Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Dead of Winter

I'm not really that big of a fan of zombies. Forgoing that they are overdone, zombies themselves are not that interesting. They shamble. You aim for their head. They try to bite you. They're really only threatening when there is a horde of them and so you'll find survivors surrounded by a hundred zombies. However, surround anyone with a hundred of hostile anything and it is threatening. So zombies themselves don't really stand out as a good antagonist in stories.

Where zombie media succeeds is when the stories are not about zombies. They are dull and pointless. They are the setting. Zombie stories are best when the zombies are the background and the real focus of the story is on the survivors and how they cope and struggle with one another. That is interesting and that makes a good story.

And that is exactly what Dead of Winter does.

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game set in a zombie apocalypse. Players are all part of a colony of survivors huddled together because even if they don't like one another, there is strength in numbers. Each player is an ideology within the Colony and controls multiple survivors creating a faction which follows that ideal.

With each game, the players choose a scenario that will give the player's goals that they need to achieve by a certain number of rounds. Morale is set for the Colony and it is determined by the scenario chosen. If the Colony's Morale ever drops to 0, the players lose as the Colony falls into despair and people stop working together, likely to die off on their own.

Each player then draws a secret goal. This represents the ideology of their faction. These are goals that are required by the player in addition to the scenario goals for a player to win. Perhaps your ideology wants to leave for A New Destination far away. Then you need to end the game with at least 3 Fuel cards in your hand. Maybe your ideological faction is Junkie, and your Survivors want to dull the pain of their existence with any chemicals they can get a hold of and need to end the game with 3 Medicine cards in your hand. Or maybe your faction is bent on Revenge and need at least 3 survivors to have been removed through the course of the game. Perhaps it'll happen on its own; the world is a brutal place now. Or perhaps you'll have to help it alone and make it look like an accident. Or maybe you don't believe in the strength of this Colony at all and you look to undermine and betray it.

There are Betrayal secret goals. One is added to the mix of goals and may or may not appear in the game. But these goals want the morale of the Colony to drop to 0 as well as completing other goals. This Colony was doomed from the start and it is your goal to prove it to everyone else.

Players then draw their Survivors, each player beginning with two--a leader and a follower. Throughout the game, players may find additional Survivors to add to their followers, giving them the potential of more actions (however, this comes at the cost of having another mouth to feed in the Colony).

The game begins with a preset number of turns based off of the Scenario card. Each of the turns begins with players revealing a Crisis Card. The Crisis Card represents the immediate threat to the Colony and usually require a certain amount of a resource to be spent to overcome it. Failure often leads to bad situations and a loss of Morale. Each player then rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the number of Survivors that they control plus one. These dice can be spent to perform specific actions.

In turn, each player then takes their turn. Some actions can be taken for "free" without spending an action die. They can Play a Card for its effects, however, the spent card is then added to the Colony's Waste Pile. They can add cards from their hand to the current Crisis. However, they are added face down, so a Betrayer could lie about what he is adding to the Crisis and sabotage the Colony's efforts. Cards can be traded with other players and you can request a card for immediate usage. There are two other actions that you can take which I want to go more in depth about.

Moving. A player can move from one location to another. However, movement requires either the player to spend a Fuel card (adding it to the Waste Pile) to take one of the Colony's vehicles and arrive without incident. If they do not spend fuel, then they must instead roll the Exposure Die. The Exposure Die is a 12-sided die. Six of the sides are blank, which means that the character arrives without incident. Three of the faces have Wounds on them and the Survivor gains a wound if it is rolled--and a Survivor dies with his third wound. Two of the faces have a Frostbite symbol on them, meaning the Survivor gets a frostbite marker. Frostbite markers count as wounds, but if not treated (with a Medicine Card or other effect), the Survivor will gain another wound at the start of their next turn. The final side has a Bite marker on it. The Bite means that your character was bitten by a zombie and dies. That's it. You were just on your way to try to forage food for the Colony at the Grocery Store, but alone the way you were bitten. Nothing heroic. No grand battle. Just bitten. You aren't given a heroic finale and a triumphant last stand. You were just bitten in the dark. And that Survivor is dead. Did I mention that the game was brutal?

But you aren't just dead. You are bitten. You arrive at your destination infected. You die, but before you do, you spread the bite to another Survivor there. That Survivor can risk not being infected by rolling the Exposure Die. If they roll a blank, they are fine. Anything else, and they die... and spread the Bite to the next person at the location. Instead of rolling the die, the Survivor could decide to not risk it and bite the bullet. Literally. You can kill the Survivor to end the infection there instead of risking it spreading further. Did I mention that this game is brutal and likes to kick you in the balls?

Vote to Exile. A player can initiate a vote to exile a player's faction. The vote is a simple thumbs up/thumbs down by the players. If the vote fails, the player remains in the Colony--but you've likely made an enemy. If it passes, the player is exiled. All of his Survivors have to leave the Colony and are not allowed back. They spend their time in the outside locations. They also get a new secret goal--an Exile Goal. If they were the Betrayer, they no longer have to reduce the Colony's Morale to 0 (though they still can try out of spite) and instead a new condition is added to their secret goal card. If the player was not the Betrayer, then the a new win condition is added to the player's objectives.

