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Sharing a Dear Love: Dead of Winter

A while back, a dear friend of mine casually dropped that they owned this random board game about zombies we should play one day. It took a while, because I kind of suck at reaching out to anyone to make plans, but after a few weeks (or months maybe?), it happened. The game?

Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter supports 2 to 5 players in a colony during winter against an endless horde of zombies. It's got all the classic tropes: people getting bitten, people spreading their zombie infection to others, the need to gather supplies, the need to keep morale up, betrayal. If you've seen it or read it in zombie fiction, Dead of Winter probably captured it in board game form in spades.

Of all the games I've played, from the ones I tried once to the ones I play as often as I can (lookin' at you, Munchkin), I haven't played that many that pit the players together against the game itself. When it came to Dead of Winter, though? Banding together was the only thing that made the game even remotely close to survivable, let alone winnable.

First and foremost thing about dead of winter? It's friggin' brutal. The game counts down your turns while throwing everything at you. Need fuel? Hope you don't get frostbite on the way to the gas station. Hungry? Hope you have enough to feed everyone back home without burying the colony in a heap of trash. Did you search a location a little too much, desperately trying to find a gun? Here comes the zombies! There are so many terrible possibilities, you never know which one is going to take you out until it's too late. do you win?

That's one of my favorite aspects of the game. When you start, you reveal a main objective for everyone as a whole. If you achieve that objective before you run out of rounds or morale hits zero, the game ends peacefully.

Aside from that, every player is dealt a secret objective they don't share with anyone else until the game is officially over, come what may. If any player wants to win, they have to accomplish what's on their own card before the game ends. Most the secret objectives dealt are perfectly fine. Maybe you just need to get a bunch of weapons for the colony. Maybe you're a hoarder trying to save food for yourself. Not too terrible, just a bit selfish. Just about every card requires the player to achieve the main goal while also accomplishing some secondary, personal goal. However, amongst the players in the game, you might have someone who's not playing nice, you just might have one betrayer in your midst. Not every game will have a betrayer, but if it does, it's rarely good news as their goals are pretty much guaranteed to hurt everyone else in their pursuit of victory.

The other thing players are given at the start of the game are a few items to get started with and 2 survivors they're in control of, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you're lucky and you get a ninja that can kill zombies without putting themselves at risk of injury or death. Maybe you get a stunt dog (not even joking) who are only injured instead of killed if they're bitten. But maybe you don't. Maybe you get the drunk mall Santa whose only good thing is they can boost the morale of everyone back home if they choose to exile themselves...

Once you have your survivors in place and your secret mission locked away in your head, the countdown against the clock begins. Without letting onto what you're up to, you've got to somehow find a way to accomplish your personal task. This means playing nice with others, looking out for the colony, all the while not raising anyone's suspicions. There's one card that says three survivors have to die for you to win, and it's not even a betrayer card! Try explaining that as you're running around acting like a reckless jerk for no reason. Meanwhile, everyone else is just trying to do their own thing.

I played a round where our group goal was to arm everyone with a weapon. I was in control of a police dispatcher who got a boost to searching the police station, so I volunteered to try and stock up to bring guns back to everyone else. Little did I know, one of the other 3 players had a betrayer card that required them to have 4 guns equipped to themselves. Too bad for them, I took all the guns long before they could accomplish their mission. Too bad for the rest of us, we got wiped out before we ever managed to equip everyone like we wanted to. It was awful.

But so what if you make everyone else mad doing your thing? What could possibly go wrong? Exile...exile can go wrong.

During any player's turn, they can call for a vote of majority to exile a player from the game. Maybe someone's a betrayer and another player legitimately noticed them being shady and wants them gone. Exiling them sounds like a totally awesome idea...but what if they're wrong? Or what if it's the betrayer screwing with everyone else, trying to exile a perfectly honest chef who's just trying to feed the hungry? does this nightmare work?

