One Sentence Synopsis: An edge-of-your-seat narrative experience where zombies may be the least of your worries.
If there’s one game released last year that nearly every board game enthusiast has heard of it’s Dead of Winter. The initial print run sold out quickly, and the second print run was so eagerly anticipated that most retailers can’t keep it in stock as copies trickle in. Like most popular games, Dead of Winter has spawned a lively debate in the community as to whether or not it’s any good. If you’ve kept up with those discussions you know they range from fanboy-like comments from people who can’t fathom any logical reason why anyone in their right mind couldn’t love the game, to people who vehemently swear this is one of the worst titles they’ve ever played. There’s little middle ground in any of the debates, and having played the game many times now I can honestly say it’s because Dead of Winter’s mechanisms really leave very little room for any middle ground: chances are you’re either going to love it, or you’re going to hate it.
First off, let’s clear the air about exactly what kind of game Dead of Winter is. First and foremost this is a thematic, semi-cooperative survival game. Yes, zombies are involved, but it is not as focused on the zombies as, say, Zombicide. Instead, the game really puts the survival of your characters and the colony front-and-center as you try to subsist during a winter that takes place during a zombie apocalypse. The harsh realities of that situation, including the elements, zombies, outsiders, individual goals, and threats from within, batter players during every turn as they work together towards a common objective. In the end you will succeed or fail together as a colony, and in the process you’ll have shared a narrative experience and crafted a unique story of loss, triumph, perseverance, and perhaps even betrayal.
Dead of Winter seats 2-5(though you can unofficially play with 6 if you don’t mind downtime), and includes a number of variants to scale the game’s difficulty and change its experience. You can play the game strictly cooperatively which I highly recommend for your first play-through, and from there groups can decide to add elements like permadeath, secret individual objectives, or the possibility of a betrayer who works against the colony. The introductory scenario is probably my least favorite out of all of the objectives, and the strictly cooperative variant is my least favorite out of all the options presented, so keep in mind your first experience with Dead of Winter is truly simply an introduction to something you can custom-tailor to your group’s mood for each sitting. After you’ve got the hang of the rules I ardently recommend adding in the provided additional elements for the best experience. For the purposes of this review, all of my descriptions of the gameplay and most of my commentary afterwards will therefore assume we’re actually playing with the three specific variants I previously mentioned.
The actual length of a game varies greatly based on the main objective the group draws at the start of the game, and how many rounds it takes your colony to either complete that objective or meet one of the game’s failure conditions of losing all colonists or morale. I’ve had some games last 30 minutes, and others last upwards of the 2-hour mark. To be safe I’d always initially plan on about 1 1/2 hours. Setup generally takes 15 minutes to complete and starts with placing the colony board in the center of the table. The objective deck is shuffled and a main objective card drawn and placed on the appropriate spot. The main objective card dictates where the morale and round markers start on the colony board, and also has additional, unique setup instructions like placing zombies or adding helpless survivors to the colony(people you must feed and who attract zombies, but do literally nothing to help you), and directions to read a particular narrative passage before the game begins. The crisis and crossroads decks are also shuffled and placed on the board, and a secret objective deck is formed by taking 2 secret objectives per player, plus 1 betrayer objective, and shuffling them together. Each player is dealt one of these cards, and without showing other players must meet the criteria on the card at the end of the game in order to win even if the main group objective is met. In the case of someone getting dealt the betrayer card, they’ll work throughout the game to sabotage their fellows’ good efforts. All of the game’s location cards representing the various areas around town players may visit during their turn are then organized around the colony however players see fit, and each location’s marked deck of search cards are shuffled and placed on their respective spots. Some of the search deck cards are labeled as starter cards, and those are divided among the survivors based on player number.
At this point players get to choose their starting characters. Each player actually plays a faction within the colony, so they’re given 4 character cards and are allowed to choose 2 to play with. Each character card lists their name and previous occupation, and has a unique ability listed at the bottom which usually allows them to take certain helpful actions for free, use action dice in a different way than normal for an added benefit, or to ignore something bad like having to roll to see if they’re bitten during an attack. The top-right number on each card represents the character’s influence within the colony: the highest number decides the starting player, and the lowest numbered characters are generally the first to die if an outbreak starts to spread. The other numbers are the minimum values an action dice can show in order to take an attack or search action. Once players have determined their two starting characters they each receive three dice(one for each character controlled, plus one extra), a player board which includes a convenient round summary and list of actions players may take, and place their standees into the colony spaces.
Each game round follows the same sequence: a Player Turns Phase followed by a Colony Phase. To start the Player Turns Phase players draw the top card of the crisis deck. This is an immediate problem which must be dealt with by the end of that round, and usually specifies players play a certain number of a specific type of item into the “crisis contribution” area to avoid the nastiness listed on the card. Players then each roll dice equal to the number of survivors they control plus one, and put those dice into the unused action spot on their player boards.
