Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Dead of Winter

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Dead of Winter is the hot and trendy nowadays. It is a semi-cooperative game and a traitor game, and many compare it to Battlestar Galactica. I think it is more like Shadows Over Camelot. In Battlestar Galactica you know for sure there is at least one cylon among the players. In Shadows Over Camelot there may or may not be a traitor.

You are survivors in a post zombie apocalyptic world, living in a small colony. Winter is here. You need to look for food. You need to fight off zombies accumulating at the fences before they reach critical mass and break through. Every game begins with a group objective displayed to all. It sets the scene. Everyone tries to achieve it. In addition, every player also starts with one secret personal objective. To win, you must also achieve your personal objective. If the game ends due to the group objective being achieved, and you have not achieved your secret objective, you lose. There is a chance that one player will draw a traitor objective. His objective will involve forcing everyone else to lose, e.g. dropping the colony morale value to zero. When you suspect a traitor among you, you can vote to exile him. He won't be able to cause trouble to the colony anymore. He will get a new objective though and he may still win as an individual player. An exiled player may not necessarily be a traitor. He may just be a victim of distrust in the group.

Everyone starts the game with two characters, and throughout the game you may gain or lose characters, e.g. encountering other survivors, or getting killed by zombies. In case you lose your last character, you draw a random new one, so you are not eliminated from the game. On your turn you roll some dice depending on how many characters you have, and then you get your characters to perform actions freely. Some actions (fighting zombies, searching for goods) require spending dice of specific values. Some actions consume dice of any value (e.g. building barricades). Some actions require no dice, e.g. moving to a different building. Killing zombies is deterministic. You already commit a die up front and don't need to roll to determine success or failure. However you do have to roll an exposure die, which may have no effect, or you may get injured, or you may even die tragically. Moving about also requires rolling the exposure die (it's winter after all).

These are my two characters. The top right number is the influence level, which determines who dies first when a group is attacked by zombies. It's like a measure of how important a character is in a movie. Naturally the low-valued minor supporting cast members will die first. The second number next to the starburst is the attack value, the lower the better. E.g. for the ninja on the left, a die roll of 2 or more is required to kill a zombie. The third number next to the magnifying glass is the search ability, also the lower the better.

One of the most important things you do is to search. This is basically going to a specific location and drawing cards. Different locations will have different types of cards. You can find guns at the police station, but not at the grocery store. Quite often the secret objectives involve collecting specific types of goods, e.g. food, weapons, fuel.

These are the various locations where you can visit to search for items.

While working on your secret objective and the group objective, and also watching out for a possible traitor, the game system presents a number of challenges. You need to worry about scavenging enough food to feed the colony. You need to trim the zombie build-up at the colony and at the various locations your people are in. Every round there is also a crisis to be managed, usually by spending cards (a little like Battlestar Galactica).

The Play

Boon Khim, Jeff, Dennis and Kareem. Dennis didn't play but accompanied us throughout the game.

I did a 4-player game. The moment I drew my secret objective card, I thought oh no... I was a traitor. That meant one more thing to worry about. I had to hide my identity, and I had to secretly nudge the colony towards disaster, working against the other players. The group objective in our game required us to kill zombies and collect samples. Killing zombies is deterministic in this game, but collecting samples requires a die roll. The success rate is 50%. At the start of the game I decided I must do my best to pretend to be a good guy. My secret objective required that I collect some fuel, food and weapons, before I ruin the morale of the colony. I decided to play the hardworking guy while gathering the stuff I needed. When I was ready, I would start jeopardizing the group's effort. I took the acting so seriously that I ended up being one of the major contributors to the common cause. It was partly because one of my characters was a ninja (seriously, his job description was "ninja"). He fought well and did not need to roll the exposure die when fighting, so I didn't need to worry about committing him to fight zombie after zombie. We worked so well as a group that I found that we were near fulfilling the group objective, while I was still short of my personal objective. It was then I realised that I should not have play acted so convincingly. I pleaded to the others to wait for me while I just collected a few more items, and that was when they either laughed knowingly or smiled apologetically. I realised this was not a cooperative game! Yes, you do need to work towards the group objective (unless you are the traitor), but you probably should think of it more as a countdown timer you have to manipulate. Your secret personal objective is your real goal.

