Geaux Gaming: Surviving the Dead of Winter [Classic Review]
As part of my return to game reviews, I'm starting with posting some classic reviews that I wrote many moons ago at The Nerds Table. I hope you enjoy this insight into the dawn of Geaux Gaming as I get back on track with new and exciting content.
"It's so cold..." "Shut up, they'll hear you." Rod is kind of a jerk. He joined our small band a few weeks ago. Gabriel was searching for supplies in the gas station when he found a barricaded cellar. Rod was curled up inside, near dead from the cold. We brought him back, warmed him up, made him a part of the group. Except he treats us like he's doing us a favor by sticking around. Sheriff Smith says not to worry about it. That Rod will "come to appreciate his new family". I'm not so sure. Nevertheless, here I am, knee deep in snow, with more pouring out of the sky, walking with Rod to gather some of his stuff from the gas station. He claims to have some food stored up as well as a couple weapons but supposedly he was all out of fuel. I find that hard to believe given his hiding location. We're moving as quietly as possible so "the others" don't hear us. I haven't seen one of "them" in a few days but their tracks are always there after the snow stops.
We make our way into the gas station and Rod closes the doors behind us so we can search in relative safety. He heads down to the basement and I follow him. It's musty and dark. I can't see Rod but I can hear him bustling around. He seems to know this basement even without any light. "Is therea light we can switch on? So I can help...?" Rod grunts then mumbles to himself. A flashlight flicks on to my left and I see him continue digging through some shelves. The light brightens the basement near him I notice it's a very well supplied storeroom. He's got boxes with labels identifying them as being from the grocery store on the other side of town. He's got a lot of them. On the floor, between the shelves I can red jugs with yellow necks. It takes me a moment to place them, but I realize they are plastic gas jugs. I remember seeing my Daddy fill up the lawn mower with one. I wonder why he has so many, and tucked away near the food. I hear him give a grunt that I've come to understand means he's happy about something. Well, as happy as Rod can get. Then the flashlight clicks off.
DISCLAIMER: There may be spoilers! I will do my best to not reveal too much of this game, it is very much about the experience and discovering all the secrets it has, but I can't guarantee it will be spoiler free. Read on with this knowledge in mind!
Dead of Winter is a boardgame by Plaid Hat Games about surviving in a post-zombie apocalypse world. Each player takes on the role of a small band of survivors living in a colony in the, spoiler alert, dead of winter. It's snowing, it's cold, and everyone is out for themselves. Players will take turns executing actions, some limited by dice, some limited only by the cards in your hand, to gather resources, explore locations, clean up waste, manage crises, and, hopefully, achieve their own personal goals all while avoiding the ever-present zombies and pervasive cold. As described by the designer, Jon Gilmour, with Isaac Vega, this is a "meta-cooperative" game. Despite there being cooperative elements, there is no group victory; but there is room for more than one winner!
Setup for Dead of Winter begins by laying out the colony board and the six individual location sheets. The colony is where the survivors live. The colony board features spaces for the survivors, entry points for zombies, and spaces for decks, discards, and food. There are also tracks indicating the current morale of the survivors as well as the current round. The six individual location sheets are where survivors will visit to gather resources. There's spots for survivors, zombies, and the deck specific to that location. The top of the sheet will indicate the location name (Police Station, Grocery Store, School, Library, Hospital, and Gas Station) as well as the likelihood, in descending order, of finding the various item types at that location.
Each player will take a reference sheet. This sheet appears as a file folder with the round summary on the left and the player turn actions on the right. At the bottom are spots for used and unused action dice. The borders indicate where to place your survivor cards and your secret objective.
Now it's time to determine the main objective for the colony. This is one major cooperative element of the game. In order for most players to win, they need to complete the main objective as well as their own secret objective. You can shuffle the main objectives and select one randomly or pick one if you wish. There is also a recommended one for your first game. Make note: one side of the objective card is normal mode and the other, indicated with warning signs at the top, is hardcore mode. This is used if you're playing the fully cooperative variant (more on that later) or clinically insane. Once the main objective is selected, place it in the indicated spot on the colony board and move on to determining secret objectives.
This game contains two types of secret objectives - normal and betrayer. To perform this setup, separate the normal from the betrayer and randomize both decks. Without looking, deal out two normal objectives per player then add a single betrayer objective. Return the unused objectives to the box and shuffle the stack. Deal each player one secret objective and return the rest to the box.
The next few steps are about arranging the various decks of cards used in the game. Start by shuffling the crises deck and placing it in the appropriate spot on the colony board. Next, shuffle the survivor, exiled objective, and crossroads cards and set these near the board. Take the item cards and sort them based on the text at the very bottom of the card. This text will indicate it is a starter item card or correspond to a specific non-colony location. Shuffle each of the non-colony location decks separately and place it on the corresponding location. Shuffle the starter items and give five to each player.
