Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dead of Winter

By Charles Etheridge-Nunn

It’s the middle of winter and you’re alone in an abandoned school, scavenging for supplies. It’s bitterly cold but you made it out this far. Your eyes catch on something metallic, barely visible in the heavy snow. It’s a truck. You draw closer and realise it’s still intact. Sod the school, you could take drive it back to camp and harvest the fuel… at least you could if not for the zombies. They’re everywhere, the looming reminder of your own mortality. You’re faced with a simple choice; do you drive the truck home and draw all the local zombies to your camp… or do you sigh that such dreams are beyond you and safely rummage through the school without drawing any more attention to you or the camp?
Or how about this.
In all the desolation you see a horse. A real horse! It’s like something out of a dream after so long with your faithful dog Sparky as the only animal in the community. You’re faced with a choice. Do you ride the horse… or do you come back from your hunt with a lot of meat to feed your camp?

Dead of Winter is a zombie game. I know, I know, “Yawn, zombie games are so 2010, Zombies!!! is a rubbish game and Last Night on Earth is wildly and sporadically unbalanced” but this isn’t that kind of zombie game.

I’ve always felt that the best zombie films are ones where the zombies are an elemental force rather than a gore-splattered killing machines. The zombies are what drive people to desperate decisions, what brings a community together and turns them against each other, all because if you let your guard down for a single second then you’re dead. They heighten the drama and they show people what kind of human beings they really are, for better or worse.

Dead of Winter is that kind of zombie game.

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game about a community of people trying to survive the winter in a little community filled with helpful (and helpless) souls. Together everyone has one main goal which might be looking for a cure to the zombie virus or simply living through eight weeks of winter. The main goals all have different play lengths and ‘hardcore’ modes just in case the board wasn’t kicking your arse enough.

To shake up the players’ goals however is a secret objective each of them is given at the start of the game. So while the community needs to clear the streets of zombies and board everything up, you might be busily trying to hoard medicine or fuel, you might be building a zombie-killing robot or trying to keep your people free from germs by having them not take any wounds. Each player only wins if they complete the main objective AND the secret objective, so no matter how selfless you want to be there’s always that nagging voice in your head which says you need to hoard and do terrible things for the sake of your own slice of the community. I’ve had points in multiple games where I’ve had to decide whether I should give up on my own success to help everyone else have a chance at winning. The first time I did and it was the right move; I lost but the others had a chance at victory. The second time, victory landed in my lap seconds before I would have given up on my slim chances of success. I played a game where three people had objectives which involved medicine, meaning if any of them went too selfishly they would cost the others their win… in the end they all helped the community and all lost their own goals. Other players may not be so generous as my players. Boardgamegeek have had threads about people’s purposeful sabotage of the other players once they realise they can’t succeed at their own goal, something I’m pleased to say most of my group couldn’t understand the thinking behind.

So that’s the fun of the co-operative side, I’m drooling and already wanting to dive into the game and I’ve not even told you how it works, so let’s get to that.

Each player controls a couple of characters, a number which might grow or dwindle depending on your actions. Each turn you get an amount of action dice equal to the number of characters you control plus one. These dice are used for searching, attacking, putting up barricades and removing the filth which threatens to drown your home if you play too many cards. There are other actions like trading resources, playing cards or moving which don’t take dice so even with one active character you’ve got a lot you can do.

Aside from sending your people out of the community to help your goal and the community’s goal, you also need to prevent a crisis which will pop up every turn. EVERY TURN. One time, the zombies are knocking the walls of your home down and you all need to put junk into the crisis. Another turn, maybe food has spoilt so you need to have even more than the amount of food you have to spend every turn to keep your people from starving. Oh yeah, your people will starve. They will also bring zombies to the gates every turn. People are jerks like that and bring mess to your camp every damn turn.

If you’re moving people out of your camp or fight zombies who are knocking at your door you’ll have to roll the exposure die. This is King Bastard of all the dice:

It’s a d12 and I’ve already made my opinion on those clear. If you move then you complete the movement and roll the exposure die. If you attack a zombie you spend an action die with a result of your character’s attack skill, trash the zombie and roll for exposure.

On a blank side, you’re safe. On a pointy skull you’ve taken a wound, three of those bad boys and you’re dead. A snowflake skull is a frostbite wound which will only get worse every turn without treatment. Again, three of any type of wound will murder you. Then there’s the tooth symbol which only appears on one side and yet keeps turning up way more often than it damn well should.
It means your survivor has been bitten and here’s an example of that.

