Tabletop University Play Report: Dead of Winter

Many of the Cardboard Carnage team members love the game Dead of Winter, and I am here to tell you why! The zombie apocalypse has broken out… survivors have set up a colony, and they have objectives that must be completed in order to survive the harsh winter weather. Secretly, however, each player controls a group of survivors who have alternate and sometimes even contradictory objectives they are trying to complete as well, even if that means covertly working against other survivors in the colony. On top of the main objectives, like finding adequate tools or scavenging for enough food, the secret objectives may require a survivor to hoard food or to collect weapons, etc. And then, of course, there is the possibility of having a TRAITOR in your midst…

The survivors are plentiful and unique. Each player is randomly dealt 4 survivor cards from which they must choose two. You could choose the nurse Janet Taylor to be on your team; she’s allowed to look at and keep one extra card when searching at the hospital. How about the psychiatrist James Meyers, who may reroll 1 or more unused action dice once a round? Characters come from all walks of life, with a fitness trainer, pilot, cook, janitor, soldier, teacher, sheriff, fireman, truck driver, chemist, and MANY others from which to choose, including Forest Plum, the Mall Santa, who may be “removed” from the game in order to raise morale.

I chose to play as Olivia Brown, the doctor, who may remove a wound from another player who shares a space with her or heal herself once a round. Sparky, the stunt dog, was my other choice. When rolling for exposure with Sparky, you can treat a zombie bite as a wound instead, which is extremely important because zombie bites are lethal and they spread.

Survivors start out in the colony together. They are able to perform some actions without an action die, such as playing a card, adding cards to the pool of resources for resolving the crisis, moving a survivor, spending food tokens, requesting or handing off items, and voting to exile another player’s survivors.

Other actions require action dice, which each player rolls at the start of the turn. These actions include attacking zombies, searching, placing a barricade, cleaning waste from the colony, and attracting zombies (I know it sounds strange, but sometimes the main objective requires the survivors to kill a certain number of zombies in order to win, so why not lure them into a trap?).

To search or attack a zombie with a character, two tasks that are critical to win the game, the players need to spend a die with a value greater than a number on the character’s card. Some characters are great at shooting, while others excel at searching. Coupled with each character’s special abilities, this makes picking survivors and choosing when to risk them a lot of fun.

There are a limited number of rounds in which a main objective must be completed in order to win. There is a limit to the morale track as well. At any time, if the morale track and/or the round track have reached zero, the game is over and the survivors have lost…

So how does the morale tracker go down? As they try to achieve the group and personal objectives, the players must also deal with crises, short-term goals that appear at the start of each turn. For example, they might need to gather four food and put it in the crisis pool. If they fail–perhaps because they have a traitor in their midst who put the wrong type of card into the pool while pretending to help–morale will often fall. It can also go down if a survivor dies.

To achieve their goals, survivors may move from the colony to other surrounding locations in order to attack or search. The locations are the grocery store, police station, school, library, hospital, and gas station. Each location is more likely to contain certain types of items then others, which can make it tempting to move survivors to the location with the best chance of providing what you need. But whenever a survivor moves, he/she must roll for exposure. We all thoroughly detest the exposure die… BUT, it is part of what makes this game risky, challenging, and FUN!

On the exposure die, a blank means that nothing happens, a skull means that the survivor takes a wound, the snowflake means the survivor gets frostbite (at the beginning of each turn, the survivor will receive an additional wound), and the tooth symbol means a survivor has been killed and the bite effect spreads…

Once all the players complete their turn, there is a colony phase, which includes feeding the survivors that remain in the colony, making sure the colony hasn’t accumulated too much waste, resolving the crisis card, adding zombies, checking the main objective for completion (yeah, right!), moving the round tracker, and passing the first player token.

And, I haven’t even mentioned the crossroads cards yet! The crossroads cards are prompted during the game when certain conditions are met. At the beginning of each player’s turn, the player to his/her right will draw a crossroads card and keep it a secret, only announcing it if/when the card triggers during the active player’s turn. Sometimes, a crossroads card may trigger when a player brings a new survivor into the colony, or when a player moves out of the colony, or when a player searches, or kills a zombie, or ANY number of other actions. The card will usually force the active player to make a decision, though sometimes, it can force the colony members as a whole to vote on a decision. It could be a thumb’s up for taking in a small group of survivors or a thumb’s down to send them away. However, it is rarely so simple, there are other consequences spelled out on the cards for either decision. If the crossroad card doesn’t trigger during the active player’s turn, it is simply discarded.