These were our starting characters. They all started in the colony itself, but would soon venture out to scavenge.

One fun mechanism is the Crossroads cards. At the start of your turn, the player to your right draws a Crossroads card and reads it without showing you. It is an event card, and it triggers if certain conditions are met on the board, or when you perform a specific action on your turn. It may or may not trigger, it may be a good or a bad thing, and you are kept in suspense throughout your turn. It's a simple yet effective way to pull you into the story. If the event does occur, you will get to hear a short narrative, and at the end of it you get to choose how your character reacts. What you pick affects the game. You may gain characters, or resources, or you may get hurt, and so on. During our game Jeff encountered an old lady and her family. They had food with them, which would be useful to the colony, but they were all either too old or too young to contribute much. He killed them and grabbed all their food! How horrible!

At this point only three characters stayed in the colony. The guy with a gun was good at killing zombies so he was assigned the task of trimming the zombie build-up at the colony.

All the zombies at the police station (first location) had been killed by my ninja (guy in black).

When the game ended, we were surprised to find that not only I was a traitor, Kareem was one too! We had made a mistake during setup. Normally a game will have at most one traitor. I don't know how that extra traitor card got mixed in. It is disgraceful that we had two traitors, and yet the colony survived. What were we (the traitors) doing?! I guess as the traitors both Kareem and I were conservative and didn't do anything that might arouse suspicion. The colony surviving meant both of us losing. Among the good people, I was surprised that Jeff didn't win. He was the one grinning at me when I pleaded to hold off a little longer, and he pushed the game to finish. His secret objective was to hold the most cards. Unfortunately he had fewer than Kareem, whose objective was to hoard food. I guess he knew it was risky, but he decided to take the risk sooner, lest Kareem accumulated even more cards. In the end, silent and deadly Boon Khim was the sole winner. His objective was to build barricades, and he had indeed built quite many.

In hindsight, one big strategic mistake I made was picking the ninja character. This guy was very good at killing zombies, which the group objective required. Since I was the traitor, I should not have picked any character that would help the group objective. If I had such a character, it would be hard to wriggle out of helping the colony. It would be downright suspicious. If I had no useful character, I could claim my starting picks were all lousy. I should have picked characters which helped my secret objective. Even if there weren't any such characters, my second choice should have been characters that didn't help the group objective.

This is NOT a cooperative game!

The Thoughts

Dead of Winter is fun! I would say that all of the mechanisms are quite simple, which frees you up to focus on the people aspect of the game. It's a player-against-player game, and not a player-against-game-system game. The core mechanism of a common objective plus a secret personal objective plus the possibility of a traitor is something new, or at least I have not see this before. It's clever. There are many objective cards and Crossroads cards, which should provide much replayability.

One interesting thing about the game is it may tease out what kind of a person you and your fellow players are. In our game, Jeff did not hesitate to kill the hag and grab her food, because he's a seasoned gamer and he knew this "evil" course of action was probably best considering his objectives in the game. However I wouldn't be surprised if under similar situations other people pick the other option. It is not obviously bad, and picking it may not necessarily be the wrong decision. It depends on the situation. I can also imagine a situation where players actually work together to get as many people to win as possible. Some who have achieved their personal goals wait for others to achieve theirs, before making the last push to complete the group objective together. The rules don't require or even encourage this, but they don't forbid it either. Dead of Winter is all about group dynamics. Most of the mechanisms are simple and simply provide a framework for the player-vs-player interaction and psychological battle.


Anonymous said...

Hi, great Blog! and Nice reviews!
I'm going around KL this week to look for this board game, where am I suppossed to start?


Im looking also for The Resistance by the way. ^_^

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I usually buy at www.boardgamecafe.net (I'm a friend of the owner) which is in the Cheras area, or www.meeples.com.my, which is in PJ area, near Sunway pyramid. There are quite a few boardgame cafes in KL too and it should be easy to find them on Google. They may have Dead of Winter in stock too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip. After browsing through the site, I was sent here, http://www.boardgamecafe.net/store/default.asp

and I found out that Dead of Winter is out of stock, and they will restock this July. Is it ok if you post here if its available already, since you're a friend of the store owner. ^_^


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

You can contact them and preorder a copy. Then they will notify you once your copy is ready. If I remember correctly Jeff mentioned they are restocking around end of July.