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Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game Preview!

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Note: All the photos in this post are of the prototype I played at BGG.CON and do not represent the final look or art direction of the game.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game wasn’t just one of the best games I played at Board Game Geek Con it’s one of the best games I’ve played all year. The premise of the game is straight forward. Each player controls a clique of characters living in post apocalyptic colony. Their only mission is to survive!

Dead of Winter is designed by Issac Vega and Jonathan Gilmour and is set to be published by Plaid Hat Games sometime in 2014. It’s a semi co-op but different from any other semi co-ops I’ve played. In it, everyone can lose together, a single person can win, or you can have multiple winners. Making things even crazier is that there is a slight chance that the game will have a hidden traitor so you almost never know if someone is simply trying to be selfish and look out for their own secret agenda or if they are actively trying to sabotage the group.

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At first, setting up Dead of Winter looked really intimidating. There is a main board, side boards, multiple decks, multiple tokens, and it looks confusing. However, as soon as we started playing it clicked and made perfect sense. It was a super easy game to pick up and understand. In the scenario we played, we had to search two non-colony locations and completely deplete their decks.

Thematically it simply meant we had to 100% search and salvage through an area until there was nothing useful left to pick over. Although the idea of drawing through a deck sounds boring and lame it was super tense because we had to achieve our goal in half the number rounds of a normal game.

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Each player starts the game with two characters. Mine were a cute librarian and a tough farmer. Each had a special ability and the stats on their cards told me what I needed to roll if I wanted to use them to search a location or roll an attack. My librarian wasn’t really much of a fighter, but I was able to use her for other tasks, while my farmer was badass and spent most of the game killing zombies and protecting the other characters.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention? This is a zombie game! But it isn’t. Yes, there are zombies in the game but it never feels like a zombie game in that cliche kind of way. They are there, always present, and annoying, but they were never our main goal or focus. Instead, our attention was always on the scenario card and dealing with the Crisis Cards.

Crisis Cards appear at the start of every round. They say something like, “You have been attacked by raiders. They have decided to let you live for one more week. If they return and you can give them five food then they will let you live. If not they will cause everyone in the colony to take one wound.” So every round, there is a specific resource that is needed and the players have to work together to find it or something bad will happen.

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This is most often the point in the game where a betrayer will rear its ugly head, though in our game we didn’t have a traitor. The crisis cards were interesting because they caused some serious conflict with secret agendas. For example my winning condition was that 1) We had to complete the main objective of depleting two locations and 2) I had to end the game with two tools in my hand.

At one point, we had a crisis card that said we needed to find six tools or eight zombies were going to attack the colony. We were really close to the end of the game and I didn’t want to give up my tools because I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to find more. So without letting everyone know, I convinced them all that we were better off letting the zombies attack then trying to meet the requirements of the crisis. It was a total selfish move, but I did sacrifice my farmer by sending him to the colony where he protected everyone before being bitten by a zombie.

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Oh yeah that’s right, unless your character has a weapon or special ability, every-time you fight a zombie you have to roll a twelve sided die to see if you take a wound or get bitten. If you get bitten there is a chance that you will turn to a zombie and if you do then you risk infecting anyone else at your location. In my case, the farmer was infected and I could’ve done the honorable thing by putting him out of his misery or keeping him alive and risk infecting other players.

It sounds like a no-brainers. Why wouldn’t I do the right thing? Well there is a morale track on the board. When we started the game it was set to five and by the end of the game it was at one. If we ever hit zero then we would automatically lose the game because thematically everyone in the colony would give up the idea that we could survive. The two main ways to lose morale are to not have enough food to feed your people or to have a character die. So with my farmer I had to keep him alive for another round, risking the chance that he would turn to a zombie and kill someone because if he did die then the morale would’ve dropped to zero and we would’ve lost the game.

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All in all, Dead of Winter is a really cool co-op that runs smooth and has a lot of player interaction. But… I’ve not mentioned the best part of the game: The Crossroads Cards! Oh my gosh I’ve never seen a game with a mechanic like the crossroad cards. They are done in such a way that they really suck you into the game and make you feel like you are playing an original story.

At the start of every turn, the player who just ended their turn draws a Crossroads Card. At the top is an activation effect and if that activation effect is ever met during the current player’s turn then the game pauses and the crossroads card takes over. Each card starts with a story at the top and then at the bottom has two options. Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad. Sometimes the cards require the player whose turn it is to make a decision on their own and sometimes they require a vote to be held by multiple players. Overall they really shake up the game and keep everyone engaged in the ongoing story.

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For example… During the first round of our game we desperately needed to find fuel because if we didn’t then a Crisis Card was going to take effect and really hurt us. So I drew a Crossroad Card that said if a player left the main colony on foot then the card would activate. It did and I read this long paragraph about how the player found a derelict fuel truck, but when he started the truck it made a loud noise and attracted a bunch of zombies. At that point the player had two options 1) He could bring the truck back to the colony which would give us extra fuel to help with our Crisis Card, but it would also attract the zombies back to the colony or 2) He could blow up the truck and kill the zombies that had noticed it. It ended up being a hard decision because we reallyyyy needed that fuel yet defending against all those extra zombies was going to be really rough. Ultimately he ended up blowing up the truck because it was too much of a risk to keep it.

Sometimes the Crossroads Cards are silly, sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad, and sometimes they cause a vote over a really serious morale chooses like if you will kill off old or helpless characters for the betterment of everyone else. The cards truly bring a freshness to the game that helped the theme feel alive. They made Dead of Winter feel personal and engaging. When we finished the game, I felt like we had watched a movie or TV show because it truly felt like we had completed a story.

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Our game of Dead of Winter ended with us barely managing to complete the main goal. If we hadn’t won on the exact turn where we did then we would’ve lost the game. However, of the five of us only two of us actually won, one of which was me. Of the three that lost, one didn’t even try to complete their secret agenda because they were having so much fun playing the game as a co-op. The two other losers tried hard to complete their goals but couldn’t.

The other winner really walked the line and almost lost. His goal was to end the game with every character he controlled equipped with an item or weapon. The funny thing is that because he had an extra character than the rest of us we had him focus solely on depleting the location decks. Since he was doing all the searching he kept finding more characters which gave him more actions but also meant he needed more equipment to meet his end game goal. It was tough and at any point he couldn’t said “No I’m not going to search any more” because he was worried about not meeting his secret agenda, however if he had done that then all we flat out would’ve lost the game. So he got really lucky that on his last turn he found a final piece of equipment.

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Dead of Winter was a truly unique experience and I’m already itching to play it again. If you like adventure games or games that suck you in to tell a story then you’ll LOVE Dead of Winter. It was so much fun and I can’t wait to own it and photograph it.