(If the players in your group like to read out loud, drawing crisis cards can be a blast even though they often make achieving goals more difficult. The scenarios that set up the hard choices are often well-written and suitably dark.)

Last but not least, what happens if there is a traitor in your game? Obviously, each player should appear as though they are at least somewhat interested in working toward the main objective, to look like a team player, one that is truly hoping for a group win. Each player, though, will also be looking at their own secret objective, trying to figure out how they could potentially win win the game; the group wins if the main objective is met, an individual player win wins if the main objective is met AND she has met her own secret objective too. The traitor wins if he/she derails the main objective and completes his/her own objective instead.

The possibility of a traitor can make anyone’s actions look a little sneaky at one time or another. If your group suspects a player to be the traitor, they may vote to exile that player. The player’s characters don’t die and aren’t ousted from the game, but they are ousted from the colony and must move to non-colony locations. The exiled player must draw a new exiled secret objective card which changes his/her objective for the duration of the game. In addition, there are several other rules and severe limitations slapped onto that player for the remainder of the game.

Despite the limitations, players will occasionally try to look like the traitor even when they’re on the group’s side in the hope of getting exiled and replacing their secret objective with one they’re more likely to achieve. This might allow them to win, but it’s risky, because if the group exiles too many innocents, they lose.

Deciding whether a counterproductive move is an act of treachery or an innocent attempt to achieve personal objectives can be quite challenging, especially since exiling a player is no laughing matter. It is a big part of what makes the game so fun.

Jason Grantz was our Tabletop University Teacher for Dead of Winter. He did a great job explaining the complexities of this game to the attendees. We had two full games running that night! I think Jason’s game got a little rowdy, eventually resulting in the exile of a suspicious player…! Corey knows how to hoard resources; I’ve seen him do it in other games! Anyone remember ALL the wood he was collecting during Caverna?!? Anyway, his hoarding tendency happened to work against him in this game and made him look traitorous… he was EXILED!!!

At my table, the atmosphere was a little lighter because of the cautious joking; we kept teasing that Theresa was making some highly suspicious, selfish decisions, so surely she must be the traitor. Then we were teasing Jeff, because he seemed pretty adamant to place tons of extra survivors on the board, so of course, he had to be the traitor. Who was going to feed them all??? We figured there was a traitor amongst us…. we just weren’t ever 100% sure who it might be, so no one wanted to point a finger and say the “E” word.

The big reveals:

In my game, Theresa was the traitor, so we sort of called it, but never pulled the exile trigger…. We still won despite her trickery!

In Jason’s game, Tram was the traitor, and I was not surprised by this because that woman can pull it off with an unassuming persona and a sweet smile! ;)

This game is SO MUCH FUN!!! While it does offer mobs of zombies chomping at the bit, the game is really about survival tactics and using your characters’ skills to assist in not only reaching the game’s main objective, but also pulling off your own secret objective for an over-the-top win. The unique characters make for interesting collaborations. I really liked the doctor and the dog working together. Haven’t yet played as the pirate, Gray Beard, but look forward to eventually doing so! I enjoy choosing actions for my characters, waiting anxiously to see if they trigger a crossroads card, and living in fear of rolling the exposure die. The colony phase brings all of the players back together so that it really does feel like we’re cooperating during an apocalyptic time. The trick is to watch the other players carefully for any traitorous behaviors without needlessly exiling any innocents. So much to think about and so many ways to manipulate!

Gregg and I ended up having to wait for an entire year to get our hands on a copy of this game… the story has been told and told again. If you haven’t heard it yet, let us know and we’ll fill you in! You should have seen the elation on both of our faces when we happened to walk into the game store just as a copy was being unpacked from that afternoon’s shipment! We thoroughly enjoy this game and are relieved to finally have our own copy so we can play it whenever we want!