Game Buzz: Dead of Winter

Zombie games don’t usually catch my attention.  Plaid Hat Games usually do.  In this case, the Plaid Hat takes precedence as I look at

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Dead of Winter is a design by Isaac Vega and Jonathan Gilmour.  The game is for 2-5 players and takes 100 minutes to play.  Dead of Winter is set after the zombie apocalypse has claimed most of humanity, and you are part of a small group of survivors attempting to stay alive.  This is a meta-cooperative game – everyone is working towards a group objective, but in order to win, each individual must accomplish a personal secret objective.  Dead of Winter is the first game in what Plaid Hat is billing as their “Crossroads” series, referring to the Crossroads cards that may appear throughout the game, resulting in choices players will have to make.

The game comes with 10 main objective cards; 24 secret objective cards; 10 betrayal secret objective cards; 10 exiled survivor secret objective cards; 30 survivor cards; 5 player reference sheets; 1 first player token; 25 starting item cards; 120 search cards (20 each for the police station, grocery store, school, gas station, library, and hospital); 25 crisis cards; 80 crossroad cards; 1 exposure die; 30 action dice; 110 tokens (20 helpless survivors, 30 zombies, 20 food, 20 noise, 20 barricade); 25 wound markers; 60 standees and 50 standee stands; 1 colony board; and 6 location cards.  At the start of the game, a main objective is chosen, and each player gets a secret objective (one of which may be a betrayal objective) and five starter items.  Each player is dealt four survivor cards, and keeps two of them, placing the corresponding standees on the board.  One survivor is chosen to be your group leader.  The player whose leader has the highest influence value goes first.

Each round has two phases: player turns and the colony phase.  The Player Turns phase has three steps.

1. REVEAL CRISIS: Reveal the top card of the crisis deck.  This will be resolved in the colony phase if not prevented.

2. ROLL ACTION DICE: Each player gets one action die, plus one for each survivor they control (which means you start the game with three dice).  Roll the dice and put them in your unused pool for use during your turn.

3. PLAYER TURNS: Each player, in turn order, takes a turn.  At the start of your turn, the player to your right will draw a Crossroads card.  The Crossroads card has a trigger on it, and if you meet the conditions at any point during your turn, you’ll need to make a decision, having full knowledge of the consequences of each decision.  It is entirely possible that Crossroads won’t trigger at all.

Now you start performing actions.  You can do as many as you can/want to, but once finished, play passes to the next player.  Some actions require an action die, which you remove from the unused pool and move it to the used area.  Your options:

  •  Attack – Choose a survivor you control and spend an action die equal to or higher than the attack value of the survivor.  The target must be a zombie or other survivor in your location.  Zombies are killed automatically, survivors roll a die to see if they take a wound and lose a card at random to the attacker.  After attacking a zombie, you roll the exposure die, which could lead to a wound, frostbite, being bitten and killed, or nothing.  The same survivor can attack multiple times during a turn.
  • Search – Search any location other than the colony, spending a die of equal or greater value to your search value.  Draw a card from the matching search deck, then either add it to your hand or make noise to look at an additional card.  When you don’t want to make more noise (or can’t), keep one card and put the rest on the bottom of the deck.
  • Barricade – Choose a survivor and spend an action die of any value to place a barricade on the entrance of that survivor’s current location.
  • Clean Waste – If you have at least one survivor at the colony, you can spend an action die of any result to remove the top three cards of the waste deck.
  • Attract – Choose a survivor and spend an action die of any value and move two zombie from any location to empty entrance spaces at your survivor’s location.
  • Survivor Ability – If you have a survivor that has an ability requiring an action die, you may do that.

Some actions do not require action dice.  These are:

  • Play a card – Play a card from your hand into the waste pile, or equip it if it is equipment.  This action may be taken as many times as you wish during your turn.
  • Add a card to the crisis – You can play cards onto a crisis to try to prevent it from happening.  They are played face down, and cards that don’t match the needed symbols help the crisis occur.
  • Move a survivor – Move each survivor you control up to one time to any location with an empty survivor space.  After you move a survivor, you must roll for exposure.
  • Spend food tokens – Spend one or more food to increase the number on any unused action die by one per food.
  • Request – Request one or more item cards from other players.  Other players may give them to you from their hands, and you play them immediately.  You can’t add these cards to a crisis.
  • Hand off – Give an equipped item to another survivor in your location.
  • Vote to exile – During each turn, you may vote once to exile another player.  All players vote, and ties are broken by the first player.  If exiled, a player must draw an exiled secret objective card and move all survivors he controls to non-colony locations of his choice.

Once all actions have been taken, it’s time for the Colony Phase.  One food is removed from the supply for every two survivors.  If there is not enough food, you don’t remove food, but add a starvation token to the supply and decrease morale by one per starvation token currently in the supply.  Next, check waste – for every ten cards in the waste pile, decrease morale by one.  Shuffle the cards added to the crisis to see if it was prevented.  If not, resolve the crisis.  Add one zombie to the colony for every two survivors there, and one zombie to each non-colony location for each survivor present.  Remove noise tokens one at a time and roll a die for each, adding another zombie for a roll of 3 or less.  Check to see if the main objective has been achieved.  If so, the game is over.  If not, move the round tracker and pass the first player token to the right.

When the game ends for any reason (either by the morale track reaching zero, the round track reaching zero, or the main objective being completed).  Whether or not the main objective was completed, any player who has completed their secret objective wins the game.  There can be one winner, multiple winners, or no winners.  You can play the game cooperatively with no secret objectives, but the objectives are harder.

There are waaaaaaaaay too many zombie games out there.  It’s like a disease.  And maybe that’s the point.  But I really am kind of done with the genre.  Anything zombie really has to do something different for me to be interested.  And it does seem like Dead of Winter is trying something different in focusing more on character than on the zombie-human conflict.  The zombies seem like an afterthought, an element that is just there to make things more difficult.  In thinking about the horror genre of fiction and movies, I always appreciate those that are more psychological than supernatural – in the case of Stephen King, I’ll take Misery over Pet Sematary any day.  I’d put Dead of Winter squarely on the psychological side of things.

I’m intrigued by the Crossroads cards, and how they’ll help develop characters.  It’s interesting that they’re things that may or may not happen, and that you have to make a choice that will have some lasting effects on the game.  I want to see how they work, and apparently Plaid Hat has enough confidence in the system that they’re polling fans for the next game in the series (Lost in Space is leading Feudal Japan, Summer Camp, and Deep Underground).  The game has an interesting action selection method, but may have some issues with analysis paralysis since there’s no limit to what a player can do on their turn.  This was a problem I had with a previous game Vega designed, City of Remnants – AP killed that game when I played.  I hope it’s not too much of a problem here.  We’ll see.

Along with SeaFall (also coming from Plaid Hat), this was one of my most anticipate games of the year, and it looks great so far.  I hope it lives up to the hype – PHG is getting ambitious, and I hope it pays off for them.  Thanks for reading!

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