Exiled players cannot reenter the Colony. They have to live in the dangerous outskirts. However, their deaths don't reduce Morale of the Colony and their played cards do not add to the Colony's Waste Pile. They also can no longer vote in Colony votes or add cards to the Colony's Crisis.

Certain actions require dice to be spent to activate them. To Attack a zombie or another survivor, but the spent die's value must equal or exceed that Survivor's attack rating. When attacking a zombie, the player then rolls the Exposure Die and suffer the consequences like described in the Move action. They can Search for more items in the locations outside of their Colony (though the spent die must be equal to or greater than the Survivor's search value). This allows them to draw a card at the location that they are at and add it to their hand of cards. Dice of any value can be spent to create Barricades at a Survivor's location, Clean Waste (since too much waste in the Colony decreases Morale as the living conditions become more and more horrible), or Attract up to 2 zombies to their location from another--to either heroically clear out a threat or to diabolically set up a trap.

After each player has taken their turn, the Colony needs to feed their people. For every two characters at the Colony, one food is required. If the players are unable to feed everyone, starvation sets in which lower Morale.

Players then check the Waste Pile in the Colony. If there are ten or more cards in it, the Colony loses a Morale.

The Crisis is then resolved. The contributed cards are shuffled and then revealed. If enough of the correct supplies were spent, the Crisis is averted. If there were not enough of the right kind of supply, the fail condition of the card is resolved.

Zombies are then added to the board. Every location outside of the Colony adds one zombie per character present. One zombie is added for every two characters at the Colony. Zombies are added to the six Colony locations in order. If more than six zombies are added, they are added at the first location again and the circle continues. If a barricade blocks one of the spaces and no empty spaces are open, the barricade is destroyed and the zombie that would be there is discarded and then the placing continues. If there are no empty spaces and no barricades and a zombie is to be placed, then the zombie is discarded, but it kills one of the Survivors at the location. The Survivor with the lowest Influence stat dies first. This continues until all zombie placement is resolved, even if it results in multiple deaths.

The Main Objective is then checked and, if not met, the Round Tracker moves down one, first player passes and another round begins.

Those are the game basics. However, whenever a player takes their turn, another player draws a Crossroads Card for them. This card may or may not take effect as the player with the card waits to see if the active player "triggers" it. Cards can be triggered by mundane actions, such as traveling to a location. Or they can be triggered by specific things, such as if a certain Survivor is in play. A wide variety of things can trigger them: searching, being at a specific location, using a specific type of item, taking a specific action. Essentially, anything you do on your turn could potentially trigger a Crossroads Card, so there is no way to prepare or guard against them.

The Crossroads Cards are the signature mechanism of the game, but they aren't necessarily bad. They bring in so much narrative to the game. I don't want to spoil the cards, since discovering the story behind them is so much fun. But you could be searching and trigger a card and suddenly trigger a narrative story about what else you fine. You could trigger the card from taking a wound to find out that the wound is more than you first thought.

The Crossroads Cards really add narrative to the story. And not just because of the flavor text, but rather because each card ends with posing a choice for the character to make to resolve the Crossroads. They build story, but they also build role-playing. The decisions you have to make are hard choices, and not just because of the mechanism advantages or hindrances that they will cause, but rather because your choice might be between saving a life and realizing that this person is another mouth to feed, or watching them die.

Some of the Crossroads Cards are rather dark and press you to make difficult decisions. They often aren't difficult decisions in the reward or loss from the card, but rather from the narrative. This is where the role-play comes in. Sure, you can take the option to leave the child behind to die and nothing bad happens in terms of mechanisms instead of bringing the tired, sick and hungry kid back to the Colony, feeding another mouth and drawing zombies to you in the wake of his crying. But someone is reading that card to you.

Everyone hears the card being read.

Every other player hears you say you take the option to let the child die alone. Maybe they agree with the decision. But maybe they don't. But either way, they heard you make that choice. And they now know the depths to which you will sink to get a little bit ahead.

I enjoy the game Zombicide. It's a fun game. It is one of my friend's favorite games at the moment. In describing Dead of Winter to him, he wanted me to compare it to Zombicide.

Zombicide is Zombieland. Fun, upbeat action. Kind of silly and the zombie body count is part of the fun of it all. You feel happy afterwards, even if some of the characters died in it.

Dead of Winter is the Walking Dead comic. Things are dark and bleak and although there are zombies all around, they aren't what you fear the most. You worry about what other survivors have become. Or worse yet, what you will become.

I like that in a game. Most zombie games either make the zombies the main antagonist (Last Night on Earth) or make killing more and more zombies the focus of the game (Zombicide). But Dead of Winter takes on the aspect of a story and narrative that I like. I don't want my character to be defined by how good his weapon is. I want my characters to be defined by the fact that we brought that screaming kid back to the Colony despite the extra hardships because, dammit, it's the right thing to do and I don't want to lose sight of that no matter how hard things are.

