Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Surviving in the Dead of Winter

I'm so cold. And hungry. I can't even remember the last time I felt warm or full. Shivering seems to be a way of life for me, well, for all of us really. I used to laugh at all of those so-called "preppers." That was before, though. If I met a prepper now, I'd kiss his feet just for a decent meal, or warm clothes, or some firewood. I would even chop it if I could find the strength and energy to do so. It would help keep me warm and take my mind off of everything else. I guess I could risk it, and try searching the store again, but this cut on my leg is getting worse and worse. Of course it's infected, but the last time I saw any form of antiseptic cream was months ago. Even then it was long since expired.

As if the unrelenting cold and constant hunger aren't bad enough, there's always the looming threat of the undead. It doesn't matter how many we kill, as there's always more. I know, it sounds weird to me, too. How can you "kill" something that's already dead? Does it really matter? No, I guess it doesn't. Kill them, neutralize them, stop them, whatever. Just don't let them get too close and bite you. Then you'll just join them. At this point, though, if that would stop the hunger and mind numbing cold I might just give up. Please, let me go to sleep and wake up to find this was all just a horrible dream.

But, it's not a dream. 


A desolate wasteland...
photo from user TheMadNutter on boardgamegeek.com

It's a GAME!

(Cue theme from The Walking Dead.)


They keep coming and coming!



Hey, it's hard not to get into character when playing Dead of Winter, one of several titles from the brilliant minds of Plaid Hat Games, originally released in 2014. Now I'm not suggesting you get into character as deeply as you would for something like D & D, but a little roleplay would definitely enhance your game. I'll cover where this roleplay will come in handy in just a bit. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years I'm sure you've at least heard of the TV show The Walking Dead (yes, that music from above). Of course, Cindy and I are huge fans of this series, and naturally we use lots of "TWD" references when playing Dead of Winter. I've even managed to use Zombieland references while playing, much to everyone's amusement. 


Dead of Winter


Plaid Hat's website describes Dead of Winter as a "meta-cooperative psychological survival game." Thankfully, though, they offer a more user-friendly (at least to me) description. The players must work together to achieve a common victory condition, BUT, and here's the tricky part, each individual player must complete their own personal, secret objective to achieve victory. Fair enough. However, and yes, there are still plenty more "howevers" to come, this individual objective may be to betray the colony as a whole. 

Whaaaaaat??

Yes, it's true! The game may or may not include a betrayer. The betrayer must cause the colony as a whole to lose, either by running out of time or having morale drop to zero. It all depends on the luck of the draw when the players draw their secret objective cards. So, I'll briefly describe the setup and walk you through a game to give you a brief taste of this fantastic game.

Hopefully, you've read my blog on Pandemic or Flash Point describing other cooperative games. If not, clicking the titles will take you to those blogs. I'd love to hear what you think about them. There are several parallels between Pandemic and Dead of Winter, such as a built-in mechanic for time limits and other end points.

Dead of Winter has so many different layers that the group must contend with. Not only are there group and individual objectives to complete, but each round also has a specific crisis to manage. Add to this the ever increasing number of zombies each round and the requirement to provide enough food for those in the colony. Survivors exploring outlying locations are on their own and can forage for food themselves. When playing Dead of Winter, I'm hardly ever "comfortable" like I am in other games, like Pandemic. 

Uncomfortable? Get a seat cushion, silly! No, that's not what I mean, and you readers know it! 😉 The group has to constantly juggle meager food supplies, dwindling resources, injuries to the survivors, deal with an acute crisis and oh, by the way, build some barricades to keep those pesky zombies out. Do I keep that fuel card for my secret objective or donate it to the colony to prevent a catastrophe by failing a crisis? There are few easy choices in this game, and I absolutely love it! That's why I particularly like how the characters in the game are called survivors. One does not simply "win" the game so much as survive it.

The players as a whole pick the main objective either by consensus or by random draw. We've always picked by consensus, as some objectives are set up for short, medium, or long games. Part of the victory condition is to complete the objectives in a certain number of rounds and prevent the morale from dropping to zero. Two important considerations are how many rounds you'll have to complete your objective and at what level your morale will start. A round consists of each player having a turn (the "Player Turns Phase") to do what they need to do with their survivors and a "Colony Phase." At the end of the Colony Phase, the round marker decreases by one. In the example below, the round track starts at 6, and morale starts at 5.


