Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 60 – 120 minutes
Play Time (Goof): 90 – 180 minutes
Producer/s: Plaid Hat Games
Designer/s: Jonathan Gilmour & Isaac Vega
“I think our mistake was not killing the helpless survivors when we had the chance” I sighed when the Zombies overran our compound.
“I’m just wondering why we didn’t leave the baby in the dumpster” my loud friend said, dropping his cards down in front of him.
“Probably shouldn’t have saved the horse either” I said, moving to pack up the pieces.
“We had to save the horse!” a look of horror spread across my girlfriend’s face.
“I’m not sure why it’s the horse bit that got you indignant? It was costing us food every turn.”
“Charlotte’s right! The horse needed to be saved!” my quiet friend chimed in.
Whereas clearly, the baby did not.
If you’re looking at the above conversation and are feeling somewhat disturbed, then I congratulate you on getting to this paragraph. But brace yourself; if you decide to play this game, there’s a lot of hard decisions around the corner.
Dead of Winter is brutal- I’ll put that out there immediately. If you’re squeamish then this game will likely not be for you. Which…you know…Zombies. So duh. The game even comes with rules for removing cards that have “sex, language, suicide, alcohol use, etc” and this is probably a good idea as to make it more widely accessible. Not that I remove them. The moral qualms and sick feeling of making a tough choice is a really interesting part of the decision making process, but more on that in a bit.
The undead hordes.
I’ve always been in two frames of mind about co-operative games with a defector. You’ve really got to be careful who and when you play them, which might sound like general advice for most games, but it’s even more important here. You occasionally find people who take your betrayal personally, and it can linger between games which is unnecessary and detrimental to the experience.
If you insist on having a “traitor in the midst” game, I highly recommend doing exactly what Dead of Winter does. First of all, make sure there is a chance there is no traitor. This helps in two ways. One, everyone remains vigilant and suspicious of each other even if you’re all truly on the same side. Two, it gives the defector a real chance for the others to let their guard down. And secondly, the tasks you have to complete before you can “win” mean the traitor isn’t going to run into the Colony screaming while holding a fireaxe, and it also means those who are loyal to the Colony might occasionally act in their own interest which gives the traitor another element to hide within. This game plays the trust angle very well including secretly contributing to crisis as they arise each turn.
I’ve never liked easy games. But games that are impossibly hard aren’t always fun. I have to feel like there’s a reason for something to be difficult. A particular game about Norse mythology comes to mind – which is completely justified because it would not have been a walk in Valhalla to be a Viking. Similarly, unless you’re moving along to Party Rock Anthem in the apocalypse I imagine that things would get fairly difficult. There are a couple of gameplay mechanics which fit into what I am talking about: every time you move you roll to see if you’re injured or dead, if you’re overrun…dead, and if you find yourself needing to take out one of the shufflers then you might also find yourself dancing to LMAFO (which requires you to lack a brain…I kid. They’re okay). It gives you this real sense of dread with every action. You don’t mind spending a little of that much needed fuel to secure an important trip to get some ‘food-a la-can’ or ensure the safety of an important character.
Pros: +Maybe Traitor, Maybe Not, +Secret Objectives, +Appropriately Difficult
I’d say the theme in this game is really “how far would you go to survive the apocalypse?” or “which person at the table is going to be the first to become an asshole?” The theme is very thick, which is exactly what this game needs. If it was a shallow game about collecting cans of food with the occasional movie extra easy-to-kill member of the undead then it wouldn’t be the success the game is. Instead you feel like you’re struggling against overwhelming odds, in a town where the supplies are growing thin, but the numbers of undead are rising.
I still think my favourite game of Dead of Winter has to be the first one. When we didn’t know where items were so we had to think logically and had to sift through cans of food (gladly) and scraps of junk (frustratingly) to find that occasionally unique item. This works great thematically, but it means that the decks for each location can be gone through quickly with one or two characters with excellent searching skills and then you’ve got a location that is not worth visiting. While there are some negative things about this in terms of being frustrating or feeling like there’s a lack of interesting weapons and tools to have at your disposal, it actually makes a lot of sense; how well stocked would your local supermarket be if there was no one to resupply the shelves?
This next point might be really small. And who knows, maybe I’m reading a little too much into things. But the amount of dice you get is equal to the number of survivors in your crew, plus one for the player. Which thematically does something very cool… you’re playing the game as yourself – with the added twist of having a secret objective that adds a bit more spice to your personality.