It’s turn one and the camp is crowded, ten players’ survivors and five helpless survivors. There are zombies on every space of our gates so if one zombie gets added (and seven will appear at the end of the turn) then we lose a person per zombie which couldn’t be placed. That would be the seven lowest influence people out of ten, starting with one of my characters, Sparky the stunt dog, who had the lowest influence in the game. 10. Worse even than Forest Plum, the creepy mall Santa.

We need to kill a lot of zombies to lessen the casualties by seven, ideally. Another player has Olivia, the Doctor. He decides to use her to attack one of the zombies at the gates, removes an action die, takes the zombie off the board and rolls for exposure. It’s a tooth. Olivia is instantly dead. Gone. Then we pick the lowest influence person, Sparky, who then has to either die instantly or risk dying and passing the infection on. If he does that then the next one dies or rolls and so on. 
(As a little addendum, Sparky can’t get bit as he’s a dog, something we know now but at the time we lost a fifth of our forces and sent as many of our people outside of the colony so fewer zombies would be added at the end of the turn, we would have lost the mall Santa instead of the dog.)

The board is the colony and six locations with decks tuned towards where they are; the police station has guns, the gas station fuel, and so on. There are other items which can be found, all visible on their individual boards by little logos. You might have to dash from one location to another and risk the dreaded exposure die just to get a better chance at certain items.

So that’s the basic setup but we’re missing something… Oh yeah, this is apparently a “Crossroads” game. There are Crossroad cards which are how those terrible decisions at the start of this review happened. Each one might give you a choice between the best of two bad options, a vote for the people in the colony to make, or ways of recruiting more survivors to your following.

The player to your right draws a Crossroad card at the start of your turn and checks the italicised text on it against your current status and potentially other players. We’ve done our best not to spoil any Crossroad cards that don’t activate but the deck is huge enough that it’ll be a little while before you see them all repeating [glares and shakes fist at Eldritch Horror's tiny, tiny decks].

There are several different requirements and effects. Some of the cards require a name check against current survivors and need them to be in or out of play. You might encounter the pilot in a crashed helicopter and be forced to decide whether you want a new character (and mouth to feed) who will be wounded or whether you want to loot the helicopter while she curses your name and inevitably dies from the cold. You might be able to get the fireman on your side but have to bring his whole damn family of helpless survivors with him.

My fourth game had an amazing Crossroad card go off. Thomas Hart, the soldier, is really good in the colony so people tend to keep him there. The card activated because a gunfight in the gas station. Back at the camp Thomas heard the shots ring out and his PTSD kicked in. He started firing wildly in the camp, shooting two survivors and failing to shoot himself when he realised what he’d done. It was horrible, but for Thomas’ player, it was exactly what he needed to win his secret goal of, “The Masochist”. He needed one character to have two wounds and the Crossroad card got him to the right place. From there he chose not to heal Thomas and actually tried to help others with their victories, trying to get hints about what he could assist with.

Then there’s the army, who are about as evil and horrible as any army in a zombie apocalypse. Christopher Eccleston in 28 Days Later level of bad.

Each Crossroad and each decision can have character and story read into it. Bev’s “adoption” of helpless children which we all let happen just because she’s better when she believes the children she’s abducted are her own. Most of Thomas’ PTSD episode above was imagined into the encounter by us. I was the betrayer in the most recent game; a rarely-appearing secret goal which requires the players to fail the main objective. I needed the community to have lost morale, to have a single survivor left with a gun and resources to flee from this ruined colony. I had Olivia under my control so I armed her with a sniper rifle, hoarded the right items and decided that being banned from tinkering with the dead was her tipping point. My only problem was that I needed the community’s morale to drop to zero and I needed to kill my three spare characters… all of whom would lose us morale and end the game. I needed them all dead in one go. I lured them out to the gas station, attracted zombies to them and awaited the inevitable. At the last minute, another player exiled me from the colony, ruining my chance to win and theirs. It was wonderful and horrible, right down to the line.

The production of the game is very rich, the box hides just how much stuff there is in Dead of Winter, yet it feels like it’s something which could easily be expanded. The characters and zombies are all represented in little cardboard standees which looked like they could be replaced by miniatures but given the high mortality rate of characters and the masses of zombies, they actually look pretty cool as they are. My only gripe is that there are some typos on the cards but this is a copy from the first print run so hopefully their editors will have gone through and polished the text up a bit.

You may not have picked up on this from what I’ve said so far, but Dead of Winter is a must-buy for anyone who likes semi-cooperative games, (potential) betrayer mechanics, difficult games and a high sense of story. Personally I can’t wait to see what Plaid Hat Games do with the Crossroad system next and am already fired up for my next Dead of Winter game…

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