Example of a main objective card


I like this mechanic of a built-in time limit. Starting the round track at a lower number will naturally put more pressure on the group to achieve their objective. Likewise, a lower starting morale will remove the already slight margin for error. Morale is lost in several ways. The two most common are anytime a survivor dies, or the waste in the colony accumulates. Certain card actions will also decrease morale. 

Now that we've picked the main objective, we'll shuffle two secret objective cards per player and one betrayal card together, then deal one card per player. Is there a betrayer amongst us? Who knows? Let's just ratchet up the tension immediately, shall we?

What's my mission?


Betrayer and non-betrayer cards

These secret objectives can range from fairly easy, to quite difficult. For example, a non-betrayer objective may be to help the colony complete the main objective and ensure there are two "helpless survivors" (more on those in a bit) at the colony. Now that we have the main objective set and your secret objectives, it's time to pick the survivors you control. Plaid Hat Games (I'll refer to them as "PHG") calls these characters you control "survivors" for very good reasons. I feel that I don't so much win or lose this game as much as I manage to survive the game. We'll shuffle the survivor deck and deal four cards to each player. At the beginning of the game, we'll pick two of the four cards and return the rest to the deck. We do this step after we receive our secret objective to help us determine which survivors to initially pick.

Brandon Kane, Janitor

Mr. Kane is just one of several survivors in the original Dead of Winter game. Notice the numbers on the right? The top number, circled in red, is his influence value. The higher this number is, the higher the survivor's influence is. This is very important, as it determines the leader of your faction (the survivors you control) as well as what happens if zombies (or walkers, or biters, or whatever you want to call them) overrun a location. If that happens, the survivor with the lowest influence score dies. 

Note the next number down from the influence rating. It has a bullet hole next to it. This is the survivor's attack rating. For each survivor you control, you also get an action die. Since this survivor has a 2+ rating, you must have an action die (that you roll at the beginning of each round) be at least two or higher to successfully perform an attack. The number with the magnifying glass is the search rating. Mr. Kane must have a die with four or higher to successfully perform a search. This survivor can attack better than he can search. Additionally, each survivor may have a unique skill. Mr. Kane is very effective at cleaning, obviously, so when he's at the colony he can perform a vital function much more efficiently than others. 

Other survivors have different values for each, so it's important to have a strong mix initially. Throughout the game, it's possible and even likely, to acquire additional survivors to add to your faction. By the way, is it just me, or does Mr. Kane look a lot like the actor Stephen Root? Every time I play this survivor, I can't help but play him as his character Milton, from the movie Office Space. Maybe you even picked Sparky the Stunt Dog. Of course we play Sparky using Scooby Doo's voice. How could we not?

Dead of Winter Survivors


Excellent! We picked our main objective for the colony, we have our secret individual objectives, we've selected our initial survivors and set up the board for play. Admittedly Dead of Winter does require a little more setup time than other similar games we've played. The added layers of complexity add to the experience, rather than detract from it. This complexity allows players to really immerse themselves into the Dead of Winter universe. Note: throughout this blog, I will cover the highlights of this game, and try not to delve too deeply into the intricacies of every rule and procedure. You can find the complete rules and even the user guide on the PHG website. Heck, they even provide a video!


Set up and ready to play!

That black and gray structure on the left of the photo is a dice tower, by the way. It's not part of the Dead of Winter game. I found it on eBay, and we use it for any game that uses dice. This is not an essential element of gameplay, but I like using it, and it does keep all the dice from scattering or knocking random game pieces out of position. Since each of the survivors you control get an action die, plus one extra, you can end up rolling several action dice at once. Just drop them all into the top of the tower, they'll bounce around, and come out the bottom into a tray. Done!

All survivors start out in the colony at the beginning of the game. It's up to the player to determine where his or her survivors will go throughout the game. Depending upon the main objective and individual objective, the survivors must risk searching several outlying locations to find food, fuel, medicine, tools, weapons or other essential items. Yes, it is a risk to move about and search. Unless your survivor uses a fuel card to move from one location to another or has a special ability inherent to their specific character, any movement requires a roll of the dreaded exposure die. 