One of the best parts of this game is a deck of cards called Crossroads Cards. At the beginning of your turn the player to your right secretly reads a card and keeps to themselves the triggering event that causes the card to be read. This deck holds some fascinating scenarios and stories that add a massive amount of replayability. I’ve played this game dozens of times and cards I’ve never encountered before keep coming up. You might only have one or two in a game but they’re often the most memorable moments. My biggest issue with the cards is that they don’t seem to follow a coherent structure. The trigger is up the top in italics and then there’s the bulk of the story. Sometimes the outcome of the decision you make it down the bottom and sometimes it’s in the middle of the body of text. When you’re trying to focus heavily on roleplaying (which I recognise this game isn’t necessarily) it becomes frustrating. Luckily there’s now an App for that.
One element I also like in this game is that it does a really good job at limiting the power of Table Captains. Crossroads Cards often require a group vote, most cards that affect other players require permission to use, and with Crossroads cards and so much to keep a track of, there’s limited time to push other people around. If you’re playing with someone who still finds a way to be an unnecessary douche… it’s time to play with someone else. The fact that the players are also characters make this incredibly thematic.
Part of the secret objectives I mentioned before is that they give a real flavour to your crew. You’ve managed to assemble a group of like-minded people in order to accomplish a goal. Maybe you’re trying to create a small stockpile of goods in order to further protect your crew should the colony fall, maybe your crew is determined to protect the knowledge of mankind by hoarding books, or perhaps you’re a cult that is determined to bring the colony to its knees. Regardless, this extra layer of story really fleshed the world out further.
The idea that you have to keep a track of morale is another interesting element. You can imagine that in the grim reality that is the end of civilisation, tensions would be high, suicide rates would skyrocket, and when people begin to lose their minds on a regular basis it might be easier to go out on your own. While you’re making tough calls you have to consider whether it’s conducive to keeping the colony together. It works as a bit of a roadblock for those players that would come into the game thinking “I’m going to make as many selfish or asshole decisions as possible” because if the morale drops too low then you have to pack up the board and cry. Coz you lost. Be sad about it. PEOPLE DIED!
Pros: ++Crossroads Cards, +Thematic Locations, +Players as Characters, +Voting and Decision Making, +Morale.
Cons: -Crossroads Cards Layout
I’m a big believer that game components can really make or break a game. I’m far more likely to pick up a game if it has miniatures, great artwork and a nice board. But something game companies often don’t seem to think about is the feeling their components gives players. If you think about Firefly: The Game, what made it so brilliant was the feeling you got of flying around those miniatures matched with the rustic artwork on the cards. Dead of Winter pulls off something similar. The cardboard cutouts matched with the apocalyptic vibe of the 80s and 90s zombie movies really works. Like REALLY works. Every game, I feel like I’m playing through the comic of The Walking Dead or in the middle of the Warm Bodies. It does for me in board games what Dead Rising managed to accomplish in videogames (I super love that series). I cannot imagine getting the same feelings if this game was entirely done with tokens, and miniatures would feel out of place – I had the same realisation when you compare Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness where I actually preferred the cardboard. Truth be told, I’m super excited to look at the expansion for this game because I get more variety in the zombie tokens and I’ll likely get away with not having to include the spare tokens the base game comes with in case you’re starting to lose badly… which happens… don’t judge (that’s my thing).
The artwork in this game is wonderful. Which might make me sound a bit grim given that it’s mostly people covered in dirt, blood and crazy. But I imagine that’s fairly accurate to a Zombie apocalypse. It’s probably not all going to be rainbows and kippies (a genetically modified kitten crossed with a puppy that I’ve decided needs to exist in the zombie apocalypse to raise morale).
Can I give a shoutout to whoever the hell designed the backs of these cards? They’re excellent. The backs of the Crisis cards are legitimately intimidating, and the other cards are simple enough that you can easily determine what they are. The Crossroads card artwork gives you a real sense of dread. The artwork is a signpost, which calls up all those images of deserted towns and cities where what used to be civilisation is now a deserted husk. It’s creepy. I’m creeping myself out thinking about it.
Pros: ++Components Set the Mood, +Amazing Artwork, +Excellent Card Backs
“So this old couple wants to leave, if we let them go they’ll die. But if we do it’ll free up the extra food to cover the shortage we’re currently experiencing.” I pondered over the loss of morale our depressed colony was already in short supply of.
“I wave them goodbye as I open up the gates. Best of luck to them”- the cold words my usually cheerful girlfriend uttered as she cast her vote.
I give Dead of Winter:
This game is fun (did you catch that?), and if you’ve got the stomach for it I guarentee some excellent game nights ahead. Now… might go play something more cheerful. Anyone up for a round of Zombie Dice?
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