Death to Sprues: Dead of Winter
We are so thrilled to welcome back guest writer Anton and his board game review series Death to Sprues! Hooray!
It has come to the point when a zombie theme in a product is actually a negative. Zombies have become an ironic trope of self-reflection on consumer culture, yet the banal writing and theme keep on shambling. All that being said, I really think the Dead of Winter board games by Plaid Hat Games are worth your time.
The first game in the series is titled Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game. Plaid Hat apparently intends to have more Crossroads games in the future with varying themes and perhaps game types. At this point the only other Crossroads game is Dead of Winter: The Long Night. The Long Night is a standalone expansion, meaning it can be combined with the original game to give it more content but everything needed to play is included if you don’t have the first game on hand. I’ll compare the two games later, but know that the core mechanics are identical.
Players take on the roles of survivor bands, usually controlling one to four unique people throughout the course of the game. At the start of the game you set the colony’s mission (some kind of game-long objective you’re all working towards). This usually involves pooling resources of one kind or another a small scenario such as how many rounds you have to complete it, and how the morale of the camp is at the outset. You will use your small cadre to cooperatively collect supplies, construct fortifications, keep the colony clean, and of course, kill zombies. Each playable survivor has a few simple statistics, but the focus is on one unique ability that they do much better than anyone else. Some survivors can move around easily, some are good at killing zombies without risk, and others are good at searching for loot, or helping others achieve their tasks faster. The survivors are easy to keep track of, and having to control more than one does not lead to keeping track of oodles of numbers and traits.
The gameplay area is dominated by the survivor colony and six main locations in the surrounding town. These areas represent resource hubs such as the school, the hospital, the police station, etc. Each location offers varying amounts of game resources, but logically tends to contain more of thematically linked items. The grocery store, for example, is a pretty good place to get food for the colony or yourself, whereas the police station has guns, the gas station has fuel, and so on. Each location has four to five resource types, but tends to offer one more abundantly than any other location. Players will likely spend the majority of the game sifting through the item decks for much needed supplies.
The game plays out in rounds, starting with introducing a crisis demanding the colony’s immediate attention. This can be something like a cold snap requiring extra fuel to keep the colony warm or medicine to cure food poisoning. The result is some kind of resource demand and the potential for all players to contribute. Helping the crisis requires players to submit their contribution by playing resource cards face down so no one else can see what’s going into the pile. Playing the appropriate resource helps the cause, while playing unrelated or junk cards into this pile can disastrously sabotage the effort as each unrelated card is a -1 to the total, negating a helpful card in the process. This means players often have to help, say they can’t help and hope their mitt full of cards isn’t suspicious, or maybe wrecking the team effort is what they want?
On top of the colony’s mission, each player is dealt their own secret objective. This is a win condition that is unique to the player, and is in addition to the successful completion of the mission. This means you want to help the colony, but you’ve got your own agenda to fulfill as well and you can’t tell anyone else what it is! Usually the secret objectives are to have a small supply of a resource hoarded to yourself, or it might be to have every survivor you control armed with a weapon. The variety here is quite broad, so the replay value is great. It also leads to some seriously tough decisions for players. Should you help the current crisis by delving into your personal cache of fuel that you need to win? Is it acceptable to fail the crisis this round and suffer the penalty, knowing you might not be able to replace the fuel if you contribute? The secret objectives inject a bit of suspicion and quirky behavior into the game—and then you have betrayers.
The betrayer is the player who was dealt a specific secret objective that labels them as a hidden villain. Their win condition always involves having the colony fail its mission, while they fulfill some hidden requirements of their own. Like regular secret objectives, betrayers usually have to hoard a resource, but often at a larger scale since they likely don’t have to care about some of the crises failing. The main challenge of a betrayer is staying hidden. Everyone has their own secret objective, and may be prone to questionable choices that hamper team efforts, but you’ve got to avoid being labeled as outright sabotaging the team. If you’re too obvious and flippant with your subterfuge, you’ll likely be exiled from the colony and forced to scavenge for supplies without any helpful teammates. There are a few really nasty tricks players can do to each other that I’ll leave you to discover on your own but, needless to say, once you don’t care about another player’s survival you can really throw them to the wolves.
Just moving around the town proves to be one of the more dangerous actions in the game, as it introduces one of the game’s main components: the exposure die. This die represents the risk of coming in contact with zombies, and is absolutely merciless. The best outcome from this die is for “nothing” to happen; otherwise, you find yourself getting wounded, catching frostbite, or straight-up dying instantly. Getting the fatal “bite” result on the die sets off a cascade of tension. If a survivor is bitten, they put every other survivor in their location at risk. The next survivor in their location must then make a choice: kill themselves to prevent further infection, or take their own chance with the exposure die. When rolling the die to resolve infection spreading, any result other than a blank side is instant death and passes the torch on to yet another survivor at the same location.
