Buzzworthiness: Dead of Winter

With Halloween just around the corner, I think it’s a good time to review

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Dead of Winter is a fairly new game from Plaid Hat Games that was designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vega.  The game is for 2-5 players, and lasts around two hours.  Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie game, two descriptors that typically make me walk the other way.  This one, however, is different.

In the game, each player is deal four characters, from which they choose two.  A scenario is chosen that outlines the conditions under which the team will win.  Each player is also dealt a secret objective that is a condition they personally must fulfill for them to win.  So if the team wins and you don’t complete your objective, you lose.  One of these secret objectives may identify someone as a betrayer, and their goal is to make the team lose while fulfilling some other objective.

The game takes place in a compound, and everyone begins in the main colony.  There are six other locations on separate cards, each with its own search deck.  The game will last a certain number of rounds based on the scenario.  At the start of each round, a crisis is revealed.  This tells you what horrible thing will happen at the end of the round if a certain number of cards are not collected on the player turns.  After this, each player rolls all of their dice – one per character they control plus one.  Now, in clockwise order, beginning with the player who holds the knife, players take their turns.

On your turn, you can do a number of different actions, both to help with the main objective and to help with your own.  Some of these dice will be used for your actions, and some actions do not need a die.

  • Attack  a zombie or another survivor.  Use a die that equals or exceeds the attack value of the character you’re using.  A zombie dies automatically, but you then have to roll the twelve-sided exposure die.  Your character could take a wound, your character could get frostbite (which gives you wounds each round unless cured), or your character could die outright.
  • Search the deck at a location your character is at.  Use a die that equals or exceeds your character’s search value.  Draw the top card of the deck.  If you like it, keep it.  If not, you can make noise to look again.  You can do this as many times as you have actions, but you can only keep one card.  Noise attracts zombies at the end of the round.
  • Barricade an entrance by spending any die and placing a token.  It means zombies now have an extra barrier to entry – they break it the first time, then enter the second time.
  • Clean Waste by spending any die and remove the top three cards from the waste pile.  If the waste pile is 10 or more at the end of the round, you lose morale.
  • Attract two zombies to entrance spaces at your current location by spending a die.  Why would you do this?  Well, if too many zombies show up somewhere, they start killing characters.
  • Use your survivor ability.  This may or may not need a die.
  • Play a card from your hand.  You can do this as many times as you like, and don’t have to spend a die.
  • Add a card to the crisis.  Again, no die is needed, and you can do as many as you like.
  • Move a survivor.  This is another free action – sort of.  If you move, you’ll need to roll the exposure die, which could result in a wound, frostbite, or immediate death.  You could use fuel to move without danger.
  • Spend food from the supply to increase a die by one per food spent.  Be aware that you need one food for every survivor left at the colony at the end of the round.
  • Request a card from anyone.  If they give it to you, you must spend it immediately – no hoarding it for your objective.
  • Hand off equipment to another player in your location.
  • Vote to Exile.  If you believe someone is a betrayer, you can initiate a vote to exile them.  If you are exiled, you get a new exiled objective.  If two people who are NOT the betrayer get exiled, the team loses.

The other thing that could happen on your turn is that a Crossroads card could be triggered.  At the start of your turn, the player on your right draws a Crossroads card, and if the condition on the card occurs during the turn, they stop you and read the card.  It generally will give you a choice, but you’ll know both outcomes, and you choose what happens.

At the end of the round, feed the survivors that remain at the colony.  Each survivor you cannot feed gains a starvation token, and morale will go down per present starvation token.  Next, check the waste, decreasing morale by one per 10 cards.  Next, check the crisis.  If you accrued the correct number of cards, you successfully passed it.  If you did not, or you did with some extra junk, you fail and suffer the consequences.  After this, add zombies – one per two survivors at the colony, one per survivor in a non-colony location, and then roll to see how many were attracted by noise.  At this point, you will then check to see if the main objective was passed during the round.  If so, everyone who also completed their personal objective wins.  Otherwise, start a new round.  If morale ever hits zero, or if you run out of rounds, you lose.

COMPONENTS: There’s a lot of stuff in this game –  304 cards, 144 tokens, 60 survivor and zombie standees, 60 plastic stands for the standees, a board, six location cards, and 31 dice.  And everything is pretty good quality.  The layout of the board and cards is clear and easy to understand once you understand the mechanisms of the game.  Everything has the typical Plaid Hat quality – they really do the work in making sure their games are functional.

One thing I do want to mention is the cardboard standees that you use for the characters and zombies.  In this era of miniatures, it’s odd to see a game that uses cardboard instead of plastic for the people in the game.  But with so much stuff, I’m sure miniatures would have skyrocketed the price well over $100.  It’s $60 as it is.  I’ve never really been into miniatures – they’re nice, but I think cardboard works just as well.  The standees are all solid – it’s not flimsy cardboard.  So I’m fine with them, I just wanted to mention it.

Overall, the components are outstanding.  Great, not too graphic art; high quality bits; and a very good layout.

THEME: Zombies.  Zombies are everywhere.  We don’t need another zombie game.  But we got one.  And I think this game uses the theme better than most zombie games.  The game is really about the characters, with zombies as a major backdrop.  They are there, but they aren’t the main focus.  The stories and character development that you discover throughout the game are really what makes the theme shine.  It’s not something like Zombies!!! that’s just about mindless zombie killing, there’s some narrative depth here.  The Crossroads cards really help to build the story as well.  So yes, despite the presence of zombies, the theme is really strong in this game.

