Why do you play board games? Is it for theme? Do you enjoy a particular mechanic? Or do you mostly just want to kill some time? There are many reasons individuals sit down at the table for twenty minutes or so. Interacting with bits of cardboard and paper with a few friends. No matter the reason, the thing that stands out to me the most is story. Whether the story is simply recalling a fun night playing a particular game or something that is brought out from playing the game itself doesn’t matter to me. When I finish a game and I immediately want to go tell people a story about the game, I know I’ve had a great time. Dead of Winter is thankfully, one of those games.
Dead of Winter, published by Plaid Hat Games and designed by Isaac Vega & Jonathan Gilmour, is a Survival (semi)Co-Op game in which players take control of various survivors in a post apocalyptic world. These survivors have set up shelter in a colony during the middle of a harsh winter. They will struggle to survive as they kill zombies, collect valuable supplies, and bunker down for the long winter all the while pursuing their own personal goals whether they be for the betterment of the colony or otherwise. Dead of Winter is a truly wonderful and thematic game that is one part story telling and one part zombie survival that is easy to learn and provides an amazing social experience.
The game starts with the players choosing a main mission objective. If this were an episode of The Walking Dead the objective would be the main plot. Did the colonists discover a CDC Facility and now need to collect zombie samples? Have the days been getting shorter, causing the colonists to bunker down for the long night? Has someone brought the zombie horde to the front door and now the colonists need to fight for their lives? These are just a few examples of the missions players can choose. Each mission has a particular set up requirement, the objective itself, and the estimated length of the game (short, medium, long). If you’re an experienced player, or are just feeling brave, you can flip each objective over to its hardcore side providing everyone with an even greater challenge.
Then someone, most likely someone most familiar with the game, grabs several secret objective cards. For each player in the game someone will take two non-betrayer objective cards and form a deck out of them. So in a three player game there will be six possible non-betrayer secret objectives. Lastly, a betrayer objective card is also added and shuffled into the deck, giving the three players a total of seven cards. Then the objectives are shuffled and dealt out to everyone at the table, face down. These objectives range from having the most fuel at the end of the game to having strictly one survivor in your following (each player represents 1 or more survivors). No matter what, the secret objectives typically require you to gather something that other players may want (either for their own goals or for the main objective). If someone is dealt a betrayer card it will provide them with a similar goal (have X amount of items, survivors, cards, etc) but they will also need to reduce the party morale to 0 (which triggers the end of the game). As a note, all the non-betrayer secret objective cards will share a common objective, that they complete the main objective as well. That way no matter what player A and player B are trying to achieve and no matter how contrasted their secret objectives might be, if they are both non-betrayers they have the added challenge of making sure that the main objective is completed or everyone risks losing. At the end of the game whoever has completed their secret objective card wins. This provides a nice little competitive spin to a very co-operative game.
After all the objective cards are taken care of the set up continues with various piles being formed, shuffled and added to certain areas on the table. Crisis cards (sort of like mini objectives) are shuffled and added to the main board. Piles of face down item cards are added to the various locations around the main board (library, school, gas station, etc). After all of the piles are created each player is dealt five random starting items (fuel, medicine, junk) and four survivors. Of the four survivors they can pick only two and they then return the rest of their cards to the box. Once everyone has picked their survivors they add them to their following, elect one of the survivors as their particular following’s leader and collect 1 die plus another die for each survivor. At the beginning of the game everyone should have 3 dice. These dice are rolled prior to every round of play and help dictate what a player does. I’ve already derailed quite a bit into set up so let’s just jump right into gameplay. Despite the long set up description I would like to say that the set up is not too difficult, it’s just very precise and once you get the hang of it (like most tabletop games) set up is a breeze. It only took me about five minutes to set up the board for this article’s photos.
For the gameplay, I’m going to assume that the players have chosen the secret objective WE NEED MORE SAMPLES. This particular objective sets the morale track and the round timer both to 6 (these both act as timers). After we complete the other set up instructions we are told that we have to collect 3 samples for every player in the game. Samples, we are told, are collected after killing a zombie and then successfully rolling a 4 or higher on a D6. With the objective picked and the board set up everyone then gets their objectives and survivors and the game begins.
Each survivor has a two-digit number in the top right corner, circled in red. This represents that survivor’s initiative, and the higher the number the better their initiative (which I see as their ability to lead). They also have two more numbers beneath the initiative value. This represents their skills in (top to bottom) combat and searching. The numbers represent the minimum value a die has to show to be used. If your survivor has a search value of 4 but you only have a 3 left then you are unable to attack. But if their combat skill is 2 then you can use that die for combat instead.