Each person takes their turn in sequence, and are able to choose from actions that take action dice, and from others that don’t. Before the player takes their turn, however, the player to their right draws the top card from the Crossroads deck and reads the italicized text at the top to themselves. If at any point during the turn the situation in the game matches the condition on the card, the game is immediately stopped and the Crossroads card is read allowed and resolved. Most of the Crossroads cards include options that are either decided upon by the group, or by the individual affected, and often pose a trade-off between getting something needed for taking on increased burden, or losing something(or someone) else. In some cases the situation is completely FUBARed and players must vote to decide between the lesser of two evils.
Individual turns generally involve moving around and searching locations for useful or necessary items like food, fuel, or weapons, killing zombies, barricading spaces, or playing cards. Each time a player moves or attacks they must roll the 12-sided exposure-dice-of-doom, representing the perils of venturing out into the cold or going up against a zombie. It’s possible nothing will happen, but there’s also the potential to either take a wound(characters who take their third wound die and the colony loses a morale), or contract frostbite which acts as a damage-over-time affliction until it’s cured by using a medicine card. Although slim, there’s also the chance of rolling a tooth icon which, as you probably already know in a zombie game, means the worst has happened. If a player rolls a tooth the character taking the action immediately dies and a morale is lost, and if there are any other survivors in their location the bite effect starts to spread starting with the character with the lowest influence. At this juncture that player has two options: roll the exposure die again hoping for a blank which will save their character and stop the infection(anything else will kill their character and spread it onto the person with the next lowest influence there), or they can take one for the team and bite a bullet to stop the infection. Choices, choices.
Playing item cards can help avoid having to roll for exposure while moving, and have other effects which are generally useful to the person using them. These cards are placed into the colony’s waste pile which must be carefully managed to never total over 10 at the end of a round lest it decrease colony morale. Using a dice of any value to take a cleaning action lets players clear 3 cards from the stack. Players may also play cards for free into the contribution pile, potentially helping or hindering the colony’s progress towards resolving that round’s crisis.
Acquiring cards is done by spending an action dice equal to or greater than a character’s search value while that character is at a location; the odds of finding specific items is listed in order at the top of each location sheet. Once committed to the action the player draws the top card from that location’s search deck and decides whether they got what they were looking for or not. If not, they have the option of “making noise” and drawing another card, and then deciding between the two cards which to keep. If they’re still not satisfied they may decide to make more noise, and can continue doing so up to a total of four before deciding which one card to keep out of all the ones they drew. For each noise present at a location at the end of the round, however, there’s a 1:2 chance an additional zombie will spawn at the location. If the number of zombies at a location ever exceeds the number of spaces at the location it gets overrun and, you guessed it, NOM NOM NOM.
Once all players have taken their turn the game progresses to the Colony phase where various aspects of the round are resolved. Survivors must pay 1 food for every 2 characters in the colony(survivors outside the colony forage for themselves), waste is checked to make sure the colonists aren’t total slobs and feel so bad about it they lose a morale, and the crisis is resolved. If players are still in the game at this point 1 zombie is added to the colony board for every 2 colonists there, and 1 zombie is added to each location for each character there along with any that were generated from making noise. If the main objective remains unmet then the round token is moved up, the first player token is passed the opposite way of the round order, and play continues. Otherwise, if the main objective is completed, players who have also completed their secret individual objectives win the game, while everyone else is heartily thanked for their contributions and cast out into the zombie-infested winter wilds like the losers they are.
The exception to this, of course, is if someone is playing the betrayer; this person also has their own secret individual objective which must be met in order for them to win in addition to making everyone else lose. The game does a pretty good job of beating the colonists up and throwing obstacles in their path, but the betrayer has a number of tricks at their disposal to make situations even more difficult to overcome. The most obvious way to hinder the team is for the betrayer to simply lie about what cards they have in their hand or are drawing. Colony needs food or it’s going to take a starvation token which decreases morale by 1 for each starvation token previously accrued? Nope, I **cough, cough** don’t have any food cards to contribute. What’s that, you want me to go to look for food at the grocery store since I’m already here with Timmy? Whoops, I “didn’t find any” after 4 attempts of making noise. What are the odds? Sorry Timmy, we’re about to be overrun and I’m going back to the colony.
The crisis contributions for each turn is another place where a betrayer can do some real sneaky damage. By playing a card into the contributions area that does not match what is needed, the betrayer not only makes the rest of the group think they need one less card to succeed, but the wrong card actually necessitates an additional correct item get placed for the turn. Since those cards get placed face down and are shuffled before they’re revealed, players may be in for quite a shock when they all thought the group might just eek out a crisis resolution.
If you’re playing as the betrayer, however, you’ll want to be a little more subtle in your attempts to shove the team and other survivors under the bus than I was in the previous examples. While you can cause some real damage, especially when it comes time for you to take your back-to-back turns since the first player marker passes the opposite way as the turn order, there are mechanisms in place to expose you. In particular, item cards are all marked with the location they came from, so if you’re not careful about which cards you use to sabotage crisis contributions other players may be able to Blues-Clues out that you’re the only person to have been somewhere, and therefore the only person who could have sabotaged with that card. If you’re overt you also stand a chance of getting exiled which is accomplished by a simple majority vote during another player’s turn. If you’re exiled you’re not out of the game, but your characters do get ousted from the colony and you have to draw a new “exiled” secret objective which you’ll work towards on your own while causing trouble around town for the survivors.