Next, you're ready to meet your merry band of survivors! Each player will get four survivors but select two. I'll talk about how to read the survivor card a little later. The two per player that aren't selected are shuffled back into the survivor deck. Place the survivor that will be your leader to the left of your player sheet and the other below. Finally, move the corresponding survivor standees for each player to the colony board where indicated.
All tokens and unused standees should be placed within easy reach of all players. Now you're ready to play Dead of Winter!
Time to talk components before we get to the meat of how to play. This game comes with a LOT of cards. More than some deckbuilders! Let's start with the main objective cards. These indicate the overarching goal of the colony for the entire game. The setup rules will indicate how many rounds you have to complete the objective, starting morale, and where to place zombies at other things before the game begins. It also indicates what the victory condition is. Keep in mind, in Dead of Winter, it isn't enough to complete the main objective, each player must also complete their secret objective! The last thing on the card is time indicator. This is a rough estimate of how long a game using this objective should take. Take it with a grain of salt because a lot of things can affect the duration of your game.
Next, we have the secret objective cards. As explained in setup, there are two kinds of secret objective cards - normal and betrayer. All normal secret objective cards require that the player in possession must first complete the main objective and then complete one or more requirements unique to her in order to win the game. This may involve having certain types of cards in your hand or having only one survivor in your group. I will reiterate - you must complete all the listed items on your secret objective, including the main objective, in order to win. This game does not feature group victories!
The second type of secret objective is a betrayer card. This player does not want the colony to complete the main objective. Instead, the betrayer's endgame condition is to drive morale to zero. When morale hits zero, the game ends - ensuring that non-betrayer players do no win. But if the betrayer has completed all of her secret objectives, she wins! Fear not, though, loyal player, there are methods to rid yourself of a suspected betrayer. More on that later...
The next card to discuss is survivor cards. These give you information about the survivors in your group - the individuals you will direct who share your secret objectives. Each survivor has a name, a former job, and unique art. This could range from a waitress in a heavy coat named Jenny Clark to an ex-mall Santa with a deranged look named Forest Plum. Each survivor has three stats and a special ability. The first stat is influence value, pictured at the top right of the card. This represents the survivors status within the colony which directly affects who dies first in the event of a zombie attack! Next are the survivor's attack and search values, represented by burst and spyglass icons. The values indicate the number required on a D6 die in order to successfully attack or search a location. More on this when we get to actions. Finally, each survivor has a unique special ability. These are varied in their use and requirements and are too many to mention here. Generally they involve improved attacks or improved searching and are often dependent on being in a specific location. If a special ability features a number followed by a plus sign (5+ for example) then it requires a die of that value or higher to activate.
The next cards to discuss are item cards. Each player begins with five of these and they can access more by searching non-colony locations. Cards fall into one of seven categories:
- Weapon - can be equipped to a survivor and usually improves attacking
- Fuel - spent to travel between locations more safely
- Education - blueprints or books that provide utility for the survivor holding it
- Food - spent to add food to the colony's supply
- Medicine - spent to heal wounds and frostbite
- Tool - many different uses including the ability to re-roll and unused die
- Survivor - a unique card called an event, represents discovering people living outside the colony and allows you to grow your band of survivors and add actions to your turn
Each of these cards has an icon identifying it by type. This icon is referred to by other cards, most notably crisis cards that we'll talk about next. Locations feature a row of icons at the top indicating what type of items are most to least plentiful at that location. If you know you want to find food, be sure to stop by the grocery or the school! Some item cards, like education and weapons, are equipped to a survivor. Survivor cards are removed from the game when used. All other item cards are added to the waste pile after use.
Up next are crisis cards. These cards are the turn to turn events that the colony has to deal with. This can be food shortages or disease outbreaks. Each crisis requires the colony work together to gather a number of cards of a certain type equal to the number of non-exiled players. The type of card is the same as found on item cards - food, fuel, medicine, etc. If you have the required number of the correct type of card, you pass the crisis and all is well. If you don't, something bad usually happens like morale loss or zombies are added to the game! If you somehow have an abundance of the required item time, you can actually gain morale by adding extra to the crisis. Just remember, every item card in the crisis is one less to use on your turn (like traveling with safety or adding food to the colony's supply).
After crisis cards are exile cards. These are drawn when a player is exiled from the colony and represents a new secret objective for that player. We'll talk more about exile a little later. The final card type to discuss is my favorite of all - Crossroads!