Once everyone has formed their following, whichever player has the leader with the highest initiative goes first. What follows is entirely up to each player and the survivors they have at their disposal. Is your character good at searching? Well good. Because each round a crisis card is revealed and this round we need medical supplies, and everyone is claiming they don’t have any. So you have a survivor that searches well, particularly at the hospital and off you go! You leave the safety of the colony and place your survivor at the hospital. But did your survivor make the journey? To find this out a player will have to roll the exposure die. It’s pretty simple. It’s a D12 with about half the spaces left blank. A few of them will have a drop of blood. Roll that and place a wound marker on your survivor card. Three of those and your dead. Roll a frostbite wound (similar to wound but with a snowflake style) and place the appropriate token on the card. This functions the same as the normal wound (three and your dead) except each of your following turns it will add an additional damage. Roll the tooth and the worst has happened. You have been bitten and must follow certain rules to see if your character spreads the zombie virus or simply dies.
Should you survive your trek to the hospital you then find yourselves in a salvaging mission. You’re looking for medicine right? Well check your survivor’s search strength and spend a die that meets/or exceeds that number (in the above photo a roll of 2+ is all that’s needed). You draw the top card of that particular locations deck and what do you find? It could be junk. It could be a gun. Maybe it’s the medicine everyone needs. Unfortunately for you the objective you have says you need 5 pieces of medicine to win the game, and to make sure the main objective succeeds. So you pocket the medicine you drew and decide to search again. Each additional time you search you make “noise” and run the risk of adding extra zombies in a new round. But you have to, because you need more medicine and maybe, just maybe, if you draw another one you can contribute it to the current crisis. Sadly, you just find some fuel. But you need the medicine in your hand to win. So you take the fuel and place it face down in the Crisis Contribution Pile and claim to contribute one medicine. The players go around the table and take the rest of their turns, and eventually more than enough cards are placed face down supposedly as “medicine.” The round ends and soon everyone realizes someone messed up, and didn’t place medicine in the pile. Who did it? Why would they do it? Is there now a traitor in the game? No matter what the survivors find themselves a little worse for the wear as survivors fall ill and the crisis is failed, dropping the morale track closer to 0 and triggering the end of the game. But if there is a traitor in the game that’s exactly what they’ll want.
Situations like these arise quite frequently. Survivors will be killed by other players for no reason or someone will really want to go to a particular location or do some other weird action that doesn’t make sense, at least not to everyone else. All of this serves to create a sense of tension and paranoia that works really well given the theme of the game and the semi-cooperative element of the game also.
The last thing I want to go over is probably one of the most stand out aspects of the game, if not the most stand out aspect of the game. These are the Crossroads Cards. Every time a player goes through their turn, the player on the right draws one card from the Crossroads pile and simply watches. They are watching the player go through their turn and see if they meet the scenario on the card (If a player is at the hospital, if a player travels to a location, if there are 5 or more survivors in the colony, if someone kills a zombie). Any time a player triggers the scenario the player holding the crossroad card pauses the game immediately and then reads the card allowed. This adds a bit of extra plot to the game. When I played one card had my friend encountering a strange survivor in the woods. He had one of two options, to allow the man to join him, or to send him away. He chose the first option and was rewarded with Blackbeard the Pirate as one of his survivors (who came in very handy in combat). When I was Sparky the Stunt Dog I travelled to the school and triggered a card. Sparky was crossing a lake and I had to choose to continue over it or turn back, ignoring my traveling altogether. I chose the latter and spared my survivor’s life. Each card adds a choice, sometimes the choice is a personal one and sometimes it’s a group decision. No matter the result it makes each game a little different and can, at times, add more emotion to the game drawing from moral issues such as taking on more helpless survivors (anonymous tokens that represent the common people) and risking starvation.
I try to keep these Filling up the Corners articles more on the slim side, but I didn’t want to skimp out on all that Dead of Winter has to offer. I would highly recommend doing some internet research, watching and reading other reviews, and if you want to see more of how the game is actually played check this amazing Watch it Played! video here. Dead of Winter has been one of my favorite games that I’ve purchased, and it’s been a big hit with my friends all across the board gamer spectrum. It’s easy enough to keep newcomers from running away yet provides enough strategy to flex the mental muscles a bit. It’s semi-cooperative so it works really well for most people, especially those who have problems with competitive friends. The potential for a traitor adds a social element as well yet keeps it separate from the likes of Avalon or Werewolf. Most importantly it’s fun and feels just as much like a storytelling game as it does a board game. If you have a chance to play Dead of Winter I highly recommend it. If it’s hard to find I would try direct from Plaid Hat Games’s website and see if you can order it that way, or check out the monthly board game bazaar on reddit where I found my copy.
-The Secondhand Took