characters out of the colony to search for items that might help you? Every time you go travel from one location to another you risk death. The other locations aren't safe, though, so for every one character at an external location, you attract one zombie. Attract too many and the location is overrun and the characters there are killed. But if you stay at the colony, not as many zombies arrive but you have to constantly pay food (people outside the colony are considered to be foraging for food). So, you have to balance where your players go to have minimal effect on the game.
|Every player gets a board like this. It's usually academic because your characters are most likely going to have their flesh ripped from their bodies some time soon.|
There are six non-colony locations that can be explored, but remember that every time you go outside, you run the risk of injury or death that is determined simply by a die roll. There's a 1 in 2 chance that you're fine but if you're not, you're really not - you may be wounded, catch frostbite, be killed instantly or get bitten. Each location has its own deck that can be searched that is tailored specifically to the location itself. For example, the police station tends to have more guns, the gas station tends to have more fuel, the hospital tends to have more medicine, and so on. So where you search is a choice but you might not be lucky enough to find what you need.
|See that track at the bottom? That's morale. If that drops to zero then the game is over. Morale decreases every time a character dies, every time a crisis is not resolved and every time there's a shortage of food. In other words, often.|
|As cardboard cut-outs go, these are actually very nice.|
One of the wonderful things about this game is how quickly things can go wrong for the colony. In tonight's game, one of the players was bitten - a one in twelve chance - just as they returned to the colony. That's one of the worst things that can happen because the disease spreads. In an instant, three characters were dead and morale had plummeted.
|This is our colony and we're about to lose all hope.|
|You can see that at entrances 1 and 2 we've even set up barricades which repel zombies that try to get in. But it's purely academic because we're about to fail the crisis, lose one morale and lose the game.|
|It's like a Trump rally with all these screaming babies, except there are zombies. And in this game, too #politicalhumour.|
Seriously, though. This game has people throwing babies away. It goes places no other game I know goes.
It's very rare to win with these Crossroads cards - sometimes you just have to pick the lesser of two evils. Do you lose all your food tokens, or do you lose 5 food tokens and 1 morale? Difficult choice, and in this case it's just up to that one person. Some of the cards, like the baby one above or this one below, are adult, and they're marked in the bottom right-hand corner, so that if you want a fun family game of surviving the zombie apocalypse (because why not kill zombies with your kids?!?) then you can remove them. We don't.
|That is SERIOUSLY MESSED UP! Your character just committed suicide!!!|
How do objectives work? At the beginning of the game the entire group gets an objective and then every player gets a secret objective. There are four examples below. Yes, I know my photography in this review is blurry. That's because I'm suffering from frostbite, I'm holed up in the Police Station surrounded by zombies, it's freezing cold and I don't even know why I'm taking photographs because it's the end of the world and who the hell wants to see my photographs anyway?
I have never seen a game where the players completed the main objective and all players completed their own personal objectives. That's how hard this game is. There have been a couple of times where I've seen the players complete the main objective, and even seen a couple of the players complete their own objectives as well, but not all. Oh yes, see that bottom-right objective? Just because the game wasn't hard enough already with all the managing food, managing morale, managing waste, tending wounds, holding back zombies, dealing with crises, you can also run the game so that one of the players might be a Betrayer. And that is also genius, because when players go off to fulfill their own objectives, are they doing it because they have needs, or are they doing it to actively undermine the group? You learn pretty soon that someone is a Betrayer when you fail a crisis because one of the players has deliberately put down the wrong card. So then on top of everything else, now you have to work out who the Betrayer is. If you work it out.... IF... then you can try to exile them or have them killed. Either way, you're now fighting a battle on two fronts - against the zombies and against the Betrayer. It's bleak, extremely tense stuff.
So, who are the characters? They're a wide assortment of individuals from a soldier to a sheriff to a ninja to a dog. Yes, Sparky the Dog, whom we tend to call Sparky the Wonderdog because he's such an amazing character. Of course, Sparky gets a little stupid when he's equipped a sniper rifle and is killing zombies from a distance, since dogs can't fire sniper rifles. But we try to overlook that. And the fact that most of the characters are white. And also the fact that the ninja is called Mike Cho because, you know, racial stereotyping. Each character has an influence value, that can sometimes be the difference between life or death. They have an attack value, which is the value on one die that they need to fight a zombie, and a search value. Thomas Heart (top-left here) is a soldier so he can kill a zombie with a 1 on one of your 6-sided dice that you roll at the beginning. He's not as good at searching, though, so he needs a 3-6 on a d6 to search a location.
|Seriously, the dog can use a gun. That's just stupid.|
|Some of the things that you can find in the gas station.|
So, let's put some numbers to this game.
Accessibility: 4/5 - The rules are fairly short but there are a number of situations that arise in the game where you're left struggling to look through the rules for a clarification that sometimes just isn't there.
Design: 2/5 - The cut-outs of the zombies and the characters are probably the best thing in terms of visual design here, but you're not really focussing on the aesthetics because you're too busy telling a story, usually the story of how you and your friends died during the zombie apocalypse.
Depth: 4/5 - This game goes places where most other games would not dare to tread. The Crossroads cards provide an extraordinary psychological depth that is only added to with the potential of a Betrayer in your group. You'll find yourself working with people but not trusting them at all. The result is an extraordinary amount of tension to go on top of the tension created by zombies trying to kill you.
Replayability: 4/5 - Three differing game-length possibilities along with a wide assortment of potential characters and Crossroads cards meant that, while you may not want to play it every week, there is a real draw to return to this game, even if only because you want to eventually beat it!
Availability: 4/5 - Easily available online. At $60, it's more expensive than most other game, especially those without miniatures, but it really is worth it!
Summary: Theres a good reason that this gets 8.0 on Boardgamegeek - because it is an excellent game. You're working with people whom you suiddenly no longer trust, trying to keep everyone else alive while also trying to look after your own interests. The game balance is superb, even if there is a gun-toting dog (although, hey, this is America) and even if many of the situations that arise aren't explained properly in the rules. Your group teeters on the edge of death for the entire game and in the middle of managing resources like food and medicine while fighting back zombies, you're also often forced to make difficult ethical choices along the way. It's cooperative but also "screw you guys, I need to go and do this." I don't know a person who has played this game who doesn't like it. It is extremely difficult, which makes it all the more rewarding when you survive the winter, but even when you don't win, you'll have formed a wonderful story. It's honestly like The Walking Dead - brutal, tense and you never know who's about to die next. The difference is that it doesn't involve staring anti-socially at a TV screen and is instead a wonderful way for an older family or group of friends to get their zombie fix once evening. Moreover, it has another bonus of not having Carl in it. Seriously, no-one like s Carl. Even Carl probably dislikes Carl. If I were the actor playing Carl, I would want zombies to eat me in real life.
Final Score: I'm giving this gem of a gem a whopping 84%.