Crossroads cards give Dead of Winter it's name - "A Crossroads Game". Each turn, one player is going to draw a crossroads card for the active player and read the triggering text. If, at any point on the active player's turn, the triggering text is true, that player's turn is paused while the card is read aloud. The card will present a scenario of some kind and offer a choice to either the active player or all players with a survivor at the colony. Choices for the active player are theirs alone to make. The outcome can be good, bad, or nothing at all. Choices for the group are made by popular vote with ties being broken by the first player for the round. Crossroads cards are what give Dead of Winter it's incredibly rich theme and I'll expound upon them later. For now, just know that, if the card isn't triggered, it is discarded. Be sure not to read the card! You'll spoil the surprise...
On to how the game is played! Each game takes place over a series of several rounds. Each round gives players a single turn to perform actions like playing cards, searching locations, moving survivors, and attacking zombies. Some of these actions are limited by the number of dice you have. More survivors means more dice but also more mouths to feed and more bait for the ever-present zombies! Some actions are essentially unlimited, within some boundaries.
Some actions require you to roll the exposure die. Dead of Winter comes with twelve sided red die that features an assortment of faces. Many are blank - this is good! If you roll a blank with the exposure die, nothing happens. Some sides have blood droplets. This means the survivor in question has gained a wound. If it's the third wound they have taken, they are now dead and removed from the game. Otherwise, you simply add a wound token to their card. If they roll the snowflake, it means their actions have caused them to contract frostbite! Frostbite not only counts as a wound but it also means that your character will take another wound at the start of your next turn and each subsequent turn until they are either dead or the frostbite is healed with a medicine card. The final side of the exposure die is a tooth - you've been bitten by a zombie! That survivor is now dead. Remove them from the game. Unfortunately, as is wont to happen, the bite could spread. The player controlling the survivor with the lowest influence value has a choice - you can opt to let him or her die right now and remove them from the game, stopping the spread immediately. Or you can risk it and roll the dice. If you roll a blank, the spread has stopped. But if you roll anything else (FIFTY-FIFTY CHANCE!!) they die anyway and the bite spread to the survivor with the next lowest influence! And each dead survivor means morale drops by one. It's deadly out there!
Let's start with the actions requiring a die.
- Attack - choose the survivor you want to make the attack and spend a die of the required number (based on the survivor) to kill a zombie at that survivor's location. This will trigger a roll of the exposure die.
- Search - choose a survivor at a non-colony location and spend a die of the required number (based on the survivor) to draw a card from that location's item deck. At this point, you have a choice. You can add that card to your hand, ending that action, or you can elect to make noise at that location and draw an additional card. You can do this until you run out of room to make noise (maximum of four at each location), drawing a card each time, but you still only get to keep one card. Put the rest on the bottom of the deck. More on noise tokens later...
- Barricade - spend a die of any value to build a barricade at a location containing one of your survivors. Barricades can deflect incoming zombies.
- Clean Waste - remember how playing some item cards adds them to the waste pile? Well, apparently when we're scraping by just to survive in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested wasteland, we don't like living in squalor. Beggars and choosers, right? Spending a die of any value will allow you to remove three cards from the waste pile. Letting waste build up can reduce morale each round.
- Attract - a player may spend a die of any value to move two zombies from any location to the entrance of a chosen survivor's location. This can be useful if you have empty non-colony locations but your colony is full to bursting!
- Survivor Ability - I talked about this a little earlier, but some survivors have special abilities requiring a die. These are of course actions you can take with that survivor by spending a die just like attacking or building a barricade. Note that, while the special ability may involve killing zombies or building barricades, it does not count as an attack or barricade action and this may affect some cards the provide bonuses to these actions.
Next, we have the (relatively) unlimited actions, or actions that don't require a die to perform.
- Play a Card - this applies to playing cards for their printed ability. This could be equipping a weapon to a survivor, playing a card that gets you more survivors, or playing a card for its waste effect, getting you food for the supply, traveling safely with fuel, or healing a wound with medicine.
- Add a Card to the Crisis - this is where you place one or more cards from your hand into the crisis deck. This is done face down so no one sees what you added. When the crisis is resolved later in the game, it's possible that a player has spiked the deck with cards that do not help the crisis but you may not know who it was. This is one key way the betrayer can lower morale without being obvious about it.
- Move a Survivor - this is how survivors move to and from the colony and non-colony locations. The only limitation to this action is that you may only move each of your survivors once. This action requires a roll of the exposure die. Spending a fuel card for its waste effect allows you to move without rolling for exposure.
- Spend Food Tokens - while a certain number of food tokens are necessary at the end of each round, they can also be spent on your turn to increase the value of a rolled die by one. You can spend as many as you like (or are willing to) to increase the value of dice. Just know that this is depriving your colony of previous food and the other players may become suspicious...