Fighting zombies also causes players to roll the exposure die to see if the alternatively dead person caused any return harm when attacked. The ghouls are naturally attracted to where humans are but are also drawn by the noises generated when you thoroughly search the resource deck at a town location. You can take the top card when searching or noisily sift through additional cards at the price of possibly attracting hostile attention.
The last important mechanic of Dead of Winter is the Crossroads deck. This is a pile of narrative cards drawn on every player’s turn. Each Crossroads card has a trigger condition such as, “If the player searches at the School this turn” that then leads to a scenario playing out, and a decision for the players to make. Most of the Crossroads cards are bad, and you’re forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but some yield positive results depending on how you look at them. The active player is never privy to the triggering conditions for their Crossroads card, so tension is often the result. Some cards are very easy to trigger, while others call upon very specific circumstances yet are thematically linked to specific survivors and often provide an interesting flavor. If the card is not triggered, it’s simply discarded and the next turn progresses.
Dead of Winter, if nothing else, provides players with a variety of decisions that are meaningful. The game is all about resource management, and worker placement. With the limited actions I could take each turn, I never felt like any turn was a ”dead turn” with nothing to play, or minute choices that didn’t matter. Dead of Winter seems to revel in giving players enough freedom to do a multitude of actions, yet not enough time to do them all. You often find yourself with two to three things that need immediate attention, and you’re only able to do half of one. That’s where the teamwork and smart movement of your survivors comes in. Dead of Winter is a tense and challenging experience but is enjoyable the whole way through.
One of the best strengths of the Dead of Winter games is how modular they are. When your play group decides on the mission your colony will go after, it gives you an approximate game length of short/medium/long allowing you to tailor your time commitment. If having a betrayer in the colony doesn’t suit you, just don’t play with those objectives shuffled into the deck. You can even remove the secret objectives entirely and play a purely cooperative game where everyone is working towards the mission undistracted.
The Long Night expansion adds even more modular options to extend gameplay variety. You can add in the Raxxon pharmaceuticals lab where scientific experiments have gone awry and spawned super zombies. The Raxxon lab also offers some really powerful weapons to those who rummage through its resource deck, and you could even find mysterious pills that offer powerful bonuses or crippling detriments. You can also add in bandits coming from a competing colony. The bandits will attack just like zombies, but also steal resources from the town and hoard them in their own depot. Will you wage war on the bandits and steal resources back, or will you be exiled and become their leader?
The versatility of Dead of Winter really has to be applauded, and that’s why I mentioned the theme at the outset. If you aren’t a fan of zombies, Dead of Winter may still interest you for its smart narrative elements that come from secret objectives and Crossroads cards. If you are a huge zombie fan, Dead of Winter can really spark your imagination with its risk-reward dynamic of racing against the game rounds as zombies pile up against the colony doors and need to be culled here and there.
The best part about Dead of Winter is that the survivors and their struggle is what the game is all about; the zombies are in the background. This makes for a game where the survival and teamwork is center stage, and the necro-challenged are a MacGuffin. The alt-blight movement could just as easily be a sandstorm, rising flood waters, or a pack of rampaging space ibex. They simply fill the role of a hostile environment that the humans must work around.
I highly recommend either Dead of Winter or The Long Night standalone expansion. If you have both, you can really expand the experience. The Long Night adds resource cards that are a little more versatile than the original game, you’ll often have cards that can do two or more actions instead of acting as a single resource. The supply decks of each location are locked at 20 cards though. Do you want to replace them, mix them and get 20 random cards from the pool of 40 for each location knowing you might get the junk from both halves? The Long Night also has tighter thematic elements. As you add or subtract modules to the game, there are Crossroads cards and even specific survivors that come into play at the same time. A couple of Crossroads cards are only in play if the bandits are, for example, and one survivor’s unique power is tied to the Raxxon lab. The Long Night also replaces some components in the original game with more sturdy cardboard pieces.
Between the two games, I’d favor The Long Night. It has better components, and more modules to add to the game on top of the basic experience. The resources in The Long Night tend to serve multiple purposes, and the survivor powers are a bit more unique. The smaller Crossroads deck in The Long Night is also a bit more heavy on theme, and there is even a small 9 card envelope of particularly horrific Crossroads cards that Plaid Hat warns will explore the darker side of humanity in crisis. The thicker Crossroads deck from the original game is a good selling point, but the fact that it costs as much as the whole game to get it makes it an inefficient purchase if you get The Long Night first. Both are excellent games, just be aware that the expansion makes going back to the original a bit thin on a few fronts.