Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game is a semi-cooperative board game designed by Jon Gilmour and Issac Vega, produced by Plaid Hat Games.
The game sees you initially in control of two characters trying to maintain a colony of survivors sheltering from the zombie apocalypse.
From your two initial survivors, you choose a leader and you work with the other players to maintain the colony by feeding everyone, scavenging for things like food, fuel, medicine, weapons and killing zombies.
Overview of Dead of Winter
This would be great if everyone was working for the good of the colony but there is another mechanic at play. At the start of each game, you are given two secret mission cards, they are your personal objectives, from these you choose one, it is a secret and you cannot tell the other players what your objective is.
For a three-player game, you take 6 personal objective cards and one betrayal card. That’s right, within the secret mission cards there is also a card that a person could choose, their goal would be the ruination of the colony, they would actively work against you.
You then deal two secret mission cards to each player, everyone chooses one to keep and the others are returned to the box unseen.
Immediately this changes the way you view your team, you want to work together, but you are suspicious of anyone that isn’t you. Unless you have chosen the betrayal objective, then you try to make everyone think you are a good guy by doing something openly good for the colony, you know that’s what you would do so if you are not the betrayer then you watch others do the same but that is what a traitor would do so it seems suspicious, although, they may just be a good guy.
It’s genuinely the best implementation of this mechanic in any game I have ever played. The thing is, every secret objective will have some selfish goal, it may be to hoard fuel, food, guns or all three, you may want to be the only survivor left alive or some other mal-intentioned action but everyone has this goal in mind as you cannot claim a personal win without completing your secret mission.
On the other hand, there is no way to win the game alone, so you have to work with the other players to keep the colony alive.
This is the best “end of the world” movie feeling turned into a game that I have ever played and I am not just talking about board games. If you have watched this site for a long time you will remember the reviews of apocalyptic zombie computer games or other ends of the world scenarios that you experience in real time but nothing has ever come close to the feeling I get when playing Dead of Winter.
Looking into someone’s eyes as they take their turn and mistrusting everything they do, feeling confident that you have found the traitor only to get the same feeling as you watch the next player take their turn. Everything they do, every action could be construed as good or bad and the pleasure this brings makes my skin fizz with joy when playing.
As an example, when you need to find food cards you may take a trip to the grocery store. If you make it there unharmed you begin a search by drawing cards from the grocery deck. If you don’t find food on the first card you could continue searching but this would mean you add a noise token.
During the colony phase, every noise token is converted to a zombie, if there are more zombies than locations then the store entrance will be overrun and the survivor with the lowest influence, denoted by the number on the top right of their player card, will die, they are removed from the game and the colony will lose one morale point.
So if you were the betrayer, and you did this on the final turn of the player phase it would seem very suspicious, but if you did this mid-round, you could blame others for not killing enough zombies to stop the store from being overrun.
Just writing about this scenario now is making me excited to play. This is exactly what I did last night during a game and it worked perfectly, we lost morale because a survivor was killed, we lost 2 morale because we failed the crisis for not having enough food and I had found 2 food cards that I could hoard and stop other players from finding.
I realise I have gone into a little tirade about Dead of Winter and how it feels to play and spilling the mechanics before they are explained so let me take you back to the start and talk about the set-up.
When setting up Dead of Winter, players draw or choose a “mission” for the colony which will have goals to be met, fail conditions, how many helpless survives will start at the colony and where zombies are to be placed and the starting morale and rounds to survive or complete the objective by.
You then place the locations outside of the colony that can be travelled to and searched, they are the police station, the grocery, the library, the school, the gas station and the hospital.
Each of these locations has its specific deck of cards located with logical biases in items. For example, the grocery has more food items, the gas station has more fuel and the police station has more weapons.
After this you place the crisis cards, these are drawn at the start of each round and determine the immediate need of the colony for this round.
Each player is handed four survivor cards from which they choose two and of those two one leader is declared. The first player marker, a huge knife, is handed to the player whose survivor has the highest influence.
They are then given three dice, one for each survivor plus one. This means as you find new survivors to join you, more dice are added to your action pool but conversely, if your survivor dies you lose an action dice.
Next to the colony board, you place the survivors’ deck, the expelled missions deck and the crossroad cards. More on those in a moment.
Lastly, you place the tokens for wounds, noise, junk, barricades, zombie standees, character standees, food tokens and please don’t let us need them, additional zombie tokens are within reach of all players and the game begins.
The Player Phase
All players roll their action dice at the start of the player phase and then place them on the unused side of their Dead of Winter character sheet. These are used to carry out actions such as an attack, denoted on the player card by a number. A dice with an equal or higher number must be used. The same is true for searches but equally some survivors have a special ability that needs a dice to activate.
Play then begins with the player whose survivor has the highest influence and moves in a clockwise fashion with each player able to perform certain actions.