MECHANICS: There are a lot of unique things going on in this game.  I’ll start with the characters.  Most games out there have players controlling one character.  That character may have special abilities or limitations, but each player IS that character.  In DoW, you are controlling several characters, and you’re not any one of them.  You are some mysterious puppet master that is dividing up your actions based on what needs to be done and what you can do.  This guy is better at fighting, so I’m going to leave him in the colony so he can take out the hordes of zombies that will show up at the end of every turn, but this lady is better at searching, so she’ll head out to the locations.  It’s an interesting balance that you have to use to your advantage.  You have the potential throughout the game to gain more characters, so that’s another cool aspect.

The action selection method is pretty unique as well.  You have action points in a sense – your dice mark how many actions can be done (at least those that require a die), but there are still plenty of actions you can do that do not require a die.

The exposure die is probably going to be the most controversial part of the game – I can see a lot of people having a problem with it.  When you move without fuel or fight a zombie, you have to roll this 12-sided die.  There’s a 50% chance that nothing will happen.  However, three of the sides give you a wound, and if your character collects too many, he/she dies.  That’s not so bad.  Two of the sides are frostbite, which gives you a wound every turn unless cured.  That’s also not so bad since you can cure it, and others can give you the medicine necessary.  One side of the die is a tooth, and if you roll that, your character has been bitten and dies immediately.  Not only that, the character with the lowest initiative number in the same location must also roll the exposure die.  So a chain reaction resulting in the deaths of every character in a location could potentially occur.  I personally don’t have a problem with this mechanism – you’re not eliminated from the game since you have several characters.  It is also highly thematic – zombies are unpredictable and relentless.  However, the randomness here does rub some people the wrong way.

The game is semi-cooperative, and I think it works better than most other games in that genre.  This isn’t just a case where everyone has one goal, but maybe someone has another.  Nor is it a case where everyone has to work together to beat the game and then you award the victory to one player.  This is a brilliant mashup of the two.  Everyone has a personal goal that must be fulfilled in order to win, but no one can win unless the main objective is also completed (except the betrayer).  So you can try to stretch out the game to your own purposes, but others who have completed their objectives are trying to finish it quickly.  You can try to exile someone you think is intentionally slowing you down, but you can’t use that too often or you’ll lose.  It works a lot better for me than something like Marvel Legendary or Castle Panic.  I think it even works better than Battlestar Galactica.  There is the potential problem that people will tank the game because they can’t win, but that’s not so much a problem with the game as it is a problem with the gamer.

Most other parts of the game are fairly standard.  You search a deck by drawing the top card.  You can make noise to draw more (though you can only keep one).  You can move anywhere, but only once per round.  The crisis is reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica.  Keep an eye on the waste so you don’t lose morale.

The final mechanism I want to talk about here is the Crossroads cards, and I think this is probably the best thing about the game.  This gives an uncertain event that could happen at any point during your turn, and gives the player on your right something to do while waiting for your turn to end.  These events could be tough choices, or could be quite obvious, or could really not be a choice at all.  It’s just building the story.  Some people have complained that you hear the results of each option before making your choice, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It’s not really a strategic opportunity, just adding to the overall narrative.  It’s also very exciting to be holding a Crossroads card and waiting for a character to do something.

Overall, this game is very strong mechanically.  There are lots of unique aspects that make it feel different than anything else I’ve played.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This is a game that is highly dependent on luck.  There’s luck of the draw in searching for cards, and in the crises that come up.  There’s luck of the dice as you are rolling to figure out what actions are possible, and also for exposure.  There’s also luck in how the Crossroads cards come out – a lot of them will never be triggered simply because they come out at the wrong moment.  There are ways to mitigate the luck throughout, and there are plenty of strategic elements.  You can determine what characters you need to activate, and in what order. You do have to figure out what actions will be most beneficial, and what cards you can use that won’t injure your hopes for finishing your objective.  But luck does play a major role in the game.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not really a game I would introduce to new players.  I might be willing to use it as a next step game, but I think I would put it more in the advanced game category.  There’s just a lot of unusual mechanisms in play here that may confuse someone not familiar with how modern games work.  I think it is fairly intuitive once you get it, and since the game is so tied to the theme, that helps.  But I think I would only pull this out with experienced gamers.

REPLAYABILTY: This game comes with a lot of scenarios to play out, as well as a ton of secret objectives and Crossroads cards.  As a result, the game is very replayable.  I highly doubt any two games will ever feel the same.

SCALABILITY: Dead of Winter plays with 2-5 people, but this is a case where I think more is better.  The intrigue of possibly having a betrayer and working together for a common purpose works better the more people you have.  BGG says the sweet spot is four, but I’ve only played it with five and thought it was great every time.  Some have complained about down time in the game, but I never felt like I wasn’t involved when playing.  True, there’s nothing really to do when it isn’t your turn (unless you have the Crossroads card), but you’re still planning your next move and offering advice to other players.  I don’t see down time as a problem with the game at all.

FOOTPRINT: This is a pretty expansive game.  The board, locations, and player setups all take up quite a bit of space.  This is definitely not a go-anywhere game, but rather a let’s-pull-out-the-big-table type of game.

LEGACY: In comparing this game to other zombie games I have played, this is clearly the best.  In comparing this to other semi-cooperative games I have played, this is clearly the best.  In comparing this to Battlestar Galactica, which I think is the most comparable game, I think that Dead of Winter is better.  BSG does its theme very well, but I think that DoW provides a better play experience.  For me, it has out Battlestarred Galactica.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This is the best game of the year for me right now.  It’s engaging, it’s innovative, and it’s fun.  I never thought I’d be so excited about a semi-cooperative zombie game, but it just goes to show you how you can never count anything out.  Thanks for reading!

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