I know why I make the decisions that I make, but I want to look at my fellow players and try to figure out what their motives are. She just spent two turns searching the Hospital and now she's claiming that she doesn't have any Medicine cards to contribute to the Crisis. Is she telling the truth? Is she hoarding medicine because she has the Hypochondriac secret goal? Or is she secretly the Betrayer, hoping to bring our Morale down by failing our Crisis? I mean, I know why I  lied and said I didn't have any Medicine--I plan on going out foraging next turn and I need precautions against frostbite. But she's lying to us and I need to out her.

As you may have been able to tell, I love this game.

That doesn't mean it isn't without its flaws and quirks.

There are a couple of moments of awkward cross-themes. One of the Survivors is a dog. A stunt dog wearing a cape. You can equip him with a baseball bat or a gun and go to town on the zombies. Now, I happen to like the stunt dog. He's actually a fun character. But some of the Crossroad Cards are dark. REAL dark. Like baby in a dumpster dark. That contrast of silly stunt dog and dark, dark Crossroad Cards is a little awkward at times.

My eight year old daughter helps me pop out the cardboard pieces with every new game I get. She saw some of the characters and wanted to play Sparky the Stunt Dog and "Santa Claus"--the drunk mall Santa. She plays a lot of games with us and the game play isn't too complex for her. But with the first Crisis Card describing finding a family member of yours with their head being "a halo of dried gore" with a gun next to the body, indicating that they killed themselves and having the option to kill another family member, we had to rethink this idea

What Plaid Hat has done is included symbols on the Crossroads Cards with mature themes on them so that they are easy to remove. However, mature themes is something very subjective. The card description above is not one of the mature themed cards. However, a card where two lovers end up either arguing or making (non-graphic) love is considered mature. I'd much rather the second card than the first. But, as I said, mature themes is subjective, so even as a helpful tip to include the symbols, it cannot, by any definition, please everyone and instead could lend a false sense of security that no one would be uncomfortable.

There are a few minor issues where mechanisms trump theme, such as a Survivor in the Police Station can find a gun and, since it is added to the player's hand of cards, immediately equip it on a Survivor in the Colony.

It is also easy for a Betrayer to "game the system" and bring Morale to 0. Once their other objectives are completed, all they have to do is move their characters out to a non-Colony location and spend all of their dice to Attract zombies. Eventually, enough will appear and kill everyone there and each of those deaths reduces Morale by 1. I get that you can claim these guys were zealots willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause, but the Morale hits by obvious and intentional suicides when they are obviously betraying the group seems more game-y then thematic.

There are a fair number of Crossroad Cards, but you go through a surprising amount of them in a four and five player game. And by our third and fourth game, we started to see a lot of repeats. Certain cards have easier triggers and therefore occur more often. I cannot say that there aren't enough Crossroads Cards because there are a lot. However, the ease of certain triggers makes some of them occur almost every time they are drawn and others rarely, if ever, trigger because everything needs to be just right.

The rulebook is very well put together and the rules are easy to pick up and learn through a reading. However, a glossary would have been useful and a clarification on timing of certain things would have been nice as well.

But these are minor issues with an otherwise incredible game.

The game has the Colony location with six non-Colony locations which could easily be switched out with expansions. Influence is an underused stat, but a very interesting one and expansion cards or mechanisms could expand upon what is there. Any of the decks can easily be flooded with more cards. There is a large range of Survivors, but more is always better, especially since you can go through them so quickly that you'll become familiar with them all after just a few plays.

Characters can die easily and suddenly. Even with their short lifespan, I find myself attached to them. I made decisions with these characters. I role-played with them. I had a Crisis Card and risked my life and made three Exposure Die rolls to gather extra resources for the Colony, making it through that trial by fire without a scratch, only to find myself rolling a Bite while walking to the Gas Station.

And that is how it goes. A hero who won against all the odds gets caught off-guard by a zombie while walking somewhere and now threatens to infect everyone at that location.

But I like this brutality. Every time I pick up that red Exposure Die I take a deep breath and I feel the tension. And I should. This is what the game does right. It creates tension through a single, simple mechanism. And not because it is random, but because I decided to take a risk. I walked to the Gas Station instead of using a Fuel. I attacked the zombie instead of letting the guys with the guns take them on. I decided to be the hero and roll a gauntlet of Exposure rolls to try to bring back so many supplies.

It is my fault. And that is why the die rolls are tense. Because I know I am taking a risk and I am choosing to risk my security to get ahead just a little more.

Dead of Winter is not for everyone. There is a die that can randomly kill you and there is not a single wooden cube in the box.

However, if you love games with a narrative element, add this to your collection. Even if you don't like zombies, don't worry about it. This game handles them the right way. They are set dressing. A threat that drives our motivations and nothing more. You aren't afraid of what the zombies will do--they are easy and predictable. You are afraid of what the other players will do. But more than that, you're afraid of what you might do.

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