Published on March 27th, 2015 | by Greg Giannetti0
Dead of Winter
I love zombies. Like, a lot. It feels guilty to admit, but if you slap zombies on it, chances are, I’ll give it a shot. Seriously, someone convinced me to watch Game of Thrones because they said that sometimes-but-not-really-in-fact-almost-never-there-are-occasionally things that aren’t quite zombies but are definitely undead corpses that make more undead corpses. Good enough. There is, however, one caveat to my zombie weakness; if it has zombies in it and sucks anyway, I burn that shit to the ground never to speak of it again. Dead of Winter has zombies in it. And I’m speaking of it! These are positive signs. I hope you’re taking notes.
Dead of Winter is a tabletop game from Plaid Hat Games, and it is an intimidating piece of work. You are a survivor in a colony that’s trying to get through the zombie apocalypse in the harsh winter months. While there’s a main objective that everyone in the colony is working towards, each player and their following of survivors are secretly working towards their own goals. Not only that, but every round there’s a crisis that needs to get resolved which can range from running out of fuel, finding that all the food is spoiled, or that zombies are about to overrun the colony. Every game there’s a chance that one player is a betrayer and, while their secondary goals might vary, their main goal is to see that the colony loses morale before they can win. The main way to do this is by sabotaging the crisis, but a really clever player will find other ways to screw everyone over. Depending on the main objective, you have a certain amount of rounds to complete your task. A game is over when either the main objective is completed or the round counter or morale counter reach zero. If each player hasn’t completed their secret objective by the time the game ends, then they lose. Dead of Winter is a cold and unforgiving game. It’s a lot easier to lose than win.
Almost every action has a consequence in the game. There are several locations your survivors can travel to, but travel exposes them to danger. There’s a chance they could get injured or bitten. Fighting a zombie can have similar results. Too many wounds (or just straight up getting bit) and your survivor dies. Every location has items you need to survive, but stay too long without barricading or fighting zombies, and you’ll get overrun. You can use items to aid your survival, but if the discard pile gets too big without getting cleaned out, the colonists will start to lose morale. As a colony, you can collectively vote to exile one player if you think they’re the betrayer. Be careful though – if you exile two people who aren’t betrayers, morale automatically goes to zero. I love that you can’t just play mindlessly and go on auto-pilot. You have to take careful consideration of each step you take. Plan ahead. Move slowly. Work together. Sabotage discreetly. It’s the only way you’ll manage to win.
My favorite part of Dead of Winter, and the thing that propels it from a complicated yet efficient co-op game to a work of art, is the crossroads system. This is a deck of cards that shape the story of the game. The player next to you takes the top card, reads it, and keeps it secret. When you unknowingly trigger the card they read the scenario out loud. At that point you’re given two choices about what to do. The first card that was read to me was triggered right away, which is extremely rare. It required that I had a certain character (most of them do) and that character was Bev, a mother looking for her son. She went to the school looking for him, and that’s where she found him. Well, something that resembles him. He was slowly turning into a zombie along with a horde of feral children. It was at that point I, as Bev, had two options. I could lose Bev as a playable survivor, but she stayed at the school. If any other survivor went to the school to look for items Bev would protect the feral children and attack the survivor. The other option was that Bev would stay with the colony – but not before burning the school to the ground. Her son was a lost cause, and it was too early in the game to start shedding colonists. I burnt the school and kept Bev in the game. Most crossroads have a VERY specific set of circumstances, making it unlikely that they will every trigger. But when they do, the game becomes that much more emotionally interesting.
Another thing heavily in favor of Dead of Winter is the art direction. It really drives home the tone of the game – and honestly, tone is what makes or breaks a zombie related thing. Zombies!!! is about the comedy of the genre and Last Night on Earth is a tribute to all those B movies. Dead of Winter is homage, through and through, to the more serious contenders and the art direction reflects this. That isn’t to say it’s devoid of humor – you can play as a stunt dog and a mall Santa – but the game is trying to elicit a certain emotional response and it works.
Dead of Winter is a huge game. It takes me about twenty minutes to set up, and another twenty to break down. Even after reading the booklet the first time, I wanted to make sure I had all the rules down, so I watched a thirty minute video on it. When you play for the first time it is going to take HOURS and nobody might ever win the game. But if you get a group of people who can sit down for that much time and are really into the idea of playing games, zombies, or playing games about zombies, you’ll have one of the best board game experiences you could ever hope for.