This evil thing is a 12-sided die that has a tooth (instant death from a bite!) on one face, a frostbite marker on two faces, and a wound marker on three faces. That leaves six blank faces. These are good! Rolling a blank means that survivor got lucky.....this time. Rolling a frostbite or wound results in having the respective token placed on that survivor's card. Frostbite and wounds can be treated with a medicine card. A survivor having three or more wounds dies. Remember that whole "losing one morale when a survivor dies" thing? Frostbite must be treated immediately. If left untreated, it will cause an additional wound on the next round. 

Yes, folks, you are reading all of this correctly. Just moving from one place to another requires rolling this misshapen orb of doom. And yes, on the first move of the first round, your survivor can die! It's happened to me before on more than one occasion. Even attacking a zombie requires rolling this beast unless your survivor has a unique ability (some do) or has acquired a weapon. Take a look at this nasty little critter!

Exposure die


Still think it's a good idea to go traipsing about, searching for weapons and food? What choice do you really have? Sit at the colony to avoid exposure and starve or go out and try to find resources that will help the colony and you survive? Much like life, everything has its own pros and cons. Hanging out at the colony won't help you reach any objective, main or personal. During the Colony Phase, the first order of business is to "pay food." For every two survivors, including helpless survivors, one food token, rounded up is required. Three survivors then will require two food tokens. These tokens are earned by survivors contributing a food card found in one of the outlying locations. These food cards vary from one to three tokens in value. The good news is that the colony can stockpile food, so if there are four tokens, and only two are needed, then only two are removed from the stockpile. That leaves two for the next round. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe....

As if having survivors hang out at the colony wasn't already stressing the food supply, those devious game designers added another wrinkle called "helpless survivors" to the mix. I wonder if the PHG staff took their training from the Gamemakers of the The Hunger Games. Helpless survivors are very aptly named. They are found in the resource cards from outlying locations. During a search, a player may find a card such as "Two outsiders." This card allows the player to draw another survivor from the deck to add to his faction and then place a helpless survivor at the colony. These helpless survivors contribute nothing to the colony. They only add to the food burden and take up space. The one saving grace of a helpless survivor is that if zombies break through one of the six colony entrances, the helpless survivor will get killed before a "regular" survivor is killed. Yes, the morale will take a hit, but at least a contributing survivor will still be alive. Everything in this game is a tradeoff. 

While our survivors are busy exploring the police station looking for weapons, or the hospital hoping to find medicine, their action may trigger a crossroads card. In yet another stellar addition, our game designers created these cards that have a choice between two or three outcomes. Typically there's a risk versus reward in the choices. These crossroads cards don't always come into play. Sometimes the trigger is a survivor searching a specific location, or maybe it requires a specific survivor to actually be in play (not waiting in the deck). Some of these are brilliantly written, and it's hard not to laugh when reading the choices. Some require a vote of all non-exiled players (yes, I'll get to that soon) and some require a choice by the player currently taking his or her turn. 

A few of these beg to be read in Negan's voice. Who's Negan? If you have to ask, you have my sympathy. Just click the link, and you'll see who I'm referring to on a YouTube compilation. Caution: Negan is NOT a nice person, and his language is NOT work or kid friendly. Click that link if you want to be entertained, but please use your discretion. You've been warned. If you want a safer, non-video description, just click here to see Wikipedia's entry. Anyway, these crossroads cards are one of my favorite aspects of the game. Monty Hall would be proud.

Is it gonna be good, bad or both?

As much as I'd love to display a photo of the backs of one of these gems, I'd rather not spoil anything. Many of these are fantastically written, and to reveal even one of these would dimish the fun. If you really want to know, I'm sure Google could help you out. Just trust me and wait until you play the game. It'll be worth the wait, I promise. 

Option 1, we can....



