On paper Dead of Winter really shouldn’t work as well as it does. As both a zombie game and a cooperative game it falls into two overused categories. Sure, zombies are great and all but I think we can all agree that they’ve had their day. TV shows, video games, books, movies, all absolutely filled with zombie after zombie. Since the release of Pandemic back in 2007 cooperative games have swarmed the board game market. Many are fantastic but it’s undeniably a crowded genre. Even the incredibly specific niche of ‘zombie cooperative board game’ is surprisingly overflowing with games. Games such as Zombicide and Last Night on Earth see a group of players working together to battle a shambling undead threat. When Dead of Winter was announced last year I struggled to see what was special about it. How would yet another game about zombies where I, yet again have to cooperate with friends stand above the myriad games with the exact same theme? Of course, by now you’ve probably glanced at the score below this opening paragraph and therefore know that, yes Dead of Winter does excel and stand way above its stiff competition.
• Designer: Jon Gilmour, Isaac Vega
• Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
• Number of Players: 2-5
• Release Date: Available Now (although out of stock at most retailers)
Dead of Winter is simultaneously the best zombie and best cooperative board game I have ever played. The most important thing in a good zombie story is literally everything else other than the zombies! The Walking Dead comic and TV show know this, with the biggest threats week in week out being the living humans not the dead ones. Of course the undead remain a constant and ever present threat but are nothing compared to the other survivors. This is the case in Dead of Winter. The zombies are always there but the biggest threat is every other player sitting at the table.
Dead of Winter draws on a lot of influences from other semi-cooperative games, the most famous being Battlestar Galactica. In a game of BSG the players work together to escape the pursuing Cylons and find a new habitable planet for humanity. However, like the TV show it is based on, some players are secretly Cylons themselves and sabotage the human players every step of the way. Like BSG, players in Dead of Winter work together to complete some main objective, chosen randomly at the start of the game. However, unlike BSG, players aren’t simply divided into good guys and bad guys but instead every player has their own secret mission to complete. It’s very likely that everyone is working towards the common goal but you each have some selfish desire that you want to fulfil before the game end. Importantly you cannot win a game of Dead of Winter unless you complete every goal on your secret objective card. For example the main objective might involve collecting medicine to maybe find a cure. However, your little group of survivors are secretly a bunch of junkies – of course you want everyone to succeed but… you need some of that medicine for yourself.
To complicate matters there is a small chance that one player is actively working against the group. They too have a secret objective to complete like everyone else whilst reducing the colonies moral to zero. Perhaps they’re a cult leader, building the biggest group of survivors before tearing the colony apart or maybe they’re just gluttons, hoarding food whilst everyone else slowly starves. Overall it’s a fantastic exercise in paranoia. Why does the player opposite you have so many item cards in hand? Are they hoarding food and medicine because they need it for their secret objective or are they working against the colony? What is that player doing in the police station? They’re saying they haven’t found any guns yet but surely they should have by now. Are they just unlucky or are they lying and keeping all the guns for themselves? Suspicious players can be exiled from the group, forcing them to flee the colony and fend for themselves. Exiled players receive a completely new secret objective possibly turning a good player into a revenge fuelled maniac!!
Over the course of Dead of Winter, players will face an ever increasing amount of problems to solve. At the beginning of each round the group draw a crisis card, letting the players know what resource will be in demand for the next few turns. A medicine shortage requires drugs whilst building a barricade might require a large supply of tools. Succeeding keeps everyone happy and alive whilst failing could cause anything from a drop in morale to a sudden influx of the undead, and therefore possibly a few untimely deaths. These crises also provide ample opportunity for the betrayer to sabotage the colonies efforts. Items are added to the crisis secretly and any cards that are incorrect count as negatives making it significantly harder for the crisis to pass. Of course these crises occur in unison with a whole host of ever present dangers. Survivors in the colony have to be fed every round or face starvation. Zombies appear at every location that survivors frequent and before long will have to be dealt with; failing to do so and you risk any area being overrun and survivors eaten. On top of all of that is the main objective and of course your secret objective. Often you’ll find yourself with a few food cards and hand, and food being required for the crisis, the food supply, and your own selfish needs and you have to decide which has the highest priority.
The bulk of the Dead of Winter involves exploring the six locations surrounding the colony to search for the many items you’ll need to survive the game. It’s worth mentioning at this point that, for a game with so many moving parts it has a surprisingly small footprint. The central colony board is nice and dinky and the six locations are roughly A5 size pieces of cardboard that can easily be arranged to suit most tables. It’s not the most important point to make but it’s refreshing in the modern age of board games. There’s nothing worse than paying £50+ on a game just to find out that to play it properly you’re going to have to invest in a much bigger gaming table (or if all else fails play it on the floor).
Each player starts the game with two survivors in their following each with different skills and abilities. Some characters are good at searching whilst being awful at fighting and vice versa. Some have a high influence over the colony but relatively weak stats. Lastly, each character has a unique special ability. Sophie the pilot can look at the top of any locations item deck to see if it’s worth searching, Bev the mother is particularly good at killing zombies if there are helpless survivors around to protect and Sparky the dog (yes…dog) is completely immune to the zombie virus and cannot be bitten.
