Dead of Winter is the first entry into the Crossroads series, a new franchise that sets out to test if a group of people can work together to overcome a situation while also encouraging a healthy amount of backstabbing between those same survivors.
The game places you and and up to 4 other survivors into a small, weakened colony of people that have managed to hold out in a world where most of the population has either died from an infection or turned into flesh-craving monsters by that very infection. It’s your typical zombie-apocalypse scenario, but it’s a very effective backdrop for the game as the theme serves the gameplay quite well.
Each player leads a faction of survivors and takes the role of a specific character with his/her own set of attributes and goals. This leads into the game’s meta-cooperative nature, which basically means that players are working towards a common victory condition and a personal objective which only they have knowledge of.
This ranges from small little quirks that generally don’t affect any other people in the colony to full blown obsessions that can put the entire colony at danger should a player choose to forsake the safety of the group to meet his/her own goals. Some characters’ goals even see them swearing vengeance against the colony and thus try to dismantle it from the inside.
The fact that everyone has their own secret objective already breeds a serious brand of mistrust between players and the Exposure Die; a central part of the game, exacerbates this to a frightening new level as it forces cooperation between parties who’re all only invested in their own survival.
Whenever you venture out of the colony to gather supplies, undertake a mission or kill a zombie you roll the exposure die. Six of the faces on the die are blank, three show wounds (take three wounds and your character dies), three show frostbite (a wound that causes another wound each turn) and the final face shows a tooth.
Should you role a the tooth your character will immediately die and everyone in your immediate area is put in danger of receiving an infection from the bite effect. This leads to the horrible choice of whether wounded players will commit suicide to save the rest of the team or keep going and run the risk of rolling the die again. The choice isn’t even yours to make most a lot of the time as other players can choose to kill you off themselves to safeguard the integrity of the colony.
It’s in that moment that Dead of Winter as a game is defined. When a player rolls the tooth everyone stares at one another in the hopes that someone else will make the hard choice and leave them to safeguard their true intentions a little bit longer. Throughout the rest of the game you’re all working together to complete a main objective but on every turn a crisis is triggered. An illness crisis for example will have dire consequences if players cant get enough medicine to treat all the non-exiled characters (we’ll get to that component later on).
So imagine in this scenario that we only have two of the three medicines required to resolve the scenario. Players now need to barter and beg off each other so someone can get enough gasoline together to take a vehicle and search one of the six locations in hopes of finding some medicine. Player characters can search an area and if successful they draw a card from that area’s resource deck. If you don’t find what you’re looking (medicine in this case) for you can choose to “make noise” which essentially entails searching faster and louder which allows you to draw more resource cards but potentially attract the undead horde to your area.
When you make it back to the colony and resolve the rest of the turn, players then each give a resource card to the stockpile in hopes of solving the crisis. Cards are given face down though, so if you choose to rather hold onto your own medicine for later on you can add something else to the stockpile.The thing is that each card lists its origin point at the bottom of the card. Players who have thus visited that particular location recently are immediately under even more scrutiny especially under players who choose to venture out together.
Getting back to the Exile mechanic; being exiled is by no means the end of a road for a character, on the contrary it opens up a whole ‘nother side to the game. Your character leaves the colony and you abandon your original objective only to replace it with an Exile Objective.
This essentially makes you a free agent and you no longer have to explain your actions and motives to any of the other players and this can result in some wonderfully chaotic scenarios where players team up to hunt down exiles only to have the event turn against them in some absurdly cruel ways.
But this also highlights how unreliable the game can be. Members of the colony can spend the entire game at one another’s throats only to discover at the end that there was no betrayer amongst any of them. This is very easily remedied though as there are some interesting variants you can include before play starts, one of which guarantees that someone in the group will be out for vengeance which gets things interesting from the get go.
Then there’s the Crossroads Deck: an enormous pile of context sensitive cards that trigger under certain circumstances. Should a player set off one of these cards it triggers a tiny scenario that often has to do with player character’s back-story and most of them are heartbreakingly tragic. Players can often choose options on these cards for different outcomes, but a lot of them only affect the general story.
There’s a very confusing part of the game in that it has a very out of place brand of comedy running through it. A playable character who is a stunt dog and plays exactly like a human would, a book entitled “Journey into Jazzercise” and a mini-fig of a bloody Santa all come up during the course of play and feel wildly out of place in such a dark, thematic game.
But even that works well in its strange little way. Other games often have their mechanics break down and result in laughable situations and Dead of Winter feels like it’s capitalising on that type of humour by including it artificially. It leads to some good laughs in game that is unrelentingly grim the rest of the time.
In the end the narrative that emerges out of the game’s mechanics and pre-scripted plot is one of the most compelling and well constructed of its type I’ve ever encountered in a board game. The way it’s constructed also makes it a real stand-out amongst its peers as it makes for a truly gripping game with outstanding mechanics that fit its theme and narrative perfectly.