- Request - this action is where you ask the table if anyone has a card they can provide. This could be medicine to heal a survivor or a weapon. The caveat is that the card must be played immediately for its effect. If it's medicine, it goes straight to the waste pile. If it's a weapon, it is immediately equipped onto a survivor. Cards gained via request may not be added to your hand nor may they be played to the crisis.
- Hand Off - a survivor with an equipped item can hand pass it to another survivor at the same location. The item must be immediately equipped to that survivor.
- Vote to Exile - if you think someone might be a betrayer, you can call a vote to exile that player. All players vote and, if successful, the exiled player must move all of his survivors to non-colony locations. The exiled player will also draw an exiled objective card. This lays out the player's new path to victory since they can't contribute to the main objective anymore. There are some other subtle differences based on whether or not the exiled player was a betrayer, but I'll leave those for you to find out yourself.
Once all players have taken a turn, you move to the colony phase of play. In this phase, players will manage the upkeep of the colony. I'll avoid laying everything out here, but just know that this is where you will pay out food, check the waste level, find out if you've tackled the crisis for the round, add zombies to the board, and see if you've completed the main objective. Play continues in this pattern until one of three things happens - the round marker reaches zero (meaning everyone loses), the main objective is completed (meaning loyal players might win), or morale reaches zero (which means the betrayer might win). One interesting thing to note is that turn by turn play passes like most games - to the left - but the first player token passes to the right meaning that the player who went last the round before will go first in the new round. This is important to remember because it is a balancing element for the betrayer. It can be tough to win as the betrayer without revealing your motives and being exiled. The double turn allows this role the opportunity to execute his master stroke to close out the game. It also helps avoid prolonged downtime.
Dead of Winter's best quality, for me, is how thematic it is. I feel like the box should be ice cold when I pick it up. I feel like the first player token (a cardboard hunting knife) should be a real knife! I am not a fan of zombie games. Not by a long shot. But I love Dead of Winter. This game is as much a zombie game as Battlestar Galactica is a game about aliens. DoW is about surviving in the worst possible scenarios. It's about scraping by when you have nothing left. And then being faced with what feels like an impossible decision. You want a game that will knock you down, take your lunch money, rub your books in the mud, kick you repeatedly, then offer hand to help you up only to do it all over again once you're on your feet? That's Dead of Winter.
Crossroads cards are, arguably, the most thematic element of this game. They are ever-present and often incredibly specific in their target selection. They lay out a very specific scenario, based on the triggering action, and paint a vivid picture of the day to day life of one or more survivors. Finally, they ask you to make a choice. Occasionally this choice is minor and only provides a minor benefit or a minor setback. But often these cards offer game-changing choices and scenarios and even lose-lose situations forcing you to select the lesser of two terrible evils. It is glorious and gut-wrenching at the same time. And it is part of what makes this game so worthy of repeat plays.
Ultimately, Dead of Winter, isn't about hunting zombies, like so many of its peers; it's about managing your survivors and being ever vigilant of the survivors sharing the colony with you. Are they looking out for the best interests of the group or is someone only acting for themselves? Perhaps there is a betrayer looking to see the world burn in the worst way possible. It's up to you to determine who to trust and who to exile on your path to...well, nowhere. Because it's the end of the world and you just want to live to see tomorrow.
"Rod? Where'd you go. This isn't funny ya' hillbilly." I hear the scuffling of feet on the floor behind me and I feel something ice cold press against the nape of my neck. "Up the stairs. Walk." Rod's voice is as cold as the air outside. My guess is he found the gun he claimed to have. As calm as I can, I take the steps up the stairs very slowly. I can hear him a few steps behind. We come out into the gas station and he jabs me in the back with the gun. "To the left, aisle one." I make my way carefully past the drink counter to aisle one - assorted tools and car care supplies. On the floor are stacks and stacks of wood. It appears to be PTL - pressure treated lumber - ripped from fencing and homes in the area. Next to the stack of wood are several boxes of nails and a hammer. I turn to look at Rod for the first time since we got out of the snow. He has an unsettling grin on his face. Strapped to his back is a shotgun of some variety and in one hand is the gun he pressed to my neck. In the other hand he's carried up a plastic jug of fuel from his supply below. "You worked construction, right?" I nod at him slowly, as panic starts to set in. I've held it together until now, but I realize what's happening, and it somehow gets much, much colder. "Good. See, I've got this place fully supplied. All I need is someone skilled with building to lock it down. Keep "them" out. Then I'll have a new home and a new friend to live out the rest of my days. How do you feel about that, Ms. Ross?" I can't answer. I just stare at him, wishing I was outside, in the cold, with "them".