Yes, you are allowed to ask for advice from any source.
(no, that's NOT Sparky)

Now's the perfect time to talk about the betrayer. As I mentioned earlier, a betrayer may be present in the colony. Their sole purpose is to bring the colony down (morale at zero) while still accomplishing other objectives, such as acquiring specific items as stated on their card. Having drawn the betrayer card on a few occasions, I found it best to help out the colony initially, earning everyone's trust until the time is right to strike. This isn't as easy as it sounds, as the players are suspicious of everyone (at least I am) until proven otherwise. PHG plays into this by having the crisis contribution cards played face down. During the Colony Phase, when it's time to resolve the crisis, the cards are shuffled before being revealed. If the betrayer wants to sabotage the colony, this act of shuffling the cards ensures he or she remains hidden.

"But I'm a good judge of character!" 

"Well good for you, genius! Aren't you the high and mighty savior of the colony?" (Say those last two lines aloud in Negan's voice. Go ahead, do it. You'll see why it's so fun reading the Crossroads cards "in character.")

You think you know who the betrayer is? There's a way, a risky way, to deal with it. During your turn, if you think someone is the betrayer, you can initiate a vote to exile them from the colony. They must then reveal their secret objective, which will show if they are the betrayer or not. Problem solved, right? 

Not necessarily. If that player isn't the betrayer, you've made a potential enemy and removed a (hopefully) productive survivor from the colony. If that person is the betrayer, they'll be outed, and the remaining players can take steps to mitigate the damage. Exiling a player triggers other actions, though, that may or may not be good. The exiled player draws the top "Exiled!" card, and that becomes their new secret objective. Oh, if two players get exiled who aren't betrayers, morale drops to zero, and it's GAME OVER.

Your new mission...


Play continues until the main objective is reached, the round tracker reaches zero, or morale reaches zero. If you are lucky enough to survive (See what I did there?) the hordes of zombies, crises, food shortages and reach your colony goal, each player then checks to see if they met their individual, secret objective. If so, they win as an individual. Yes, there can be more than one winner here. Pretty cool, huh?

Had fun? We always do, even when we lose. This game is difficult to win as a colony, and depending upon your secret objectives, brutally difficult to win as an individual. As I've written in my Pandemic blog, I tend to be a glutton for punishment. By the time I heard about the original game, PHG had already released a "stand-alone" expansion called The Long Night


The Long Night


This expansion can be played on its own or combined with the original "Crossroads" game. Naturally, I had to have both. I love expansions, and if you've noticed with both Pandemic and Flash Point, I enjoy collecting all the expansions I can. The Long Night, or "TLN" as I refer to it, adds three modules that you can mix and match and a cast of new survivors. These new survivors come with their own unique strengths and abilities. Additionally, the resource cards are different and add some exciting changes.

TLN survivors
(yes, that's a chimp you see)

PHG offers a little guidance on combining the various decks of the two games, but I found the best advice from the Dead of Winter: TLN forums on boardgamegeek.com. Several users did a fantastic job creating the optimal mix of the two versions while keeping the ratio of each location's resources intact. I used one of these suggested mixes and created my own spreadsheet to aid setting up the game with the combined decks. 

Improvements Module: The easiest module to incorporate first, I think, is the improvements module. This is another set of cards and tokens that are used to enhance the colony. Should this module be chosen, shuffle the improvements deck and draw four cards at the beginning of the game. These four improvements require specific resources and once all are acquired the improvement is activated. These improvements can increase morale, strengthen defenses, or help treat frostbite. The tradeoff here is having to balance precious resources between making an improvement or managing one of the crisis cards each round.

Bandits Module: Bandits are non-zombie characters that function outside the control of any player. They take up space at non-colony locations and scavenge resources from those locations. They also attract zombies like the survivors do. This creates a serious problem when trying to find resources at a specific location. The resource cards scavenged by the bandits are placed face up in their own location. 


Bandits!


Wanna try to recover some of that loot? You can perform a search at their hideout or even attack a bandit. The odds aren't in your favor, though. You are more likely to receive a wound just for trying. Earlier I wrote that these bandits weren't controlled by any players. Should a non-betrayer get exiled, they become the leader of the bandits.Ummm, OK. So a non-betrayer who just got exiled probably isn't too happy about that, and now he or she controls the bandits? You might want to think extra hard about exiling someone if the bandit module is in play. Just sayin'....


