Tabletop Tuesday: ‘Dead of Winter: Crossroads’
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games.
Style: Dice, strategy, partial co-op.
Play Time: 2-4 hours depending on campaign.
Wait, what happened to Cheap Game Tuesday?! Well, sometimes I just haven’t had the time to play through a new game and put down my thoughts every week. Such is life. I also like playing board games, so to strike a happy balance I’ll alternate Cheap Game Tuesday with Tabletop Tuesday. Everyone’s a winner!
This fairly recent release has been causing murmuring in tabletop circles even with its limited release. When I first learned about it I was intrigued…each playing leading a small group of characters, who collectively form a colony of survivors holed up during an exceptional brutal winter in the post-apocalypse. The colony has a main objective that they must achieve before the end of the game but each player will have a secret objective to complete on their own. Some of these objectives may require them to betray the colony for their own survival. It was something of an eye-roll moment when it was revealed that the apocalypse was brought about by zombies, possibly the most over-used board game feature since dice, but it was only a part of the greater picture and the premise was enough to convince me to buy it.
It was a good decision.
There are a bunch of characters in the game, distributed at random during the set-up with more to be found during the gameplay. Each one has their own unique strength and search rating as well as an influence rating and a special ability. The influence rating determines who will be the leader of each party, who moves first and – most importantly – who gets fed to the zombies if defences aren’t maintained. Unlike most top end games using miniatures the characters are represented by cardboard standees with plastic bases, but the artwork is so good you won’t mind. And the box is big enough that they don’t have to be reassembled every game. During each gameplay round every player has a turn, followed by a colony turn. During the player turn you have a massive range of options including fighting zombies off, barricading the entrances, disposing of waste, searching nearby locations, moving between locations, using objects and more.
Limitations on actions come in the form of Action Dice. Every survivor in your party gets you a D6 dice. You roll your handful of dice at the beginning of the round and they determine what you can do. A character with 2+ Action can attack a zombie by spending a dice that has rolled 2 or more, so the more survivors you have, the more spending points you earn and the better stats they have give you more options. While searching and fighting seem like the best choices for a round simple actions like clearing away the waste in the colony goes a long way to preserving morale during the game. If morale hits 0, the colony has failed.
Maintaining a stock of food, fuel, weaponry, medicine and other items becomes essential, and they are mostly found through scavenging. By moving characters to nearby areas such as the gas station or hospital they can search for item cards. Sometimes (usually at the wrong time) this means finding new survivors, sometimes Helpless Survivors who have to be fed and sheltered without contributing…losing them means losing morale (although you can throw them to the zombies in the event of an intrusion). There is a noise mechanic wherein a player can look at additional items and pick the ones they want but they will generate noise that can lure zombies. Of course any time a survivor ventures out of the colony to search or fight off zombies they must roll the D12 Survival Dice. 50% of the time they’ll be fine, but they run a risk of gaining a wound (max 3 before death), frostbite (ongoing wounds without medicine) or a zombie bite. When a character is bitten the player controlling them has to immediately kill them off, or risk a 50/50 chance of the zombie infection killing the character and spreading to the next person.
It’s with the colony mechanics that the survival aspect really kicks in. Every round of play creates a Crisis, a card with specific criteria (such as X number of food or fuel supplies) that have to be met by players by rounds end or they face a harsh penalty. A player hoarding fuel to met their own secret agenda will find themselves torn when they have to decide if they should continue secretly hoarding or contribute their limited supplies to the colony to avoid being trapped by a blizzard, or lose their own survivors. As item cards are added to the group supplies face down it’s even possible to sabotage the colony attempts to survive a crisis, adding potential paranoia to the mix. Is it worth bringing back new survivors to gain another Action Dice if it means having the salvage more food or risk luring more zombies? The game requires careful forward thinking and a degree of mistrust to successfully complete. If paranoia becomes overwhelming the players can vote one of the parties into exile, forcing them to survive in the outskirts where they may chose to attack the colony themselves. There’s a great double sided dynamic through the game, and the plays we’ve had so far have felt quite well balanced in this regard, especially as there might not be a betrayer at all since each player has a one in three chance of getting that role. Heck, you might have EVERYONE trying to betray the colony.
Finally we have the Crossroads mechanic of the title. On each players action turn the player next to them will draw a Crossroads card outlining a scenario. If the criteria for that scenario – having a particular survivor, taking a specified action – are met during their turn the playing with the Crossroads will read the scenario and present the player with two choices. They may find a group of children hiding in the school and have to decide if they’ll bring them back to the colony and give up their food or leave them to their fate. Perhaps they’ll find a fuel truck and can bring it back to the colony for supplies at risk of attracting dozens more zombies. The Crossroads are imaginative situations that add a great sense of atmosphere to the game, really throwing the players into the scenario, in the same way Betrayal at House on the Hill does.
Dead of Winter: Crossroads feels like a spiritual addition to the popular Zombicide series. Overwhelming odds, teamwork and tough decisions are the order of the day but the survival aspects are the real unique selling point. The most successful aspect of the game is creating the atmosphere of desperation and mistrust that such a scenario would generate and although there are many mechanics to be learned they only take a round to get your head around and then they contribute to a great overall picture. The Action Dice feels like a unique way of deciding stats each round and gives a reason to find more survivors, and the Crossroads creates random occurrences that can change the game in an instant. It’s very rare that you’ll have a straight and clear path to success as every decision has consequences. Going out to search can improve your stock but you risk dangers from every side. Hoarding for your own goal may put the colony goal at risk. Adding new survivors increases your options but limits your supplies.
Best played during a long gaming session with people willing to get into the spirit of the role playing (and maybe not someone with a bad temper…just like a real survival situation). It has a buttload of tokens and cards but it’s fairly easy to navigate. We recommend adding this to your stash of role-playing in a box games.