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Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game Preview!

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Winter has come… and it is AWESOME.

I first got to play Dead of Winter last fall at BGG.Con. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed and the mechanics are as tight as I remember, but the game itself looks way better.

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Dead of Winter is co-designed by Issac Vega and Jonathan Gilmour and is published by Plaid Hat Games. The game is a semi co-op set in a zombie apocalypse world. In it players try to accomplish a main goal while at the same time trying to achieve their secret objective. If a player fails to meet their secret goal they still lose the game, even if the main objective is complected.

“A lot of my time is still wrapped up in my day job, and my family, so I won’t lie. Isaac did a lot of the heavy lifting after we started working together,” Gilmour said. “I stayed involved in the process through tons of late night skype sessions, emails, and meeting up pretty much monthly and reviewing the latest versions and changes and giving feedback.”

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The double goals creates an amazing sense of conflict. Players have to balance what they do to ensure that that as a group the game isn’t lost while at the same time being selfish to make sure that they complete their secret objective. To make things even more tense, there is a chance that one of the players may be a traitor who’s secret goal is for the group to fail the main objective.

“Cranking that up to 11 was always a goal,” Gilmour said. “Things like the Crossroad cards, where the players often have to make a very public decision, and deal with the fall out play a big part of that. So do the secret objectives.”

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The conflict doesn’t stop there. In addition to the main goal, secret goals, and worrying about traitors, players must also deal with a crisis. Every round a new crisis is revealed. If players take action and resolve it then nothing bad happens. If they fail things get nasty fast.

“Originally, instead of secret objectives, each player had a open betrayal condition that they could just announce, and win the game by themselves,” Gilmour said. “I really liked the paranoia it created. At the start of the game you could say “OK, He’s the junkie, we need to make sure he doesn’t collect too much medicine.” I love games like Cosmic Encounter, and Life Boat that have tons of great social interaction, and they were huge inspirations to me.”

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In addition to dealing with all the big conflict, players must also watch the moral track and the round tracker. If either hits zero then the game ends. Players must also risk traveling in the cold, dealing with zombies, and watching both their food pile and waste supply. Basically a whole heck of a lot of things can go wrong in Dead of Winter!

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“The theme was zombie from the start,” Gilmour said. “I’m a huge zombie fan, and set out to make the Zombie game that I felt wasn’t being made. I wanted something that focused on the survivors and wasn’t about awesomely blowing away zombies. Don’t get me wrong, those moments in the zombie flicks are great, but they are just set pieces. We talked several times about changing the theme because of the market perception that zombies are “overdone” but we just committed to making the best damn zombie game we could, and anything else would not be true to the game we had been crafting.”

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Although Dead of Winter is a zombie game, the mechanics make it more about the social interactions of all the players then about fighting off a zombie horde. Then because of all the conflict there is a sense of story that is created as the game progresses. This is partially helped by the huge amount of playable characters in the game. The cast is massive and offers a nice variety of abilities and special powers.

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What it all comes down to though are the Crossroads Cards. They are the heart of Dead of Winter. At the start of each player’s turn, the previous turn-taker draws a card. At the top of the card is a condition. If the condition is already met or becomes met during the current player’s turn then the regular gameplay pauses and the Crossroads card activates.

“The Crossroad cards were really the biggest item that we wanted to get right,” Gilmour said. “We went well over a year of playtesting with it just felling “good” but not “great” but once the crossroad cards fell into place, everything just clicked.”

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Most crossroad cards either have the current player deciding between two tough choices or involves several players taking a vote.  In most cases the Crossroads cards force devastatingly hard decisions. For example, one card has a player discovering a horse. The player then has to choice to either keep the horse, which will allow them to move from locations without risk or the player has to decide to kill the horse which will boost the food supply of the whole colony.

“[The Crossroads Cards] changed through the various versions of the game,” Gilmour said. “But we wanted to have something represent the moral decisions the players had to make, and really try to tweak the Self Vs Group dichotomy we were creating.”

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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. The cards truly bring a freshness to the game that helps the theme feel alive. They make Dead of Winter feel personal and engaging. It’s no wonder that Plaid Hat Games is developing a new series of games based on the Crossroads mechanic. It’s smooth, it offers a lot of story, and gives players the feeling that the choices they make truly matter.

“Even though the final version of them is Isaac’s, I’m most proud of the Crossroad cards,” Gilmour said. “They make the game. I love that PHG has embraced the user created content, so that people can keep the game fresh by creating their own cards and stories. I’m also very proud of PHG’s decision to keep the adult content in the game, and keep it very dark. I don’t think enough games do that. Video games are just getting to the point where they can handle mature themes and bring about real discussions, and I am glad we are doing that as well.”

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Dead of Winter is debuting this week at GenCon and will be soon appearing online for regular orders. So watch this page to know when you will be able to snag a copy for yourself.

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