Having a large group of survivors also means more actions per turn. Each survivor grants you an action dice, which you roll at the start of every round. These dice are used to perform many of the actions each turn. Searching locations and killing zombies require dice with a number greater than that survivor’s skill. It adds a bit of luck to the mix but it’s manageable luck. You never search or attack without knowing that it will succeed – at the start of each round you’ll be able to know what you can and can’t do from your roll. Dice also introduce an interesting action economy to the game. Some, very vital actions require the use of any dice regardless of number. Do you waste a 6 which could be used to do some searching to instead build a barricade? Someone needs to clean out all the waste in the colony but who’s willing to waste a die on it?
All of these aforementioned mechanics make Dead of Winter a pretty great game. However, there are two more mechanics worth mentioning that elevate it from greatness to absolutely fantastic. The first is the exposure die, possibly the meanest, heartless, most unforgiving die to ever grace my dining room table. Every time you move from one location to another or any time you kill a zombie, you roll this 12 sided red devil of a die. Half the sides are blank. Well Done. You managed to walk from the police station to the school without taking any damage. A few of the sides will give your survivor a wound and a few others a frostbite. Dangerous but curable as long as you have the requisite medicine. The final side simply contains a tooth symbol. A zombie bite. Roll this at any time and that character instantly dies. No take backs. No re-rolls. Just instant and complete death.
However, with this being a zombie bite it gets much worse. A bitten survivor has a chance of passing on the infection and biting another player in the same location as them. That player has a choice: sacrifice their survivor immediately killing themselves to stop the infection spreading or roll the exposure dice again. Now anything other than a blank space means instant death for that survivor and the spread of the infection to someone else! Suddenly a simple trip back to the colony results in four characters dying and with each death moral sinks closer and closer to zero. You can avoid rolling the dice by using fuel to move or various weapons and player skills to fight zombies but…once again it comes down to a question of priorities. Do you waste fuel moving from one location to another? Fuel that might be needed for a crisis, or perhaps your secret objective? Do you take the risk? It’s only a one in twelve chance after all. Of course the risk creates even more suspicion. Did that player chose not to use fuel…because they actually wanted their survivor to die? Are they purposefully trying to bring moral down to zero and end it for us all or are they just unlucky?
Saving the best for last the final mechanic I’d like to talk about is the Crossroad deck. If you glance at the feature image at the top of this review you’ll notice, the phrase A Crossroads Game. Dead of Winter is the first in a line of games produced by Plaid Hat games to utilise the Crossroads mechanic. Whenever it’s your turn in Dead of Winter the player to your right (i.e. the player who just finished their turn) draws a card from the Crossroads deck. Each card contains some sort of trigger and if at any point during the players turn that trigger occurs play is stopped and the cards full details are read out loud. You have a plan. You need to get back to the colony, kill a few zombies, clear some waste and then build a barricade. However, the colony is full of survivors at the moment. It’s too risky to walk back so you’ll be safe and use a fuel card. You use the card from your hand when suddenly STOP! The player to right reads the crossroad card in their hand. The car you take back to the colony veers off the road and rolls down a hill leaving you alone and stranded in the cold. You have two options wait for rescue or walk back to the colony rolling for exposure along the way.
The cards add yet another threat and provide a coherent story to the game. Some of the triggers are simple and will occur most games but some are absurdly specific. In my first game of Dead of Winter a crossroads card called for two characters, one a chemist and one a student both being in the colony at the same time. This happened to be the case and suddenly a player is reading, what sounds like the script for Breaking Bad with the two characters working together to create a bomb and kill some zombies! It was fantastic. Just a few turns in and the game was already oozing theme and dripping with character. The crossroad cards ensure every game is different and add just the right amount of randomness to the game. They turn the survivors from simply numbers on a piece cardboard to actual people. Anna Leigh the lawyer still worries about that one case she lost. Bev the mother is very damaged about what happened to her children and Forest Plum, the Mall Santa just wants to get drunk and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. It’s such a simple mechanic yet it’s probably the best mechanic I’ve seen in a board game in the last five years.
Dead of Winter is, simply, fantastic. This is cooperative gaming at its best and possibly the best use of the zombie theme since The Walking Dead comic began. A beautiful game that doesn’t take a lifetime to complete or require the world’s biggest table to play. The crossroad cards and the exposure dice add just the right amount of randomness to the mix whilst adding a coherent story to every game. Sure, if pushed I could point out a few niggling flaws. Occasionally you could be very unlucky with the exposure dice and lose a few too many survivors early on. In your first few games the betrayer might seem slightly overpowered and hard to beat. Really, however, the only true complaint I can make right now is that this game is almost impossible to pick up. Sold out pretty much everywhere, unless you’re willing to pay a lot extra on eBay or Board Game Geek it’s almost unattainable. This is a huge shame because this is a game that really everyone should try…..and when it comes back in stock immediately buy before they all sell out again!!