The player to the first players’ right draws a crossroads card. These cards are conditional and kept secret unless the condition on the card is met. If so the person with the card reads it out and the currently active player is forced to make a choice. Often something good comes with something equally as bad or you can opt to get no bonus.
Again, these “it’s good but it’s also really bad” decisions will make everyone else suspicious regardless of the choice the player makes because I believe the game is designed to mess with your head. More often than not the conditions are not met so when they are it’s a huge decision that will affect the game dramatically either way.
Initially, most players use a food card to feed the colony, if they have one (or maybe they do have one and say they don’t, watch out everyone is lying), place their food card in the waste and add food tokens to the supply, they then choose to kill a zombie at the colony or not and then move to a location. Movement is carried out by physically moving a player to a specific location, each location can only be occupied by a set number of survivors specified by circles for standees inside the location.
When you kill a zombie or move your character you have to roll for exposure. This is a D12 with blanks, wounds, frostbite and a tooth on it.
Roll a blank, everything is great, life is good. Roll a wound, OW, that hurt but you can survive up to three wounds before you die. Roll frostbite and you will take a wound at the start of each player phase. But roll a tooth, there is only one on the dice, and you are instantly killed, the player with the lowest influence at your current location is infected and they then have a choice to make.
They too can just die, the infection stops and life is good again, although you lose 2 morale, OR they can chance their arm and roll the exposure dice again. If they get a blank the infection passes and nothing happens but if they roll anything else, they too die, the infection spreads to the next character with the lowest influence and so on.
Dead of Winter is a brutal experience and you feel under pressure throughout the entire game.
If you make it to a location you can search by drawing a card from the locations search deck, you may have an ability because of the location or something else you can do but either way you continue until they have used the dice they have available.
Play moves to the person on their left and another crossroad card is drawn by the player on their right.
In Dead of Winter, it’s round two where things normally get more interesting. You now need to clean the colony by firstly being there, spending an action dice and removing three cards from the waste pile. If this gets to 10 you will lose morale during the next colony phase.
This is when you can also start to see peoples motivations, the crisis could be for a different resource. How likely is it someone doesn’t have medicine or fuel as well as not being able to help in the last round? EXILE THEM.
So, if you think you know who the betrayer is, bearing in mind your game may not have one, then you can call a vote. If the vote passes the player is exiled and they can then reveal their secret mission as they draw an exiled mission card and leave the colony. They no longer need to provide food or other resources for the colony but they also cannot contribute to the crisis. The Exiled mission cards adjust the players’ objectives and reflect how that player group feels about being ejected.
If, as a group, you eject two players that show they were not the betrayer your morale will immediately drop to zero and you will lose the game so you have to be careful but remember to never trust anyone but you have to trust people but you can’t so watch out!
Is Dead of Winter fun?
Well, I love it but is it fun? It’s a strange question to ask because fun is subjective. The theme is on point, there is a bleakness to everything that makes you feel stressed and under pressure the entire time.
You genuinely cannot and should not trust your teammates because there is a very high likely hood that their personal objective means they are, at the very least, hoarding cards that the colony needs and at worst they are actively working against you.
There is always something you need to do, a resource you need that you don’t have. Sure as you progress the game you will find items that make things easier. Items that will allow you to roll the dreaded exposure dice less often but the zombies keep coming, more survivors and helpless survivors need food or resources or create waste and every round there is a new crisis to deal with.
If you like an intense game that keeps you guessing then yes, Dead of Winter is fun.
One point I had forgotten until now was the subject matter. The game is bleak and at times can have some very adult themes and content but, I still played this with my children as any “adult” content on the crossroads cards is marked with a speech mark symbol so you can simply choose to omit those decisions from your game.
The subject matter, killing and dying pretend zombies is a lot more palatable this way and both of my children enjoy playing.
Dead of Winter is not perfect
Dead of Winter was released in 2014 and at this point, the zombie trope, for some, is becoming a little stale. The game forces you to make very hard choices, moral questions and is very gritty and real, yet, there is a character called Sparky. Sparky is a stunt dog that can fire rifles, shoot zombies and drive cars! It drives me crazy that this stupid character is in the game at all.
It’s hard to win. We have played quite a bit, I don’t know exactly how many games but we have played most scenarios at least a couple of times. Only Descent: Legends of the Dark has been on the table more in the last few months but we rarely win. This could be a good thing I suppose because when you do beat a scenario you feel an immense sense of achievement but there is an awful lot of luck in your searches, the dice rolls and the characters you find which don’t come together that often.
Dead of Winter is incredible. I have some amazing memories from the games we have played and experienced together. Some triumphs and personal wins as well as some great teamwork and above all fun. We laugh a lot at such a bleak game for all the wrong reasons and our time playing has been one of joy.
There is a feeling of never quite being stable that feels like it could be a real zombie apocalypse and Dead of Winter captures that feeling better than any game, movie or series I have ever experienced and more importantly, above anything else, this game gets my family to the table. Away from computer screens, away from phones where we can truly be together, talking, gaming and having fun.