Once you've set the board per whatever hopeless scenario you're trying to survive, player turn is first determined based on the survivors people have in play. Each survivor has a stat that represents their influence, highest influence goes first.

Once you've figured out the initial turn order, everyone rolls their dice (1 for themselves and 1 for each survivor they control), then you begin. Whichever player starts the round reveals a crisis card (fun, right?). The crisis card gives all the players an ultimatum. Usually it's something like devote as many cards that are food as there are players in the game. (But don't forget! you need food to feed your survivors too...)

So what if you don't satisfy the demands of the crisis? How's adding 10 extra zombies to your base sound? Yeah, failing a crisis suuuuuucks.

Once it's a player's time to do anything, they can decide if they want to move one or more of their survivors to other locations. Doing so means either rolling for exposure or spending fuel cards to get to their destination safely. Rolling for exposure may mean nothing happens, it might injure your survivor, it might give them lasting frostbite, or it may just straight up kill them instantly. Spending fuel is fine, but you might need it later. Even if you can spare it, it adds to the colony's waste pile. Have too many waste at the end of a round? You lose a morale.

*Most games start around 6 or 7 morale out of 10. Hitting zero ends the game. This is almost a loss for anyone not a betrayer. Some betrayer cards require morale at zero to win.

Whether you move any of your survivors or not, you then get to decide how to spend your dice. Every survivor has a value required to kill a zombie and a value required to perform a search for supplies. There are 6 locations you can travel to, each with their own particular ratio of goods (lots of food at the school and grocery store, lots of weapons at the police station and gas station and so on).

But of course it can't be that simple. Killing zombies sounds great, right? I mean... sort of, except for the part where you have to roll for exposure every time you do it. Remember earlier when I said exposure could potentially be an instant kill? Just like that, you could be out a survivor because you killed a zombie and you rolled poorly (survivors dying is a loss of morale, btw).

And on and on it goes, trying to avoid crises, trying to feed everyone, trying to not die, just because you went to the store, all the while trying to do whatever task the game threw at you before it all began. With each round, you add more zombies to the board and chew through more resources (if you deplete a location of stuff, it's just empty, no reshuffling because screw you).

Bottom line?

On top of everything I just rambled about above, Dead of Winter still has loads of depth to offer in its gameplay. There are still so many things I haven't even touched on that just make more sense once you play it. In the handful of times I've gone through it, I've learned something new about the game I had no idea about before. In the rounds I've played, we've never had a betrayer win, we've never had a bite spread through the colony, we've never exiled another player. There is just so much to this game...I could gush on and on...but I won't. Rather, I'd prefer to simply make the recommendation that you seek it out if you're even remotely curious by anything I'd spouted above.

But why? Why, after all the horrible things I said would you ever want to play this terrible game? Because it's damn fun! Is is stressful? Yes. Is it frustrating? Hell yes. But in spite of it all, Dead of Winter is just so very very good. It may leave me literally pulling my hair panicking as I'm counting the amount of waste piled up, trying to figure out how we're supposed to survive, but as I watch me and my friends fail spectacularly, I can't help but look forward to seeing if we can still pull it out, see how many of us can clinch victory from the icy jaws of defeat that Dead of Winter embodies. And I can't wait to play it again.

So if you're a board game fan, a zombie fan, a survival fan. If you're a fan of cardboard cutouts, of rolling the dice and playing the odds, of helping your friends or of lying to their faces as you sabotage their every effort. If you like planning and plotting and fighting tooth and nail to survive against all odds with other people doing the same, I highly suggest Dead of Winter. After the first grueling, ruthless, painful game, you'll be beyond eager to come at it again with renewed enthusiasm to see if what you learned the first time around was enough win the next time despite the game, and maybe your friends, doing everything they can to stop you...

Thank you for reading all this way! I know that was a lot to get through, but I really appreciate your time and support. What kinds of board games blew you completely out of the water? I'm always on the hunt for new and exciting experiences and I'd love to hear all about your favorites.

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