Bandit Hideout

Raxxon Module: You think adding the bandit module made an already difficult game harder? Yes, it did. Adding the Raxxon module, though, just opened up a new world of hurt. Raxxon was a research facility that produced some interesting stuff before the outbreak. This is definitely a "high risk/high reward" module, capable of yielding some awesome resources, and capable of releasing some truly evil, nasty zombie mutants. I can't decide it this is living adventurously or foolishly. These zombie mutants cannot be killed with a normal attack like the "regular" zombies. When encountering one of these creatures, your best hope is to escape with just a wound.....if you are lucky. It's best to avoid these hideous things all together. To keep these safely contained, the players as a whole must use two dice that have numbers matching the containment code (such as a one and a three) on the top Raxxon card. Odds are that of all the dice being rolled, the group will have two that match. This, of course, eliminates those dice for other use during that round.

Mutant zombies

Searching through Raxxon will definitely yield some powerful weapons and pills that can either hurt you or help you, depending on the roll of a die. Here's a big catch, though. After each search, you must pick up that dreaded exposure die and roll for exposure. Every.time. Did your survivor find a colorful pill during their last search? Your survivor doesn't have to take the pill, but should the benefit outweigh the risk, go for it. Once taken, though, the effects cannot be reversed. 

Raxxon

Remember seeing the chimp in the TLN "cast photo?" That's Blue. Blue is a product of Raxxon, and one of the Crossroads cards can be triggered by having Blue in play. It is one of the most brilliantly written cards in the game. Reading it in character will have your gaming group roaring with laughter....except for the one affected by it. 

So there you have it, dear readers. You've just been exposed to the world of Dead of Winter (pun totally intended!). Yes, it's a complicated game. Yes, it's tough to win. Yes, it's one of my favorites!

But wait, there's more! Of course there is. The kind folks at PHG aren't resting on their laurels and forgetting us. A couple of months ago they announced on their website the next expansion, coming soon to store near you! The first of several announcements can be found by clicking here. I'm totally excited about this expansion called "The Warring Colonies!" Two colonies get to slug it out and compete for the few resources out there, while still juggling all the other crises in this world. Hurry up and take my money, Plaid Hat!

A final word about these games. Should you purchase either or both, don't forget to visit the PHG's online store. They will frequently sell promotional items for their various games. I found three new survivors (the standees, survivor card, and associated crossroads card) to add to the game. Other websites, such as boardgamegeek.com will do this on occasion as well. I bought a set of five unique crossroads cards to add to the deck. All of this, while not required, definitely add more flavor to an already tasty game.

PHG Promos



Yes, the lady in the Mrs. Claus costume happens to be Forest Plum's wife, Roberta. Forest Plum, Mall Santa, is one of the survivors in the original game. A unique trait of Forest is that if he dies, the colony actually gains one morale. What does that say about his personality or hygiene?

Forest & Roberta Plum


I mentioned before how the janitor, Brandon Kane, looks like actor Stephen Root. Forest reminds me of the character Socrates from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Another survivor, Carla Thompson, could be the twin sister of a certain Food Network personality. Which star do you think I'm referring to? Please let me know in the comments section below the blog.

Carla Thompson


I always take tons of photos during our games, whether it's Dead of Winter, Pandemic, Flash Point, etc. When writing this blog, I also took many photos specifically to use here. I didn't use all of them, of course, but had fun setting some up. Here are a few I took just for the heck of it.



Run Sparky, run!





Rule #2: The double tap




He's just a "Negan wannabe"

That wraps up my Dead of Winter blog. Have you played it yet? What about any other cooperative games? I'd love to read about your experience in the comments below. Coming up, I'm going to interview local chef Ryan Klen. Also in the pipeline is a blog on Hurricane Celia, which I'll post in August on the anniversary of that storm. Do any of y'all have a suggested topic? Let me know, and I'll see what I can come up with.

Note: This is strictly my own opinion of the Dead of Winter games. I receive NO compensation from Plaid Hat Games, who owns and distributes these games, in any form whatsoever.


Until next time....


carpe cerevisi