Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game Review: Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat Games

Dead of Winter designed by Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour, published by Plaid Hat Games

People want to play zombie games for two (not necessarily inclusive or exclusive) reasons: to survive under extreme conditions and to kill lots of zombies. Most games cater to the later reason but Dead of Winter gives players the chance to try out their survival skills. The game has a colony board (which is the players' home base) and six locations where they can gather supplies (food, fuel, weapons, other people, etc.) but risk being killed.

Three locations and the colony board

The game comes with several scenarios and only a few of those require a lot of zombie killing. Many involve gathering supplies of one type or another to survive the winter or achieve another goal. Players can discuss what they need to do during each turn and for the game as a whole as they do their individual turns.

The players each choose two characters to play (who typically have special powers, like the nurse who can take extra items when she searches the hospital) and get five random starting items.

Characters and items

The standees (characters and zombies)

The players are also given a secret objective, like having extra food or medicine at the end of the game. The secret objective makes the players work toward something else in addition to the main goal. Thus the game is semi-cooperative. Occasionally, a player will draw a "betrayer" objective that requires the group to lose the main goal for that player to win. The trick with this role is that if the other players guess there is a traitor, they can exile the accused person. If rightly accused, that player is given a new objective and can no longer have characters at the colony, making it difficult to survive.

Secret objective cards

Balancing the need to cooperate for the overall victory condition with an individual, secret goal makes the game tense and interesting. Each round has a special crisis where the group needs to contribute items to a common pool to avoid the crisis. The item cards are placed face down and shuffled when it's time to check if there are enough resources to prevent the crisis. If some of the cards are the wrong type, a traitor is probably in their midst.

The game also features Crossroads cards. On each player's turn, another player draws a card and silently reads the triggering event for the card. The event can be anything from having a specific character or performing a specific action (such as going to the police station or taking a drink of water!). If the event is triggered, the other player reads a short paragraph ("On the way to the police station you run into three kids...") and then the main player has to decide what to do. Typically there are two choices. Both may be good, both may be bad. Occasionally the group has to vote on which option to take. The Crossroads cards make an interesting and flavorful addition to the game.

Crossroad cards

All these elements make an intense, interesting game that we keep coming back to. The zombies keep coming every turn, escalating the tension as everyone works towards the common and their private goals. The private goals and the possibility of a traitor makes it hard for an alpha-gamer to take over the game, sometimes a problem with cooperative games. The game is fun and challenging and well worth playing.

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: While the game does let people try out their survival skills while the zombies are after them, the game might be a little redundant during the actual thing. Plus, it's a big box with lots of pieces, thus a lot to carry around. Unless you do have a colony with lots of other survivors who are scavenging through the local town...

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