Today's First Play is brought to you by frustration, betrayal, and more tension than a game of tug-o-war at the Montague-Capulet family picnic. Actually it was brought to you by Plaid Hat Games, The Game Shoppe in Omaha, and the Eastern Nebraska Gamers Guild, but who wants to name drop? Grab your parkas, cuz I played Dead of Winter for the first time, and things got pretty cold.
I love games with a traitor mechanic, mostly because I'm such a jovial, helpful guy in real life and I love to get the chance to be a real jerk in a manner that won't end with my sleeping on the couch. Dead of Winter is a betrayal, cooperative, crisis management game that tells a wonderful, albeit gruesome and more often than not horrifying, story. It's Shadows Over Camelot with zombies. It's Battlestar Galactica in the snow. Come, let's make Cylon Snow Angels.
I knew I was going to enjoy Dead of Winter from the moment I saw it laid out in all its glory. The main board represents the colony of survivors holed up for the winter, with different mini boards surrounding it depicting the various locations survivors could scavenge for supplies. 30-odd different survivors stood off to the side of the board, awaiting their demise at the hands of the too numerous to count (30) zombies. The survivors are unique, beautiful, and going to die.
The colony has one super objective that the regular characters are trying to accomplish. Ours was to reduce the number of zombies at each outer location to below 3. Seemed like a very doable scenario. Let me douse those words with barbecue sauce now, I'll be eating them later. Each player will receive an individual objective as well, with the possibility of receiving a traitorous objective. So to win, the good characters have to accomplish both the main objective and their own personal objective, while the traitor has their own set of win conditions. And lucky me, I was the traitor. Traitors gonna trait.
I know, I know, another zombie game. Toss a rock, and 20,000 zombie games will flock toward the sound like the mindless shells they are. Personally, I'm over the whole zombie craze. So why is this different? Dead of Winter doesn't play like a regular zombie game in which you are an overpowered Rambo plowing through zombies like a competitive eater with hot dogs (gross analogy). Instead, if a zombie gets hold of you, you are dead. There's no fighting against them, you're just dead, or worse, bitten with the chance of infecting the rest of the colony. Yes, you can kill zombies on your turn, but as soon as its the zombies' turn, one hit and you're the most boring class in school: history. But that's not even the kicker. See this isn't really a game about zombies. The zombies make the backdrop; they build tension by being an ever-present danger, but they are not the focus. No, the focus is on surviving in a harsh, post-apocalyptic winter.
That means finding food. That means finding whatever supplies the crisis you drew that round needs in order to have it not completely screw up your colony's day. That means managing how many survivors you can safely contain in your colony. You'll never know agonizing decisions until you have to decide whether to bring a new survivor into the colony, rescuing them from the gaping jaws of the undead, or to turn them away because you don't have enough food as it is. Or worse yet, when you justify losing one of your survivors to the horde because it will be one less mouth to feed. The fact that the survivor with the lowest Influence on their player card is the one chosen to be devoured by zombies if there are multiple choices is the game's way of saying that the other survivors don't like that survivor as much as the others, and is therefore the one left behind to stall the hungry horde.
Surviving in the Dead of Winter also means dealing with the "winter" part of the title. That means that every time you do anything that requires you to leave the warmth of your vehicle, colony, or location, you have to deal with being exposed to the elements. When this happens, you roll the Exposure Die, which could lead to you getting frostbite, which will give you another wound each round until cured, getting injured on some hazard you couldn't see through the blinding snow, or getting bitten when you were least expecting it. We lost the game thanks to that smug little die.
Look at it sitting there, all high and mighty. Oh, you've got a zombie-killing ninja, do you? Well, how about 3 consecutive wounds in one turn to completely turn your game around? No thanks, Exposure Die, there are less traumatic ways to make me cry like a little girl.
And there's the Crossroad cards which are drawn every turn. These were my favorite element. They have a condition that, when met, pauses the game while the player reads an extremely thematic scenario and then a choice must be made, sometimes by the player, other times by the group, such as whether to send out survivors to search for a missing child, whether to search your survivor's childhood home that they accidentally stumbled across. Each card feels like it was ripped straight out of an episode of The Walking Dead. Or maybe the episode was ripped straight off the card???
It was a great time, we were doing well (I say we, but I mean the colony, I was the selfish traitor, remember?) up until two consecutive crises asked us to find gas cans. We had literally given up all our gas cards to finish the previous crisis, and now we need even more gas? It was too much for the survivors to handle, and we were overrun by zombies. I was the traitor, and I literally did nothing to screw up the colony. AND IT STILL FAILED. I'll just be eating those words I wrote earlier, about it seeming like a doable scenario. Eating them like the zombies ate our cold flesh.
I loved this game because it was a semi-coop game, which I love anyway. I love solving crisis cards; they are like solving mini goals on the road to solving the big, main objective. I love the randomness of the Crossroad cards, which may or may not trigger based on the card's requirements. And I loved all this because it really was like watching an episode of the Walking Dead taking place on the table in front of me. Survivors all running around, having things happen to them, sometimes involving zombies, but always involving the struggle to survive in an inhospitable world. I love a good story. And Dead of Winter let me experience that.
Thanks for reading 2 To 4 Players First Play of Dead of Winter. You can find Dead of Winter, and many other great games, on Amazon or better still at your local game store. If you like Dead of Winter or just want to chat, hit us up on Facebook and Twitter, and don't forget to subscribe to 2 To 4 Players for more gaming content and remember: Don't Stop Playing.