As a strictly cooperative game Dead of Winter is challenging, but in my opinion a fairly 2-dimensional experience. Working together against the game is fun, but even with the dynamic events from the crossroads cards you just don’t really feel the tension you’d expect from trying to survive during the winter in a zombie apocalypse. The stories you generate from the situations that arise largely fall flat, and the entire game experience itself is simply mediocre as a result.
Add in the optional variants, however, and you’ve got one hell of a thematic experience on your hands. You become actual individuals with your own motives and personalities who have been thrust together into one of the most grotesque situations imaginable. Dead of Winter directs you to role play whether you realize it or not, pushing you to do what’s best for the colony while still satisfying your personal needs. The possibility of a betrayer amplifies every other aspect of the game, and even the most mundane actions are given meaning as hidden agendas percolate every maneuver and nothing can be taken at face value. Activities that would otherwise get taken for coincidence, poor planning, or just a player trying to achieve their personal objective, start to foster deep feelings of suspicion. Accusations fly around the table as players seek to misdirect one another, and the threat of exile looms ominously over each member of the group; exile correctly and the team will have alleviated some of the anxiety, but exile incorrectly and the survivors will make an enemy out of a friend. With the variants Dead of Winter suddenly becomes the hugely thematic, narrative experience you always knew it had in it, and the stories you’ll generate grow into narratives full of suspense, uncertainty, tragedy, and even comedy.
Dead of Winter is often criticized for being light on mechanics, but I think the lack of complex mechanics actually works in the game’s favor. The rules and mechanics get out of the way, placing the focus squarely on the narrative and the experience players create during each play-through. Rather than have mechanics generate gameplay, Dead of Winter gives players the mechanisms to create gameplay for themselves through complex negotiations, double-dealings, deduction, and the Crossroads deck. There’s also a lot more strategy here than naysayers give it credit for, mostly because there are no half wins. You don’t walk away from a sitting saying you didn’t complete your personal objective, but the team completed the main objective so you’re calling it a success. That’s not how that works. You, as an individual, LOST. The trick to Dead of Winter is winning the game at the opportune moment for you, not for your team. Making that happen without getting booted from the colony takes a great deal of strategy, forethought, and the occasional(or maybe rampant) fibbing.
Now, if you’re looking for a game experience that incorporates complex mechanics systems you’re going to be sorely disappointed in Dead of Winter. You’re likewise going to absolutely hate the game if you dislike dynamic elements that have significant impacts on gameplay but are wholly outside of player control. The crossroads deck is an ingenious storytelling mechanism, but it’s completely random. Little Jenny might be fine at the start of another player’s turn, and dead at the end of it all because that player moved to a certain location and the crossroads card just-so-happened to say that if they did that little Jenny would scamper after them and get hit by a semi-truck driven by a half-crazed trucker who was suffering from withdrawal from truck-stop pancakes and bacon. It’s a glorious storytelling moment, but frustrating for anyone who expects to retain full agency in the games they play. The bite-dice-of-death is likewise a hard pill to swallow for some since there’s very little you can do to mitigate its effects other than use a fuel card to not roll while moving, or to have a weapon that lets you make an attack without needing to role for exposure. Again, it fits wondrously thematically, but it’s crap to anyone who doesn’t like an element of luck.
Dead of Winter’s production value is very good, and all the components fit well(though a bit disorganized) inside the box. All the cards and boards have good thickness to them, and the zombie/player standees are all produced from very high quality cardstock. Some people criticize Dead of Winter for its lack of miniatures, and all I really have to say to that is that it’s 1) unnecessary and actually works better without for those who don’t want to paint, and 2) would have cost $100+ and priced itself right out of the realm of possibility for most audiences. For what’s in the box, including over 300 cards and hundreds of chits, as long as you can find it for its MSRP Dead of Winter’s components vs. cost are comparable to other games in the same price range. I also really like the art in the game- it’s dark/hazy which fits well with the theme, and most of the graphic design has a nice minimalist feel to it. Nothing feels overdone, but I also don’t feel like I’m missing out on something by not having extra art or flourishes included on various pieces.
COG Takeaway: In the war over whether Dead of Winter is a stellar title or a total bust, both sides have merit depending on what sort of game you’re looking for. If you want to play a game with deep, complex mechanical systems that gives players total control over their destinies, then Dead of Winter is not the game for you. If, on the other hand, you want a thematic experience that’s as much about the journey as it is the destination, then I don’t think you could make a better decision than to buy this game. Playing with the optional variants creates amazing tension and conflict as players try to work together to accomplish the main objective while ensuring their own secret goals are also met when the game ends, and the menacing possibility of a traitor amplifies the game’s deductive elements to a fever pitch. So, if you’re in the latter camp and are lucky enough to find a copy, get the game, gather your friends, and remember…don’t feed the zombies.