Dead of Winter is a game that has received lots of attention since its release and for good reason. It is a highly thematic game of survival and intrigue. I am not usually a fan of zombie games but in this game they act merely as a backdrop to the unfolding story of a colony of survivors.
I think that is the main thing players need to know going in. It is less about the mechanisms and more about the people. This game should play and feel like an episode of TV series. Every character has competing interests, but they all want the colony to survive. Right? Maybe? Or maybe there is a traitor in the colony working silently against the team. There are twists and turns, unexpected events, and people pushing their luck hoping to help the colony survive another day (or not). This is the game’s promise: a strong narrative-based cooperative game with real tension and intrigue. Does it deliver?
I have played a game and a half (the half-game was our learning game) and I believe it does deliver on this promise with flying colors. In fact, I couldn’t stop telling people about our game this weekend. A sign of a good narrative game is if you keep recounting the story that took place in the game. I didn’t tell them about the mechanisms. I told them about the tension and story that developed throughout the game.
WHAT I LIKED
One of my first thoughts about the game, after we finished, was, “it feels so inelegant”. My second thought was, “that is how it is supposed to be”. Maybe chaotic is a better word than inelegant. It feels like stuff just cobbled together to make some horrible Frankenstein monster, but that’s exactly what is it supposed to be. You should feel like everything is about to fall apart because you are managing a colony that is on the brink.
This is an inspired mechanism. The player to the right of the active player draws one of these cards and waits to see if the active player triggers it during their turn. If they do something that triggers the card, play stops and a little story is told which presents players with a choice. They must vote to see what happens. This creates some great narrative moments in the game and adds to the story of your game.
In most coop games, all players are working toward one common goal. Dead of Winter has that common goal, but it also includes secret goals that each player is working towards individually. And there is the possibility of a traitor. If there is a traitor, they are working towards the destruction of the colony secretly. The fact that each play is working towards a secret goal and there may be a traitor in the group creates a wonderful tension. Why did that player do something that seems so against the group? Is it their secret objective or are they the traitor? As the game nears its end this becomes more and more pronounced and fingers are pointed all over the place.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
Narrative-based games like this require that players be engaged to keep players immersed in the unfolding story. We played a 5 player game and I could feel my down time pretty significantly. Granted most players were new to the game so this may not be as pronounced with seasoned players. Crossroads cards helped this some. And the further we got into the game the more everyone paid attention to and offered friendly advice to their co-colony dwellers. I think that a 4 player game would be just about right.
Possibility for a really bad game
Dead of Winter has lots of die rolls in it. Every time you move a character or kill a zombie you must roll an exposure die to see what happens. You can be wounded, frostbitten, or zombie bit (killing that character instantly). A string of bad die rolls could end the game very quickly and make the experience crash. At least the game would be over soon.
In the game, we played we pretty much ignored the crisis cards since their effects wouldn’t really hamper us much. We were better off keeping the resources we had instead of spending them on the crisis. The only crisis we did complete had a negative impact on our morale but the ones we ignored did not. But resolving the crisis is one of the best ways to discover if there is a traitor in the group. Or maybe the traitor did a good job in our game of convincing us to ignore the crisis cards.
I really, really like Dead of Winter. It does such a wonderful job of telling a story and creating tension. As far as the cooperative with a traitor game goes this would be my first pick. We will have to see how future plays change or reinforce my opinions. But for right now I love this game.
Originally posted on BoardGameTheory.com